Guy Adams: Rediscovering the lost art of rudeness

Notebook

Share
Related Topics

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.

g.adams@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executive - Call Centre Jobs

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: A royal serving the nation

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
David Cameron met with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko prior to the start of the European Council Summit in Brussels last month  

David Cameron talks big but is waving a small stick at the Russian bear

Kim Sengupta
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

Poldark star Heida Reed

'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn