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Out, Damned Lout

Tuesday, February 1, 2005
Digby Anderson.
All Oiks Now: The Unnoticed Surrender of Middle England.
Social Affairs Unit. 92 pages. $22.50.

All Oiks Now: The Unnoticed Surrender of Middle England, by Digby Anderson of the Social Affairs Unit, a London think tank, is little bigger than a pamphlet — 92 pages, including a number of full-page cartoons. It is a pamphlet, too, in its function and style. The thing begs to be handed out on street corners. It is no accident that a British critic tarred Anderson as a “Jeremiah.” All Oiks is a tirade, good- natured but also deadly serious, against unwitting facilitators of social and cultural decline.

Discussing the everyday behavior of Englishmen in pubs, supermarkets, shopping malls, health clubs, and so on, Anderson marks and warns against a trend away from what he views as peculiarly English virtues and toward brutishness. He fears that England is capitulating to the “oiks.” Yet Digby’s Grand Remonstrance is not just for the Brits. All that he describes of manners and attitudes in his country is applicable to our own. For Americans the book may be a warning shot: What is happening Over There could happen here, too.
What is an oik? Anderson provides a glossary, presumably for his stateside audience. An oik is “a cad, an ignorant, inferior person (colloquial), a chap, bloke (slightly derogatory)” (Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary). Only slightly derogatory? The word may come from “hoik, to spit” (Dictionary of Slang); it may refer to “one who pronounces ‘i’ as ‘oi’” (Online Dictionary of Playground Slang). It is certainly nothing good: Oink springs to mind.
Anderson clearly wishes to be thought a little batty, if only because it makes his writing more amusing. His pronouncements seem to be made ex cathedra from the old curmudgeon’s rocking chair — we can picture him brandishing a cane at this horrible spectacle, oik “culture.” British reviewers skeptical of Anderson’s thesis have attacked his disapproving tone and stylistic quirks. They have also avoided engagement with the argument they underscore. That critical response, though understandable, is every bit as distressing as the argument itself.

The book opens with a paean to (now white-handkerchief-waving) Middle England: “It was a minority but a sizeable one and it could be relied on to behave and vote consistently in favour of independence, self-reliance, traditional values especially with regard to the family, and against high taxes, trade unions, foreigners and perverts.” Further, Middle Englanders “exerted strong discipline over their children. They valued orderliness, punctuality, decency, modesty, reticence, amateurishness, deferment of gratification, moderate religion, saving, small shops and speaking properly.”

Anderson makes no attempt to soft-pedal the fact that Middle England was, in a word, “square” — and he agrees that it was the expected thing for any intellectual, radical, or yob to set himself in opposition to it. Yet he is convinced that “some of those who used to ridicule Middle England, secretly rather liked it, or, at least, liked its continued obstinate existence. They . . .  were emboldened to call for its annihilation safe in the knowledge that it would always be there. Well, it’s now gone.” The cloistering gates of traditional culture have opened, leaving the oik free to roam and graze as he pleases. Middle Englanders “have now gone in the sense that they are no longer socially significant.” They still exist, in diminished numbers, but they lack the confidence to assert their culture. Paralyzed by a malignant cowardice, they now either keep out of the public eye or ape the ways of the oik.
This surrender, says Anderson, can be seen in any number of the public spaces that once were the domain of Middle England. A tragic example is the church: “The c of e was the Established Church and the church of the established values. . . . There, until the 1970s you could hear the voice of moderate middle-class values in Received Pronunciation perhaps a retired major and a local solicitor as sidesmen and the gp’s wife reading the lesson.” Now, he says, the Anglican church is just another liberal mouthpiece; the ad-libbed intercessions are “careless, second-rate tosh”; and sentimentality — anathema to old Middle England — is the “central characteristic of the entire service.” Nobody protests this. For that matter, nobody even turns off his cell phone.
The pub is another of Anderson’s indicators. He recalls when establishments like The Red Lion or The Coach and Horses were havens for middle-class sociability (“largely male and to an extent adult”). That time is gone, for “when opposing cultural forces introduce musack, vulgarity, lefty opinions, bad language and aftershave, the [middle-class regulars] feel still weaker and retreat again. The retreat ends at home, in front of the television, with a gin and tonic whose measures are monitored by the wife.” Thus is (male) Middle England exiled from what once was its primary social and leisure channel. Pubs are now infested with noisome, bibulous youth.
At the supermarket, where Middle England valued shopping lists, meal planning, and price comparison, the oik is lazy and impulsive: “stewing beef cooked in wine may take two minutes to make ready the ingredients but it will need to be cooked anything from four hours to two days before it is needed. What easy foods allow, then, is not so much time as freedom from the need to think and plan about food.” In the London Spectator, James Delingpole took issue with Anderson’s beef stew claim. “It takes at least two minutes,” he wrote, “just to trim off the fat and the gristly bits. . . . Even on cocaine or amphetamine sulphate, neither of which I imagine Anderson takes, I doubt you could prepare a beef in wine stew in much less than half an hour.”
This is the sort of hair-splitting protestation that grates on the sympathetic reader of All Oiks Now. We know the book is a very skillful piece of anti-oik propaganda, and as such we should expect it to get carried away, to hector us a bit. It is not satire, quite, but it looks at the state of things with satire’s gaze — a gaze that cannot help magnifying as it scrutinizes.
Granted, many of Anderson’s examples of cultural decline do seem trivial and have been derided accordingly. Delingpole’s review was titled “The death of the shopping list,” which sums up his dismissal of Anderson’s complaints. A leader in the London Observer (May 9, 2004) mocked: “Give those monstrously ill-behaved children a pat on the head and dance along to the new polychromatic mobile phone rings. Middle England is dead. Rejoice.” The implication is that the unpleasant trivia of modern life do not add up to a trend. (If they do, it isn’t a negative one, only a new and different and perhaps even exciting one.) Still, failure to address the little symptoms that Anderson bemoans portends that Britain may wake up one morning to an irreversible cultural illness. American baby boomers sneered at their parents’ “irrational” fear of rock music and scandalous new fashions. Now, years later, many of them are scratching their heads and wondering at the blight that is today’s popular culture. The cultural shift didn’t happen overnight, but they are reacting as though it had.

Surely a book like All Oiks, rewritten for an American audience, would receive roughly the same sneering notice, but in the long run it would be every bit as welcome. What might we title it? We lack a word as comprehensively, inclusively insulting as “oik.” Our cultural put-downs tend to refer narrowly to things like dress and musical taste rather than to patterns of behavior. Consider the odious (and, thankfully, almost defunct) term “wigger.” Its etymology needs no explanation. It is cocked at a white person who pretends to “blackness,” who listens to hip-hop music and wears its associated fashions; but it does not necessarily imply that such a person acts in the brutish manner celebrated by much of that music. To be called a “wigger” is to be called a poseur. It is a criticism of style, not an indictment of behavior. By the same token, to be called a “redneck” is to stand accused of wearing flannel shirts and enjoying NASCAR — the term does not call one’s morals into question.

This is not insignificant. It reveals that Americans are primed for a message like Anderson’s because they are accustomed to focusing on details, outward signs. London Times critic Alexandra Frean accuses Anderson of “focusing on superficial displays of behaviour, manners, and dress.” These are precisely the sorts of things on which Americans like to focus.
Anderson decries the phenomenon, every bit as visible in our country as in his, of the older generation trying to act like the younger. “The fads of the young,” he writes, “are often tiresome and ugly. But far worse than any sartorial absurdities young people themselves may exhibit are those which occur when middle-aged and elderly people act as if they were young. . . . There is something pathetic about oldies using the argot of the young . . . pretending to know about and like the latest awful tune that is popular with the young.”
To a critic like Alexandra Frean, Anderson’s complaint about “mutton dressed as lamb” will seem like the whining of a dogmatic aesthete. Yet everyone senses, however vaguely, the truth of the matter: The refusal to dress, as Frean puts it, in “dull sweaters and sensible shoes” is the outward sign of a refusal to accept one’s age and, in some cases, one’s responsibilities. If that sign becomes acceptable, how long before frivolity and immaturity are acceptable as well? Could it be that Anderson is not, as the Observer called him, one of the “rheumy-eyed peddlers of nostalgia,” but rather an uncommonly clear-eyed interpreter of subtle signs?
The contention that Anderson lingers too long on trivial problems brings to mind the “broken windows” theory, transformed into policy by Rudy Giuliani: Crack down on minor crimes like vandalism and the graver ones will taper off as well. That theory proved true in New York, and as a result the city is cleaner and safer than many other urban centers. What Brits and Americans need now is a similar zero-tolerance approach to the worst elements of the current culture. Oiks are everywhere, whether one looks to Brighton on a bank holiday or to Coney Island on the Fourth of July. We Americans may have our own names for them, but ours are of the same species — of the same genus, at least — as the British ones. In Anderson’s somewhat over-the-top view, the cultural cost of letting them multiply is akin to the cost of ignoring a plague of locusts. Anderson’s real flaw is his pessimism — and it is not entirely a flaw, as it leavens his prose with a grouchy humor: He believes that Middle England will never return. He may be correct to conclude that it will never return in its former incarnation, but there is no reason to doubt that a backlash against “oikishness” is possible and perhaps imminent. With the proper zeal and initiative, the trend toward loutish behavior in America could be slowed or reversed too.