A footnote was written in the pages of English social history last week with the announcement that Bamforth’s of Holmfirth is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy.
Bamforth’s was the last surviving manufacturer of the saucy seaside postcard, a unique, century-old British tradition of giggles and smut that met its nemesis in a combination of vulgarity far surpassing anything dreamt of in Edwardian times and the prim, purse-lipped new prudery of political correctness.
The seaside postcard was in a spectrum that stretched from the low humour in Shakespeare’s plays, through the music hall and the Carry On films to the Two Ronnies and Benny Hill. The postcards, subversive in their day, presented a world of impossibly fat ladies clad in tight swimming costumes, weedy men, red-nosed drunks, inept honeymoon couples, naked statues, tyrannical housewives, hen-pecked husbands and falling knickers.
The humour was invariably coarse. One card shows two old ladies seated in front of a photographer stooping at his tripod.
First old lady: “What’s he doing?”
Second old lady: “It’s all right, dear. He’s only going to focus.”
First old lady: “What, both of us?”
There is a building under construction in London that is draped in black tarpaulin and emblazoned with the single gigantic legend “Everyone’s talking FCUK”. Indeed they are, and it is plain to see how the nudging double entendre of the seaside postcard could not survive amid a pervasive vulgarity in which a reluctance routinely to use the F-word is seen as a kind of social failing.
In 1941, George Orwell wrote a celebrated essay, “The art of Donald McGill”, about the doyen of the dirty postcard. He was a master draftsman and a practised exponent of double meaning. One example, cited by Orwell, is captioned “They didn’t believe her”. It shows a young women demonstrating something with her hands held about two feet apart while her two female friends gaze open-mouthed. Behind her is a fish in a glass case and a photograph of a near naked athlete.
Orwell’s thesis is that the seaside postcards were small acts of rebellion against authority and the morality that was the glue of society: “The lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.”
That most of the jokes were obscene evidenced the special importance attached to sexual mores. “A dirty joke is not, of course, a serious attack upon morality, but is a sort of mental rebellion – a momentary wish that things were otherwise,” said Orwell.
Well, today they are. Marriage is under threat; divorce is commonplace; illegitimacy likewise. In a society that is saturated by sex, the dirty joke has nothing against which to rebel and must go the way of one of McGill’s exhausted honeymoon husbands – borne out on a stretcher, spent and exhausted.
Not all the jokes were sexual. Some, said Orwell, had as their subject matter class snobbery – both the “swell” and the slum dweller were thought funny in their different ways. Others used stock figures of fun such as the miserly Scotsman, the swindling lawyer and the nervously idiotic clergyman.
The humour of the picture postcard is anathema to the modern prude because for him and, of course, for her, there is no such thing as sexual obscenity – not since the emancipation bestowed by the Pill. It has been replaced by a raft of new obscenities, most of which were the currency of the old seaside postcards – for example, jokes about fat women, mothers-in-law, dim Irishmen and aitch-dropping members of the working classes. These jokes were all swept away in the Eighties with the arrival of alternative comedy, which often proved to be an alternative only in the sense of not being funny.
Political correctness is about as strait-laced as it’s possible to be. The disgust of the new prude over, say, the use of the masculine pronoun, is a delight to behold. (Interestingly, although PC is based on an earnest desire never to give offence, its adherents will abuse dissidents with labels – “homophobe”, “xenophobe”, “racist”, “sexist”, “bigot” – designed to give maximum offence. Offence, as in all things PC, is relative.)
In his essay, Orwell says: “Codes of law or morals or religious systems never have much room in them for a humorous view of life.” And so it is with political correctness and the new prudery, both of which prescribe codes.
The politically correct, metropolitan folk who now govern us are the new elite and, as such, it is their morals, beliefs and credos that are the proper subject of the subversive humour that was the stock-in-trade of the seaside postcard.
Why, then, is that kind of joke seldom heard? It is because the Forces of Political Correctness (to coin a phrase) are everywhere powerful. They are in the universities, the media, the government. They have eyes and ears. They are watching you. Orwell, of all people, would have understood.