Like Chris Denning, about whom I wrote last time, Charles Napier was a very bright spark – witty, charming, the life and soul of the party.
Even the judge who sentenced him to thirteen years just before Christmas admitted that as a popular (not feared) young prep school teacher in the 1960s and 70s Charles for the most part charmed the pants off his mainly pre-teen pupils, whatever his principal accuser, cry-baby journalist Francis Whine (sorry, Wheen), might claim.
I will return to his accusations, taking them seriously along with much worse allegations that Charles appears to have made no attempt to deny. He told the court he had been “completely out of control” and was “desperately sorry” for his actions. To my mind, incidentally, these were significant expressions of remorse, but that didn’t stop the media quoting a police chief who asserted he had shown “no remorse”: damning opinion is apparently to be preferred over facts even when the latter are right there in plain view. Also, the judge appears to have given Charles no credit for his expressions of regret. All that surfaced publicly, so far as I can see, is that he would have got twenty years but for the fact that he pleaded guilty at the first opportunity.
For the moment, as with Chris Denning, I am going remember the better side of the man I knew. I met Charles when I joined the executive committee of the Paedophile Information Exchange (PIE) in the mid-1970s. He joined the organisation at the start of its London operation, some months before me. Like his friend the late Peter Righton, who was also one of the first PIE committee members while working as Director of Education for the National Institute of Social Work, he has been presented in the media as an elite paedophile, and possibly part of a sinister ring of perverted high-ups.
Being a humble peasant myself, I never moved socially in such elevated circles, if they existed. But Charles undeniably has an upper class pedigree. He is a descendant of King Charles II of England, no less, via Lady Sarah Lennox, the king’s great-granddaughter, who married General Sir Charles James Napier. Gen. Napier commanded the British army in India in Victorian times and was famous in those days for conquering Sindh in what is now Pakistan. To this day the general’s statue is a towering presence in Trafalgar Square, London, occupying one of the four plinths. There have been leading figures in the family’s recent past and Charles has a half-brother, John Whittingdale, who is currently the Conservative MP for Maldon and Chelmsford East.
So Charles was posh. His racy sports car spoke of a penchant for swagger and swank, while his handsome mien and gracious manner suggested the hero of a bodice-ripping romantic novel. One could easily imagine him as a dashing officer, as his forbear the victor of Sindh must once have been, with all the young ladies swooning over him.
He was cultured, too, and clever. Not for nothing was he appointed to a senior role with the British Council in Cairo. But for his career being a “chequered” one, with several falls from grace over boys, he could well have become head of the entire outfit, and thus in effect the UK’s official cultural ambassador to the world. He was also a talented actor and singer in amateur productions. Above all, like Charles II, the Merry Monarch, he was lively and had a tremendous sense of fun: even Wheen admits that his young “sir”, Mr Napier, was a dazzling, exciting figure.
Not that his jolly japes were just for the kids. Back in the days when telephone answering machines were a novelty, subscribers had to make their own “please leave a message” tape recording. Most of us simply announced our name and number and invited callers to leave a message at the beep. Not Charles. His tape started something like this:
Hi, this is Charles. Sorry, I’m tied up at the moment, but if you’d like to leave a message…
In the background you could hear why he was tied up: there was a fearsome thrashing sound followed by yelps of ecstatic “pain” as Charles was punished by a stern dominatrix (one of his fellow thespians, no doubt) telling him he had been “a naughty boy”.
Well, plenty of people would say he got that right, wouldn’t they? The judge last week obviously thought he had been really, really naughty, in fact properly wicked.
Should we agree with him? It’s time to face the facts insofar as they can be gleaned from dubious mainstream press reports. Those accounts, it should be pointed out, were dominated by the perspective of just one individual, and I don’t mean the judge or a really traumatised victim. I refer instead to the man I have already dubbed the principal accuser, Francis Wheen, now deputy editor of the satirical magazine Private Eye, who has been banging on about Charles for decades. It was apparently Wheen’s testimony that led to the arrest in August last year of the man who had been his teacher at Copthorne School.
Way back in 1996 Wheen had a piece in the Guardian (28 August) headlined “School for Scandal”. He wrote:
Charles Napier was my gym master at prep school – and a very good gym master too, always willing to lend a hand (quite literally) as the boys practised their back-flips and head-stands.
From time to time he would invite his favourites into a small workshop next to the gym, where he plied us with Senior Service untipped and bottles of Mackeson before plunging his busy fingers down our shorts. Although I rejected his advances, I continued to help myself to beer ’n’ cigs from his secret depot when he wasn’t around. It never occurred to me to report him to the authorities. Why? Because he was the authorities.
Complaining about a teacher was as unthinkable as refusing to participate in a cross-country run. Anyway, no 11-year-old boy wishes to parade his sexual innocence: Napier warned me – and many others – that by refusing to cooperate we were merely demonstrating our immaturity.
“X lets me do it you know,” he said, naming a class-mate of mine. For weeks afterwards, X sneered at me for my squeamishness.
Several very similar rehashes of this account were published in later years, the latest being only this week in the Daily Mirror.
But there have been subtle changes, too, as time has passed. On BBC TV news on the evening after sentencing, Wheen spoke in scandalised tones about having been taken aback when Charles abruptly shoved a hand down the front of his gym shorts. Now I’m not about to accuse Wheen of lying, or even exaggerating. After all, this latest version presumably corresponds to the contents of his official witness statement to the police, so it’s not just a dashed off bit of journalistic hype.
But dashed off articles often have one great merit: the words spill out in a relatively unguarded way. Whereas his recent, written-with-the court-in-mind, pieces emphasise the sexual total innocence of the boys, his earlier, more casual work tells a rather different story. In another Guardian article in 2005, for instance, he admitted that at his prep school “there was a fair bit of leaping in and out of beds in dormitories, comparing notes, and general exploration”. He also mentions a physics master at Harrow, his later public school, who caught a couple of boys in sexual action and warned them “I don’t mind mutual masturbation, but I draw the line at buggery.” And that, he said, became accepted as a sort of unofficial school rule. Note the admission, too, in the 1996 article, that at least one boy sneered at Wheen’s “squeamishness”. How innocent does all this sound?
As it happens, I wrote to Wheen back in the nineties, challenging what I thought was his overly harsh view of Charles. This was based on my reading of the situation, which now appears to have been incorrect, that Charles had his hands down other boys’ shorts, if they were willing, but not Wheen’s because unlike other boys Wheen “rejected his advances”. In other words, it seemed the boys would have been aware of what went on in Charles’s “den” and were free to join in or not, as they chose.
In my letter, I said:
I am completely in favour of resources such as Childline and other means through which children can challenge bullying and abusive behaviour by adults, including parents. Having said that, I cannot help feeling you have been unfair to Charles, not so much in what you say he did but in the opprobrium you pour on him regardless of the fact that he actually seems to have done very little.
Wheen could have put me right on that, but chose not to. He responded to my brief initial approach with at least one short letter of his own, but I do not recall any further communication.
So, all in all, I remain sceptical that the molestation of which Wheen complains so bitterly had much to do with the force of Charles’s authority and the boys’ inability to refuse his wishes. I think it was more positive: no one was forced to spend extra-curricular time with Charles. They were drawn by the exciting allure of being with a popular – let’s not forget that word popular – teacher and getting up to all sorts of outrageous illicit things, including the cigarettes and booze.
It seems to me Wheen has been in a massive sulk all these years because he couldn’t be in the gang on his own terms. He said Charles called him a baby for not joining in, which made him feel “inadequate”. Gosh, how awful! That bruise to the delicate young Wheen’s ego must be worth a 13-year stretch on its own! But isn’t it time this grand-daddy of all cry-babies finally grew up and moved on after nearly half a century of wailing? Maybe, indeed, he should remember his school motto:
Pervincet Vivida Virtus: Lively manliness conquers all. (Albeit diplomatically re-translated as “All can be achieved by hard work” after they started taking girls!)
Oh, and another thing. As he is so keen on giving “historic” offenders hell, I presume he won’t complain if he is now nicked for stealing Charles’s property and sentenced to the maximum penalty: seven years for theft!
As for a far more serious complaint that Charles, “forced” a boy to “perform a sex act on him” I again find myself sceptical. That would not be the Charles I knew. He had a conscience and could not have brought himself to do anything in the face of a child’s reluctance. He might have gone so far as to exhort and cajole (bad enough in itself, to be sure), but not to threaten or force. He did not pester Wheen, after all, once the embryonic journalist had made his displeasure clear.
Yes, Charles was grossly irresponsible in his use of cigs and beer to “groom” his young charges. Yes, he knew that children could not in law give sexual consent however willing they were. And, yes, among the complainants there are those who say they have suffered depression and even suicidal feelings as a consequence of what Charles did.
Had he been caught and punished with a prison sentence for his prep school offences back in the 1970s he could have no complaint.
Is it right, though, that he and others should be judged today, after decades have passed and in a much more harshly punitive atmosphere? These days, it is said, there is a better understanding of the long-term harm caused by adult-child sexual encounters. So, if this is recent knowledge (not that we need accept its accuracy), how was Charles supposed to be aware of it in the 1970s? Should he and others be punished now with far greater severity than they would have decades ago on the basis that they didn’t have a reliable crystal ball in those days? Is that fair?
Ought there to be a statute of limitations?
Barrister Barbara Hewson recently argued in favour of such a statute.* To me the case seems unanswerable. Mores have changed so enormously in less than half a century that bringing Charles to “justice” this year was hardly any different from posthumously putting Thomas Jefferson on trial for keeping slaves, including his own personal child sex slave (Sally Hemings, aged 14). Should the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and that country’s third president be dishonoured and have his grave desecrated, as happened recently in the case of Jimmy Savile? It would make just as much sense, or as little, as the hounding of poor Charles.
Also, the further removed a trial is from the alleged offences, the more ills can be dubiously attributed to the original acts. One of Charles’s victims is said to have been suicidal “later in life”. But over the course of decades many of us suffer all sorts of misfortunes that might make us suicidal. We might have lost money disastrously on a business venture, been through an acrimonious divorce, be depressed about getting fat and diabetic. In such circumstances it is all too easy to claim that you wouldn’t have made a foolish investment, or married the wrong woman or fallen prey to overeating but for this thing that happened at school. It’s possible, to be sure, but many other factors may have been more determinative. You don’t – or shouldn’t – condemn a man to a 13-year prison sentence on such a nebulous basis.
But the frenzied blood-lust that has seized the media, the masses and even the courts in the wake of the Savile debacle will not be sated or satisfied by rational proposals for a statute of limitations. Raising the idea is like having pointed out mildly, in the midst of the French Revolution, that not all the aristocrats being trundled to the guillotine were necessarily very bad. The present mood of deluded indignation demands a universal “Off with their heads!” response, be the transgression great or small.
Perhaps, in the circumstances, Charles Napier should reflect philosophically on the fate of another of his ancestors – not Charles II but that king’s father, Charles I, who lost his head in the English Revolution. At least the good people of England are not literally going in for decapitation these days – not yet, anyway!
*The link is to Part II of an article titled “The cult of victimhood and the limits of law” in The Barrister. Part I is also relevant to historic cases.
STOP PRESS: THE ESTABLISHMENT FIGHTS BACK
The Queen’s New Year honours have just been announced and I see I have been overlooked yet again. Unbelievable! 🙂
What makes it even worse is a damehood for that horrible bitch Esther Rantzen. Sorry for the sexist language, ladies, but had she been a bloke the word would have been bastard or shit, which is hardly an improvement. Not only did she refuse to shake hands with me in the BBC reception room as we waited to go on air for the TV discussion show After Dark about a decade ago, she also set her Rottweiler (bitch) friend “June” on me – a screaming “survivor” and ex-prostitute whom I found most discombobulating. She was so loud and in-yer-face aggressive it was hard to think or talk straight. It took all the diplomacy I could muster just to ward off the imminent threat of June giving me a Glasgow kiss. As that city happened to be her home town and she was built like a battle tank I fancy she’d have been good at it.
The Guardian today said this latest honours list was intended “to focus on those who help vulnerable children”. Hence the damehoods for ChildLine founder Rantzen and also for Joyce Plotnikoff, “who has revolutionised the way courts treat child witnesses”. And there was a CBE for Kate Lampard, “the independent overseer of the NHS investigation into Jimmy Savile”.
Much more interesting, though, was a damehood for Fiona Woolf, who was forced to resign from the government’s overarching child abuse inquiry recently. Victims’ groups had protested that she was an unsuitable chair because of her links with Tory peer Leon Brittan, a friend and neighbour, whose role as home secretary in dealing with allegations of child abuse in the 1980s “is likely to be scrutinised”, as the Guardian inscrutably put it.
It may be remembered that yet another dame, Lady Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, was the first person appointed to head the ill-fated abuse enquiry and, like Woolf afterwards, was shown the door by the victims’ lobby. Butler-Sloss was forced to stand down because her late brother Sir Michael Havers had been attorney general in the 1980s and his actions would have been subject to investigation by the inquiry.
Now, in a sign of an establishment fight-back matching the new honour for Woolf, and even topping it, Butler-Sloss has gone public with some very pointed remarks about the danger of handing over too much control to the victims.
She has said she fears the government will never be able to find an experienced figure to run the abuse investigation, but that victims should not think they can do it.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 today she said for victims to be deciding who should be the person chairing the inquiry “creates real problems”.
You are going to need someone who knows how to run things and if you get someone with an obscure background with no background of establishment, they will find it very difficult and may not be able to produce the goods.
She agreed that the normal processes of sifting of evidence, and neutrality between accuser and accused, might go by the board if the victims were allowed to dominate.
Quite so, your ladyship!