Tom Sutcliffe: You can't judge the past by today's standards

Tuesday 06 January 2009 01:00

At first glance it looked like a storm in a tea-cup – a newspaper report suggesting that concerned citizens of Worthing, alerted by a local historian to Oscar Wilde's insouciance about the modern age of consent laws, were minded to strip the playwright of the blue plaque which marks the lodgings in which he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest.

On closer inspection the storm dwindled to a mild breeze, barely capable of sending a ripple across the Earl Grey. True, there was a quotation from a local campaigner called Steven Stevens, who obligingly announced that he "would fight tooth and nail for any campaign to erase a link between Worthing and a child abuser" – but the conditional tone of Mr Stevens's battle cry suggested that no such campaign actually existed.

Asked to comment on the dispute, a local conservative councillor sensibly suggested that Worthing's association with Wilde had not actually provoked any consternation at all, and that in any case one sometimes had to take a bit of rough with the smooth, historically speaking.

It did get me wondering about the statute of limitations on social transgression though. After all, there's little doubt that if Wilde was a contemporary playwright his predilection for teenage boys would effectively guarantee the end of his career. I didn't listen to a lot of pop radio at Christmas but I'd bet that there weren't a lot of needle-time payments for a one-time fixture of the seasonal play-lists, Gary Glitter's "Another Rock and Roll Christmas". And even more tangential connections with child abuse can have strange effects on a career.

Why is it that you still can't buy a DVD release of Help -- a quite brilliant BBC series in which Chris Langham played a psychotherapist treating a gallery of patients all played by Paul Whitehouse. Langham cited the comedy in his defence – claiming that he was researching a storyline for the second series when he downloaded illegal images – but there's nothing in the episodes themselves that could remotely be taken as dubious in the light of hindsight. (Unlike Wilde himself, who was a witty and knowingly provocative proselytiser for depravity).

It isn't impossible either to imagine crimes that could still end Wilde's career, or make new productions a lot more awkward. What if, say, a literary historian discovered irrefutable proof that he had violently raped pre-pubertal children? Would we still be as charmed by his epigrams about scandal, still be as inclined to argue the toss about different cultural norms? None of the jokes in the works would have changed a bit, none of the word-play or the paradoxes would be less sparkling – but I doubt that audiences would feel free to indulge the wit so readily. It's easy to mock those who set out to retrospectively police the social and sexual attitudes of our forebears – but it's worth remembering that there's usually a line none of us would cross.

What's significant though is that line is generally historically unbroken. It's quite easy to think of cultures in which Wilde's infatuations with young boys would have been regarded as unexceptionable, even proper – whatever we believe now.

It's all but impossible to think of cultures which have sanctioned or tolerated the rape of small children. Failing to recognise the distinction between universal transgressions and historically parochial ones is naïve and small-minded. I have a suspicion that Wilde's blue plaque is pretty safe – but if not the concerned citizens of Worthing will have recoiled from buggery into pure civic humbuggery.

The unmistakeable aroma of ... Ken

I visited India over Christmas, happy to trade the tiny risk of terrorist outrage for a break from Christmas TV, all-day twilight and double-page spreads about how we're all going to be living in cardboard boxes by the end of the year. It worked out well: the streets of New Delhi – a Breughel inferno with added traffic – have a way of putting British economic anxieties into a bearable perspective.

But the trip wasn't entirely without reminders of domestic politics. Getting off a ferry across Cochin harbour (very cheap and the dolphin-watching is thrown in free) we discovered the "Ken Livingstone Coffe Shop" – complete with a handsome portrait of the former mayor of London.

There was no evidence that Ken himself had endorsed this unusual brand extension – but he may be glad to know that there is a little patch of Ernakulam that still sincerely believes he's good for business.

Come on, sir, entertain us

Interesting to see that Ofsted is planning to campaign against boring teachers, though dispiriting for teachers themselves – who will now presumably have to think of themselves as pedagogical Redcoats, duty-bound to turn GCSE maths into some kind of end-of-the-pier show, while simultaneously performing riot-control duties.

Nobody would argue for boring lessons of course, but I do worry that this development might send the wrong message to the cannier classroom disruptors – allowing them to argue that their delinquency is not their fault at all, but a regrettable failure of charisma on the part of the teacher. And what about a crucial lesson that everyone needs to learn before they're released into the world of work? Quite a lot of life is boring – and it's a useful skill to learn how to endure it.

* The annual Consumer Electronics Show starts later this week in Las Vegas – finessing the irony of hosting a festival of unnecessary consumption at a time of recession by presenting gadgets as a kind of electronic tranquillizer. "In times like these," their website suggests hopefully, "making life good – especially in our homes – is more important than ever". So forget the Great Depression 2.0 and soothe your woes with a Bluetooth-enabled vacuum-cleaner cum video-projector.

Various forms of wireless charging are predicted to be one of the headline themes of this year's show – and can I suggest, for the January market, that somebody come up with a device that would combine carbon reduction with fat reduction? The time is surely ripe for the exercise-bike-battery-charger. I'm ready to flesh out the basic concept for a modest consultancy fee and a very reasonable per-unit royalty.

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