Britishers are vulgar to the depths of their being

Clearly, writes Dalrymple,

vulgarity has its place. No one would want to live in a society composed entirely of well-brought-up young ladies.

But

vulgarity is interesting and amusing only in contradistinction to something else. Bawdiness is, or should be, parasitic on refinement, sometimes as a satire on, or corrective to, over-refinement.

Nor is it always and everywhere appropriate.

Even Mistress Quickly reveals herself to be a woman of fine feeling and humanity when she describes the death of Falstaff.

When, as in Britain today,

vulgarity achieves cultural hegemony, when it is praised, flattered and deferred to, then people will be vulgar to the depths of their being.

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From our vulgarity correspondent

There is, writes Dalrymple,

no plumbing the depths of vulgarity, especially in England.

A newspaper asks him to attend

a so-called concert in a hall normally used for exhibitions. Goodness knows how many spectators it contained—several thousand, at any rate.

The act was American,

a rock band who dressed all in black adorned with skulls and like motifs, and who specialised in urinating and vomiting over the front rows. There was no lack of volunteers for this treatment. In between their ‘songs’ (a crow was a nightingale compared with them), they abused the audience. The only words I could make out were ‘You sick motherfuckers!‘ The audience seemed to love it. It was a scene of mass masochism.

By far the worst of it was that

British parents thought this all a suitable spectacle for their six- or eight-year-old children, which many had brought with them. It was as if the parents wanted to induct their children into this vulgarity, as being something good. It was vulgarity erected into ideology.

Dalrymple points out that vulgarity has

a proper and necessary place, when it punctures the self-importance, complacency, or censoriousness of the respectable. There is also an innocent, unselfconscious type of vulgarity that is often charming. But this kind of commercialised vulgarity is without redeeming features.

The things they say to the doctor-writer

  • I put a sponge in me and I can’t get it out.
  • That was the man who cut up our cat to teach us a lesson.
  • No one wants an arsonist.
  • I wanted to kill a Hindu girl. A gun would probably be best.
  • Her baby was bribed with 40 cigarettes to go to her funeral.
  • The kid had his fingers broken for not making a spliff fast enough.
  • They kicked him in the privates and started booting him.
  • They chucked me in the canal and I could of knocked myself out and drownded.
  • My twin brother’s in prison for cars.
  • This black was spreading rumours about me so I smashed a glass over his head.
  • I’ve been getting a lot of outbursts.
  • I can’t help the people I like—pick-ups and prostitutes, my wife calls them.
  • Quality is a very good thing, but you can have too much of it.
  • I was having hallucinations of being a gangster.
  • I used to be an ex-alcoholic.
  • Life is rubbish.
  • They’re telling lies on me, they’re like vampires sucking your health from you.

Repressed fascist longings of today’s Germans

Only Habermas can save them

Dalrymple writes that one of the justifications for the European Union’s drive towards what it calls ‘ever closer union’ is

the denial or reduction of national feeling.

On this view,

expression of any national patriotism leads inevitably to xenophobia, conflict, and war. Love of one’s nation is inseparable from hatred of others.

A praise-singer of this attitude is Jürgen Habermas, who,

no doubt through fear of his, or his compatriots’, inner Nazism, wants to replace attachment to nation with attachment to supranational constitutional arrangements that will presumably have to cover the entire earth, if conflict between blocs is to be avoided.

To bring this about

would require the suppression for many years of the kind of emotional loyalty displayed during the World Cup. The suppression of such loyalty except in the context of sporting competitions might, however, be very dangerous: indeed, might bring about the very dangers that it was supposed to avoid.

Dalrymple notes that the rules of the competition governing the nationality of players provide that

no player having once played for a national team may change to another, for fear that he might change for the sake of mere economic advantage, rather than from any genuine attachment to his new nationality.

Thus, says Dalrymple,

football authorities take nationality more seriously than do national authorities.

The Trading Bloc Cup

Thrilling

Imagine, writes Dalrymple, a football match between a team representing the European Union and one representing, say, NAFTA, or ASEAN.

Would anyone take the slightest interest in the result, or be either pleased or downcast by it?

He notes that human feelings are mutable, so he supposes that

it is possible that one day emotions similar to those that millions feel for national teams might attach to teams representing supranational organisations.

But

I suspect that that time is a long way off. For the moment, we’re stuck with national sympathies and passions, which perhaps is just as well. Genuine patriotic attachment to whole blocs of nations would bring us close to the situation imagined in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The Working Time Directive

This legal act of the European Union is, writes Dalrymple,

typical of modern legislation, or perhaps I should say administrative fiat. It appears to confer benefits or rights on those who come under its purview (in this case, almost everyone). As such, it is seen by many of its supposed beneficiaries as benign.

But

the supposed benefits exert a profound and baleful influence on the character of the supposed beneficiaries, always in the direction of increased dependence upon the administrators.

A medical profession, says Dalrymple, that is composed of clock-watching shift workers

will be far easier to control and order around than one that is both self-regulating and has a sense of vocation. The independence of citizens or professions is what the modern administrator fears more than anything else, for it strikes at the heart of his raison d’être and threatens him with actual, rather than merely existential, redundancy.

Celebratory looting and rioting

National rejoicing in France

The uses of vulgarity

Pieter Claesz, Still Life with Herring, 1636

Dalrymple writes that if you look at something as simple as a herring on a plate, beautifully represented by a great artist, you never look at such things in the same way again. You no longer take them for granted. Taking everything for granted leads to boredom and the need for excess to drive out that boredom.

Of course, he says, next to Pieter de Hoogh, you have Jan Steen. We know from the Golden Age scenes both of refinement and excess, and no one would want a life that consisted only of the greatest possible refinement. It would be boring; people would become narrow-minded. The vulgar has its function in culture — as a court jester versus refinement. It keeps us grounded and creates a certain existential modesty.

What bothers Dalrymple is that in the modern Western world he sees a great deal of Jan Steen and not much Pieter de Hoogh.

Pieter de Hooch, Courtyard of a House in Delft, 1658

Als je naar zoiets eenvoudigs kijkt als een haring op een tinnen bord, in grote schoonheid weergegeven door het vakmanschap van de kunstenaar, kijk je daarna nooit meer op dezelfde manier naar zulke dingen, dat wil zeggen: je neemt ze niet meer als vanzelfsprekend aan. Alles als vanzelfsprekend aannemen, leidt geheid tot verveling en tot de behoefte aan excessen om die verveling te verdrijven.

Ik weet natuurlijk best dat je naast Pieter de Hoogh ook Jan Steen hebt. We kennen uit de Gouden Eeuw zowel taferelen van uitspattingen als verfijning en ik denk dat niemand zou wensen dat het leven uit alleen maar de grootst mogelijke verfijning zou bestaan. Dat zou saai zijn en de mensen zouden er kleingeestig van worden. Het vulgaire heeft zijn functie binnen de cultuur als een soort hofnar tegenover de verfijning. Het houdt ons met beide benen op de grond en zorgt voor een zekere existentiële bescheidenheid.

Wat mij dwarszit, is dat ik volop Jan Steen zie maar niet veel Pieter de Hoogh.

Jan Steen, The Doctor’s Visit, 1660

Jan Steen, Beware of Luxury, 1663

A Woman Peeling Apples

Pieter de Hooch, c. 1663. Wallace Collection. Dalrymple is not sure what it is that is so moving about this picture — it is something to do with the beauty of the everyday.

Why the UK imports so many foreign workers

Dalrymple relates that he recently stayed in a very good London hotel, comparable to the one where he always resides when visiting Amsterdam.

  • At the London hotel, there was not a single British employee. All staff were foreign.
  • At the Amsterdam hotel, all staff were Dutch.

He notes that in the UK, it is impossible to find British staff with the right habits and ways — or even English-language skills — to work in such an establishment. That is why Britain has to import large numbers of foreign workers despite very high levels of unemployment.