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What’s in a reputation?

Last week Jimmy Hill and Greville Janner, two gentlemen of public note who had been stricken with dementia of one form or another, both died at the age of eighty-seven.

I ought to note here that I always steer clear of stating that anyone actually died of dementia because, having had a close family experience of it (but I’d stress no expert medical knowledge), my understanding is that technically few if any actually do.

Most often, as the brain gradually ‘shuts down’, thereby gradually doing the same to the body, the person dies of something else, e.g. pneumonia.

I believe – again I must repeat my caveat about lack of medical know-how – that here there’s a parallel with prostate cancer. Statistically, most elderly men die hosting some sort of prostate issue but few directly because of it. [Rust readers of a medical bent are most welcome to put me right on the above, or even clarify the position if they wish].

Over the last few days I have noted in myself some mixed reactions to the deaths of Messrs Hill and Janner and in expressing them now I acknowledge that I’m conscious of a contradiction within two underlying themes that come to mind at times like these – viz. on the one hand ‘if you cannot find anything good to say about someone, say nothing’ and, on the other, ‘At the end of the day, it’s ultimately for the best if the truth comes out’.

The issues surrounding how a person’s death is marked – and/or how they are remembered – are fascinating, especially if they are regarded to have been a public figure for some reason or another and/or to have achieved things worthy of note. I suppose it would be a truism to suggest that an obituary is supposed to be a combination of biographical note, appreciation and historical assessment – but, whilst it might be relatively easy to agree a consensus on the first of these (one might say it’s a simple matter of fact), it might be less so as regards the second and third.

For obvious reasons – not least the ‘if you have nothing positive to say, say nothing’ angle mentioned above – those close to the deceased, whether friends, colleague or family, will normally want to read a positive appreciation and historical verdict.

However, others – ranging perhaps from those who actually knew or worked with the individual, or indeed those of us who regularly glance at newspaper obituary sections out of habit and/or interest – are just as attracted by the prospect of references to subjects who were ‘demanding’ or ‘prickly’, … ‘didn’t suffer fools gladly’ … ‘waspish or sharp’, or simply had spectacular disagreements or fallings-out with those around them, or left their wives or husbands … or who even had well-known propensity for affairs, criminal activity or – in some form or another – ‘sailing close to the wind’.

If you asked me why this should be so, I’d guess I would reply that it is because nobody is perfect. To be human is to be fallible – few of us are without blemish and/or never make mistakes.

Further [and I suppose there may be a degree of self-revelation in this] – somehow, to read a ‘warts and all’ story of a life – rather than a sanitized public relations piece which omits everything negative and/or inconvenient to the ‘glorious memory’ image the writer is seeking to plant, or at least reads as if it is – is so much more interesting and [dare I say it?] comforting to we ordinary mortals left behind.

That’s the irony of perception. There’s the story that anyone can leave behind, or might wish to leave behind – and history is littered with examples of famous writers, generals, politicians, kings and cabbages who not only attempted to write their own histories but simultaneously also either burned their private correspondence, papers and unpublished manuscripts – or ordered their families, or executors, or agents to do this for them – in an attempt to get their own version of events out early in the public domain and (presumably hopefully) definitively.

Then there’s the longer-term verdict of history, i.e. that which emerges subsequently when hitherto unknown documentary or other evidence is discovered, or is released from secret archives or indeed by other participants in the same events … or is even alighted upon by academics and writers after decades of diligent research and (possibly revisionist) thinking and argument.

I confess not to be firm in my views on such matters.

Sir Peter Hayman

Sir Peter Hayman

Let me illustrate this with a case in point. The diplomat Sir Peter Hayman KCMG CVO MBE, who died in 1992 aged 77, had a most distinguished career, including time as an MI6 operative. He might easily have gone down in history as a prominent, well-respected public servant of impeccable taste and decency. I say ‘might have’ because, about ten years before he died, he mistakenly left a package of pornographic materials on a London bus. It turned out that under a false name he had been conducting a secret second private life, via a flat in Bayswater, in which he indulged in sexual fantasies about sex with children and prostitutes. He was subsequently arrested, not charged but instead given a warning by the police. All this was later exposed by Private Eye magazine. As it happens, in 1984 he was also arrested for gross indecency in a public lavatory.

At that time I came down on the side of ‘good riddance’. Yes, it was sad for him, his friends and family that his reputation had been terminally tarnished. If you think about it, but for a blunder on a bus ride, Hayman might have died, received all the benefits of a splendid obituary in The Times and gone down in history exactly as he would have wanted.

But he made that bus ride and that error and his grubby-edged double life was exposed. One is left wrestling with the issue of whether it is a tragedy that all the good works Hayman did in his ‘first life’ was undone by his sexual proclivities and then what he did about them … or whether, in direct contrast, it was a good thing. Why should an alleged pervert be allowed to ‘get away with’ leaving behind a reputation of apparent upstanding, unblemished honour, public service and integrity when in fact the truth was quite different? Isn’t it better to have the truth exposed? Isn’t it better for us all, as we live our lives, to know that one day, perhaps in our lifetime or perhaps after it, the world will eventually know the truth about us?

A while back now I formed the view off my own bat – or perhaps someone suggested it to me – that [rather like when we appear at the pearly gates of Heaven to be greeted by St Peter or whomever else does the job to have our lives weighed up in terms of good and bad] our enduring reputation is probably (and justly) going to be the verdicts, glowing or critical, of all who knew or came across us. Of course they’ll be subjective – personal verdicts always are – and we’ll probably feel indignant about some of them (“they caught me on a bad day …” or “well, he’s a totally ignorant prat, so I wouldn’t pay and attention to his view anyway”) but, the fact is, none of us can control what others think of us, or how we actually come across … as opposed to how we think we do.

Greville Janner

Greville Janner

In the past week the deaths of Greville Janner and Jimmy Hill have caused me to revisit some of these issues.

But for the rumours going back decades, and indeed the recent furore over whether he was going to be prosecuted or not over allegations of historic sexual abuse in circumstances where he was suffering from dementia, Mr Janner had a seemingly enviable reputation of public, political and charitable service.

Sadly for him and those close to him, whether he personally was even aware, fully or at all, of what was happening to him in the past couple of years, he has now gone to his grave with a reputation tarnished with at least a brush of the Jimmy Savilles about it.

What was notable about the obituaries and tributes I have seen or heard about the footballing legend Jimmy Hill is the complete absence of negativity – I even heard radio presenters and interviewees remarking upon it (‘You wouldn’t be able to find anyone who had a bad word to say about him’).

Now I’m no footballing historian or expert, but I can recall one rather ‘dodgy’ act Hill perpetrated and which – I even thought at the time – rather contradicted his heyday reputation as a paragon-of-virtue guru of all that was good and wholesome about the round-ball game.

Jimmy Hill

Jimmy Hill

I cannot unfortunately remember the year, but I think Hill was chairman and/or manager of Coventry City at the time. It so happened that on one of the – if not the – last day of the season the Sky Blues were engaged in a life-or-death struggle to avoid relegation. Because of the cack-handed manner in which the fixtures were scheduled in those days – whether they were all scheduled at different times, or were all designed to begin simultaneously at 3.00pm but didn’t, or even if some of them overran simply because of ‘extra time’ added on – it became apparent with several minutes to go in Coventry City’s match that, because of results elsewhere, if neither side scored a goal as the clock ran down to full-time, both of them would survive the drop.

The ‘saintly’ Jimmy Hill then did exactly what any league club chairman or manager would do, but it hardly chimed with true integrity or the finest of principles.

Either because he could not get the message down onto the pitch, or indeed simply to reinforce it with bells on in case any twerp of a player couldn’t understand it, he grabbed the microphone to the ground’s public address system and bellowed out the news that if neither side scored from now to the final whistle, both would survive.

What followed was a farce – two sets of players strolling around, walking the ball up and down, doing their level best not to score. No doubt both teams’ officials, players and supporters were unrepentant. No doubt all their competitors who might have been affected for good or ill by the game continuing as it should, or indeed as it actually did, would have expected nothing less … and indeed would probably have done nothing less had they been in a similar position.

But it was still a disgraceful thing to do in my book. I’m just mentioning it because I think it helps to provide a ‘rounder’ view of Jimmy Hill the man and therefore reflects better upon all of us.

Here’s another example of a ‘doubting view’ – that of Mathew Norman, a columnist for The Independent, as appears on its website today – see here – THE INDEPENDENT

About J S Bird

A retired academic, Jeremy will contribute article on subjects that attract his interest. More Posts