The past is a foreign country and they behave very badly there, not like you and me at all. However, after hearing Oscar-winning actor/director Kevin Spacey’s abject remorse for an incident in 1986 which he cannot remember, I was painfully reminded of an event which might have happened to me at some time or other, when I reached out and squeezed the well-formed buttock of a young man addressing a table of well-oiled journalists in a bar somewhere under Kensington.
He was good-looking and very young. I wasn’t sure whether I liked him but I did fancy seeing how he would react. He ignored it, finished his speech and sat down. Neither of us said anything about it. He behaved with the same insouciance as a Scottish piper in a pub in Soho late one Burns Night long ago whose kilt I lifted to have an investigative look. I was shocked at what I saw, but that is beside the point as I now realise that I assaulted both those men. Worse, they could have been under-age. It’s not easy to tell with Scotsmen. That is my only defence.
Then there was the time I slept with the wrong person. He was not the man I thought he was. Lots of women say that, but this time it was true. I returned from a party in downtown Katowice, Poland, where I then lived, went to bed and someone got in with me. I didn’t object as I believed it was a man I’d found attractive a few hours earlier. In the coal-sodden morning light I realised he was not that man: in fact he was a local miner (not a minor, thank God). I don’t think he ever knew that I’d been so mistaken about his identity. He would raise his cap whenever he saw me on the tram. Thinking about it now, perhaps he assaulted me.
I probably won’t be getting a solicitor’s letter from him but I am not sure about the chap giving the speech. He might even now be on his way to a lawyer to report that he felt so humiliated by my ‘inappropriate’ gesture that he was unable to take up public speaking and fulfil his ambition to become Prime Minister. That my grope led to his later alcoholism and the breakdown of several marriages and removal of his children.
My only consolation is that if it goes to court, I do not have a KBE, film company, TV series or a constituency to lose. Even better, I have no employer to sack me. I will not be joining the increasing line of those disgraced beyond redemption by accusations which could be anything from a hand on the knee in a taxi, ‘Wandering Hand Syndrome’ (WHS), to rape. Although joining those testosterone-fuelled alpha males culled from showbiz and politics on both sides of the Atlantic might not be too bad; like many women from the ancien regime, before America and its British poodle put on the full Puritan, I have always liked a saucy scamp.
I can’t say I’d go for Weinstein, Rolf Harris or Max Clifford, and I’d have nothing much to say to Jared O’Mara, but I don’t mind the idea of a quick canoodle with the Nobel laureate Tim Hunt, sacked by UCL in 2015 for making a joke about love in labs. I am also partial to Michael Gove and Neil Kinnock, who just missed being sent to the legion of the damned for making jokes about Weinstein on the Today programme.
In fact I only really get attracted to men who make jokes, and it is only a matter of time before repartee, now known by the derogatory term ‘banter,’ disappears. Wit and irony, usually the preserve of men, has never been well understood in America, from where we now take all our social mores, and infuriates feminists and victim groups.
We are now approaching a decidedly post-scamp age. Flirting, from a compliment in the lift to a sly wink at an office party, is as over and gone as the elderly colonel who turned up at my primary school every week to let us pet his dog.
‘He loves small children,’ the teachers told us approvingly.
Innocent gestures and tentative moves are now termed sexual harassment and even assault. Sexual activity has been bureaucratised. Yvette Cooper MP says there is a ‘need for expertise’ to deal with the problem of wandering hands. She wants ‘reforms to the process’, the creation of ‘support teams’ on alert in Parliament and an ‘independent sexual adviser in every workplace to report to’. With touching idealism, she also recommends that women turn to their trade union for help.
For some reason the state is beginning to see sexual behaviour as a bigger threat than terrorism. Five years ago ‘stalking,’ or what my parents might have called ‘mooning after’ someone, became a criminal offence. This covers activity from standing outside a loved one’s door looking up at their window, or balcony in the case of Romeo, to sending thousands of abusive texts. Legislation is now framed in a panic which excludes nuance. Even the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, who quite subjectively praised the ‘courage’ of a woman claiming to have been raped, has commented on the amount of Parliamentary time being spent on rooting out men guilty of ‘inappropriate behaviour’.
As a detached onlooker to Hollywood and Westminster, I have to ask: didn’t the knees of both Miss Hartley-Brewer and feminist writer Kate Maltby recover without too much damage? Even more baffling is the way men accused of sexual misconduct, often years after the alleged event with no hard evidence possible against them, slink quietly away to the current version of Room 101. They do this even if they’ve been accused only of making an unsavoury remark or foolish joke, as if that is now tantamount to a physical assault. So far, only Damian Green MP has show any sign of resisting this bullying and the new insidious culture of blackmail by ‘witnesses’.
However, escape from all this confusion is on its way; winter draws on, as lewd non-PC comedians used to say. In a few weeks the panic about flirtatious texts and WHT will be replaced by flat-out national alarm at the amount of snow falling on our roads.
Perhaps the questions we should be asking are about how witness memory came to be valued above cold facts and why, in this most comfortable and safe of times, the public needs to be kept in a state of perpetual excitement and anxiety. Crack those two and we can all sleep easily in our beds again, and sometimes in other people’s.
This article was first published in The Salisbury Review