Hilary Mantel's precise, unkind words have been twisted into a "venomous" attack on Kate

If it's Team Mantel or Team Middleton, Sarah Ditum knows which side she's on...

There's an irresistible circularity in the Daily Mail making a front page story out of Hilary Mantel's sinuous essay on the public scrutiny of the Royals' most intimate bodies. 5,500 words of sharp, considered prose in the London Review of Books becomes a one line bitchfest on the cover of the Mail: "'A plastic princess designed to breed': Bring Up the Bodies author Hilary Mantel's venomous attack on Kate Middleton".

Though she never singles out the Mail by name, the Mail is one of the primary producers of the kind of Royal scrutiny Mantel anatomises. The Mail has tugged at the threads of every outfit that Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge has worn, hungrily anticipated her pregnancy from the moment she got married, sniffed at the fertile perfume of princessly nausea, and snorted derisively at the Middleton family – especially Kate's sister, who has been cast as both a grasping middle-class arriviste capitalising on her sudden accession to quality, and as the princess-a-like you can wank over without landing yourself in the Tower.

Mantel's essay is about that doubleness in the outwardly reverent attitude to royalty. "We are ready at any moment to rip away the veil of respect, and treat royal persons in an inhuman way," she writes, "making them not more than us but less than us, not really human at all." She ends – not that you could possibly know this from the papers' retelling today – with a plea for Kate to be spared from the public's appetite for princess's bodies: "I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes." And for writing that, Mantel herself has to be cast as the brute.

In the retelling, we're even informed that Mantel "suggested Kate could have few complaints about private pictures of her being taken on holiday – observing: 'The royal body exists to be looked at.'" You only need compare that malformed quotation to the "back off and don't be brutes" line to see that it's a sheer sly distortion of Mantel's intent. But Mantel will recognise the technique, and so will anyone who's read her incandescent recreations of the political world of Henry VIII, Wolf Hall ("A rich and subtle wonder" – the Daily Mail) and Bring Up the Bodies ("Mantel's remarkable prose and turn of phrase … makes this a must-read" – the Daily Mail).

The Mail is playing the role of court prosecutor, assembling its case for treason the same way Thomas Cromwell does in the novels – shearing off a little of the truth here, elevating a select portion of it there, so that without ever telling an outright lie, it can turn the truth into something very unlike its original self. That's not to say, of course, that Mantel is just a sadly misrepresented purchaser of commemorative plates: she's too good a writer for the precise unkindness of her descriptions to be a slip. But Mantel's guillotine-sharp descriptions (the juxtaposition of Kate to Marie Antoinette is, again, not mere clumsiness) aren't aimed at the Duchess herself, but at the entire strange edifice of royalty and the public's bizarre relationship to it.

Of course, Mantel includes herself among the public: she makes herself its principal exemplar, catching herself in the act of consuming the Royal body when she has an encounter with the Queen:

I passed my eyes over her as a cannibal views his dinner, my gaze sharp enough to pick the meat off her bones … And I felt sorry then. I wanted to apologise. I wanted to say: it’s nothing personal, it’s monarchy I’m staring at.

The Mail can't identify that mix of sympathy and savagery with its own methods (maybe because it only really has the savagery), so it alchemises Mantel's subtle critique into a woman-beware-woman narrative. Kate on the right, doe-eyed and beaming softly; Mantel on the left, middle-aged and round-faced, menacing the poor princess. Choose your side: Team Mantel or Team Middleton. Well, if the Mail insists. I've never been all that fond of well-behaved princesses anyway. I'm with Mantel.

 

Hilary Mantel. Portrait by Leonie Hampton for the New Statesman

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.