When I was in 2nd Form/Year Nine/7th Grade I was lucky enough to have a truly gifted English teacher. He did a couple of things for me when I was in his class that have proven helpful ever since. The first thing he did was to give me 20 out of 20 for a short story – the first time he had ever done so, and the first time I had ever received such a mark. Nowadays, when the novel’s going badly or I can’t seem to get traction on an argument in my thesis, one of the things that keeps me going, that instills some form of self-belief, is the knowledge that Mr Andrews once gave me perfect marks for a story that I wrote.
The other thing that has proven helpful over the years was his introduction to the idea that there is no such thing as bad language. “There are no bad words,” he said, “just their inappropriate use”. It took me ages to get my head around that, and then even longer to accept it, but now I think he was right. Words have weight, it is true, but it is weight we choose to give them.
Recently I have been watching on Youtube video compilations of American news programmes reporting the 9/11 attacks, as part of my PhD studies. One thing that I noticed as being common across the board was the language employed by all the commentators as they saw the planes strike the World Trade Centre, or later as they watched the buildings collapse. “Oh my goodness,” they kept saying. “Oh my goodness.”
This was bad language.
This was a massively inappropriate response to the events these people saw. If ever there was a spectacle that deserved forceful, unambiguous language, this was it. Instead we heard the anaemic pratings of television personalities linguistically castrated by a governing body that has decided all crude language – what my father, rather endearingly, refers to as ‘basic English’ – is wrong. And I’m sorry to all those possessed of delicate sensibilities, but it’s not. “Oh my goodness” is what you say when you’re halfway home from the supermarket and realise you’ve left a bag of groceries at the checkout. Witnessing the deaths of 2,993 people calls for more than that.
To reiterate, vehemence is not to be equated with inappropriateness. Ezekiel 23 is an extraordinary chapter of the Bible, in which God makes clear just how extraordinarily disgusted he has become with Israel. The language is appallingly crude, but it would take a brave idiot to criticise God for the tone of His message. Oh – here we go. Anyway, I remember having this discussion with my grandmother in Waterstones a couple of years ago. I had just bought The World’s Wife, a (brilliant) collection of poems by Carol Ann Duffy, and my Nana asked to see what it was that I had bought. She opened it, with what was perhaps absolute inevitability, at the poem ‘Delilah’, which includes these lines:
“he guided my fingers over the scar
over his heart,
a four-medal wound from the war –
but I cannot be gentle, or loving, or tender.
I have to be strong.
What is the cure?
He fucked me again
until he was sore,
then we both took a shower.”
Naturally, my grandmother tutted in that special way that older Christian women who are veritable pillars of respectability seem to develop. “I can’t say I approve of the language,” she said.
I took the book from her and read the poem carefully. “What alternative would you suggest?” I asked.
“Well, if she must talk about…that sort of thing,” she said, with a pillar-of-respectability-significant-pause, “she should say ‘made love’.”
“No she shouldn’t,” I said flatly, partly because I’m not all that respectable, but mainly because I entirely disagreed with her. “When, a few lines earlier, Duffy is careful to write ‘I cannot be loving,’ she can’t then follow that with ‘and then we made love.’ Love is the thing completely missing from the poem. There’s lust, and physical attraction, but not affection or ‘gentleness’, as she puts it. You might not like the word she chooses to describe the act that results, but it’s not bad language – it’s entirely appropriate language.”
I’m not sure whether my argument carried the day or not, because at that moment my parents returned and the conversation ended. Nevertheless, I still think I’m right. Some language might but unpleasant or even offensive, but that doesn’t mean it’s unjustified.
While being affronted at the inadequacy of some language this week, I also managed to be hit with language of the opposite extreme: still inappropriate, but this time entirely too forceful for its own good.
The reason it’s particularly been an issue over the last week is because the last week has seen Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day. I care about these dates. I read a lot of history – particularly World War Two history, but a lot of other modern conflict history too – and I have, as a result, a relatively thorough understanding of the sacrifices made by various countries and their armed forces over the last 95 years. I know, for instance, that it is now more than forty years since Britain last had a year in which no soldiers were killed on active service.
I appreciate those sacrifices. But I am under no illusions as to the nature of those who made them. They were mostly ordinary men. They were relatively conscientious, they were volunteers (in the latter half of the century), they had no particular desire to kill or talent for killing, and what they wanted more than anything else was for the fighting to stop so that they could go home. They weren’t, by and large, heroes.
‘Hero’ is a word that has come in for more abuse in the last week than just about any other. But the problem is not limited to this week alone. Here is an extract from the introduction to Max Hastings‘ intriguing book ‘Warriors‘, which illustrates exactly what I’m talking about:
“It is welcome that popular perceptions of courage no longer embrace only, or even chiefly, achievement in battle. But it seems dismaying that the media, and thus the public, today blur the distinction between a victim, who suffers terrible experiences, and a hero. To any thoughtful person, a hero must be someone who consciously consents to risk or sacrifice his or her life for a higher purpose. The media, for instance, will describe a pilot who safely lands a crippled plane laden with passengers as ‘a hero’. A party trapped for hours in a cable car who return to terra firma without betraying visible moral collapse may well be dubbed heroic. In truth of course these people are merely passive victims of misfortune. If they behave well, they are doing so to save their own skins, and only incidentally those of other people. Anyone who has served in a theatre of war, even in a non-combatant capacity and even in as perfunctory an affair – from the Allied viewpoint – as the 2003 invasion of Iraq, is likely to be described in any subsequent media report of a divorce, a car crash or a fatality as a ‘war hero’. This is a travesty. Such a word as ‘hero’ deserves to be cherished as carefully as any other endangered species.”
– Max Hastings, ‘Warriors’, (London, Harper Perennial, 2006), pp xviii-xix
Of course genuine heroes appear in wartime. One of the most cherished autographs I possess is that of Leonard Cheshire, who succeeded the famous Guy Gibson as commander of 617 Squadron, the ‘Dambusters‘. He won the Victoria Cross, and in the most exceptional manner: not for any single act of outstanding bravery, but for an extended period of sustained courage. He had by that stage flown 102 missions. To put that in perspective, one tour of duty in Bomber Command was 30 missions. The chance of surviving that tour was 10%. Your chance of surviving a subsequent tour was 5%. RAF bomber crews in World War Two had a worse survival rate than infantry officers in World War One. Cheshire’s VC citation reads, in part:
“In four years of fighting against the bitterest opposition he maintained a standard of outstanding personal achievement, his successful operations being the result of careful planning, brilliant execution and supreme contempt for danger – for example, on one occasion he flew his P-51 Mustang in slow ‘figures of eight’ above a target obscured by low cloud, to act as a bomb-aiming mark for his squadron. Cheshire displayed the courage and determination of an exceptional leader.”
That level of determination, courage, and stamina is wholly exceptional. It is almost unbelievable. Nor do I think it is solely the province of wartime: there are people today in Britain who are alone, who are trying to look after their children as best they can and who do not know where the next meal is coming from. Such people live lives of quiet heroism, their desperate fortitude every bit as moving as tales of battlefield gallantry. That’s heroism. But nearer to home, it seems another hero has emerged this week.
And so from the sublime to the ridiculous. Scott Rennie, whatever else he might be, is not a hero. I am not wholly without sympathy for him, as I am sure he has endured much abuse over the last year, and no one who had the kind of experiences I had when I was younger could fail to sympathise with a man whose experience recently must have been desperately unpleasant. But that being said, I cannot believe that he was entirely ignorant of the situation he was bound to provoke, and nor can I equate unpleasantness endured with terror and mortal risk overcome.
When you kick over a hornets’ nest, of course you’re going to get stung. Taking it doesn’t make you a hero.
Here is, finally, your moment of Zen:
 This is the woman who once gave me a copy of H. Norman Schwarzkopf’s autobiography with every expletive carefully excoriated with black biro, a labour of love and lunacy that must have taken hours of patient reading and defacing and perhaps even use of an unabridged dictionary, just to be sure she’d got them all.