When I returned recently from Paris, everyone asked about the strikes, the riots, the violence and the chaos. All I had seen was a queue at one petrol station and a notice of closure at another: otherwise, it was all oysters and Sancerre. My questioners were disappointed. It was as if the travails of France were the salvation of England.
Much more pertinent to our national predicament is something that strikes me each time I return from France: the extreme vulgarity of the English by comparison with the French. It is as if the English had adopted vulgarity as a totalitarian ideology, a communism of culture rather than of the economy. This vulgarity is insolent, militant and triumphant, will brook no competition and tolerate no dissent. It exercises a kind of subliminal terror to discourage any protest.
That vulgarity is now the ruling characteristic of England, of the prosperous as of the poor, is evident in small things and in large. At the airport you can always tell a flight bound for England by the number of grossly fat and hideously apparelled passengers waiting to board. No man can be blamed for being ill-favoured by nature; but every man can be blamed for making the worst of himself, as the English now seem to do as a matter of principle. They are the ugliest people in the world, but this has nothing to do with biology.
Their facial expressions, their gait, their speech, their laughter, their very gestures are crude. The mothers of no other nation known to me address their children in tones so lacking in tenderness and so expressive of shrewish irritability and exasperation, with voices shrill, penetrating and impossible to ignore (except, of course, for their children, who will very soon sound like them).
The choice of reading matter offered to passengers at airports and stations on either side of the Channel is instructive. Perhaps you shouldn’t judge books by their covers, but you can judge the taste of the public by them. The taste of the English public is for the vulgar, cheap and kitschy. Their aesthetic sense seems no more refined than that of magpies.
The newspapers on offer gratis to passengers boarding the aircraft are instructive too. In England they are tabloid, mainly concerned with developments in Wayne Rooney’s sex life, and with headlines the size of a proclamation of a state of emergency. The look of contempt on the faces of French passengers is unmistakable.
On the French side of the Channel, passengers are offered Le Monde. No doubt Le Monde has many faults, but the assumption that its readers are pea-brained prurient vulgarians is not one of them.
As soon as you land in England, you notice how many of the young English women have facial expressions simultaneously ovine and lupine, and how many of them bare their pudgy midriffs, with a tattooed lizard or butterfly for individuality. They are fried food and alcoholic Friday nights made flesh.
The vulgarity enters the fabric of life and seems to omit no detail. My first purchase after my return was in a small supermarket, where a spotty youth addressed me as ‘mate’, in a way that would never happen in France. I, who was three times his age, asked him not to address me thus, and he returned me a look of sullen malevolence.
On the first train I took on my return, an 11-year-old girl, in tight pink leggings, kept her feet and shoes securely on the seat next to her, under the gaze of her mother, who was tattooed, pierced in the nose and lower lip, and eating crisps. The girl’s six-year-old brother had already had his ear pierced, and wore a diamante stud in it. It is never too early for the English to teach their offspring vulgarity.
How are we to account for this? I do not think it was always so. Vulgarity has its place as a counterweight to pretension, of course, but as a ruling national characteristic it is charmless, stupid and without virtue.
I suspect that it is connected with the equality that we feel it necessary to pretend is our ruling political passion. Since economic equality is no longer deemed desirable, the only other equality possible is that of cultural mores; and since it is much easier to level down than up (which, after all, was once the Labour party’s aim), the middle classes can best express their political virtue by embracing and promoting the vulgarity that they assume — wrongly, as it happens — was the only cultural characteristic of the proletariat.
The problem with adopting such a pose, however, is that if you keep it up long enough it ceases to be merely a pose. It is what you are: in the case of the English, vulgar.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated November 6, 2010