Philip Hensher: The ugly side of a sepia-tinted scandal

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This week's Liberal Democrat scandal, unlike last week's, has a charming period quality, an old-fashioned sepia-coloured scandal supplied to entertain us. Forty years ago, nobody would have resigned for the reason Charles Kennedy did. A week later, it's quite nice to see the old favourites of rent boy and moment-of-weakness still going strong in 2006.

It certainly supplied all the traditional ingredients; Mr Mark Oaten, the bun-faced MP going white on being confronted with the News of the World on a Saturday night; the reference to "a sexual act too revolting to describe"; the splendidly suburban hypocrisy of the rent boy, tut-tutting away over Mr Oaten's behaviour; and - this is rather the point at which one's frank enjoyment starts to become a little less exuberant - the involvement of a betrayed and bewildered wife, and - no, this isn't funny at all any more - two small daughters.

As Stanley Baldwin said over the abdication crisis, the British people don't mind fornication, but they don't like adultery. In 2006, it's difficult to make excuses for Mr Oaten's behaviour, given his personal and public responsibilities. Homosexuality has been legal for nearly 40 years now. I honestly can't find a lot of sympathy for someone who makes a useful show of wife and children, while indulging his tastes in a way which ultimately will humiliate them in public.

Some people might think the whole situation sad: I rather think it opportunistic. And, of course, a Liberal Democrat will have had plenty of practice in situations like this, reassuringly telling people whatever they want to hear; lower taxation, higher spending, less state control, stricter regulation. The electorate want a wife and children? Nothing easier. What does your wife want? Well, she's easily reassured, too, surely?

Some things are fairly non-negotiable, however, and some positions are less easily glossed over than others. One area where people are less likely to be blinded with science is the question of whether it is right or admirable for a politician to pose with his wife when he wants a political reward, or indeed to marry someone for these useful purposes and spend his spare time dashing off to rent boys.

Sometimes, when an MP gets into trouble over personal difficulties, one can sympathise with the situation. This one, I don't think is one of them. Twenty or thirty years ago, a gay MP would have found it very difficult to be open about it. In the past, many people in this situation were constrained into marrying, with often tragic results for everyone concerned. That just isn't true any longer. Even if the fact of being gay or bisexual is not exactly a passport to popularity, it isn't so difficult a situation as to justify Mr Oaten's degree of deception. As a gay man of roughly Mr Oaten's age, I can confidently say that nothing in the way of social pressures could justify marrying for public purposes. Even supposing that we are talking about bisexuality here, and a man who married his wife for love, Mr Oaten's behaviour remains disgraceful, and, given the potential for blackmail, unarguably a sacking offence.

As time goes on, the public grows more liberal in its view of acceptable private behaviour. But it's fairly safe to say that what Mr Oaten has done is never going to be regarded with much sympathy, and, now that homosexuality carries so much less stigma, his behaviour starts to look still uglier. Save your tears for someone else.

When art gives way to nostalgia

The wonderful exhibition of Dan Flavin at the Hayward Gallery, right, raises a peculiar question. Mr Flavin devoted his career to making sculptures out of fluorescent lights, and entrancing objects they prove. When he started they were the most unremarkable industrial objects, but I learn that in recent years the trade has changed, and we're soon getting to the point where some of Mr Flavin's coloured tubes are only manufactured for the purposes of Flavin exhibitions.

It's a problem. In the last hundred years, many artists have made art out of the most pointedly ordinary objects, from Duchamp's urinal onwards. Even if no practical problem arises like the Flavin issue, the art certainly changes when the world moves on and the object, once banal, becomes a historic and even an exotic one. It's strange to think that everything, even a fluorescent tube, ultimately acquires that most deadening of aesthetic qualities, nostalgic charm. In time, parts of major modern art collections will be indistinguishable from the most deplorable of "Heritage Experiences".

* On the Arctic Monkeys' hugely anticipated album, there's a song called "Mardy Bum". Mardy! This marvellous word hardly exists outside Sheffield, but as a description of a certain sort of sulkiness, grumpiness, passive-aggressive going-along-with-it-but-don't-think-I'm-enjoying-it, a feminine mood but one not confined to women, I don't believe "mardy" can be improved upon.

Until now, however, it's been a nice, safe private insult, muttered under the breath for private enjoyment. (Me, I'd say "mardy cow", though, not "bum".) Now, let's just hope the Arctic Monkeys don't get round to popularising "nesh". That really would be a tragedy.

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