I was recently watching some ancient episodes of ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ on a DVD that I had found at the library. And I was struck by a couple of events in the episode ‘Rumpole and the Man of God’ where the characters discuss problems which we also face here in Australia.
The first event arises when Rumpole is in the clerks’ room collecting his briefs, and mentions that he will be representing a Man of the Cloth. Old Uncle Tom, putting golf balls into a cup with an old Mashie Niblick, pipes up that it’s probably something to do with sexual assault of a minor:
Uncle Tom: A vicar in trouble. I suppose it’s the choir boys again.
Horace Rumpole: No, not this time, Uncle Tom. It’s the sales.
UT: I always thought they were running a hell of a risk having choir boys. They’d be far safer with a bunch of middle-aged lady sopranos.
Drawing on my many years’ experience singing in ecclesiastical choirs from the age of 10, it depends on what you mean by ‘safer’. Of course, you’re far less likely to be charged with sexual assault of a middle-aged female chorister. There’s no way most of them would let a man within ten feet of them, and certainly not the delicate flowers who hang around churches. And those who did let one of these emasculated men close would be doing so only for reasons of exploiting him – say, conning him into marrying her. The middle-aged female chorister is under no circumstances to be underestimated.
And that’s before you even consider actually running the choir and producing the regular and demanding output of weekly music. It should be plain, prima facie, that it’s easier to bully, hector and terrify schoolboys into doing what you want, than having to negotiate outcomes with savvy adults. And if things go bad and you start going limbic, choirboys are much less likely than grown women to complain about having hard-cover hymnals thrown at their faces, or being kicked repeatedly in the shins.
No, I’m not making this up. Welcome to the Old School. But to be fair, there was never a single instance of sexual assault or misconduct. It was a tough environment for a kid, but it wasn’t depraved.
The Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse, currently running here in Australia, is lifting the carpet on all types of squalid and sickening scandals, abuses of trust and power, and institutional cover-ups, from many years ago. And just on Friday a man in NSW was charged with 140 counts of sexual crimes against minors, conducted over a period of around 15 years. I don’t think we’ll ever see the end of this despicable crime. Perhaps, human nature being what it is, choirmasters would be best to follow Uncle Tom’s advice, and swap their pliable but vulnerable choirboys for the less-malleable but more formidable middle-aged sops.
The second event is when Rumpole is in court, cross-examining the store security officer as part of his defence of the cleric on a charge of shoplifting. Seeking sympathy from the jury for his client, he mentions a problem which is common here in Sydney at the moment:
Horace Rumpole: It would have been quite impossible for my client to have paid for his purchases in the shirt department, wouldn’t it?
Security Officer: No. There were two assistants behind the counter.
HR: Oh really? Young ladies?
SO: Yes sir.
HR: And when you saw them, what were they doing?
SO: I can’t exactly recall.
HR: Well then, let me jog your memory. [To himself: ‘I mean, let me hazard a guess’.] Were they not huddled together in an act of total recall of last night at the disco or the Palais de Hop? Were they not blind and deaf to the cries of shirt-buying clerics? Were they not totally oblivious to the whole of life around them? [To himself: ‘That’s right, old darlings. You know all about young lady non-assistants.’] Well Mr Batt, isn’t that exactly what they were doing?
SO: It may have been, Your Honour.
Yes, it is just as difficult to get service in a department store in 2015 as it was in 1978. In fact, I think it’s even more difficult now. Because all three of the shop assistants on each floor are not only chatting about who ‘got wiv’ who in the loo at ‘Tech Noir’ on Saturday night, but are also huddled up at the opposite end of the floor from where you are. With no signs telling you where you are to go to find them. So not only are you ignored by them, you are ignored after having wandered around for ten minutes trying to find them.
Le plus ca change, …