I was once (well, twice actually) prosecuted in Norfolk in the mid-1990s for telling a solicitor that his client was a “fucking cunt”. I was prosecuted not for insulting his client but under the Malicious Communications Act 1988 on the basis I had told him with the sole purpose of causing him (the solicitor) “distress or anxiety”. Clearly he was a solicitor of rare sensitivity.
In his summing-up, the Appeal Court judge at Norwich Crown Court (yes I lost the case twice) said the word “cunt” was “clearly obscene” – although I had not been charged with using obscene language and a decision based on that would seem to overturn the decision in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial of 1960.
I am also old enough to remember someone getting arrested in the late 1970s for walking down Carnaby Street wearing a promotional teeshirt for Stiff Records with the printed slogan: IF IT AIN’T STIFF, IT AIN’T WORTH A FUCK.
So… I’ve always taken an interest in swearing and what may or may not be offensive.
Last night, I went to the event “A Celebration of Swearing and Profanity” at the British Library.
Six years ago, as a work of art, Morag Myerscough and Charlotte Rawlins created a pink neon sign with the question HAS ANYBODY SEEN MIKE HUNT? The British Library included this neon sign in an exhibition, but positioned it in an out-of-the-way spot at the top of the building for fear of offending passers-by. Today, six years later, the British Library feels no need to do that. What is considered offensive has changed and the word “cunt” is uttered on BBC Radio 4 at breakfast time without sackings or resignations following. It is said times have changed.
Yet, earlier this year, two supermarket chains refused to stock the movie I financed – Killer Bitch - unless the title was changed. They both found the title Killer Babe to be totally acceptable, but the title Killer Bitch to be totally unacceptable – though it seems to me that “babe” is more sexist and more offensive than “bitch”. (It didn’t matter in the long run because, when they saw the movie itself, they found the content even more offensive and refused to stock it – as did others – so we reverted to the original Killer Bitch title.)
Anyway, if times have not yet changed, they may be in the process of changing.
BBC Director General Mark Thompson is said to have told an internal group with some pride that one transmitted episode of the sitcom The Thick Of It was only “four short of 100 fucks”.
An interesting idea from last night’s British Library event was that “fuck” and “cunt” and sexual swearing in general have lost their impact and that the taboo swear words of the future are likely to be racial and religious words.
Already, the word “cunt” is less unacceptable than it was only a few years ago, but the word “nigger” is now more unacceptable – though it was perfectly, innocently inoffensive as a pet dog’s name in the 1955 movie The Dam Busters.
Surely we should encourage more swearing and more creative descriptive use of the language?
Last night, I was particularly impressed by one Viz reader’s use of the phrase “bangers and mash” to describe the soggy, mingled mess of used toilet paper and human excrement left in the water of an unflushed toilet pan.
Which brings me back to that bloke I described as a “fucking cunt” in the mid-1990s…
He was and still is bangers and mash.
Just don’t describe him thus in Norfolk for fear of causing distress to the locals.