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Blameless? I Don’t Think So

In an article in Friday’s Guardian, Nicholas Tucker put forward the thesis that “naughty” words could be got away with in more innocent days.

The trigger for this was the change of name of one of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons from Titty to Tatty in a new BBC adaptation of the books, Titty being of course too (err…) tittersome for these days.

He mentions the innocent use in bygone times of “intercourse,” “screw”, “ejaculate” and, in the case of Dr Seuss, “Boners.”

However, the quotation he gives for his next example “cock” – as in a fairground giant cockerel which a maiden aunt of Just William mounts on a merry-go-round – undermines his thesis as the text goes on to say, “It seemed to give her a joy that all her blameless life had so far failed to produce.”

For what is the purpose of that word “blameless”? It seems to me to be present precisely to signal exactly that knowledge which Tucker claims to be absent. Otherwise why include it? If the point was the one Tucker is making then the phrasing, “a joy that all her life so far had failed to produce,” would make it far more effectively, and poignantly.

Tucker then uses the same word to describe Just William’s author, Richmal Crompton, saying she was a blameless ex-classics teacher. But are not the classics – of which she therefore must have had extensive knowledge – full of instances of sexual mayhem? (The Rape of the Sabine Women for one. In case this may be thought to be an egregious example unlikely to be mentioned in school, this incident was one of those encountered by the good lady in her Latin class.)

Tucker says a similar fairground cockerel also appears in an Angela Thirkell story and adduces for her innocence of any double entendre that she was a distinctly snobbish granddaughter of the pre-Raphaelite artist Edward Burne-Jones. As if artists (and particularly the pre-Raphaelites) were entirely free of sexual knowledge and/or shenanigans. Moreover a glance at Thirkell’s life story might suggest rather a lack of innocence.

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