PRUDES AND CENSORS
I will be away on the Greek mainland for a few days and there will be no new blog post until Wednesday 25th November. You can always contact me about anything including my Bargain Online Fiction Tuition, at email@example.com
Sometimes when your kids are small, most disconcertingly they turn out to have a small number of best friends whose parents are either very dull or passing obnoxious, and Ione bless her, aged 3-11 from 1992-2001, seemed to specialise in bringing me face to face with this latter excellent type. If you live in the country as we did, you had to drive daughter plus pal back to your house from the nursery or school, and then with your own child accompanying, drop the friend off at her place a couple of hours later. Of course Ione couldn’t resist running into her mate’s house, and extending the splendid fun as long as she could wangle, meaning you had lots of extra time to talk to the 3 or 4 somnifacient Mums, or even worse the Mike Leigh scripted Dads, someone you wouldn’t have even glanced at outside this ad hoc context. Some of these parents who tended to be about a decade younger than me, had seemingly got degrees, or even MAs and PhDs, in How To Be A Truly Incredible Virtuoso Bore. Top of the list was a woman I shall call Margo, who aged 37 had a small daughter she babified and clung to and cosseted, in a way that was off the scale. She made Portnoy’s obsessive American Jewish mother, the creation of celebrated Philip Roth (born 1933) in Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), look the epitome of phlegmatic calm, and as if an expert on radical child care a la Dr Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) when it came to wise parenthood.
Margo had chronic health issues which were clearly psychosomatic, all of them connected to the bowels and digestion. Just as she was a 5 star pain in the arse, so she suffered from continuous pain up her own ample and very obstinate backside. She took steroids as a result and whereas before her illnesses, she had looked passable if no dazzler, now she had a very puffy and pouty face which matched you might say her perennially puffy and pouty personality. Annie couldn’t stand her, so it was daft arse me who did the carting around of the kids to both houses. Luckily Margo was so hygiene-obsessed, Ione and I nearly always ended up going to her house, way out in the sticks. Both she and her husband Ken were from North Yorkshire, which alas does not produce the finest specimens from that vast northern county (give me West Yorks: Leeds, Bradford, Hunslet, etc any day, not least because of all those great Pakistani folk, and their wonderful eateries. You can shove your bloody old Yorkshire Pudding up your you know what).
The You Know What, was the issue as it happened. Puffy Margo was telling me about her numerous garish intestinal complaints in the kitchen, while Ione and her daughter Kerry were playing nearby. True to form Ione had just made a couple of comic references to the gloriously amusing world of the human behind, as is the wont of giggly 3 year-old gals. However what annoyed Margo was that the reference word she used was ‘bum’, and she proceeded to objurgate her feelings on the following very memorable lines.
“We don’t use that word in this house! We really don’t like that word at all. We don’t say ‘bum’, we say ‘bottom’!”
Cue a running gag ever since 1992, of Ione, Annie and me sometimes setting it to music, and saying to each other or singing:
“Don’t say bum, say bottom!”
‘Bum’ of course is a word of distinguished antiquity, and there is even a minor character, a pimp called Pompey Bum in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. I had never known anyone but obsessive Margo object to it as being rude or offensive, though extreme prudery has its own singular rules needless to add. For example Samuel Beckett’s mother, Maria (born 1871) even though she was a nurse for crying out loud, found the use of the blameless term ‘bottom’, all too much in the maternal context, and only referred to it by decorous morse code as the B-T-M (also could e.g. mean ‘bantam’?). Much later, and possibly as a sardonic nod to his Mum and her semantic delicacy, Beckett in one of his novels referred to the dear old arsehole accurately if obscurely by the Latin ‘podex’.
There is prudishness, which is a weak and inadequate way to face a world, where there are far bigger issues than buttocks terminology, such as genocide, racism, desperate poverty etc, and there is also the matter of sensitivity, which is where things can be debatable and even raw and upsetting. My wife Annie (1955-2009) could not take the c-word at any price, whether it was used as a simple noun, or even worse as a term of abuse. Pointing out that the less frequent use of ‘prick’ as a hostile term as applied to a man, possibly evens things up a bit, did not convince her. Oddly enough, things as banal as spelling can often subtly change matters. The antiquated c-word was a q-word, and was ‘queynt’ (sometimes used in older translations of yoni in the classic Indian erotics texts). I can write that q-word without any uncomfortable feelings whatever, whereas I cannot write or speak the c-word without feeling very awkward. I know some young women in 2015 who use it freely and guiltlessly, and wouldn’t bat an eyelid if I did likewise in their presence… but I never would. And for the same reason, I am not happy saying ‘twat’ as a casual reference to the innocent pudendum muliebris, though I have no worries whatever about using it as a cheery and scathing 3rd person reference to someone I do not like. Ironically and to roundly complicate matters, it is in the UK, debatably synonymous with ‘twit’ and ‘twot’ (the latter used often by someone I know from deepest Suffolk) which are innocent expressions for someone who is a bit of an eejit. That said, I gather in some parts of Old Blighty the word ‘twit’ is used exclusively for the female pudenda, so all I can say is watch what the hell you come out with, depending on where you choose to utter it.
Some of my daughter’s generation (she is 26) laugh cynically at the term ‘making love’ for sex, whereas I think it a tender and altogether likeable, even lovable phrase. What after all is wrong with a term that includes the word ‘love’, as long as it is gently understated, rather than used as all purpose syrup? By contrast I would never talk about ‘fucking’ a woman, not even to a beery and leery bloke, much less to another woman, far less to the woman herself. In any remotely tender context, it seems a relatively brutal word, though I have nil problem in using it in a general anecdotal sense, as opposed to referring to any specific living, breathing and sentient and sensitive woman. By the same logic, I never talk about a woman’s ‘tits’, as at best, and even if a woman is saying it, it is vaudeville comic, and at its worst it is one of those baffling cases where women seem to be casually dismissive about the undeniable glories of their bodies. To square the circle and do a bit of semantic balancing, I don’t mind most of those words for the penis which are jovially based on male Christian names. ‘Dick’ is fine enough I suppose, and though I don’t object to ‘willy’, I think it an exceeding stupid term. No one outside of DH Lawrence talks about the ‘John Thomas’, but I think it is rather amusing, and while we’re at it, my farmer father’s polite and old fashioned term for the female genitals, was a woman’s ‘Mary Ann’. Nothing to complain of there, surely. But a perceptive reader noticed the other day that I seemingly bowdlerised the most common word for the penis, ‘cock’ as c–k, and she seriously wondered why. I do not care for the word true enough, but it was the aggressive context of it as a term of vicious abuse between males, in the phrase ‘kiss my c–k’ which caused me to use those most helpful little dashes.
And to get back to where we started. In a very modified sense I am on the same side as barmy Margo, the woman who in 1992 castigated infant Ione for using the outrageously offensive word ‘bum’. In the female backside context and certainly in any erotic context, I would put the scant 3 letter designation alongside the use of ‘tits’. Women have bodies that are to be celebrated and even with due qualification revered, and they also have breasts that are beautiful and bottoms that are beautiful. The ‘tits’ and ‘bum’ lexicon don’t begin do that significant and hopefully tender job as far as I’m concerned.
Though you might well think, and in a sense I wouldn’t blame you, that I am talking through my bloody old podex/arse.