February. There’s still an awful lot of year left to run, yet already The Berwick Advertiser has set the bar of journalistic brilliance so high that I’m making small yelps of distress. I want to grab its hand and urge it to think; to pace itself. It’s like watching Tom Daley doing a running bomb off the 10m platform. No-one wants to see a 4.5 somersault after that; no-one.
The job of our local press is to re-mix the dud notes of community doggerel into glowing songs of heroism; they unpick the knots in our faded and care-worn tapestry and cover the holes with something pretty – possibly salvaged from a Cath Kidston sale bin. Traditionally, regional newspapers sing our own story back to us auto-tuned and hemmed with pompoms.
Now, I like a pompom as much as the next person. A row of small furry spheres clinging like dead baby hamsters to the edge of some flammable crap, and you’ve got yourself a lifestyle purchase that you’ll never tire of looking at.
But it seems The Berwick Advertiser is experiencing pompom fatigue, thirsting instead for the sort of gritty realism normally found underfoot in pub toilets at closing time. It’s almost as if the Leveson Inquiry has hacked into its subconscious and illegally accessed its darkest fantasy (obviously not the one involving The Southern Reporter, The Northumberland Gazette and a horse on Spittal beach).
And our dear Berwick Advertiser can fight it no longer. Tired of playing the parent, they want us to grow up. Tired of adopting the reassuring see-saw voice of a children’s presenter, The Berwick Advertiser wants to communicate using the voice of freedom and liberty and truth – think William Wallace but from a TD postcode. Which explains why, one ballsy editorial decision later, the F-bomb exploded all over page 10 of last week’s edition like Mel Gibson outside a synagogue.
Nestling within the “Berwick Magistrates’ Court” section ran the story: “Man threw TV at ex-girlfriend’s doorstep.” The story itself is unimportant – one more act of drunken aggression, one more financial loss for BrightHouse.
No, what is really exciting is The Advertiser ripping off and discarding that typographical nipple tassel of decency, the asterisk, to expose letters so pert and proud that they threatened to take an eye out.
Not only did readers learn that the defendant called the victim a “horrible bitch”, but that he also said “Here’s your fucking TV”. Without asterisks to cover the rude bits we didn’t know where to look… so we looked again just to be sure. Yes, we noted breathing a little harder. Still there.
Had asterisks been clipped in place, we could have kidded ourselves that the victim was merely butch and that her TV was falling – the latter a technically accurate state of affairs at least. Instead we were forced to confront the ugliness of every day life in Tweedmouth. It was like finding a severed finger in a box of Party Rings.
Most of us at one time or other – in a state of anger, hurt, joy or drunkenness – will unleash the potty mouth. Cursing is a release, the perfect grammatical modifier to enhance any emotional occasion.
But it’s all about context, isn’t it? And hypocrisy. As a committed swearer, I try hard to keep the bad language behind closed doors, amongst friends and family. Taken out of this context and on to the street it becomes something else; something smacking of darkness and violence.
I wrote a few years ago about an incident in Bridge Street car park which I’ll briefly recount for you here.
The scene – a car park in Berwick with a narrow exit wide enough for only one vehicle. The situation – a car with L-plates blocking this exit with me stuck behind. Initially I was patience personified. Poor sad little learner, I thought, she’ll be feeling the embarrassment of her shaky clutch control for years to come, along with her feeble grasp of stopping distances.
I waited. Minutes ticked by. Then I considered the possibility that Poor Sad Little Learner didn’t realise I was behind her. O-ho, inadequate use of mirrors, I thought. So mindful of the proscriptive rules in The Highway Code on horn deployment, I proffered a friendly ‘toot’. Just to make other road users aware of my presence, you understand.
Now. There’s always a mate, isn’t there? So if you find yourself in the position where you personally can’t be arsed to get upset about something, you can hand the responsibility over to somebody who can. Violence by proxy.
To cut an ugly story short, this friend leant through my car window and started swearing and yowling in my face like Charlie the Cat in the old public information ads, only this time warning about the perils of bulk-buying Elizabeth Duke jewellery.
I had no chance of reasoning with her. On and on she went. A crowd grew. Tension built. I had to seize control; defuse the situation. I racked my brain for something clever, something erudite to say that would stop this scene becoming a reconstruction on Crimewatch…
“Oh, fuck off, you wearying fat slag.”
Tah-dah! And having delivered this stunningly elegant coup de grace, I threw the car forward, squeezing past Poor Sad Little Learner and flipping a cheery ‘V’ as I sped off.
Clearly it wasn’t my superior education and negotiating skills that won the day, it was the fact that I was sitting in a car with the engine still running.
And did I spend the morning in town on a victorious high re-telling this story of accomplishment and heroism equal in scale to that of the Spartans at Thermopylae?
Because I knew that to the ears of the bystanders I sounded no different from Wearying Fat Slag. I was no different. (And plus I was expecting to get shivved by a scuffed stiletto heel any second.)
There is an ugliness to swearing in public that degrades offender and offended alike; this is why there will always be shock-value in a neighbourhood paper printing a full frontal “fucking”. It taints us by association.
Most of us are guilty of an emotional Nimbyism. We don’t want to share the fantasy world – one big soft play area where the sun always shines and no-one is sick on your doorstep – with the monster that hides under the bed. We don’t want the reality of day-to-day violence showering down over our cornflakes when we shake out the paper first thing in the morning.
So while The Berwick Advertiser may have captured even more of my heart by their new-found, if misguided, robustness, I fear they may have to ask Cancer Research for their nipple tassels back.
Rightly or wrongly, people still want to pretend. We still want pompoms.