It was a separation from his wife which in 1974 brought the Welsh political columnist Alan Watkins to the first-floor Islington flat of his son, and thereby to the acquaintance of the Telegraph columnist Frank Johnson, who occupied the floor below. Out of the friendship between this witty pair came the popularization of the phrase "the chattering classes," to designate that portion of the bourgeoisie which earns its daily bread by talking.
This week one is likely to summon the well-remunerated speaker and federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in that connection, and in doing so an opportunity arises to look into this important matter of verbal performance -- not only as it pertains to the aspiring Trudeau but to his category of persons in general.
In the time and place of Watkins' prime, Fleet Street of the early 1970s, there could be found quite good specimens of the professional chatterer, usually in the nearby bars where Watkins could be found among other booze-soaked journalists. Henry Fairlie was one. A superb writer, and a master of invective, Fairlie at his best recalled H. L. Mencken's high standard of verbal brilliance.
Around this time Watkins acquired a column at the Observer, where at the end of each year he composed his satirical faux-Augustan Master Alan Watkins' Almanack, "written for the reformation of Manners, the advancement of Religion, and the universal improvement of the human Race." Watkins died in 2010, and as is the case with Fairlie and Mencken, no one quite like him is writing today.
It was a nice touch of satire, the Master Alan Watkins' Almanack, but one notices that the knife is in fact two-sided and capable of cutting both ways. Politicians belong to the chattering class, but so too the newspaper columnist. The mock seriousness of a campaign for "universal improvement" lampoons not only the earnest public service do-gooder, but the journalist who imagines himself the brave defender of freedom and democracy.
In other words it is not the chatter itself which is the principal occasion of the insult, but the personal vanity and the do-gooderism which fuels it. How well this describes the ever-earnest Justin Trudeau, who locates the value-for-money of his speechifying in a vague and self-congratulatory activism. This week, the Grace Foundation in New Brunswick asked the Liberal Leader to return the $20,000 he earned by speaking at its event last year.
Meanwhile some of us in the newspaper business react with outrage, knowing it is every lowly scribbler's innermost fantasy to join the dollars-per-word elite into which Trudeau tumbled as a birthright.
As Micheal Kinsley has noted, it is what's legal that is the scandal, and Trudeau's collection of speaking fees while the Papineau Member of Parliament has broken no rules nor perhaps even any conventions. The fees themselves are enormous by working-class standards, but in the chattering world where talk may be anything but cheap, paycheques of six digits for a speech are not unheard of.
Only good taste and discretion, and apparently not parliamentary dictates, may discourage the taking of money -- especially public money -- from charities and not-for-profits, by government officials already fed on the public dollar. And would it make a moral difference had Trudeau enriched rather than impoverished causes on whose behalf he was enlisted?
There are many more questions of this sort, all leaping into the grey, but I began with this notion of chattering in order to end with it also. For it's impossible to reflect on the rhetoric of earlier eras without registering the decline, whether on the side of journalism or of politics. Even "rhetoric" -- at one time a subject of education, as was the related study of debate -- is now itself an insult, as are many words having to do with the difficult attainment of urbanity, verbal wit and style. Facetious, previously an agreeable term meaning "polished," is a primary example.
Now the chattering classes have ceased to take even their chattering seriously. Why should they, in an age when character is supplanted by celebrity, and when the path to the top is through the careful management of perception rather than the marshalling and assertion of substance?
Twenty thousand dollars will purchase an hour of Trudeau's easy aw-shucks flattery and good vibes, and an endless kissing of the feet of an idealized middle class. What it won't buy you (and this really is a shame) is a top-notch verbal performance. So much for the chattering classes.
Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay (left) is chased by Liberal MP Justin Trudeau in a motorized wheelchair during a wheelchair race relay on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday, May 12, 2010. Twenty-five MPs and senators used a wheelchair for the day in support of the Canadian Paraplegic Association's Spinal Cord Injury and CPA awareness month.
Justin Trudeau trains at Pan Am Boxing Club in Winnipeg on Friday Feb. 1, 2013.
Justin Trudeau & co. making faces.
Justin Trudeau splits his pants while pushing the "scrum machine" in support of Prostate Cancer Canada in Toronto Thursday, July 21, 2011.
Justin Trudeau gets his geek on at Montreal Comiccon in September 2012.
Justin Trudeau has his moustache shaved off to raise money for the Judy LaMarsh Fund, that supports female candidates, at the Liberal Party convention in Ottawa on Saturday, January 14, 2012.
Justin Trudeau all dressed up for the Montreal Movember Gala in 2010.
Pierre Trudeau's sons, Sacha, left, and Justin, tackle their mother's paperboy in Ottawa in this undated photo.
Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau delivers a right hook to his older brother Justin during a play fight in 1980 at Ottawa airport as the boys await a flight with the return of their father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau strikes a pose with an adorable baby.
Justin Trudeau poses with his family on his 2010 Christmas card.
Former Liberal MP Ken Dryden, left, and Justin Trudeau play table hockey as they visit Sun Youth, a community organization, Monday, Jan. 14, 2008 in Montreal.
Then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, left, watches as his 11-year-old son Justin swings on a chain during a tour of an old fort in the Omani town of Nizwa Dec. 2, 1983. Trudeau and Justin spent the day visiting the towns of Jebel and Nizwa 165 kilometres south of Muscat.
Justin Trudeau in Muskoka, Ont.
Liberal MP Justin Trudeau, centre, has his cowbay taken by his son Xavier, 4 years-old, while his wife Sophie Gregoire, second from left, holds daughet Ella-Grace, 3 years-old, while they attend the party's annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary, Saturday, July 7, 2012. This is the 100th anniversary of the Stampede.
Eleven-month-old Justin Trudeau, urged on by his mother Margaret Trudeau, crawls up the steps of an aircraft in Ottawa on Dec. 5, 1972 to meet his father, then-prime minister, Pierre Trudeau on his return from Britain.
Justin Trudeau dances with wife Sophie Grégoire before his speech at the Liberal showcase on April 6, 2013.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, wearing what someone called his "Mandrake the Magician outfit," walks down the grandstand steps to present the Grey Cup trophy to the victorious Montreal Alouettes in this Nov. 28, 1970 photo.
Pierre Trudeau leans over to kiss an unidentified young lady to the seeming surprise of his recent bride Margaret. Trudeau and Margaret spent Saturday March 27, 1971 at maple tree farm here near Montreal at a sugaring out party.
Pierre Trudeau accompanies Margaret Sinclair, at the annual Governor General's skating party for members of Parliament in Ottawa Jan. 14, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau looks through the scope of his rifle while on a seal hunting trip in Baffin Island's Clear Water Fjord, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau shoes off his frisbee catching style while waiting to board his plane in Vancouver May 16, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau had no trouble keeping himself occupied during a break from a boat trip down the Northwest Territories, Nahanni River, Monday Aug. 4, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau takes a wary look at an ice crevice, decides to chance it and makes the leap successfully during a midnight seal- hunting expedition at Clearwater Fjord in Canada's Arctic, July 29, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau receives a kiss from his wife Margaret during a tour of St. Pierre, France, Aug. 1971.
Pierre Trudeau in Guayana 1974.
Pierre Trudeau sticks his tongue out to Canadian Press Photographer Peter Bregg during the 1972 election campaign. This photo was taken aboard the campaign plane where such antics were considered off the record. The photo was not made available until after the death of the prime minister
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau dances in Montreal Oct. 21, 1979.
Pierre Trudeau sprints away from a crowd of female admirers in Ottawa April 22, 1968. They surrounded him outside the Parliament Buildings on his third day in office.
John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono, meet with Pierre Trudeau Dec. 24, 1969 in Ottawa.
Pierre Trudeau looks on as Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures during a visit to a Havana housing project in this Jan. 27, 1976 photo.
Pierre Trudeau pretending to strangle himself with a tie given to him as he was presented with honorary membership in the National Press Club in Ottawa Sept. 17, 1968.
Pierre Trudeau amuses a group of people in Fortune while on tour through Newfoundland, Aug. 3, 1971.
Pierre Trudeau takes a ride on the Bluenose, Aug. 1972.
Pierre Trudeau works out at an Oshawa health club during a break in his 1968 election campaign.
Pierre Trudeau, with a garland around his neck and a Hindu greeting symbol in paste on his forhead, rides a camel Jan 12, 1971 in the village of Benares, India, where he dedicated a water well.
Pierre Trudeau kids around with a carnation while waiting for voting results at the Liberal convention in this April 7, 1968 photo.
Pierre Trudeau tries cracking a dog sled whip while visiting Baker Lake in the Arctic, March 10, 1970.
Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Sheik Yamani, left, and Pierre Trudeau, right, dance a traditional Arabian dance while camping out in the desert in Madein Saleh, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 18, 1980.
Pierre Trudeau, seen here taking part in Maori ceremonial dance in Wellington, New Zealand May 13, 1970.
Pierre Trudeau does a dance after his campaign bus broke down in Montreal June 6, 1968.
Wearing a "feather in his cap," Pierre Trudeau attended the official opening May 20, 1983, of an archaeological excavation in Hull, Que.
Pierre Trudeau, shown performing his famous pirouette during a May 7, 1977, picture session at Buckingham Palace in London, England.
Pierre Trudeau, in a moment of joy over patriation of Canada's constitution, preformed his now famous pirouette at Uplands Airport on April 18, 1982 following the Queens's departure for London after the 4-day state visit which climaxed with the proclamation of the Constitution Act.
Pierre Trudeau is saluted by RCMP Officer as he carries son Justin to Rideau Hall in 1973.
Prime Minister Trudeau and his then-wife Margaret leave the city's Notre Dame Basilica Sunday afternoon after the christening of their 22-day old infant Justin Pierre James, Jan. 16, 1972. Tasseled shawls kept the baby hidden from photographers and the 10-degree-below-zero weather.
March 1979 photo of the Trudeau children: Michel (front), Alexandre (Sacha) and Justin (rear).
It was a big day for Dad, but a long day for the three Trudeau children. Left to right, Justin, Michel and Alexandre (Sacha) Trudeau attended the swearing in ceremonies of their father Pierre Elliott Trudeau as Prime Minister March 3, 1980 at Government House.