The Golden Age of Grumps

The air is thick with semi-comical expletives as another writer and performer advances his career by playing the grumpiness game. Promoting his new book, Anger Management for Beginners, Giles Coren granted the Independent on Sunday’s Matthew Bell an interview which consisted of a minute’s worth of swearing about publishers, publicists and his busy, busy life before storming off to his next gig. Giles would soon be appearing on the radio, “hungover and crapulent” according to his blog, and would then be talking – or, rather, “raging” – at the Hay Festival.  It is a living, I suppose. Over-the-top, camp rage, directed at anything and everything, is a good way of shifting units, whether they are books, TV programmes or evenings at the theatre. The idea for Coren’s book – or, at least, its sales pitch – was inspired by an angry email he sent to a sub-editor on The Times who had treated his prose with less respect than he felt it deserved. The email was leaked on to the internet in the accidentally-on-purpose modern way, and a publisher or agent spotted an opportunity for the burgeoning angry-man market.


It would be silly to be grumpy about grumpiness. Hitching one’s wagon to the fad of the moment is what writers and comedians do. As Coren promotes his angry book, he may well be appearing in the same towns as the never-ending theatrical tour of Grumpy Old Women (“a bellyful of new grumps and handy hints on getting through these hard times the grumpy way”). Most evening TV schedules will feature yet another angle on the tired, yet enduringly popular format of celebrities whingeing mock-seriously about modern life.


Such is showbusiness, but what a depressing insight it provides into the prevailing mindset of our culture. Most decades of recent history are associated with a mood – greed, ego, hedonism, vulgarity, rebelliousness – but none, surely, is quite as dispiriting as this celebration of miserablism, this elevation of tetchiness into something interesting and stylish. The second half of the 20th century had its share of fictional enragés, from John Osborne’s Jimmy Porter to Basil Fawlty or the Michael Douglas character in the film Falling Down, but now the grump is Everyman. Celebrities who wish to point up their humanity and individuality simply join the chorus of public wailers and whingers.


The grumpy culture, of course, has nothing to do with real rebellion. It represents the very opposite – a supine sense of frustrated entitlement. The battle-cry of the hero created by Paddy Chayefsky for the 1976 film Network was: “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take this any more.” Today’s equivalent, articulated with as many swearwords as possible, is not a call to action but a call to moan: “Something really should be done about this.” The grumps, whether they are in front of a TV camera or writing at a computer, are not expressing defiance but defeatism. They are accepting that we now live in a society in which, if something goes wrong, it is safe and sensible to blame somebody else for it – the government, politicians, the EU, the system, bureaucrats, bankers, the chattering classes.


The idea that, if something annoys or distresses you, then it is within your power to take action, even if it is only on a small scale within your neighbourhood, has withered on the vine. It is easier to sit around in a futile, fat-bottomed way and to complain about it. For that reason David Cameron’s brave but hopelessly optimistic idea of a “Big Society” was always doomed. The suggestion that people should do something for their community was greeted everywhere with a surly cynicism. Doing things was the job of politicians, wasn’t it? Why should we bother?


The grumpy culture lets everyone off the hook. Those in power, comfortable that moaning is a substitute for action, have their authority confirmed and strengthened. Writers get work, spreading spoors of discontentment. And the public laugh in a mood of enfeebled, hand-wringing impotence.

Independent, Tuesday, 1 June 2010