Once the code of our existence was the simple complexity of nature. Our great evolutionary leap… words we could use to pass on that code; where to dig to find a root, how to cut wood from a tree without killing it, how to sharpen flint to make an arrowhead; words passed down over millennia, our animal ability to communicate through sounds as important as our ability to make fire. As well as this, the technique of survival, there was gossip, which informed those who would listen of the nature of man. Gossip soon turned to a story, a story to myth and then myth into history. A monkey can shout ‘there’s a lion’ and the troop will run, but it cannot spin a tale of a man named Daniel in a den of lions.
I trade in words, it’s what I do, bread and butter, which is odd considering how out of my grasp they often seemed to my monkey brain. Maybe that’s why they mean so much; a cripple jig. Words put food on the table; words I speak and words I write, all a manifestation of me, narcissistic and self regarding: Andy soup: love, hate, confusion, bitterness, doubt, compassion, humour, history, understanding. I know words - I think - but I don’t know grammar too good, where or were to put semicolons, but does it really matter when you know what goes on either side? That’s the flaw in teaching English, that it becomes all about the constituent parts, not the whole; the puzzle pieces, not the picture it makes. But grammar gets under your skin after a while. It’s like when you turn into a coffee wanker: one day it’s just milky coffee with three sugars, the next you’re asking how the beans were roasted or complaining it’s too hot (good coffee should not be too hot). The same applies to words: one day you misspell your own bloody name (Andrew Kirkfatprick), the next you’re telling your daughter she should capitalise and use punctuation in her texts (“it may only seem like a text to your dad, but it’s lazy”).
Words, if you think about them, are an abstract concept, like communicating your love by the blowing of a kiss. Consider that the word ‘cunt’ is a close relation to cough, in speech and in spelling, yet still, only the manifestation of an idea or thought: a curse or tuberculosis.
As for those spoken, I know I can be uncouth and unsophisticated, on the surface at least, my words often slop and dribble, lazy and staining to my good character, with no want or meaning. Like the other day, as I stood in the member’s room of the Royal Geographical Society and told Pen Hadow a story from my clownish imagination of Ran Fiennes cutting off his frostbitten penis in order to push it up his arse to deal with his frostbitten haemorrhoids. I often forget myself you see, the words running away, such as then, with a fine china teacup in my hand, words coming pub-like, for the terrace, not for the oak-panelled walls and soft members’ ears. My words are often dangerous I know, for me most of all, but I get a thrill from them, speaking them, typing them: words that must not be spoken, linking one after another to form stories both dangerous and revealing. Words as giddy as any drop.
My brother Robin, who’s been in the RAF most of his life, once told me a funny story about the power of words, a story about how words are always being corralled or controlled, not let loose on the tongue. He was based on the Falkland Islands, a loadmaster on a C47 Hercules, doing maritime patrols, on the hunt for pirates of the fish. For various reasons the military had been kept apart from the locals, the killers from the farmers, the farmers rich, yet still looked like farmers: wellies, Barbour jackets and woolly hats. Their woolly hats had unfortunately led to a less than flattering nickname of ‘Bennies’ amongst the soldiers on the island, coming from the character Benny in the long-dead soap Crossroads, a handyman who once upon a time would have been called ‘slow’, and who also wore a woolly hat. Now the locals didn’t like being seen as having ‘special needs, even if they did, having a garrison of 1200 soldiers looking after them and their sheep (and fishing rights), and complained. Not wanting to fall out, the top brass banned the term ‘Bennies’ from the bases lexicon. True to military discipline, overnight the word became a non-word, but also true to the average soldier, who strangely dislikes being told what to do, a new nickname was produced: ‘Not Bennies’.
The modern offence of using the wrong word is about a hundred years old, Lenin coining the phrase ‘politically incorrect’ for those dangerous individuals who strayed from the party line, their fate the bullet or the gulag. Personally, I’ve always had more time for those who had the guts to be honest, even if they were sidelined for it. I like people who probe with words and look for weak spots in character with jibes, those who treat the meat of words with passion not as if it was a venereal disease.
Someone told me last week that her daughter had been really offended by something I’d said in my Cold Mountain show in Bristol when I’d called my son Ewen a retard (in a jokey way of course, anyway he calls me much worse). I guess she was right, and maybe I do it out of shock value, but I cannot help say that word each time his picture appears, it’s in my DNA you see. I also know it spikes the showman in me, makes people laugh guiltily, shocks, and elicits comments like ‘oh my God did he just say that?’ It’s low I know, but what’s wrong with low? I expect the shock hides what comes next, when I say that he’s 100% me, my son, me when I was his age, a little lost in education, his jazz brain is not fit for the orchestra. When I call him a retard, in my head I’m telling you I think he’s a genius, but only I see it (that’s an odd thing about words, their meaning can become detached).
I guess I offend quite a few people in what I say and what I write (read on - I’m sure you may be offended by what comes below). For me, I would categorise those I offend as being a little too rigid in their ways, and like most who get offended, tending to lack a real grasp of humanity or people, their world one of people as machines. I use the word ‘retard’ a lot, for me, I see it like a black person uses the word ‘nigger’, that I deserve to own that word, that I spent my childhood being called a retard, yet here I am, proof it means fuck all. It’s just a word, and one I tend to only apply to myself or those I judge as being seriously fucking retarded. Who does it offend, the target or those who’d like to believe such people don’t exist, explain away an inequality that cannot be fixed, a blemish?
Offence comes from the heart, not from the word, but then maybe I’m just an apologist for the insensitive. Think of all those words of the past expunged now from education, replaced with terms like ‘special needs and ‘learning difficulties, plus a host of conditions and syndromes fixable by pill. In the US they have the term ‘marginally exceptional’ to replace those nasty old words that hurt so, which to me, along with the pharmaceutical approach to misshapen children, is some kind of strange engineering of meaning, a play with words far more damning of the child, one where the word ‘special’ becomes an insult to the modern ear (just as the words ‘common sense’ mean you’re a bigoted idiot). The problem is words such as these are like a song you grow to hate: most often than not it’s not the music that gets tired, but the associations, the meaning behind the very valid words ‘slow’ or ‘retarded’ replaced by something fresh that all too soon becomes tainted as well, that to be labelled as a ‘special needs child is far worse than being slower than the rest (what’s wrong with being a slow learner?), and an equally effective weapon on the playground. I think it’s healthy to know one’s place at an early age, that you’re fucked, that you’re in a running race but have but one leg. Yes those teachers of old who slapped you around the head and said ‘life isn’t fair’ did a good job, they told it straight, they gave you your bearings, and from there you could make a plan of escape - or just be content to hop.
I guess I should get in line, conform, be correct, drop crap like this that I’m writing now, after all, I trade in words don’t I: make one big mistake and that trade will dry up. I once wrote a sentence that ‘rape isn’t rape’ about the attack on Chrissie Hynde, about how that term closes down any form of discussion that deals with the reality of rape and deeper questions about sex and society, again liberal machine thinking that cares nothing for actual people. Yet a friend told me to drop it, cut it out, that it was not worth it to write something he said was a valid point, and one few make. When I did - like a wimp - I wondered how I’d feel if it was my daughter being raped, or went through life seeing all men as monsters, a victim either way as much of the politics as the man.
For me as soon as someone tells me to shut up or close my mouth I have to wonder for who’s benefit do those words remain unspoken or unwritten? Then I think if I was a boxer, and words were my fists, then it would be my duty to fight, not act like a wimp and throw the fight because of the soft intimidation to do so. The other day someone said I should stop being controversial if I wanted to get sponsorship to ski to the South Pole. That soft intimidation is all around you, and far more corrupting than a horse’s head in your bed. In my defence, I’d argue that words mean more to me than most who trade in them, and they’re not squandered lightly, or posted on a whim, never easy do they come, and so I guard them well. I also feel I have an ear for words these days, listening for what may lie or stalk in the tall grass, trying to grasp their true meaning. For most, words are nought but a handful of sand, but for me, they’ve always been golden and worth fighting for.
I once got into an argument over my use of the word spastic, the terms of disability another can of pity worms, describing myself as having a spastic brain, which upset and offended someone with cerebral palsy. I pointed out that ‘spastic’ to me meant ‘misshapen’ and that I was justified to use it how I wished, that I did have a brain that did not seem to work like the rest. We got into a fight about it, and I tried to point out you cannot own a word by the simple expedient of having cerebral palsy. What did he want, a ghetto for himself? But why argue instead of just saying sorry? Well, to do the latter would mean first going back and deleting that word ‘spastic’. I just couldn’t do that.
This reminds me of Dick Gregory’s book Nigger, which has sold over a million copies. When Gregory’s mum asked why her son used such an offensive title for his autobiography Gregory replied: ‘Dear Momma—Wherever you are, if ever you hear the word “nigger” again, remember they are advertising my book.’
Now I can imagine all this talk of retards, niggers and spastics is making some of you feel uncomfortable. Why is that I wonder? Well, I guess if nothing else therein lies the power of words, and for me I think the defence of words is the defence of free speech and free ideas and thought, something few seem to grasp is very slowly running out, that free speech is only to be extended to those who are worthy. I think without knowing it we’re being kindly corralled and shooed into some odd slavery of thinking, aseptically the liberal mind, its very nature its downfall: considering itself to be self-aware, informed and educated, above the hoi polloi, while really more conformist than the unruly and crazy right. It is this that scares me the most, that good people are complicit in growing liberal fascism, Orwell’s warning for 1984 not Russian under Stalin, but the UK where a liberal elite tried to ban Animal Farm, the nature of far-right and far-left ideology not so different when they come to power: the oppression of free will and thought, both believing they are right, their reasons moral.
A story: A noble professor is being rowed across a wide river, he sat at the back of the boat in his fine robes, the scruffy oarsman before him straining at the task, the river fast and dangerous. “Tell me, oarsman,” asked the professor “can you read and write?”, to which the oarsman replies “No”. Pulling his cloak tight and sitting up straight the professor continues “Why that’s a travesty, a man in this age unable to read and write!”. The oarsman remains silent for a while then asks “but can you swim?”, to which the reply is a pompous “No, but what bearing has that on the matter of words?”, to which the oarsman replies “well we’re sinking”.
To test this theory of your freedom try writing against the current on your Facebook page, see how far you can manoeuvre, see if you dare, see how far you can get. Perhaps write that Donald Trump’s idea of a wall with Mexico may be a good thing, that mass immigration impoverishes the poorest people in a nation (you like poor people don’t you?), not the middle classes, that those systems the poor need but you do not (schools in poor catchment areas, healthcare, transport, social security) are soon overwhelmed and undermined: the poor priced out of even their own poverty. Try writing something like that, then sit back and see the ‘bullshit’ fly.
Now as a trader in words I feel I can grasp them better than some, my spastic understanding maybe even allowing me to go to places others may not. Most of all I’ve learnt that words have rhythm, and once you know this you can often hear the discordant note, the missing key, the sound that for me is a siren few really want to hear, but one a writer like Orwell could see.
Here is a great example of missing words and the power of their disappearance or an intentional omission. It’s also an example of doublespeak This revolves around the subject of our time, that of immigration, something that could well be our undoing, but here is used simply as an example of how words are employed (you see how I did that, I set out the importance of the matter, yet divorced myself from it like a chemist injecting dye into the eye of a chimpanzee). A few weeks ago the Independent ran a headline Cologne sex attacks: Only three out of 58 men arrested for New Year’s Eve assaults are refugees, which fitted well into Facebook and so was universally liked, after all, it gave us all a rosy glow to know such a story was a manipulation of the truth, that there was not a clash of cultures (a very intelligent friend told me Cologne was not about religion, but about culture, how immodest western women are viewed, not considering for a moment where that culture came from). If you clicked on the piece (few people read down below the fold these days), you saw that all of those arrested were from North Africa (Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco, plus two German nationals, who were also originally from North Africa), which took the shine off the story, the story being pushed one primarily about the manipulation of the truth for an anti-immigration engender (which again is about a clash of cultures). For me, this was the oddest piece. The evidence it was flawed was right there on the page and yet seemed to mean nothing, a piece of delusional journalism. A week later the same story was run again, this time with the headline Cologne sex assaults: Muslim rape myths fit a neo-Nazi agenda, which has no mention of the nationalities of those involved, but instead portrays it as a neo-nazi plot designed to undermine mass immigration (the war in Syria has little to do with the number involved, again, just words, only 1 in 5 refugees coming from Syria). It made me wonder if there had been an agreement between the press and the government to censor the news, in liberal papers anyway, as there had been in Iraq and Afghanistan (no images of wounded soldiers, destroyed vehicles, or anything that would undermine public opinion). But then at the bottom of the piece was a story about a girl in Graz, Austria, being gang-raped in school by six boys, the headline ‘Teacher ‘ignored teenage girl’s cries for help’ as she was gang-raped at school in Austria, a story where the offender was the teacher, with no mention of the attackers. What was missing from this story was the fact she was raped by six boys from migrant families, again a story whose facts were important, but also dangerous to an ideology that there is nothing to fear. Perhaps such a story as this, a story of half-truth, emotional manipulation, and spin via omission goes on every day. What worries me most is that when I pointed this out to a university lecturer friend of mine, that news that was supposed to inform our world view was redacted, someone I’d consider beyond reproach, who’d marched against oppression in their youth, all they said was “Well it’s a very sensitive subject”, not one thought about the nature of truth, of a free press. Is the Independent and a fair amount of the press and media no better than Pravda?
And so what do we do when the words we need to know are not there? What if the world didn’t just seem upside down to us, it really was, but no one was allowed to tell us so? What do you say to that child who only has flowers in her heart? What do you do when such news goes unwritten, yet we learn the word ‘Master’ is to be
abolished at Princeton as it may cause ‘discomfort’ due to ‘racial and gendered implications.
What comes next when those that come from such a system one day rule our lives? Will it be rainbows and unicorns and pixie dust or brutal Orwellian oppression? I’m a pessimist and think it’ll be the latter, because once we start debating taking down the statues of men long dead from universities, men who don’t conform to an ideology (this dead man funded 7,688 scholars in the hope of making a positive change to the world), history comes next, and probably already has. And as a result, people move to the right, not right as in right, but right as in “I have a right to know”, the right to understand and go beyond stories where many words are cut out, redacted or edited to avoid offence. When I read that a child has been interviewed by the police for looking at UKIP and IDL websites on a school computer I’d say maybe he’s just looking for an answer that makes sense to him. Are the words so dangerous, and again why lead such a story about extremist material on the BBC with the words UKIP instead of IDL? Again words employed not for you but against you by those who think they know better, but have no interest in real people, only distaste, words of colour, sex, ordination, equality, class, used not to bring us together, but instead to subjugate, divide, disempower for ideologies wholly inhuman and destructive. If you are afraid you are easy to control, something all religions understand, your very thoughts enough to damn you to hell, but consider the power over you when even words can bring you harm?
Wow, that’s quite a lot of words! Well done for making it this far, almost to the end. As a reward here’s one last epilogue to the story of my brother and the words ‘bennies’ and ‘not bennies’.
Well, it wasn’t long until word came down from above that the Falklanders could not, under any circumstances, under threat of a charge, be called ‘Not Bennies’ either, that it was equally offensive, which seemed to end the issue once and for all, or so it seemed. The military is one for jargon and abbreviation, and so one day soon after a new set of initials appeared to describe the locals; ’SNB’s’, which those in charge chose to ignore this time, after all, it was not even a word anymore. And what did it stand for? Can you guess? The answer: ‘Still Not Bennies’, proof that although words are easy to outlaw and ban and manipulate, they are only a manifestation of human thought and ideas like the people who made them for evolutionary purpose, they survive.