June 21, 2013 6:23 pm

The tyranny of virtue

Being wholesome all the time grates and irritates like tweed against bare skin

Sometimes all pleasures feel guilty but you just don’t care any more. You eschew things that promote health and wellbeing and turn, instead, towards the low-grade, the shabby, the immediately stimulating. Well, hello! It’s such a relief.

You look askance at the distinguished work of literary criticism you esteem, reading each page as a love letter from the author to the intricacies, the nuts and bolts, of the world, and reach, instead, for a magazine in which interior decorators complain that their tasteless clients are wedded to horrific design clichés. You walk away from the well-written turn-of-the-century American novel whose complex heroine is named Undine Spragg, and turn to a rag whose cover makes taxing proclamations such as: “My postnatal depression hell made me drop three dress sizes.”

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Susie Boyt

The tyrant that is wholesomeness – that porridgy, stifling little second-guesser – must be routinely deposed. Sometimes you need organophosphates and infomercials and trifle and sick jokes. Wholesomeness is just too stodgy to be endured full-time. It grates and irritates like tweed against bare skin. It’s actually trying to erase you, one antioxidant at a time. Who doesn’t really prefer the cancan to Pilates?

When no one is looking, you have Nutella or Colman’s English mustard, served on your index finger, for a mid-morning snack. You employ the word “author” as a verb, in your thoughts, just to shock yourself.

Before you know it you are winning arguments by breaking all the rules and simply stating with a steely glare and an instant annexing of the moral high ground, “You know, I could say things.” You buy a pamphlet called “Breakfast cocktails.” You read and memorise a poem that boasts the line: “I met the Mona Lisa/ She spelt badness.” You even wonder about wearing trousers.

The scope for being unwholesome, of course, grows wider every week. Where once there was salty and greasy, or sickly and sweet, you now have salty, oily and sugary – all at once. Bacon in this country is quite often offered with maple syrup these days. It won’t be long before we reach “toffee sausage”. Caramel has great lumps of sel de mer in it. It’s been years since I had popcorn that didn’t contain both sugar and salt. Lebanese patisseries have always served deep-fried double cream. I am not saying this is bad necessarily but it is quite exciting. Fudge with lardons, anyone?

You can indulge yourself in a similar way in your speech. You can be bitter and saccharine, cynical and sentimental (guilty pleasures both) using the same one-syllable word:

“My daughter tied her first bow on her ballet shoes today.”

“Bless!”

“They gave that psychotic serial killer four life sentences.”

“Bless!”

It’s all good. It’s all bad.

Yet sometimes, in the heart of my brain, I feel a battle between the things I like, the things I feel I ought to like, and the things I am grandly meant to despise, and this confuses me. Is everything wholesome? Is everything terrible? Is it me or is it you? How can I tell any more?

I make lists of things I dimly feel I am meant to frown on (or even upon) from above: the poet Robert Lowell, because he is just too concerned with putting across his grand lineage; chicken, because it is too boring; people who show their feelings, because they have no courage; Audrey Hepburn, too preoccupied with seeming cute; Coco Chanel, not half as interesting as her contemporary Elsa Schiaparelli; the word mish-mash, wildly embarrassing and possibly indicative of low morale.

. . .

Are these just the dislikes of my parents? Do they require my fidelity for all eternity? I suppose. Maybe I quite like all these things. Someone would know.

I remember suddenly how I fell out with a high-minded college friend when I was 21 and expressed surprise that she was not familiar with the phrase “keen as mustard”.

She was furious! “Well, of course I don’t know expressions like that. You read women’s magazines and watch soap operas and stuff, and I just don’t have anything to do with those kinds of things.”

“You are mean as custard,” I said under my breath, and I meant it too.

The allure of the refined life is just as dangerous as a life that revolves around deep-fried sugar and sarcasm and all-day dressing gowns, perhaps.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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