In one of Agatha Christie’s otherwise obscenity-free novels her crime-writer character Ariadne Oliver is speculating about the perfect opening line. It needs to be racy and shocking and seize the scandalized attention of the readers, so she wants to open with “‘Damn!’ said the Duchess.” But alas, she knows they’ll never let her get away with it.
Ah, Ariadne Oliver, thou shouldst be living at this hour. Now publishers would almost certainly print your first line, safe in the knowledge that tender sensibilities can simply download your book using a new app called Clean Reader. Instead of the filth you penned, on their screen would be “‘Darn!’ said the Duchess”, or perhaps “ ‘Drat!’ said the Duchess” or maybe – depending on whether you are using the “Clean” mode of the app or the “Cleaner” or even the “Squeaky Clean” modes – “ ‘Doggone it!” or ‘Dagnab it!’ said the Duchess.”
Clean Reader is the latest attempt to use modern technology to turn the clock back: a cunning algorhythm scans all works of literature on your behalf and replaces dodgy words with suitably genteel substitutes. A visit to the Clean Reader website is rewarded with a page advertising a range of improving paperbacks that may now be perused without fear of personal defilement.
One of the classics thus redeemed is “Plague Ship” by Clive Cussler, which makes me wonder if it was previously called “Plague Shit”. I was hoping to see a tagline: “Taking the Cuss out of Cussler”, but I suppose the good folk of Clean Reader have weightier matters on their minds: changing the “The Dambusters” to “The Darnbusters”, for instance, and “War and Peace” to “War and Micturation”; “Ivanhoe” to “Ivan the Thoroughly Modern and Sex-Positive Young Lady”; renaming the Cormac McCarthy novel “No Vaginary for Old Men”, pondering whether or not to take a pre-emptive action against accidental spoonerisms involving Huck Finn. God knows what they’ll do with “Moby Dick”.
Actually, it’s not God who knows, it’s someone else, because all references to religious figures in a non-religious context are the first profanities to go, as you’ll know if you’ve ever accidentally watched DSTV with the family soundtrack on.
They don’t really care what horrors are happening on-screen, so long as no one says “Oh my god!” when they happen. They don’t bleep words, they use the old SABC trick of leaving a soothing blank over the offending syllable, which leaves you watching the Francis Ford Coppola mobster classic “The Father”, or Samuel Beckett’s famous play, “Waiting for O”. I’m looking forward to watching “Fifty Shades of Grey” with the family track on. It won’t matter what that gentleman does to that lady, so long as while he does she calls him Ian Grey, not Christian.
But I’m all for the Clean Reader, if for no other reason than it will give a boost to the imagination and creativity of schoolboys everywhere. There’s no greater enemy of purity than the youthful mind, as the authorities of the Menifee Union school district in southern California knew full well last year, when they removed the Merriam Webster dictionary from their library shelves after an eagle-eyed parent noticed it contained a definition of the phrase “oral sex”. Quite right too: the last thing you want is young children flipping through reference books in a library rather than learning about sex from their playground friends, as G-d intended.
On the Clean Reader site there’s a short video purporting to show the app in action. After the video (spoiler alert: very little happens), it freezes on the printed page of some sort of fantasy novel, and you can tell that Clean Reader really works, because I scanned it eagerly but couldn’t find a single dirty word. Which made me wonder what it said before it was cleaned up. And that’s when I became pleased that Clean Reader exists. In this age when every graphic thing that words represent are now available at the click of a button, just think how many pleasurable and creative hours schoolkids can spend scanning a text, trying to imagine the original filth hidden beneath:
Their spears were sharpened and oiled, (said the page on the screen), with not a hint of rust upon the surface of any of their weapons.
Tell me that isn’t the opening lines of a gay-orgy scene.
Vyder stared at the muskets as he passed. Someday, he promised himself, he would own one.
Oh, you will, Vyder, you will. And you’ll like it too, you dirty dog.
A smaller portcullis was flanked by six guards.
Yes, yes, tell me more about your portcullis.
“You will kneel before his excellency,” said Araxis, leading the highlander into the chamber.
Oh, I can’t go on. The Clean Reader has dirtied me up. There’s no word in the world so obscene as a schoolboy’s mind.
The Times, 26 March 2015