Many years ago, I asked the late Alan Jay Lerner, author of Camelot, Gigi, My Fair Lady, and much else, why, as a Broadway colossus, he chose to live in London. And he replied that, in his opinion, Britain was the most eminently civilized society on earth.
Even then, his view of “civilized society” seemed somewhat anachronistic. Anecdotes involving Alan tended to end with punch lines like “The Duchess of Windsor’s air conditioning is dripping on my Rolls” (I forget the build-up). Still, even in the Eighties, one could see what he was getting at.
I thought about Lerner the other day when, seeking news of the British election, I chanced to glance at the headlines at the Daily Mail website. Together they formed an epic prose poem of futuristic dystopian sci-fi played by a company of West End trouser-droppers. A snapshot of this scept’red isle on the eve of Saint George’s Day, 2010:
“Nurse who told heart patient to mop up his own urine is free to continue working”
“Grand National trainer robbed of £100,000 by armed raiders who burst into his home”
“A-level student, 17, stabbed to death at home in front of parents ‘was victim of mistaken identity’”
“Soap actress left blind in one eye after being attacked with wine glass in bar row”
“50,000 British women warned their breast implants could explode”
“Council to ban the word ‘obesity’ — so fat children don’t get offended”
“Teenager who blinded man with her stiletto heel in drunken brawl is jailed for 18 months”
“Man suffocates to death after falling into clothes recycling bin”
“Woman, 86, threatened by M&S security staff for eating biscuit in wrong part of the store”
“‘I’m paid too much’ says £213,000-a-year police chief”
You said it. What strikes you about the peculiar combination of drunken depravity, random violence, petty officiousness, and political correctness is the sheer bloody pointlessness of it all. I’ve never much cared for the curious formulation of police spokesmen that this or that brutal murder could be attributed to “a drug deal gone wrong” — as if the world would be a better place if more drug deals went right. But the motivation seems more understandable than in the daily drip feed of Brit tabloid horror stories in which someone is stabbed or blinded or beaten to death simply because the other party was drunk or bored or both. Guns are famously banned in the peaceable kingdom, so predators use whatever’s to hand, whether wine glass or stiletto heel or incendiary breast implant. On the whole, I’d rather be shot than “glassed,” as the local shorthand has it.
#page#Recently, I dined in what, on my last visit some years back, had been a genteel English spa town. I bade farewell to my companions outside the restaurant and walked the short distance to my rental car, whereupon I was accosted by two underdressed young ladies in their late teens giggling and wobbling unsteadily in high heels. They wanted me to give them a lift to a nearby club. I regretted that I was heading in the opposite direction — whatever that was and wherever it led. They then demanded £20 so that they could call a minicab. I demurred. They offered in return to show me their breasts. I declined the offer, so they lifted up their tops and showed me them anyway. I was getting into the car by this point and the girls had seized the door. An elderly couple of near parodic Englishness — tweedy buffer with horsey missus — hurried by, scowling at me as if it were my fault the streets were now choked with topless trollops. Having gotten out the merchandise, the ladies were insisting I pay for it. And, when I showed no inclination to, they accused me of being of a non-heterosexual persuasion.
I started the engine. It was a manual, and, being distracted by the flying curses and jiggling knockers, I stalled the thing. And for a moment I had a horrible vision of the two chavs (in Britspeak) falling on me, glassing me, driving their stiletto heels into my skull, and making off with the car, leaving me to turn up on page 17 of the local paper under the headline “Has-Been Writer Found Dead In ‘Two-Girl Special Gone Tragically Wrong.’” I cast around for a copper, but as is traditional none was in sight. Obviously they don’t show up for public drunkenness or aggravated toplessness, but the ladies’ homophobic remarks would surely have led to an ASBO (Anti-Social Behavior Order) for Section Five hate speech and six months of sensitivity training. As I drove off, one of them banged on the hood while the other yelled, “You’re everything that’s wrong with this country!” Which seemed a bit unfair considering I was on British soil for a mere 72 hours.
If you have to be there longer, it’s more of a problem. In the United Kingdom, “civilized society” cedes turf remorselessly: the highest drug use in Europe, highest incidence of sexually transmitted disease, highest number of single mothers; marriage is all but defunct, except for toffs, upscale gays, and Muslims. Britain’s social disintegration ought to be a major election issue, but the governing class is always the most insulated and thus the last to notice, even when the “underclass” is all over the map. Alan Jay Lerner’s biggest hit concerned a man who took a “creature from the gutter” and transformed her into an English lady. Today, an entire country is downwardly mobile.
If Lerner were still around I’d advise him to forget My Fair Lady and try Clockwork Orange: The Musical.