A few years ago, while scrambling to turn around a university essay on William Butler Yeats, I came with great glee across George Moore’s famous and splendidly accurate description of the wavy-haired Irish poet. “He looks,” it read, “like an umbrella left behind at a picnic.”
It’s been a while since a living writer has produced an insult of that calibre, so congratulations are due to the critic David Thomson, who was this week credited with a brilliantly crafted put-down of the actor Hugh Grant: “He seems like a refugee from Thirties theatre – or an incipient sneeze looking for a vacant nose.”
Thomson, a film writer and author of the New Biographical Dictionary of Film, has been making headlines in the US, after the Drudge Report, a hugely influential news aggregation website, linked to a transcript of some of the damning descriptions of Hollywood celebrities in the new edition of his 1,000-page book.
Of Keira Knightley, he wrote: “She is astonishingly beautiful, but...about as interesting as a crème brûlée where too much refrigeration has killed flavour with ice burn.” Of Gerard Depardieu: “He has the air of a rugby player (after a game played in heavy mud) crossed with a great violinist.”
Thomson’s dictionary, meanwhile, says that Michelle Pfeiffer “still carries the rather stunned, obedient air of a checkout girl at the supermarket”. As for John Cleese, it claims: “He works very hard nowadays, but the grim truth sinks deeper ... this great man is no longer funny.”
There’s something wonderful about these insults, and it isn’t just the fact that they’re aimed at public figures usually surrounded by sycophants and yes-men. No, the great thing about Thomson’s prose is that it reminds us of the lost art of rudeness.
Time was, not so very long ago, when you could measure a man’s intellectual worth by the nature of his insults. Famous people would take pride in the elaborate and, yes, sometimes very cruel put-downs they directed at their peers.
This rhetorical jousting honed the skills of Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. It was mastered by polymaths from George Orwell to Winston Churchill. Being able to take good insult, and bat it back in a colourful fashion, was for many years a prerequisite of public life.
Today, by contrast, all is monochrome. Political correctness is partly to blame: a choice remark directed at the wrong person will nowadays see you accused of bullying. So too is the rise of profanity in our increasingly inarticulate society.
For journalists, the decline has been particularly stark. Not so very long ago, readers would send elaborate letters, often beautifully crafted in green ink, explaining exactly why they hated you. Nowadays, they toss off an email. The last time I wrote an article critical of Sarah Palin, one message read simply: “You faggot idiot! Go back to bed with your boyfriend!”
That isn’t a proper put-down: it’s a rant – and an ugly one, at that. The English language is an intricate tool. And in a world where the art of insulting people seems in terminal decline, Mr Thomson’s book – which also calls Michael Caine “as cold and barricaded in as his spectacles” – serves notice that all is not lost.
When Beckham moved to North Korea
His finger may be hovering over the red button, but North Korea’s bonkers dictator Kim Jong-il has taken at least one step towards open government: he has allowed state television to broadcast a Western film, for the very first time.
Reports from Pyongyang reveal that a subtitled and presumably pirated version of the British film Bend it Like Beckham was enjoyed by the culturally starved nation over Christmas. It’s a strange choice of movie, since it deals with topics Kim normally considers verboten, such as homosexuality and religious freedom. It’s also, perhaps, an unfortunate one for the reputation of British cinema, since the once-zeitgeisty 2002 film hasn’t aged well.
A better advertisement for UK film-making would be The King’s Speech, the excellent period drama about the stammering George VI which finally opens in London this week and may very well win an Oscar for its star, Colin Firth. Sadly, I hazard that the film’s portrayal of the ruling class (and its scrutiny of a Royal succession) may be a touch too near the knuckle for the Dear Leader, not to mention his podgy son and heir.
One just can’t get the staff these days
Am I alone in detecting a whiff of fish about the news that Prince William and Kate Middleton are to forego servants once they become man and wife? The news was announced last week by a palace spokesman, who said the couple: “wouldn’t have it any other way”.
It’s all very egalitarian, and marks a change from the policy of Prince Charles, who keeps a staff of 149 and was once forced to deny a BBC report that it takes four flunkies to get him dressed, including one whose duty it is to squeeze toothpaste. But can it actually be true? The couple are, after all, currently having a “starter palace” built for them by the River Wye. It will require full-time gardeners, and cleaners. They boast a private secretary, Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton, and an active PR team.
These people are servants: their job is to serve. So even if the young Prince really does iron his own shirts and scrub the bathroom (which somehow I doubt), it’s disingenuous to say that he’s broken with the royal tradition of servitude.
What this announcement does reflect, of course, is that our future king is in tune with the phenomenon of bourgeois guilt. These days, a huge proportion of middle-class families employ a cleaner, nanny, or gardener. A hundred years ago, they’d have called them “servants”. In these times of austerity, to do that would be social suicide.