Sunday, 7 December 2014

changing times

I was listening to Radio 4 just now as I did a bit of washing up, and heard the first half of a documentary on Jeremy Thorpe, held back from broadcast until after his death.  Some of the material had been held back for forty years, and as I listened I began to feel as though I must be very old, that social norms could have changed so much in my lifetime.

I met Jeremy Thorpe as a child, because he was the MP for a north Devon seat as well as Liberal party leader, and my parents were liberal activists in east Devon.  He was as charismatic as the programme said, for I can still remember him once visiting our house, and his thin-faced intensity and burning sense of intelligence and purpose.  I don't remember the trial being greatly discussed at home.  That was in 1979, so I was in the sixth form by then.

But what jolted me as I scrubbed at this lunchtime's omelet pan was the reminder that within my lifetime, by the time I was at secondary school, the revelation that somebody was a homosexual would be enough to destroy their political career, with the fact that an Eton and Oxford educated political leader had had a relationship across the class divide running it a close second for scandal. Not in the pages of EM Forster some time in the dying days of Edwardian England*, but in my lifetime.  Barnstaple police kept a secret dossier on Jeremy Thorpe's private life under lock and key.

My mind boggled, absolutely boggled. and then I began to feel very thankful that, even though it meant I must be getting old, things had changed so much.  I thought of the gay couples I know, who come along to the beekeepers events and the music society, and how nobody gives a stuffed monkey.  It is so absolutely, completely, blisteringly normal when you see Paul to enquire where Lee is, and no-one bats an eyelid as they write Christmas cards or party invitations with two same-sex names on them.  And thank goodness for that.

There again, it makes me feel very old to remember that in the year we spent in the States when I was a baby, the Civil Rights Act had not yet been passed.  In the photographs of me wearing a powder blue coat and matching bonnet, or smearing ice cream joyously over my face, that baby was living in a country that did not give the same rights under the law to black people.  It's just a pity that fifty years on, black people in the United States are still regularly being shot, beaten, and suffocated to death by their own police.

*There again, Forster wrote Maurice in 1913-14, but it was only published in 1971 after his death.  In my lifetime.  He did not believe it was publishable before then.

Addendum  I am indebted to Wikipedia for that last snippet, and have just given them my five pounds to help keep them going and ad free for another year.  Please do likewise.

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