My Sunday Telegraph column:
“There was a bit of banter which went too far,”said a Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council employee last week. What was the banter? Was it perhaps a slightly off-colour joke? An ungallant remark made to a female colleague? A spittle-flecked racist tirade? No: the “banter” was a manager sinking her teeth into the buttock of a 24-year-old staffer until she drew blood and he had to go to hospital for a tetanus jab.
I’ve written before that “banter” is the worst thing in the universe, a sort of cheap imitation of wit for stupid people. “Hey! You’re fat and stupid and ugly! What’s the matter, mate? Just a bit of banter.” “Banter” and its loudmouth cousin “stick” (“Oh, the fans are giving him a bit of stick,” says the football commentator, as 45,000 people make disturbing aspersions about the sexual habits of a man’s wife) are terms people use when they want to be rude, but don’t want to face any consequences. Hey! It’s only banter! If you’re offended, that makes you a boring prude, while I, Banter Man, am daringly saying the unsayable! It’s tiresome. By all means be rude, be obscene, be offensive, but don’t turn around afterwards and say “Wahey lads s’only banter what’ve you got your knickers in a twist for eh?”
In the past, though, the banter abomination was limited to verbal idiocy. The Port Talbot incident sets a worrying precedent. If you can tear a chunk from a man’s backside with your teeth and have it written off as “banter”, where next? “Yes, the defendant together with six of his friends beat the victim into unconsciousness with carpentry tools, but I put it to the court that it was just a bit of banter and said victim is being a big girl’s blouse.”
“Oi oi! ‘E’s got a bullet lodged in his small intestine! Top banter lads!”
“Tell you what guys – let’s burn his house down! Can’t beat a bit of banter, eh?”
No. Enough. We are on the slipperiest of slopes, a slick precipice which ends with a group of young men repeatedly stabbing each other on Soccer AM every Saturday morning, where the first one to die from blood loss is accused of “not being able to take the banter”. It’s not “only banter” any more, it is a threat to civilisation. Right-thinking people of Britain, it is time take a stand.
• You probably know that almost every language has similar baby-words for “mother” and “father”. Xhosa tribesmen call dada “tata”; Tagalog speakers say “tatay”. Ecuadorian Quechuans, like the English, say “mama”, as do Mandarin Chinese. I’d assumed it was because our languages were descended from some ultra-ancient proto-language. But it’s not.
I read a piece this week by the science writer Stan Carey, which explains that at about eight months, babies start making recognisable sounds. The first vowel is “aah”, because it requires no tongue or lip work. The first consonant is “m”, which just involves closing your mouth. So babies start saying “mamamamamama”. And mama, eager to hear a first word, assumes the child is saying something – and, understandably, doesn’t think it’s “table” or “nappy” or “banter”, but “mother”. The baby isn’t trying to say anything, but parents want to believe, so “mama” becomes a word, not a random sound. From the Amazon to the Caucasus, parents everywhere think their children are more interesting than they really are.
• Lightsabers drawn, sonic screwdrivers at the ready: East Anglia echoed to the sound of an intergalactic battle last week. Or, more accurately, two groups of sci-fi fans in fancy dress had to be separated by the police in Norwich after a row at a convention: several costumed Star Wars lovers squaring up against a gang of Whovians (as Doctor Who aficionados are known).
Luckily no blasters were fired or Sontarans killed, no Wookiees strangled with any multicoloured scarves. But finally, we know: Who would win in a fight between Luke Skywalker and Doctor Who. Geddit? Who would win? As in Doctor Who? Oh never mind. And please don’t write in to tell me that his name isn’t “Who”.