Many years ago, towards the end of my first decade, the local authority in Hillingdon sold off a parcel of land on the other side of the high hedge at the far end of my grandparents’ garden to a developer, to build houses.
Way out near the end of the Piccadilly line, Hillingdon was a Saxon village then in the process of becoming part of the rapidly expanding western fringe of Greater London; and we were its caerls.
That hedge was one of the boundaries of my childhood world. I had never been or seen beyond it, but was vaguely aware that there was a footpath behind, separating us from an area of parkland, on the other side of which was the mysterious place where my grandfather, a career RAF officer who had served through both World Wars, went to work in his pale-blue uniform. Now and then, huge, khaki-coloured military transport planes would roar over at rooftop height, as the house lay right beneath the approach to Bomber Command, Uxbridge.
Only later on did I become aware that we were scheduled to be a primary target for a Soviet nuclear attack; and lay awake night after night, worrying, as the imagined enemy Tupolevs thundered over my bedroom, while downstairs my secretly socialist grandfather chuckled over bold headlines in the Daily Sketch, warning of the imminent conflagration that was about to engulf us all as the result of some new US foreign policy blunder.
I used to play in the school holidays from summer dawn to autumn dusk in the garden with other boys from the village, Chris Hibbert from next door, David Ryder, who lived somewhere nearby, and other less familiar or memorable cronies, a gang straight out of a Just William story. To me, armed with my plastic Bren-gun with recoiling barrel and realistic muzzle-flash, as long as the batteries held out, the garden seemed as big as wherever you wanted to go.
It was in fact about a quarter of an acre in size; with lawns, crazy-paving paths, a fishpond teeming with interesting newts, my grandfather’s lovingly tended dahlia beds, a small orchard with apples, pears, wasp-eaten plums and an ancient mulberry tree, its gnarled branches perfect for building tree-houses in; and beyond that, an area my mother had had them turn into a proper tennis court, shortly before she gave up tennis and ran away on the stage, which every summer became overgrown and was, in fact, the African savannah or the Great Plains; until my grandfather would scythe down the long grass and we put up bamboo poles and string and wove the kind of grass huts where Red Indians and evil Nazis lived, where you crawled inside the dappled gloom and smelled the grass turning drowsily to hay in the summer heat.
One day, we were intrigued to hear fruity swearing coming from the other side of the hedge. Builders had arrived to start putting up the houses the government was resolved to build in their hundreds of thousands, to finally compensate for the destruction wrought by the evil Nazis a decade earlier. These burly rough men, stomping about in the mud in their wellington boots and string vests, were Irish, mostly from the far west, whose impenetrable accents could not conceal the thrilling fact that every second word they spoke was ‘fuck’.
So prolific and creative was one dumpy, red-faced, fierce little navvie’s use of the word, that we christened him ‘Fuck’. This, of course, was a dark secret between us. Uttering the f-word was not merely forbidden in front of the grownups, in the unreal, genteel world of the 1950s it was unthinkable anywhere. Nobody, not even the working class, used the word except among a small, select group of their peers, in the dizzying fume and fug of the pub.
You would never dream of using it to your social superiors. Safely married grownups might whisper it into their pillows, Hell’s Angels on a burn-up in Margate, squaddies on National Service and watery beer in Aldershot might be attracted to its forcefully monosyllabic qualities, but dinner-party conversations then were never sprinkled with this clever little word; you never told a policeman or a teacher to ‘fuck off’. It had never once been uttered in public discourse, on film, on radio or on the newfangled glowing box in the corner of our sitting-room. If it ever appeared in print, as in that bestial novel whose name must never be mentioned in front of the servants, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, there would be a public scandal and a stern prosecution under the obscenity laws.
It was a word, in short, of immense arcane power; and quite enchanting to hear.
The first person known to have used the f-word on TV was the drama critic Kenneth Tynan, in 1965. His little slip led to the satirical current affairs show BBC3 being taken off the air. Henceforth it would be pre-recorded, just in case. Five decades later, ‘fuck’ and ‘fucking’ are in common use by all social classes in most media, and have in most cases lost both their power to shock, and even their fixed place in the dictionary.
‘Fucking’ has become an adverb, as in ‘I don’t fuckin’ care!’, or just a spacing word, added perhaps to give a litle emphasis and a more déclassé image to the user, as in ‘That (insert name of Chelsea player) is completely fuckin’ useless’. ‘Fuckface’ and ‘fuckwit’ are cheery insults. To ‘fuck-up’ means to get something wrong; to be ‘fucked-up’ means to be confused, drug-addled; ‘fuck-over’ is to give someone a grilling; ‘I’m fucked!’ merely means you are tired; ‘fuck me sideways!’ is not a strange anatomical request, but an expression of mild surprise. ‘I’m totally fucked’ usually means you are at a loss to know what to do, since you have no job/money/battery charge left in your Smartphone, etcetera.
The fearsome and profane PR chief, Malcolm Tucker (played by Peter Capaldi) swears magnificently to impose his dubious authority on the inept Minister in BBC TV’s The Thick of It, often substituting ‘fuck’ for syllables in longer words, like ‘fucktastic!’. In Father Ted, the hilarious Irish comedy about three dimwitted Catholic priests, the word has been substituted by the euphemism, ‘feck’ — although we all know what it really means. So popular was the show, however, that people now use ‘feck’ ironically as a substitute for ‘fuck’.
Films starring, typically, American people of colour have, in recent years, featured the language of the inner-city streets; principal among which is the unpleasant ‘motherfucker’. It’s a pejorative usage so common that it has ceased to have much meaning; just a vague, familiar insult divorced from its power to shock and insult with its imputation of maternal incest. Every character in an American film or standup comedy show is now a ‘motherfucker’, just as we might call a thing whose name we have forgotten, every unnamed thing, a ‘mother’, like a ‘thingummy’ or a ‘wossit’, and nobody minds.
A few weeks ago, I fell into one of those disputations you have with a neighbour over some important point of principle about parking on the public highway. He being Welsh, and me being frightfully English, he was never going to let me have the last word. Eventually, in exasperation at his typical Welsh inability to discuss anything rationally, I turned on my heel and marched off, hurling forcefully over my shoulder — forgetting to keep up the lilting cadences in which I normally empathise with the natives in lieu of actually learning to speak their impossible, tongue-twisting ancient language –: “Oh, well then, fuck off.”
The effect of this crude epithet on someone whose longbow-drawing ancestors actually invented the complementary V-sign to insult the French, was to produce only mocking laughter. In a recent court case, the judge threw out a policeman’s complaint that the defendant had told him to ‘fuck off’, on the grounds that everyone said things like that nowadays.
Yet the word ‘fuck’, ubiquitous throughout all classes of society, has not entirely lost its power to shock and awe. When expressed sufficiently forcefully, ‘fuck off’ still manages to resonate internally to produce a real effect on the hearer; whilst seemingly giving great satisfaction and relief to the user. Viewers and listeners from the Mary Whitehouse memorial front-parlour still write in high dudgeon to the BBC, and to those mainly broadsheet newspapers whose lofty editorial policies now rule-out no words of profanity if used in their proper context, complaining wearily of being offended.
Like the horseless carriage, radio and television programmes containing the f-word still have to be preceded by an announcer and a caption warning of ‘strong language’.
The origins of the word are obscure. It is said to be Anglo-Saxon, although there is scant evidence for that. Another, weirder explanation is that it is an acronym, standing for ‘fornicating un-Christian carnal knowledge’, which C17th Puritans apparently hung on a sign around the neck of an adulterer being punished in the village stocks. It’s suggested, too, that it is just an abbreviated form of ‘fornicate’.
Part of its power to shock clearly lies in the shape of the sound itself: starting off with a soft dental-labial ‘ff’, gathering force rapidly through the uniquely English short ‘u’ vowel (the French know us fondly as ‘les fuke-offes’), to arrive with finite suddenness at the hardest of double-consonants, ‘ck’, it belongs to a family of similar words expressing some violent action: shock; hack; kick; block; flick; smack, etcetera.
So why are those words not equally taboo? Well, ‘fuck’ is of course the one that has an immediate sexual connotation. While it has the power to physically repel with its sheer verbal ferocity, the word also contains a message that refers directly to the act of copulation, but in the coarsest possible sense; devoid of any romanticism and personal connection, but also of any equivalent connotation of forcible, physical assault, it is the act of penetration itself, pure and simple.
While offered as an expulsive sound, a war-cry that demolishes reasoned argument, destructive ‘fuck’ is also creative ‘fuck’, a metaphor for the act of procreation putting us directly back into the moment of our conception; a sacred moment, supposedly; and, hence, shockingly blasphemous.
We may have lost public respect for, and awe of, religion, and no longer pay heed to its simplified mythology, its superstitious rules and regulations, its hallowed gestures. ‘Fuck it!’, we say. But deep down, I suspect, we are still a God-fearing folk, children in a garden, boldly fearful of the Divine consequences of such a verbal transgression.