IT WAS separation from his wife which in 1974 brought the Welsh political columnist Alan Watkins to the first-floor Islington flat of his son, and thereby to the acquaintance of the Telegraph columnist Frank Johnson, who occupied the floor below. Out of the friendship between this witty pair came the popularization of the phrase “the chattering classes,” to designate that portion of the bourgeoisie which earns its daily bread by talking. This week one is likely to summon the well-remunerated speaker and federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in that connection, and in doing so an opportunity arises to look into this important matter of verbal performance — not only as it pertains to the aspiring Trudeau but to his category of persons in general.
In the time and place of Watkins’ prime, Fleet Street of the early 1970s, there could be found quite good specimens of the professional chatterer, usually in the nearby bars where Watkins could be found among other booze soaked journalists. Henry Fairlie was one. A superb writer, and a master of invective, Fairlie at his best recalled H. L. Mencken’s high standard of verbal brilliance. Around this time Watkins acquired a column at the Observer, where at the end of each year he composed his satirical faux-Augustan Master Alan Watkins’ Almanack, “written for the reformation of Manners, the advancement of Religion, and the universall improvement of the human Race.” Watkins died in 2010, and as is the case with Fairlie and Mencken, no one quite like him is writing today.
It was a nice touch of satire, the Master Alan Watkins’ Almanack, but one notices that the knife is in fact two sided and capable of cutting both ways. Politicians belong to the chattering class, but so too the newspaper columnist. The mock seriousness of a campaign for “universall improvement” lampoons not only the earnest public service do-gooder, but the journalist who imagines himself the brave defender of freedom and democracy. In other words it is not the chatter itself which is the principal occasion of the insult, but the personal vanity and the do-gooderism which fuels it. How well this describes the ever-earnest Justin Trudeau, who locates the value-for-money of his speechifying in a vague and self-congratulatory activism. Meanwhile some of us in the newspaper business react with outrage, knowing it is every lowly scribbler’s innermost fantasy to join the dollars-per-word elite into which Trudeau tumbled as a birthright.
As Micheal Kinsley has noted, it is what’s legal that is the scandal, and Trudeau’s collection of speaking fees while the Papineau Member of Parliament has broken no rules nor perhaps even any conventions. The fees themselves are enormous by working-class standards, but in the chattering world where talk may be anything but cheap, paycheques of six digits for a speech are not unheard of. Only good taste and discretion, and apparently not parliamentary dictates, may discourage the taking of money — especially public money — from charities and not-for-profits, by government officials already fed on the public dollar. And would it make a moral difference had Trudeau enriched rather than impoverished causes on whose behalf he was enlisted?
There are many more questions of this sort, all leaping into the grey, but I began with this notion of chattering in order to end with it also. For it’s impossible to reflect on the rhetoric of earlier eras without registering the decline, whether on the side of journalism or of politics. Even “rhetoric” — at one time a subject of education, as was the related study of debate — is now itself an insult, as are many words having to do with the difficult attainment of urbanity, verbal wit and style. Facetious, previously an agreeable term meaning “polished,” is a primary example.
Now the chattering classes have ceased to take even their chattering seriously. Why should they take it seriously, in an age when character is supplanted by celebrity, and when the path to the top is through the careful management of perception rather than the marshalling and assertion of substance? Twenty thousand dollars will purchase an hour of Trudeau’s easy aw-shucks flattery and good vibes, and an endless kissing of the feet of an idealized middle class. What it won’t buy you (and this really is a shame) is a top-notch verbal performance. So much for the chattering classes.