Monday, 25 May 2009

Sex and the man of honour

I always cringe when people address any group of which I’m a member with the word ‘gentlemen’.

‘Me? A gentleman?’ I want to reply. ‘I’m no gentleman. I work for a living.’

‘Gentleman’ was traditionally synonymous with ‘nobleman’. So a gentleman is someone who owes his disproportionate wealth to no merit of his own, but to the prowess in battle – or skill in meting out deadly violence – of some forebear. ‘For he to-day that sheds his blood with me,’ Shakespeare has Henry V say before the battle of Agincourt, ‘shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile, this day shall gentle his condition.’

English cricket used to be split between ‘players’ and ‘gentlemen’. The former were the professionals who could actually do skilful things with a bat or ball. The others were the amateurs who thought themselves gifted and looked down on the others, though they counted on them to win matches.

‘Gentlemen’ isn’t necessarily a badge of honour. It appears on toilet doors which seems pretty appropriate.

The same can be said of the word ‘honourable’. Its most biting use has to be in the mouth of Mark Anthony, again as imagined by Shakespeare, in his oration to the murdered Caesar:

The noble Brutus hath told you Caesar was ambitious:
If it were so, it was a grievous fault,
And grievously hath Caesar answer'd it.
Here, under leave of Brutus and the rest –
For Brutus is an honourable man;
So are they all, all honourable men –
Come I to speak in Caesar's funeral.
He was my friend, faithful and just to me:
But Brutus says he was ambitious;
And Brutus is an honourable man.

By the end of the speech, you’re hoping no-one will ever call you ‘honourable’.

There are times when ‘honourable’ seems to mean much the same today as for Shakespeare’s Mark Anthony. Our Members of Parliament are all ‘honourable’: the honourable member for Gosport claimed £1600 expenses to be reimbursed from the public purse, for a floating duck house on his pond. Sadly, it turned out that not even the ducks liked it. The honourable member for Bromsgrove claimed ‘second home allowance’ on one of the houses she jointly owns with her husband, the honourable member for Bracknell who claimed ‘second home allowance’ on the other.

Italian MPs are also ‘onorevoli’. We have the honourable Mara Carfagna who in a previous existence made a profession of removing her clothes for appreciative audiences, but is now a cabinet minister thanks to the appreciation of her talents by the honourable Silvio Berlusconi. He is most notably appreciative of young female charms, providing the joy of his 72-year old’s company to Noemi Letizia at her recent eighteenth birthday party.

Berlusconi is often referred to as ‘Il Cavaliere’, which means ‘the Knight’ or ‘the horseman’ though I don’t think it’s ever a horse he’s been accused of wanting to ride.

Knights, of course, were also gentlemen.

I have great memories from my childhood in Rome, of going to the flea market with my father and brother. We’d have our pockets stuffed with roast chestnuts so that, in between eating them, we could keep our hands warm in the sometimes biting cold of early Sunday mornings. All the stallholders would call my father ‘Cavaliere’ or ‘Ingeniere’, though he was neither a knight nor a qualified engineer. These were words denoting insincere respect and a sincere desire to part the target from some of his money. I can’t help feeling that Berlusconi is a ‘knight’ in precisely that sense.

In any case, the word is used of him with glee by La Repubblica, the only Italian national newspaper that regularly denounces his aberrations – sorry, viciously libels him by imputing base motives to his generous impulses.

But let’s return to the concept of honour. As well as politicians, soldiers are great exponents of honour. In Britain, our armed services are led by ‘officers and gentlemen’ (there’s that word again). As a teenager I enjoyed the radio programme ‘I’m sorry I’ll read that again’. One character announced ‘I’m glad to say my daughter is married to an officer and a gentleman, and all three are very happy together’.

The Royal Air Force is a fine institution. There are times, however, when its security procedures leave a little to be desired. In 1990, Wing Commander David Farquhar and his driver stopped at a car showroom to gawp at the no doubt splendid vehicles on display. Sadly, they failed to lock their car and a laptop, with the plans for Allied Operations in the Gulf War, was stolen from the back seat. It was returned a few days later with a note denouncing the lapse of security and the cavalier attitude towards the lives of British military personnel that it revealed.

Being lectured to by a thief strikes me as very much part of the kind of inversion of values that I associate with terms such ‘gentleman’, ‘knight’ or ‘honourable’.

The RAF have done it again. They kept it quiet for eight months but they’ve now admitted that they lost three computer hard disks back in September. They contain vetting information about individuals being considered for sensitive positions. A memo from the Ministry of Defence, quoted in today’s Guardian – our equivalent of La Repubblica – points out ‘This information included details of criminal convictions, investigations, precise details of debt, medical conditions, drug abuse, use of prostitutes, extramarital affairs including the names of third parties.’

Oh dear, oh dear. How awkward. The memo also mentions that ‘This data provides an excellent target list for foreign intelligence services, investigative journalists and blackmailers. Moreover, if the information relating to the private lives of RAF personnel, especially of some very senior officers, enters the public domain, the reputation of the service will be tarnished.’

Tarnished? I’ll say. Some people might even question the organisation’s ability to look after secure information.

And what was that secure information about? Criminal activity. Drug abuse. Debt. And sex, sex, sex.

It’s always the same. Money and crime can bring a gentleman low. But the greatest threat of all to honour is sex. Sex and honour: they remind me of the old song:

She offered her honour
He honoured her offer
And all the night through
He was on ’er and off ’er.

And as for being called a gentleman: in my book, that's not a compliment.

1 comment:

san Cassimally said...

highly entertaining- and illuminating!