Terence Blacker: 'Spasticus' and the crime of condescension

Morons and bigots set our cultural agenda, not the sensible majority


Before we get too carried away by a sense of our own tolerance, it is worth reflecting on the brief, inglorious history of the song which was the anthem of the Paralympic Games' opening ceremony. "Spasticus Autisticus", a great musical yell of defiance written over 30 years ago by Ian Dury and Chaz Jankel, was not always celebrated by our culture. When first released, it was banned. Today, an equivalent song is more, not less, likely to be censored.

Those people who agitate against the broadcasting of songs, or programmes, they deem to be offensive should bear in mind what has happened to "Spasticus Autisticus" since 1981. Dury, who had been crippled by polio when he was child, hated the patronising idea that he, or anyone else in his position, was some kind of good cause. Commissioned to write a song for the Year of the Disabled, he reclaimed disability from victimhood with lyrics that steamed with rage and sarcasm.

The song was altogether too much. Tim Yeo, then chief executive of the Spastics Society, expressed the fear that it would "strengthen people's mistaken or wrong images about disability and spastic people in particular". The BBC, characteristically, played safe and banned it.

Later – too late, some would say – everything changed. Yeo, by then a Tory MP, recanted. The Spastics Society renamed itself Scope. A billion people around the world saw the banned song performed on Wednesday night. Who did more for the cause of the disabled, then? The brilliant songwriter who was writing what was in his heart and came from experience, or the rosy-cheeked businessman on his way to becoming a Tory MP, backed up by the BBC?

Then as now, it is writers and musicians, not fully paid-up members of the cultural establishment, who should lead the debate about tolerance and prejudice, but who are frequently suppressed. We are, without doubt, more censorious in 2012 than we were in 1981. When, in the course of making a radio documentary, I interviewed the head of music for Radio 2, he admitted that problematical songs of the past – Randy Newman's "Short People", for example – can be played on air because they have classic status, but that their modern equivalents would fail to get through the playlist meeting.

Yeo's dangerously simplistic argument is used more than ever. If "mistaken or wrong" prejudices can be confirmed by a song, then it is safer to ban it. In other words, morons and bigots are allowed to set the cultural agenda, not the sensible majority.

The story of "Spasticus Autisticus" is a useful reminder of the complexity of these issues, how ideas of offensiveness can change. We would do best to let writers express and explore them without being censored by the squeamish or easily embarrassed.


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