Mind your language

How ‘ACAB’ links David Bowie and BLM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

A favourite piece of graffiti to spray on the Cenotaph or the plinth of Churchill’s nearby statue is ACAB. It stands for ‘All coppers are bastards’, though Americans substitute the word cops for coppers. In graffiti form it is sometimes rendered 1312, from the place of the letters in the alphabet.

As a slogan, ACAB was taken up by Black Lives Matter. In an Independent comment piece, Victoria Gagliardo-Silver declared that ‘ACAB means every single police officer is complicit in a system that actively devalues the lives of people of colour’. It has come a long way from an uncontroversial statement among the criminal classes of my youth in the 1960s about their natural enemies.

The phrase was always associated with song. Eric Partridge, the relentless chronicler of slang, said that he first heard it in the 1920s: ‘I’ll sing you a song, it’s not very long:/ All coppers are bastards.’

The first line is found in traditional songs and nursery rhymes. Andrew Lang’s Nursery Rhyme Book (1897) has: ‘I’ll sing you a song,/ Though not very long,/ Yet I think it as pretty as any./ Put your hand in your purse,/ You’ll never be worse,/ And give the poor singer a penny.’ An undated song from America begins: ‘I’ll sing you a song, and it’s not very long,/ About a young man who wouldn’t hoe corn.’

The musical history of ‘All coppers are bastards’ took a weird turn in 1967, with the release of a single by Oscar called ‘Over the Wall We Go’. This slightly embarrassing novelty song about jail-breaks was sung by Oscar Beuselinck, the son of the late London lawyer (a character) of the same name. The songwriter was David Bowie. A tape of him singing it was bootlegged and may be found on YouTube. The song’s bowdlerised refrain is: ‘All coppers are nanas.’

Another song from the period favoured by skinhead supporters of Chelsea tells of a copper taking the name of the protagonist, who ‘hit him in the head./ He fell down dead’.

None of this may fit the woker-than-thou agenda. But the alarming consequence of saying that ‘every single police officer is complicit’ is to deem them in the eyes of extremists ‘legitimate targets’

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