Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Please and thank you

We English are so polite, aren't we? Courtesy is seen as a quintessential part of the anodyne national characteristic of Englishness. However it wasn't always so. I spent part of my holiday reading a flawed but hugely entertaining social history, Ben Wilson's Decency and Disorder. These titbits give a flavour of what we used to be like:
'Speaking English' was a French slang term in the eighteenth century for being frank to the point of offensiveness.
And then there is this, derived from an English/French phrase book of the same era,
How could a Briton survive without the French for 'shitten girl', 'short-arse' or 'he is the crackfart of the nation' when he was abroad?
So what happened? Ben Wilson makes the case that we were tamed.

The book paints a picture of a hugely drunken and disorderly working class slowly succumbing to what became known as Victorian Values. It is an over-generalisation. It relies too heavily on some of its sources, notably the reminiscences of Francis Place and the 'Tom and Jerry" fiction of Pierce Egan. It concentrates too much on London, whilst Wilson's brief foray into political economy leaves a lot to be desired. He doesn't make the links between working class life and working class movements and politics, nor does he mention the radical press. At a time when he talks about growing civility, Bristol was in flames as a result of rioting during the reform crisis of the 1830's.

The greatest weakness is the lack of reference to working class intellectual life, Jonathan Rose is not included in the bibliography, leading to a blurring of what was imposed with what was authentic. Yet Wilson is superb on the attitudes of a growing, and recognisably suburban, middle class. He resurrects the activities of the gruesome Society for the Suppression of Vice, points out the sheer awfulness of some Utilitarian thought, looks at the ideology of the Society for the Suppression of Mendicity (James Purnell would be perfectly comfortable in its ranks) and its role in generating ungenerous attitudes towards the poor, together with a range of other grim instruments for the imposition of respectability. These include the cruel press campaigns that destroyed Byron and the actor Edmund Kean and the misuse of the Vagrant Act to suppress popular entertainments and pleasure in general. Then there was the insidious requirement for the appearance, and only the appearance, of decorum for any form of employment or social acceptability - it was the "age of cant". On every page there is another gem.

As a football fan who no longer attends, I was really impressed with Wilson's account of the O.P. campaign. After a fire burnt down the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1808, the rebuilt theatre opened in the following year. It gave an inferior view to those in the cheapest seats and was financed by raised prices and extensive private boxes for the wealthy, thereby hiding them from view. It could be a description of any Premiership football ground in England. In 1809 the audience wouldn't take it. They packed the place night after night, but when the play started it was first greeted by boos and catcalls, then later with rhythmic chanting calling for O.P. - old prices. The management hired prizefighters to break up the demonstrations but the violence failed to deter the protesters. The play became inaudible and irrelevant, the audience was the main entertainment. The protests lasted every night until 1810 when the old prices were restored and most of the private boxes removed.

The most important point that Wilson makes is that respectability was a set of values belonging to the middle class and that its growing influence was a reflection of a new bourgeois ascendancy. Moral reform was not neutral, it was a weapon against both working class and upper class debauchery, though in reality it aped the hypocritical mores of the aristocracy. Wielded against the working class it was a tool for suppression, social control and a system of punishment. It set out to crush the disorderly liberties of "Merry England" in favour of the obedient, sober industriousness desired by employers and evangelical enthusiasts.

What excited me was the realisation that this should provide the context in which we need to read much 18th and 19th Century political economy. Mainstream figures, like Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, seen against this background, emerge from the shadows as the radicals they were. Smith's advocacy of the economic utility of vice and Mill's arguments on liberty place them firmly in the corner of the working classes against their middle class oppressors, and also, in Mill's case, against his old boyhood tutor, Jeremy Bentham. Then there were the vast array of counter movements, anti-temperance, free love, freethought etc., all fighting against this stifling morality.

Of course this was not the whole story for working class politics. Much of it succumbed to the moral agenda. I have ploughed through a number of Victorian left-wing utopias and they are uniformly depressing. The future world is inevitably inhabited by crosses between the Waltons and the Stepford Wives - blissfully happy, thoroughly moral, all reformed into niceness by the wonders of socialism. Surely the ideal life can't be that boring? Any utopia that doesn't contain a bit of drunken misbehaviour, the odd fractious argument and a good dollop of sin isn't my vision of the 'New Jerusalem'.

The interesting part of this is that there is a clash between one set of working class interests - the movements for self-improvement, popular education, women's rights, etc. - all seeking reform, and others that relished liberty and pleasure and wished to resist control. And that conflict is with us today. In New Labour, itself heavily influenced by the Christian Socialist movement, the moral crusaders can be seen represented in health campaigns against the horrors of binge drinking and obesity, in the 'respect agenda', in criminal justice legislation, and, above all, in welfare reform. There is also the recurring desire to find a way to regulate the Internet. Anyone out there remember that suggestion for a blogger code of conduct? Yep, it came straight from the same stable. Yet there are also the counter influences from the libertarians, relaxed licensing and gambling laws, anti-discrimination, acceptability of different lifestyles and more. The tension has not been resolved.

Wilson tries not to romanticise 18th Century disorderly conduct, after all exploitation of women, arbitrary violence, animal cruelty, venereal disease and alcoholism aren't to be celebrated. However, you know where his real sympathies lie. They are with a working class that is strong enough to be able to fight back against the petty hypocrisies of respectability and the deadly seriousness of the evangelical reformers, to be able to preserve their liberties and pleasures, and to have lots of fun whilst they do so. It is a generous vision and one I am intrinsically attracted to. 'Champagne socialism' was often used as a derogatory term, for me it is an aspiration.

14 comments:

mikeovswinton said...

You seem to imply, Peter, that Christian Socialists were all Puritans. Have you never heard of Stewart Headlam and the Guild of St Matthew?

The Plump said...

Not all of them were and yes I know of Headlam, later than the period this book talks about of course. I am singling out the evangelicals rather than all Christian Socialists.

Moral puritanism was certainly not the sole preserve of religious thought. The idea of the remaking of human personality permeates lots of ideologies - the new soviet man anybody?

Spockspunk said...

Leftism & puritanism go hand in hand as far as I can see. It is the capitalists, royalists, and nationalists that have all the fun.

mikeovswinton said...

Pedantic point: your post should have been entitled "More please and thank you". That was, if you wanted to use the first line of "The Celtic Soul Brothers" by Dexys Midnight Runners as your title. I've only just realised why your title has been nagging away at me for the last couple of days. Wayne's testimonial off, BTW.

The Plump said...

Spockspunk - read Ian Bone's autobiography, Bash the Rich.

Mike, shame about the testimonial.

Anonymous said...

Unreconstructed England enjoyed, for example, the Gordon Riots, bull baiting, Hogarth's gin alley, and towns in Rossendale through which a stranger dare not stray.

Mind you, it won Trafalgar, Waterloo and India.

Who knows?

John said...

Super review, Gadge, thanks very much. I bought this book just before Xmas and have been looking forward to reading it. As I was buying it, I noticed that Wilson was only 28 or so when he wrote it, so I anticipated that it might not be definitive, much as you have suggested here, but what he does cover sounds very interesting indeed.

Cheers again.

Will said...

"Leftism & puritanism go hand in hand as far as I can see. It is the capitalists, royalists, and nationalists that have all the fun."

That is quite possibly the stupidist and most cuntish comment i have ever seen on any blog evah.

(not really -- there is much worse on Harry's Place).

Anonymous said...

Have you ever read a top book by John Carter Wood (who blogs at 'Obscene Desserts') called 'Violence and Crime in Nineteenth Century England'? It's very much on the same wavelength. The issue's also explored by Vic Gatrell in 'City of Laughter'.

Chris Williams

The Plump said...

And as to puritanism Spockspunk:

I did not believe that a cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy

Emma Goldman, lifted from On a Raised Beach

Shuggy said...

We English are so polite, aren't we?

Quite a mediumish to long piece but I didn't get past your first sentence because it's so patently untrue. Haven't been to your part of the world but Londoners? Ignorant bastards for the most part.

The Plump said...

Oh dear. You are so right Shuggy. Londoners, I forgot. You see I was thinking of Will.

Cipriano Mera said...

It's interesting what odd remnants nineteenth-century Puritanism has left hanging around. Every time I go to London, where most pubs are still untouched by what the modern puritans term "24-hour drinking", I notice that on a Sunday one is still chucked out half an hour earlier than on other nights. We all have to be fresh and bright and early for our employers on a Monday morning, don't we?

Personally, even after ceasing to work regular hours, I still tend to regard getting bladdered on a Sunday evening as a moral obligation....

will said...

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