Judgment of accidental role models’ extra-marital affairs takes the biscuit

WHEN the little old lady barred my way in the confectionery aisle of SuperValu, I thought she wanted to know where the chocolate malted milk biccies were or to get me to read aloud the ingredients in the tiny print on the back of a package.

But no.

“You look better than you do on the television and in pictures,” she announced. “Younger, too.”

The announcement was made in such a loud voice that several people picking out their Fig Rolls turned to look at who was being addressed, and it was written all over their faces that they were thinking: “That one looks younger, here in reality, than on TV? Well, she must look pretty damn old on TV, not that I’ve seen her. Who is she anyway? Who? Oh, THAT C-lister...”

Now, I wasn’t going to argue with the little old lady, despite the patent incredibility of her claim. The fact is that everybody looks fatter, wrinklier and blotchier in reality than in pictures, even if the photos haven’t been airbrushed, because camouflage wears off during the day and nature plus gravity come into play, whereas photographs are always taken when you’re freshly made-up and ready to pretend.

In photographs, for example, Fergus Finlay and I both look permanently happy, not to say gleeful. In reality, he always looks worried and currently looks deflated, because he’s lost so much weight in recent months, whereas I always look confused (“I know I’m supposed to meet someone somewhere around now, but who?”) or panicky (How could my car keys be gone, I had them five minutes ago?) or – currently – guilty (What other woman, when her husband’s away, wakes up in the middle of the night and eats chocolate biscuits? Three times).

But if the little old lady was willing to deceive herself, I was more than willing to let her deceive me and any readily duped innocent bystanders.

The sting in the tail was that she wanted my views. As a published columnist, she said, with punishing emphasis. On that Tiger Woods. Not any random Tiger Woods who happened to be passing: THAT Tiger Woods. Accept no imitations.

Had I seen his first round? No, I said, keeping quiet my view that watching golf on TV beats watching paint dry in terms of boringness. Well, it was shocking, she said. Shocking. Really shocking. Nobody booed when he came out on the tee. They let him play as if it was perfectly normal, what he’d done. I mean, really.

She had the look of a woman who would do a Sean Quinn at any moment: bundle hundreds of people into buses and hand them neatly printed placards so they could do a properly organised spontaneous demonstration. Backed up against the cat food, I figured my best option was to ask questions.

“What good would booing him do?” I asked.

“What good would it do?” she repeated, in a disbelieving squeak. “What good?”

It’s amazing, how pathetic your own question sounds when someone takes the skin off it and divides it in two. Especially when it’s done in front of a small but increasing audience.

“Letting someone like that play golf sends all the wrong messages,” she told me severely. “It misleads young people.”

Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but I would have thought the Tiger Woods media meltdown would have sent verifiably accurate messages to young and old people alike. Messages like that if you’re young, good-looking, rich beyond the dreams of avarice, a household name athlete who moves like a dancer, his muscular shoulders tapering into a narrow waist through a sculpted torso, you’ll find it easier to score with cocktail waitresses than you would if you were a spotty little lad stocking shelves in Tesco.

It’s not like this was a big secret, being kept from our younger people. Nor is it like it was so rare a phenomenon as to merit backs of hands clapped to foreheads in shocked disbelief.

“But haven’t famous men always been womanisers?” I asked the SuperValu woman. “I mean, John F Kennedy, Errol Flynn, the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Whatshisname?”

Her lip was curling so much, I realised I was picking the wrong examples. So I added in Paul Robeson. She bristled. Paul Robeson was a wonderful singer. He was NOT a womaniser.

“Media didn’t deal with that sort of stuff in quite the same way back then,” I pointed out. “But he was pretty much the equiv – well, he was certainly involved with quite a number of women.”

It was perfectly clear she didn’t believe me. “It’s not the same for a singer anyway,” she said, sweeping all inconsistencies aside. “Tiger Woods is an athlete who was a role model for young people.”

I gently pointed out that “role model” is an attributed, rather than adopted, role, and that those who’ve carried the unsought moniker down through the decades, whether they be the Beatles or Michelle de Bruin, have tended to give pleasure but not seek to lay down templates by which kids, when they grew up, should live.

Role models are much less important in any kid’s life than the influence of their peers and family. None of this went down well. My interlocutor was getting madder by the minute. She told me she’d have expected better from me, given that I was married a long time. That sideswipe I couldn’t make sense of. The fact that I’m married a long time speaks to the patience and good humour of the man in my life.

Why would that stop me noticing that truly great stars in any profession can also be faithless feckers who will take any opportunity for random bonking with any available slapper?

WE don’t have to approve of their sexual habits to approve of their skill or artistry. That would be to suggest that because Wilde was unfaithful to Constance – and with the roughest of young men – we should not read The Canterville Ghost to our children or go to see Stockard Channing take on the role of Lady Bracknell in The Gate Theatre in a few months.

Wilde’s artistic output and Tiger’s golf game stand alongside their sexual proclivities, largely unrelated to each other. They’re just different expressions of the wondrous complexity of human individuality, and one should not occlude our view of the other.

Fortunately, it doesn’t tend to: most of us, offered a choice between watching Tiger Woods or watching a less stellar golfer of unimpeachable marital reputation, would rather watch Tiger Woods. We may feel sympathetic towards his wife, but, paradoxically, the very scale of Woods’ promiscuity – his short physical relationships with dozens of women – arguably adds up to a lesser betrayal than an intense secret relationship with one extra-marital partner.

If I were Hillary, I’d regard Bill Clinton giving Monica Lewinsky – as he did – a book we’d both loved and was a central part of our relationship as a bigger treachery than having sex with her.

You’d expect better from me, wouldn’t you? And me so long married?

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