As first words go, it was unexpected, to say the least. Not content with burbling inanities along with the rest of his infant peer group, or playing to the gallery with the clichéd and frankly sycophantic ‘mama,’ Georgie homed in on profanity with his very first attempt.
And what a profanity.
Of the hundreds of thousands of words in the English language, there were really only four or five that could have elicited anything other than rapturous pride from his family, yet this; this most notorious of expletives, controversial even amongst seasoned blasphemers, this was the word that emerged from the doughy features of my 11 month old brother…
‘Did he just say…?’
My auntie, always happiest in the midst of other people’s misfortune, could barely hide her delight. What better way to assuage her jealousy over her sister’s baby than to mine for a seam of delinquency running through his infant id. ‘Yes,’ my mother interjected tersely, ‘he called you ‘aunt.’ He’s so fond of you. Isn’t that sweet?’
This was a shrewd move; playing the woman’s desire for scandal against her smugness at finding herself the subject of Georgie’s first coherent utterance. The conflict momentarily short-circuited her…
‘Oh… Aunt? I thought for a moment he said… oh it doesn’t matter. What a special bond we have. How sweet that he knows I’m a…’
‘Cunt’, the child repeated, lacerating his mother’s inspired piece of deception with one chirpy syllable. A mischievous smile spread across his toothless features as he began to chant his favourite new word, over and over. ‘Cunt, cunt, cunty, cunty, cunt’.
There was a long, awkward pause as the adults stared at the child in disbelief. Their capacity for self-deception, honed by lifetime membership of the middle classes, and normally so reassuringly impervious, wobbled in the face of such a jarring reality. Was it somehow possible to deny this was happening?
You could hardly have found two people less equipped to handle such an outburst. My mother wouldn’t say ‘vagina’ to her gynaecologist, let alone the ‘c-word’ and I would bet my inheritance that my spinster auntie had lived her entire life without a single reference to that most sinful area. Presumably there are people in the world more loth to discuss sex than Scottish middle-class women of a certain age, but short of joining the Taliban, I don’t expect to meet one soon.
As if trying to defuse the tension, our Myna bird Clarence chose that moment to begin beeping like a microwave, one of the many household implements he had taken to emulating – each newly acquired sound more intensely annoying than the last, even more so for the hard-earned knowledge that it would be heard, without fail, every day for the rest of the bird’s existence. In his two long years of life, Clarence had not yet shown any sign of thinking, ‘actually, I’ve probably taken that impression about as far as it can go, maybe I’ll give it a rest.’
‘Trevor, will you shut that thing up, the grown-ups are talking.’ The bird had been bought when I was a child, and I don’t remember anyone canvassing my opinion at the time, yet somehow I was held responsible for his behaviour as if it was me who’d had the brainwave that our family would surely be improved by the presence of one relentlessly squawking idiot.
I hushed the creature, barely able to conceal my delight over that afternoon’s development. I had only the dimmest awareness of what the ‘c-word’ actually meant, but like any conscientious schoolboy I had a working knowledge of the major swearwords, and I was pretty sure that this was near the top of the list. Perhaps having a little brother wouldn’t be such a drag after all.
Without warning, this rare moment of fraternal affection was skelped out the side of my skull by a hand that seemed to lunge out of nowhere. Recoiling from the blow, I saw it was affixed to the arm of the belligerent battle-axe that I had the misfortune to call ‘auntie.’
‘And what are you smirking at? You did this, didn’t you? What possessed you to speak such muck into your poor brother’s ears? He’s still a babe for God’s sake!’
Before I could defend myself my mother leapt into the fray. ‘Don’t you go blaming Trevor. He’s hardly been down here whispering about lady parts to an infant. The child doesn’t know what he’s saying. He must have heard someone on the street, there’s no point going on about it.’
I clutched my stinging ear and glared defiantly at my accuser as I protested, ‘I don’t know what it means. How could I teach him a word I don’t even know?’ Although this was not technically a lie, on a continuum of candour it was not exactly close to the truthy-end. It was a fact that I didn’t know the precise definition of ‘the c-word,’ and it was also true that I hadn’t deliberately sought to teach my brother how to swear; however… I had to admit that the hours spent in the very same room as Georgie, patiently urging the family bird to utter the offending noun may, just may have had something to do with that day’s events.
Grudgingly my auntie backed down, regarding me with suspicion, ‘well… I’m just saying aren’t I? You don’t learn a word like that by accident.’
‘Gwen…’ my mother interrupted with a tone that showed she wasn’t going to argue, not out of fear of losing, but because she was so entirely in the right as to render actually outlining her case superfluous, ‘let’s just leave it yeah? By the time Jim gets back from work the child will have a new favourite word and we’ll hear no more about it.’
Each evening when my father returned home, exhausted and tense from another monotonous shift, willing away the hours in an office in which he was neither challenged nor valued, he would feel joy for the first time that day as he approached the cot of his youngest child to reassure himself that life still retained some delights and there was a good reason he put himself through this drudgery. That day was no exception and after he kissed my mother and I, we did our best to act normally as this weary breadwinner looked down upon the newest member of the Watkins tribe with palpable love.
The shadow of his father across the child’s face was enough to ease the infant from a gentle slumber. Scrunching his eyes with tiny balled-up fists, Georgie smiled up at his devoted parent and greeted him in the only way he knew how.
As my father gazed into the cot in disbelief, his brain flat-out refusing to process what his senses told him, my mother leapt at the chance to guide him to her preferred conclusion.
She was a canny woman and her response had been well prepared and sense-checked. ‘Isn’t it delightful? Little Georgie said his first word today. His enunciation still needs a little work though. There are two options. Either he is saying ‘count’ or ‘can’t’. Either way, one day he’ll be a bank manager.’ She had intended to top off this bravura performance with a peal of laughter, but in the circumstances even a woman of her skills overreached, producing a sound more reminiscent of the sudden gasping breath of a drowning woman.
My father eyed his wife sceptically for a brief moment before continuing to scrutinise his youngest son as he murmured, ‘for a moment it sounded like he said….’
‘There are two possibilities.’ His wife stopped him in his tracks with a voice that brooked no dissent; ‘two possibilities.’
If that day’s episode had been a mere blip on the route to linguistic orthodoxy, the weapons grade denial that my mother so expertly wielded would most likely have been effective, and over time the Watkins’ party line would have hardened, with the ‘bank manager’ quip not just trotted out for years to come, but believed too.
However, little baby Georgie seemed to have an inchoate grasp of the power lurking inside this most infamous noun. Although my mother cooed and applauded whenever he mewed something less offensive and did her utmost to incentivise him towards a more child-friendly repertoire; perversely he appeared to prefer the opprobrium and upset brought forth by his favourite four letters.
My auntie argued that he was given too much carrot and not enough stick, but how exactly does one punish an infant who is yet to see his first birthday? If a child has only one word in his vocabulary, that leaves one word to reprove him with. I don’t suppose you can blame my parents for shrinking away from that particular reprimand. Even aside from the unpleasantness of profaning a pre-schooler, it would be a touch hypocritical given the circumstances.
So surprised was I to escape unpunished that I didn’t dare push my luck by teaching my brother any other curses. However it didn’t take him long to unearth new material without my input. The next word was relatively inoffensive compared to his initial discovery, but still, he saw the way our mother blanched as his tentative vocalisation skipped, naturally enough from ‘pa’, past ‘po’ to ‘poo.’ Even more delicious, the appalled incredulity provoked by splicing together his first puerile portmanteau – ‘poocunt, poocunt, poocunt.’
After that there was no stopping him. Each day when I returned from school, I would rush through to hear my brother’s latest vulgar creation and was rarely disappointed – ‘peecunt’, ‘cuntpoo’,’poopoocuntfuck.’ The best swearwords have only one syllable, as if custom-made for the utterance of children, yet even allowing for this, there was no doubt that Georgie was a prodigy of profanity and gorged on taboo more greedily than on the teat.
Speaking of teats; from the way she blushingly covered up mid-feed when her son blurted out his newest obscenity, Georgie performed his first prodigious piece of swear-word association, and my mother’s darling child – at roughly the same age most infants begin to label their adoring parents, ‘Mama’ and ‘Dada’ – instead worked out a boorish nickname for his mother’s breasts.
From that day onwards, each time my brother encountered a new female and their maternal instinct tractor-pulled them towards his pram, to lean in with their ‘coochie coochie coos’ and their ‘ba ba bas’ a huge smile would break out across his cherubic features as he greeted their gooey overtures with a defiant, ‘tits!’
My mother was at her wit’s end. Georgie was such a lovely boy in other respects. He was amiable and chirpy, he barely cried, and he slept all through the night, but the other people in town didn’t witness my brother’s good side, they just saw her uselessly shushing him as she rolled the pushchair down the street while he merrily hooted abuse at all and sundry.
She pleaded with the doctor for help but it was clear that he viewed her as the source of the problem. ‘Perhaps you should be more careful about the company you keep. Swearing on front of a child is hardly the mark of a gentleman.’ As much as she yearned to smack this man in his sanctimonious face, she had no choice but to swallow her pride and beg for assistance, but the only comfort he could give was to say, ‘think yourself lucky it’s not Tourette’s. At least the child has a choice in the matter. He’ll grow out of it, just don’t give him a reaction.’
This was easier said than done. Although my family could learn to stifle their horror at the utterances of its youngest member, we had no power to lessen the astonishment of passers by. To overhear the vilest expletives wafting out from under the Mickey-Mouse-emblazoned awning of a pushchair, would raise an eyebrow upon the most stoic of faces, and that was all the encouragement the young attention-seeker needed.
Far from growing out of it, Georgie’s love for vulgarity became ever more entrenched. He possessed an innate sense for divining the least appropriate moments to use particular epithets; and thus, the list of people my mother’s youngest child must not be allowed contact with, extended rapidly past women and vicars, to ethnic minorities, and after one particularly astounding leap of intolerant intuition, homosexuals. It was only a matter of time before she would have to abandon her Jewish butcher. Georgie could sense her fear every time they went, and would dementedly bark exploratory syllables amongst the kosher meat, edging ever closer to anti-Semitism.
He even succeeded where I’d failed with Clarence, persuading the fickle bird to emulate his profane tongue so that our dinner table became like a raucous football ground, obscene chants echoing down from all sides as my mum and dad stared fixedly ahead, glumly carving the meat and passing the peas, determined to give no reaction to their hecklers’ attention seeking.
There was simply nothing to be done. How could my parents explain the concept of socially permissible language to a toddler? They may as well describe Heidegger to a horse. It was simply beyond his ken. On the rare occasions when my mother could bring herself to seclude the child in the ‘naughty room’ in hopes that he would learn to associate the punishment with certain words; by the time she returned, Georgie was so distraught that she had to bounce him up and down for a full thirty minutes before finally convincing him she was back for good. In the face of a loved one’s distress, how could a doting parent do anything but smile when their child regained his sunny disposition and once more began gleefully burping forth obscenities?
After two years of this I was wracked with guilt about the path I’d set my brother on. It was clear that whatever gratification he’d reaped from upsetting adults with the obscenity I’d unintentionally taught him, had carved out the neural pathways that still governed his reward circuits by the age of three. What if he was like this forever? While other people were hooked on drugs or food or alcohol, perhaps he would get his fix shattering social mores, high on outrage?
Anyone who thinks it’s a straightforward matter to choose more appropriate excitements should have a word with one of those unfortunates whose loins are stirred by feet, or nappies or worse. These poor sods spend year upon year painstakingly constructing apparently wholesome family lives and convincing themselves their predilections can be ignored until eventually they are overcome by the inexplicable lure of well-used gym shoes or freshly talcum-ed arses and their lives come crashing down around them. What more proof could you need that altering one’s mental programming is not a straight-forward affair?
My mother needed no convincing that was for sure. She’d seen for herself the uselessness of rational argument and despaired of ever influencing her son to change his ways. Even if people could transcend their programming, she’d seen little sign that Georgie had any inclination to do so. To her exasperation, he seemed perfectly content with his lot.
It simply wasn’t fair. An illness, she could cope with – she was certainly self-sacrificing enough to care for a child with disabilities or whatever obscure disease fate could throw at her, but to lumber her with one of the few conditions that would lead everyone she encountered to question her parenting skills and sneer at her youngest son’s manners; it was beyond cruel.
Worst of all, it seemed clear that his behaviour would inevitably deteriorate further. Each time the shock value wore off he didn’t hesitate to raise the stakes, so what would he do when swearing lost its lustre? It didn’t bear thinking about.
However just as my parents were resigning themselves to perpetual ignominy, it was this very unimaginability that saved us. It wasn’t that my brother had learned the error of his ways, so much as that the obscene well he had been dredging had run dry. There were only so many swearwords to discover and by the age of four he had exhaustively covered the main domains of profanity – sexual acts, sacrilege, and bodily functions. He had combined and experimented with these using a linguistic dexterity far beyond his years, systematically mining each topic till there were only scant remains, while improvising enough to fill a vulgar thesaurus. Yet, even a virtuoso like my brother was ultimately constrained by the limits of his medium.
There was no denying that as his fourth year progressed, although the boy still chirped out expletives at a bewildering rate, there was a distinct lessening in both their originality and quantity. There was a brief resurgence after my parents left him sleeping in the corner of the room as they watched a rather salty period drama, only to despair the next day when our sitting room was filled with more ‘quim’ and ‘cunny’ than an Elizabethan brothel; but this phase too slipped by relatively quickly, and by the time Georgie started attending nursery his skills had plateaued.
It was as if he had climbed the highest pinnacle of social infamy, cast his gaze over all he surveyed and realised that the only way was down. Like all the best artists, he had no desire to sully his legacy with ever-diminishing returns, so rather than seek lukewarm imitations of childhood triumphs, he moved on to new terrain. His blue period was over at last.
Despite the anguish it caused my parents, I can’t help looking back warmly on those years – the inopportune outbursts and mortified silences; the red faces and horrified glances – nobody was much harmed by Georgie’s disregard for social conventions and it was thrilling to watch their ossified structures crumble around him, particularly since not only did my brother grow past his dalliance with profanity, but over time he veered to the other extreme becoming quite the puritan. As his peers finally reached the age at which swearing became a rite of passage and looked to the old master for his seal of approval, he surprised everyone by immediately snitching on them. If he could no longer provoke outrage himself then he would thrive on the condemnation of other people’s behavior.
This unfortunate tendency was reinforced when, in response to these moralising instincts, his teachers began showering him with praise. After so many years of condemnation, the approbation was intoxicating and before long he was transformed from irredeemable outcast to class swot.
In retrospect I can’t help feeling that this was the origin of my brother’s spiritual decline, as throughout his time at school he continued to ingratiate himself to the staff – ascending effortlessly over the years from star pupil, to prefect, to head boy – all the while growing increasingly judgemental of other students’ behavioural shortcomings – as if now that he could no longer generate indignation himself, he would harvest its power from his peers’ behaviour, like a leech growing fat on the blood of its prey. He even began associating with my auntie, the two united in prim disapproval of all they encountered.
By his final years at school, Georgie was so steeped in sanctimony that it seemed inevitable he’d go into politics or the priesthood. My parents could have just about tolerated this, although they were no fans of either group, but at the very last minute, he surprised us all by descending even lower to embark on a career as a tabloid journalist. Despite our disappointment, we couldn’t deny that this choice had a perverse logic to it. He’d work as a sort of outrage-monger, homing in on the stories that inflamed Middle England, like one of those enfant terrible journalists who made their name with controversial outpourings about sex and drugs before securing a nice little earner at a tabloid newspaper to castigate the feckless immorality of a nation.
He had at last found the perfect outlet for his gifts. After all, who knew better than he what would cause offence and indignation? He would use his skills to mine the psyche of his readers to dredge up whatever dark prejudices were lurking – not very deep – beneath the surface.
Even worse, it soon became clear that he relished the role, enjoying nothing more than a morning spent inveighing against teenage mothers or asylum seekers. Finding success was even easier than at school. His teachers had at least made a token effort to ensure he evidenced his essays, but now it didn’t matter how hypocritical or ill-informed these screeds were, there was almost nothing his employers wouldn’t print as long as it targeted the ‘right sort of people.’ His readers’ capacity for outrage challenged even his own, plus they were so ill-informed and credulous that it was like stealing candy from a baby, and then blaming the theft on Muslims.
It was just like old times. My brother was the source of the Watkins’ family shame, yet didn’t feel a scrap of guilt about it, and my mother oncemore felt judgemental eyes upon her as she did her weekly shop. However, I couldn’t help but notice that this time, my parents were much less keen to defend their son. His holier than thou denunciation of less privileged groups made them intensely uncomfortable, and they grew quiet when they saw his picture on a particularly hateful by-line. My mother confided in me that she had begun wishing he had never learned to rein in his profane utterances all those years ago, and looked back fondly on the time when he may have been offensive, but he was harming nobody but himself. Far better to wander the streets muttering obscenities like some mentally ill pariah, than to sully the nation as one of the Daily Mail’s hate preachers.
The one good thing about Georgie’s move into populist demagoguery was that at last, I began to overcome my own guilt. I had lived my whole life in the shadow of my brother’s infamy, consumed with remorse over the effects of my original sin, too fearful to develop a personality of my own lest it causes further trouble to the Watkins family. But this latest career move finally made clear to me that my brother’s fate had been sealed decades beforehand – not when he’d first uttered that most notorious of swear words – but years later when at a precociously early age he had learned one of the most insidious lessons there is – although polite society may be unwilling to tolerate a few bad words, it never tires of rewarding pious hypocrites.