Shane MacGowan: the voice of reason

Publication: The Guardian

Author: Brendan O'Neill

Date: December 19, 2007

Original Location: Link

The Beeb's shortlived censorship of the Pogues' Christmas classic A Fairytale of New York was both bizarre and ominous

I once read a book called Is Shane MacGowan still alive? The answer to that question wasn't immediately clear as the man himself staggered on to the stage at Brixton Academy last night. With skin as grey as a cadaver's, and a cackle that sounds spookily like a death rattle, MacGowan looked more "living dead" than fully alive.

Then the music started, and Shane began belting out old Pogues classics like a pub drunk who's had one (or perhaps 10) too many. Who knows whether he had kept abreast of the day's news, which included reports on the BBC's scandalous bleeping of the word "faggot" from the Pogues' A Fairytale of New York? Not that it made any difference: when MacGowan sang a fully unexpurgated version, we 4,000 fans sang along with gay abandon. (Pun intended.)

On one level, the BBC's censorship of the Pogues - later rescinded - was utterly bizarre. Peter Tatchell spends as much time in his Guardian article this morning asking "Why am I writing about this incident?" as he does actually writing about it. But on another level, the BBC's shortlived censorship is ominous: it shows how deeply entrenched is officialdom's intolerance of "inappropriate language", and how keen are the authorities to police how we speak and think.

The Pogues have always been offensive. That's their stick. And that's why some people, including me, love them. Eighties popular culture was dominated by crap pop music and cringe-inducing political rock; by what MacGowan himself describes as pop acts made up of "a faggot and a guy with a synthesiser" (un-PC, yes, but you know what he means) and "straights playing world music" (that is, stadium-rock tossers like Simple Minds and Peter Gabriel). When everyone from teenyboppers to po-faced alt-rockers tended to be teetotal squares, the Pogues kept alive the rip-it-up spirit of rock'n'roll rebellion. They were the last great punk band. Offensiveness was their middle name.

Which makes the BBC's attempted censorship all the more galling. The momentary ban revealed much about contemporary censorship. First, it showed that censorship is driven by a deeply elitist outlook. BBC bigwigs tried to dress up their own middle England distaste for a rough and common word like "faggot" as an attempt to protect homosexuals from potential offence. In fact, very few gays are offended by A Fairytale of New York; certainly there was no public demand for it to be censored.

It was deeply disingenuous for the BBC to present its own narrow-minded actions as being for the benefit of a "section of the population". But it isn't alone. Today, officials and campaigners frequently call for stuff to be banned on the grounds that it might offend some community or minority, when in truth it's their own soppy, moralistic sensibilities that have been rattled. Censorship remains the pastime of a distrustful elite, but it's dolled up to look like an altruistic gesture for a victimised community.

Second, the temporary ban exposed the cultural elite's distaste for street lingo. It might come as a surprise to the BBC to learn that not everyone speaks in the same dulcet tones and with the same proper vocabulary as Natasha Kaplinsky. Many people speak freely, colourfully and, yes, grubbily. In the small Irish enclave in north London where I come from, people refer to the Asian newsagent - who sells a vast array of local Irish newspapers and Irish food - as "Paddy the Paki". There's no racist intent behind this moniker; they love "Paddy the Paki", and are genuinely grateful that he sells everything from the Sligo Champion to Tayto crisps, red lemonade and Cidona (mmm). It's simply a nickname.

Likewise, some people use the word "faggot" as an everyday insult, like bastard or twat, rather than as a term of homophobic abuse. The nature of words changes all the time. Once racist words can be turned into badges of black pride or, bizarrely, terms of endearment; once homophobic words can transform into general insults.

In calling for certain words to be bleeped out, regardless of the intent behind them, the powers-that-be expose their backward, archaic and almost religious attitude to language. They seem to believe that just uttering certain words out loud is dangerous.

Where priests used to tell us we would go to hell if we even whispered a swear word or took Christ's name in vain, today's secular moralists believe that just saying words like "faggot" or "nigger" is a blasphemous, dangerous act; they seem to think these words are evil and possess a talismanic power. They take a prissy, uptight, almost feudalistic approach to language. Meanwhile, the mass of the population, most of whom recognise that the meaning of words changes over time, and that you can use certain words with some people but not with others, have a far more enlightened attitude to everyday speech.

Finally, the BBC incident shows that liberals are at the cutting edge of censorship now. Where the tabloid newspapers, and what is referred to as the great British public, guffawed in unison at the BBC's bizarre ban, it was left to a handful of "progressives" to defend the Beeb, or at least express their "understanding" of the BBC's motivation. Peter Tatchell's critique of the BBC is less a demand for freedom of speech than a demand for equality of censorship: if the BBC bans "faggot", he says, then it should ban racist words, too.

Not for the first time, officials, commentators and radicals have shown themselves to be aloof and alienated, while the masses have remained level-headed. Who ever thought that Shane MacGowan and his fans would provide a better voice of reason than the BBC?

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Transcribed and made available by Zuzana.