Swearing and shouting are underrated, says Giles Coren. Four-letter words can be immensely satisfying and extraordinarily effective
When I was ever so small and sweet, romper-suited and frilly-booted and really quite an angel to look at, I must have had a gob on me like an angry plasterer, because the only piece of advice I can remember my mother ever giving me is: ‘If you’ve got nothing nice to say, Giles, then keep your mouth shut.’
This was most often said at table, I think, when I was passing comment on the ickiness of the boil-in-the-bag cod mornay or the pooey colour of the butterscotch Angel Delight, perhaps on the state of my baby sister’s table manners, or my father’s, or the smell of the Portuguese au pair...
But it was advice I never took. And it’s just as well. For as it has turned out, I am the restaurant critic of the world’s greatest newspaper, a television broadcaster known mostly for being rude back to Gordon Ramsay, and the sender of an angry email to a sub-editor which went viral and put my writing (albeit a scarily primal, late-night, id-driven version of it) in front of an audience most writers can only dream of. If I had listened to my mum, I would be driving a minicab. Or collecting whelks for Mr Wong, and glad of my £1 an hour.
Rudeness has been good to me over the years. And while I, like most people on the threshold of middle age, deplore our society’s ongoing descent into vulgarity, and believe that politeness is, and must remain, the grease that keeps the wheels of the nation turning, I am here to tell you that being very, very rude to the right people, at the right time, can be extraordinarily satisfying, not to mention spiritually elevating, professionally effective and lucrative beyond imagining.
For example, after leaving the Times as a 27-year-old in a storm of four-letter words and smashed furniture, I was rehired by the editor I had rowed with when she moved to the Mail on Sunday because ‘it’ll be useful to have a nutcase like you on my side’. And the Mail pays nutcases real money, as we know.
I was horrid about Dylan Jones, the editor of GQ, in a column in 2003, and within the month had joined the magazine as political columnist. Indeed, I had never once been invited to contribute to The Spectator until, in an interview with the Guardian the other day, I said some terrible things about it and thus (obviously) scored my first commission.
Only twice in my life have I ever been truly talked about. The first time was when I won the Literary Review Bad Sex Award (‘she grabbed at his dick, which was leaping around like a shower dropped in an empty bath’). And the second was when I expressed my displeasure at a sub-editor who had removed a word (a whole word!) from my copy in a 1,009-word email whose mildest moment came when I asked the poor fellow, ‘Can’t you hear that it is wrong? It’s not f—ing rocket science. It’s f—ing pre-GCSE scansion... F—. F—, f—, f—.’
If you Google my name, references to one or other of these incidents is all you will get for the first, ooh, million pages. From the Rawalpindi News to the Inuit Intelligencer, I am world-famous as the Bad Sex guy with the shitty temper.
But I didn’t ask people to take any notice of these rare lapses of taste. The first was buried deep in a rather difficult novel, and the second in a private email to a colleague, who chose to get his revenge (quite reasonably) by leaking it. It’s just, I think, that public language has become so boring of late that a bit of directness speaks to people in ways we can barely understand.
It was, after all, the Guardian, the most boringly written, fey, equivocating, wan, PC-hobbled organ around, that first brought my email to the world. First running it in full on its website, and then again across two pages of the paper, along with two other emails of mine, 1,000 words of comment and a full-page photo. They even put my picture on the front page. They knew how boring their paper was and guessed, quite rightly, that my email would come as a breath of fresh air to their jaded readers. And, indeed, there followed a week of letters about me — a barely known writer on a rival paper — from their excited regulars.
John McEnroe did not set out to be known for his rudeness. He did not think it was big or clever. He just wanted to play tennis. But some of the umpires (like some sub-editors) were morons. Chalk dust flew up all over. And he just had to tell it like it was. The authorities came down on him like a ton of bricks, but the crowds — bored numb after years of Björn Borg — went crazy for him. In the same way, my old pal Gordon Ramsay, a sweet and gentle soul, swore at a couple of sous-chefs and, after 30 years of Mogadon Delia, the crowds went wild.
Old folk will always tell you that swearing and rudeness is a sign of ignorance, that it debases the language. That you should think — even count — to ten before you speak. But that’s sad old bollocks from the 1950s. Language is so moribund now that a bit of directness, a bit of old-fashioned free-association, can have a new and awesome power.
At the bottom end of the linguistic scale, kids are all, ‘like, innit, bruv, you know what I’m sayin...’ to the point where they are clearly not saying anything, and have reclaimed the condition of grunting primates that we took a million years to evolve from. And at the ‘top’ end, in political debate and in the media, it’s all peri- phrasis and euphemism. It’s all: ‘let me make one thing clear’; it’s all ‘rafts of measures’ and ‘step-changes’; it’s all ‘can I assist you at all?’ and ‘somewhat inebriated after a number of libations...’.
And you just want to shout, ‘F——k!’ And if you do, it seems, people really sit up and listen.
Just how much that email has come to define me was made clear when I was introduced to David Cameron the other day and the first thing he said was, ‘I loved your email.’ Spotting a possible chance to step in and put a bit of poke back into this country’s political discourse, I said, ‘Thanks very much. So, do you want me to come in and do a bit of speechwriting?’ But he said that he thought, on balance, not.
But if he stands up at the first PMQs of the new term and says, ‘Let me just make this abundantly clear: the Labour party are a prize bag of w——s and Gordon Brown is a c—,’ then you’ll know he changed his mind.