Why we’re standing by our un-PC pie

A Tipton pub serving something called ‘The Michael Barrymore Pie – Faggots Swimming in Gravy’ explains itself to spiked.

In real ale-style pubs, landlords often give their food dishes and drinks strange names that reflect the local area or tap into a topical event. So during the last World Cup there was ‘Rooney Real Ale’. Some food menus offer gastric puns to remind you where you are: ‘Porksmouth Roast Special’, ‘Devon On Earth Delight’, that kind of thing. Peter Trowler, landlord of Mad O’Rourke’s in Tipton in the West Midlands, has devised an altogether more novel name for a meat pie on his menu. It’s called The Barrymore Pie, ‘faggots swimming in gravy’ – a breathlessly tact-free reference to Stuart Lubbock who drowned in former TV presenter Michael Barrymore’s swimming pool in 2001.

The pie has caused a stink, getting Tipton into trouble for something other than alleged terrorism. The police have been called, the tabloids are in a spin, and gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell says, ‘It’s a joke in bad taste.’ Well, it’s certainly not called The Barrymore Pie in tribute to Michael’s ‘funny walk’ or his talent for saying ‘awight’ without an autocue. Bad-taste jokes are meant to be in, well, bad taste; they relish ‘saying the unsayable’ in order to elicit a sharp intake of ‘fookin’ hell’ shock-and-laughter.

Given the thin-skinned tenor of our times, it’s no surprise there have been complaints about the pie. Customer Karina Thompson said: ‘I was appalled. It’s a cheap joke, not funny, with offensive language. Faggot is a pejorative term for a gay man.’ What is surprising, though, is that Trowler has so far refused to back down and stop serving this tastelessly-named delicacy. A barmaid at Mad O’Rourke’s told spiked, ‘Yes we are still selling, and will continue to sell, The Barrymore Pie. We sell about 100 of them a week and the customers seem to enjoy them.’ Trowler says ‘these people say this is not funny, but their behaviour is turning it into a joke’, and insisted: ‘I will not bow to this pressure…but I suppose I could change its name to Politically Correct Pie.’ (1)

This refusal to back down and conform is quite striking today. Controversies involving language usually involve the speaker of the offensive words apologising and retracting them. Last year, Tory MP Boris Johnson slated celebrity chef and ‘school dinners saviour’ Jamie Olivier at the Conservative Party conference, only later to retract and call him a ‘messiah’ (now that really is offensive). However, it is also odd that anyone should take a supposedly principled stand over a piece of pie - a sort of phoney ‘liberty, fraternity, faggots and gravy’ speech by a bluff and belligerent landlord. As when students say ‘cunt’ to arouse shock amongst passers-by, it seems that to the extent that there are ‘anti-PC’ backlashes today, they aren’t so much striking a blow for freedom as blowing a gauche raspberry. Both the peddlers and the detractors of PC (‘gone mad!’) are flipsides of the same infantilising coin. It seems that treating us like children who must be protected from offence only encourages some adults to act like big kids, out to cause offence.

Free expression and the right to offend are fundamental in any civilised society. Yet The Barrymore Pie, like the Islam cartoons controversy last year, isn’t a free speech issue as such. That would suggest that freedom begins and ends with making silly and obnoxious comments. Free speech is far more important than that. It’s about being allowed critically to challenge contemporary orthodoxies and, by doing so, force people to take sides. Somehow, a piece of Black Country pie doesn’t quite have the same explosive and divisive character as, say, earlier campaigns for civil rights or female suffrage…. So why should we be concerned?

Well, the non-gastric reactions to The Barrymore Pie are further attempts to sanitise and colonise our day-to-day adult lives. It is often forgotten today that people forge bonds with one another precisely through wisecracks, pisstaking and telling bad-taste jokes. Indeed, the old phrase ‘You can surely see the funny side?’ is almost an instinctive appreciation of Terence’s ancient saying: ‘Nothing that is human is alien to me.’ In workplaces in particular, bad-taste jokes are often circulated as a way of combating wage/labour tedium. How different it is today. In some of the public-sector places I’ve worked in, it is now considered a disciplinary offence to tell jokes ‘that might cause offence’. That rules out my Moors Murders gags, then.

It is bad enough that the workplace is increasingly formal and uptight; it’s even worse when pubs are forced to follow suit. Public houses are surely one place where adults can cut loose, go on the lash and say all manner of outrageous and offensive things (hence the old phrase ‘saloon-bar comments’). Not for nothing were pubs known by some as ‘speakeasys’ – they were seen as unregulated and informal stomping grounds. How long before they are renamed ‘speakuneasys’?

So while The Barrymore Pie is hardly anything worth fighting for (‘I don’t agree with your Barrymore Pie, but I will defend to the death your right to sell it!’), the controversy around it is in some ways symptomatic of the closing down of adult space by today’s dead-eyed regulators. Soon, it seems, pubs will be about as much fun as finding a dead man floating in a swimming pool. What? Was it something I said?

Neil Davenport is a writer and lecturer based in London.

(1) Pub slammed for sick dish, Ananova

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