Long life

Alan Rusbridger’s final oath

I was surprised by the vulgarity, but I have yet to find an acceptable alternative

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

20 June 2015

9:00 AM

My friend Alan Rusbridger has just given up editing the Guardian after a distinguished 20-year reign that has climaxed, as befits an accomplished musician and former chair of Britain’s National Youth Orchestra, with a magnificent crescendo of earthshaking scoops. He has now, at 61, ascended to more serene heights as chairman of the Scott Trust, the company that owns the Guardian, and also as principal of an Oxford college, Lady Margaret Hall. His departure from the Guardian after one of the most outstanding, if also rocky, periods in its long history has been appropriately marked by articles, interviews, speeches and other celebrations in which he has reflected with shrewdness and modesty on the lessons of his editorship for the troubled and topsy-turvy world of journalism today.

Among the interviews was one by the well-known media commentator Ray Snoddy in a bimonthly magazine called inPublishing that landed unprompted on my desk last week. In it Rusbridger expressed interesting views about the uncertain future of journalism as it migrates from printed newspapers to the internet, but forgive me in advance for a dramatic lowering in the tone of this column; for what struck me most in his interview were the startling words he used to describe his reaction when the Guardian’s investigative reporter, Nick Davies, first came into his office with his explosive phone-hacking story. They were not words you would normally expect from a journalist of Rusbridger’s civility and aesthetic sensibilities, let alone from the principal of Lady Margaret Hall. But this is what he said: ‘If your reporters bring in stories you believe in and are good, then what do you do? You either shit or get off the pot.’


‘You either shit or get off the pot’ is not an expression I have ever heard anybody use before, though that is probably because I have led too sheltered a life. But I don’t like it all the same, because it mocks the anxiety I have always felt about what to call the thing that Rusbridger was talking about. I find the word ‘shit’ acceptable if used simply as a curse — after hitting one’s finger with a hammer, for example — but not in any descriptive role. And that goes for any word I can think of that carries the same meaning. Fortunately, I do not feel I am alone in this, for the English language, rich though it is, has yet to come up with any word that can be uttered in this context with ease and confidence.

The issue is especially on my mind at the moment because I have had occasion to visit the doctor to discuss my bowel movements (not a very nice expression either, but at least a description of movement rather than of the thing that’s doing the moving). I struggled in vain to find any satisfactory euphemism to describe my problem until eventually the doctor asked me how often these movements took place — or, to be accurate, he asked me how often I had ‘a poo’. That rather took me aback; but I suppose it is a less disagreeable word than almost any of the other candidates and one with a somewhat homely quality (think of Winnie-the-Pooh) that I expect he thought might help me to relax. If I were a child, he probably would have asked me how often I did a ‘number two’, but that might have sounded odd if addressed to a 75-year-old.

I will not upset you with a list of the available words to describe what I have been talking about, for you will know and dislike them all already. But I have concluded that there never can be a word that will do, for people do not like to think or talk about this aspect of their bodily functions. It’s all right with animals: the words ‘dung’ or ‘manure’ can be uttered without qualm. But the idea that we humans, and especially the loftier spirits among us, should be prey to such indignity is not something we care to contemplate. Urinating, however, is a burden we can bear. Is it possible that Rusbridger made a slip of the tongue and that what he really meant to say was, ‘You either piss or get off the pot’?

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  • davidshort10

    Much as I usually admire Mr Chancellor’s column, I cannot agree that Rusbridger’s rule at the Guardian has been distinguished. The circulation has slipped and the paper loses a fortune, yet he took a seven-figure remuneration. If the paper hadn’t been run by the Scott Trust and been subsidised by the now sold-off Auto Trader, he would have been fired or the Guardian closed, or both. During the 1990s newspaper price war, the Guardian survived almost unharmed, because it was a good newspaper with a clear following. No longer. He allowed too much freedom among his senior underlings to harm the paper. Its online version is heavily censored. Anyone who criticises the paper online will find themselves quickly ‘pre-moderated’. And its employment of senior editorial people who were almost exclusively educated at public schools, as exposed in Private Eye, is nothing short of scandalous for a paper with its so-called beliefs.

    • Mongo

      that’s a load of faeces

      • davidshort10

        Why not say why rather than making a cowardly insult behind a pseudonym?

        • Mongo

          I think you missed the point of the article

      • That was a pop group, wasn’t it? The Small Faeces.

    • Callipygian

      Its online version is heavily censored. Anyone who criticises the paper online will find themselves quickly ‘pre-moderated’.
      This is undeniable, and it is not to the credit of a paper that is supposedly part of the Free World.

      • evad666

        Have been banned from CiF which it most obviously is not.

    • Mc

      “Anyone who criticises the paper online will find themselves quickly ‘pre-moderated'”

      The same happens at The Times if one’s criticism is accurate and frequent. People don’t like to be criticized even if – as in the case of newspapers – their own reason for existence is to point out the faults of others.

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    • Yvon & Barry Stuart-Hargreaves

      But we do have two words for a bowel movement. David Cameron.

      • Shazza

        Classy.

    • EnosBurrows

      The paper circulation slipped, as has that of all newspapers. Meanwhile, the Guardian has become the foremost British newspaper on the internet, unless one counts the Daily Mail, which I don’t.

      • davidshort10

        The Guardian’s circulation has slipped more than most and would have gone under normally. That you don’t count the Daily Mail doesn’t matter. The internet ventures of the Guardian, bought at the great expense of opening a US office, have further added to the losses. None of these comments do anything to refute my original comments. The trolls don’t matter either way.

        • EnosBurrows

          There is no “normal”.

          • davidshort10

            Well, it is not normal for a newspaper to be heavily subsidised by an extremely profitable magazine. Auto Trader has now been sold, giving the Guardian a windfall which it has squandered on grandiose projects rather than investing in editorial resources. It fires lots to journalists while paying its senior editors vast salaries they would not earn elsewhere, except at its comrade organisation, the BBC. As for interns……

  • Hamburger

    Defecate.

  • Callipygian

    I know the expression — first heard it from an American woman: thought it vulgar then, and still do. She was using it to explain her attitude to her then-future husband, dithering over the prospect of marriage. She wanted him to make up his mind. Then she mentioned the pot and what she wanted him to do on it. Charming.

    The trouble with humans is not that we are delicate creatures unwilling to discuss our bodily functions. We do, often, at tedious length and in excruciating detail, with strangers and even more alarmingly with family (I shudder at the things I’ve been told by family members that I absolutely did not want to know about them). The problem, rather, is that we don’t do dung, the sort that beetles gather. We don’t do cow pats (‘a man dropped his cap in a field of cattle and tried several on before he found the right one’) or horse plops. We don’t do anything as hygienic as rabbit pellets. No, ours is the worst, the most offensive and disgusting excretion in the world. And yet we consider ourselves Best. The disjunction must be a cosmic joke, but not many people are laughing.

    • James

      It’s as neat and tidy as any cow pat if you eat a good diet. Horse plops wouldn’t be so ordered if the horses were quaffing two bottles of wine a night and jamming grease into their gullet at every opportunity.

      • Callipygian

        Horses, like the other animals I mentioned, have the advantage of being herbivores. But I still think a dog turd in a park is less offensive than a human one.

        • Tellytubby

          Our problem is often our diet. Its a right old mishmash of shit basically – so what do you expect your stools to be like?

          I get a pretty good picture of my overall health – how I’m feeling generally from my bowels. Good, firm, smooth and not foul smelling poo usually. If I’ve been eating or drinking crap (not literal crap but you get the point) then the turds suffer (and so does everyone who must use the bathroom for the next half an hour or so!).

          Work on repairing your gut microbiota! It’ll do wonders for you.

          • Um. I didn’t complain about my own gut. I’m not one of these English that the French in general and Alan Bloom in particular complained about as more concerned with the state of their poo than their love life. In fact I don’t give a crap about my crap, given the fact that it is all crap, whatever particular form it takes on any given day. If it’s human, it’s the world’s worst crap, and you can be sure of that.

            And while we’re on this subject — which I am about to desert as beneath my interest — I would not change my diet to perfect my turd, though apparently you and the commenter named James would. My bottom is so named for a reason, and it’s at the bottom of my interests, likes, and concerns.

    • Jay Igaboo

      “No, ours is the worst, the most offensive and disgusting excretion in the world. “……. you’ve obviously never had a cat.
      Or a dog, for that matter.
      Incidentally, the smell of their dropping are like eau du Cologne compared to the slightest waft of skunk spray!

      • No, I know ’em both well. Apparently skunk cabbage does a good job of imitating the mammal of that name.

  • Precambrian

    Perhaps that’s because its not a subject for discussion or reference….

  • trace9

    Reminds me of the chamber-pot under my childhood bed in times of illness; but I really can’t recall my mother using any such expression! – not that she’d be present at the crucial moment.. This is all-American, Modern – I’ve known of it for about 20 years. Rush. was merely declaring his Guardianista loyalty to hip Yankee slang. But why not update to; ‘Doodly-squat or git off the f***in’ pot!’.. Yanks so lurrrve the alliteration.. From what he says (overmuch!), though Alex may soon be requiring the convenience of a perchy-pot himself. – Sic transit gloria shunky.. (Scots.)

  • Damaris Tighe

    ‘having a poo’ is a ridiculous infantilising Americanism.

    • Jackthesmilingblack

      Choke a darkie, perhaps?

    • carl jacobs

      Yeah, no it’s not. Americans do not use that expression.

      • Damaris Tighe

        Actually, they do. It was in the American media that I first saw the term.

        • carl jacobs

          No, we don’t. I don’t know what media you saw, but that expression is unknown in the living breathing use of the English language in the US. It is certainly not used by parents toward children. The near universal parental question is “Do you have to go potty?” There are three common colloquial vulgarisms used in the US to express the concept. All begin with the word ‘take’ and all conclude with a hard consonant.

          If you were an undercover spy and you used that expression in the US, you would immediately blow your cover.

  • Pankaj

    Rusbridger is obviously not into Physics or else he would not have used “or”.
    Newton’s third law very clearly states that if you had shit forcefully you automatically get off the pot.

  • polistra24

    This is definitely a class-based difference. ‘Shit or get off the pot’ is very commonly heard in working-class circles. Working-class people can’t afford armies of lawyers who can maintain an apparent stalemate forever. Reality requires decisions.

    Nice example in the current Greek mess. Both sides are operating in an upper-class cloud of delusion, believing that negotiations can go on forever. Meanwhile the country itself is dissolving. If the Greek government had decided immediately to get off the EU pot, the country could be well on the way to recovery by now.

  • Jabez Foodbotham

    Their use of the nursery word poo is one of my minor pet peeves about the Guardian. However, I have never been moderated for complaining about their infantile vocabulary.

  • Idowu Omoyele

    As editor/editor-in-chief of The Guardian during the last two decades, Alan Rusbridger deserves great credit for overseeing real progress at the newspaper. The Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded jointly to The Guardian and the Washington Post in 2014 after the papers had published revelations by the self-sacrificing Edward Snowden about the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance and intrusion of privacy was well deserved but it simply ratified The
    Guardian’s standing as one of the world’s three finest newspapers, alongside the Washington Post and the New York Times.

    It is partly due to the force of Rusbridger’s editorship that Nick Davies has a fair
    claim to be regarded as the finest British investigative journalist of the past quarter-century. Apart from its contemporary star reporter (Nick Davies), The Guardian has been graced, over the years, by such talents as Neville Cardus (cricket/music), Richard Williams (music/sport), Simon Jenkins and Marina Hyde (social commentary/current affairs), Michael Billington (theatre reviews), Maya Jaggi and James Wood (books), Robin Denselow (the rather pejoratively named “world music”), John Fordham (jazz), Alexis Petridis (pop/rock), Peter Bradshaw (film) and a host of others.

    In 1964, the year The Guardian relocated from Manchester to London, the inimitable football reporter David Lacey started writing in the sports pages of the paper, eventually rising to the post of chief football correspondent in the early 1970s. Over half a century later, Lacey has long since established himself as the greatest football writer ever to work in the English language. Geoffrey Green, who was chief football correspondent of The Times from 1938 to 1976, remains Lacey’s one real rival in the annals of British print/written football journalism, but Lacey brought unparalleled wit and wisdom to football reporting both before and during a period of radical change for the media amid the transformations occasioned by the (digital) revolution of information and communications technology to which The Guardian has been manifestly central. That he has become the yardstick by which every football writer in every language and every culture has to be measured is as much Lacey’s legacy as The Guardian’s.

  • Aritz Branton

    Sorry, can’t hold myself back on this one. How about “get it out of your system”?

  • Annie

    The other yawning gap in the English language is a derogatory and stigmatising word for a straight, white, male.

    • Jerk?

    • Sean L

      Here’s a few terms of abuse that men use for other men: W*nker, t*sser, tw*t, pill*ck, d1ck, kn*b, pr1ck, pl*nker. Go to a football game and you’ll probably hear a few more.

  • Radford_NG

    Crap:verb;defecate–Origin:ME,in sense`chaff`:related to Du.`krappe`……Oxford English Dictionary.

  • Radford_NG

    Poop:Nth American;noun and verb…..OED.
    Becoming more common in Britain. (As in pooper scooper.)

  • Porphyry

    Richard Nixon reportedly annoyed President Eisenhower with this expression.

    • stephen

      nixon used to express his displeasure at the delay in his nomination as vp on the 1956 ticket

  • Icebow

    Bleeding Hearts’ Gazette.

  • Chamber Pot

    The Guardian is just like the BBC an artificial creation with no constituency who’s only purpose is to shove elitist leftism down the throats of a resisting population. Rusbridger is relentlessly trendy and responsible along with his snobby ilk for a catastrophic collapse in the British national backbone as well as looking like a first class dic* with those sub-Lennon specs.

    • EnosBurrows

      Are there any “creations” which are not “artificial”?

      • Chamber Pot

        No, not if you believe in God. And in any case the point I was making is that this paper is written by these people for themselves to confirm their own prejudices. The only brave thing that the Guardian has done is to expose the criminality of our government through the Snowden files.

  • The_greyhound

    Some rare unctuous tosh about rustbucket in those first two paragraphs. The creep should have been breaking rocks for the rest of his life after his criminal conspiracy with snowden, greenwald and his rentboy to steal and publish official secrets.

    But the connection between the Guardian and excrement is strong and true. We would never wipe our arses on anything else – proof that Andrex is utterly mistaken in not employing an editor of Rusbrdiger’s distinction.

    As for synonyms, fewmets, ordure, and salmond are all acceptable alternatives to the S-word.

    ps. a commendation for the tags at the foot of the article – Alan Rusbridger, Guardian, ……, Nick Davies, poo, ……., Scott Trust, sh i t

    I coudn’t have put it better myself.

  • Idowu Omoyele

    As editor/editor-in-chief of The Guardian and Observer in London during the last two decades, Alan Rusbridger deserves great credit for overseeing real progress at the newspapers. The Pulitzer Prize for Public Service awarded jointly to The Guardian and the Washington Post in 2014 after the papers had published revelations by the self-sacrificing Edward Snowden about the US National Security Agency’s mass surveillance and intrusion of privacy was well deserved but it
    simply ratified The Guardian’s standing as one of the world’s three finest newspapers, alongside the Washington Post and the New York Times.

    It is partly due to the force of Rusbridger’s editorship that Nick Davies has a fair claim to be regarded as the finest British investigative journalist of the past quarter-century. Apart from its contemporary star reporter (Nick Davies), The Guardian has been graced, over the years, by such talents as Neville Cardus (cricket/music), Richard Williams (music/sport), Simon Jenkins and Marina Hyde (social commentary/current affairs), Michael Billington (theatre reviews), Maya Jaggi and James Wood (books), Robin Denselow (the rather pejoratively named “world music”), John Fordham (jazz), Alexis Petridis (pop/rock), Peter Bradshaw
    (film) and a host of others.

    In 1964, the year The Guardian relocated from Manchester to London, the inimitable football reporter David Lacey started writing in the sports pages of the paper, eventually rising to the post of chief football correspondent in the early 1970s. Over half a century later, Lacey has long since established himself as the greatest football writer ever to work in the English language. Geoffrey Green, who was chief football correspondent of The Times from 1938 to 1976, remains Lacey’s one real rival in the annals of British print/written football journalism, but Lacey brought unparalleled wit and wisdom to football reporting both before and during a period of radical change for the media amid the transformations occasioned by the (digital) revolution of information and communications technology to which The Guardian has been manifestly central. That he has become the yardstick by which every football writer in every language and every culture has to be measured is as much Lacey’s legacy as The Guardian’s.

  • rtj1211

    Only women sit on the pot when having a piss………………..

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