Mary Wakefield: What 'The Water Babies' can teach us about personal morality

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At certain times in history, different countries seem to need particular, sometimes pretty peculiar, heroes to help them out. As France needed Napo-leon at the turn of the 18th century, as America post-Bush needed Obama, as Gotham city needed Batman – so 21st century England needs Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did.

For those of you who weren't brought up by Victorians, Mrs BDBAYD was one of the two sub-aqua spinsters who saw to it that the water-babies grew up into decent water-adults in Charles Kingsley's fairytale. Her colleague, Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By, was the cosy one, treating her charges as they wished to be treated: with unlimited love and sweets.

Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did was a different kettle of fish. She was stern, bespectacled, unbending. She behaved toward the babies as they behaved towards others, making sure their actions came back to bite them, until they gradually learnt the golden rule of civilisation: if you don't like it yourself, then best not do it to someone else.

So why the sudden need for Mrs BDB? Well, as we teeter on the brink of a new decade, it's occurred to me that in lots of ways the Noughties have inverted the water baby code. We all now feel quite free to do as we would not dream of being done by. Which is not to say we're not nice, just that we've forgotten how to universalise.

The first person I caught in an inexcusable infraction of water baby ethics was myself. Normally, I am an evangelist for cyclists' rights and moan about the disproportionate vitriol that bikers attract. A month ago my bike was stolen. Shortly after that, while out and about on foot, I saw a cyclist shimmy through a red light, and though he posed no danger to anyone I let out a furious shriek: "You bloody moron!"

I was almost home by the time I realised I'd completely failed to do as I would be done by and become, without a second thought, the sort of person who regularly reduces me to tears. Since then, I've seen the need for Mrs BDB almost everywhere I go.

The first place she is required is by cashpoints. Almost everyone is a cashpoint hypocrite. They shuffle in the queue, they crane and curse the time-wasters, then once in pole position, visibly relax, sometimes checking their balance or ordering a cheque book. I've earned my turn, they think, so I'll take my time. Mrs BDB must also punish similar behaviour at train stations and in post offices.

Then there's train-seat doublethink. It's tacitly acknowledged that travellers sitting next to an empty seat will feel unreasonably proprietorial about it, and will often place a bag on it to warn off competition. But what will really set Mrs BDB's teeth on edge is that these same seat-hoggers are the most likely to glower at other seat-hoggers. How do I know? I just do. Then there's phone calls in public places. The saintly minority step outside, but the usual assumption is that a little lowering of the voice during one's own urgent call justifies a really spiteful glare at anyone else who dares try it.

See what I mean? It's not simply hypocrisy. It's more an almost comical failure to put ourselves in another's place, which has the pleasing corollary of letting us all do exactly as we like. In The Water Babies, Kingsley talks of a group of humans called Doasyoulikes who are benign but so unreflectively into self-gratification that they gradually lose the power of speech, degenerate into gorillas and are shot by an explorer. But perhaps that's beside the point.

Once she's dealt with the urbanite Doasyoulikes like me, Mrs BDB will have to deal with the same phenomenon in public debate. Take the issue of privacy. We become hysterical with the Government for spying on us, but in the same breath demand the Royals open up their inboxes; that celebrities make public confessions. Or take the global warming row: both the climate change evangelists and the deniers regularly accuse each other of being Nazis, then become mutually outraged at the insult, and attribute the ensuing fracas to the other side's fundamental insanity. Time for Mrs BDB to step in.

In The Water Babies Kingsley made the moral case for the new science of evolution, but people have been hammering home the same point for 4,000 years. There's an Egyptian fable which concludes: "That which you hate to be done to you, do not do to others." The ancient Greek Epictetus said: "What thou avoidest suffering thyself, seek not to impose on others." But it's Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did we need now I think. A big 200ft version, stalking the streets like Godzilla, her glasses flashing as she pinches and prods us back on course.

*A lot of bother this week about trains stopping in the Channel Tunnel; a lot of talk of the wrong kind of snow in the wrong engines. No talk, however, of what seems to me to be the real problem: how are we claustrophobics to cope? I'd say we make up at least five per cent of all passengers, and I can speak for the whole clan when I say that after any more than a 20-minute wait under the sea we cannot be held responsible for our actions.

Screaming and clawing at the sealed doors is not impossible. While the Eurostar team work out how to cope with winter, I suggest they should also start stockpiling Valium.

Doomed to stay on that roundabout

Poor, silly Pete Doherty, banged up again. Poor, silly Sienna Miller – back (it's said) with faithless Jude. Poor, silly Amy Winehouse, reunited with that illiterate smack-head Blake. Isn't it time we let this crop of exhausted celebs go? For the past 10 years it's as if they've been on a sort of newspaper- sponsored roundabout, doomed to repeat the same mistakes and make the same headlines to less effect, over and over again until they grow too weak to hang on, and fall off into the obits. Someone kind should stop the roundabout, send the paparazzi packing, and help the dazed celebs stagger home.

Message to the Tories: stop trying to seal the deal

*Here's my helpful tip for the Tory party in 2010 – one which I think might be genuinely useful to them in the year ahead: they should eliminate the phrase "seal the deal" from their collective vocabulary. Cameron and co use it in what they think is a dynamic but modest way: don't let's rest on our laurels, they say, we haven't actually won yet; we haven't "sealed the deal" with the British public.

The reason this is so intensely irritating is that there is no deal for them to seal. The public haven't undertaken to vote for them and we won't be letting them down if, come the general election, we decide to tick another box.

Such is the power of an endlessly repeated phrase that I think most Conservative MPs now believe some sort of deal has been struck, and that if they're not in power in a few months it'll be an outrage – as if they've been gazumped by Labour. But it's exactly this unthinking complacency that may well keep them from sealing the deal altogether.

*Thank you, thank you Mr Justice Bean for deciding that Boy George cannot appear in the final series of Celebrity Big Brother. Mr Bean (it's true, I promise) has ruled that to see a con larking about and cashing in might undermine confidence in the criminal justice system. But those of us who loved Boy back in the 1980s owe Mr Bean a great debt. Now George can remain for us flash-frozen in his prime: handsome and happy, all eyebrows and long plaits. To be forced to watch fat, bald, 21st-century George dozing on a Big Brother beanbag all next year would be very bad Karma indeed.

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