The week that was: Let's speak plainly
'Alleged victims?' Does anyone doubt that a crime has taken place? But as for the beast said to be on the loose in Norfolk, a cautious approach is no bad thing
Sunday 12 April 2009
Whenever a serious crime gets committed these days, the second casualty – once the victims have been accounted for – nearly always seems to be language. One sees this most often in the genteely euphemistic resumés of sexual assault cases, where frightened teenagers are described as being touched or gestured at "inappropriately", where the mot juste is "offensively" or "illegally", or even "wrongly". No doubt poor Ian Tomlinson, the innocent bystander who died in the G20 riots, was "inappropriately struck" by the policeman who laid him out. The incremental march of "inappropriate" into any situation with an obvious ethical context ought stoutly to be resisted, for it implies the existence of a moral relativism where none exists. What "inappropriate" means, approximately, is "wrong according to most people's scale of values, but we would prefer not to express a judgement".
Somehow this eagerness to call a spade a large blunt instrument used for digging earth turns even more problematic in the territory occupied by that innocuous adjective "alleged". Several newspapers last week, for example, tied themselves into extraordinary knots in their coverage of the pre-teenage brothers who appeared at Doncaster Youth Court charged with assaulting two boys aged nine and 11. Naturally enough, the defendants were described as "alleged attackers", as their guilt had not yet been proved, but I shook my head over the references to the "alleged victims". Did anyone doubt that the two boys had been assaulted? Had they somehow managed to inflict on themselves the injuries that had left one of them on a life-support system? It was the same with a Ceefax report about the East Anglian postman charged with abstracting 70,000 items of post. Ever cautious, and doubtless advised by a roomful of my learned friends, the BBC referred to the "alleged non-delivery of mail". So where had the 70,000 letters gone? Somebody, surely, must have "non-delivered" them?
Ever beguiled by the existence of what might be called secondary sexual characteristics, I was fascinated to hear of last week's survey into women's attitudes to their jobs. Cross-questioning of more than a thousand female employees revealed that 38 per cent felt that having their efforts recognised at work, even by way of a face-to-face "thank you" from the boss, would make their working lives better, whereas only 15 per cent – less than a sixth of the sample – preferred a pay rise. No statistics were supplied as to employer gender, but you got the feeling that, among other things, this was an oblique little comment on male supremacy in the workplace, with all the consequences this generally has for female morale and the absence of elementary courtesies. Naturally, the male boss has a great deal to answer for: one of my sharpest memories of the ground-down year and a half I spent drudging in the marketing department of Messrs Coopers & Lybrand, back in the mid-1980s, was of a partner rebuking a secretary for eating an ice-cream in the street.
At the same time, some of the very worst instances of bad behaviour involved women throwing their weight around with other women. Again, male attitudes were probably at the bottom of this, if only because any woman who made the dizzying heights of full equity partnership had usually struggled so hard to get there that she wasn't disposed to spare the rod with hopeful subordinates; even so, it used to puzzle me that sisterly solidarity so rarely prevailed. On the other hand, imaginative gestures of revolt were usually the exclusive property of women, some of them in relatively humble positions. On one celebrated occasion in the Coopers office in Bouverie Street, a male partner attempted to have a female receptionist removed from her job on the grounds that – I swear I am not making this up – he "didn't like the sound of her voice", whereupon one of the girl's colleagues seized the internal telephone and gave him a piece of her mind. Gratifyingly, neither of them lost their job. I have always admired this woman – whose name, shamefully, I can't even remember – for having the guts to do something I should never have dared to do myself.
Great excitement here in Norfolk over the whereabouts and – a fortiori – the existence of what local naturalists are presumably calling the North Walsham Panther. It all started when the local paper printed a picture of a tree with its bark devastated by a set of outsize claw marks, and the testimony of an eyewitness who claimed to have seen a giant-sized cat "bigger than a husky dog" using it as a scratching-post. Next morning the BBC Radio Norfolk breakfast show was aflame with the excited recollections of listeners from the North Walsham-to-Edlington quadrant of the north-east Norfolk coast. One caller, who had seen the animal twice, maintained that it was 5ft long. There was a feeling that it might be making its way to Thetford Forest, in search of proper cover (given that the forest is a good 40 miles to the south-west this would require a feline satnav device, but never mind). As I write this, dozens of outraged farmers are no doubt filing details of mauled sheep to Defra.
The curious thing about this discovery is how neatly it chimes with four or five centuries' worth of local folklore. Norfolk and Suffolk may not have a mythological black cat, but they certainly have a dog – "Black Shuck", who turned up in Bungay church during a thunderstorm in 1577, "an horrible shaped thing", according to the chronicler. Picking out two men from among the congregation, the creature "wrung the necks of them bothe at one instant cleane backward, insomuch that even at a moment where they kneeled they strangely dyed". Shuck, or versions of him, has prowled the Norfolk coastline ever since (cf rock band The Darkness's epic "Black Shuck"). To return to the modern age, remote, rural counties have a habit of retaining mini eco-systems capable of sustaining outlandish fauna, even in an age of motorways and Barratt homes. In this context, the thought that, deep in some lonely copse out on the Bacton Road, the North Walsham Panther is gearing up for a summer of sheep-slaughter and media frenzy is a small blow for freedom.
The book I most enjoyed reading last week was Anne Chisholm's forthcoming biography of the Bloomsbury diarist Frances Partridge, who died in 2004 at the age of 103. I interviewed Mrs Partridge towards the end of her life and can confirm that her intellect flourished in inverse proportion to her physical decline. The influence of the movement in English thought (or perhaps it was really only a movement in upper-class English social life) that she represented has come in for a bad press lately. Martin Amis once declared that, forced to choose between F R Leavis and Bloomsbury, he'd plump unhesitatingly for the author of The Great Tradition. Only the other day at the Oxford Literary Festival I heard A S Byatt deliver a pained critique of Bloomsbury's lack of genuine "seriousness".
There is plenty of seriousness on offer in Frances Partridge: The Biography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), albeit of a slightly stylised sort. The two most striking qualities in this world are its high-mindedness and the almost infinite leisure available to the people walking about in it. Respectfully at large amid agreeable foreign holidays, jolly picnics on the lawn at Ham Spray House and the parlour maid bringing in tea, the reader sometimes wonders if it would have been possible to live the high moral life without quite so many servants or unearned incomes.
Another objection to Bloomsbury is, of course, its detachment from most kinds of practical reality. As Orwell – no imperialist – once observed, an India governed along lines suggested by E M Forster would have fallen apart in a week. On the other hand, looking at some of the embarrassments of our modern body politic and the depravities of our cultural life, you could argue that an infusion of Bloomsbury-style high-mindedness wouldn't go amiss. Certainly the idea of Frances Partridge, beadily at large around Gordon Brown's cabinet table and remorselessly attending to his colleagues' deficiencies of logic, would be an altogether bracing experience.
The most unintentionally hilarious story of the week involved Richard Thornhill, a father of two from Cheltenham, who spoke of his "anger" at finding four ecstasy pills inside a computer game he had bought from a high street chain store. According to press reports, Mr Thornhill and his wife were left "shaken by the discovery and concerned for the safety of their 12-year-old son", for whom the game had been purchased. The game itself turned out to be the 18-certificate mayhem-frenzy Grand Theft Auto IV. I ended up thinking that 12-year-old Jamie would probably do less harm to himself by swallowing the pills.
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