Mary Kenny

Diary - 22 November 2003

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Miranda Sawyer’s Channel 4 programme pleading for the abolition of the age of consent, Sex Before 16: Why the Law is Failing, featured the following adults: the editor of a sexually frank magazine for young girls, Bliss; a QC as a legal expert; a child protection expert; an MP; three experts in ‘teenage sexuality’; a liberal-minded historian; and a contraceptive nurse. The aggregate opinions of these experts mostly hovered around ‘empowerment’ and ‘education’, advancing arguments as to why ‘kids’ under 16 years should be trusted to decide for themselves ‘when to have sex’, as it is now so unromantically called. There seems no allowance for the pleasure of romantic yearnings: the mechanics of ‘having sex’ are all. Most notably absent from the documentary, shown last Sunday night, were parents, or anyone identifying herself (or himself) as a parent. Yet the family context in which youngsters ‘have sex’ is highly relevant to values and behaviour. We are always told that the Dutch are successful at keeping teenage pregnancy low; if so, this is directly related to the fact that more mothers stay at home in the Netherlands, and Dutch divorce figures are also low. Intact family life is the best protection against precocious sexual activity. Ms Sawyer’s dialectic boasted that the age of consent in Spain is 13, and yet the average age of loss of virginity for young women is 19. She did not go on to explain that this is because family life is much more protective in the Latin countries. Where the family is strong, the law is less significant, to be sure. The law is important in Britain because the family is so often absent. As it was from Ms Sawyer’s polemic.

I suppose it would be fair to describe Michael Moore — he is in both paperback and hardback bestseller lists, currently, with Stupid White Men and Dude, Where’s My Country? — as the star of the laddish Left. His rants against George W. Bush and American conservatism are entertaining enough in the laddish genre of cheeky comic writing. He has been barnstorming this country in opposition to the official visit of President Bush. Yet there are contradictions in the Michael Moore phenomenon. While railing against American capitalism, he is a startling beneficiary of its energy and the opportunities it provides. He also pursues, himself, that most American method of globalised business strategies: simplify, simplify, simplify. McDonald’s hamburger empire is built on this principle: forget nuances — standardise and simplify. This is also what Michael Moore does: stereotype, reduce, simplify. The ‘conservatives’ he rails against in his new book are cardboard cut-out baddies, driven by a desire to reduce the globalised economy to exploitative child labour. Michael is also awfully soppy about Northern Ireland, and applies an American naivety to the situation in Belfast. He describes the cuddly, warm-hearted experience of being driven around with those nice Irish Republicans of Sinn Fein, while scoffing contemptuously at the dim old Ulster Protestants, who have never learned to adapt. He was indeed taken for a ride by the Falls Road brigade. However, Mr Moore did offer me money when I did Start the Week with him, in case I should be short. As I can’t quite afford London dental charges as they now are, I almost accepted.

Yes: whatever happened to the NHS dental service? Another project for Michael Howard.

Everyone is liberal on some issues and conservative on others. I am a liberal on migration. People should be able to live where they please. And if so-called asylum seekers in Britain were permitted to work, we would have much better domestic services from keen young immigrants who seek to better themselves. What’s wrong with that? It is always a good sign when migrants want to get into your country. I think it is excellent that more than 10 per cent of the population of Ireland — 400,000 people — are now immigrants. There are said to be 50,000 Chinese people in Dublin alone, although no one knows the exact number. But each time I go to Dublin — which is about twice a month — the Chinese population has apparently doubled. These young Chinese people are hard-working and very polite, and they frequently offer me their seats on the crowded Dublin buses. Many small shops in central Dublin are now run by the Chinese. It is an extraordinary social revolution which will bring great benefits to Ireland in the coming times.

In my biography of Lord Haw-Haw, Germany Calling, I tried to explain, for younger readers, just how famous a media celebrity William Joyce was in his day. ‘It was as if,’ I wrote, ‘Anne Robinson were facing a capital charge in our time.’ The thought set off a brief fantasy — if only! Only kidding, Annie. Kind of. The story of William Joyce, the last man to be hanged for high treason by the Crown, is now attracting several TV documentaries and movie offers — one Irish-British production is well in progress. A full-length movie feature is also being outlined. My son Patrick has wittily suggested that Mel Gibson might play the lead role — with the Nazis speaking in British accents, naturally.

I intensely dislike the current fashion for referring to individuals by their surnames only. An otherwise well-written recent profile of Hillary Clinton in the New Yorker referred to her throughout as ‘Clinton’. Maddening. The practice offends against the first law of communication — clarity. Many people, especially married couples, or those related by kin, have the same surname. Moreover, many people have surnames that are also given names, or Christian names: Ian Jack, Clive James, Theresa May, Michael Howard, Howard Patrick, Mary Hope, Hope Christian, Elizabeth John, Dylan Thomas, Jamie Oliver, Oliver James, Sid James, William Sydney, Trevor Eve, William Trevor, James Joyce, Augusta Gregory, Mary Gordon and Walter Terry, as do I. ‘Kenny’ is a man’s first name, often an Australian and sometimes a footballer, and the horrible diktat about last-name nomenclature has more than once conflated me with such as Mr Kenny Dalglish. This practice was first introduced by women academics seeking to advance feminism. But what, precisely, is feminist about addressing a woman by her patronymic? A surname is your father’s name, than which there is no more patriarchal construct. We are always told we have ‘choice’ in everything. But we don’t. Certain practices are simply decided upon by the masters and mistresses of our culture, and there is virtually no redress.