The champion of semi-posh delinquency

Who knows when the next cycle of face-eating, followed by well-aired penance, will take place?
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The Independent Online

It has been an encouraging few weeks for those who believe that the middle-aged, middle-class and apparently respectable can, when it comes to contemporary misbehaviour, keep their ends up with the best of them. The grinning toff Lord Brocket has made a chump of himself in the jungle. At HQ, King's Royal Hussars, there has been, it is alleged in a Southampton court, a veritable daisy-chain of adultery, party bunk-ups, groping, stroking, texting and bonking among male and female officers.

But the week's undisputed champion of semi-posh delinquency must surely be Lady Pilkington, whose run-in with her probation officers on disputes concerning attire and litter-collection has deservedly dominated the headlines, while her ample, largely unclothed body has loomed prominently in the nation's press.

Some may argue that her ladyship's appearance before a judge and subsequent imprisonment for 42 days are hardly matters of pressing concern but, in its small and undignified way, the story contains a parable of relevance not only to those engaged in the publicity business but also to David Blunkett and the judiciary. The saga, a sort of Crime and Punishment reworked by the makers of Footballers' Wives, touches on several of society's current preoccupations, insecurities and temptations.

Class, first of all. Lady Pilkington is not apparently a lady at all, but an off-the-peg aristo. Her title, rather startlingly to those of is who never knew such things happened, had been bought. Thanks to a trust fund which provided her with £2,000 a month, her ladyship elected to introduce a life of conspicuous and noisy decadence to the neighbourhood of Southsea, on the south coast.

With perhaps an eye on the sensibilities of the age, she moved into neighbour-from-hell mode and harassed her neighbours by calling them "the slag", "the purchased wife" and - another nice, contemporary touch with its nod to paedophilia - "the pervert". Then she took to having various forms of sex with her boyfriend in a hot tub situated in her garden. The sight and sound of these events so traumatised the neighbours that one couple moved house.

But it was when all these excitements landed the purchased peeress in court that her case turned out to have relevance to the debate concerning prison. Before sentencing her to a 180-hour community service order, the judge remarked, with some prescience, that he regretted being unable to send her to jail, but that a recent Court of Appeal ruling had made it clear that custodial sentences should only be given when absolutely necessary.

For all its merits, the system of community service has recently been revealed to have a minor flaw when it comes to high-profile cases: it actually helps the offenders' public image. When Vinnie Jones, the unpleasant ex-footballer who has exploited his thuggish reputation to such good effect in the film world, attacked a journalist during the 1990s and attempted to bite his nose off, he was ordered to pay his penance in work for the community.

Within weeks of leaving court, the newspapers had picked up stories about how the "former hard man" had been reduced to tears by the plight of the impoverished old folk to whom he had been delivering blankets. He had been humbled by the experience, he said.

He was less humble last year when, while travelling on an aeroplane, he offered to bite the face off a fellow passenger and informed cabin staff that he could have them murdered for £3,000. When that small matter reached the courts in December, the sentence had a familiar ring to it: 80 hours of community service. The first photographs of Vinnie carrying furniture for a charity house-clearing firm appeared in the tabloids last month. Soon afterwards, a touching story about how the former hard man had felt so sorry for a single mum that he bought her a sofa and delivered it to her personally was passed to a grateful hack.

Community service, said Vinnie, was "very rewarding and has brought me down to earth". In fact, it had been a humbling experience. Who knows when the next cycle of face-eating, followed by well-aired penance, will take place?

For those who can exploit it, serving the community actually delivers a terrific pay-off, providing a bonanza of publicity which points up the very aspect of personality which celebrates love to present to the world - that of humility.

Lady P did not exactly take that course. She made her way back into the press by refusing to work in a charity shop out of distaste for touching other people's clothes, claiming - another deft touch - that her whippet had cancer and, finally, turning up for litter collection in the New Forest wearing a skimpy vest, a mini-skirt and gold flip-flops.

When those in charge told her, rather kindly one would have thought, that the sight of her might inflame the passions of male litter-collectors, her ladyship accused them of sexual discrimination and an abuse of her basic human rights. She was soon on her way to court again.

Anyone who assumes that this woman is slightly bonkers, or merely unpleasant, should think again. The stunt has worked - 42 days in the nick will be a small price to pay for her advancement within the civilian, famous-for-being-famous wing of the celebrity army. No wonder that her ladyship, mighty breasts spilling out of her bikini, is grinning so happily in her press photographs.

terblacker@aol.com

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