There are times when I wonder if I’m awake at all – when the more plausible explanation for the state of the world seems to be that I’m midway through a particularly bizarre dream. One such occasion was when I learned that TV writer Steven Knight was in talks over a ballet version of his inter-war Birmingham gangster drama, Peaky Blinders.
And another came about an hour ago when an old mate of mine, who tweets anonymously under the name @protooptimism, pointed out that the phrase “gammon tendency” is used in Dickens to refer to, well, roughly the same sort of jingoism that popular political meme “gammon” is used to refer to now.
It’s chapter 16 of Nicholas Nickleby, first published in 1838, where the phrase appears. The scene is the Westminster office of Mr Gregsbury, an MP who’s described as “a tough, burly, thick-headed gentleman, with a loud voice, a pompous manner, a tolerable command of sentences with no meaning in them, and, in short, every requisite for a very good member indeed”.
A number of Gregsbury’s constituents have shown up, infuriated by his recent conduct, and are calling on him to resign. Gregsbury’s defence is, in short, that whatever terrible behaviour he may have indulged in was the result of nothing more than loving his country too much:
“‘My conduct, Pugstyles,’ said Mr Gregsbury, looking round upon the deputation with gracious magnanimity —‘my conduct has been, and ever will be, regulated by a sincere regard for the true and real interests of this great and happy country. Whether I look at home, or abroad; whether I behold the peaceful industrious communities of our island home: her rivers covered with steamboats, her roads with locomotives, her streets with cabs, her skies with balloons of a power and magnitude hitherto unknown in the history of aeronautics in this or any other nation — I say, whether I look merely at home, or, stretching my eyes farther, contemplate the boundless prospect of conquest and possession — achieved by British perseverance and British valour — which is outspread before me, I clasp my hands, and turning my eyes to the broad expanse above my head, exclaim, “Thank Heaven, I am a Briton!”’
This goes down about as well as it would if Liam Fox tried it, which he almost certainly will before long, and it’s at that point that an observer notes that Gregsbury is a bit, well, gammon:
“The time had been, when this burst of enthusiasm would have been cheered to the very echo; but now, the deputation received it with chilling coldness. The general impression seemed to be, that as an explanation of Mr Gregsbury’s political conduct, it did not enter quite enough into detail; and one gentleman in the rear did not scruple to remark aloud, that, for his purpose, it savoured rather too much of a ‘gammon’ tendency.”
As with many of those described using this term, however, Gregsbury is confused by the insult:
“‘The meaning of that term — gammon,’ said Mr Gregsbury, ‘is unknown to me. If it means that I grow a little too fervid, or perhaps even hyperbolical, in extolling my native land, I admit the full justice of the remark. I AM proud of this free and happy country. My form dilates, my eye glistens, my breast heaves, my heart swells, my bosom burns, when I call to mind her greatness and her glory.’”
So: 180 years ago, the 26 year old Charles Dickens was already using the word “gammon” to describe a large, self-satisfied, middle aged man who professes an extreme patriotism in large part to disguise his essential selfishness and corruption.
Either Dickens was a prophet, or I am literally dreaming.
UPDATE: Correspondents tell me that the word “gammon” was actually a Victorian slang term, which translates, roughly, as “bullshit”. Interpreting it in this as a man pushing a certain type of jingoism is Gregsbury’s alone. So, there you go.