~ Posted by Anthony Gardner, October 16th 2012

A few days ago, needing a birthday card, I dropped into my local gift shop in north London. It’s a cheerful place, frequented by mothers with young children and selling scented candles, gilt-rimmed teacups and old-fashioned toys. So it was with some astonishment that I came upon a card—positioned at child’s-eye level—with a painting of Jesus on the cover and below it the line, "Jesus loves everyone except for you, you c***." (The asterisks are mine.)
Card racks have always had room for cheerful vulgarity: Donald McGill’s saucy seaside postcards, with their busty ladies and double entendres, were celebrated by George Orwell. But the coupling of Christianity with the most taboo word in the English language was beyond anything I could have imagined. It was as if someone had programmed a supercomputer to create slogans guaranteed to cause maximum offence, and this was one that the churning of its billion gigabytes had produced. I put the card back and walked out.

The experience, however, continued to nag. The obscenity was bad enough, but what really depressed me was its cynical deployment in a context normally associated with innocence. You don’t have to look far on the high street to find similar, if less extreme, examples. They often feature smiling 1950s housewives with their friends or families (Mother: "Happy Birthday!" Son: "Go fuck yourself!"). Scribbler’s range for this Christmas includes a jolly Santa Claus saying, "No presents for you, you’ve been wanking too much" and a cherubic little girl at prayer asking, "So where’s my fucking pony?"

In the end, against my nature, I decided to complain. I couldn’t see Scribbler changing its ways, but I thought that the gift shop might be responsive. I wrote a polite letter and received an equally polite reply inviting me to come in and discuss it.

The owner, a well-dressed young woman called Simone, greeted me in such a friendly way that I felt confident of success. But though she told me, "I totally understand your point of view," it soon became clear she wouldn’t budge. Her role, she said, was to sell what customers wanted—and the Jesus card had outsold all the others by five to one. She added that her predecessor might still be running the shop if she’d taken an equally pragmatic approach. A smiling, middle-aged American lady shopping for presents took her side: "There are things that offend me too. But we live in a tolerant society."

I left feeling as if I’d been asleep for most of my adult life. I must have dozed off some time in the early 1980s, when—or did I dream it?—obscenity was reviled and shopkeepers who peddled it looked furtive. I’d woken to a world where freedom of expression had become indistinguishable from freedom to offend, and my sense of outrage marked me as a bigot, as out of step with Western values as Muslims rioting over a YouTube video. What had happened?

I’m not sure where I’ll be buying my Christmas cards this year, but it won’t be from the gift shop or Scribbler. Perhaps I’ll make them myself, with cut-out paper shapes and a pot of glue, as I did when I was five years old—in another time, another place.

Anthony Gardner previews talks for Intelligent Life and edits the Royal Society of Literature’s magazine RSL. His recent posts for the Editors' Blog include My library has no books and Pay now and wait months