A librarian once took me to one side and said,’ One of the reasons we like you is because you never make the characters use swearwords.’
It was a conscious decision on my part; most swearing is unimaginative (except when spectacularly released by my pal Simon ‘Pottymouth’ Rennie) and too easy. I’ve always taken a more challenging route, using the English language in more luxurious ways, picking elderly frail detectives over healthy young ones, using abstruse murders over procedural plots, avoiding the supernatural get-out clause.
But sometimes it’s hard to keep the books this way and have them reflect real life. Londoners are legendarily foulmouthed, but creative with it. Surely it’s one of the reasons why ‘The Thick Of It’ was so successful? Now news reaches us that UK bosses are the most foul-mouthed in Europe. Trigger warning; this clip is astoundingly rude.
So, with all this swearing about – and British newspapers like the Times and the Guardian both print swearing when it’s quoted – what’s the big deal? Call me perverse but I just don’t miss it on the page of a novel and enjoy working around the problem. There are times when it’s tricky though, such as when you’re writing about white working class males, who swear continually, making it sound strange when you stop them from doing so.
Meanwhile, Ofcom has compiled a swear code for use as a guideline to pre- and post-watershed television. I left out the rude half of their sliding scale because it was well, predictable.
I always notice the different when our more conservative American friends are here. They’re far too polite to let invective fly at dinner, unlike Steve Martin’s British girlfriend in ‘LA Story’, who arrives in California from a BA flight and astounds the assembly with a casually dropped sweary moment.
The limitations of swearing are obvious, whereas a finely tuned insult can make everyone feel good. Watching ‘Darkest Hour’ I rather enjoyed Churchill’s ‘Keep buggering on’, and the moment when his secretary has to explain to him what it means by having the V-sign the wrong way around.