Are you cultured? I am not, judging by the 40 questions asked by a recent survey. Then again, 29 of them have nothing to do with culture, as I understand it.
Surveys in this genre must be taken with a grain of salt and, ideally, also with a wedge of lime and a shot of tequila. However, they do reflect the popular perception of the area under investigation and, when it comes to culture, the popular perception is frankly idiotic.
For cultured people, aesthetic, intellectual and spiritual pursuits define their personalities. For today’s lot, they are an aside, something to chat about at a party once food, money and DIY have been exhausted.
For our philistines, culture denotes what tasteless vulgarity used to mean to civilised people. At best, philistines identify with culture something that has nothing to do with it, such as preference for some TV shows over others or being obsessed with food.
In fact, 11 of the 29 silly rubrics have nothing to do with food. To wit, you aren’t a cultured person if you don’t: host dinner parties; know about cheese; know about cuts of meat; visit farm shops; drink ‘proper’ coffee (not instant); grow your own fruit and vegetables on an allotment; know how to pronounce ‘quinoa’; use chopsticks over a knife and fork; only eat local produce; get food from supermarket ‘finer’ ranges; drink herbal tea.
None of these has anything to do with culture, properly defined, and some reflect nothing but tree-hugging faddism, with a slight leftward slant.
For example, show me a man who drinks herbal tea, and I’ll show you a man who can talk seriously about alternative lifestyles. And, much as I’d like to establish my cultural credentials by keeping an allotment, doing so in London would mean an expenditure of time that can be more profitably used writing, reading and listening to music.
One of my most cultured friends would fail on all those foodie criteria, except using chopsticks – and then only because he plays concerts in the Far East. Conversely, it’s easy to imagine a rank philistine ticking every one of those boxes with a flourish of his Mont Blanc pen.
Then we have several TV rubrics supposed to separate the cultured wheat from the barbarian chaff: watch documentaries; watch Question Time; don’t skip the news when it’s on TV; watch tennis or cricket; watch Antiques Road Show.
I watch tennis and some of my friends watch cricket, but we wouldn’t lay a claim to culture on that basis. It’s just some mindless entertainment a busy mind needs as much as sleep. I also know ignoramuses who devote their lives to watching sports.
TV news, Question Time and Antiques Road Show are the antithesis of culture, while any decent book will tell you more than any documentary about any subject. And some refined people I know don’t own a TV set at all, which presumably places them in the culture stakes below any council-estate dweller.
Then there’s ‘cultured’ entertainment: go to the ballet; go to the theatre; read a book before the film comes out; watch films with subtitles; go to music festivals.
As the low end of high culture, ballet has more to do with entertainment. Some people have no access to ballet performances, some have no money to pay the extortionist prices – and some of them are infinitely more cultured than any ballet master I’ve ever met.
Going to the theatre is also difficult for people who live in the country or those whose budgets don’t stretch to £50 a ticket. Reading a book before the film comes out betokens ignorance of the incompatible difference between the two genres.
If a film is based on a classic, cultured people would have read the book anyway. If it’s based on trash, as most are, then the book isn’t worth reading. In either case a film should be assessed on cinematic merits, not faithfulness to the book.
Stressing films with subtitles presupposes that any foreign film is better than an Anglophone one, which is nonsense. Most French films I’ve seen in the last 20 years are pretentious rubbish, and I could name dozens of superb English and American films produced during the same period.
Music festivals, especially nowadays, are designed not for music lovers but for philistines who need to be seen or have nothing better to do on holiday.
Our reading habits are tested by only two useless rubrics: own a library card; read Wikipedia articles. I doubt any one of my well-read friends owns a library card. And though Wikipedia is a useful source of reference, its effect on culture is more negative than positive.
A cultured person is also supposed to be characterised by his shopping habits: go to vintage markets (why on earth?); collect music on vinyl (what kind of music, and what’s wrong with CDs?); wear bow ties and brooches (not many people wear both, some wear one or the other, and some of them are cultured, with no causative relationship anywhere in sight.
Then there are miscellaneous items, such as: enjoy crosswords or Sudoku (?), get the conundrum on Countdown (I’ve no idea what Countdown is) and – my favourite – put on an accent to pronounce foreign words.
This is tolerable only when someone is a native speaker or at least fluent in the language. Otherwise it’s nauseatingly pretentious, as in the case of broadcasters who insist on replacing every ‘z’ in a Spanish name with a ‘th’, often incorrectly.
So there you go: I’ve been put to shame. My only consolation is that I’m in good company.