I’m not violent, but I did once spank a woman with a cooking utensil

A letter from a Mrs H of Blaenau Ffestiniog. In it, she is very nice about this column, but she cannot abide my occasional use of four-letter words. I think she is referring to the time I described myself as a Jeremy Hunt. "Please try not to use them," she adjures. "You are very nearly grown-up after all, and very funny already." (I hope she doesn't mind me quoting her. She has, you will agree, a very winning way of putting things.) And, rather than risk upsetting this loyal and gracious reader any further, I resolve never again to give vent to my potty mouth in these pages.

Unfortunately, what with the delay in her letter reaching me via the NS offices, I have already filed my column about Prince Charlie's old lady appearing on The Archers, in which I used the gerund, or perhaps the gerundive, of the four-letter word that begins with f. And, duly, another letter from Blaenau Ffestiniog arrives, beginning: "You've done it again!" I feel awful. Mrs H then raises an interesting point. "I can't explain exactly why I loathe these words, something to do with sexual violence probably, but I know many other women do, too."

If I had a system, I'd file letters from readers under the heading Occupational Hazard, but Mrs H has a point and nice handwriting to boot. So I start thinking, after a fashion, about sexual violence.

My experience of this phenomenon is limited. I was once invited to spank a woman's bottom by way of foreplay and, not having any custom-made implement to hand, was obliged to use an item of culinary equipment. Although ultimately deemed unsatisfactory, not to mention absurd (my heart wasn't really in it), this still causes me to smirk when I use it to stir a ragu. I don't really have a violent bone in my body, though, and the only time I have raised my hand to a woman was when, after being pummelled for a couple of minutes, I grabbed her wrists to stop her from hitting me any more.

No, the sexual violence, as far as I'm concerned, is strictly one-way - and, moreover, should be treated with a certain tolerance. What is sauce for the goose in these instances is most certainly not sauce for the gander, and if I have enraged a woman enough for her to start beating me up then she should be allowed to get on with it until it looks as though some real damage might be caused.

This is not to excuse or make light of the rare, but still horrible, occurrences of nasty and persistent woman-on-man violence. But there is more than one kind of violence. I mentioned some months ago that one of the reasons I don't like going to bed completely sober is that I lie awake worrying about the wiring in the Hovel; what I did not mention is that, when I have stopped worrying about the electrics, I start worrying about a Wronged Woman shoving a burning petrol-soaked rag through the letterbox.

I inherited this fear from my friend P, who manages to upset women with impressive frequency without even meaning to. He told me that when the number of currently Wronged Women with potential pyromaniac tendencies reaches five, he moves home.

This usually takes about a couple of years. He managed much longer in Peckham, largely because the pool of women willing to go to Peckham for any reason, let alone to be wronged by him, is so small. He moved when he worked out that the chances of being shot or stabbed by mistake in Peckham were even higher than being torched by a Wronged Woman in a more civilised part of town.

Effs are off

At which point I feel I may have strayed somewhat from Mrs H's brief. I happen to know plenty of women who swear fully and freely, and I also like to think that bad language is one of the writer's legitimate techniques, albeit one to be used sparingly. But then they do things differently in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and if there are readers there who would prefer that we adhered to the customs of a gentler, better-spoken age, then I think they should be catered for. After all, one never gets letters from readers saying: "Dear Mr Lezard, I for one am extremely disappointed that last week's column contained no effing and blinding. This is the 21st century, for heaven's sake. Yours, etc."

So, in this case, I am happy to do right by my correspondent. From now on this column will be even purer-tongued than Radio 4. No more foul language from me. Anyone who wants to hear the rich extent of my obscene vocabulary is going to have to visit me in person. And maybe start hitting me or something.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns the world?

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.