David Behrens: Bad language, decorum and the modern decline of deference

The New Inn at Appletreewick
The New Inn at Appletreewick
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SOMETIMES, an idea is so far ahead of its time that its significance is not realised until years later.

The name of John Showers resonates still in the Yorkshire Dales. It was he who, in the early 1970s, declared a unilateral ban on smoking at his pub, the New Inn at Appletreewick.

In an era in which cigarettes were a pleasure universally enjoyed, it was a policy as eccentric and preposterous as not selling beer. TV crews and national newspapers descended on Appletreewick, a phenomenon not seen before or since.

Mr Showers, not one to underplay an idea, especially it if was good business, declared that he had “dared to split the social atom”, whatever that meant, and proclaimed the New Inn to be “England’s first fresh air pub”.

Abstinent drinkers came from miles around, and the Minister for Health sent him a letter of congratulation, which would have been easier for him to do than attempt to replicate the ban anywhere else. Indeed, it was another 35 years before anyone did.

I bring this up because someone else in Yorkshire’s licensed trade is doing something similarly maverick today, and, like John Showers, is so far attracting mostly opprobrium. Samuel Smith’s, the fiercely traditional brewery in Tadcaster, wants to do for bad language what Showers did for bad breath, and to this end, has imposed a “zero tolerance policy” on swearing in its 200 or so pubs. Its landlords have been asked to clamp down on the practice and the crackdown has been reported in mostly incredulous tones.

It was taken to extremes last week by one publican on the county’s northern fringe, where the bad language sounds more Teesside than Tyke. He reportedly threw a Fawlty-esque fit of pique and chucked everyone out, then shut up shop for three days.

It may have been an overreaction, but the policy is not misplaced. People are no more entitled to be profane in public than they are these days to smoke, and it really shouldn’t be necessary to have to enforce decorum.

Yet, I fear the tide has yet to turn in that direction. The momentum is towards a further slackening of morals, not a tightening, and the proof was Sellotaped not long ago to the door of a Tesco branch in Cardiff, where the locals had taken to going out in their pyjamas. Shoppers must dress before coming inside, the note said. To be clear, they weren’t being asked to dress for dinner – just to wear clothes.

Language and dress codes change over time, and rightly so. It wasn’t so very long ago that men were not seen in polite company without a tie – and as a schoolboy, I remember being torn off a strip for using the adjective, ‘bloody’. Today, I could probably get away with saying it on the nine o’clock news.

The trajectory need not be relentlessly downward – yet this week, the Oxford English Dictionary redefined the word “thing” to accommodate those who have taken to using it instead of bothering to express themselves more descriptively. Is that really a thing? The OED says so.

Further proof, if any were needed, of the extent to which bad language has become ingrained as a routine practice in today’s Britain can be found in some of the week’s other news.

On Sunday, bouncers had to be called on to the reality programme, Big Brother, after the foul-mouthed contestants began brawling and throwing drinks. Two days later, a Leeds rugby league player was banned for using foul language to a match official.

Yet on Monday, it emerged that young people are less likely than a decade ago to be bullied because of their sexual orientation.

So we we are getting more tolerant but less respectful. How is such an anomaly possible? The decline of deference, not necessarily a bad thing, is a clue. It is certainly the reason men wear ties less often.

John Showers had to endure years of hostility and even ridicule before society came round to his way of thinking. Opinion may yet turn again but in the meantime, we can expect to hear more conversations like this:

“Sorry, you can’t smoke in here.”

“You must be ****ing kidding.”

“You can’t use language like that, either. You’ll have to leave.”

“What?! Since when has that been a thing?”

“It’s not a thing. It’s a question of decency. And by the way – your pyjama bottoms have fallen down.”