Robert Hughes and the dying art of swearing
There are two types of people in the world: people who think there are two types of people in the world, and those of us who think it’s even dumber than the zodiac to divide people arbitrarily into just two irreconcilable camps.
However, the one issue which fits this never-the-twain-shall-meet division is swearing.
People either dislike swearing to the point of loathing it - hello Mum - or are perfectly comfortable with it, swear frequently themselves, find it amusing or edifying when other people use swear words to make their point.
If you’re in the first camp you might as well stop reading this article now, as it’s got a number of cuss-words in it, which even though they’ve been tastefully asterisked out, will probably still offend.
But before you turn the page, the point I’m about to make - courtesy of the toilet-mouthed Gordon Ramsay - is that the valid art form of swearing is under fire from injudicious and reckless over-use.
At its best, swearing can be funny or powerful because the arrival of the swear word catches the reader or listener by surprise.
Not any more.
You can now hear the f-word on free-to-air television programs during the day and straight after dinner in M-rated films. You hear it constantly on commercial FM radio. It often seems that every other song - such as the profanity-laden ditty du jour, I’m on a Boat, by white-boy rap group The Lonely Island - is incapable of making it through the opening stanza without slipping an F in there.
It doesn’t offend me, in the case of this song, I actually find it pretty funny because the lyrics are a brilliant parody of macho gangsta rap.
But as a general rule in 2009, swearing has become passe, predictable, dull and debased, with the greatest offender being none other than Ramsay.
Ramsay has sparked what Kevin Rudd might call a s**tstorm with his inane and insulting ramblings about Tracy Grimshaw.
If anything Ramsay’s outburst proves one thing - this guy needs a bit of a lie-down. He’s got about 73 different TV shows on the go, is doing speaking tours all over the world promoting his books/programs/DVDs, and his restaurants are themselves under fire with revelations that this fresh food champion’s favourite kitchen appliance is the microwave, fixed to the “thaw” setting.
Ramsay isn’t so much in trouble for swearing in this instance; he’s copping it for being plain rude. Nothing he said about Grimshaw was offensive because it contained blue language, but because it was just a rotten thing to say about a very nice and very capable woman.
It’s his machine-gun swearing though that’s seen him launch a global debate throughout the English-speaking world (and probably other countries with accurate translators) about the seemingly unstoppable rise of foul language where there once was none.
It’s not that long ago that you could turn on the Lifestyle Food channel and see Giorgio Locatelli doing something helpful and illuminating, such as making a lentil soup with a leftover bit of pancetta, or Rick Stein making a fire on a beach in Cornwall and explaining how you can steam crabs and mussels under seaweed.
Now, this once safe-haven of sanity and decorum is under siege from game show format programming, where unsightly English folk in miserable bedsits race against the clock to make something as exotic as spaghetti bolognese, saying “ah foogit!” as they drop an oxo cube into the washing-up water, or Ramsay running around a kitchen shoving bowls of risotto in the faces of sous chefs and telling them they’re f***ing useless twats.
It’s one-joke television and the joke has grown tired.
But I’m not so much saying that people should swear less. They should. But more importantly, they should swear smarter.
One of the most brilliant uses of top-shelf profanity - which not long ago would have ensured the book was never published - is in the memoir by Australian historian and art critic Robert Hughes, Things I Didn’t Know.
Hughes cleverly outlines his passive-aggressive relationship with the country of his birth with an opening chapter devoted to the darkest period of his life - his near-death in a head-on car crash while on a fishing trip near Broome in May 1999.
Not only did Hughes almost die, he faced criminal charges for negligent driving, civil action for defamation for calling the Western Australian Director of Public Prosecutions a curry-muncher (which he disputes ever having said), was extorted by the passengers in the other car involved in the accident, and ended up flying back and forth between the United States and Australia, in total agony, and at great personal expense.
On page 37 of the book, as Hughes draws a close on this first chapter in the story of his life, he writes:
“Sanity (of a kind) prevailed in the end. I settled the defamation case, and when the traffic case came back to the magistrate’s court, I did what I should have done to begin with: for the sake of closure, I pleaded guilty, was excused attendance in the court, and paid a fine. It was $2520, and - just in case I was seized with nostalgia for the delights of the state - I was solemnly debarred from applying for a driver’s license in Western Australia for a period whose length I forget. The legal and travel costs, in the end, amounted to more than $250,000 - perhaps not adequate punishment, but at least a fitting knock on the knuckles for a f***ing elitist c*** like me.”
This super piece of writing could only be made weaker by toning down that final sentence. When you read it, especially after the preceding 36 pages of sober and restrained narrative, free of any profanity, it’s like being punched in the face. I can’t think of any alternative words to capture Hughes‘ searing fury, be it misplaced or otherwise, at how he believes he is be regarded by so many of his fellow Australians.
The Hughes example though is a rarity, because our swearing standards are now so low that prime-time viewing is often about as edifying and mature as an Andrew Dice Clay routine.
Perhaps the Hughes book could become a recommended text on the HSC curriculum. Our kids are all swearing anyway. We might as well teach them how to do it properly.
Read all about it
Up to the minute Twitter chatter
The latest and greatest
Good morning Punchers. After four years of excellent fun and great conversation, this is the final post…
I have had some close calls, one that involved what looked to me like an AK47 pointed my way, followed…
In a world in which there are still people who subscribe to the vile notion that certain victims of sexual…