Frat boys of the 18th century

Along the way, in his Guardian essay on the nature of "Britishness," Rafael Behr makes Vic Gatrell's City of Laughter sound like a lot of filthy fun:

"Students of this nobody's-got-any-respect-anymore school of hand-wringing should read City of Laughter, Vic Gatrell's study of humour in the 18th century. The primary subject of Gatrell's prodigious research is the trade in satirical prints that circulated in Georgian London. But City of Laughter is also an intimate portrait of what was then the biggest, noisiest, smelliest and most exuberant city in the world. The print industry fed a hearty public appetite for scandal, grotesque caricature, gossip and smut, from which we get a pretty good sense of what sort of place the capital was: not unlike the noisy, smelly, exuberant, smutty place it is today.

Gatrell doesn't draw explicit parallels, but they leap off the page anyway. The obsession with sex and celebrity, the love of drunkenness for its own sake, the libertinage, the traffic jams, the ribaldry and all the indiscretion that is the cultural stamp of 21st-century Britain - they aren't a deviation from some more discreet and serious-minded course of historic Britishness, they are themselves antique. They are vintage Regency fun. Modern Britain even has, in Harry Windsor, its own equivalent of the Prince Regent, the simple-minded toffee-nosed oaf with the taste for pleasure and the habit of getting his picture in scurrilous papers. If anything, today's tabloid paparazzi are kinder to our royals than the 18th-century satirical cartoonists were to theirs."

December 19, 2006 2:41 PM |



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