“The ideology of the 1960s… [was] a happy, optimistic selfishness, and the general reaction against a drab and narrow past, encouraged by post-war upbringings.”
Peter Hitchens, The Cameron Delusion
Earlier today, a fascinating, lucid and extraordinarily honest omission from comedian John Cleese came to my attention.
Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph about why he turned down a peerage, he also expounded his views about his home country. While Cleese is famed for his sense of humour and use of irony, as evinced in his statement that he turned down a peerage because “I realised this involved being in England in the winter and I thought that was too much of a price to pay”, some of his other comments are hugely revealing about his perception of the change in British society and culture; specifically, the cultural shift towards the lowest common denominator.
“There were disadvantages to the old culture, it was a bit stuffy and it was more sexist and more racist. But it was an educated and middle-class culture. Now it’s a yob culture. The values are so strange.”
These comments are only slightly different from comments published in the Austrian newspaper Die Press, and reported in the Daily Mail eight months ago.
‘We used to have some sort of middle-class culture with an adequate amount of respect for education.
‘It was a bit racist – not in a mean way though – but still racist. Some things have changed for the better.
‘But it’s not a middle class culture anymore, but a yob culture, a rowdy culture.’
I am absolutely certain that I cannot be alone in being a little incredulous in reading this from John Cleese. Let us not forget that John Cleese and fellow Monty Python alumni essentially built a career out of attacking – with masterstrokes of verve, wit, intelligence and insight – the British establishment as they saw it. Nothing was spared in the Python canon; everything from high culture and the Armed Forces, the established Church to masculinity and the Bible to education was a target for satire and often ridicule. They were the undisputed masters of absurd humour, and in the process, succeeded in rendering their targets defenceless, and in some cases arguably aiding the changing public perception of certain institutions.
Presumably, if one spends enough time lampooning a middle-class culture, one must eventually deal a decisive blow to its integrity and its continued value as a facet of society. And once it is done away with, something else must come along to take its place; in this case, a materialist, superficial culture – motivated in a large part by American obsession with ‘pop culture’ and fixated with shallow concerns.
What is deeply ironic about this situation is that in this culture, that as Cleese rightly points out does not have ‘an adequate amount of respect for education’, observers are not as able to be so detached and analytical about the foibles of their generation. We are sadly bereft of the kind of clever humour that Cleese and his ilk provided; see the banality and vanity of Little Britain for example, or the grotesque caricatures of The League of Gentlemen. This is the inherent danger of casually savaging value systems that are supposedly ‘old-fashioned’: throwing baby out with the bathwater is more often than not inevitable.
Intriguingly, Cleese denoted that when he did grace the country with his presence – presumably in the summer months – he preferred living in Bath. Why? Because he believes that London no longer feels ‘English’:
“London is no longer an English city which is why I love Bath,” he said. “That’s how they sold it for the Olympics, not as the capital of England but as the cosmopolitan city. I love being down in Bath because it feels like the England that I grew up in.”
I seldom give myself over speculating on the mindset of those in the public eye – those who are not politicians, anyway. But this truly fascinates me. (Quite what Cleese would or does make of the other ‘English’ cities – Bradford, Wolverhampton, Birmingham – is quite beyond me.)
What constitutes an ‘English’ city? Is Cleese here implicitly disdainful of Labour’s open-doors immigration and multiculturalism policy? Does he resent London’s ‘new’ populace? Does he bemoan the loss of identity inflicted upon the capital by the philistine post-war urban planners who were more vengeful and more successful in their destruction of London than ever Hitler’s Luftwaffe was?
Does he hanker after an England that his generation loathed so much that they undertook the most comprehensive social realignment since the Norman invasion?
If it is the latter, I feel dreadfully sad. I feel sad for Mr Cleese, firstly, because he was aware of and lived in an England I have never seen and never will. I feel sad that his generation took it upon themselves to wantonly destroy the proud culture, built heritage and entire consciousness of a nation and supplant it with imposters that are infinitely inferior, meaningless and vacuous.
I fear that Mr Cleese is not alone amidst the ranks of his generation in regretting how comprehensively they revolutionsed England, and how it has not all been for the best. We must at least admire his confidence and boldness in stating thusly.