If this week’s stories about Petronella Wyatt and Alan Bennett — both of whom were touched up by adults when young, but claim not to mind — mark a trend, then a gripping new genre of fiction should hit shelves soon to counteract the ‘Painful Lives’ book trend.
Now’s the time, it seems, for the Abused and Not That Bothered/Stiff Upper Lip Everyone genre.
These would be books for forthright folks, who think this whole fuss over Savile, child abuse, Operation Yewtree, yadda yadda is a load of Leftist, hairy-legged mollycoddling PC-brigade wot-not.
Or, as Petronella put it: “What is wrong with the occasional wistful pass made by a man whose youth has faded?”
But Petronella doesn’t talk about wistful passes. To my mind, a ‘pass’ is someone floating the notion verbally that they’d like to have sex with you, then retreating.
Petronella’s story about Laurence Olivier, for example, is that, when she was 15 and Olivier was an old man, he waited at a family event until they were alone, invited her on to his knee, touched her breasts, kissed her, then thanked her for being obliging.
Albert Finney, Robin Day and other men also made passes — allegedly. But — importantly — it was all jolly and she was thrilled and her family laughed it off and, in actual fact, it’s young girls who are to blame and isn’t modern life rubbish now that we take these things so seriously.
But the Olivier story, to me, doesn’t sound like “a wistful pass”. This sounds very much like a predatory old sleaze at his work.
Petronella’s memories of everyone’s part in this feel like the typical behaviour of a child-abuse case. The grown-up took a calculated risk with a child. The child felt flattered/confused by an older man telling her she was pretty. The parents didn’t want to rock the boat with their social circle, so they laughed it off — and then laughed several other incidents with other men off — and now, decades later, the woman feels she brought it on herself by being manipulative.
But it wasn’t your fault, Petronella; your parents let you down greatly. I’d prefer it if you didn’t extend your own method of dealing with this betrayal to telling other women to put up and shut up, too.
Petronella goes on: “That many teenage girls are simply not to be trusted around attractive older men is a fact that appears to be... often ignored, but it is high time we reminded ourselves of it.”
This concept is troubling. Obviously, there’s the whopping great victim-blaming brickbat that, “What we really need to realise about child abuse is that teen girls are bloody sexy, wa-hey.”
But the notion that we all should “remind ourselves” of a teenager’s allure is peculiar. I don’t remember a time in the past 30 years when we haven’t acknowledged the headstrong, 14-going-on-25, hormonal, self-obsessed tornado which can often be the teenage girl. I was one myself.
Teenagers think they’re adults, but they’re not. So, to assist these poor, put-upon “attractive older men”, faced with a child in lipgloss “making advances”, we also have police cars, court appearances and jail terms.
“But when I was growing up,” says Petronella, “so many of my father’s friends made passes at me that, if I had sued each one, I would still be in court to this day”.
Knowing what the Wyatt family classes as a wistful pass — and Petronella was probably not the only victim — it’s a shame that they all thought court was too good for them.