The kids are all asleep, the wife is in bed reading feminist propaganda, from outside in the darkness I hear the shocked keewick of a Little Owl. Otherwise, all is silent and at rest. This is the time of evening when I make my way very quietly to my study with a glass of wine ‘to do some work’. I don’t want anyone to catch me at it, so I put my hand over the computer’s little loudspeaker when that annoying Windows ident music comes on. She caught me at it, once, my wife. Came downstairs for a glass of water and saw me hunched and furtive over the laptop, tapping away and making gutteral noises. She just looked disappointed and went back to bed, but it was a bit embarrassing.
Anyway, it’s the same procedure every night. Open the computer, bring up the internet and tap into Google those three crucial words... ‘Rod Liddle c***’. How many will it be tonight? The anticipation, let me tell you, is intense. Tonight it’s only 831. That’s pretty poor. I need to write something nasty about the Welsh, or cats, pretty quickly or I’ll be down at the level of someone on the New Statesman. As it is, even my best scores pale before someone famous like John Humphrys (3,800). And journalists, as a group, don’t do as well as you might imagine. Unpleasant world leaders get quite a few — Kim Jong-il had 17,600 just after he’d shelled that South Korean island. But even that pales before your mega celebs — Simon Cowell, for example, who is one of the judges on that awful programme X Factor, scored 93,000 c***s on Google last Saturday evening, which is hugely impressive.
But who, exactly, is the most c***ed man alive in the world, I can hear you ask? Who is it that provokes more people to call him a c*** than anyone else on God’s earth? This never changes, it is always the same answer, a man in a c***-class of his own. It is always Bono. And he is way out ahead, with 154,000 the last time I checked, and I check regularly. Respect to the Irishman. Perhaps now, at last, he has found what he was looking for.
It is losing its lustre, its sense of specialness, this word. Ten years ago it easily came top of a confidential internal BBC study to discover the words which viewers and listeners found most offensive. In second place, back then, was the modernist demotic ‘motherf***er’, followed by good ol’ ‘f***’ in third.
The ‘c’ word was formerly commended, or reviled, for its uniqueness; it was once the one thing you could never ever say and get away with it. One supposes that the historic crudity of the word was exacerbated by more recently acquired political sensibilities — it had a sort of totemic existence for feminists, who saw in it the degrading objectification of women and who, therefore, wished to ‘reclaim’ it for themselves. Now, though, ‘nigger’ has surpassed it, for similarly highly charged sociopolitical reasons, and c*** has sadly lost its resonant tang. My guess is that after ‘and’ and ‘the’ and maybe ‘iconoclastic’, it is the most commonly used word on Channel 4 after nine o’clock in the evening.
You can see evidence of this change in the verbal temperature in the way the two BBC presenters, James Naughtie and Andrew Marr, were treated by the press when, on air, they — ahem — inadvertently referred to the Culture Secretary James Hunt as ‘James C***’. The reaction of middle England, in the form of the Daily Mail (Paul Dacre, incidentally, 18,900 c***s on Google. Nuff respec’, Paul) was one of whoops: Jim and Andy — what a hoot! Whereas ten years ago the paper would have been baying for blood. Nobody, anywhere, has suggested that Marr or Naughtie should lose their jobs, or at least not for accidentally calling Mr Hunt Mr C***. A muffled, embarrassed apology was sufficient and everybody else just had a good laugh. Imagine for a moment if they had inadvertently let slip the word ‘nigger’ instead. They would be in a world of pain and, regardless of whether the slip was a simple spoonerism or something more Freudian, would probably be collecting their P45s at this very moment.
The problem is that the ‘c’ word is becoming ubiquitous. Andrew Rawnsley in his book The End of the Party, reports Gordon Brown addressing three members of his staff in the following manner: ‘To one aide he said: “You’re a c***.” Pointing at the second he said: “You’re another c***.” To the third he said: “And you’re an even bigger f***ing c***.”’ Now, that’s the Prime Minister speaking, quoted in a serialised and widely reported book — and this comment was not even picked up by the media. And yet you might well remember the furore 15 years ago when John Major referred to some of his Eurosceptical cabinet members as ‘bastards’, a much milder term of opprobrium.
Some will argue that this is part of what Martin Amis has called ‘the obscenification of everyday life’, that we have all become desensitised to the foulest language. But I subscribe to the Quantity Theory of Filth, the notion that there is always a set amount of stuff which people find taboo and beyond the pale. Imagine, once again, that Gordon Brown had called a member of his staff a ‘nigger’ — I am fairly sure that we would very quickly have been inhabiting a place called Niggergate and Gordon would have been out of office by the end of the day.
Gordon Brown, incidentally, 81,000 c***s on Google. Not bad, but no cigar.