As Aretha puts it...
Yesterday we saw a visiting production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at York Opera House. Excellent production, energy, acting, ingenuity etc. But something else struck me, the ‘natural’ language (and to convey it without any possibility of offence, I’ll use a few soundalikes).
The dramatic first words in the play were “Fussing Cripes!” (or their equivalent). Soon we had “Jeepers! Fuss!... Jeepers Cripes!” and so on. Did I object? Yes and no. As a twenty-first century person, I can shrug and accept what is ‘normal’. But I nonetheless had a few sideways thoughts.
Thought number one: try substituting Islamic terms for Jeepers and Cripes, and we’d soon be into Charlie Hebdo territory, watching our backs for gunmen and issuing urgent proclamations about free speech. Would there be any excuse for the gunmen? Of course not, but you’ve got to live in the Third World to understand the offence our casual disrespects can cause. Years ago, I was teaching in Zimbabwe, a very Christian country, when the Satanic Verses furore broke. How did the locals react? Hurt. Anger. Not against Islamic overreaction but against First World contempt. They felt the insult. Again. Like all the times they’d been called ‘kaffir’ (which means, ironically, ‘unbeliever’). Like all the times rich whites had treated them with disdain – or much worse.
Sideways thought number two: try time travelling back to Tudor times (Wolf Hall times, murdering psychopath Cromwell times) and see how you get on with a bit of loose speech. So far as I understand, the Catholic remedy would be to burn you, whereas the Protestants would hang draw and quarter you. Which would be preferable, I wonder? Cromwell had Richard Whiting, last abbot of Glastonbury, dragged on a hurdle through the town, hanged drawn and quartered on Glastonbury Tor, then his head displayed on the west gate of the desolate abbey, while his limbs were exposed at Wells, Bath, Ilchester and Bridgewater.
On the other hand, we could try behaving with consideration. I really don’t mind if someone draws a cartoon of the prophet or not, but if others are upset then out of politeness I’d prefer it not to happen.
Do I mind if people ‘swear’? Hmm. The two ‘worst’ words in the English language refer to the potential making of life (‘fuss’) and the body part through which living beings first emerge (‘cnut’). Do we really despise ourselves so much? Shouldn’t they be two of the most beautiful words in the language? Do we despise life – and love – so much?
And then the blasphemous words. Christianity is partly out of fashion (only partly, and only hereabouts, not in Africa for instance) but the concepts of Christianity underlie Western civilisation. So, like family, they are part of us (and, like family, we may not approve of them in every detail). But why trample names held sacred in a verbal gutter?
What I’m really talking about here is respect. If we can’t respect others, it’s hard to respect ourselves. If we can’t respect life, love, heritage, sanctity, it’s hard to respect ourselves.
Years ago I taught Slaughterhouse Five to an A level group (in Zimbabwe, as it happened). There are many striking aspects of the book, not least that Kurt Vonnegut, the author, was trapped in the bombing of Dresden. His life was preserved by the walls of the slaughterhouse (number five) which acted as his temporary P.O.W. prison, and, when he emerged, the city was so insanely changed he could only convey the effect by writing an insane novel (well, sane and insane simultaneously). The part that struck me most, though, came at the end when he and an old comrade flew back to Dresden decades later.
“O'Hare had a little notebook with him, and printed in the back of it were... key facts about the world... which he gave me to read: On an average, 324,000 new babies are born into the world every day... The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world's total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000.
“ 'I suppose they will all want dignity,' I said.”
That’s when I knew the book was written by someone with a large soul.
Dignity. Respect. Easily given. Easily withheld.
But why withhold them?
May I invite you to make certain purchases? (I may? Why, thank you...)
(a) The Salamander Stone (by my most excellent and trusty pal, Mrs Me) from one of these outlets:
Direct from the publisher, Burst Books: click here
Amazon UK: click here
(b) The Two Worlds of Wellesley Tudor Pole (by Mrs Me’s most excellent and trusty pal, Me):
Amazon UK: click here
Amazon.com (US): click here
(You’ll be getting both of them? Well, that is an admirable choice, if I may say so...)