I remember clearly the day I first experimented with the f word, which I had recently learned at school from a boy called Guy. I was at home with Mum, aged about eight, and dropped a piece of toast on the floor. ‘Oh, fucking hell,’ I exclaimed brightly.
It was a swift lesson in the power of language, involving shock, awe and deployment of wooden spoon across knuckles. As a tactic, it worked well. I didn’t swear in front of my parents for many years. And I learned to use the words sparingly, to reserve their power for when it was truly required. I still remember the single heart-stopping moment my father lost his temper sufficiently to use the word ‘bloody’ – as in ‘you bloody kids’ – the only time I ever recall him swearing.
When I started writing, I realised the language a character uses tells you a lot about them. Some people simply don’t swear, no matter what the provocation. Others use fucking swear words as fucking punctu-fucking-ation. I have a fondness for the pseudo-swearing that ladies of my mother’s generation and class go in for. ‘Hells bells,’ they exclaim. ‘Oh, Gordon Bennett.’ A phrase like that gives me an immediate picture of the well-dressed lady uttering it.
As a kid, I was fascinated by the seemingly arbitrary limits between acceptable and unacceptable. The priests on Father Ted could use the word ‘feck’ without anyone lunging for a wooden spoon. Grange Hill pupils cried ‘Flippin’ heck, Tucker!’ with impunity. ‘Cor blimey,’ which I’d assumed was pretty tame, was according to my aunt a contraction of ‘God blind me,’ and not to be uttered lightly.
When I came to write my novel, I began by avoiding profanity. My heroine didn’t seem a sweary type. Nor did two of her antagonists. But then the violent thug who was out to get her – I couldn’t imagine him shouting: ‘Goodness gracious, you blooming woman!’ And one of my characters was a reporter for a local newspaper. I’ve worked in news rooms. They’re not noted for their gentility.
So, what to do about the swearing? The only answer was to go with what seemed natural for the character. When I came to show the finished manuscript to my parents, I asked my mother if she wanted a bowlderised version. She bravely agreed to read the original, with its unexpurgated use of the c word. She made no comment on the language.
But maybe I should cut loose a bit more. Does some literature actually improve with use of profanity? I’ve been experimenting with some famous lines. Do let me know what you think.
Literature Improved by Swearing
Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the fucking flowers herself.
“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any fucking presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the fucking rug.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a fucking good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own fucking way.
Fucking call me Ishmael.
- Reader, I fucking married him.