In Britain, the use of vulgar language by the rich, famous and privileged has long been meant as a sign of attempted political rectitude. The reasoning is as follows: if the people use vulgar language and I use vulgar language, I am of the people, notwithstanding my wealth, fame and privileges. Hence I can hang on to them with a good conscience, for by my vulgarity I have demonstrated my democratic credentials.
The weekend colour magazine of the Guardian newspaper recently published an article about Rome by the actor (not actress, that word having long been banned from the pages of that newspaper as an insult to women) Rebecca Front. In a highlighted, heavy-printed extract, the following sentence appears: ‘Rome is arse-frazzlingly hot.’
The purpose of this sentence, deemed by the newspaper to be worthy of special selection and emphasis, is not to convey a meaning but an attitude. Unlike some vulgar expressions that are used naturally by the speakers of our language, this self-conscious vulgarism is not at all expressive. It conveys nothing that ‘horribly hot’ would not have conveyed. The expression is therefore not only is an attempted declaration of cultural (though not of financial) solidarity with the proletariat, but an attempt to disguise the banality of what is being said.
It is a sign of the times that a newspaper read largely by the intelligentsia is too delicate to use the word ‘actress’ but crude enough to use the word ‘arse-frazzlingly.’ Vulgarity, be thou my refinement.
What starts as self-conscious vulgarity soon becomes habitual. Three days later, the same newspaper reported that a singer called James Blunt had replied to Chris Bryant MP, the Labour shadow minister for the arts (note the democratic diminutive and the Orwellian-sounding post that he occupies), who had lamented that ‘the arts are too dominated by people from privileged background’ – like himself, Chris Bryant MP, in fact.
In his written reply to Mr Bryant, Mr Blunt, who is of similarly privileged background, said ‘You classist gimp… it is your populist, vote-hunting ideas that make our country crap, far more than my shit songs… you prejudiced wazzock, I worked my arse off.’
This is not much of an advertisement for an expensive education, but it is at least an indication, in my view an accurate one, of the degree to which crudity is one of the principle features of contemporary British culture. Moreover, such crudity is inexpressive: it is crudity as a dishonest pretence of democratic sentiment. Alas, affectation when practised long enough, becomes character.