The only kind of nice that people used to aspire to was the one with a capital letter in southern France. No one actually wanted to be "nice" as defined by the dictionary: friendly, pleasant, helpful. After all, the British were not nice so much as polite. This was fine, because you could be polite and be rude at the same time.
The Americans did not understand this. They were nice and it was too disgusting. Just look at the way they kept on saying "Have a nice day", when they obviously didn't mean it! Outrageous.
Then everything started going wrong. Perhaps the rot began with Hello!. People always pretend they are reading it for the sake of irony, but there is something very seductive about its rampant shallowness. Enid Blyton for grown-ups it may be, but it is still addictive. And so, somewhere along the line, people started to expect a little ray of Hello! in every person and every situation. Be positive. What is wrong with nice? The word ceased to be an insult, and became just another adjective. And now, it has become a compliment.
I can see you shaking your head, but you will have to stop that. I am not going to be nice about this. You are wrong. You may want to cling to the idea that nice is only for Americans, but the culture has moved on here. As they say on the nice-infested West Coast, it is time to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
We are in the grip of a New Niceness. Blame Diana, Tony Blair, the especially nice Blue Peter, and all those clean-living Hollywood stars. Blame the Eighties for being so nasty that they made nice seem aspirational. Blame the fact that Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach have teamed up to produce Nice Music. And blame the media, too. Who needs the New Journalism when the Nice Journalism will do?
Take the new edition of Vogue. Nicole Kidman is on the cover. Inside she is wearing cashmere but the interview is softer still. "Gorgeous, famous and happily married to a Hollywood star. If Nicole Kidman wasn't so nice you'd have to hate her," says the blurb. Well, perhaps we do, but the interviewer wouldn't grasp that. This is because she is too busy telling us that Nicole is loved by all men and women everywhere and no one has one single un-nice thing to say about her. Why, when Nicole became ill and postponed the interview, the star herself picked up the phone to apologise. She is the antithesis of the prima donna. She is extraordinary, vulnerable and her duck feet are simply adorable (I am not making this up).
Very soon into this you want to scream: "But she is a Scientologist!" But stop right there, because that is a subject that Nicole will not discuss. The others include her children and questions of sexuality in general. She and her husband Tom Cruise have just successfully sued The Express on Sunday over an unfounded article on this latter subject. Not very New Nice, really, so we won't mention it again.
Hollywood is full of New Nice types. Even Courtney Love has been caught dabbling while Geri Halliwell wallows in it. Perhaps it is a gender thing, but women seem prone to it: Andie MacDowell, Sandra Bullock and, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow. A recent interview with the latter reveals not so much hidden depths as barely concealed surfaces. "I had a happy childhood and my first memories are from before I could even talk. My dad was the best in the world." These are the kinds of things you used to be too embarrassed to tell anyone unless you were drunk. No longer.
Nor does Gwyneth spare us the details about her best friend. "I met her on the first day of kindergarten, aged four. It has now moved beyond best friends. She is my soulmate, the funniest person I know, and very supportive. We have about seven of our own languages together. Neither of us thinks material things are vitally important. If my house burnt down, I would save my photograph albums and daily journal, which I've kept from the age of 15 or 16.
"I can't think of anything else I would really miss. I have a Cartier watch from my grandparents as a 21st present, but I wear that most of the time."
This really is enough to make anyone reach for a nasty or two. Roll on Demi Moore, the only prima donna Hollywood has left. But you can overdose on that, too.
Then it is back to Nicole and her so wonderful world. "The thing is, I'm very trusting. I'm not on the lookout. I think that if you are brought up in Australia, you tend to be blunt and open."
Except of course about her religion. But I shouldn't say that because I wouldn't want to be nasty. Obviously.
Andie MacDowell on the joys of family life: `I love being a mother. I am devoted to my children. They are my top priority, the core of my life'
Nicole Kidman: the Nice Queen, not the Ice Queen. On mixing with ordinary people, she is eager to come across as just another mum. `I take my kids to the park every day. I sit and talk to the other mothers and stuff,' she says
Geri Halliwell on her new career: `I want to use my fame positively. If I can save one life I will. There are many dimensions to Geri Halliwell'
Courtney Love on her new life after heroin: `I want to be my daughter's parent, whatever way I can. If necessary I'll give it all up. I'll move to Montana'
Gwyneth Paltrow on growing up: `I remember dad coming home from work and playing blocks with me. He was the best daddy and we'd play for hours'
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