Which is to be master – that’s all

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“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master – that’s all.”

Grumpy Mr Dumpty was right, unfortunately. Take the word “paedophilia”. All the queen’s horses and all the queen’s men couldn’t put it back together again in its earlier queen’s English usage as a relatively objective medical term for sexual attraction to children. Admittedly, the man who first used the term paedophilia erotica*, Richard von Krafft-Ebing, was blatantly moralistic in denouncing the “unmanly, knavish and often silly” expression of such feelings; but a century or so would pass before we learned which was to be the master meaning, and who would make it so, when tabloid interpretation brutally bound the word hand and foot to sadism and murder, ruthlessly gagging gentler understandings, choking them off.

So, when I heard Andrew Marr presenting BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week discussion on Lewis Carroll and the Story of Alice on Monday, I was not surprised to hear him say that Alice in Wonderland and its later companion volume Through the Looking-Glass (from whence comes the Humpty Dumpty passage above) are “meant to be playful and to make you laugh, which is one of the answers to the whole paedophilia worry: something so playful, so funny, is unlikely to be that sinister”.

Paedophilia in this construction is sinister. The logic then proceeds thus: playfulness is not sinister; Carroll is playful; therefore Carroll is not sinister – and cannot be a paedophile. I have cheated a bit: Marr said the sinister side was unlikely rather than impossible, but it is clear he wants to exonerate Carroll from the more defamatory connotations of the P word.

Quite right too.

Not that Marr or his guests were in denial over Carroll’s sexual attraction to little girls, in what turned out to be a rather good programme to mark the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland’s publication in 1865. Gillian Beer, who has edited Carroll’s nonsense poems and will be bringing out a volume on the Alice books later this year, spoke with exquisitely tactful precision. Speaking with Alice Liddell in mind, the real little girl who inspired the wonderland books, she said:

“I think that the figure of Alice in Alice in Wonderland is a part answer to any suggestion of damage to the children… she is so appreciated as a lively, imaginative curious, independent young girl and she is treated with such respect, as it were, by the book; yes, she is teased, yes, she is worsted, but she is absolutely…

Marr interrupts: “But she isn’t objectified?”

…no, never. It’s always told, indeed, from within her, so that it’s her sensibility we’re sharing, and it’s her sense of terror, sometimes that is informing everything we read there.”

Beer is in effect confirming points raised elsewhere in the programme: Carroll was in love with Alice and probably got into trouble with her mother for being overly affectionate towards the child; but this essentially paedophilic behaviour was not a source of damage.

Robert Douglas-Fairhurst, whose book The Story of Alice: Lewis Carroll and the Secret History of Wonderland has just been published, was also a Marr guest. His book, one reviewer notes, draws attention to Carroll’s having written “A girl of about 12 is my ideal beauty of form.” Also, asked if children ever bored him, he replied: “They are three-fourths of my life.”

Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was an Oxford mathematics don. The picture that emerges from Douglas-Fairhurst’s book, according to a review in the Observer, is that he photographed Alice Liddell “obsessively” and was “evidently in love” with her. Alice was born in 1852. Already, from 1858 to 1862, “Dodgson’s peculiar intimacy with Miss Liddell had become the subject of intense Oxford gossip, with suggestions that the strange young Christ Church don had even proposed marriage and been rebuffed by the girl’s parents”.

The marriage proposal sounds like the Victorians’ idea of a joke; but the mere fact that there was intense gossip about the relationship refutes the modern deniers’ claim that Dodgson’s “sentimental” or “paternal” attachment to Alice was considered unremarkable in its day. Most Victorian gentlemen did not hang out with prepubescent girls; nor did they – as Dodgson did – remain lifelong bachelors. There were other girls, too, who at various times in his life occupied a special place in Mr Dodgson’s affections, to whom he wrote copious letters and whom he photographed extensively, sometimes in nude poses – photos which, as Marr’s programme noted, could not be used in Douglas-Fairhurst’s book for fear they might now fall foul of the law.

The letters, the photos and much else have long been the subject of biographic attention, perhaps most assiduously in the case of Morton N. Cohen’s 1995 book Lewis Carroll: A Biography. In an essay for the Times Literary Supplement in 2004 (“When love was young”, TLS, 10 September 2004) Cohen took issue with a “revisionist” voice, that of Karoline Leach, one of a growing band of writers who seek to rescue the author of Alice from the taint of paedophilia by contriving desperately improbable alternative narratives. Dodgson was no dodgy don, she insists: he was in love not with Alice but with her governess, a Miss Mary Prickett.

I will not waste time on this absurdity, except to say that Cohen’s demolition is strong.

His critique of Edward Wakeling, a far more substantial Dodgson scholar, is also devastating in my view. Wakeling, a Dodgson devotee for decades and a past Chairman of the Lewis Carroll Society, certainly knows his stuff and indeed has presented a lot of it on a website, including a database of the great man’s surviving letters and photos. I am assured by a Lewis Carroll Society insider who knows Wakeling personally that he is privately willing to admit Dodgson’s interest in girls had its erotic side. But it seems he feels duty-bound to protect the man’s reputation in public. As with Marr and his guests, that is a good thing if one wishes to insist upon him having been kind and considerate, rather than callously abusive; but, in Cohen’s opinion and mine, he goes much too far in trying to explain inconvenient facts away when these have a direct bearing on Dodgson’s sexual desires and even his behaviour.

In the same TLS article in which he took Leach apart, Cohen also tackled Wakeling. As the editor at that time of the latest and fullest version of Dodgson’s diaries, Wakeling had suggested that Dodgson’s interest in girls had been merely paternal. If so, why was there a falling out between the Liddell family and Dodgson in June 1863? Pages from his diary for this period, which might have explained the matter, were cut out and never recovered. Wakeling plays the rift down as unimportant, saying it lasted only “a few weeks”; but Cohen shows this “few weeks” lasted from 27 June to 19 December, almost half a year (25 weeks) when Dodgson was unable to see his beloved Alice, or her sisters.

Cohen also points out that in addition to this blatant minimisation, Wakeling ignored an important letter that Lorina, Alice’s older sister, sent to Alice in 1930 when they were both elderly. Lorina was reporting a meeting with an early Dodgson biographer, Florence Becker Lennon. Lorina wrote:

“I said his manner became too affectionate to you as you grew older and that mother spoke to him about it, and that offended him so he ceased coming to visit us again – as one had to find some reason for all intercourse ceasing…Mr D. used to take you on his knee…I did not say that.”

By this time Alice would have been 11. Girls typically did not reach menarche in those days until around 14 to 17 – much later than now. So in all probability she was still physically very much a child. On the other hand, the age of consent in those days was 12. Small wonder Mrs Liddell was vigilant, given that Alice, child or not, would soon be “legal”! Having said this, though, it may be that the rift was caused by Mrs Liddell finding out that Dodgson was becoming too close to Lorina as well, an intimacy we shall see hinted at below.

However that may be, Cohen’s revelations have done little to stem the public demand for an innocent Dodgson, along with our ever more strident insistence upon childhood innocence. And Wakeling has proved ever the man to supply that demand in a plausible, but to my mind deliberately misleading, manner. For the 150th anniversary, he has come up with a book called Lewis Carroll: The Man and His Circle, which looks at the writer through his social circle, which included royalty, musicians, publishers and artists. Yes, as he points out, Dodgson was a sophisticated character at ease in adult company; he was not an oddball loner, as some have suggested, who could relate only to children.

But so what? Wakeling implies that such sophistication was incompatible with paedophilia, which is simply false. It wouldn’t play too well as an excuse in a modern criminal court, would it?

“It is true, Your Honour, that images of children depicted in, ahem, somewhat carnal disport, were found on my client’s computer; but he also did a lot of excellent still life photography, fruit arranged in bowls, that sort of thing. Clearly, he is a cultured individual whose motives are artistic, not prurient…”

As for Wakeling’s elaborate charts of Dodgson’s letters and photographs, they appear designed to downplay the child theme by generating a bigger context: there were a vast number of letters to adults (albeit many to parents of his child friends) as well as to children; around 60% of his known photos of individuals were of children, but that still leaves a chunky 40% that were of adult subjects, and he did landscapes, etc., as well. What this ignores is the missing diary pages (whole volumes of his diaries are missing too), plus Dodgson’s letters to Alice Liddell, burnt by her mother, and a great many letters and photos destroyed or lost (only about 1,000 photos remain out of 3,000 he is known to have taken), probably by Dodgson’s heirs and possibly even by an early biographer: an obvious reason for disposing of such material would have been its embarrassing or even incriminating nature.

Wakeling’s technique seems to be to throw up a smoke screen of genuinely well researched scholarly detail in the hope that readers will be too impressed to notice its irrelevance. If Dodgson were on trial today over his “indecent” photos, Wakeling’s style of defence would cut no ice with the judge, as noted above; the jury wouldn’t buy it either.

But his actual jury is far more generous: his jurors are all the Alice fans out there, millions of them around the globe, many of them desperate to believe in Dodgson’s innocence and keen to read books in which it is asserted. I found myself among a hundred or more last week when Wakeling spoke to the Oxford Literary Festival about his new book, along with Vanessa Tait, grand daughter of Alice Liddell, no less, who was talking about her forthcoming Alice-themed novel The Looking-Glass House.

The event was held in the 15th century Divinity School beneath Oxford University’s ancient Bodleian Library, a magnificently ornate and august setting right in the very heart of Dodgson City, as it were. Not wanting to be run out of town by angry Carolingians (the noun being from Charles Dodgson, not from Lewis Carroll), I thought it best not to be too blunt when I asked a question from the floor. With an air of perhaps not entirely convincing innocence, I mildly pointed out that Dodgson had once written ”I’m fond of children (except boys)”. Would the speakers care to comment?

Up to that point I sensed a certain anxiety on the platform. Presenter Alastair Niven, a literary critic, invited questions afterwards from anyone who might “dare” to ask them. When I asked mine, Wakeling’s eyes positively sparkled with what may have been delight but I suspect it was relief, along the lines, “Oh, good, I can handle this one without things getting nasty”.

His answer was blandly reassuring: just Dodgson’s dry humour; friendly towards boys too; took about 100 photos of them; boys were usually at school when he went calling; girls in those days stayed at home, so he saw more of them. Ergo, Dodgson not dodgy. Simple!

But Vanessa Tait, who distinctly resembles her famous forebear Alice Liddell, was by no means as simplistic in her own response, and turned out to be distinctly at odds with Wakeling when someone asked what the pair of them thought of the BBC’s 150th anniversary documentary, aired in January and titled The Secret World of Lewis Carroll. Whereas Wakeling professed himself outraged by the programme, Tait seemed quite happy with it.

Presented by current affairs broadcaster Martha Kearney, the documentary was to a great extent a fan piece, actually. As a child, Kearney tells us, she took the role of Alice in a stage production of Alice Through the Looking-Glass in the village where she grew up. She loved the Alice books at that time and has been a Carroll devotee ever since.

Unlike Wakeling, though, she seemed keen to explore the truth about Dodgson’s desires. For her, this turned out to mean confronting a photo she said no respectable Victorian mother would have approved of. A nude photo of a little girl might have been acceptable in those days, but not one of a sexually maturing 14-year-old. Just such a photo, labelled “Lorina Liddell” on the back and attributed to “L. Carroll”, was discovered by the programme makers in a museum in far-off Marseilles. The overall conclusion, drawing on experts in photography and face identification, was that it was probably authentic.

Wakeling, who had long known about this photo, was having none of it. The experts’ opinions proved nothing, he insisted. His ire, though, was chiefly directed at the programme makers for failing to ask his own opinion, as though that would have settled the matter! However, when he had the opportunity in Oxford to do just that, he said nothing that I found even remotely persuasive. He did not even mention the inscription, much less refute its authenticity! His silence on this crucial evidence suggested to me he had nothing meaningful to say about the meaning of this photograph. All we learned was that he gets rather cross when anyone disputes his self-proclaimed magisterial authority!

A bit like Humpty Dumpty in fact: the photo means just what he chooses it to mean – neither more nor less. It’s all about which – or who – is to be the master.

*In the first version of this blog I wrongly said he introduced the term in 1886. That was when the first edition of his book Psychopathia Sexualis appeared. However, the term paedophilia erotica did not appear until the 12th edition, in 1912. I should have remembered my blog of 15 November last year in which this was mentioned. The term was included in the “Psychopathological Cases” section of Chapter Five, on sexual crimes. Oops, still not right! As Filip has kindly pointed out, in the comments below, there appears to have been at least a very brief mention of the term in the 10th edition, published in 1898.

PROUD TO BE A PAEDOPHILE

The GlobalPost, an online news outfit based in Boston, Mass., but not owned by the Boston Globe newspaper group, ran two big articles last month arising from the “sex abuse crisis” in Britain. They were filed by Corinne Purtill, an American reporter who is GlobalPost’s correspondent based in London. The more general article of the two adopts an uncritical approach, in which the events in Britain are viewed as a real crisis over actual “abuse”, rather than a moral panic over alleged abuse.

The other article is based on a phone interview with me. My initial response was that it is as bad as the general piece, mainly because it quotes me out of context: what I said was backed up by references to research, such as the work of Rind, Clancy and others; but these supporting authorities are deleted, so I probably come across as an obsessive crank. However, a number of other people have said they thought this article was quite good.

You can see for yourself, and make up your own mind:

The child sex abuse scandals engulfing Britain“:

And:

This man is a pedophile, and proud of it

Malice against Alice in cyber-land attack

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Today Heretic TOC features a guest blog from Eric Tazelaar, a name that will be familiar to many here as a contributor of articles to NAMBLA’s website – which as many will also be aware by now has been under attack in the last couple of days from “hacktivists” along with numerous other sites engaging with attraction to minors. NAMBLA’s website now appears to be fully back in action and Eric has reacted very promptly with a piece on the theme of cyber-vigilantism. So well done, both NAMBLA and Eric! However, there is a danger that the site, or some of its functionality, may temporarily disappear again under further attack. Accordingly, Heretic TOC has accepted Eric’s invitation to run his article, which is also announced on the NAMBLA Homepage.

What prompted this spate of vigilantism was initially not NAMBLA, though, but the celebration of Alice Day on 25 April. As the Daily Dot preannounced on 24 April:

It’s Alice Day, a public “pedophile pride” day inspired by the relationship between the author Lewis Carroll and his young muse, Alice Liddell, for whom Alice in Wonderland was written. April 25 is supposedly the day in 1856 that Carroll met 4-year-old Alice, sparking a lifelong infatuation. In one pedophile’s own words, republished on a predator watchdog site, April 25 is a day to “rejoice in the gift of girllove and affirm the ideal so aptly typified by this special relationship.” In 2013, it’s also the day the hacker group Anonymous plans to bombard a long list of online targets with DDoS attacks, leaking suspects’ personal information and defacing their websites.

As it happens, yours truly personally had reason to be aware of the upcoming Alice Day this year, as Alicelovers magazine had scheduled the release of its second issue for that date and I had an article in press with it. The cyber-vigilantes, or rather cyber-vandals, have managed to screw up the release of the magazine, which should be available through a free PDF download via http://alicelovers.info/ The Homepage looks OK but the download is not working at the moment, as I write. Anyway, let me take this opportunity to let you know, if you don’t already, that this is a beautifully produced magazine with good articles – and of course I hope you will feel this accolade can be applied to my own modest contribution (actually titled “A Modest Proposal”) when you are eventually able to download the mag.

But enough. With no further ado, here is Eric’s article, under the author’s own title:

Hipster Vigilantism and the New Populist Attack On Free Speech in the Internet Age

“Anonymous” the self-styled cyber-vigilante group, widely recognized by its use of Guy Fawkes masks to conceal members’ identities, has launched another flurry of DDOS (Distributed Denial Of Service) attacks to overload and thereby silence the websites of organizations which it identifies as “promoting paedophilia”. Several of those organisations targeted were NAMBLA and Boychat which suffered temporary website outages.

We were, once again, reminded of the self-righteous – if inchoate – rage which periodically bubbles to the surface in an effort to deny the rights of others to speak freely.

In the past, this atavistic fury would have taken the form of book burnings or, even earlier, the burning of people.

Today, it is expressed through the sabotage of complex computer networks and requires a modest level of technical expertise that is itself worn as a badge of honor by those who imagine themselves serving a societal good in their concerted efforts to silence others. A very public – and heroic – identification with that which is good and virtuous, as in every moral crusade of the past, is very much a driving force behind these contemporary mob rallies.

As the targets of these actions, we know, from years of experience, that those “hipster vigilantes” responsible for these “actions” are, invariably, almost studiously ignorant of our message and our mission as well as the actual danger our ideas pose to their mythological preconceptions. Their representation of our views and our motives are as scurrilous and distorted as any claims made by tabloid journalists or government agencies. But, of course, they would be.

Considering that most of them are young and grew up in the age of hysteria –  in other words, since the 1970’s – then we understand all too well why this is so.

As children and adolescents, they were spoon-fed a continuous diet of stranger danger, warnings of “bad touches”, alerts of missing children, and continuous surveillance by qualified adults while their permitted range-of-movement within which to explore life, love and humanity, shrank.

Theirs was a childhood informed by a continuous stream of missing children on milk cartons, indoctrination sessions led by alarmist teachers and earnest visiting policemen, hysterical t.v. news and the obsessive demands of parents that they remain within the ever-narrower boundaries which had come to define the limits of childhood and adolescence.

That all of these messages about strange men, in particular, were continuously delivered to them throughout their earliest years with an existential level of urgency makes it trivially easy to understand the levels of vehemence and intolerance our organizations – and our websites – now face.

Angry, destructive bands of crusaders, along with ever more oppressive laws are the result of a more than thirty-five year campaign to systematically suppress dissenting voices and contradicting evidence in order to fundamentally re-engineer society along strictly partisan – and paranoid – lines.

In this way morality, the perception of risk and reality itself have all been gradually, but dramatically, shifted over several generations while society feverishly wrung its hands, seemingly oblivious to the ongoing experiment in which it plays a starring role.

So, when we asked ourselves, many years ago, what the long-term effects would be of the sudden and astounding efflorescence of paranoia we were then witnessing, we now – finally – have our answer.

Back to TOC again. Some might be wondering whether Heretic TOC itself will come under cyber attack. Anything is possible, I suppose, but I imagine WordPress has defences to rival those of the Pentagon. Anyway, so far so good. Also, so far so good in terms of this current state of attacks remaining quite low key. Anonymous were probably hoping for a boost from huge coverage of their Alice Day campaign in the media, as happened following their spectacular (and much more pro-social) contribution to the Occupy Wall Street protest. It simply hasn’t happened. There have been a couple of articles, and that’s about it.  

News just received from our Irony Correspondent : Anonymous UK founder accused of rape at Occupy London camp.

Silence and shame at the Sheldonian

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Is silence in the face of great wrongs always shameful? If so, Heretic TOC should plead guilty. By that demanding standard I should have howled the house down at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford last week. I should have “caused a scene”, “demonstrated”, hurled thunderous, passionate execrations, pointing an accusing finger at the stage, and at one man who occupied it: Sir Diarmaid Ninian John MacCulloch, University of Oxford Professor of the History of the Church, winner of numerous prizes for his many books, presenter of the “landmark” BBC TV series A History of Christianity.

Ironically, he was there to talk about shame and I, along with hundreds of others, to listen. The occasion was an exploration of the topic “Shame : A Force for Good or Bad?” as part of the Oxford Literary Festival. MacCulloch was a panelist along with crime writer Ruth Rendell and an American historian, Deborah Cohen, who has a new book out, Family Secrets: Living with Shame from the Victorians to the Present Day. It was an excellent discussion, well worthy of the Sheldonian, a splendid Wren-designed auditorium completed in 1668, sitting right at the heart of Oxford University near the Bodleian Library.

The date was 21 March. MacCulloch, the most formidably sharp and interesting of the three distinguished speakers, reminded his audience that on this same date in 1556, in this same city, Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, had been burnt at the stake as a heretic. Cranmer had earlier recanted the Protestant “heresies” of which he had been accused in the reign of the Catholic queen, Mary. This desertion of his faith failed to save his skin. Ashamed of his weakness, Cranmer reasserted his faith in a sermon on the very day of his execution, when he had been expected to proclaim publicly the error of his ways. Then, famously, as he was being burnt, he thrust first into the fire “the unworthy hand” with which he had signed his earlier recantation. Shame, suggested MacCulloch, had in this instance been a noble force, memorably bringing out the best in Cranmer, redeeming, and more than redeeming, his ordinary human frailty.

We all feel ashamed when we fall short of our own standards, and it is surely right that we should be spurred by that shame to do better. Some might call this guilty conscience, a private matter, and argue that true shame is very different, a public affair: people are shamed into action, or into changing their ways, through community pressure. That too can be a good thing when we can all agree a common standard of good behavior, in a family, or a village; but is much trickier in large, complex, pluralistic societies such as our own. In societies like ours, paradoxically, it may be shameful to take the easy way out by falling in with the dictates of majority opinion when we have reason to believe the majority are wrong.

MacCulloch acknowledges this. In his latest book, Silence: A Christian History, he unsurprisingly sees a positive role for contemplative and prayerful silence; but he also tackles the more negative, shameful, aspects of keeping shtum, especially the failure of Christians in the past to speak out against egregious abuses. He focuses on three examples, of which these are two: slavery, and the Nazi holocaust against the Jews. So far so good. But you can see where this is going, can’t you? Yes, inevitably, his third example of negative Christian silence, in his book and in the Sheldonian discussion, is the covering up of clerical “child abuse”. This silence, bizarrely, he considers worse than the other two. Why? Because child abuse has always been against the teaching of the church, unlike either slavery or anti-semitism: the Bible depicted slavery as part of the God-given natural order of human affairs, and condemned the Jews as killers of Christ. Child abuse was therefore more shameful because it alone fell short of the church’s own standards at the time.

Well, imagine, fellow heretics, how I felt upon hearing this tosh. Apart from forgetting that the Catholic church certainly did at one time openly support real child abuse by using castrated choirboys (first authorized by Pope Sixtus V in 1589), this offensive nonsense also carries an implicit value judgment that giving a child an orgasm in necessarily worse than the chaining, whipping, beating, starving, terrifying, torturing, working to death, and outright mass murder – of children as well as adults – that characterized Nazi and slaving atrocities. Surely, I had to get up and say something? Usually, I am not shy on such occasions: I can and do raise questions from the floor. But this, I confess, defeated me. I did not trust myself to be coherent. In a room full of churchy types who had come to listen to a very prestigious ecclesiastical historian, I was worried about coming across as a raving lunatic. A moderately skeptical question might have worked, but I was just too angry to find the words.

So I compromised. At the end of the talk I knew MacCulloch would be signing copies of his new book. Being the polite person I am – perhaps far too courteous on this occasion – I bought a copy and meekly stood in line waiting for him to sign it, so I would have the opportunity to speak to him. Actually, I held back until last, so others would not be kept waiting during the substantial harangue I had in mind.

Eventually, my turn came. He signed my copy, punctiliously putting in the date. “Must have the date, eh?”, he said cheerily, “Cranmer’s anniversary.”

“Thanks,” I began. “It was a good discussion. But you seem too sophisticated a person to have such an absolutist position on clerical abuse, so-called. What if you have a priest and an acolyte who love each other?  Shouldn’t the priest have the guts to defend his love? Wouldn’t it be shameful not to do so?”

“It’s abuse,” he replied, “and the church’s teaching is clear.”

“Look,” I said, with perhaps a hint of rising anger, “I have sexual feelings for children and I am not ashamed to say so publicly. If there’s a loving relationship, why should that be abuse? How can it be right to take an absolutist stance when there is love?”

“Well, I do pretty much feel we should be absolutist on this issue. I’ve thought about it a lot.”

“Not enough, clearly,” I snapped.

Silence.

“Well, you know now how I feel,” I added, awkwardly. “And now that you do know, would you nevertheless be prepared to inscribe my name along with your own?”

I handed him my business card: “Tom O’Carroll, Director, Dangerous Books Ltd”.

He dutifully wrote out my name in the book, above his own. But he said nothing. He did not inquire about Dangerous Books, nor ask anything about me. He just silently left the card lying on the table until I picked it up. It was as though he felt any further inquiry or discussion would be just as dangerous as my card implied. Of course, he was right.

What I should have told him was that he may have thought a lot about “child abuse” but perhaps studied too little, preferring to focus on clerical stuff rather than research papers in psychology: his book shows no sign of any such reading. But I was too angry for such niceties. Frankly, I just wanted to beat the complacent bastard around the head with his own book, so that I could leave him with the sound of Silence ringing in his ears.

I took my leave, still angry, but soon restored to good cheer in the company of an old friend. An Oxford man himself, he showed me his old college, St Peters, and the next day he took me for a long walk along the River Isis, past Port Meadow and the stretch of water where Lewis Carroll once shared a rowing boat with his little child friend Alice Liddell, his inspiration for Alice In Wonderland. Those idyllic days when a man and an unrelated child could keep each other’s company without scandal – despite nude photography – seemed very far off indeed.

One other discovery before I left Oxford: MacCulloch is openly gay. Suddenly the moral certainty and absolutism of this buttoned down academic, soberly conservative in suit and tie, fell into place as part of one of the defining cultural tropes of our times: the respectable homosexual, a figure whose success has largely been build on distancing himself from the “shameful” paedophile with whom he was once bracketed as a fellow “pervert” or “deviant”. MacCulloch styles his career in history as “devoted to showing up the emperors with no clothes: the smug, the pretentious, the imposters, the liars”. I can’t help wondering when he last looked into a mirror.

 

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