I have been pre-occupied with offence these past few weeks. Preparing to interview the Pope of Trash (copyright William Burroughs) ahead of his Nov 8th appearance at Liverpool’s Homotopia festival, I have been starting each day with a John Waters film. On day one I finished watching Pink Flamingos – sex involving chickens, castration, cannibalism and most famously dog turd eating – and then turned on the radio while I had lunch (vegetarian cocktail sausages, by coincidence). And I found myself feeling genuinely offended for the first time that day.
Radio 4’s Round Britain Quiz, that bastion of middleclass cryptic crossword- obsessive, unashamedly top-of-the-class contestants, began with a throwaway reference to the setting: “Hello and welcome to our rural interrogation centre in North Yorkshire for another session of cerebral waterboarding.”
I felt a bit sick. And it wasn’t the cocktail sausage I was finishing off. Was this PC- gone-mad in my head? How did I square my discomfort at a throwaway line with the joy of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition sketches? Was it about the passage of time? Anyway Britain’s history of Hitler jokes was part of the war spirit and hasn’t demeaned the truth about the Holocaust since.
Perhaps my unease lay in where it was said and why. In the early 2000s innocent citizens found themselves snatched at airport transit gates at the behest of British and American security services, and tortured for months in compliant Middle Eastern regimes. Men like Canadian software engineer Maher Arar who was snatched at JFK airport in 2002 on his way home from holiday, transported to Syria where he was tortured for nearly a year as a suspected Al-Qaeda operative, and then released without charge. His appalling story inspired the 2007 film Extraordinary Rendition with Meryl Streep. He’s still waiting for an apology from the US government.
So back in my kitchen, listening to the radio, I think the offence came from the lack of thought about it. The nagging sense that no one would have broadcast that flippant line if they could ever imagine something like that happening to themselves.
So now the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to ban a government billboard campaign aimed at illegal immigrants as misleading but not offensive is intriguing. As with the waterboarding joke, perhaps rural Yorkshire will not have been offended by this. The billboard was driven on lorries around areas of London known to have many illegal immigrants. It said: ”Go home or face arrest. 106 arrests in your area last week.”
The ASA’s ruling upheld the complaint of inaccuracy. That 106 figure was well dodgy. The ASA “acknowledged that the phrase “GO HOME” was reminiscent of slogans used in the past to attack immigrants to the UK, but that in that context it was generally used as a standalone phrase or accompanied by racially derogatory language.” They suggested that different wording, such as “RETURN” rather than “GO” HOME might have helped avoid concern. “However, we concluded that the poster was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence or distress.”
Given that legal immigrants can be among the most fiercely opposed to allowing illegal immigrants to stay, they may well be right. The worst of the Go Home chants and graffiti was in the 70s and 80s. 30 years on perhaps we should take comfort in the widespread outrage generated. Britons have moved on. Even Tommy Robinson has left the EDL. It has clearly given the Home Office food for thought.
Now a new political battle over offence is just gearing up: about the obscene squandering of soldiers’ lives in the First World War. Recording a special Radio 3 programme about the 50th anniversary of Joan Littlewood’s savage anti-war satire Oh What A Lovely War!, original cast member Murray Melvin told me how Field Marshall Douglas Haig’s family lawyers sat in the audience many times, looking for any tiny aberration from the script for an opportunity to shut the show down. The battle to control the War’s image and rehabilitate Haig’s continues. Despite his controversial war of attrition, Haig was runner up in a 2011 National Army Museum poll of greatest British generals ever. Jeremy Paxman has most recently voiced his concern that David Cameron’s plans for commemorations that say “something about who we are as a people” might turn into a “celebration of war”. A focus on the heroic, obedient Tommy, that conveniently draws attention away from the military and political establishment’s shame.
A century on and the idea that obscenity might be hidden under a celebration truly is offensive.
A version of this column first appeared in the Big Issue magazine: Journalism worth paying for
John Waters is appearing at Homotopia in Liverpool on Friday 8th November. Tickets and info here.
My Free Thinking Interview with John Waters is on Radio 3 at 10pm on Wednesday Nov 6th. You can listen again post-broadcast here.