Your gobshite blogger has never been a fan of mincing words, except for comic or dramatic effect. Not only do niceties not come naturally, they are wilfully and embarrassingly eschewed. When people refer to the departed as having passed, or gone over, it takes the last ounce of time-shredded self-control to resist shouting, they’re just beastly dead!
But those aforementioned effects can be real and useful and not just to provoke a laugh. It’s a well-worn joke to boast of calling a spade an earth moving device, but sometimes it can make a point or pick out a parallel.
When the previously unmentionable becomes generally acceptable, there’s no doubt we gain more than we lose. It was a major turning point in British cultural history when the satirical sketch show Not the Nine O’Clock News featured a parodic punk rock song delightfully titled Gob on You (for readers in other lands, we should perhaps point out that gob is a colloquial term for expectorate or spit). And one of the verses in which the singer expressed his determination to spray saliva on all and sundry, especially middle-class establishment types, contains the lines
Gonna gob on you ‘cos I hate your guts!
Gob on you, kick you in the nuts!
Gob on you — you’re a stupid old git.
Gob on you, ‘cos you’re full of shit!!
Up to that point, humour could be got from replacing the expected ‘rude’ word with an innocent one. At schools in the 60s there was a popular rhyme doing the rounds with many variants, telling us that:
Shakespeare was a man of wit
And on his shoe he had some paper.
As he was walking by St Pauls
A woman grabbed him by the arm.
She said, “You seem a man of pluck;
Come inside and have a ham sandwich.”
And even in the 80s in a comic version of the Three Musketeers, in rhyming couplets, a member of the New Vic touring company, stumbling upon (and how close did I come to using the phrase coming upon?) a serving wench bending over a flower bed, had the lines
I bet she’s lovely from the front
I’d really like to see her [dramatic pause] face!
[Much laughter from a sophisticated arts centre audience — then again, the second half feature a pitched battle with the audience and the Musketeers hurling beanbags at one another, so yah boo sucks to you]
But, just as coy nude scenes where cushions, bedposts and flower pots hid the actors’ busty substances and genitalia, became ridiculous once the gloves — and everything else — were off, it was rather silly than funny to replace naughty words, once Ken Tynan had, on Late Night Line Up, broken through the ‘Fuck Barrier’.
What has caused this little meditation, you ask?
(oh, you didn’t? well you’re being telt anyway)
Your thoughtful correspondent passed a phone kiosk today (yes we still have them, though whether it contains a phone or anyone uses it except as a urinal is anybody’s guess), and on the side of said edifice were printed the words:
The Red Sea?!
Let’s call a period a period.
And immediately I was transported back to my early teens, circa 1966, and West Bridgford Grammar School, Nottinghamshire, England. Your correspondent had the great good fortune to ‘grow up’ in the English East Midlands, where education had long been quite progressive, and predominantly co-educational (our Mam had been a West Bridgford student there in the 40s and the divine Samantha Morton is one of its more recent alumni). In fact it was a great culture shock to go on to University and meet lads from North and South who had been to single sex schools and had no apparent idea that women were human beings that could be spoken to on all manner of topics (on the other hand, those guys seemed to be much more successful in obtaining sexual partners, so maybe over-familiarity does breed contempt, and that’s the only breeding it does do).
One topic on which said education was deeply lacking was sexual relationships and even the basics of sex itself (gender in those days was a term used in grammar only and we were benighted enough to think sexuality only came in male, female or perv — I was always keen to go for number three, it must be said). We did have Sex Ed, both in the classroom and behind the bike sheds, but one was academic and about reproduction, and the other was mechanical, photographic and about copulation. Even the 45rpm record called Where Did I Come From (I was happy with ‘Boston’) that our Mam played to me aged 11 was woefully short on detail, leaving me with the impression that being particularly fond of someone and lying down very close to them, was enough to result in (unwanted) pregnancy — I assume side two filled in, as it were, more detail, but that was for fourteen-year-olds and up, I think, and by then I don’t think I needed telling, having already, as Emo Phillips puts it, tried my hand at sex.
In all cases, ancillary physiological details were hardly mentioned or, if they were, your daydreaming blogger was probably staring out the window, or at the back of the lovely Jenny Mabbott’s ginger head at the time, wondering if he’d lain too close to her at that party in Ruddington, when, as the Righteous Brothers pointed out, she had indeed lost that loving feeling.
One thing that caused confusion among us lads was the fact that the school had a small room, furnished with a few camp beds, in which our female classmates could go and have a lie down, pretty much on request, not even using coded phrases like women’s problems. This gave us (or reinforced) the impression that girls were weedy softies, even if those same girls had kicked one in the groin or pulled one’s hair out in clumps only a few days before. Because nobody told us about menstruation, let alone the concomitant discomfort and mood changes and all that. The present writer, who was and remains inordinately fond of a good lie down, simply resented that he wasn’t at liberty to say knowingly, please Mr Thompson, I have a bit of a headache, and skip double history.
So yes indeed, let’s call a period a bloody period. On the back of the permissive society things did soon improve in leaps and bounds, as those of us who recall 80s adverts for tampons, showing their wearers leaping and bounding, will know. Comedians had a field day with variations on the idea that using Lil-Lets or Tampax would suddenly endow a woman with a brand-new ability to play tennis. And now the number of ads going into detail about how absorbent pads can be (though still showing an unhealthy blue flow rather than a red) are only matched by the ones bringing comfort to the older woman who keeps pissing herself (hey, some of us older blokes could use a little help in that area!).
But I’d be sad if the Red Sea were to dry up completely. As a term, of course. The polite euphemisms like the aforementioned women’s trouble, my time of the month or, most egregiously, the curse, we can do without. Though even that led to many titters when reading Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott in class; who knew that looking out a window at a passing knight could bring on menstruation, let alone break mirrors?
[Out flew the web and floated wide;
The mirror crack’d from side to side;
‘The curse is come upon me,’ cried
The Lady of Shalott.
Do try to keep up!]
But the fun versions are some of the best witticisms in the language, aren’t they? It is often commented that the Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction was censored regarding trying to make some girl, without the prudes objecting to the following part about her being on a losing streak.
Yes many, like time of the month or shark week lack wit and are simply crude or, even worse, blah. But who can resist a smile at the red flag is flying; I’ve got the decorators in, Auntie Flo is visiting, or, more locally, Barnsley are playing at home this week [Barnsley football team in Yorkshire play in red shirts and shorts]?
Best of all is surely the classic from Amy Heckerling’s screenplay for Jane Austen update, Clueless. It was this phrase that sprang to mind on seeing that noble but two-edged slogan on the phone box, and thus the one to blame for this blog post.
My then partner (an English lecturer) and I first saw Clueless in 1995 in an Amsterdam cinema, surrounded by Dutch teenagers, who couldn’t understand why we laughed so much at an apparently insignificant scene in which Cher and Dionne run though a list of potential boyfriends for ingénue Tai, listing guys with names and characteristics that match the love interest in each of the other Austen novels (Brandon? No, he’s too old for her); in fact this scene seems to have been cut down in tv versions and is missing from the screenplay online, so maybe it got ditched because only two people in a cinema in Amsterdam ever laughed at it. Or we dreamed it.
But one part that has gone down in history is Alicia Silverstone’s rendition of her line to Wallace Shawn, in mitigation for the previous Monday’s ‘tardy’ (as our American cousins call an incident of lateness): Mr. Hall, I was surfing the crimson wave, I had to haul ass to the ladies’!
So again I say yes, yes, a thousand times yes, let us call a period a period, let us be open and matter-of-fact about a perfectly natural function (and let’s stop taxing the necessaries!). But let’s not be too uptight, in some modern rerun of the prudishness of yesteryear, to call it surfing the crimson wave on occasion.
Well, that’s more than enough from me. Anyway, I have to go point Percy at the porcelain — I’m not wearing my absorbent pad.