Nostalgie de la Boue (Aug 2009)

Nos·tal·gie de la boue (nō̂s tȧl z̸hē də lȧ bo̵̅o̅) – a desire for or attraction to crudity, vulgarity, depravity, etc. (source:

To begin with, let’s broaden the definition here.  Vulgarity on its own might be Frankie Howerd or Carry On films or anything mildly titilating, but for these purposes let’s look at things that might otherwise be more shameful, anything indeed that sets the hares racing, frightens the horses, meets with the general disgust and approbation of our current societal norms, that sort of thing.

When you count up the sheer volume of letters filling the columns of the Daily Mail from Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells Britain is drowning in a cesspit of wanton lust, vulgar exposes (emotional and physical) and generally all manner of debauchery.  Sodom and Gomorrah, eat your heart out, the UK is the place to be for disgracefully kinky and crude behaviour of every kind. No discipline, no decency,  Gone to the dogs…

Well, for sure the tabloids scream at us with all manner of shock horror revelations about the lowering of standards still further (without a hint of irony either.)  And then there was Mary Whitehouse and the infamous NVLA (National Viewers and Listeners Association) ranting against the incessant stream of puerile filth emanating by the minute from our televisions and radios.  Everywhere you go, they would say, we our exposed to degradation at an ever accelerating pace: four-letter words on TV (as Michael Flanders put it so memorably “I am very much opposed to the use of four-letter words.  If they are in everyday use, what are we going to use for special occasions?”); nudity everywhere you look (I can’t talk, having been naked on stage for one certain production!); violence and sexual acts in common circulation (and there’s no doubt that you can do in a 12A film now what might once have been in an X cert film in the “old days”), and so onwards goes the litany of apparent evil.

Is that how we live? Well, for sure we had various breakthroughs in what was acceptable in our society.  Hallelujah for the 60s and the “permissive age”, can you imagine how claustrophobic life would have been without it.  But then culture does change over time and people change with it.  Not too long ago we had the Lord Chamberlain to censor our viewing patterns and tell us what we could or could not watch.  Freedom of speech meant we were now dependent upon our own consciences over what was and was not acceptable viewing.  Mary Whitehouse is dead and gone and the NVLA has become (“challenging racism, sexism and violence in the media through education and action.”)

The tabloids still sniff around for juicy stories and people are much the same as they ever were.  The old still deplore the behaviour of the young, even if the nature of the rebellion can be somewhat more extreme these days.  Where once a puff of tobacco and maybe a rock & roll 45 was considered daring, they might now be accused of binge drinking, taking whatever are the latest tabs to help you dance all night, then the precocious sex and teenage pregnancies.  Yes, the UK has among Europe’s highest rate of teenage pregnancies but keep things in proportion here (ie. don’t believe everything you read in the Sun) – 41.9 conceptions per 1000 teens is still way too high but judging by the reports you might think it was every teenage girl nursing a baby!

But dig deeper and realise that not much has changed.  For any given age there has always been the underbelly of society, the crude and the lewd.  Prostitution is the “oldest profession” because men have always used it (not this one, thankfully!), though the extent to which the “middle classes” (for want of a better phrase) are in denial about the truth compared to Victorian mores is now radically different.  Where once people would choose in public to deny knowledge of any socially unacceptable habits, today they can do so openly with no apparent consequences.  OK, for sure it would be somewhat shameful and harmful to admit to your wife that you frequent a brothel, but that’s nothing compared to the Victorian society where if anything was known it was most certainly never discussed, so all the debauchery of today and much more went on in secret.  Even our worthy Prime Minister, Gladstone, was said to patrol the streets of the East End of London to save “wicked women”… and as the old joke has it, he saved a few for himself in the process!  As many studies have revealed, Victorian men were often characterised as Jeckyll and Hydes, respectable by day but giving into their various violent carnal desires by night.

If the demand has been there, the market was around to meet it with supply.  So it was that the supply of pornography, something in circulation from Greek times and earlier, was met in abundance during the Victorian age as a vulgar antidote to the moral rectitude of society.  And there it stayed, maybe shameful, something to be enjoyed in total privacy or with a smirk among your mates, And as time went on, porn went through phases, sometimes more explicit, sometimes less, but which always shocked the more conservative elements of society, no matter how harmless they might now seem.  60s editions of Playboy probably seem delightfully twee these days, We were probably the most sex-mad nation on earth but we denied ourselves so many pleasures for fear of offending the cultural norms.

Or did we?  Even then there were almost certainly under-the-counter magazines and film reels that prompted regular police raids!)  Then there were private members’s clubs and various ways to overcome the censor legally, importing all our filth from the continent, where they had no such hangups.  No sex please, we’re British!  Oh, the irony….

But things did change.  Ah yes, there is the Internet society to blame.  The custodians of our moral well-being are like Canutes holding back the tide of porn, violence, powerless as the net flooded into our homes with every known taboo.  Hardcore was here to stay.  But that wasn’t the only taboo we had broken along the way.  In my youth there was the rise of horror films… no, sorry, not horror films, since they have been around for a very long time, no it was the onset of splatter movies, the stalk & slash variety, “video nasties” as many of them came to be known. And it became a rite of passage that you could sit through these without throwing up. But even they probably seem tame against some of the real life footage now available for the connoisseur.

I could go on but you get the general drift.  In short, we’ve always had moral standards and we’ve always pushed at the boundaries.  What would be the fun of living unless someone was challenging our norms and expectations about what was acceptable to say and do in public, forensically examining the grey areas and the taboos as yet untramelled by our modern times.  We’ve come a long way since Lenny Bruce said his first four-letter words on stage, yet in some ways we’ve also become strangely coy.  The political correctness era and the backlash against it showed we may have become desensitised and now accept many things that would have made our parents blush and our grandparents react with total outrage, yet at the same pace we have gained other danger zones, places we dare not go.

Think about it next time you change your form of words to avoid what someone might view as crude or distasteful turn of speech – something in appropriate that causes you to censor yourself.  Is vulgarity dead?  No.  Are we drawn to it?  Always!  Nostalgie de la boue is here to stay!

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