‘Fat’ as a four-letter word

Following the recent furore surrounding the so-called sensitivity editing of books by Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming and others, I dug out this short Orwellian pastiche, which I wrote back in 2016 and failed to find a home for.

Sensitivity editing now goes on in all the major publishing houses, with authors both past and present. In addition to all the other reasons why such a practice is abominable and barbaric and shameful, there is one other: writers choose words not only for their meaning but also for their sound, for their rhythm, for their music. In the story below, for example, try replacing the word ‘fat’ with a synonym in the phrase ‘filthy fat fuckin’ pharmacist’ and see what happens.


Waiting in line for the inhibitor pills designed to curb offensive language – originally developed for use with Tourette’s sufferers – Winnie speaks into his phone.

‘Yeah, still at the pharmacy, running a bit late. Thought I’d be back by six but fat chance of that now.’

A shaft of incandescent pain arrows up his left leg and stabs him in the groin. ‘Fuck!’ he cries through clenched teeth, only to be rewarded with another piercing bolt of pain.

‘For goodness sake,’ his wife says, ‘you know not to use that word.’

‘What word?’

‘The f-word of course.’

‘Too many f-words, that’s the trouble. I just got zapped twice. First one must have been the other f-word. You know, the… adipose word.’

‘The what?’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ Winnie sighs heavily. ‘Can’t say a flippin’ thing these days.’ He waits to see if ‘flippin” will be punished too, but nothing happens. ‘Sooner they sort out these contextual glitches the better. Can’t take much more of this.’

‘Well that’s why you’re getting the inhibitors, isn’t it? Won’t have to worry about that any more.’

Initially, when the Verbal Offences Act first came into force, he refused to wear the ankle-bracelet gizmo that was now mandatory for all. But after twice being singled out for random spot checks during those early weeks and hit with absurdly heavy fines as a result, he understood that one more infringement would mean an automatic custodial sentence. So, reluctantly, he complied.

Finally he reaches the head of the queue, where the screenwall behind the counter displays a rolling list of the most recent terms to be proscribed. ‘Ugly,’ ‘stupid,’ ‘mad,’ ‘lazy’ and ‘victim’ are, it appears, the latest casualties of the verbal cull. The language is shrinking by the day. As if by eliminating unpleasantness from the dictionary they can eradicate it from the world.

‘Mr Smith?’ the girl – sorry, woman – behind the counter says, handing him his prescription. ‘Take one in the morning and one at night. Any problems, call your doctor.’

He’s about to ask when the ban on the blacklisted words on the screenwall comes into force but catches himself just in time. Not making that mistake again: it’s entirely possible that the word ‘blacklist’ has itself been blacklisted. He contents himself with a gruff mumbled thank you instead.

Filthy fat fuckin’ pharmacist, he says silently to himself as he leaves the store. You might control my speech but you’ll never control my thoughts!

Back home Winnie’s wife sucks on her electronic pacifier in front of the screenwall. The news channel carries a story about the latest verbal-offences measures, something to do with a mass screening programme designed to detect ‘inappropriate cerebral activity,’ whatever that means. She takes another hit on the pacifier and switches to her favourite cookery show.

A Cynic’s Response to Recent Political Events

The paradox at the heart of our liberal democracy is that we expect, or at least hope, that our politicians will be people of principle who say what they believe and believe what they say. Yet the sad truth is that politics by its very nature attracts people driven not by principle but by personal ambition. A recent example of this, if example were needed, is Liz Truss’s desperate and embarrassing attempt to cling on to her job by whatever means necessary, backtracking and reversing and U-turning on a daily basis. Ditto Boris Johnson’s refusal to quit as the previous PM until he literally had no choice (the same Boris Johnson who once wrote two drafts of an article for the Spectator, one in favour of Brexit and another arguing against it, while he waited for the results of the referendum).

Another example is provided by Home Secretary Suella Braverman’s resignation letter to Truss on October 19, which the mainstream media analysed exclusively in terms of two possible motivations: did she resign because of a relatively minor breach of the ministerial code or did she resign because of ideological differences with Truss? Am I the only one who strongly suspects that Braverman’s resignation had nothing to do with either of these alternatives but was a transparent (at least to me) attempt to reposition herself outside the Truss inner circle and thereby present herself as a critic and opponent of Truss rather than a supporter? Clearly she saw that Truss was about to be toppled and didn’t want to be taken down with her as collateral damage, especially as she had her eyes on the top job herself. Yet none of the media outlets I saw or read even mentioned this as a possibility.

Could there be a world in which politics attracted people of principle rather than those driven primarily by vanity and ambition? It’s hard to imagine, because who would want to do such a dirty and thankless job unless fuelled by such self-serving motives? And yes of course there are exceptions to the rule, a minority of politicians who are true to their beliefs, maybe even models of probity and integrity. The trouble is, with politics being the cutthroat business it is, such paragons of virtue rarely make it to the top.

Limerence and the Novel

I’ve recently been working with a Finnish writer, Tua Laine, whose novel Resurrecting Jack is soon to be published in English. Ms Laine introduced me to the concept of ‘limerence’, which she insists lies at the heart of her novel about a diplomat’s suspicious death and his widow’s attempts to uncover, or perhaps invent, the truth. A quick google search confirmed that limerence is one of those buzzwords that erupt from time to time into the public consciousness and spawn endless websites.

The term was originally coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in 1979 and has been defined as ‘an involuntary, potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (LO) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation’. It’s sometimes referred to as a third state between love and lust, or as the condition of being in love with the idea of love rather than with a person. One of its key elements is the unattainability of the LO through obstacles or barriers of one kind or another, such as physical distance or the fact that the LO is already attached. Those who dislike the term – and whose point of view I found myself agreeing with – maintain that limerence is little more than what we used to call ‘unrequited love’ or ‘infatuation’.

The iconic limerent text is Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, in which a young man falls hopelessly in love with his best friend’s fiancée. At this point I started paying attention because, halfway through my novel The Year of Living Philosophically, hapless diarist Dave realises his life is repeating the plot of Young Werther, except that instead of falling in love with his best friend’s fiancée he’s fallen in love with the fiancée of his worst enemy. In fact the entire novel was conceived as in part a comic retelling of Young Werther, played for laughs rather than tears (and, in the case of Young Werther, a spate of copycat suicides).

The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that my novel was a paradigmatic limerent novel. Poor Dave is wedded to the idea of being in love with his LO Sophie, but she’s completely the wrong person for him, they have nothing in common and she’s already attached. And then it occurred to me that my first novel, The Empire of Lights, was also a limerent novel: the protagonist of that book is in love with a fantasy woman he only ever meets, except for a single casual encounter, in his lucid dreams. And I began to think that maybe limerence had been the subject or central theme of my writing all along, it was just that I didn’t know it.

Then my thoughts turned to other limerent novels. What were the canonical limerent works, the seminal works? Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage perhaps, about a young man’s obsessive, masochistic love for a woman who has no affection for him. Or The Great Gatsby? After all, Gatsby’s heroic fantasy of stealing Daisy Buchanan from her husband by transforming himself from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby could hardly be more limerent.

But something was niggling me. If it was so easy to see limerence everywhere, might that not mean that it wasn’t actually something new, just something old wearing new clothes? And so I ended up back at my original point of view, which was that limerence is no more than a fancy, erudite-sounding way of talking about unrequited love or infatuation. Despite all that, if I was back doing the job I used to do, as a dictionary editor, I would certainly be adding ‘limerence’ and ‘limerent’ as new words to the next edition.

‘The Shock of the Old’

In an article on Nabokov I wrote long ago, I referred to what I called Nabokov’s “future perfect” perspective on time: his characters are fond of imagining themselves in the future looking backwards in time and recollecting the present moment, thus conflating past, present and future — “I like to fold my magic carpet after use,” Nabokov said — through the exercise of imagination and memory, the twin pillars of his aesthetic. In fact, for Nabokov, “Imagination is a form of memory… An image depends on the power of association, and association is supplied and prompted by memory.”

All this is a fancy way of attaching an unearned profundity to a short poem of mine, ‘The Shock of the Old’, that’s included in the Summer issue of Lighten Up Online. It’s not Nabokov, I readily admit, but it is perhaps ever so slightly Nabokovian.

The Shock of the Old

Hard, when you see an old photo,
to remember that once it was new.
That kaftan was quite the thing back then,
those loon pants and platform soles too,
though to us they resemble something
from the wardrobe of Fu Manchu.
So why expect any different
when your grandkids see an ancient you?
In those trainers, jeans and wraparound shades
you’ll look more exotic than you ever knew.

Ukraine: the other side of the argument

Like everyone in the West, I of course abhor Russia’s unprovoked assault on Ukraine and the senseless loss of life unfolding there, for which Putin should ultimately be held accountable and tried for war crimes. However, I do believe there’s another side to the West’s absolute insistence on Ukraine’s right to self-determination and, while readily admitting that I’m no expert on geopolitics, I feel it’s a point of view that deserves to be raised.

Consider the following hypothetical. Imagine that in the next few years Scotland or Wales achieves independence from the UK and a few years further down the line the Scottish or Welsh people vote to enter into an alliance with Russia. Ridiculous, of course, but then who would have predicted back in the mid-1980s that just a few years later most of Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics would become democracies with an aspiration to join NATO and the EU?

Now imagine further that one of the consequences of this alliance with Russia was that Russian missiles, including nuclear missiles, might be sited on Scottish or Welsh soil. Do you think the English government would simply shrug its shoulders and say ‘Well, they have the right to self-determination, so if that’s what they choose to do…’? Of course not.

By the same token — and this time it’s not even hypothetical, it’s historical — why was it OK for the US to object to the possibility of Russian missiles in Cuba but it’s not OK for Russia to object to the possibility of NATO missiles in Ukraine? It’s hard not to detect a whiff of double standards, mixed with a lax complacency engendered by Western triumphalism after the fall of Communism.

Even before the invasion of Ukraine was launched, I saw no reason why a diplomatic solution could not be reached, according to which Ukraine would commit to becoming a neutral country – not the only neutral country in Europe after all and a solution which Putin actively favoured. Perhaps this neutral status could even be guaranteed for an initial, negotiable number of years, after which the situation would be reassessed. Surely this would be preferable to the terrible tragedy being played out in Ukraine today.

Any sympathy I once had for Putin’s security concerns has now vanished of course. But still I can’t help feeling that, if the West had shown at least a measure of understanding of those concerns rather than simply repeating the mantra of self-determination ad nauseam, the awful events currently being enacted on our TV screens might have been avoided.

Language and Evolution

The field of evolutionary linguistics is one I’ve long been interested in even before I knew that such an academic discipline existed. Because it seems to me that many elements of evolution theory can be applied usefully and successfully to the evolution of language.

We all know how evolution works but here’s a quick summary anyway. Organisms make copies of themselves and in the copying process random mistakes or mutations occur. The rest – the whole extraordinary panoply of life on Earth – follows as a natural consequence: some of those organisms with mutated genes will be better suited to their environment than existing members of the species and will therefore live longer or have more sexual partners and, as a result, more offspring. And the offspring will inherit the mutated gene and pass it on to future generations. The survival of the fittest.

When we look at the evolution of language we can, I think, see similar processes in play. For example, when a new social or cultural phenomenon occurs – let’s take genetically-modified food as an example, to continue the evolutionary theme – it’s often the case that a number of competing terms for the phenomenon appear. So along came “genetically-modified foods” and “GM-foods” and, for a while, “frankenfoods”. The latter didn’t survive of course, perhaps because it was felt to be too whimsical or too tabloidy. Either way, it wasn’t well-suited to its environment and eventually died out, while the other two terms lived on.

Or consider the events that took place in New York on September 11, 2001, which came briefly to be referred to by several competing terms: we had “the attack on the World Trade Center” and “the Twin Towers attack” and “the September 11 attacks” but also, more simply, “9/11”. Of course “9/11” won the battle, perhaps because of its very simplicity. It even won the battle here in the UK, where “9/11” would more naturally be understood as referring to November 9, not September 11. And “9/11” didn’t merely survive, it had offspring! So in London in the July of 2005 we had the attacks on the London tube station and bus, which were swiftly dubbed “7/7”, clearly a direct descendant of “9/11”. Who knows, in the future there may be many more such catastrophes labelled with numeric codes of the same type.

There are other parallels between evolutionary theory and the evolution of language. There is for example something I like to think of as “verbal inflation”, where the hyperbolic (that is, mutated) form of a word supplants its immediate ancestor and becomes the dominant form. So today we’ve gone from calling something the centre of violence or crime or whatever to calling it the epicentre of violence or crime, as if it’s no longer enough to be merely the centre of something, a more expressive term is called for. Similarly, it’s no longer enough to say that someone merely exaggerated, no, these days that person is usually said to have over-exaggerated, as if a little exaggeration has become the norm. Likewise, they didn’t merely give a hundred percent in their effort to win something or other. No, they gave a hundred and twenty percent or two hundred percent or a thousand percent.

Many more examples like those above could be given — the double comparative form, as in “more happier”, springs to mind as another example of verbal inflation. Words and expressions and even syntax, like everything under the sun, have their brief moment of glory, then grow old and die. Eventually, like the dinosaurs, they end up as fossils, interred in dead languages.

What counts as sexual harassment?

No reasonable person could deny that it’s completely unacceptable for a woman to feel afraid of being sexually harassed when walking alone on a street at night or on her own in a bar. No-brainer. Obviously. But how is that perfectly justified fear to be removed? Now there’s talk of introducing a crime of ‘street harassment’. But what would count as such a crime? Where is the line to be drawn?

One TV interviewee I heard recently included wolf whistling as a form of sexual harassment. When I was growing up, wolf whistling was regarded as an acceptable way for a man to signal his appreciation of a woman’s physical charms. The woman would usually smile, feeling complimented, and continue on her way. Wolf whistling may be crass but is it now to be considered a crime?

Or suppose a guy in a bar approaches a woman standing alone. ‘Hello, gorgeous!’ he says with a drunken leer. ‘You on your lonesome?’ The woman finds the man creepy-looking, his attentions are unwanted, she feels threatened and reports him to the police. Has he committed a crime? Perhaps he’s just a jerk. Aren’t we back in the realm of ‘Your behaviour offended me, therefore you need to change your behaviour’?

Of course it’s clear that the behaviour of some men, perhaps particularly younger men, does need to change. But putting a crime of street harassment on the statute books is unlikely to bring about that change. It goes far deeper than that. Brought up in a world of online porn in which women are routinely depicted as sexual omnivores, literally ‘gagging for it’, is it any wonder that some young men imbibe those attitudes and project those perceptions onto the women around them? But how do you halt the flood of online porn without shutting down whole sections of the Web in a way that we’d be quick to condemn if it was carried out by the likes of China or North Korea?

We seem to be at a fork in the road. One path leads to ever-increasing licence in the portrayal of sexual relations to the point where pretty much anything short of rape or murder is permitted. The other path leads to the erosion of fundamental democratic rights such as the right to freedom of expression. Which path will prevail in this forking hell?

What counts as racism?

The recent Royal racism row – I mean of course Meghan Markle’s revelation that Harry was asked by a senior Royal about the likely skin colour of the couple’s forthcoming child – has got me hot under the collar. Not because of any suggestion that the remarks of the senior Royal in question may have been motivated by racial prejudice – how can we possibly know whether that’s the case? we weren’t present when the remarks were made – but rather because of the media’s unwholesome relish in immediately placing such a construction upon those remarks.

In language, context is everything. Exactly the same form of words may have two entirely different meanings depending on the situation or the tone of voice in which they’re expressed. Hence irony. Hence sarcasm. For all we know, the subtext of the senior Royal’s remarks may have been: ‘we hope, for your child’s sake, that he or she won’t be too dark-skinned because otherwise they’re likely to encounter the most shameful and deplorable racism’. Or maybe even: ‘we hope your son or daughter is dark-skinned because we don’t want another ginger minger in the family’.

It’s still borderline acceptable today to make jokes about people with red hair, but for how long? How long before it’s considered taboo to make jokes about, or even simply to criticise, anyone from a minority background, whatever that minority happens to be?

But hang on a minute, isn’t everyone from a minority background of one kind or another? Take me for example: an elderly white heterosexual man. Aren’t we also in a minority? Shouldn’t it therefore be taboo to make jokes about people like me? Surely, in the interests of fairness, there should be no difference between one minority and another.

Typically, the response to this will be: ah, but people of colour are routinely discriminated against, whereas white people aren’t. To which I would reply: actually, the minority to which I belong (white heterosexual male writers – hey, we’re all allowed to self-identify these days) is also discriminated against. Look at the editorial board of any publishers, look at the judging panel of any literary prize, look at the shortlist for those literary prizes, look at any book programme on TV – they’re all dominated by women and people of colour. Occasionally you will spot a white male but usually they’re gay.

No doubt many people who might read this post – fortunately perhaps, very few people will read it and most of those are friends – will have me down as a racist or sexist or homophobe because of the comments above. Which is just another version of the ‘I was offended by your words, therefore you are in the wrong’ argument. In other words, everyone has a right not to be offended. Well, in my world we don’t have that right. Offence can sometimes be a positive and necessary thing. Do you imagine that slave traders weren’t offended by the arguments of the early abolitionists? Do you imagine that vegetarians (another minority I belong to) aren’t offended by adverts for McDonald’s and Burger King? Do you imagine that Christians weren’t offended by evolutionists?

Sadly, that world is vanishing before our eyes. Even as we speak, Orwell’s Thought Police are donning their riot gear in preparation for the battle ahead, batons at the ready.

Civil War Two

A vision of the near future in the US: two thin coastal strips of liberal, progressive, pacifist democrats separated by millions of deluded fanatics who get all their news from social media and only speak in soundbites via Twitter, led by one of Trump’s children, who continues to peddle the lie invented by their father that there’s a giant conspiracy against them and they’re actually in the majority and need to seize power by force. In other words a Second Civil War. Or, as the Americans will call it, Civil War Two.

Meanwhile …

In the midst of a global pandemic with the UK recording its highest ever daily death toll from Covid, plus impending civil war in the US with the threat of a possible nuclear strike on God knows who, the lead story on BBC News – likewise Sky News – is that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination. Cue archive footage of the Queen speaking to various unknown people or shaking their hands, while a voiceover repeats the fact that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination. Then an interview with someone or other about the fact that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination, followed by the voiceover repeating the fact that – did I mention this? – the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination. All this above a rolling ‘BREAKING NEWS’ banner stating that the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh have received their Covid vaccination.

Is it me or has 2021 got off to a bad start?