Rude Britannia

Editor(s) Mina Gorji
Publisher Routledge
Published 2007
Pages 147
Price £16.99
ISBN 9780415382779
Reviewed by Mr. John Clarke
University of East London
Review published 2 October 2008

Timing is everything. What a shame Rude Britannia was published prior to the summer of 2008.

GCSE students get rewarded for writing obscene insults in their English exams, cried the Telegraph.

Exam student's reward for writing 'f*** off', said The Metro.

The headline GCSE-F-word-story of summer 2008 could have provided rich pickings for Mina Gorji and her team. An amusing aspect of this story was seeing how the various newspapers reported the actual obscenity. Many newspapers reported the words by circumlocution a tactic I now know was employed by early lexicographers courtesy of Lynda Mugglestone in Rude Britannia. The Times used avoidance characters, obviously wanting to get to the point but without wishing to offend. (This strategy presented an interesting puzzle: I think that the intention of "f*** off" is entirely clear, but what if the pupil had actually written "f*** off", with asterisks but without quotation marks, on the exam? How would The Times have quoted that? Or more importantly, what mark would the GCSE examiner have given for it?)

Once characterized as reserved, well-mannered and polite the British are increasingly perceived as foul-mouthed yobs. Contrast the public reaction, to John Lydon’s recent obscene outburst on 'I’m a Celebrity…' with the furore following his use, on television, of the f-word as a member of the Sex Pistols 28 years earlier. The recent 'I’m a Celebrity…' outburst provoked only a handful of complaints, a muted reaction when contrasted with the headlines of the 1970’s. Is everything becoming more yobbish? Are the drunken lads and ladettes taking over? If you have any interest, academic or otherwise, in these issues then you are part of the intended readership for the book Rude Britannia.

Rude Britannia attempts to place ‘contemporary concerns about rudeness in relation to wider discussions of class, culture and national identity.’ The book explores rudeness via a number of essays by various authors. It is a tightly edited book with accessible contributions concerning a whole range of ideas in media, literature, football chants, standard Australian English, street culture, seaside postcards and even stories surrounding the death of Princess Diana.

The book is divided into three sections: ‘The vulgar tongue’, ‘British bawdy’ and ‘The limits of rudeness’. The scope is wide. David Pascoe analyses the seaside postcard from a class perspective in his chapter concerning ‘Orwell’s dirty postcards’ while Rebecca Loncraine focuses on gender in ‘Bosom of the nation: Page Three in the 1970s and 1980s’. Tony Crowley examines what is and is not acceptable on the football terraces while Deborah Cameron ends the book with an essay on ‘Redefining rudeness: from polite social intercourse to ‘good communication’’ When taken as a whole the essays are an excellent exploration and description of the cultural history of rudeness in Britain.

I liked the book; it is a truly exciting and interesting read. I would recommend it to both an academic and a general readership. I have to admit that I was a bit apprehensive about an academic book treating vulgarity in what potentially could have been a dry way. Rude Britannia does indeed raise concerns about linguistic and social codes, about standards of decency, about what can be considered taboo in the public realm. It explores constructions of what is bawdy and how it fits into class, race, power and the British identity. It does all of this, scoring very well with a potential academic readership, but it manages to do it with a smile on its face.

Throughout the book, there is wry humour: Theo Tait’s chapter concerning ‘How Viz made Britain ruder’ is potentially funnier than some copies of Viz I’ve read. Being a ‘man of the world’ (nudge, nudge as Monty Python would say) I certainly thought I knew my share of rude, vulgar and downright offensive words. However, I have learnt a whole new collection from the book courtesy of Tom Paulin and Valentine Cunningham.

Rude Britannia explores how allowing words previously considered obscene into print can be seen as a gesture of class defiance, a victory over the perceived prudish values of the middle-class. The book succeeds well in showing that ideas of rudeness and politeness are historically formed within the context of the relationship between social class and language. In presenting rudeness as a focal point for struggles over social and cultural values in society the book certainly made a connection with me. Born into a working class family on a 1960’s Salford council estate, I often disagree with friends, colleagues and relations about which words we should actually consider as swearing. I have fond memories of my own father telling me off as a teenager for using the f-word in an argument. Without any hint of irony he shouted: ‘Do you ever hear me bloody well swear at you?’

To end this review I feel I need to warn potential readers, who may be of a rather sensitive or even a prudish nature, that there is a problem when ordering this book from their bookseller. Another book, by Tim Fountain, is out at the moment, and it shares the same title Rude Britannia. When ordering their copy of Rude Britannia, academic readers will no doubt be expecting an authoritative exploration of rudeness by a research fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford. Be careful you don’t confuse the two books, unless of course, your preferred reading consists of a rather sleazy, but very funny, journey around Britain ‘outing’ a number of sexual deviants. Now that would be rude!