Jolly Bad Taste vs. feeble Good Taste

Sir Les Patterson or Poundbury, Roy Wood or Richard Rogers, dodgy clubs or lusty yeomen?

Jonathan Meades

In a telly film David Bailey made about him in 1971, Cecil Beaton is shown on a train out of Waterloo. As it approaches Woking he’s anxiously on the qui vive for a site that is evidently important to him. It is an Edwardian house converted into a studio and shop by the photographer Sidney Francis. It was against Francis and his parish pump business that Beaton measured his worth and celebrity.

“There, but for the grace of God, go I,” he sighs, with a faint grin that is not entirely smug. There is, too, an element of nervous relief at never having had to broach the worlds of wedding photography, aldermanic portraiture and local journalism, worlds of standardisation and convention, worlds which occupied the most menial position on his ultra-sensitive register of Taste.

“Taste breaks out all of the rules . . . it must always renew itself,” he wrote a year later. He was, of course, a Taste-freak avant la lettre. Taste’s slippery vagaries preoccupied him. His own Taste was inclined to collage rather than consistency. Steal from Louis-le-Rococo, copy von Klenze at the same moment, and throw in a bit of, say, Mallet-Stevens: that is the way to achieve something strange and satisfyingly worrying. Waspish observations on Taste — mostly other people’s, mostly found wanting — fill his diaries.  The “crass Bad Taste” of Elizabeth Taylor (“vulgar”) and Richard Burton (“butch and coarse”) was an aesthetic offence. But then so was what John Betjeman called “ghastly Good Taste”.

Yet neither was as distressing as — oh, be prepared to blench — No Taste. No Taste was far beyond offensive. No Taste was a sort of disability that afflicts the majority, the multitudinous flocks of the misled and easily led. And to avoid it, Beaton’s life, self-creation and very core were larded with devices designed to make him stand out from the vulgo, to shout that he had Taste. Wittingly or not, he followed Nietzsche: “Blessed are those who have Taste — even if it is Bad Taste.”

Polonius’s sartorial advice to Laertes, “not expressed in fancy; rich not gaudy”, could not have fallen on deafer ears. Evelyn Waugh routinely anointed him with the faintest praise. Noel Coward reproached him for his “conspicuously exaggerated” clothes and his countless affectations. His friend and neighbour Lady Juliet Duff was precise. He was “like a very successful Parisian madame who had decided to give it all up, moved to the English countryside, and took all her bordello belongings with her”.

He was exquisite and epicine but not really a dandy. Dandyism is subtler, quieter, essentially narcissistic. Its audience is the one in the mirror. It is manifest in understatement: it has to be sought out. Beaton lived near Salisbury; that’s where the train through Woking was taking him. He obstinately neglected to conform to the dull sartorial strictures of that architecturally prodigious but wearyingly churchy and dourly military city.

Beaton was an ambulatory advertisement for himself, for big straw hats, crêpe-de-chine shirts, turquoise jabots and rope-soled shoes which fleetingly turned the Cathedral Close into a chimera of Ibiza. He invited ostracism. Above all he was the incarnation of what the majority of his fellow citizens regarded as Queer Taste, Outsider Taste, Bad Taste. These supposedly aberrant appetites can only exist if there is a strong doxa to diverge from, and to oppose. Life-enhancing exhibitionism depends on the drear norms of the day being consensual life-negation, collective moroseness, narrow horizons, risk aversion and puritanical chiding; the day, in Britain, which seems never quite to end.

De gustibus non est disputandum is not a universal prescription. It is only applicable in a tolerant, non-coercive society. It is not appropriate to a milieu which confuses Taste and morality, morality and moralism, and adheres to the dictates of The Guild of Fishwives, The Guild of Cabdrivers and The Guild of Tabloid “Writers”. The mob has muscle. Fashions in thought and skirt length, in colour and catchphrase, gadgets and fonts move as mysteriously and as determinedly as starlings’ murmurations. The mob doesn’t invent them. But once they are established, deviation from them incites the mob’s wrath. Practices which are illicit in one decade are deemed admirable in its successor, and vice versa. What was commonplace 150 years ago is now regarded with distaste. Rather it is meant to be regarded with distaste. But covertly, the people’s desires are faultlessly atavistic.

Take Salisbury (again). Following the visits of Putin’s architecturally-inclined murderers and the demolition of Sergei Skripal’s house, the city is getting a £500,000 makeover from a rebranding agency called Heavenly which is fluent in management  drivel and motivational slogans: it is hardly astonishing that the BBC is among its clients.

This agency should forget about a vibrant new platform of artisanal foam hassocks, digital chapter house samplers and iconically iconic Trollope goblets. Think, instead of Judge Jeffreys. Turn Salisbury into a Bloody Assizes Theme Park.

Reality TV is watched by millions because it is licensed humiliation in the tradition of visiting Bedlam to mock and prod the hapless inmates. The time is apt to go a step further, to allow the baying people to reprise the past, to really take back control. Imagine the city’s great market square as a potential arena. Let them have public executions in that vast space. That’s the way to put Salisbury back on the map.

The South Holland and the Deepings MP Sir John “Pierrepoint” Hayes is eager to do his bit. Dashing in his executioner’s hood, this noose fundamentalist will come down from the flatlands once a month with his collection of axes, gibbets and guillotines along with his personal einsatzgruppen.  This is true populism. It acknowledges the profundity of human imperfection and the thrill of virtuous delight in witnessing miscreant sheep rustlers and combine-harvester thieves being taught the ultimate lesson.

Now, that recipe should no doubt be calumnised as being in The Worst Possible Taste. But as Beaton offended by his apparel and physical demeanour so is it for the writer to offend with words. Those improbable bedfellows Kingsley Amis and Joe Orton were united in the conviction that a writer who is not giving offence is a writer not doing his job. Orton wondered too: “What’s all this about writers being sensitive?”

One effect of Western social, sexual and moral balkanisation is that there exists an ever-growing galère of thin-skinned communitarian sensibilities not to be given the immunity they believe they are entitled to, not to be taken at their own estimate, not to be treated with sympathy and sensitivity. Christian denominations appear broad-shouldered enough to accept scorn and jibes.

Islam doesn’t. It resorts to special pleading, to bullying claims of exceptionalism. It seeks protection not granted to other religionists, hobbyists, delusionists:  ought not flat-earthers and jigsaw-puzzlers to get bespoke treatment? They are special too.  Islam paranoiacally casts itself as a victim suffering persecution by such means as Israel’s occupation of Palestine, blithely deemed to be more murderous than Nazi German’s occupation of France. The more it equates itself with Europe’s Jews of the 1930s and ’40s, the more it renders its routine cry of “Islamophobia” both self-pitying and self-aggrandising. Yet at the same time it denies its responsibility for the resurrection of anti-Semitism throughout the continent.

It may be in Bad Taste to draw attention to its stratagems. However, Good Taste would concede that lapidation, FGM, brainwashing and clothes as propagandist badges are merely quaint manifestations of a different culture and should be ignored: they do things differently. Sweeping it all under the carpet, pretending it has gone away (whatever “it” is), convincing oneself that it may not happen whilst it is happening all around. Good Taste is the Taste of the sand you have buried your head in, certain that you are making yourself invisible.

Writing or making any art in Good Taste is evasive if not entirely dishonest. Good manners may be socially desirable but are otherwise redundant. Were the canons composed of works in Good Taste there would be no place for Ballard, Beethoven, Borowczyk, Bron, Buñuel, Burgess, Burra, Burroughs.

Or for Burges and Butterfield, two architects who were near contemporaries. They were stylistically divergent and mutually unsympathetic. Nonetheless, it is largely due to them and to such farouche artists as S.S. Teulon and F.T. Pilkington that High Victorian architecture — the modern gothic of approximately 1855-75 — was, until the last quarter of the last century, invariably suffixed with “monstrosity”.

Harsh, hard, mannered, boorish, ugly, distorted, overbearing, contrapuntal, exaggerated, aggressive, perverse, hallucinatory, grotesque . . . The charge list was long and it was already being drawn up even as the Barclay Bruntsfield church, Elvetham Hall and Keble College were being built.

There was no accommodation with the picturesque, with the consolations of prettiness, with terminal Englishness, with Good Taste which is the repetitious expression of the familiar. Hence the inflated reputation of instantly recognisable classicism and the numbing idealisation of Georgian jerry-building. The presumption that columns, pilasters, rustication and pediments are the ne plus ultra of tectonic achievement can only be held by obstinate clots who don’t look, who are so fixed in their ways that they might spontaneously petrify. And who fear any lack of decorum.

Squeamishness and mimsy restraint are the enemies of imagination. No art, architecture included, should reassure us. The government’s or the aptly named Mr Brokenshire’s notion that Roger Scruton stirring up “better design and style . . . knowledge and tradition . . . greater community consent” will beautify Britain is of course a vague promise of bread and circuses for the cowed, bread and circuses in the precise form of Poundbury, a dull prince’s dislocated fantasy of façadism and the very apogee of feeble Good Taste.

As an exemplar of Beautiful Britain it is dismally predictable, as predictable as Scruton’s antipathy to “modernism” — which he seems to believe is a single hegemonic idiom rather than countless strands of invention. This illusory hegemonic idiom has of course crushed the “vernacular” and the “traditional”.  Which vernacular would that be? The vernacular of thatch and cob or the next valley’s stone and pantiles? There are numberless vernaculars. There are numberless traditions: one might facetiously recall some which are ripe for revival: the great tradition of rickets, the traditions of child labour and prostitution, the tradition of transportation, the tradition of back street abortions, etc.

But let us forget those. What tradition evidently signifies in this quest for Beauty is the Terminal Englishness of, say, Kate Greenaway, beneficent squires, lusty yeomen and the age-old buildings they live in. A fantasy matched, as it happens, by the opposing vision of Lord Rogers of Riverside whose urbanism belongs to a different past, the recent past. It is softly bossy, idealistic, car free, mostly practical, perhaps over-functional, dotted with virtuously non-smoking coffee drinkers at outside tables no matter what the weather, lots of glass and steel. It is otherwise inhabited by people dressed in black with heavy spectacles who look as though they have studied at the Architectural Association. It is more of the same, but far less ludicrous than Scruton’s warmed-over Duchy Originals. Being right-on is an inhibition, no matter how great an architect you might be.

Neither possesses vitality in its countless forms. They both exhibit differing forms of Good Taste that leave a pedagogic aftertaste.

They are both inimical to the sheer exhilarating zip and Go! of Bad Taste: Cecil Beaton of course, zoot suits, Dr Sir Leslie Colin Patterson,  Googie drive-ins, the entire oeuvre of Martin Rowson and Steve Bell, public readings from Rabelais with enactments, Dick Emery,  heavy drinking and knee-tremblers (the two generally exclusive of each other), the Tiger Balm Gardens, 1950s Cadillacs, hobble skirts, bad company, dodgy clubs, dodgy clubs in the afternoon, lions on gateposts, Derek and Clive, funfairs, Marty Feldman, footballers’ hairdos, Black Country accents, J. Mayer H., more dodgy clubs,  The Rubettes, neon, two-tone anything, floating gin palaces, “Springtime For Hitler”, Mr Freedom, Chris Morris, Biggins, another coked-up politician nailed down in an S&M dungeon, Yamoussoukro’s basilica, Roy Wood, candy floss, Thom Mayne, zoomorphic topiary, royal weddings, leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat fawningly undone,  misspelt tattoos, Ernest Trobridge’s houses in Kingsbury, hot lunches, Le Jardin des Supplices, Nicky Haslam  . . .

There is nothing cool about Bad Taste. If Good Taste occupies the taupe corner then Bad Taste occupies the fluorescent lime green and magenta spotted corner. It wants to be noticed. But it struggles. It has always struggled. A century and a half ago Dickens observed in Our Mutual Friend that England suffers “a national dread of colour”.

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