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29 February 2012

Context is king: are we talking of sex or what?

Today’s Guardian carries an article in the Comment section by Ann Widdicombe, the former Member of Parliament, who is famous for at least two things. First, she once said of the Home Secretary in John Major’s government, Michael Howard, that “he had something of the night in him”, which was so poetically apt that, though it was said fifteen years ago, nearly everyone who heard the phrase still remembers it. Howard was a half-Romanian, half-Welsh politician with a pseudo-toff accent who wanted to bring back capital punishment. He was born Michael Hechte, and is now Lord Howard of Lympne—which I always thought was a gland, not a place.
     Ms Widdicombe’s second memorable act was to claim—indirectly, it is true, but a nod’s as good as a wink to a blind old bat—that she had never had sex, which if your middle name is Noreen and you read Latin at Birmingham University is just about believable. I do not think it would be doing violence to the English language to say that Ms Widdicombe, though full-bodied in the popular meaning of the term, is no oil-painting. She has a bossy manner which might be attractive to a certain type of man or woman, but I would guess that in her case it is a wholly above-board sort of bossiness, and therefore nothing to get excited about. To paraphrase herself, there is not much of the night in her.
     But she does have a redeeming sense of humour, as was illustrated when she pranced about like a half-drunk Pantomime dame on BBCTV’s programme Strictly Come Dancing. Nikita Khrushchev, who was “full-bodied” in a different sense of the term, once said of himself that he danced “like a cow on ice”. But he added, referring to his regular humiliation at Stalin‘s late-night piss-ups at the infamous Kuntsevo dacha, “When Stalin says ‘dance’, a wise man dances.” Ms Widdicombe does not have that excuse—so her act of self-abasement in the nation’s living rooms is all the more praiseworthy.
     But it was not visions of Ms Widdicombe’s full body which came to mind this morning when I glanced at her article, it was a grammatical point, namely the importance of context in all reading. Half distracted by memories of last night’s wonderful whisky (see next post, above), I read a sentence out of context and got a shock. Ms Widdicombe’s combination of humour and lack of practical experience of “the night” caused me to wonder if she was not making a mocking reference to sex when she wrote:
“Treated as little more than replaceable inventory, they are forced to perform the same ridiculous, unnatural and sometimes painful tricks week after week, year after year.”
     Who are “they” in this sentence? Might it be married women, or prostitutes, I wondered? Or could it be the sort of man whom women like Ms Widdicombe refuse to have sex with even though they have teased and titillated them by their flagrant and wicked displays of mature but unbridled eroticism in televised dancing competitions?
     I looked back up the page to see what I had missed. No, it turned out that it was neither married women nor prostitutes, nor even frustrated men that the former politician was talking about. It was circus animals, in particular Anne the elephant who “endured 58 years of being hauled around the country before finally being moved to a better environment.”
     Ms Widdicombe, it will be remembered, served a very long time in parliament, which is often described as a circus, but has now retired and moved to a secure environment on Dartmoor. For all her weird moves on the dance-floor, she is a saintly woman, and I entirely support her campaign against the use of wild animals in circuses, where they are “bound with ropes, wrestled, slammed to the ground, shocked with electric prods and gouged with bullhooks.” That sort of treatment is completely inappropriate for gentle creatures like Anne, and ought to be reserved for people like Mr Howard who, let it never be forgot, campaigned vigorously when Home Secretary for the re-introduction of the death penalty. When it comes to violence, context should always be king.

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