It is all rather much. The press – from Alpha Argus to Epsilon Echo, Guardian to Sport – has engaged all these months in the hurly-burly of backbench peculation only to be rewarded with the deep, deep peace of John Terry’s adultery. Flipped second house succeeds pornographic video, succeeds duck house, all finally garlanded by the invocation of parliamentary privilege. ‘Too much’ hardly says it.
Headline-subs have lived like the bees in Keats’s autumn ‘until they think warm days will never cease’. SHAME, SHAMED, SHAME! the 80 point proclaims. BBC icons turn to the camera with a touch of the Fouquier-Tinvilles. Now, thanks to a Chelsea midfielder or ‘love rat’ doing the usual with a friend’s wife – correction, colleague’s ex-girlfriend – narrow pre-occupation is met by best business practice: diversification. So an Independent leader on 6 February, though trying to distance itself from red-top sexual piety, salutes ‘a sudden outbreak of decency’. Unsigned, it radiates the Christian housemasterly style of their sport correspondent, James Lawton. ‘Terry took his demotion like a man and promised to do his best for England.’ Finally, a little anthem to Fabio Capello, the manager bowing to the virtue lobby, proclaims ‘his sheer incomparable class’.
And yet, as ‘national regeneration’ slips down like a milk drink, one wonders. Financial probity? Sexual continence? Journalists? G.K. Chesterton, in the days of initials, clattered F.E. Smith, resourceful sinner, for invoking ‘the souls of Christian people’ with the crisp conclusion: ‘Chuck it, Smith.’
Take money – and they do. Many MPs have abused expenses, partly because unlike most legislators and holders of heavy public responsibilities, head teachers, GPs, senior policemen, MPs are poorly paid (Margaret Thatcher’s failure of nerve, 20 years back, the Irresolute Approach). MPs were told (deniably – by whips), in lieu of parity, to ‘take it out of exes’. National journalists are not poorly paid, but their understanding of expenses potential has a virtuoso quality.
When I worked for Express, Telegraph and Guardian, from the 1970s to the 1990s, the auxiliary currency was the unclaimed restaurant receipt, bought for a tenner from a complicit waiter and submitted – ‘Lunch with Lord Fortinbras, Wilton’s’ – to an understanding editor, countersigned and cashed. There were other dodges. The most dishonest man I ever knew, the late Alfred Sherman, once demanded money for the Reform Club cloakroom – which is free. It was Sherman who observed of trade unionists seeking a rise: ‘They are scum.’
Even so, the unclaimed receipt was the prime dodge. A colleague, owing me the modest price of something, opened an office drawer (‘Here’yar boy. I’ll see ya right’), took out a sheaf an inch and half thick and stripped off a couple. As for sex with other people’s girlfriends, Dorothy Parker nearly said it. ‘If every reporter was laid end to end . . . I shouldn’t be at all surprised.’ MPs too. There was a bunch of double-barrelled brigadier types known in the Tory Whips’ Office as ‘The Four O’Clock Fuckers’ for their sharpish departure St John’s Wood-wards after PMQs.
Not that we are all sinners. James Lawton assuredly lives by every moral injunction with which goalmouth and slipfield are flecked in his copy. But broadly, pots are being denounced by kettles in good working order. Let’s leave conclusion Chesterton, or to Johnson: ‘Clear your mind of cant.’