Ashley & Cheryl, Battle Of Britain, Credit Cards, Friday Night Saturday Morning, Frugality, Georgian Society, Hilditch & Key, IKEA, Imperial Britain, Kim Kardashian, Kitchen Sink, Lidll Effect, My f&%*ing red trousers, Public School, Punk, RAF, Somerset Maugham, Sustainable Lifestyles, Taste of Honey, The Angry Young Men, The Great War, The Human Scractchcard, Vulgarity, Wyndham Lewis
While pondering ways of getting people to embrace a more sustainable lifestyle I choose to look through some research and segmentation reports on lifestyles and consumption.
(For the uninitiated, customer or consumer segmentations are sometime impenetrable studies in the socio-economic and behavioural nature of any given group of society. They are leapt on by communications planners and strategists in the absence of going and actually talking to a human being. The research pieces are the masters of wrapping and trapping swathes of humanity in convenient and malleable lumps. The objective is that all said lumps present themselves in such a way as that all manner of consumables might be thrown at them. The ‘grown up’ ones use scientific profiling, data and charts to bludgeon the humanity and empathy out of the viewer. The groovy ones use catchy pen portraits – much like this piece – to thinly explain something much more complex.)
The thing that struck me was that something was missing. Or should I say someone. There was little or no reference to the ascendant and highly popular vulgarity gene at work in society. Was a time when to be labelled vulgar was a social death knell. Which given the conspicuous lifestyles of the old rich seemed a little, well, rich to everyone else who wasn’t them. (Something that the writer, Wyndham Lewis, pointed directly at in his book The Vulgar Streak.)
Was a time when if you bought, or even worse, constructed your own furniture, and bathed in Take-Aways, you were vulgar. And the greatest sin? Talking about money. And being aware of it. Cuh! Dreadful.
So, I got to thinking about the journey to our current position. And thought about some of the milestones along the way. To see if they might shed some light on how best to include our new Vulgarity into a sustainable lifestyle conversation.
It was the piece on the Lidl Effect that got me to thinking. For the uninitiated, the Lidl Effect is a reference to Fashionable Frugality. Frugality that both prince and pauper can ascribe to. The Lidl Effects releases us from the tyranny of quality and status – the tension that comes from being seen to buy Finest versus buying Essential. With the Lidl effect, the focus is on what the smart money does. Streamlined choice is the way forwards. Why pay four quid for Parmesan when I can pay 97 pence? Duh.
Suddenly, with the Lidl Effect, talking scrimping money is a classless pursuit. (Until then, frugality was some post-war throwback to Food Coupons and boiling carcasses.) Vouchers, coupons and savings are de rigeur. Frugality is Now. And some knob who previously featured on the my f%*king red trousers blog will now be found happily discussing shades of economies on a prosecco purchase with the local builder. Majestic had already opened that door. Was a time when your average punter didn’t buy wine by the case – until Majestic. Majestic sold Big House wine purchasing to Small House people. Purchasing that would previously have been done through merchants for the Cellars of the Upper was now being embraced by squires of the Middle – and an in floor cellar wasn’t far behind.
In the past this would have been unheard of apart from in rare circles
Was a time when talking money was vulgar. Only people who didn’t have money spoke about it.
With the new vulgarity, the old unspoken stealth wealth ways of – I know that you know that I know where your shirt comes from – and the region and vineyard of this wine – have become public, with little shame or sensitivity.
Stealth Wealth – the invisible application of your wealth in the world as status – was allowed only because price was hidden inside provenance: codified. The region or the postcode giving lie to the fact that whatever it was, it was expensive and only known about by ‘people who know’. And it didn’t matter how old the Hilditch & Key shirt was. It was still from Hilditch & Key. In fact stealth wealth celebrated the slightly worn and threadbare as a mark of tenure.
But now, the Ashley & Cheryl approach is to splash it and cash it and the rumbling thunder of the Thunderball and Euro-squillions win is everywhere – and we’re all acting and spending like we’ve already won.
Shiny wins. Shiny car. Shiny home. Shiny children. Shiny holidays. Shiny wardrobe. We are now resplendent as if burnished in the gold leaf of success – but the beautiful disappointment that lies beneath its crisp edged foil is only ever a nail or penny scratch away.
This social scratch-card of humanity has been a long time in the making, beginning some say, with the march of the Georgian and Victorian Industrialists and their ‘damn your eyes w’scots’. And the vulgar excesses of the royal courts and society that rode their coat tails.
Its a swift step from there to the burgeoning Civil Service class of Imperial Britain. As the middle classes expanded, the upper classes contracted, along with their purses and their estates. But the system was evolving, with Public Schools providing the perfect Imperial shapeshifter sausage machine. In aping the sent-away squiredoms of l’anciene regime, all manner of different grades and qualities and bloodlines of child could enter one end only to exit the other as Imperial Mince (in more ways than one).
The creep of vulgarity built slowly and surely at the edges of the Empire where Governors and their households, minor civil servants, local Consuls and the Military middle – think Blackadder – had been thrown together with little other than each other for company. A repeating theme in Somerset Maugham’s short stories is the clash of the elegant old with the vulgar new. Bar the Great War – the last hurrah of the old world – vulgarity was on the up.
(It’s worth noting that mourning the young men of the Great War is a classist affair. Because on those battle fields the last echoes of feudalism and the sons of Imperial entitlement died, chasing epic poems and honour amongst the massed dead from their factories and farms. The greatest crime was the inevitable disintegration of the empire that fired their hearts and minds, and the grandeur it promised to uphold on their behalf. They wuz robbed, guvnor.)
The rise of vulgarity has been predicated on the fall of Class. At every moment, where class got its come-downance, there was vulgarity, in the wings, waiting.
Class got a kicking after the Great War but via the emancipation movement. Working women stepped up and roared. And the world quaked. It then got another kicking in the great depression as the landed and the monied bled entitlement and loose change. Come the second world war there was everything to play for. And the common man stepped up.
In the RAF mess huts, the creeping democratisation and multi culturalism of a new age was struck in the hallowed halls of the Public School boy flyer-hero. The Battle of Britain was as much shaped by the presence of Poles, Canadians, South Africans and West Indians as it was by old Harrovians and Etonians.
In the late 50s, the rise of the Angry Young Man and the highly visible ordinary teenager with their preening and self-publicity struck a further blow.
This rise of youth culture, where rawness and vulgarity were part of the fabric, created a foundation stone for belief in absolute equalities in the Summer of Love, and its populist dissent with all things unequal and belligerent. A belief that The Man (those in power and with much) sent people to their deaths in far off places to protect that power and that wealth and opportunity from the common and the vulgar.
The kitchen sink dramas of Friday Night Saturday Morning and Taste of Honey presented the working class hero in a new, raw splendour. They became aspirational. And the Mods carried the torch for conspicuous consumption and sartorial excellence once reserved for Jermyn Street and the Gentry.
Come the 70s, class hadn’t only ‘dropped out’. Bowie and Glam stole gender bender affectations that were once the sole pleasure of dissolute toffs cross dressing and sliding between the assorted sheets of straight and gay. And once the feather cut and eyeliner had had their way, class got punked. And at that moment, while the old was wheezing on its knees, bloodied and bowed. Pow. The 1980s arrived.
Thatcher’s children and the Yuppy Ascendency got money out there and up there. City brokers and builders chanting Loadsamoney in City Bars was a regular occurrence. A Right of Passage almost. Minor Public School, Independent and Grammar School boys merged into one loafer-wearing scrum playing up to their Major peers – a Will Carling Hydra, swallowing vowels and Bloody Mary’s in vulgar cars and even more vulgar shoes.
In the 80s, the space between the output of Secondary Moderns and Fee Paying Schools opened up like a wound. But if you had cash, you were gold.
Being Vulgar was part of the new regime. Everyone could trumpet their cash and success. What used to be seen as a Colonial vulgarity (Very American) was now de rigeur. Scrabbling up the status tree was positively encouraged. And the working and middle classes leapt into the fray – closely followed by the credit card companies.
Being tasteless and crass in regards to money was apparently fine. Unrefined was part of the new refinement. And Vulgarity came of age. It was our new normal.
The baseness of our past primitive selves happily spilled into our civilised present. Rudeness and indecency and the slippery rough edges of sexuality were openly displayed and became purposeful and confident – and, if questioned, simply presented themselves as a democratisation of what the toffs had been doing for years. Who were they to call us vulgar. Screw them – we’re vulgar and proud of it. And bar the odd swerve and hiccup, the 90s and the Noughties continued the charge.
The zenith point of our vulgarity? Kim Kardashian worshipping a gold loo, surely – the leitmotif of the human scratch card if ever there was one.
The Vulgarian tribe is pretty much everyone now (unless you live in a recycled house, running on renewables, growing what you eat, home schooling your children and cycling everywhere), and Vulgarians are defined by everything. Every notch on the social slide-rule. Money. Education. Blood. Fashion. New furniture. Regionalism. Art. Everything is in there in a great big soup of social simmering. Even doilies and avocado bathroom suites have ‘status’ in our post-modern, post-ironic, vulgar, designer world. Everything goes. And we’ve got it all. And if we haven’t, we want it. And there’s always another credit card company willing to finance it at 16% APR. As long as its attached to ‘look what I’ve got and who I am’, we’re sorted.
So the next time I see a research document and a socio- demographic, I’ll be looking for the Vulgarian indexing in there.
If we’re going to have any hope of creating more sustainable lifestyles, we’re going to need to find a way to identify, understand and more importantly, appeal to our outer Vulgarian. And know what a meaningful alternative looks like to it.
And, just saying, it had better be shiny. Just sustainably so.