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The unspeakable is here to stay

Words can still shock us - even if Johnny Rotten's c-word rant couldn't.

Patrick West

Patrick West
Columnist

Topics Culture

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  • Unspeakable

When the Sex Pistols let loose a few expletives on Bill Grundy’s show back in 1976, there was all sorts of huffing and puffing. The nation went into what is referred to as a ‘moral panic’. Almost 30 years on, old fashioned Anglo-Saxon expletives appear to have lost the capacity to shock. When, last week, former Pistol frontman John Lydon uttered the word ‘cunt’ on I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, the reaction was decidedly pianissimo. Out of an audience of 12million for the show, Lydon’s c-word outburst solicited merely 88 complaints.

I subsequently have read, and heard it said, that because the word cunt no longer has the power to offend, this means that we have become more easy-going. After all, words like bugger and shit are not as offensive as they used to be. There is the unspoken assumption that profane words are gradually losing their ferocity, and that one day nothing will be unspeakable. We are on the road to a chilled-out world that no longer has an infantile revulsion of ‘naughty words’.

This is a rather simple-minded and misguided train of thought. Societies will always have unacceptable words because cultures have taboos that inform them. The reason why we find the c-word less offensive today is because we no longer find sexual intercourse problematic or unspeakable. We have a different focus on what is beyond the pale.

In the Christian-dominated pre-Victorian era, the greatest oral misdemeanour was to utter blasphemy. To say the likes of hell, damn and blimey in the wrong context was considered most shocking, and was often met with physical punishment. But today there are very few people who would take exception to hearing a stranger say ‘Jesus Christ!’ on television.

In prudish post-Victorian times, the most offensive words were those that were sexual or bodily. In the past couple of decades, the likes of bastard, crap, sod, shit and bugger have also lost their capacity to upset people, what with the post-1960s sexual liberation. Even fuck has made headways into the mainstream; so that the BBC’s movie dubbing unit no longer insults our intelligence by having Eddie Murphy say things like ‘you monkey feather!’ or ‘you mother father!’.

The things you will not get away with on television in 2004 are racial swear words. In today’s nervous climate of multiculturalism the most heinous thing one could utter are ethnic slurs. We all know what they are, and suffice to say that had Lydon spoken a racist rude word he would have been sent packing.

This is admirable in a way. If you are going to choose your taboos, at least choose the sensible ones. At the same time, our society does have an alarming fixation with racism, an obsession that breeds censorship and unverifiable accusations of ‘institutional racism’. There are some of us who would still prefer a philosophy of rational non-racism to a fevered ‘anti-racism’, which is always on the lookout for blasphemers to censure.

However, any idea that we have become ‘liberated’ is nonsense. We will always have swearwords because societies will always consider something, literally, unspeakable.

  • Wake up

James Joyce was famous for his bad language, notably in Ulysses. The book, however, has been in the news recently for different reasons, in that the Irish author Roddy Doyle took Joyce’s birthday to declare that he found the book overlong, overrated and unmoving. ‘Ulysses could have done with a good editor’, he said, while ‘I only read three pages of Finnegans Wake and it was a tragic waste of time’.

His comments on Joyce’s tale of a day in Dublin have divided critics and fellow authors, but what everyone agrees on is that Finnegans Wake is indeed a load of rot and deserves contempt. In my opinion, this is his masterpiece. Ulysses is a difficult book to read because it aspires both to be a novel and an exercise in magical realism, which is why it confounds so many people. The virtue of Finnegans Wake is that it is transparent, honest gibberish, which unlike its predecessor, dispenses with the conceit of a narrative.

It represents Joyce at his finest. It is a work in which his playful, mischievous compounds – microchasm, teetalitarian, whorable, alchoherence, orangepeelers, desperanto, ambiviolent – prompt us to re-imagine our language. The dazzling manner in which it calls into question the convention of the novel, of authorship, of the connection between words, sounds and meaning, makes Ulysses seem tame by comparison. Finnegans Wake is a tour de force of Joyce’s fertile imagination.

And if you think it is difficult to read, spare a thought for the translator of a recent German edition, who had to invent 80 new German words each page. When he had finished, he had a nervous breakdown.

  • Rails, risk and Routemasters

London’s famous open-ended Routemaster buses are vanishing before our very eyes. In recent months routes 10, 11, 15, 23 – among others – have switched to the new, boxy, one-man-operated slow coaches. There remains only 500 left of the old-fashioned, fast, convenient, open-ended variety on 16 routes.

We have witnessed what happens when one panders to the anti-risk and disabled lobbies. A report last week from by the National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog, reveals that many of the 2020 wheelchair-friendly trains with electronically operated doors brought into service since 1997 to improve safety are often less reliable than the ancient slam-door trains they replaced.

The infatuation with risk aversion combined with a fatuous notion of ‘inclusiveness’ has been a curse for the railways, and it is already proving likewise for London’s buses. If Ken Livingstone wants to get people out of their cars and on to public transport, then abolishing Routemasters is the wrong way of going about it.

Patrick West is the author of Conspicuous Compassion: Why Sometimes it Really is Cruel to be Kind, Civitas, 2004. Buy this book from Amazon (UK).

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