‘A culture changes by example and a licentious old man being found guilty will help do that,’ says a leader in the Times. Perhaps, but I would be much more impressed if it were a licentious younger man. We can all moralise away in retrospect about what the BBC and others allowed Rolf Harris CBE or Sir James Savile to get away with. It is easy to attack them when they are old or dead. You still very rarely hear of sex charges against current performers. I would not dream of suggesting that Russell Brand is a sex criminal, but we know, from his own account, that he has slept with a great many women. He even, with Jonathan Ross, telephoned the elderly actor Andrew Sachs, and they left a message on his answering machine boasting of how Brand had slept with his granddaughter. The BBC broadcast this as comedy. If the wheel of celebrity fortune ever went against Brand, would it be surprising if some of the women who have slept with him decided to accuse him of ‘inappropriate’ acts? Would the BBC then find the whole thing less funny? I am not saying that Rolf Harris is innocent — I have faith in juries — but I am saying that sexual accusations against old celebrities are not a challenge to the current culture, but an attack on those whose power has waned.
Here is a ‘Man bites dog’ story: the BBC Trust has produced a good report on its own rural coverage. The author, Heather Hancock, says that the BBC has ‘an undue dependence on a very small number of NGOs’, notably the National Trust and the RSPB. It treats these as authoritative, but it ‘must be mindful that such bodies seek and benefit from publicity to build finance and support their cause’. So true: how often BBC journalists reject a point of view because it is ‘commercial’ but accept one unquestioned when it comes from an NGO which is just as self-interested. These NGOs have a great media advantage in rural affairs because they are centralised organisations paying lots of smooth spokesmen to react nationally. Country life is naturally uncentralised, and so the people who really know about something locally are harder to find. BBC producers should order their journalists to put the National Trust, RSPB etc in the same mental bracket as other big groups — the tobacco and drinks industries, the energy giants, Unite, Tesco — bodies with a right to be heard but also with axes to grind.
Heather Hancock also criticised the tendency of the BBC to favour ‘fluffy badgers’. Round us, badgers, because protected, have grown bolder, so I have had more chance to study them than when, as a boy, I waited to watch them at dusk outside their setts. They are more hairy than fluffy, and their colouring is dirtier than people think. They are ungainly, verminous, and very destructive. In the past, their uneven gait gave rise to the belief that they have legs of unequal length, so Renaissance painting used them as a type of sinful humanity after the Fall. I don’t know where the fluffy, pretty stuff came in: I suppose when people first ceased to know them at first hand. Of course, one must not criticise badgers for their habits: they are, by nature, what they are. But honesty about the natural world is needed, and hard to come by. In the first paragraph of her original draft of The Tale of Mr Tod — in which badger and fox fight — Beatrix Potter wrote, ‘I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people. I will make a book about two disagreeable people, Tommy Brock and Mr Tod.’ When her publisher softened the first sentence, she protested: ‘You are a great deal too much afraid of the public, for whom I have never cared one tuppenny-button.’ The National Trust and the RSPB, with their endless membership drives, dare not think such thoughts, but a duty to rural life or the natural world is not necessarily the same as crowd-pleasing.
Last month, my old friend John Casey gave an elegant party to celebrate his 50 years as a fellow of Gonville and Caius college, Cambridge, and his 75 years on the planet. I realised with a little shock that it was therefore 35 years since his 40th birthday, also in Caius, in 1979. I remember it well because it contained features unfamiliar to my generation, like waltzes and white ties. It was the first occasion I had attended where I felt I must be grown-up (I was 22). John has a gift for friendship for all sorts and conditions, and those present at last month’s party showed this. They included academic historians like Harold James, Ruth Scurr and Sir Noel Malcolm, and worldly ones like Andrew Roberts and Simon Sebag-Montefiore, writers like Ben Schott and Mary Killen, politicians like Kwasi Kwarteng and Oliver Letwin, the editor Sarah Sands, the chemist Sir Alan Fersht, the composer Robin Holloway, the architect John Simpson, a priest, an eye-surgeon, a gardener, at least one Rothschild, lots of foreigners and Pascal Khoo Thwe, whom John rescued from oppression in Burma many years ago. We all felt proud to be there. I worked out that there was as much distance between the 40th birthday and now as there had been between that party and D-Day. If you take the same elapse of time back from D-Day, you get to 1909. And that — traversing more than a century — is what you have to do to find a period of comparable comfort and peace. Some nasty things have certainly happened since 1979 — 11 September 2001, the credit crunch, Big Brother — but in truth no generation has ever had it so good. I wonder if I shall live to tell grandchildren about Dr Casey’s ball and they will stand amazed to hear of how people could live by writing and without fighting.
A reader, Peter Thomas, tells me that his father was serving in the Royal Irish Rifles at Dover when the first world war broke out. The first order he received was ‘Officers send their swords to the armourer to be sharpened’.