Essays: Sodomy and the lash |
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Sodomy and the lash

by Francis Wheen

THE END OF Tony Blair’s honeymoon, so long predicted, can now be officially confirmed. His beloved mentor and dining companion Paul Johnson is threatening to file for divorce ‘In his faultless handling of events after Diana’s death, Tony Blair seemed to be aligning himself with the decent majority,’ he writes. ‘But sometimes he is less clear about where he stands.’ According to Johnson, who has long boasted of his friendship with the Prime Minister, we are witnessing a millennial struggle between two ‘images of Britain’. One is the ‘tender and beautiful’ country which wept for Princess Diana. But there is also ‘the nightmare Britain’ of pop groups, Booker Prize authors and sensation-seeking artists - ‘perverted, brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, degenerate, exhibitionist, high-voiced and limp wristed…’

A suggestive selection of epithets, wouldn't you say? What he is trying to tell us, with untypical coyness, is that he can't stand poofters. Hence his rage at Blair's recent message of support for the Gay Pride march - ‘an affront to ordinary Londoners’. Hence, too, his reminder of what happened to the artists and writers of the last fin de siècle: ‘These precious creatures were riding high until, in 1885, the conviction and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, the paedophile, brought the edifice of fashionable degeneracy down in shameful ruin.’ Actually, Wilde was convicted m 1895; but this is the least important of Johnson's clod-hopping errors and idiocies. ‘In Oscar Wilde's nineties,’ he claims, ‘the decadents had to operate with limited resorts and spoke to a restricted audience. Wilde's West End plays were tailored to the moral tastes of the Victorian middle class - he kept his vices private until they were exposed by his own folly.' Today's degenerates, by contrast, receive ‘huge publicity.’ More publicity than Oscar Wilde? I think not. Gilbert and Sullivan wrote an entire opera satirising his flamboyant aestheticism. W.H. Smith refused to sell The Picture of Dorian Gray - described by Richard Ellmann as ‘one of the first attempts to bring homosexuality into the English novel’ - because it was deemed too ‘filthy’. One might add that a man who wished to ingratiate himself with the Victorian bourgeoisie would not have written a book called The Soul of Man Under Socialism.

What of the plays? Wilde's first West End success, Lady Windermere's Fan, deliberately inverts middle-class morals by giving the devil all the best lines. ‘As a wicked man I am a complete failure,’ Lord Darlington comments. ‘Why, there are lots of people who say I have never really done anything wrong in the whole course of my life. Of course they only say it behind my back.’ A dunder-headed alderman who praised the playwright for ‘lashing vice’ was swiftly and publicly corrected. ‘I can assure you that nothing was further from my intentions,’ Wilde declared. ‘Those who have seen Lady Windermere’s Fan will say that if there is one particular doctrine contained in it, it is that of sheer individualism. It is not for anyone to censure what anyone else does, and everyone should go his own way, to whatever place he chooses, in exactly the way that he chooses.’ At the first night, Wilde took his curtain-call wearing a green carnation and mauve gloves. His next play, Salome, was banned by the Lord Chamberlain. This scarcely suggests that he tried very hard to appease the Paul Johnsons of his day.

A century later, depravity stalks the land once more and our own Paul Johnson is in an apocalyptic frenzy. ‘Will the Decadent Nineties end with an evil elite taking charge of our culture?’ he wonders. ‘The phenomenon I call the Diana Revolution - the birth of Diana Power this month - makes me suspect that the decadents are not going to have it all their own way. There is a stirring of decency at the grassroots.’ By decency, of course, he means heterosexuality.

The idea that the Princess's admirers are all decent, wholesome queer-bashers is certainly original. It is also quite barmy. The most obvious manifestation of 'Diana Power' is the huge popularity of ‘Candle in the Wind’ - performed by one of the most famous homosexuals in the world. Though Johnson assures us that all but ‘A few thousand’ Britons share his foaming homophobia, he then explodes his own premise by grumbling that ‘scarcely a day goes by without an MP or even a government minister “coming out’’ as a sodomite or a lesbian, introducing his or her partner to the world and receiving not public obloquy but approval and praise for his or her “courage” or “honesty”.’ Er, quite.

‘It is,’ Johnson concludes, ‘high time for Tony Blair…to make up his mind where he stands.’ Indeed it is. On the one hand there are the millions of people who have bought Elton John's record and are sublimely untroubled by Angela Eagle's lesbianism; on the other, alone and ridiculous, is Paul Johnson, gibbering like the ghost of the 9th Marquess of Queensberry. If forced to choose between his country and his friend, the PM may well decide - however reluctantly - that a certain red-haired, red-faced adviser has outlived his usefulness.

(Guardian, 24th of September 1997)


WHO WAS THE ONLY woman ever to sit in Mrs. Thatcher's Cabinet, apart from the PM herself? Baroness Young (for it was she) might have expected that this unique achievement would guarantee her lasting fame, but it didn't.

Now she is making another bid for political immortality. In the House of Lords today she will invite the assembled backwoodsmen, bishops and bigots to throw out amendments to the Crime and Disorder Bill, passed by a huge majority in the Commons last month, which would lower the age of consent for homosexuals to sixteen. ‘I think there will be a lot of support on the Conservative benches.’ she says. Since most of the long-suffering benches in the Upper House are occupied by Tory bottoms, she may well succeed.

Baroness Young justifies her attempted sabotage by grumbling that ‘there was no chance for a proper debate’ when the amendments came before the Commons. On the contrary: there was a long debate on the evening of 22 June. Not a very good debate, I agree, but that's because politicians who oppose an equal age of consent are the same people who usually thunder against the ‘nanny state’ and insist on the sacred importance of ‘equality before the law’. To get round this inconsistency, they were therefore obliged to talk in non- sequiteurs throughout. Nevertheless, the opinions of those who belong to the Baroness Young school of thought - more of a borstal, really - were thoroughly aired. Sir Patrick Cormack MP warned Honourable Members to remember ‘the old description of the Navy, “rum, sodomy and the lash”’. To Sir Patrick's annoyance, this provoked sniggers. ‘There is nothing funny about it,’ he snapped. ‘lt is a perfectly reasonable point to make in support of my argument’. Another perfectly reasonable point came from Nicholas Winterton. ‘Am I not correct,’ he asked, ‘in saying that a homosexual act is unnatural and if the Lord Almighty had meant men to commit sodomy with other men, their bodies would have been built differently?’

‘I hope I shall be acquitted of the charge of being antagonistic to the homosexual community,’ Sir Norman Fowler told the House. To prove his lack of antagonism, he then went on to confuse gays with paedophiles, citing ‘the case of Roger Gleaves, the self-styled “Bishop of Medway”’, as an argument against changing the law. Rather absent-mindedly, Fowler forgot to add that an age of consent set at twenty-one did nothing to stop Gleaves's sexual abuse of boys. Crispin Blunt MP was also worried about vulnerable teenagers, since much homosexuality ‘depends for its gratification on the exploitation of youth’. Although girls need no legal protection from older men, ‘the everyday experience of adolescents, combined with scientific observations, make it clear that boys of this age are self-evidently less mature, sexually and in judgment, than their female counterparts... My conclusion is that we have a duty to protect boys of sixteen and seventeen.’ Girls of sixteen and seventeen, by contrast, would presumably still be free to go to bed with Bill Wyman or the Tory politician Piers Merchant.

I expect that today's discussion in the House of Lords will reach the same high standard of unprejudiced ratiocination. But there will be one element missing. The Commons debate included a deeply pious speech against the new age of consent by the Labour MP Stuart Bell, who pointed out that he was expressing both his own views and those of the Church of England, whose interests he represents in the House as a Second Church Estates Commissioner. It was not ‘morally right or socially desirable’ to give homosexuals the same rights as heterosexuals, he said. Instead, we need ‘a broader agenda of moral vision’.

Bell set out his own sexual agenda some years ago when he wrote a novel called Paris 69. Though it is now sadly unavailable, here's a sample: ‘And she keeps on sucking, sucking and nibbling and filling me with yearning, with desire to thrust her back on the bed now, strap her to it the way the schoolteacher had shown me… I wanted that she be tied to the bed and I dominate her, rape her, burst inside her and be cleansed.’ The narrator, I need hardly add, is a man; there's nowt queer about our Stuart. Perhaps, during today's debate, someone from the Bench of Bishops will tell us whether the ‘moral vision’ of their parliamentary spokesman is also the Church of England's official policy.

(Guardian, 22nd July 1998)