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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