Lucy Wadham: "Class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone"

The Books Interview.

Your book Heads and Straights is part of the “Penguin Lines” series, which celebrates the 150th anniversary of the London Underground. Why did you choose the Circle Line?
I was floored when Penguin asked me to write about the Tube but I knew I had to do it. When I thought about the various lines, I realised the only one I knew anything about was the Circle Line, because I’d been brought up near it. I also liked the metaphor, the paradox, of the circle and the line.

There were a number of key events in the life of my family, in my grandmother’s life in particular, that had happened near Circle Line stops. One of my sisters, when she found out about the project, said: “Of course, that’s the posh line.” And immediately there were alarm bells going off in my head, because I’d very carefully managed to elude questions of class in my writing.

You’ve lived in France for over 25 years. Is class handled differently there?
It still feels to me, every time I come back to Britain, that class is this great, open wound that nobody can leave alone – and, in a way, that it isn’t in France. In this country, class provides endless fodder for television programmes and newspaper articles; you don’t get that in France.

You write about returning to the King’s Road, where you grew up, and finding it terribly homogeneous. The French like to congratulate themselves for avoiding the worst of globalisation, don’t they?
They do. Though Paris hasn’t avoided becoming a museum. And Paris has a homogeneity of its own, doesn’t it? It has done since [the renovation of the city by Georges-Eugène] Haussmann in the mid-19th century. But yes, France has definitely avoided the homogeneity of unbridled capitalism.

How would you describe your relationship with London now?
There were two opportunities that were offered to me by this book: one was to look back at my relationship with Britain and London in particular; the other was to look at my relationship with family. In both cases, it became clear to me that I’d been running away from them for a long time.

Your grandmother sounds remarkable – she met Virginia Woolf when she was a child.
I’ve searched high and low in Woolf’s letters for any mention of Gran! The thing you have to remember about my grandmother is that she had a very loose relationship with the truth. So she could have made it up. I like to think she didn’t but she may well have.

My mother always warned my sisters and I to be careful in our understanding of what Gran told us about her life. I think the gap between my grandmother’s loquacity about her life and the restraint and silence of my mother is partly what made me – as a child and an adolescent – very eager to know the truth, to dig for psychological explanations.

It made you a writer, in other words?
Yes.

You organise the book around the distinction between “heads” and “straights”. The interesting thing about this distinction is that it’s not generational.
Not only does it slice across generations, it slices across class. I think that was the usefulness of it as a label for my rebellious sisters in the early 1970s – they could elude the distinctions of class by categorising people in that way.

Your parents, by contrast, were straights, weren’t they?
They were. They were definitely straights. My father liked to live dangerously but I think it was very important for us to believe he was a straight – but actually, with hindsight, I’m not sure he was.

A lot of people of their generation woke up to the excitement of the 1960s, belatedly, in the 1970s. They were clawing to recapture a touch of experimentation and excess. My parents were definitely in that category. But then, suddenly, it was too late – suddenly, you were looking at Thatcher and the party was over.

Lucy Wadham’s “Heads and Straights” is published by Particular Books (£4.99)

Lucy Wadham.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Special Issue

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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.