%$@#! by Andrew O’Hagan
Is there a watershed in heaven? Like, is there a please-don’t-swear-before-nine-o’clock rule? Because, if so, I’m fucked. Not that I’m going to heaven. Mrs Docherty, my teacher at St Luke’s when I was eight years old, told me I was heading for the Bad Fire because I accidentally used the words “fuck you” in the dining hall when what I meant was “no thanks”.
My swearing career began the year before when I wrote a piece of narrative journalism in my news book about my dad coming home drunk from the pub. I realised, when I consulted my creative writing guru (my mate Fergus), that it was impossible to nail the story without the use of some authentic Glaswegian dialogue. And so, after assembly, I sat down on a tiny chair and wrote the sentence, “My dad was pished last night after the pub and he tripped over the pouffe and my maw called him a cunt.”
The headmistress was consulted. Our Lady of Perpetual Help was invoked. And yet I didn’t feel sorry because the whole class laughed. Bad words were no different from badness of every other sort: a bit alluring and a bit over-hyped. The truth is my family in those days used profanity the way other families used dental floss. We came to feel it was better to be a foulmouthed truth-teller than a hygienic liar, and, in Scotland at least, we had Billy Connolly to remind us that swearing was an art form. When I think of happy beginnings, I think of my brothers and me in our respective bunks, listening to a recording of Connolly’s LP Raw Meat for the Balcony and laughing into the night. Mrs Docherty had no chance. I was learning swear words in my sleep and I can still hear Connolly calling an audience member a prick while educating us all in multiple uses of the word “shit”. Here was a man who could extol the poetic
qualities of the phrase “Jesus suffering fuck”. Language was never the same again. It seems cruel, when I think of it, to deny people all the colour and humour of spectacular profanity. When I became a father, I taught the children to swear about the same time as they learned to ride a bike. My daughter says her curiosity about bad words was satisfied, and rather fulsomely, by a few rounds of Swear Scrabble, a hilarious pastime I fancied to be my own invention, and her brothers were delighted, at about the same age, when I used my keyboard by the pool in Italy to type a list of all the swear words we could think of. To me it was just like learning to swim: you just throw them in the water and watch them survive. I am happy to report that these young people are among the least repressed I’ve ever met. They have finesse, they have style, they have decorum, and they are excellent conversationalists. They know the difference between a dickwad and a douchebag, and it serves them well. You wouldn’t send out a boxer with one arm tied behind his back, would you? And neither would you limit the verbal dexterity of a young speaker trying to get to grips with a world of pain.
It’s not the most popular view, I admit. Swear boxes are on the rise. “You can’t say that,” is a popular phrase nowadays, and they’re probably right: one person’s delightful profanity can be another person’s sexism. But the lover of swearing sees no blurred lines between these things: real profanity is never ideological, never literal, and never an effusion of hatred for a general part of humanity. More reliably, it is a specific, usually comic, and entirely free expression of a fleeting emotion.
For some of us, swearing has no meaning at all: it is merely a thing of punctuation, like coughing. (Before I die, I wish to edit The Faber Book of Swearing, which might also be called Great Expectorations.) At its best, swearing is an
element of fellowship. My friends swear at me much more than my enemies ever do, and that’s the clue. In a world of anxiety, profanity is levelling and sweet and sometimes just the tonic. But you need an ear for it, or people get upset.
I was once presenting a programme for the BBC on the novelist James Kelman. He’s quite the genius, and his best novels apply the word “fuck” as if it were a comma. The producer approached me sheepishly, an hour before broadcast, to say that we had to limit the swearing. “I think we can have 12 ‘fucks’,” he said, checking his handbook and rubbing his chin.
“Twelve?” I said. “It’s a 50-minute film. That means we can quote about three sentences from the author’s collected works.”
More than 100 years on from the Ulysses ban, nearly 60 years on from the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, and almost 50 years since Philip Larkin confirmed “They fuck you up, your mum and dad”, we are still afraid of profanity. The BBC is mortified by it, and there’s still not enough swearing on Radio 4. In those afternoon plays, people speak as if they were at an Edwardian tea dance.
And on TV, perhaps because of all the resurgent Mary Whitehouse rubbish and sundry genuflections before the idea of civilised conversation, characters still speak as if cursing isn’t standard in people’s daily lives. Have the producers and writers been in a marketplace or ridden on a bus with four schoolgirls? Have they driven in rush hour, or tuned in to a bunch of lads talking at a football match? Lovers of realism, to say nothing for lovers of comedy or lovers of language itself, will miss the salt and the grit, the invention and the passion and the heat of swearing. It’s the national tonic.
I once went to Jonathan Miller’s house for tea and couldn’t think what to bring. He’s a valiant smoker but nobody brings fags to a tea party and he has more books than The London Library so I was a bit stuck. Fortunately, walking through Camden Market, I came across a beautifully dressed, timid old lady at a tiny stall. She was selling biscuits, very much modelled on the Nice biscuits style, but with a four-letter word stamped into each one. I bought eight: “Wank”, “Fuck”, “Piss”, “Poof”, “Twat”, “Arse”, “Dick” and “Shit”. The lady wrapped them up in a white paper bag and told me to have a lovely day. (If I ever feel blue, I just think of that neat little lady in her kitchen, baking profanities.)
At the Millers, there was very little risk of offence, and indeed it proved to be the most successful gift of my social career. Jonathan actually rolled off his chair onto the floor, a guarantee of high marks, and he munched several profane syllables in a row after dunking them into his tea.
Keep Calm and Go Fuck Yourself. That, to me, might be the more helpful slogan hiding underneath all the current advice about buttoning your lip. Yet we do seem to have rolled back into some puritan ether, where words are actions, and where making sure you don’t say the wrong thing is somehow mistaken for your embodiment of a sound politics. But words are no competition for events, and saying the wrong thing can’t compete with doing the wrong thing. We currently live in a world where destroying people’s lives and suspending international law is somehow the noble work of civilised people, and entirely permissible, so long as they do it in what is offensively called parliamentary language. Me, I’d sooner they were kinder and fairer and did their worst in language and their best in policy.
When Kenneth Tynan used the word “fuck” on the BBC in 1965, the House of Commons went into spasm. (It said nothing about the way he held his cigarette, which was much more profane.) And in late 1976, when the Sex Pistols called presenter Bill Grundy “you dirty fucker” on prime-time TV, the tabloids went ape. Just for the record, far fewer MPs in 1965 were vociferous in objecting to the British imposition of minority white rule in Rhodesia, and, shortly after the Grundy debacle, hardly any of the tabloids splashed on the proposed sacking of 40,000 toolmakers by British Leyland. Now: that’s indecent. It’s not swearing that brings down the collective good of humanity but everything that’s not said.