Saturday, 1 August 2009


Poor David Cameron is in trouble for using inappropriate language on Absolute Radio, which, in broadcasting terms, is like shouting down a wet sock.
The cross I have to bear is made of Balsa wood, unlike the heavy oaken ones carried by some of my friends and their wives, Nevertheless it can be irksome and occasionally cause a temporary loss of control. In one such incident I swore in the presence of a nurse. Not at her, thank God ,but in sudden frustration. She was very good about it but I have been shrouded in shame since it happened.
A very odd thing, language. A word is merely an assembly of letters. How, then, can it have personality and the ability to hurt? Long ago when the world was grown up there were jocks and taffs, eyeties and micks, sambos and sheenies, krauts and tykes. A Jew was a yid. I called my best friend, who was black, Sambo and he called me Specky Four Eyes. The Chinese were Chinks; Tiddlywinks, even. I suspect the reason The Wire is put on by BBC2 as late at night as they can manage is that the blacks who are shown in a criminal light call each other nigger.
In earlier unreconstructed days there were taboos. If you said “bloody “in front of a woman there was hell to play (which itself is a phrase I would not have dared use on radio when I started broadcasting fifty years ago). Today broadcasters could get the sack for using such racial labels as the ones I listed above. Yet obscenities are the every day currency of radio and TV, and only old codgers like me get upset.
In the Spectator last week Jan Morris was complaining about the attitude of the English to the Welsh. Although I hold her in high respect, I was angered by her outburst because she also condemned the English who choose to live in Wales. Ms Morris is English. She was born in Swindon and pronounced herself Welsh shortly after she changed sex and the week after my book Owain Glyndwr had set the nationalist dovecotes a-flutter. It meant a great deal when, the only time we have met, by accident in a cafe in Porthmadog, she went out of her way to praise the quality of my research for the book. It was very flattering because her book on Venice, and the trilogy she wrote on the Indian Mutiny, were based on deep and magnificent research.
Alas, the same cannot be said for the research she did for her Spectator outburst. Ms Morris was particularly exercised at the use of the verb 'to welsh'. She claimed it was racial abuse. In the Middle Ages in Wales English law was limited to the castle towns where only Englishmen could trade. The countryside was governed by ancient Welsh law, a custom which survives in names like Welsh Frankton. An English debtor could evade his creditors by going to live outside the town in the 'Welshry'. He was said to have 'Welshed'. 'Welshing' insults the English, not the Welsh.
Unacceptable language is a matter of fashion. There was a time when taking the Lord’s name in vain was social death. My father, who swore vividly, nevertheless used to say “Cheese and Rice”. But youngsters no longer regard that as swearing, though they shun words like Paki and Nigger - even though, as I have suggested, the ethnic minorities use those words to describe themselves. I don't understand any of the taboos. I have frequently commented on the fact that my wife had to leave a ladies' football team because she couldn't take the obscene language the girls routinely used.
Years ago I interviewed a member of the BBC Council on a poll it had published on listeners' attitudes to language. Predictably, the 'c' word was rated the most extreme expletive. The 'f' word was in third place after '', an unhappy American import. But the 897 people questioned were more worried about the words 'spastic' and 'whore' than swear words.
Wanker and bastard came fourth and fifth in the severity poll. The first wasn't considered swearing in my day and the state of bastardy is socially quite acceptable. Why should these nouns shock?Who decided when Jew or spastic should become swear words, as the BBC Poll suggested ? Spastic merely describes a medical condition and Jew has been how Jews have described themselves for over a millennium.
'Bloody' is blasphemy, a contraction of 'By the Blood of Christ'. 'God damn' is a terrible curse, nothing less than. bringing down damnation on another human’s head. I can use those terms anywhere but I cannot say 'whore' which is nothing more than a job description.
Surprisingly, for the majority, it wasn't the language that was unacceptable: it was the time of night it was used. Why should language be good or bad depending on the time it is used? More than that, the context counts. Puzzlingly, people accept it, the BBC man told me,in violent films, comedies and documentaries. Surely if language is unacceptable the context does not matter? To adapt Gertrude Stein, surely “an F is an F is an F”?
My father’s favourite swear words were 'bloody black gaiters' and I too find it very satisfying as an expression of surprise. There are other assemblies of letters, usually Anglo-Saxon and usually describing bodily functions, which do relieve the tensions when used. Perhaps it's something in the assembly of letters? My favourite swear word is 'frass', which, as I am sure you know, is the scientific name for the body waste of a butterfly.
I have a theory. Most of the swear words refer to bodily parts and functions and it is quite surprising how many are corruptions of Anglo-Saxon. The Normans considered Anglo-Saxon a very inferior language and it was never used in polite society. Is our distaste for swear words merely vestigial political correctness and snobbery? Is the distaste for swearing merely racial discrimination?