Naturally, Jeremy Clarkson had anticipated some kind of attack. Addressing an assembly of engineering students at Oxford Brookes University, on Monday, he began: “I fully expected to be speaking to you today covered in flour and eggs, like a giant human pancake.”
The Sunday Times columnist and presenter of BBC2’s Top Gear had come to collect an honorary degree, awarded in recognition of his long-standing support for engineering. Only after his speech finished was his dire prediction fulfilled – give or take the odd ingredient – by a woman named Becky Lush.
Clarkson had disappeared into a marquee, Lush remembers. “But then he came out again, so I ran after him.” Catching up, she leapt high in the air and copped the Motoring Writer of the Year in the face with a home-made, organic banana meringue. In case you imagined otherwise, that’s not as easy as it sounds: “He’s a bloody huge guy, six-foot-four: hitting him in the face was like playing basketball.”
Having completed her mission, Lush, 33, kept moving.
“I had to run very fast from a security guard. I don’t know what you can be charged with, legally, for putting a pie on someone – and I had no idea what Clarkson might do.”
In the event, Clarkson’s response was generous. He congratulated his assailant: “Great shot!” The only criticism he offered, while the assembled photographers happily snapped away, was to state that the meringue tasted too sweet.
“It’s unfortunate that I was terribly jet-lagged,” he says now. “Otherwise, I would have guessed that something was up when the photographers said, ‘Would you mind stepping over there, because the light is better…?’ They knew what was going on. And I have to say that, at the PR level, it was a fantastic result for the environmentalists. One-nil to them.”
But how did it come to this? Why has Clarkson, who brings joy to so many, become the bete noir of the environmental movement? Why did thousands sign a petition urging Oxford Brookes to withdraw the honour? And what motivated this particular woman to do more than sign up – to bake a banana meringue and convey it far from home to sully the face and robes of a man she’d never met?
Clarkson was nominated for the degree by the School of Technology, for supporting high standards in engineering – something he did most notably by championing Brunel as the “Greatest Briton” in 2002; and, as a passenger on the last BA Concorde flight a year later, by paraphrasing Neil Armstrong to describe the retirement of that engineering classic: “This is one small step for a man, but one huge leap backwards for mankind”.
But his work has also earned him the hatred of the green movement.
On Top Gear Clarkson drove through virgin peat bogs in a 4×4 and tore up road safety information on camera. Racing against colleagues, he drove a Ferrari more or less non-stop from London to Switzerland, regardless of fatigue, and was stopped by police for speeding. And in February this year the BBC paid £250 in compensation to a parish council in Somerset after Clarkson deliberately rammed a Toyota pick-up into a 30-year-old horse chestnut.
Clarkson is unrepentant. “The parish council is funded by central government, which is funded by me, so it’s my tree. Anyway, there was no damage.”
Environmentalists believe that what Clarkson says and does on screen encourages others to copy him. He recently vowed to kill cyclists “for fun” if they failed to respect the Highway Code – a promise that has provoked furious debate on the pages of cycling magazines and websites, where Clarkson is always pictured quaffing champagne on that last Concorde flight.
But he refuses to accept that he’s a role model.
“When people say that to me, I ask, ‘Would you do something, just because I did it?’ And they always say no. And I say, ‘Well, if you wouldn’t, then why do you think someone else would?’”
All the same, the environmental pressure group, Transport 2000, said the decision to honour Clarkson at a serious academic institution was like Scotland Yard paying tribute to the work of Inspector Clousseau. And more than 3,100 people signed that petition: not only environmentalists and members of Oxford council but also staff and students at Oxford Brookes, and workers at the nearby Cowley BMW factory who are angry at his repeated criticism of their former colleagues at MG Rover, which is in administration.
Even some of Clarkson’s many fans signed the petition – if only so they could leave abusive comments on the site.
In Lush, Clarkson was confronted on Monday by someone whose obsession with cars, though less well known than his, has been no less consuming. The main difference between them is that Clarkson loves motor vehicles, and Lush hates them.
In 1993, Lush was jailed for four months for her part in protests against road building on Twyford Down. “It wasn’t nice. But the support we got was incredible. It was the first time environmental activists had been sent to prison, and it really inspired people. I received 100 letters a day.”
Her motivation has always been climate change. “I love the countryside and I love nature, but I don’t see global warming as a countryside thing. It’s about the survival of our species. It’s about people. And transport is the fastest-growing contributor to climate change.”
Like many activists, Lush eased off after Labour came to power in 1997. “We stepped back because we had won. Labour came to power and said, ‘No more roads.’ And John Prescott set up his commission for integrated transport.”
So she moved into campaigning against genetically modified crops, and got a job driving a bus.
But around the time of the fuel protests of 2000, the government seemed to change its mind on transport issues, and Lush became active again. She set up an anti-roads alliance, Road Block, and began chucking pies. She put one in the face of the US envoy to environmental talks at the Hague, and another on the transport secretary, Alistair Darling.
More recently, she chained herself to a digger for over two hours before a specialist team removed her. And she reduced to chaos a meeting to discuss the planned Thames Gateway Bridge public inquiry by snatching the inspector’s microphone and shouting, as she was chased around a table: “This is a scandal. The bridge is being railroaded through. You are not listening to people.”
Isn’t this all rather childish? Not at all, she insists.
“You grab attention through direct action. I don’t think people would have thought about these issues otherwise. Direct action is about making people think, ‘Why is that woman doing that?’ People thought we were weird, in 1992, to risk our lives by standing in front of bulldozers. But environmentalists are always putting out messages that we’re derided for until, ten to fifteen years later, the ideas have become mainstream.”
With some pride, she adds that the Master of the Rolls, Lord Hoffman, told her in the early 90s that “civil disobedience in this country is an honourable tradition, and that those who take part in it may be vindicated by history”. (All the same, he rejected her appeal against imprisonment.)
Having dispatched Clarkson on Monday, Lush prepared to tackle other prominent petrolheads: the fuel protestors. “They are ignorant of basic economics. The government has bent over backwards for them since 2000, by not increasing fuel duty at all. They’re in the dark ages. They have to face the reality that fuel prices are going up. That’s not a radical statement, it’s what the AA and the RAC are saying.
“We were thinking of going along to their go-slow, on Friday. To stand in front of the convoy and tell them: ‘You’re not going to disrupt the lives of ordinary people for your half-baked ideas!’ But they have been so useless, we decided that strategically it was better to let them get it all wrong.”
And what about Clarkson? Will he ever be reconciled with the Greens?
“I don’t want to be their bete noir,” he insists. “I want to be the champion of ordinary people – who seem to be lectured to all the time. Look, there are two sides to the argument. I do listen, constantly, to their side of the argument. And every time they’re presented with my side, they shove pies in my face.”
Not literally, of course, but here’s what he means: “I went on Jeremy Vine’s radio show to discuss some aspect of the environment and they had the environmentalist George Monbiot on, and he said, on air, that if I liked 4×4s it must be because my penis is small! He sent me a letter afterwards apologising for getting carried away, but if that’s the level of debate…
“You do have to be bonkers to drive a 4×4 in cities, absolutely. You have to be clinically insane, properly Loony Tunes mad. But it’s no business of anyone else.
“They get together to discuss things, these people, eating their nuclear-free peace nibbles, and they’re just never exposed to the other side of the argument. They say, ‘We live in Hackney and we think such-and-such a thing is wrong.’ And that’s it.
“There is no doubt that we will all have to subscribe to their views, eventually. In fact, to judge by the pie incident, the time has already passed.”