The historian Sir Lewis Namier once said that in a drop of dew could be seen all the colours of the rainbow, presumably as a reply to those who accused him of writing more and more about less and less. However, it is definitely true that in the smallest interactions can be seen the temper of the times: in our case, the bad temper of the times.
I was waiting for my wife in a car park in France recently when I noticed that the car next to me was British. In the car, door open, was a little boy of eight or nine. He was extremely handsome, and had a heart- melting smile.
While his parents went shopping — for fast food as it turned out — he had been entrusted to the care of a man, evidently the friend of his parents, of about 40 and of quite transcendent vulgarity. I am not now referring to the charming seaside postcard vulgarity of Donald McGill; rather, I am talking of something infinitely more malign. His vulgarity was aggressive, vehement and triumphal, from his flower patterned beer-belly-bulging shorts to his Rottweiler face. No one can help being ugly, of course, but no one need look like an attack dog.
His was the kind of vulgarity that is not merely the absence of refinement, but a positive contempt for refinement. Indeed, it was a principled, ideological vulgarity; and, as its bearer, he was a true modern representative of his country.
He took out a sweet, unwrapped it, opened his mouth wide enough to dislocate his jaw, and then, in front of the child, screwed the wrapper into a ball and threw it on to the ground as if trying to bomb it.
Then he took a packet of crisps. He stuffed the crisps into his mouth with what can only be called ferocity, and chewed them as if he were a starving man thrown a piece of gristle. When his fingers could no longer convey a sufficient quantity of crisps to his cement-mixing mouth, to change the metaphor slightly, he leant back and poured the rest of the contents into it, disposing of the packet immediately afterwards. The child was watching all the while.
If you look, you see this kind of lesson in how to behave being given everywhere to the children of Britain. I was for a time the vulgarity correspondent of a national newspaper: that is to say, they sent me to wherever young Britons gathered to behave badly, which is to say everywhere they gather.
Among my unpleasant duties was attendance at a football match. The man next to me, who had brought his tenyear- old son with him, seemed perfectly reasonable until suddenly he sprang to his feet, made fascist gestures at the supporters of the opposing team and screamed such vile, obscene abuse that I wanted to stop the ears of his son.
It so happened that on the day in which I witnessed the scene in the French car park, I read of the murder of a young man who had remonstrated with some youths who had thrown a half-eaten chocolate bar through an open window into his sister’s car. A man who tried to intervene on his behalf was threatened with death.
What have we become? Alas, it is my generation that it responsible for it, and I have done little or nothing to stop it.