Consider if you will the words “worth” and “price”. On the face of things, they’re of quite similar meaning. “Worth” means the value and, by implication, what something costs ie. it’s price: “price” measures what we’re willing to pay for it ie. it’s worth. Interchangeable, one might think. But add the suffix “less” and watch the semantic transformation. A worthless object has no value and hence commands a price that is effectively zero whereas a priceless object has a value beyond anyone’s ability to buy it and is hence of infinite worth. If nothing else, this is a wonderful demonstration of the idiosyncratic qualities of the English language.
Consider then how we might apply these two terms: the British Crown Jewels are a collection of extremely expensive but somewhat tasteless confections which, by their attachment to the monarchy, imbue it with the presumed power and status of the owner of something that is, if not particularly attractive, at least conspicuously expensive and could therefore reasonably be called “treasure”. So far, so good; we’re simply presented with the reincarnation in metal of a scaled-up version of a Versace dress or a Dolce et Gabbana handbag: pricey but tasteless. The Crown Jewels manage to be, at one and the same time, both priceless (they’re not for sale at any price) and worthless (no-one would pay for that kind of grotesque kitsch anyway). Nonetheless, by virtue of the price that they might hypothetically command and hence their presumed worth they are deemed to be items of treasure and, since they are nation-specific, we must perforce refer to them as National Treasures.
So where does this put us when people are referred to as “National Treasures”? Recent examples that come to mind are Johns Thaw and Peel, Dennis Potter, Robert Wyatt and Jarvis Cocker. Conspicuously, all are (or mainly were) arguably of leftward persuasion yet, by some miracle of British tolerance and forgivingness, have been assimilated and accorded “Treasure” status. Their views – previously deemed immoderate – have become accepted and their perceived eccentricities, for which they were once castigated and reviled have now become qualities for which they are remembered and cherished. The thuggish Reagans, irascible Inspector Morses and Mister Toms that Thaw played are excused and rehabilitated, Peel’s taste for “Teenage Kicks” by The Undertones is celebrated (although Captain Beefheart has yet to be welcomed into the pantheon of National Peelian Treasures), Dennis Potter has been forgiven for naming the cancer that killed him after Rupert Murdoch, Wyatt’s agonising rendition of Elvis Costello’s “Shipbuilding” has become acceptable even to Thatcherites and Jarvis Cocker has been rehabilitated for reasons that I can’t quite grasp.
Is this what happens as lefties get older? Do they mellow and become more acceptable to the generally reactionary tastes of the Great British Public and is this what it takes to become a National Treasure or is it that, starting with ideas deemed worthless but having persistently refused to be bought or sold, their value becomes so great that, in a bizarre public epiphany, they are promoted to the status of the unpurchasable and become truly pricless? And if they do, is there yet a price to pay? Could another National Treasure, Ian Dury, have ever dared, once elevated to this status, have sung the notorious intro to his song “Plaistow Patricia” : “Arseholes, Bastards, Fucking Cunts and Pricks…….” ? Hardly the behaviour we would expect from one of our Treasures and perhaps a tacit recognition that, if you ever want to be so elevated, it comes at the price of a compromise that you have become famous for refusing to make.