February 2016

Vox

by Red Symons

A very, very bad word

Sometimes you need to swear on the radio

I said a very, very bad word on the radio.

It was a career first. I may have a reputation for being loose in public, but I have crossed the line regularly enough to know, with micrometer accuracy, exactly where the line is drawn. You have to cross the line to know where it is: you have to be a gymnast to perform pratfalls.

The newspaper had printed “f**k”, too timid to quote Philip Larkin’s ‘This Be the Verse’, his lament for the damage done by well-meaning parents. Larkin had chosen the word with poetic specificity.

There was a beautiful theatrical arc to the fuck-saying. Larkin, on one hand, was being plaqued in Westminster Abbey alongside the greatest exponents of the language, and yet, as I observed in my pre-dawn radio ramblings, a newspaper had not honoured the word he had categorically chosen.

I got a call from a schoolteacher, Bronwen, who empathised with the dilemma as she had classes reading the poem. “I let them use ‘eff’ if it makes them feel uncomfortable,” she advised. We agreed that her audience was specific and limited. Mine was not.

I mentioned that one of my kids was doing the poem in secondary school. We agreed that my audience was unknown territory, notwithstanding that it was the ABC.

I read the poem with an odd racing of the pulse at the first line, the moment of transgression. In 40-odd years of public presence, I have never before uttered the word into a transmitter.

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

Immediately, there was an admonishing caller on the line. I braced for the inevitable lecture about standards, the ABC and the collapse of decency into dystopia.

“I’m not happy with your use of language,” said Joan.

With mumbling remorse, I said, “Yeah, well, I guess I expected that.”

Joan continued, “I don’t think you should refer to young people as ‘kids’.”

After the dilemma and discussion, she had provided the arc with the perfect denouement.

It turns out that even the ABC editorial policy doesn’t give a fuck about the word, provided some Gallic magisterial panel of three Radio National presenters declares the poem to be “good”.


In his early teens, my eldest son grew a thyroid tumour. For him, this was yet another undeserved tribulation. From the age of four, when he developed a glioma in his brain, he had hosted a variety of malignancies, to be dispatched by knife, poison and death-ray.

I still carry the trauma of my four-year-old child being stretchered away to have the top of his skull popped off like a soft-boiled egg while the surgeon took the spoon to his memory of a simple, happy life. I didn’t see the operation, but the imagined experience remains painfully vivid nevertheless.

The treatment for thyroid cancer is ultimately removal of the thyroid, and you would think that would do the job, but the rogue cells are inclined to go for a wander around the lymphatic system. Hence the primary treatment is the ingestion of radioactive iodine.

My son was assigned a room with a tiger-stripe perimeter painted on the floor and the nuclear radiation emoticon on the wall, a warning to all not to enter. He sat solemnly in the chair next to his bed near the window, awaiting the sub-deadly dose that would make him off-limits as the battle ensued within him.

I hugged him and kissed him. For three days, I withdrew behind the line that must not be crossed. For years he bore the brittle cheerfulness that I radiated towards him at these moments. There are accounts of children saying, “It’s all right, Mummy and Daddy. I don’t mind dying,” in an attempt to ward off their parents’ anguish; and there is an infinite regression of “I know that you know that I know that we are all terrified and despairing.” And yet the job of the carer is to be consistently upbeat, to care.

The nurse wheeled in something like a golf buggy with a lead box suspended halfway up. She parked it next to my son and retreated behind the danger lines.

“Open the lid of the box. It’s quite safe,” she said seemingly oblivious to this patent falsehood. Inside he found a paper cupcake container with a tiny pill, invisibly deadly with radioactivity. The death rays would be devoured by thyroid cells both good and bad.

He took the pill.

There are some moments of pure anguish that leave a retinal burn and are never forgotten. I shall always carry a frozen frame of that chair and bed and window and room and him and his trusting compliance. On the advice of the finest minds, and at his parents’ behest, he was poisoning himself.

Philip Larkin had no children.

His poem is a half-truth.

They fuck you up, your kids they do …


A decade on, I recounted this story to my son, framing it as a torment that has never left me.

He said, “I remember that. It was great. I just played Nintendo and ate pizza for three days, by myself.”

Red Symons
Red Symons is a sometime writer, broadcaster, musician and adventurer.

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