Jemima Lewis: Bums, bogeys and the vicar of vulgarity

Fart jokes are intriguing to children. But that doesn't mean it's the right thing to do
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The Independent Online

The children, by all accounts, found this ribald performance thrilling - the staff, less so. Just as Rev Taylor was getting into his stride, the children were suddenly frogmarched out of the room, and the talk declared over. Headmistress Barbara Vann later explained that staff were "uncomfortable" at the apparent jibe at Harry Potter's sexuality - "it is of a homophobic content and we cannot encourage that" - and the general "offensive" tenor of the speech. "He is a national novelist and I would expect him to be able to speak to young people without using that sort of language." There is nothing like the prim tones of a headmistress to make one sympathise with the class rebel.

Moreover, on one point at least, Mrs Vann has got her facts wrong. The Little Britain sketch in question is not homophobic. (The joke is that the village is swarming with cheerful gays, to the annoyance of the main character, who fancies himself unique.) Rev Taylor was merely trying to say that there are other books about sorcery - namely his - besides Harry Potter.

As for the suggestion that Rev Taylor himself might be homophobic - that is even sillier. Surely the most self-consciously trendy vicar in the land, Taylor is always at pains to demonstrate his right-on, modern ways.

He is seldom photographed without his biker jacket on, and makes much of the fact that he once worked as a roadie for the Sex Pistols. (He was also a policeman for 10 years, but we will let that slide.) "I use words that are from the street," he declared this week. "I am a man of the street. I am a man of culture. Fart is a nice word that we all say."

And there lies the difficulty. In the privacy of our own homes, many of us do indeed use such words. I grew up very happily on a diet of unrelieved lavatory humour. My father's explosions of wind - accompanied by a pumping of the elbows like a chicken struggling to take off - could reduce my sister and me to sobs of laughter.

He told us stories about the adventures of two classical heroes, Testiculus the Roman and Constipides the Greek; he sang us songs about a mystical paradise called the Land of the Golden Bogey; he could do sound effects for all the bodily functions.

Strange though it may seem, not everyone is amused by such subject matter. My mother once taught me a very mild limerick about a kangaroo who goes behind a dustbin and does a Number Two, which I promptly relayed to my best friend, Susie. The next day, Susie's mother rang my parents in a terrible flap. "Somebody," she announced in a theatrical whisper, "has been teaching them FILTHY RHYMES."

Rev Taylor would no doubt dismiss Susie's mother as a hopeless fuddy-duddy. In a newspaper article, he explained the importance of using coarse language with children "to show that you understand them", and poked fun at anyone "paranoid" enough to object. He even marshalled Jesus on his side, claiming that the Messiah was a crude sort and would have approved of the bogey-bum speech.

The Rev is not alone in using vulgarity to ingratiate himself with the young. In the new Channel 4 show The Unteachables, a trendy educationalist attempts to win the trust of troublemakers by peppering his sentences with swear words. To some extent, it works: foul-mouthed teachers - like vicars who make fart jokes - are still rare enough to be intriguing to children. But that does not mean that, in the long run, it is the right thing to do.

The taste barrier between private and public life exists as a mark of respect. Scatological and sexual jokes are not to everyone's taste - indeed, a large part of their appeal is that they might shock people. If authority figures such as teachers and vicars refuse to recognise that barrier, why should children? How will they ever learn to modify their behaviour for the benefit of others, if not from adults?

Protected by the force field of his own vanity, Rev Taylor is unmoved by his critics. "I was cool before," he purred. "Now I'm über-cool." That's one perspective. I would prefer to say that he is bad-mannered, babyish - and, worst of all, a bully.