Howard Jacobson: When did we stop seeing modesty as a virtue?

If there’s one thing a parvenu has to do – otherwise what’s he risen from nowhere to somewhere for? – it’s boast

Share
Related Topics

Cruddas – Cruddas, for God's sake! Could Dickens himself have come up with a better name for a Hackney-born self-made billionaire braggart bagman? "You knows my wicious ways," said Charlie Cruddas, tapping his nose with a finger that bore the marks of being in every pie in Brownnose Alley. "Now all you needs to know is my price. 'Igh, Mr Buzzard, wery 'igh indeed. 'Cos I 'as influence, I 'as."

A bit fat, that style of writing, for our lean times. Here's why we should be thankful for the Conservative Party: whatever our squeamishness in the matter of caricature, we can always rely on Tories to caricature themselves. They actually do take money from the poor to line the pockets of the rich; they actually do gallop through the centre of Chipping Norton on horses lent by friends any wise man would run a mile from; they actually do punish pensioners improvident enough not to have something stashed away in Bermuda or Liechenstein; they actually do think it behoves them to inhibit the drinking of the working classes (that's when they're not too drunk themselves to think anything) and they actually do (or did) employ as party treasurer a "Monaco boy" with an Essex accent by the name of Cruddas.

Though we castigate the Tory party for being a place where old Etonians can nod off in one another's company, in fact it's their hankering for the common touch that gets them into trouble. Was there not something embarrassingly costermonger about the Chancellor's slogan that the country was "open for business"? Touch and go, was it, between that and "open all hours"? As for the rumour that Osborne wanted to hang a sign from the front door of No 11 saying "Lovely to look at/ Delightful to hold/ But if you should break me/ Consider me sold", I can neither confirm nor deny it.

Then, just days after a budget so transparently unjust that Ed Miliband had only to run his hand through his hair to win the debate, along came "Mother" Theresa May showing she was au fait with "preloading" – that ancient proletarian ritual, still prevalent in the most deprived areas of the country, of getting pissed at home before you go out to get pissed on the street. An insider knowledge of the ways of ordinary folk that was on display again when the Tories suggested they hoard Cornish pasties – Cameron's takeaway of choice – in jerrycans stored in their groundsmen's sheds.

But with Cruddas we encounter a quality which, in fairness to its traditions, we don't normally associate with Conservatism at all. Boasting. If there's one thing a gentleman knows he has no need to do, it's boast. And if there's one thing a parvenu has to do – otherwise what's he risen from nowhere to somewhere for? – it's boast. Of the fools, animal or human, who enliven the pages of Aesop, the most common is the boaster. "Pretend this is Rhodes and jump then," say bystanders when a traveller boasts that in Rhodes he had jumped further than anyone had ever seen. Of the fools we encounter in the fables of our own lives the boaster is the easiest to confute. "Jump, then," we say, and there's an end of it. If Cruddas's boast, that a few shillings could buy you the Prime Minister's ear, wasn't empty, it's a serious matter for the Tory party. But if it was all bluster, how did he suppose he would not be rumbled?

That's a question we are forced to ask just about every time we turn on our television sets and hear competitors on some reality show or other singing their own praises. I long ago decided The Apprentice was not for adults on account of the inane boasting at its heart; not just the boasting implicit in the replete self-satisfaction of its host (if you've done so well, how come you're reduced to this, Lord Sugar?), but the feeble bragging of the contestants whose self-proclaimed marketing genius is given the lie three minutes into programme one when they can't give away an umbrella in the rain.

Yes, these are self-selecting shows; you have to be a dickhead to go on, so it stands to reason you'll say dickheaded things. But the culture of idiotic boasting is now so widespread that it must originate with the producers of these programmes, desperate to confer grandeur on what's vapid, to suggest drama where there is none, to make heroes of buffoons and, of course, when it comes to talent shows, to make buffoons of sad sacks.

Take a look at what they've done to Four Rooms, a sort of competitive Antiques Roadshow, in which sellers choose between rival bids from dealers said to be "masters of the dark arts of valuation". It had a laconic charm first time round, but it's returned as another excuse for gross posturing, with the dealers compelled to pose like The Avengers, vamping and camping and pluming and snorting and otherwise trying to look dangerous, telling us how they never fail to get what they want and then failing to get it at the first opportunity.

Almost everything that now happens on British television is crass, by turns timid and indecorous, but the boasting mania is the last scrape of the barrel. Modesty was once a virtue. Bring it back says I, or I will do such things – what they are yet, I know not; but they shall be the terrors of the earth.

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright
 

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence