March 3, 2020

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I own many books of quotations, but almost certainly my favourite is one — long out of print — which I have had on my shelves for more than 30 years. Edited by Jon Winokur, it’s called The Portable Curmudgeon (subtitle: “A cross word for every occasion”). It contains the highest proportion of lean meat to fat of any such book. Alphabetised by subject, from “Abortion” to “Youth” via “French Fries”, “Method Acting” and (shudder) “Progress”, it offers an omnium gatherum of well-expressed, bad-tempered good sense.

So it is to this volume that I turned in dismay when reading a recent article in the American Conservative, of all places, which ticked C S Lewis off for being (in the words of a blogger the author quoted) a “get-off-my-lawn, wide-jawed, beslippered, well-aged, first class curmudgeon.” The article seemed to think that this was a bad thing.

On its title page, my Portable Curmudgeon offers the following definition:

Curmudgeon n

1) archaic: a crusty, ill-tempered, churlish old man

2) modern: anyone who hates hypocrisy and pretence and has the temerity to say so; anyone with the habit of pointing out unpleasant facts in an engaging and humorous manner.

Here, I think, is the nub of it. The curmudgeon is someone who instinctively resists: resists change, resists bright ideas, resists sentimentality, resists anything good-looking that presents itself as progress.

And consider the canon of literary and historical curmudgeons: Cassandra. H L Mencken. Ebenezer Scrooge. Eeyore. Dorothy Parker. Thomas Hobbes. Evelyn Waugh. Statler and Waldorf. Diogenes. Plato. Kingsley Amis. Victor Meldrew. Severus Snape. J G Ballard. Marvin the Paranoid Android. And R S Thomas — who as well as being a first-rate poet was probably the last man on the British mainland routinely to shake his fist at passers-by. Existential heroes, all of them.

But there is a peculiar and important shade of attitude to the world implied by curmudgeonry. There is a reason, perhaps, that it often collocates with the term “loveable”. The curmudgeon is not a common-or-garden misanthrope. He or she is not unkind. He or she is not a nihilist or an anarchist or a cynic (except in the sense of that word as being a “disappointed idealist”), though he or she may very often be a reactionary, a badge worn with pride.

Rather, the curmudgeon is a pessimist, whose grumpy outlook is born of long experience, and of the realisation that what good there is in the world has been hard-won and is perpetually vulnerable to the hare-brained schemes of dreamers, utopians, and idiots of every stripe. Kingsley Amis was much pilloried for his reaction to the expansion of higher education: “More will mean worse,” he wrote in Encounter in July 1960. But as the educational establishment now struggles to keep a lid on spiralling costs and — at least as indicated by grade inflations — declining standards, many will think that there was something in what he said.

Donald Trump is bad tempered, sure, but he is the opposite of a true curmudgeon: he fantasises about universal adulation and rages that he doesn’t get it. He fantasises that he can “make America great again”, remake the world in his own image, and is setting about this project with incompetent enthusiasm. The curmudgeon (hence his or her unpopularity) really, honestly, doesn’t give two shits whether or not people like him: he’s too old for all that malarky and his knees hurt. He is not in the market for “virtue-signalling” or “energising his base”. And he doesn’t imagine he can change the world: he simply hopes to apply some brakes to the handcart in which it is going to hell.

The curmudgeon greets the day by wondering “What fresh hell is this?” The curmudgeon greets a stranger by wondering: “What are you trying to sell me?” The curmudgeon greets an exciting new idea by thinking of all the disastrous ways in which it will go wrong. And, given a bit of time, the curmudgeon more often than not turns out to have been right. The financial writer Christopher Fildes, I think it was, who had the theory that financial crises occur whenever the last bank employee old enough to remember the last one retires. That is classic curmudgeon wisdom.

The curmudgeon’s enemies are the faddish go-ahead types — the cosmic-ordering mob, the be-the-best-you-can-be, the motivational speakers and the 12-steppers and the sort of people who buy gadgets from magazines, upgrade their phones whenever a new model comes out and place their trust in voguish diets, branded nutritional supplements and physical exercise. The curmudgeon knows that someone is getting rich off these people, and he does not wish to join their number.

In this respect the curmudgeon is the very praetorian guard of conservatism — not the technocratic, neoliberal sort of Right-wingery that thinks innovation is the answer but the unfashionable, unglamorous sort that thinks, on the whole, that we should — in Belloc’s words — “always keep a-hold of Nurse/ For fear of finding something worse”.

Conservative politics, as our own Ed West points out in his fine new book Small Men on the Wrong Side of History, has its historical origins in the need to resist what was then called religious “enthusiasm”. It has continued to honour that mission, and the curmudgeon has always been at the forefront of resistance to enthusiasm of any sort, religious or otherwise.

Enthusiasts — “dawnists”, as the novelist and biographer Hugh Kingsmill called them — are the ones you want to watch out for. They’re the ones who do the damage, and you can find them on Left and Right alike, with their Five-Year Plans, their Cultural Revolutions, their Thousand-Year Reichs, their Ages of Aquarius. The curmudgeon, rather, takes the line in Melville’s short story “Bartleby, The Scrivener”: “I would prefer not to.”

This is not to say that we need only curmudgeons in our ranks. A society composed entirely of curmudgeons would not advance or evolve at all. Inventions such as the wheel, paper money, universal human rights and the toothbrush would all have been stifled at birth by a chorus of “boo” and “humbug” and “nonsense”, and we’d all have smelly breath and carbuncles and would, in more than a few cases, be in chains.

But a society without a very hefty proportion of curmudgeons is the sort of society that careens down the hill to chaos very fast indeed, and that will, as Peter Cook warned of Britain, “sink giggling into the sea”.

The prime evidence for the prosecution in the article on C S Lewis I mention was Lewis’s essay “Delinquents in the Snow”, in which he grumbled about being under siege from rosy-cheeked carol-singers: as American Conservative puts it, “neighborhood kids who constantly bother him by singing terrible renditions of Christmas carols at his door and expecting money in return. Then, with increasing crankiness, he tells the reader that these are probably the same kids who broke into his shed and stole some stuff recently”.

Lewis has no evidence that these children are the same shed-burglars, the author complains. True enough. But he sees an approach by the carol-industrial complex — exactly the sort of shamelessly monetised sentimentality that blights the modern world — and he refuses to go along with it just to be nice. First it’s carol singers. Next it’s your shed. Lewis knew that, and he was right to resist it.