Jarvis Cocker and the art of blasphemy
My Uncle Aubrey was a very conservative man, with both a small c and a large C. Tweedy of jacket, badger-striped and Brylcreemed of hair, he was a leading light in the local Masonic lodge, and family legend had it that he’d once been Mayor of Milford Haven. (These last two facts are possibly not unconnected.) A High Church type of Christian, Uncle Aubrey would drive his beige Rover 2000 to All Saints, Barry, every Sunday to take part in communion; while I, shoes shined, hair reluctantly brushed and parted, dragged kicking and screaming by my mother, glowered in the pews, daydreaming of football and pop music.
One thing Aubrey hated more than most things was even the mildest form of swearing, especially if it involved blasphemy. At Christmas, my present from him would invariably be a book of adventure stories for boys, but his own special edited version: before wrapping it, he would diligently redact any instances of the words “damn”, “bloody” and “for God’s sake” in thick 2B pencil. He meant well, in his way, but we were never going to see eye to eye.
If Uncle Aubrey were alive today, he’d be striking his way through this column in thick charcoal. Because, Jesus Christ, I love to blaspheme. This isn’t to shock or provoke. In a lapsed-Christian country like Britain, nobody really cares, save for a few green-inked cranks. But I’m all in favour of uttering impious oaths as often as possible. I blaspheme freely, with relish and glee. “Jesus” and “Christ” are my default expressions of exasperated disbelief, sometimes expanded to the full “Christ on a bike”, or even more baroque formulations such as “May the Lord have mercy upon us and our mortal souls”.
Blasphemy in pop is a joyous thing. I’m not talking about the gnarly Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, Sheep On Drugs, Throbbing Gristle, Scraping Foetus Off The Wheel end of my music collection, with its attention-grabbing metaphors about the infant Jesus impaled on a spike. I’m talking about the exhilaration of hearing Jarvis Cocker, at the climactic moment of a Pulp song, exclaiming “I know you won’t believe it’s true/I went with her cos she looks like you ... MY GOD!” or “So why is it so hard for you to touch him/For you to go and give yourself to him ... OH JESUS!” I’m talking about the normally cultured and urbane British Sea Power beginning a song with “Jesus fucking Christ, oh God no...” Or Prince – one of the most God-fearing performers in pop – daydreaming in “Gett Off” about one of those 22-positions-in-a-one-night-stand: “In the closet underneath the clothes and ... Oh my God!”
Objections to my fondness for blasphemy usually fall into three categories. First is the accusation of hypocrisy. “If you’re an atheist,” comes the question, “why do you even use those words?” My answer is that I was reared in an Anglican culture, which instilled in me uncountable hang-ups, false hopes and arbitrary feelings of guilt. Blaspheming, for anyone who had their young mind mangled by religion, is not merely a right – it’s a solemn duty.
The second, especially in these post-Fatwa, post-Danish-cartoon times, is the insinuation of cowardice. Why, I’m asked, do I not speak profanities pertaining to other religions? Firstly because it would sound desperately put on and contrived, like Basil Fawlty muttering, “Oh, Buddha”. Secondly, Christianity programmed me with its “language”, a rich set of cultural references in which I’m fluent. We all speak, for example, of the “road to Damascus moment”, or predict that “so-and-so will get crucified”. These phrases belong to the unbeliever as much as the believer. Conversely, I don’t speak the “language” of another religion. (But if I met a Jew, Muslim or Hindu, lapsed or otherwise, who blasphemed vigorously against their gods, I suspect we’d get on like a house on fire.)
The third is the charge of impoliteness. I’m told I must always consider the sensitivities of the faithful, who shudder at sacrilegious speech. I disagree. Those who were indoctrinated alongside me, but bought into it for life, have made their choice about what to do with all that baggage. And I’ve made mine. (Incidentally, the question of what careful nonblasphemers say during sex is one I shall leave hanging.)
I’ll never stop blaspheming, nor cherishing the blasphemy of others. It’s too late now, and Jesus Christ, why should I? And if I’m wrong, may the Lord strike me down