I talked today to a friend who spoke of his bitter disappointment at the news of Rolf Harris’ conviction for unspeakable sex offences against youngsters, and of the earlier news of Stewart Hall’s offences. I know how he feels. As we take in news of Rolf Harris’ spectacular downfall it hardly seems possible, and its difficult to take in what has happened. Why is it that for a generation this has come as, not just a shock, but almost a sense of personal loss? There has been talk of Harris’ naturally avuncular style, his warm smile and friendly demeanour. We are naturally horrified to discover the dark side of this pleasant man. Who would not be at seeing such a Jekyll and Hyde character emerge from behind such a pleasing image? Is it, then, simply the realisation that his image has deceived us as we see the ‘real man’ behind the mask?
We have seen the reputations of a number of popular celebrities come crashing down, from Gary Glitter, through Stewart Hall, to Jimmy Saville, and now Rolf Harris.Others have been arrested, questioned, but never prosecuted. They are all of a type in one respect in that they come from a particular time in our history. Is there something about a certain generation that has produced these characters that have proved too good to be true? Why are, or were, these celebrities so important in the lives of so many people? The great majority would never have met them and certainly could never claim to know them except as they appeared on our television screens.
These days people are so divided into their cultural tribes they surely wouldn’t understand the word ‘community’ as it was understood back then. There was a time in this world when there were but two TV channels, BBC and ITV. Then, in 1964, came a third, BBC2 bringing what was regarded as high culture as a counterpoint to the popular culture of the day. These days no one could command the astronomical viewing figures enjoyed by successful entertainers back then. Just about everyone watched the most popular shows, from the Christmas specials of Morecambe and Wise, drawing audiences of 27 million in 1977, to Coronation Street, regularly pulling in audiences of 18million to 21 million in the 1970s. I could walk down a street where I lived on a Monday, or Wednesday evening at 7.30pm and from just about every house hear Eric Spear’s familiar, haunting theme for Coronation Street.
In work the next day “did you see…last night” inevitably drew a lot of comment from the majority who could be relied upon to have seen the latest twists and turns in the country’s favourite dramas, comic capers from the country’s best loved entertainers, performances from the country’s most admired pop stars. Back then there still existed a strong sense of community. Although the advent of affordable TV rental plans inevitably drew people indoors where once they shared their own street dramas, when folk came out again they talked about the latest show, or episode from the goggle-box in the corner of the room.
It was into this community that a certain generation of entertainers came. It wasn’t tribal, it was federal. They entered most homes, were seen on most TV’s, and their catchphrases were on most lips – Evenin’ all; Oi’ll give it foive; her indoors; I’m in charge; you dirty old man; can you tell what it is yet? And most families and communities were ‘complicit’ in accepting them and making them what they became. It wasn’t that Rolf Harris was the favourite uncle figure for some, but that he was that for most. These people were not only part of my culture but integral to the culture of a whole country for a whole generation.
This, I suggest is where that real sense of personal loss, that, “he was part of my childhood and growing up,” response comes from. Its that shared experience we all still had as a community, before this multi-channel, techy,tribal madness changed the world forever. My childhood without Rolf Harris is unthinkable, almost like my childhood without my family, my friends, Sunday dinners, Saturday Grandstand, Its a Knockout, Top of the Pops, Coronation Street, Z-Cars, Friday night at the chippie, 99s, Mivi lollipops, Mother’s Pride, Bisto, 2d back on every empty bottle, and the sense that it was our world and we all owned it together.
Perhaps we were over-confident, too innocent, too ready to believe the chimera that stood before us, unwilling to even imagine that Rolf Harris was capable of such things. We like the bad guys to wear black hats and be bad guys. We tell ourselves we are better than them. We like the good guys to wear white hats and be good guys. We tell ourselves these are men after our own hearts and aspire to be like them. We all like to think we know what is what, think that we are on the side of the angels. Now the illusion is shattered, and the ground shifts under us, we search for answers. How could this be? Why were we taken in? what am I supposed to think about this? We don’t want ultimate answers designed to make us wiser, more knowing about our world, that might come too close to home. We want answers that will put us back in that place of white hats and black hats. But that world doesn’t exist, it never did. Jesus makes clear why these things happen:
"What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person." (Mark 7:20-23)
G K Chesterton famously remarked, “What is wrong with the world? I am wrong with the world!”
We are all wearing black hats and comparing ourselves favourably with those that are more obviously villainous does not in any measure absolve us of our coveting, slandering, gossiping, envying, lusting, foolishness…
We have a heart problem.
The good news is God has done something about it in sending Jesus to fix our heart problem. When Jesus came on the scene 2,000 years ago he said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15)
The challenge is that we must recognise how bad the bad news is. All that we see and despise in this world of corruption, the lies, selfishness, violence, sexual immorality, is the product of men’s hearts. Since we are the problem we cannot fix things no matter how we try, and people try hard. We are lost on every level unless someone steps in and saves us from ourselves. That someone is Jesus. Do you really think we can manage without him? We might do what most people do at such times and try to ‘go back,’ tell ourselves these things are anomalies in a world of otherwise great people, our world, our familiar world of black hats and white hats. But this has happened before, will happen again, so how bad does it have to get before we stop lying to ourselves?
As we pan out and look at the wider scene we find it is much worse than the downfall of a family entertainer of fifty years. Andy Coulson, former No.10 press officer, is jailed for heinous and unforgivable crimes to do with systematic phone hacking for the Murdoch press, justice is robbed and lives are blighted. Another of the prime minister’s advisers, Patrick Rock, is on trial for making and distributing pornographic images of children. There is talk about a paedophile ring in Westminster in the 1980s, and a dossier of evidence is said to be missing.
Further afield again we find the former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, under investigation for alleged influence-peddling, a teacher in France is inexplicably stabbed by a mother in front of infants, teenagers from both sides of the conflict are being kidnapped and murdered in Jerusalem and Palestine, Christians are being crucified in Syria, and the self-proclaimed “caliph” of Iraq/Syria is threatening to march on Rome for Islam. This world needs a Saviour…
Rome was dubbed “The Eternal City” because of its remarkable longevity, and when it fell to the Visigoths in the fifth century, Romans were left in a deep state of shock. Their world, like ours, seemed to be falling apart. How could this happen? they asked. Some saw it as a punishment for abandoning traditional Roman religions for Christianity. In this atmosphere Augustine of Hippo wrote his seminal work, The City of God Against the Pagans. In it he argued that history was a conflict between the City of Man and the City of God, and it is the latter that will ultimately win. Why mourn for Rome, he argued, when it is the spiritual city of God that is the victor and the dwelling place of all who trust in Christ?
Jesus said, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Rolf Harris is responsible for his destructive decisions, Andy Coulson for his, but what about me? Will I recognise at last that the world is the way it is, not because of people like Rolf Harris and Andy Coulson, but because of people with a heart problem – people like me? Am I going to respond to the good news Jesus brings, stop looking back at imagined halcyon days of youth, a more innocent age that never was, and repent, ask him to fix my heart, give me citizenship in his city, his kingdom? He is the light of the world, why on earth would we want to walk in darkness a moment longer?