Artillery Row Books

The Cockwombible

James Felton’s new book is lazy and bad

Have you ever heard somebody use the term “cockwomble”? “Wankpuffin”? “Spunktrumpet”? For some reason, this combination of Stephen Fryesque linguistic silliness and Frankie Boylesque aggression caught on in a big way among older millennials and younger Gen Xers. In time, “cockwomble” has become a byword for a certain kind of not-quite-young-but-not-quite-old British male.

Assholes, James Felton (Sphere, £12.99)

The representative of the cockwomble kind is the sort of person who swears at absolutely everything. The sort of person who is obsessed with British sitcoms from the 90s but thinks Graham Linehan is a “TOTAL C**T”. The sort of person who “f**king loves science” and binge-watched QI but doesn’t know a lot about history or science beyond a smattering of “interesting facts”. The sort of person who combines being effortfully, ostentatiously cynical with fervid moralism.

An exemplar of cockwomble is the popular author and prolific Twitter poster James “@jimmfelton” Felton. To be fair, Felton himself has protested that he has never used the term “cockwomble” and dislikes compound swear words. Noted. But cockwomble he remains. It is less a creed than a state of mind.

Felton’s career has been built on being foul-mouthed, cynical, moralistic and a knower and promoter of interesting facts. His 52 Times Britain Was a Bellend was a random assortment of unpleasant historical titbits about the British. His You Don’t Want to Know was a random assortment of unpleasant facts. Assholes (2022) presents a random assortment of unpleasant people.

Key to being “cockwomble” is constantly, furiously judging other people whilst being careless and idle oneself. This describes many of us from time to time. (I’m still cringing over a hostile film review I wrote that was itself thick with mistakes.) But for some people it is a permanent condition. Most of the people in Assholes deserve harsh judgement, but that does not mean that it is anything but a criminally lazy book

Here, one can find so many things to fascinate those of us who chronicle cockwombles. There is the combined obsession with arcane detail and ignorance of basic and important stuff. For example, Felton writes, “Domitian became Roman emperor in 81 AD. It’s difficult to stand out as an asshole only forty-eight years after another emperor executed Jesus, but Domitian gave it a try.” Now, I’m no historian. But no emperor “executed Jesus”. Pontius Pilate was a governor.

This is double-dipping on a shameless scale

It is arguable whether Felton is interested in his subject at all. The footnotes of Assholes provide an interesting insight into his research methods. The chapter on Peter the Great cites no books, though it does reference “Atlas Obscura”. The chapter on Caravaggio cites no books, though it does reference “”. The chapter on Christopher Columbus cites no books, though it does reference “Snopes”. Has Felton graced any archives in compiling Assholes? I’m not sure that he has graced a bookshop or library. 

Felton clearly spent a lot of time on Wikipedia. We’ve all researched things on Wikipedia, of course. That’s what it’s for. But come on. There has to be a limit. Felton’s chapter on the Straw Hat Riots references two sources, both of which are also referenced on Wikipedia. The chapter on Duon H. Miller, an American businessman who opposed the polio vaccine, cites two sources which are also referenced on Wikipedia, a source referenced by one of those sources, and a CDC page titled “What Is Polio”.

This laziness extends to the prose. “Lazy” prose is generally cliched, imprecise et cetera. To be sure, Felton can be lazy in this sense, but I mean something lazier. Felton writes for a website called “IFL Science”, and in Assholes he seems to lift paragraphs from articles he has written for the site. In an article for “IFL Science”, for example, Felton wrote about a lion tamer called Frank Bostock:

There was redemption to be had for Frank. With the assistance of 500 armed men stationed at the sewer’s exit, he headed back into the sewers once more and actually attempted to rescue the lion, having not thought to plan ahead and bring a third lion into things. Using fireworks, he managed to corner the lion. A boarhound, which he had let fight on his behalf, became quite injured, and so Bostock decided to fight the lion for himself. 

In Assholes, meanwhile, we hear:

There was redemption to be had for Frank, however. With the assistance of five hundred armed men, and many dogs, organised by the police, he headed back into the sewers once more and actually attempted to rescue the lion (he clearly must have been lacking a third lion). Using fireworks, he managed to corner it. One of the boarhounds, which he had let fight the lion on his behalf, then became quite injured, so Bostock decided to fight the lion himself.

It’s nice to learn that dogs and police officers were involved but this is essentially the same paragraph, isn’t it. Why Bostock was even included in a book about history’s worst men and women when his greatest crime was allowing a lion to briefly roam the London sewers is curious. Was it because he was a “heroic [person] who just happened to conduct [his] heroism in the manner befitting a dickhead”? Or was it because Felton wanted to indulge in a bit of recycling? This applies doubly to the inclusion of “Clever Hans” — a horse that was briefly claimed to understand mathematics before it was proved to be responding to the reactions of its trainer. Why was Hans “an asshole horse”? Why was he included instead of, say, Pol Pot, Marc Dutroux or Piers Morgan? Well, Felton had written an article about him for IFL Science and had material to draw on. At least this time he rewrote it in different words.

But not always. Elsewhere on IFL Science, Felton wrote about a quack doctor called James Morison:

Of course, the pills began to kill people, including one 15-year-old girl who died “in horrible distress” as a consequence of taking his medicine, as well as a little apprentice boy, among others. 

Turning to Assholes, we learn:

Of course, the pills began to kill people, including a little apprentice boy and a fifteen-year-old girl who died “in horrible distress” as a consequence of taking his medicine. 

All he has done is bump the poor apprentice boy up in the sentence. This is double-dipping on a shameless scale. Incidentally, despite writing an article and a book chapter about James Morison, Felton keeps calling him “Morrison”. Granted, we all make mistakes — and the lead singer of The Doors was also famous for dubious pills — but Felton had multiple opportunities to grasp this one. Come on, James.

Felton’s humour generally amounts to using rude words

Perhaps no one turns to a Felton book for insight. Perhaps they come for the jokes. Sadly, Felton’s humour generally amounts to using rude words. Now, I like rude words. They add great emphasis to things. But unless one has the presence of Tony Sirico, the more one uses them the less effective they become. Not for Felton! For him, they never stop being funny — and the more twee the better! Take this passage, which occurs soon after he informs us that Emperor Domitian used to torture people by burning their penises:

His undoing wasn’t by one of the people he had been trying to locate via putting fire up people’s pee-pee holes. He was killed by someone who feared for their own safety, and, let’s face it, probably for the safety of their pee-pee hole as well, following the recent execution of Domitian’s former secretary and ally. Whether he could have found out about the potential plotter by setting fire to more pee-pee holes, or whether the assassin wouldn’t have felt so unsafe had Domitian burned a few less pee-pee holes, we will never know.

Humour is at least somewhat subjective, I know, but I think one use of the word “pee-pee hole” would have been more than enough. Again — more than enough. I’m not above childish humour. I can’t deny smirking when Felton writes that “universal manhood suffrage … involved a lot less penis pain than the name implies”. But there is a hint of cleverness in the suffrage/suffering pun. It’s not just repeating the same word over and over again (especially unforgivable when the word is “pee-pee hole”).

Elsewhere, Felton goes in for a sort of wackiness that teenagers in 2008 would have called “lol so random”. Musing on the strange theories of Duon Miller, for example, Felton writes, “while overconsuming sugary drinks is by no means great (side note: please don’t throw this in my face if I launch a line of Feltonade) it obviously wasn’t causing polio.” Why would James Felton — JAMES FELTON — launch a range of soft drinks? Lol. So. Random.

It’s worth mentioning that Felton’s book is not a cheap and cheerful self-published effort. It is published by Sphere — an imprint of Little, Brown. According to its promotional materials, Felton’s previous books have sold an impressive 100,000 copies. There is no excuse, in other words, for such laziness. It should not read like the product of a couple of days spent browsing Wikipedia, misusing the “copy” and “paste” commands, and giggling over the phrase “pee-pee hole”.

But that is cockwomble — maximal disdain and cynicism towards the work of others and minimal energy and ambition in one’s own. Many of us have behaved in this fashion before. We must learn from Assholes and not heed the womble’s call.

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