Photo: Getty

    The Pogues saga says more about us than the BBC

    20 November 2020

    Another one of those on-line to-dos which make teacup-based weather events appear positively newsworthy, flared up and winked out again on social media this Thursday, between elevenses and afternoon tea. The half-life of these scandals makes Polonium look positively stable. But this was briefly a racket of such an extraordinary signal-to-noise ratio, that one is entitled to ask: just what is it, that is piled so high, like barrels of gunpowder, in the basements of our collective souls? So dry and so flammable and so ready to burst into beautiful orange flame as soon as a random spark catches the wind?

    The spark on this occasion was a tweet – by, significantly, the BBC’s own official news account, almost as if they wanted to start a pointless row – to the effect that BBC Radio 1 will not play original version of Fairytale of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl this Christmas, because its audience may be offended by derogatory terms for gender and sexuality.

    This sort of insta-controversy crops up as reliably and as seasonally as Christmas songs themselves. Indeed, sometimes you sense that the instigators are actively dangling carefully chosen bait in front of their political opponents in order to provoke a reaction. As the day wore on, clarifications seeped out of various social media pores, like e-pus from an e-sore. This was not a ban; This was not “censorship”. This was the choice of a specific network, it was said, made to suit the stated preferences of a specific demographic – the Young. A demographic that has grown up, if at all, with different ideas about the acceptability of “homophobic slurs” in popular song. The wrong sort of snowflakes, in other words.

    Actually, no scare quotes are needed. The offending word, ‘faggot’, is without exception a homophobic slur. Even when enclosed by those same punctuation marks in their more traditional role, that of denoting an actual quote. To the song’s original fans, it was taken in the context of the character, sung by Kirsty McColl, being angry, disappointed and spitting blood. But it is true that the virtually operatic structure of the song is challenging to younger listeners, unused to such song-writing ambition.

    Radio Two, meanwhile, catering as it does to those of us who grew up with the original version and probably a lot worse besides, will continue to broadcast that version, also containing references to tramps, “old slut on junk”, and the dubious ethnic slur/trope that the NYPD recruit overwhelmingly from that part of its citizenry that knows all the words to Galway Bay. By 2050, the only lines left on R1’s version will be “I could have been someone! — Well, so could anyone!”. The rest will be hummed. And it will still be better than anything new released between now and then, unless Nick Cave gets his act together sharpish.

    So, after a frantic debate about everything from defunding the BBC to the true motives of Straight White Men demanding that their few remaining opportunities to get pissed at discos and yell locker room vulgarities into each other’s grinning faces in the name of authenticity, the actual ball in play seemed to evaporate before our eyes and leave us looking foolish, pompous and over-exercised about pretty much bugger all*. *not a homophobic slur.

    Why? Why do these tiny provocations trigger such apparently disproportionate anger, or more accurately perhaps, weariness and despair? Well, of course the degree to which social media is itself tweaked to perfection to arouse such reactions, much as (Pat Barker tells us) a regenerated nerve can respond to a pin prick as though it were a stab wound.

    But there has long been a simmering sense among those of us who once enjoyed smoking in pubs and standing up at the football, that we are in a war, but that our enemy moves so slowly, so quietly, and so much in the shadows, that sometimes we get jumpy.

    And meanwhile, the intrusions into the organic, living thing that is Culture, by those who pretend to know better, are aggregating to make life not just worse, but almost not worth bothering with at all. The ongoing infantilisation of an entire nation is not a minor concern but an existential risk. This “safetyism” rots our souls, whether it be in regard to a novel coronavirus or a hurty word slurred inaudibly in the middle of a waltz-time ballad by two lost souls, loudly lamenting their broken dreams on the one pop song version of Christmas Eve that we all recognise as having some truth to it. The reaction to the ban may well have been knee-jerk but it still cements the feeling amongst a certain generation that kids need to damn well grow a pair.