Terence Blacker: 'Spasticus' and the crime of condescension

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

Share

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.

terblacker@aol.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible