Arsenal v Chelsea, a couple of years back: there's some trouble in the seats behind us, and the police wade in to remove a couple of Chelsea fans. 'It's Richard Harris,' chortles the guy behind me, and we look round. Sure enough, one of the men being escorted down the steps and out of the stadium is of A Certain Age, with long, grey hair, and he does indeed bear a striking resemblance to the actor.
'Oi, Richard,' yells my neighbour, a benign thirtysomething yob whose frequent surreal outbursts are fuelled by lager, Captain Morgan's rum, and, frankly, drugs. 'Richard]' Finally he attracts the fan's attention. 'Richard the Third] (Where did that come from?) Once more into the breach, you cunt]'
I'm sorry, but I love this story. I love the leap from Richard Harris to Richard the Third, and the strange juxtapositions of hooligans, actors and Shakespeare; I love the pointlessness of the goading, and the childish glee; and I love the punchline, which means, I guess, that I love the obscenity, too, in this context, because there would be no punch- line without it. I know I shouldn't: I've read my Germaine Greer, and I accept that the
c-word is unacceptable, and its use unforgiveable. But . . .
There is always a but when it comes to swearing. A couple of weeks ago I saw a man drag his recalcitrant little girl down the street with the words 'For fuck's sake,' and the middle-class parent in me was appalled: you won't catch me using words like that in front of my son, blah blah. Even though I am a champion, expert swearer and am hoping to be picked to swear for England someday, this is not necessarily hypocritical, just as it is not hypocritical to prevent your kid from dipping into the Bushmills even though you like the occasional drop yourself. Of course, swear-words cannot harm a child in the same way alcohol can - no child, as far as I know, has ever been hospitalised after raiding the family supply of f-words. But no possible good can come from unleashing a volley of obscenities at a grandparent or primary school teacher, and it is best to avoid such an eventuality if possible.
When my son is older, though, his language is almost certain to be foul, simply because more or less everybody's language is foul nowadays, and I'm not bothered, really. People of my generation, the generation above and any generation below who don't swear are unusual to the point of peculiarity; even some Christians are apparently no longer averse to the odd four-letter word. I recently had a letter from a reader of this column who, suspecting me of being an atheist, called me a 'cocksucker', although the letter was a bit barmy, and I might have misunderstood the cause of his ire. Nearly all the journalists who write for this newspaper swear like troopers, and so, I would imagine, do at least 50 per cent of its readers. (Are they represented on its pages? Are they hell. We have a theatre page and a visual arts page, and yet there is no swearing page, and most of us swear much more often than we go to galleries.)
I won't teach my son how to swear properly, because that would be carrying trendy, laissez-faire parenting to unacceptable extremes. But I hope he swears with discrimination - it is tedious when every verb, noun and adjective in a sentence is a derivative of the f-word - and, just as importantly, with panache: one of the most depressing revelations in the recent Cutting Edge Graham Taylor documentary was that Taylor is an absolutely hopeless swearer. The f-word seemed to catch on the roof of his mouth and limp out half-heartedly, as if swearing was a contractual obligation.
There are people, although I hope they gave up reading this in disgust a few paragraphs back, who will say that I am being irresponsible, that swearing is for the lazy and inarticulate, that if you can't say it without a four-letter word then don't say it at all, etc, etc. Some respond to that by banging on about Chaucer and our glorious Anglo-Saxon legacy, and fair play to them, but Chaucer and Shakespeare are used too often by the middle classes, to defend anything from bad language to video nasties, as if anything that Chaucer and Shakespeare did was OK; I'd rather talk about David Mamet and Roddy Doyle and Martin Scorsese and Martin Amis. I'll be happy if my son ends up enjoying their work, and if as a result he picks up a few bad habits, well, it's no big deal. At least he'll be a perceptive, rounded human being, albeit a foul-mouthed one, and if the latter is the price you have to pay for the former, then it is a price worth paying. And I want him to come to football with me too, one day . . .
Anyway, swearing can be beautiful, when it is done right. There's a wonderful world-weary, melancholic line in Sidney Lumet's film The Verdict, script by David Mamet: 'Life's too fucking short, Frankie, and I'm
too fucking old.' Try taking the effing out of that and tell me that the line doesn't lose anything. And in Ken Loach's Raining Stones a priest uses the f-word, sharply and violently, but in so doing demonstrates his humanity and his compassion. No other word could have achieved the same effect, and there
are times in real life, too, when only obscenities are enough.
I don't know. Swearing seems such a little harmless thing that it hardly justifies the space here, but people will write letters to me and to my poor editor, just because of some of the words I have used. You know who I'd like an angry letter from? Lady Olga Maitland, the woman who, with four other Conservative MPs, tabled 80 amendments in order to scupper the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. I'll bet she's got strong views about obscenity; she's just the sort of repellent, knee-jerk Tory who would have. Well, so have I, but I'll bet they're not the same as hers.Reuse content