AS the Aberdeen train pulled into Queen Street station I prepared to disembark.
Standing by the door I heard an anguished cry from inside the toilet, the gist of which was: "I'm an oilman, get me out of here!" The sentiment, however, was expressed in language that in a family newspaper may best be described as fruity. Eventually, the toilet's occupant – a young man so inebriated he fell backwards when he pulled on his rucksack – was released by the guard, whom he thanked profusely and profanely. It was this, rather than his drunkenness, which shocked other passengers and me, his inability to utter a sentence without the use of a pungent swear word.
He is not alone. Sometimes, when the urge takes me, I eavesdrop on conversations. I choose my targets carefully, preferring folk who, to all outward appearances, look as upright as a Bible basher. Invariably, I am not disappointed, as out of their mouths tumble words that bear no repeating here. Nor is this phenomenon gender specific. Women, young and old, are not immune to this oral pollution, this verbal equivalent of fly-tipping. When it comes to cussing, it seems, it is a free for all. It is a pox that everyone –or almost everyone – has.
One such is Lionel Asbo, the eponymous hero of Martin Amis's new novel, which is sub-titled "state of England". Mr Asbo is the kind of chap we all recognise. He is thick and thuggish with contempt for learning and a love of dangerous dogs. He drinks and takes drugs. He doesn't speak so much as communicate. His English is largely phonetic. Of course he swears but rather less than one imagines someone like him would. What is clear, though, is that his moral degeneracy and the fact that he had "no consciousness of others" is all of a piece. The way he speaks is, in Amis's view, how much of England speaks, in a manner that is closer to pit bulls than human beings. This version of English is not a language but a sound and not a sweet one.
Amis's novel is a satire and as such we must accept a degree of hyperbole. Having said that, the more I read of it the more convinced I was of its authenticity. Nor, let's be clear, is there a Rizla-paper of a difference between Mr Asbo and his Scottish counterparts. Indeed, if anything I'd say our employment of what used quaintly to be called bad language is more contagious and common. Hereabouts it is endemic, accepted, the norm, a sign of a society that has lost its grip, whose standards have precipitously fallen, in which uncouthness has replaced civility. It seems that because everyone swears it is deemed acceptable. It is as hard to find a non-swearer as it is a vegan.
No profession is immune from this, my own included, as those who attended the National Theatre of Scotland's recent production of The Enquirer will attest. How true to life this portrait of the modern newspaper industry was is debateable. What few would deny, however, is that within newspapers are those who, like the aforementioned drunk, cannot speak without swearing. Some say it is evidence of a macho culture, others of a stunted vocabulary, others still conclusive proof of Tourette's Syndrome. What I will say is that some of the best swearers I have ever come across have worked in newspapers, one being the editor of a national broadsheet whose repertoire was Shakespearian in its inventiveness.
We know, too, that politicians make Olympian swearers. Flies-on-the-wall during Tony Blair's reign in Downing Street report that the air was often blue when the Prime Minister and his Chancellor locked horns. Moreover, a call from Alastair Campbell was invariably punctuated with words the BBC would bleep out even after the watershed. Ironically, these were the same people who despaired over loutish behaviour and yobbish attitudes about which they were always promising to do something. It would appear, like Lionel Asbo, they were oblivious to the effect they were having. But what exactly was that? It's obvious. The more commonplace swearing is the less effing impact it has.
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