One of my favorite pastimes is whiling away the daytime hours listening to the cider-sodden stories of affable and perhaps mental pub patrons. The wisdom of the drinking classes is greater in sum than the wisdom of the political classes.
Those who clot outside the pub as the morning breaks aren’t usual or boring. You wouldn’t call them ordinary. Hostile newspapers call them scum. More discerning newspapers call them “problem drinkers,” which is apt—they imbibe problems like they imbibe pints.
Here in Great Britain, we call these gentlemanly rogues, “characters.”
Characters germinate within the breeding grounds of the lower and upper classes. Freed from the pasteurizing middle, the character of low birth shares his devil-may-care sentiments with the character of high birth. Our culture, what’s left of it, regards both with a vague disdain.
Characters have better stories and vivifying problems. They’re more fun than anyone with LinkedIn Premium or some 5K personal record they can’t stop shoehorning into the conversation.
The character’s problems are of biting consequence. He might plug that leaking head gasket, only for his latest paramour to announce that her welfare check got slashed in half after someone grassed her up for working on the sly.
These problems lubricate their days and resolve only when another shuffles into sight ready to occupy the remarkable energies of its host.
Characters are easy to spot. Through decades of service to the sauce and the repeated iniquities his vocation bears, the character’s skin has that borrowed quality, like a child aged abruptly by some rare misfortune.
Perhaps these problems enliven what would otherwise be a dull life. Most of us lead lives of quiet desperation, yet we are hardwired for stories. Some like to live theirs out.
While everyone else chases the likes and approval of strangers, the character displays his imperfections, like the Japanese art of kintsugi in which the artist reforms broken pottery, fusing together the cracks with liquid gold. Each piece of kintsugi is unique. Its imperfection is its beauty.
Tearing Down the Mighty
Perhaps the spiritual deity of the character is that of the late professional carouser and writer, Jeffrey Bernard, of The Spectator’s Low Life fame.
Back when we didn’t take ourselves so seriously, Bernard drained most of his life in the Coach and Horses pub in London’s Soho, then a breeding ground for the Great British Character. His column was once described as a “suicide note in weekly instalments (sic).”
Bernard’s writings were of typical character stuff—the other sex, alcohol, philosophy, horse racing, the human condition, and human folly. Often, through drink or some other encumbrance, Bernard would miss his deadline, forcing his then-editor to punch these immortal words into the space where his column should rest: “Jeffrey Bernard is unwell.” A play of the same name celebrated Bernard’s rather eventful life.
Bernard lives on. Across this spiky island, one will find many a character propping up the bar in any raffish pub, imparting an uncanny ability to pull down grand theories and modern nonsense.
Like the satirist and the comedian, the character is not too popular with the modern hordes. Such purveyors of truth are a threat to those who choose never to look beyond their own nose. In our fragile world of appearances, loathsome is the character’s ability to tear down the mighty.
The comedian Dave Chappelle’s recent furor says it all. His sapless detractors felt ‘unsafe’ because of Chappelle’s raucous jokes. They now demand his cancellation.
What the censoriously minded fear most is the purity of thought, and the involuntary laughter of which comedy invokes. Like the character, the comedian sees what others choose not to see.
As T. S. Eliot wrote, “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” What the new puritans fear about the comedian is what they fear about the character: his dangerous knack of blanching pretensions and lies, to dissolve grand theories and utopian nothings.
Over the last unthinkable 18 months, we have many times over, lost our collective minds.
Back in March 2020, Boris Johnson had it right. To follow the Chinese lead and lockdown millions of healthy people to quell a virus was a crude and brutal measure befitting of a crude and brutal regime.
Boris, like the entire West—except for the Swedes—bottled it.
The ‘Do Something!’ tribe and its stridulations won. We did something all right.
Seemingly immaterial to the “Do Something!” crowd is what that doing of something might entail. The more pointless, the more ruinous, the more visible, the greater the apparent value of that something and its doing.
Now, we have swathes of people terrified of themselves and of everyone else. As I have written previously, many of my fellow citizens quite like all this New Normal lark. Indeed, many of them wouldn’t rather it any other way. For some, it’s the first time anything has meant anything.
Yes, for the older and the infirm, the coronavirus poses a considerable threat, but the cure has proven far worse than the disease.
A Bottomless Dose of Dopamine
Well, the results of this lockdown folly are in: the biggest wealth transfer from the poor to the rich in history; millions of poor schoolkids now miles behind their better-off peers; millions thickening hospital waiting lists, many of them tragically too late; a mental health crisis; public finances in tatters, and the unedifying realization that one-third of one’s fellow citizens would relish the social-credit-system drudgery of Beijing.
Remarkable is the thought that anyone—let alone the entire Western political class—took as a measure of sophistication the Chinese method of amputating at the shoulder what tingles at the thumb.
Such crude authorship should tell you all you need to know about China’s delusions of global domination. And yet, Western adoption of such snake oil should tell you all you need to know about the parlous state of Western self-confidence. We’ve long swallowed China’s fictions and fancies.
For decades too, we’ve believed our own bullshit. We silo ourselves into safe online spaces, permit those who agree with us to parrot what we like to hear. Social media, an evolution of noxious reality TV, has sealed us off from all sense. We mute and unfriend those who say something we don’t like, cancel those with the temerity to think for themselves, and not only of us.
We’ve closed those little forums which make truth and make democracy possible. We have our own truths and our own forums now.
Those wishing to “have a conversation” seldom frequent those places where unadulterated conversation happens—live and in-person. We Millennials even have an acronym for such passé notions: IRL—in real life.
The great Christopher Lasch had it right:
Even the pub and the coffee shop, which at first appear to have nothing to do with politics or the civic arts, make their contribution to the kind of wide-ranging, free-wheeling conversation on which democracy thrives…our approach to eating and drinking is less and less mixed with ritual and ceremony. It has become strictly functional: we eat and drink on the run. Our fast-paced habits leave neither time nor—more importantly—places for good talk, even in cities the whole point of which, it might be argued, is to promote it.
Our little forums come with like buttons and a bottomless dose of dopamine.
I remember thinking this pandemic would curb the other pandemic of wokeness; that a virus deadly to millions would put into perspective those contrived little trifles and indulgences which animate the woke. How naïve of me.
Some of us spent the last eighteen months policing others, demanding they cover their faces with useless cloth, drunk on the ever-changing “correctisms” to which they cling.
Like wokeness, the draw of such petit puritanism is the promise of order and security amidst chaos and insecurity. Desperate, the followers yearn for something greater than themselves. If only they looked beyond their own nose.