I was chatting with a group of friends, and the conversation turned to the mood of the times – with particular application to the new sensitivities around sexual harassment and those who prey on young girls.
“Remember that song that Maurice Chevalier used to sing, Thank Heavens for Little Girls? It would be banned if it were published nowadays. The implication is downright paedophile,” someone remarked.
I then recalled that it was banned on what was then called Radio Éireann, when it first came out in the 1950s. And it was withdrawn from the playlist for that very reason – it was considered ‘suggestive’ of something unwholesome.
I was a schoolgirl at the time, and, as far as I remember, we didn’t “get” any paedophile allusions – possibly because we were fortunately innocent of such notions.
The lyrics were part of the movie Gigi, which came out in 1958. Neither, I think, did we fully understand the drift of Colette’s original story: the young girl Gigi is being trained up by her aunts to become the mistress of a wealthy man.
Then the wealthy man – the scrumptious Louis Jourdan – surprises them all by wanting to marry her. The original French narrative was rendered a little bit more respectable by Hollywood, which, at that time, complied with a code of screen morals.
But isn’t it interesting how things often come full circle? Critics of Radio Éireann thought it prudish to ban certain songs (Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?) also came under a prohibition, as there was a vulgarised version suggesting an impropriety), but we have returned to an age where what is ‘lewd’ and ‘inappropriate’ can attract not just a prohibition, but can ruin an entire career.
The permissive society shook the roots of post-Victorian decorum – and many of us eagerly joined in with the shaking process – but it then went way, way too far.
And so, as Kipling writes in his poem ‘The Gods of the Copybook Headings’, human society is wearily brought back to re-learn some of the old lessons once again.
‘The sick? Hug them anyway…’
There’s currently a public notice at Dublin Airport alerting passengers to the MERS virus (Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome), which originated in camels. Travellers are instructed to “avoid contact with sick people or animals”.
This is sensible, but it did occur to me that many of the saints deliberately chose to maintain contact with sick and contagious people, to care for the leper, not to shun him.
While avoiding contact with sick people or animals is prudent, it probably isn’t what Mother Teresa of Calcutta would have done.
A detective story is basically a morality tale. At the beginning of the luscious new production of Murder on the Orient Express, Hercule Poirot is heard to announce firmly: “There is right and there is wrong!” Poirot is the avenging angel of justice who restores the world to moral order.
But the star of this movie, for me, is the 1930s locomotive as it wends its way from a colourful Istanbul right through the snowy Balkans, its great axles turning and smoke belching from its funnels. The film is high on glamour but somewhat lacks pace and Poirot finally finds that allotting justice can be a complex task.
But how gorgeous were those high Continental choo-choos!
A politically-correct phrase too far
Words are significant and it intrigues me that, increasingly, the word “death” is being replaced in everyday usage by the euphemism “passed away”. In broadcast media, in newspapers, in everyday speech, we are told that someone who has died has “passed away”.
Originally, I believe, this phrase was of American, even perhaps Californian, coinage, where it was introduced by funeral parlours – along with the practice of applying cosmetics to the deceased – to minimise the awe of death, and to prettify its impact. “Passed over” was also used by spiritualists, who, in their séances, would claim to contact those who had “passed over” to the spirit world.
Perhaps people have always used euphemisms to soften the sorrow and grief that accompanies death. Cemeteries have been described as “gardens of repose”, and those buried there as “sleeping”.
Christians who look to the afterlife of eternity may speak about “departing this world”, which I like.
Death notices remain unfailingly moving, and I love the Irish coda often added: “Ar dheis Dé go raibh a h-anam dilis.” It evokes the soul.
Older people have their own jesting references to life’s end. “Falling off the perch.” “Handing in the dinner pail.”
“Let’s face it,” I heard one oldster say to another, “we’re in the departure lounge.” “Frankly,” the other replied, “we’re on the tarmac!”
But “passed away” is increasingly the common currency, and I don’t, for some reason, feel easy with it. Perhaps it’s a little too redolent of the Californian funeral parlour.