Unspeakable

The wife-to-be is quite fond of faggots. Me, I’m not so sure. I mean, some things just bring up long-embedded reactions. Thoughts of toffs bullying young fags in Tom Brown’s School Days, or bundles of twigs piled under heretics who will not recant before the flames consume them.

Small boy has a much older boy as his fag

I know words have several meanings but I can’t quite get my head around the idea that my fiancé finds comfort in little rissoles made of offal and offcuts named after, well…

It turns out they’re a speciality of her homeland, the English Midlands, traditionally eaten with gravy, mash and peas. Like bound twigs, they are bundles of otherwise worthless bits. Pig’s liver, heart and shoulder with herbs and breadcrumbs. A gutless English haggis, if you will.

4-Faggots

 

The name makes sense. The first printed use was in 1843 when a local paper noted some fat bugger had eaten 20 of them. Clearly some feat.

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The word comes from Latin fascis ‘bundle of wood’ and is related to the Roman symbol of authority and punishment, the fasces; an axe bound in a bundle of rods. The rods for whipping, axe for beheading. The Italian fascists took their name from it believing it showed how the bound cause of the many confers unbreakable strength (which sounds much like an argument of their communist foe.)

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Unlike that other great fascist symbol, the swastika, the fasces did not fall from favour, and is still proudly displayed by the US government.

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Of course, the humble faggot can have other meanings. Facebook has banned English users from talking about their meaty treat because of this. Ads that play on the name have also been supressed.

Words can be tricky. Some people can say them, sometimes. Others cannot. It depends on where you live, who you are. Borders and rules are shifty.

This struck me last month while listening to podcasts about the celebrated Dam Busters raid. It is 75 years since that audacious attack on the heart of Nazi Germany when the leader, Guy Gibson, chose the name of his beloved dog as the code-word for success. It was a common, affectionate name in 1940s England. My English father had a cocker spaniel with the same name at the same time. But the BBC did not dare mention the dog’s name. They simply referred to “Gibson’s dog” or “the dog’s name”.

Nigger_(dog)

 

The word has an ugly history. Abuse. Reclamation. Suppression. Cultural imperialism and bias. Its use, or absence, is fraught with problems. The great wordsmith Stephen Fry is writing a script for the Peter Jackson remake of the 1955 film. All people can talk about is whether the dog should be named or renamed.

There is no easy answer. History happened, and should not be ignored. Brave young men gave their lives on the raid and thousands of innocents, woman and children and enslaved labourers, died in their beds. Whose story is it?

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The American history of slavery has not ended. The debate in the US over the unspeakable word bleeds into the rest of the world. No one’s hands are clean. I learned this when the UK treasury tweeted that anyone who paid taxes in the UK up to 2015 had helped end slavery!, based on the fact that repayments on reparations paid out in 1835 had just been completed, 180 years later.

It was an appalling twisting of words. The £20 million (£200 billion or US$405 billion today) was paid not to the former slaves, but to their owners. Half went to just 6% of the claimants, a despicable roll-call of Britain’s future elite. To make it worse, the money was clawed back through taxes on everyday goods, making the many pay for the sins of the few.

The fact that every time I had a pint or a pub lunch in the UK before 2015 played into this sick abuse is hard to swallow. It makes me feel angry and ill.

The persistent call in the US for reparations for the victims of slavery is usually met with derision. It cannot be afforded, is undeserved. That is nonsense.

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I have heard the iniquitous use of the unspeakable word, in songs and movies, justified by black musicians as their right in lieu of reparations. I can sing it, say it, but you can’t, is said seriously, and with a smile. I respect that greatly.

But American history is not world history. The imperial reach of their media should not swamp the nuance of different cultures and taste.

Black US forces fought the Nazis in Europe and famously experienced a freedom that did not exist at home, the so-called ‘land of the free’. The British refused to bow to American racism.

The only time they ever did was in the war of 1812 when captured white American sailors demanded they were segregated from their fellow combatants while imprisoned in Britain. It was a foreign concept on British soil. The black prisoners amused themselves while waiting for freedom by staging a production of Romeo and Juliet. There’s a book about it, a film to follow.

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Some things are hard to swallow but Shakespeare, that great Midlands lover of words and nuance, was adept at throwing bits of this and that together to turn the unpalatable and mundane into an experience that transcends the simple definition of words. It is part of his undying genius.

To the Bard, the world was never black and white. And he probably also liked faggots.

 

And hark ye, sirs; because she is a maid,
Spare for no faggots, let there be enough.

                                     -Henry VI Part 1

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