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Friday, 5 October, 2001, 15:41 GMT 16:41 UK
Oi! You! Read this!
Anne Robinson
It's national courtesy day
In a high-minded attempt to improve the nation's manners, the Polite Society has declared today to be a national day of courtesy, writes BBC News Online's Chris Horrie.

The campaign, led by optician Simon Poole, claims that being polite is very much part of the British way of life.

But, oh dear, Mr Poole - you are WRONG. In fact you are the Weakest Link. Goodbye!

The peoples of the UK are among the rudest on earth. We have a long and brilliant tradition of insulting each other.

Only the XXXXing Australians are better it at than us.

Our most popular TV shows - The Weakest Link, EastEnders, Newsnight - consist almost entirely of carefully crafted insults and wounding one-liners.

Grossly offensive

All a TV soap has to do is introduce a Mr Nasty type character who goes round saying things like "shut your gob", and the ratings double.

And it is not just the low-brow stuff which is so rude.


Thou loathed issue of thy father's loins

Shakespeare - Richard III
England's national poet Shakespeare is the acknowledged grand master of the cutting put-down.

One American academic has worked out that it is possible to derive 125,000 "grossly offensive" insults from Shakespeare's works. They include tremendous put-downs such as "thou art a flapmouthed clotpole", "onion-eyed foot-licker" and the devastating "craven elf-skinned bum-bailey".

Blackadder

The Puritans banned Shakespeare and were notoriously polite - avoiding the Falstaffian urge to break wind in public and always being careful to say "please" and "thank you" when burning witches at the stake.


Your virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese

Shakespeare - All's Well that Ends Well
But not even the Roundheads (or later, the Victorians) could stamp out the national trait of extreme rudeness which went through a glorious revival in the 17th Century.

English letters in the age of Blackadder III provided the world with some of the most lovingly crafted put-downs ever uttered.

"You sir, are not fit, sir, to stand upon the pile of dung which it has been the purpose of your life to excrete!" was not an untypical way of greeting a total stranger.

This might bring a witty riposte along the lines of: "And you, sir, are not fit, sir, to drink from the spittoon kept in your wife's bordello" followed by an invitation to duel (generally turned down).

These days it is fashionable to the blame the mass media for being too rude, especially to the Royal Family.


It's not writing, it's typing

Truman Capote's one-line review of Jack Kerouac's On the Road
But the tabloids of today can't hold a candle to the popular press of the early 19th Century.

They used to call King William "Pineapple Head" and printed lurid tales of congress with goats in the royal palaces.

At the same time the art of the political cartoon, developed by professional insult-mongers like Gilray and Hogarth, would probably be outlawed today by the obscene publications act. Politicians eating excrement was a common theme.

Politicians in those days could dish out the insults too - at least the good ones.

Evil

Various political monsters down the years on the other hand have been models of decorum. Joseph Stalin, for example, was famously well-mannered and meticulously correct in his dealings with underlings.


Former chancellor Denis Healey: Savage wit
Then he would have them sent to a labour camp and shot.

The tradition of the literary insult has continued against the tide of modern politeness and political correctness, kept alive by acid wits like Dorothy Parker, Gore Vidal and Bernard Manning.

Meanwhile the tide of politeness has spread to all areas of public life.

You may not get the treatment you want in many hospitals nowadays, but you will get a lovely letter from some customer relations-type executive telling you why not and possibly inviting you to "have a nice day".

Still ugly

Winston Churchill was the last prime minister to regularly use extremely hurtful insults (in public) as a matter of course.


Methink'st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee

Shakespeare - All's Well that Ends Well
When the MP Bessie Braddock accused him of being drunk in the House of Commons, he famously confessed that yes, he was drunk, but added that he would be sober in the morning while Ms Braddock would still be ugly.

Denis Healey once likened being attacked by Geoffrey Howe to being like savaged by a dead sheep during a speech in the House of Commons. The remark did more for public interest in democracy than the entire 2001 general election campaign.

Thanks to the massed ranks of the politically correct and the promoters of good manners, it is unlikely that any public figure would get away with that sort of thing today.

See also:

22 May 00 | UK
So, how rude are you?
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