Whatever happened to the knightly lads?

Is the only thing to look forward to the past?

History is a pretty place. Sure enough, the fields were soaked with blood, inequality was worse than it is in modern-day Brazil, life expectancy was about 25 and the streets were plagued by, well, plague, but it was populated almost entirely with heroes.

Bands of valiant men rode majestically across vast expanses of wilderness bordered by evergreens and castles that stood as stone testaments to the charming mix of nobility and fear that characterised the heart of every character deemed worthy of chronicling.

The odd spot of butchering went on, of course, but it was done with the type of courtesy, politeness and sense of order markedly lacking from today’s society.

They were punctual too, these knights. Those pre-battle scenes so beloved of film-makers, where the two sides stand facing each other before the fun begins didn’t happen because they were being held up by late-comers – it was because they had all assembled five minutes early and were patiently waiting for kick-off.

Even after all but the most inbred were done with the bothersome business of killing each other via the medium of organised slaughter, and had swapped their grass-fringed domiciles for life in the cities, chivalric courtesy obstinately refused to die out. Instead it evolved, into wearing dapper top hats and helping ladies into and out of carriages. Even the thieves were courteous; pickpockets may have run off with your wallet, but they still called you sir while doing so. 

Yet fast-forward to the here and now and decorous language is the last thing on the mind of the hoodie commandeering your mobile phone and spitting on your shoes. Open any paper, talk to any man, woman or Radio 4 listener, and the evidence is clear: chivalry is dead. It perished in a cultural war that also claimed the scalps of valiancy, courteousness, honour, politeness, punctuality, common decency, nobility and gentlemanly conduct. 

It’s a war that’s left society in one hell of a mess. When they’re not shooting either smack or each other, feral youths terrorise shopping centres with their cult-like clothing and chains hanging menacingly from their ill-fitting excuses for trousers. The back row of every double-decker bus in the country is now the property of an unruly gang communicating in a strange, pseudo-human language and armed with a poisonous arsenal of discordant ringtones. It’s got so bad that the adult generations would probably be moved to do something about it, were they not all constantly pissed and fighting outside nightclubs. The disease of binge-drinking (which I believe is now classed as anything more than half a shandy every fortnight) is now extravagantly epidemic. 

As a member of the House of Lords put it: “In every part of this great metropolis whoever shall pass along the streets will find wretchedness stretched upon the pavement, insensible and motionless… These liquors not only infatuate the mind but poison the body; they not only fill our streets with madness and our prisons with criminals, but our hospitals with cripples.” 

Except, of course, that was Lord Lonsdale… speaking in 1743. One with greater research patience than me could no doubt collect similar ‘gone to the dogs’ stories all the way back to the discovery of fermentation. After all, ‘gone to the dogs’ is itself a product of medieval baronial banquets. 

The truth is that bar a few exceptional sectors we’re as bastardly, as belligerent and as bibulous as we’ve ever been. 

General decorum has only ever existed in an elite, save where it furthers personal aims elsewhere. Looking at the eras where literacy resided only in certain select quarters, everything appears that bit prettier: if heroes write the history, then the history tends to be heroic. Nowadays, however, anyone can get published, even if they’re called Jade, or Wayne, or have more in common with plankton than princeliness. 

As governments have become oh-so-irritatingly aware of the politics of fear, and as the communication revolution has burrowed into our brains with a gusto the meanness of which will probably never be fully understood, the underlying absence of good form has shone through with a murky hue. It’s probably no more dangerous than it was 50 years ago to leave your doors open or to let your kids grow up in a manner less geared towards imbuing them with future psychological weaknesses, but what’s the point of having kids at all if you can’t lose all sense of perspective over their welfare following isolated incidents framed by the front page of the Daily Mail? If you really loved your kids, you too would protect their eyes from conkers and demand that every paedophile in the vicinity be named, shamed and beaten half to death with a bag full of door knobs. 

The average human being’s ability to assess risk in a manner befitting a multi-cellular organism will never be anything more than risible, so a complete ignorance of the risks that require assessing would arguably be something of a societal boon. 

However, denying people the choice to be rubbish is ignoble in itself. It’s the doctrine of delusional cruelness so beloved of New Labour, and like all the best New Labour doctrines it is nothing more than a mask. Banning Nuts and Zoo, swearing on the television and 50 Cent won’t make anyone less swinish. And where would such a thing end? The world today is in undoubtedly finer shape now that the works of Henry Miller are as liberated as their content. That he may corrupt the odd fellow isn’t the fault of the writer, but of the reader. 

And regardless of how entertaining such a spectacle would be, the heads of Wade, Dacre, Wallace and their supposedly high-brow brethren don’t really deserve to be put on the block for giving people what they’ve been driven to desire. 

Similarly, there are many things to be said in favour of corporal punishment. It kept the kids in line and taught them how to spell separate and use apostrophes appropriately. And in politics, it’s better to be feared than loved, whatever huggy Cameron thinks. 

However, what discipline teaches in terms of respect for authority, it stymies elsewhere, especially with regard to creativity. 

‘Society’ used to come with quotation marks and a touch of Evelyn Waugh; now it comes with a police vigilance warning and a battered copy of The Da Vinci Code. But why, we may ask, is this so? Is it merely a question of advertising? Is it simply because media moguls are more intimate with the baser side of society, or is there something more? 

Nietzsche once wrote that: 

“Good manners disappear in proportion to the slackening of the influence of the court and of a closed aristocracy: one can observe this decline from decade to decade if one keeps an eye on public behaviour, which is plainly growing more and more plebeian.” 

He wrote that in 1878. God knows what our moustachioed German nutcase would make of things all these decades later. 

Nietzsche’s “slackening of the influence of the court and of a closed aristocracy” comes coupled with the rise of the influence of the democratic ideal, best expressed through universal suffrage. In the past no one paid attention to the masses because they didn’t mean anything. Then some fool gave them the vote and we ended up with the News of the World, Big Brother and the rebarbative rasp of June Sarpong. 

Universal suffrage is also directly responsible for the evolution-defyingly slow uptake of ideas and innovations among those with the power to do anything with them. Base ideas are much easier to comprehend and share with other people for the purposes of feeling that bit less pathetic. It’s much easier to make judgements based on image or the rude words of some limpid loudmouth operating in an intellectual Sahara than it is to bother with the actual details. “The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache.” 

With everyone programmed to put personal good above greater good, and consequently to not care all that much if everything starts to go heinously wrong, trying to shepherd the herd down avenues for advancement is something of a waste of time. These are the days of Bush, not Jefferson: human society doesn’t want progress, it wants placebos and palliatives (so long as they can make use of the progress later, of course). 

There is, thankfully, an upside to all this. However depressing such a comparison may be, think to yourself this: in a hundred years’ time, which one – Thomas or George – will be the most widely quoted (outside of jokes)? Which one will have the greatest influence? 

Like classical music, good things have a habit of surviving, precisely because the grubby hands of ephemeral popularity want nothing to do with them. James Blunt will outsell Beethoven this year, and possibly for most of the next few years as well. But only one will still be being listened to as little as twenty years from now. 

Furthermore, very few great men have ever found fame in their own time. Today’s heroes are here, but they’ll only be properly appreciated when the rest of the world catches up enough to look past Big Brother and see what these folks were on about, at which point they’ll be praised rather than distrusted. 

In the meantime, throw away the papers, pick up a penguin classic and relax. Look to the future, for when you are old, these just may be the good old days.

  1. Mark Green said:

    “Valiancy”??? I remember, back when I was a boy, when good bloggers would use the word “valour”. Such days are gone now, ‘twould appear.

  2. Paul said:

    Maybe so, but we’re not at war anymore.

  3. chris y said:

    But in future new issues of the Vikki Cross (TM) will be cast from the metal of an unexploded cluster bomb found somewhere near Basra, and inscribed “For Valiancy”.