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02 March 2012

The Earl of Oxford, Jeremy Clarkson and the Devil's Wind

Russians are, on the whole, extremely polite people when you encounter them on a personal level. Yet their public manners give the non-Russian who does not penetrate the exterior the impression that they are abrupt, rude, thoughtless and self-centred—which some of course can be, as in every society. But in general, one of the surprising things for Russians is to realise how un-чопорный (see Confusing Words #3, 24 Feb), or unpolite (not impolite which simply means rude; I use unpolite as meaning simply without politeness) apparently cultured British people are capable of being.
     I say this because of the response to my post about the Earl of Oxford’s fart (28 February). Though committed in the sixteenth century, it is still resonating more than four hundred years later and two thousand miles from the locus of the action. I have had more mail about this post than any other to date. Much of that mail has concerned the phrase “to let a fart” which some Russians wanted me to explain. In fact it is a phrase which has gone out of use, though it probably is the antecedent of the euphemism for the same action, namely to “let off”, that was still in use when I was a boy. This should not be confused with the phrase “to let off with a warning”. In my day, “letting off” without either prior warning or any sound to warn people nearby at the time, was known for some reason I never discovered as “doing a cabbage”.
     The “let” used in the quote about the Earl of Oxford should also not be confused with the modern use of the word “let” in the sense of “letting a house”. That means to rent it out for period, and no-one in their right mind wants to rent a fart. Murky visions come to mind of the process of conducting an inventory, for example. I must say that I do remember some colonial friends in my younger days in London who used to discuss the contents of their “wind”, but they were people who were indulging themselves in their first experience of curries and English beer.
     But despite the passage of time, and the fact that so  many euphemisms have gone out of use, the joy of vulgarity has not diminished, at least if Jeremy Clarkson is anything to go by. Reading one of his books of motoring journalism recently, I came across this description of a Mercedes SLR McLaren:
“The McMerc feels so much more exciting, so much more like a racer… A Ferrari feels light and technical. A Koenigsegg feels like it isn’t finished. A Zonda feels like you’re on acid and you’ve fallen down some stairs. The SLR feels like Jonah Lomu. And the noise is extraordinary. No car sounds like this. It’s a big, dirty, bassy rumble. My daughter said it sounded like a big fart. She’s right. A massive amplified fart from hell. It is unique. Nothing else combines genuine blitzkrieg power with such everyday normality. Seriously. [It is like] the Devil’s Wind.”
     So there you have it from Britain’s most widely-read journalist , and Britain’s only journalist who is read by, literally, millions of people in Russia. Next time you are watching Downton, a Jane Austen film, or an Agatha Christie DVD, remember that lurking behind the polite façade lies the Devil’s Wind.
     No wonder Russians find it so hard to get the balance of etiquette and oafishness exactly right when trying to fit in to British society. Luckily, though, they have this blog to help explain some of the “wrinkles” (and that is not a reference to the nose).

1 comment:

  1. While you're gassing, don't forget that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the poems and plays of Shakespeare, as well as much else under proxy or additional pseudonym. He also bested all of the English aristocracy at the jousting lists twice, in 1570 and 1580, never done before or since. Traveling to Europe he challenged them to battle, to no retort, and was known as the illustrious White Knight of England. On one site of his challenge, Palermo, was Miguel Cervantes, who may have used him to model Don Quixote. Nabokov wrote a poem about it as a youth. Love's Labor's Lost contains puns on Russian, dating from the embassies from Ivan the Terrible's barbaric court. England's was pretty barbaric too. Any reign that would snuff the language's greatest writer and transfer his recognition to someone with the real name Shakspere would have to be termed barbaric. Oxford had too much to say about how power really was in the councils of the mighty. The works live on. The honor does not.