Petronella, paedophilia, and the wrong lesson to draw from Olivier’s pass

Plus, why all engaged couples should be forced to watch the Huhne/Pryce trial

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The Independent Online

If this week’s stories about Petronella Wyatt and Alan Bennett – both of whom were touched up by adults when young but claim not to mind – mark a trend, then a gripping new genre of fiction should hit shelves soon to counteract the “Harrowing Life Stories” book trend. Oh, those depressing books called grim stuff like “The Secrets Kids Keep” or “Please, Daddy, Not Again”. Now’s the time, it seems, for the “Abused and Not That Bothered! Stiff Upper Lip everyone!” genre.

These would be books for forthright folks who think this whole terrific fuss over Savile, child abuse, Operation Yewtree, yadda yadda is just a load of leftist, hairy-legged mollycoddling PC brigade wotnot. Or, as Petronella Wyatt put it in the Daily Mail yesterday: “It is time all of us grew up. What is wrong with the occasional wistful pass made by a man whose youth has faded?”

But Petronella, regardless of her jolly Swallows and Amazons swagger, doesn’t talk about wistful passes. To my mind, “a pass” is someone floating the notion verbally that they’d like to have sex with you, then retreating. Petronella’s story about Laurence Olivier, for example, is that when she was 15 and Olivier an old man, he waited at a family event until they were alone, invited her on to his knee, touched her breasts, told her she was “St Quentin Quail” – his jokey term for jailbait – kissed her on the mouth and then thanked her for being obliging.

Albert Finney, Robin Day and other men in positions of power also made passes, allegedly. But – importantly – it was all jolly and she was thrilled, and her family laughed it off, and in actual fact it’s young girls who are to blame, and isn’t modern life rubbish now that we take these things so seriously.

But the Olivier story, to me, doesn’t sound like “a wistful pass”. This sounds very much like a predatory old sleaze shoving his hand down a young girl’s top. Petronella’s memories of everyone’s part in this event, feel like the very typical behaviour of a child abuse case. The grown-up took a calculated risk to get his jollies with a child. The child felt flattered/confused by an older man, in this case a celebrity, telling her she was pretty. The parents didn’t want to rock the boat with their social circle so they laughed it off – and then laughed several other incidents with other men off – and now, decades later, the woman feels she brought it on herself by being manipulative. But it wasn’t your fault, Petronella; your parents let you down greatly. I’d prefer it if you didn’t extend your own method of dealing with this betrayal to telling other women to put up and shut up, too.

Petronella goes on: “That many teenage girls are simply not to be trusted around attractive older men is a fact that appears to be all too often ignored – but it is high time we reminded ourselves of it.” This concept is quite troubling. Obviously, there’s the whopping great victim-blaming brickbat that, “What we really need to realise about child abuse is that teen girls are bloody sexy, wa-hey!” But the notion that we all should “remind ourselves” of a teenager’s allure is peculiar. I don’t remember a time in the past 30 years when we haven’t acknowledged the headstrong, 14-going-on-25, knows-everything-better-than-you, hormonal, self-obsessed tornado which can often be the teenage girl. I was one myself.

Teenagers think they’re adults, but they’re not. So to assist these poor, put-upon “attractive older men”, faced with a child in lipgloss “making advances”, we also have police cars, court appearances and jail terms.  “But when I was growing up,” says Petronella, “so many of my father’s friends made passes at me that if I had sued each one, I would still be in court to this day.” Knowing what the Wyatt family classes as a wistful pass, and Petronella was probably not the only victim, it’s a shame that they all thought court was too good for them.

The trials of marriage

For everyone getting wed this summer, it’s common to seek advice from friends and family about the pitfalls of married life, only to find a distinct dearth of plain-speaking offered. “Oh, you’ll have your ups and your downs!” is as much as most people will mumble. From now on, I think all engaged couples should be forced to watch edited highlights of the Huhne/Pryce trial. There is no better modern example of the worst case scenario of marital breakdown and how quickly it can snowball into irretrievable chaos. Sure, my wedding classes might feel like shock and awe tactics, but think how many John Lewis toasters we’ll all avoid buying.

So, SJP, heels don’t hurt if they cost £600 a pair?

Sarah Jessica Parker – for those who live as hermits, that’s Carrie Bradshaw of Sex And The City fame – has admitted that high heels have ruined bones in her feet. The fact that SJP – queen of the shoe idiots, of which I am one – has bones protruding in places they’re not typically found, and that there are doctors making meaningful sounds about Dr Scholl Orthopaedic sandals, is a very sad time. But it’s cheap high heels that she wore recently, she claims – not the £600 a pair ones she ran around in for 18 hours a day playing Carrie – that did the damage. No, nothing bad can happen in a pair of Giuseppe Zanotti’s finest. I’m glad SJP still believes this. Even if she might be on a Zimmer Frame by 2020. I felt like giving up the shoe habit of a lifetime last week when I fell over during pre-cocktails at the British Press Awards in a pair of 120mm-high Dolce & Gabbana heels when they gave way on plush, shiny carpet. To be fair, if I’d known that writer Craig Brown was going to win my category I’d have laid there all evening.