Some sins remove you from the guest list. Others just don’t matter

We tend to forget the crimes of people when we really want to meet them.


My friend Mary Killen, who writes the “Dear Mary” etiquette column for The Spectator, received a real chin-stroker in the post this week.

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-drier 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 definitely 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. Americans take a more existentialist view of human potential than we do; they think people should be allowed to try on a personality, like acquiring a new hobby, and if it lands them in jail they should admit they screwed up and then everybody can move on.

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 ok, 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.

Not the moment to get stuck...

What’s the best music to have sex to? According to a professor of “music psychology” at London University, the best accompaniment to the midnight rodeo is Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”. He conducted a survey of 2,000 music lovers “between 18 and 91”, asking for their recommendations. I can’t help feeling some were pulling his leg. Is there a woman in the universe who’d enjoy making love to the theme from Star Wars (No 20) or to Tom Jones singing “Sex Bomb” (No 19)? Can anyone perform the blanket hornpipe to Celine Dion singing “My Heart Will Go On” (No 8) without thinking about drowning? And why listen to music at all when having sex? So much can go wrong.

At university, I lived with a chap called Rob who always stuck Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on while making love to his girlfriend.  Through the wall you could hear, during the climactic track, “Brain Damage”, the needle sticking on the line “And if the dam breaks open many years too soon…”, offering a nagging and unhappy image of premature ejaculation while simultaneously requiring the poor chap to cease what he was doing and change the bloody record. Twitter: @JohnHenryWalsh

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