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A purple passage

Until my father became a roving TV reporter and nightly chat-show host, my parents both worked in the theatre. As a child, I remember, they had many actor friends who were covertly ‘queer’. Indeed, one well-known ‘straight’ actor once observed to my mother that if you were a heterosexual man in the theatre, you never went short of willing girls.

The theatre was one place where homosexuals could behave naturally, as, in the real world outside, soliciting for sex with another man (I’m not sure lesbians existed then) would get you an automatic gaol sentence. In the 1950s and 60s, police entrapment was a real risk. Later on, after the law changed and homosexuals were able to ‘come out’ in public, they co-opted the perfectly innocent word ‘gay’ to describe themselves and their culture, and insisted we all used the term. Its original meaning, of being happy or lighthearted, is now sadly lost to the language forever.

In fact, most of those I knew then were anything but gay under the campery, and ended up either committing suicide or drinking themselves into an early grave. Another word that has been misappropriated in popular usage is ‘paedophile’. Having been fast-tracked  through a classical education, I get mildly irked when people describe child molesters as paedophiles, since the word comes from the Greek and simply means someone who loves children. The proper word for a child molester is ‘pederast’, and the act of having sex with a sexually immature person is ‘pederasty’, not ‘paedophilia’. Here too, I know, I am just huffing into the wind.

My point is, these examples are not just ‘living language’ in action. Language is constantly changing, metamorphosising with the addition of new words and changing usages. These however seem to me instances of sloppiness, born of ignorance.

The former Tory Chief Whip (for non-British readers, a ‘whip’ is a political party appointee whose job is to coerce the members in Parliament into voting the party line), Andrew Mitchell, was fired from the cabinet-ranking job not long ago – sorry, resigned –  after an embarassing altercation with police guarding the entrance to Downing Street.

They had made him wheel his bicycle out through the side gate, rather than opening the main security gate for him – an aperture more appropriate to the size of his ego. Being somewhat tired after a long week of whipping, Mitchell by his own admission effed and blinded a while, and then allegedly accused them of being mere ‘plebs’.

Thanks to a recent court judgement, no successful prosecution is likely to result even from someone telling a policeman to ‘fuck off’, as everyone, probably even the Queen, talks like that nowadays. But the popular blatts had a field day with the ‘posh boy’ Mitchell talking down to two loyal, upstanding, underpaid British bobbies.

As most of them are millionaires and not a few went to the exclusive Eton College, the majority Conservative wing of the coalition are acutely sensitive to accusations of elitism. And the word ‘pleb’ of course is an elitist term for someone of the lower orders who is probably a bit, well, thick and smelly.

Only that’s not what it actually means. ‘Plebs’ is a Latin word meaning ‘the people’. A ‘plebeian’ (not a ‘pleb’!) was simply anyone not of noble rank or born ‘to the purple’ (referring to the purple-fringed togas worn by the Roman aristocracy, purple dye being hideously expsnive on account of its being extracted from Baloney shells…).

‘Plebeian’ was not a term of abuse, quite the contrary: senators were acutely conscious of where their power was derived from. The motto of the Roman Senate was ‘Senatus Populusque Romani’, inextricably binding the two forces together: the politicians and the citizens of Rome. And by that definition, Mitchell too is a ‘plebeian’ who has risen to office.

It now seems as I write that the only ‘witness’ to this dreadful exchange may have been another policeman, who wasn’t even there; but, passing himself off as a civilian, sent an email verbatim supporting his colleagues’ version of what Mitchell allegedly said. ‘A man’ has been arrested for questioning and bailed.

Suspicions of conspiracy or collusion are flying around.

The statements of the police on the gate are also looking rather shaky, as the ‘members of the public’ whom they claimed to have been present and deeply shocked by Mr Mitchell’s outburst have turned up on closed-circuit camera footage as merely one tourist strolling past the otherwise deserted entrance and briefly turning his head at the commotion.

In addition, the CCTV suggested that insufficient time elapsed as Mitchell crossly wheeled his bicycle out for him to have used all the words he is alleged to have spoken. The Police Federation now stands accused of conspiring against a government that has been trying to cut the policing budget, again.

Only in Britain could a politician of Mr Mitchell’s standing be brought down by the utterance, sotto voce, of a mildly patronising insult. He continues to deny ever having used the p-word, although he refuses to say what he did say.

You must admit, it does all seem rather odd. Queer, in the proper sense of the word.

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