The Trickster Prince

Matt Houlbrook: mobile historian; beard growing, head shaving; occasional cycling.

Vulgarians from Northern manufacturing towns (1926)

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Reading through some notes as I start work another chapter I came across this gem:

Some men, especially vulgarians from Northern manufacturing towns, like to create the impression that they are wealthy. They loll in their cars, and set fire to enormous cigars, and crack numerous bottles of bubbly, and tip waiters lavishly and openly, and when eating make a noise like a horse at a trough. They haven’t the manners of pigs. (Perhaps I should say that they have!) I confess, without shame, that when I hear of a wealthy vulgarian being swindled by some astute shark I rejoice openly, whole-heatedly and at great length, for I loathe the whole pot-bellied crew of them!

John Goodwin, Crook Pie (London, Alston Rivers, 1926), 152.

Goodwin had been an Assistant Provost Marshall in the Military Police during the Great War. In the 1920s he turned his hand to writing about crime rather than regulating it. As a prolific and proselytizing criminologist. he who sought to make Freudian psychoanalysis accessible to a popular audience. Focusing on the ‘psychology of crime,’ Goodwin ‘endeavored to dissect the mind of the abnormal and apparently normal criminal respectively, treating both subjects from the standpoint of Freud, with whose views I wholeheartedly concur.’

There isn’t much obviously Freudian in this bit of knee-jerk snobbery towards the ‘vulgarians from Northern manufacturing towns’, but it’s an interesting comment on some of the social, cultural and political tensions of 1920s Britain. Dismissing the ‘manners’ and materialism of the northern businessman allows Goodwin to assert the primacy of older notions of status of which the parvenu capitalist remains entirely ignorant. It’s a striking example of how differences of class can be bound up in the minutiae of comportment and bodily conduct. The rest of the paragraph makes it clear that Goodwin’s snobbery also reflects broader unease around the figure of the plutocrat. For commentators on the left and right alike, the businessman who had profited rather than suffered through the Great War became a powerful folk devil in the 1920s. Here, finally, we can see implicit criticism of the aspirations for titles and status that animated the well-known cash for honours scandals of the decade. Just as fixers like Maundy Gregory used the promise of titles to mobilize party political support, so an even shadier group of touts and tricksters sold fake titles for their own financial gain.

Amazing how productive thinking carefully about prejudice can be, isn’t it?

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