Howard Jacobson: To hell with grumpy old men... if you're angry, start a war, or go off and become a hermit

Where are the towering malcontents and misanthropes, the Swifts, the Popes, the Juvenals?
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The Independent Online

Pyow hack, as the wild putty-nosed monkeys of Africa say. Meaning - which is a touch anthropomorphic of me, since putty-nosed monkeys aren't trying to mean what we mean - but approximating, at least, to the meaning "let's go". Whether that's "let's go" in the sense of "let's get the hell out of here", or "let's go" in the sense of "let's rock", "allons, mes enfants", or some similar invitation to party, scientists studying the wild putty-nosed monkey have not made clear.

One thing we do know is that the monkeys call "pyow" to one another as a warning against a loitering leopard, and "hack" as a warning against hovering eagles (resist jokes about journalists: a hack to a putty-nose monkey is not a hack to a reader of this newspaper), so you would think that with both in the vicinity (leopards and eagles, not journalists and readers) pyow hack must carry the former, alarm-bell sense. Pyow hack! Let's beat it.

On the other hand, it is precisely the putty-nosed monkey's ability to make sentences, "in which", to quote a putty-nosed researcher, "call combinations carry meanings that are different to the sum of the meanings of the constituent elements," that has got the scientists excited. So a meaning different to the sum of constituent meanings could, after all, leave pyow hack being an expression of encouragement rather than panic. Pyow hack! - there are leopards in the bush, there are eagles in the sky, there's so little we can do we might as well get on with our lives and not give a shit.

And if you can say that in just two words - even if those are the only two words in your vocabulary - you are certainly more sophisticated syntactically than you've hitherto been given credit for. More sophisticated aesthetically, too, I would venture. All that research time that's been wasted getting monkeys to paint, when what we should have been doing was encouraging their aptitude for conceptualism. Pyow hack - I've seen performance artists standing stock still in a darkened room and saying fewer words to less effect than that. And picking up a Turner Prize for it.

Pyow hack in the positive "Come on, England!" sense is where I am right now, anyway. Yes, there are dangers all around us, but what the hell. People, I notice, have stopped talking apocalyptically - presumably because what with drought, global warming, the return of the Taliban, the continuing madness of King Tony, the failure of the English cricket team to bowl out Sri Lanka in three days, the film of The Da Vinci Code, Rooney's metatarsal, rock musicians falling out of trees, thousands of foreign criminals on the loose, and Iran's unstoppable nuclear ambitions, apocalypse is too real.

So rather than confront them head on, we have begun to express our terrors periphrastically, you might even say euphemistically. Suddenly, wherever you look, normally verdant commentators are expressing their dread of everything to which no real danger attaches. The World Cup. Big Brother. Summer holidays. Harmless nothings to which, if we had a grain of pyow hack in our system, we would be looking forward as a diversion from the tragedy of existence.

But looking forward is grown strangely out of fashion. At a stroke we are all become grumpy old men and women. We don't like this, we're sick of that, we're up to here with the other. For someone thought to be at loggerheads with the fancies of the times, not to say paid to be unhappy, this is a godsend. Over the course of the last four or five years I've been feeling more integrated and cheerful than my job remit has allowed me to acknowledge. Now, with the current running in the opposite direction, it is possible to be optimistic and contrary all at once. I see trees of green, red roses too, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world ... How's that for subversiveness!

Ill-temperedness is in a bind of its own making once rage is all the rage. Voice your anger with the fashion and you thereby become fashionable yourself. Grumpy old man hits out at grumpy old men does not sound like the beginning of a revolution.

But there is good reason to be angry with anger when it's institutionalised. I don't know how many people alive today remember Gilbert Harding, a headmasterly man with moustaches and a phlegmy manner who appeared on What's My Line in the early days of television and lost his temper with everyone with whom he came in contact, not excluding the viewer. For a while we gasped, wondering what he would say next, until we grew attuned to his tantrums, felt sorry for him, wondered if he was getting enough sex, and turned him into a national pet. We did the same with Robin Day - I don't mean with regard to his getting enough sex - we're doing it to John Humphrys, and eventually we'll do it to Jeremy Paxman as well.

There is something of a contradiction, after all, in being in an argument with the world and going on national television to express it. If you're angry you should either start a war or retire. Molière's Misanthropist goes off to be a hermit. That is the only logical conclusion for a temperament at odds with society. But then at odds with society is not exactly what the grumpy old man of today is. He is snotty about bits of it. Comfortably off, surrounded by his loved ones, in work, on display, he is reduced to sounding off about litter, or hosepipe bans, or the World Cup, or worst of all, the Government. In the figure of the media curmudgeon, wrath is watered down into peevishness, and loathing into passing dissatisfaction.

It's there in the word - grumpy. Its sound defines its limits. Grumpy. A dwarfish, grandpops, chair-bound, Woodbine and braces word. Rage reduced; disillusionment made conformable. Bring back some good old-fashioned virulence, I say. Where are the towering malcontents and misanthropes, the Swifts, the Popes, the Juvenals? "All is oblique," rages Timon of Athens, "there's nothing level in our cursed natures,/ But direct villainy. Therefore be abhorr'd/ All feasts, societies, and throngs of men.'" How do you abhor the feasts, societies and throngs of men in a newspaper column, or on telly? A cave is where you belong when the world has grown oblique to you.

I'm a Planet of the Apes man, myself. In the monkeys you see us starting all over again. We removed ourselves to caves, raged ourselves out of language, and settled for pyow hack. Let's go. What else is there to say?