Richard Ingrams' Week: So is it time to consider the word 'old' offensive?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

When we are barred from making remarks about people's race, religion or sexual orientation, can it be long before a ban is put on other possible terms of abuse and denigration?

One is tempted to think that people have a primitive need to insult certain classes of individual regardless, and if they are barred from attacking, say, blacks, gays or Muslims, they will divert their attention to other easily identified sections of the community like the old or even the fat.

It is this that might explain the vehemence of the attacks on the supposedly geriatric Ming Campbell, who is regularly portrayed by cartoonists as staggering along on a zimmer frame or needing a stairlift to get him up on the conference platform. Yet one can foresee a time when anyone printing a cartoon of this type could be deemed guilty of an offence. It is in some areas the case, after all, that the word "old" is already considered offensive, with alternatives such as "senior citizen" being adopted by officialdom.

As for the fat, in America there is now a nationwide organisation – NAAFA, the National Association for Advanced Fat Acceptance – to spread the notion that the obese or "people of size" are not responsible for their condition.

In such a super-sensitive world it is interesting to note that insults of class can still, in this country at least, proliferate. David Cameron and his friends Boris and Zac have already been branded by their opponents as nobs and toffs. But if you can't help being fat you can't help being sent to Eton. In the unlikely event of their ever coming to power, they would probably make it an offence to use words like that.

Why we don't salute our soldiers

The head of the British Army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, wants us to pay more respect to our fighting men, many of them bogged down in Iraq or Afghanistan. He suggests that we should imitate the Americans, who lay on regular street parades for their soldiers returning from the wars.

It is not going to happen. What makes the Americans different from us is that they are persuaded, as a nation, that their soldiers are fighting for their country and in defence of their freedoms. That is partly because George Bush and his colleagues told them continually that the Iraqis were jointly responsible for the 9/11 attacks on New York.

It was a lie but it helped to motivate the army and the civilian population, who cheered the returning troops when they came marching home. Blair had no 9/11 to justify a similar line in propaganda. But he did his best with Alastair Campbell's help to panic us into thinking that Saddam might launch nuclear missiles in our direction at 45 minutes' notice. Some people may have been taken in for a week or two but there was no sense at all that the British Army in Iraq was fighting for Queen and country or enabling us civilians to sleep more safely in our beds.

They were fighting for Tony Blair and his deluded crusade to bring democracy to Iraq. And however much people may admire them for doing it they are not going to line the streets waving Union Jacks to salute them when they come home.

* A fascinating new book of Graham Greene's letters (Graham Greene: A Life in Letters, published by Little, Brown) sheds new light on that great writer. Among the many revelations, none is more bizarre than Greene's claim in a letter to Auberon Waugh (dated 17 February 1981) that he had four nipples.

The issue arose after Waugh, in his Private Eye diary, accused the then Tory Health Secretary Patrick Jenkin of falsely claiming that there was an "epidemic of alcoholism" in Britain – when the figures showed otherwise.

As part of his attack on Jenkin, Waugh alleged that he had three nipples (though how he knew that history does not relate). He went on to claim that in Shakespeare's day men with three nipples were assumed to be witches. "The test,"' he wrote "was to throw them into the village duck pond. If they sank and drowned, it was probably all right: if they floated, the case against them was proved and they were burnt to death." The same test, he said, should be applied in Patrick Jenkin's case.

Writing to Waugh, Greene, pictured above, confides that he himself has not three, but four nipples. "A doctor when I was examined medically at the beginning of World War II made the same remark that in the Middle Ages I would have been regarded as a witch. I haven't addressed this letter to Private Eye because I would hate to think that 150,000 people who buy the paper might want to investigate my four nipples."

Comments