John Walsh: Sins you get away with – and those you don't

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The Independent Online

My friend Mary Killen, who writes the "Dear Mary" etiquette column for The Spectator, received a real chin-stroker in the post this week. "Now that Conrad Black is out of prison," writes her correspondent, "is it acceptable for me to invite him to lunch at my club?"

Anyone who witnessed Lord Black on Newsnight giving Jeremy Paxman the full, maximum-strength, blow-dryer treatment ("You're a fool! A sanctimonious FOOL!") and threatening to smash his face in might wonder how enthusiastic any club would be to welcome the fuming ex-jailbird to lunch (I pity the waiters); but it raises an important issue. Black, like Ms Killen and incidentally myself, was brought up a Catholic. Catholic doctrine is full of the possibility of resurrection and redemption, the grace of God washing your soul clean of sin and all that Papist launderette metaphysics. You can be redeemed and "re-born" as long as you acknowledge your transgressions and are truly sorry for them (though Lord Black doesn't seem to have the word "contrition" in his lexicon), and you won't go to hell. Does it work like that in the secular world?

Convicted felons in America are much more likely than their British counterparts to be allowed back to ordinary life after paying the penalty for their crimes. Before he became famous, the US writer O. Henry (real name William Sydney Porter) was convicted for embezzlement and sentenced to prison; it didn't affect his later sales and his face appeared on a 10 cent stamp.

Malcolm X's political career didn't suffer because he was once jailed for breaking and entering. Here, we pay lip service to the idea that people can be redeemed after they've done something wrong and been put away. Our two most high profile ex-jailbirds, Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken, did their time and reappeared in public life, one to publish his prison diaries, the other to describe how he'd got religion. Archer claimed that the numbers who accepted invitations to his parties hardly shrank after he was released. But neither man has a cat in hell's chance of political office.

They're okay, though, to invite for lunch. These men, remember, were both imprisoned for perjury.

The British, being skilled at social deception, are more forgiving of liars than they are of financial crooks like Lord Black. A whiff of mendacity about your guest wouldn't hurt your enjoyment of a meal at the Athenaeum; a whiff of thievery, however, would have everybody checking their wallets.