Assaulting Matilda

They’ve stripped him of his MBE, his OBE, his CBE, his Order of Australia and his Australia Centenary Medal. The University of East London and Liverpool Hope University have rescinded his honorary doctorates. The Recording Industry Association have removed him from their Hall of Fame. BAFTA have annulled his fellowship. Bassendean Council in Western Australia have purged his home town of all memorials, monuments and mentions. And here in Wales his name has been erased from a plaque at Cyfarthfa Castle, his paintings have been put into storage at the National Library of Wales and he’s been airbrushed out of displays at Swansea Market. That should do it: it never happened, he never existed, Rolf Harris is now officially a non-person.

He was always very aware of his Welsh roots. His grandfather George Frederick Harris (1856-1924) owned a photographic shop on Merthyr High Street and was a jobbing portrait painter of some repute locally – his portrait of George V still hangs in Cardiff’s Mansion House – and both Rolf’s parents were also from Merthyr, where they had met and married. In 1920 the whole family fled the collapsing coal-based Welsh economy and emigrated to Australia, the tickets paid for by the sale of three of George’s paintings. Born in Perth in 1930, Rolf came to London in 1952 to study art and it was a Welshwoman, fellow student sculptress Alwen Hughes, that he instinctively gravitated towards and eventually married. Given that the percentage of Welsh people attending art college in 1950s London was miniscule, this cannot be coincidence. It reveals that the relationship, whether consciously or not, was contrived – the requisite front for a ‘respectable family man’. In this case shared Welshness served as a handy commonality on which to construct a durable desexualised companionship once the compulsory baby had been produced. I know it’s minor compared to his other crimes, but I do so hate it when Wales is reduced to an all-purpose abstraction upon which to hang ulterior motives…

This latching onto his parents’ Welsh identity via a wife also speaks of deference (the kneejerk homage to the older generation), infantilism (the safety-first mother substitute) and deviousness (the comforting hearth to counterbalance the extracurricular transgression). All these traits are the by-products of one over-arching frailty: laziness. We see this laziness again with his move into early children’s TV at age 23 when it became clear he was never going to be a serious artist – children being the least demanding, least critical, easiest to please and easiest to manipulate audience of all.

An adoring audience is what the show-off most needed. His supreme self-confidence – the primary ingredient of an exhibitionist narcissist – had no basis in reality: his talents were modest and thinly-spread and, as the jury at Southwark Crown Court were informed in no uncertain terms by his victims, his penis was tiny. Yet he reckoned he was great. Where could he possibly have got such a mistaken impression of himself? There’s only one answer: his parents.

In his 2001 autobiography, Can You Tell What It Is Yet?, which today reads like a subliminal apologia, Rolf divulged a weird upbringing by two dysfunctional eccentrics. His mother Agnes (known as Marge) was simultaneously progressive (Wales’ first female analytical chemist) and retrogressive (a stickler for uptight ‘Victorian Values’ who considered sex “dirty”), while his father Cromwell was both adventurous (travelling the world and self-building in the outback) and conservative (a mouthpiece for ethics imbued by his own father – so puritanical he called his son Cromwell for heavens sake). Each was thwarted in their career and dissatisfied with their inconsequential life stuck in the back of beyond. As is so often the case, each then over-compensated by deflecting their hopes onto “their” child, placing their little darling on a pedestal and imbuing him with that completely unwarranted super-ego.

Since he was in on childrens’ TV from the very birth of the genre, and since his career had such extraordinary longevity, in many ways the entire edifice of British childrens’ entertainment as we know it was constructed by him. This might explain the strange presumption about children that pervades the BBC’s output to this day: the idea that children want adults to parody them – which is as insulting and unnecessary as, say, switching to Caribbean patois when talking to a Jamaican. Rolf’s grotesque version of “childishness” – all flailing limbs, wacky clobber, giggly joviality, knowing winks and panting over-exuberance –  remains the default I’m-just-a-big-kid-really template for presenters on CBBC and CBeebies. Here I come to a key question: why would any adult in their right mind want to inhabit the world of children? I suppose there must be many good reasons…teaching, mentoring, building a better world, etc, etc…but my personal experience tells me otherwise…

Every summer from age 11 to age 17 I went on a week’s camping holiday with the Scouts* by the banks of the River Ely near Peterston-super-Ely, canoeing, playing football, hiking and running free.  It wasn’t all jamborees and Ging Gang Goolie round the campfire: we pitched tents, dug latrines, collected firewood, peeled spuds, washed billy-cans and learned many useful things working for our scouting badges – I can still tie a round turn and two half-hitches and distinguish cirrus from cumulonimbus to this day.  In the evenings after supper younger boys were sent one-by-one in turn to the tent of the Assistant Scout Master, G, in order to receive “First Aid lessons”. These took the form of handsome, athletic, twenty-something G dropping his khaki shorts, unveiling his big erect penis and coaxing each boy to wank him off, ostensibly to educate us about “human reproduction”. Around age 15 one would stop being invited into G’s tent, presumably because post-pubescent boys had garnered the knowledge to be unimpressed by his throbbing cock. With hindsight, it is clear that us snot-nosed, smelly, pimply, awkward, gauche boys were not the turn-on per se it was our wide-eyed awe in response to his unassailable Alpha Maleness that got G excited – like many paedophiles he wasn’t interested in us as objects, but in himself as subject. None of us talked about it with one another; it was treated as some sort of unavoidable, unsurprising and yet unmentionable initiation ceremony. Nobody seemed particularly traumatised or tainted by the experience: all of us went on to be the straight/bi/gay that we probably would have become anyway. In my case, for instance, it was merely data about the tough, coarse Man’s World looming on the horizon and made no difference to my already-shaping, aloof, defensive sexuality. G carried on in this vein for years – until he got arrogant and complacent and picked the wrong lad, a cry-baby mummy’s boy who squealed to his parents when he got home. Quite suddenly, G was never seen again. I found out years later that he was effectively run out of Cardiff. There were no criminal charges. That’s the way these matters were dealt with then.

Now, superficially, things are different – but the anachronistic witch-hunts and public disgracing of a sequence of superannuated showbiz gropers triggered by the Sir Jimmy Savile OBE KCSG (1926-2011) scandal is no more an adequate response than the old sweep-it-under-the-carpet method.  The prevailing attitudes of contemporary Anglo-American popular culture which surround us are profoundly paedophile to their very core. Everywhere you look the idea that youth is preferable to age is endorsed without question: men who get rich dump their wives for a younger model; long-standing fictional characters are rewritten so they can be portrayed by hunky eye-candy; women TV presenters get put out to grass as soon as they reach 40; the UK market for quack anti-aging products topped £1 billion a year in 2013. The message is unequivocal: Young = Good; Old = Bad. Why then are we surprised that some of the lazy, the inadequate, the self-deluded and the fucked-up internalise that message and act it out? And given that the entire capitalist system is predicated on worshipping the powerful and exploiting the weak, it is also no surprise that paedophilia is particularly prevalent among millionaire rightwingers like Savile and Harris.  

Beneath his disguise of thick spectacles, wild facial hair, absolute sexlessness and that guileless larrikin schtick was the real Rolf: a cringing forelock-tugger to royalty and the high and mighty, a racist opponent of Aborigine rights in Australia, and a serial molester of girls – more or less par for the course then for a primetime, mainstream, low-brow, money-mad, status-seeking “family entertainer”. As was the case with Savile, he did it all in plain sight, an updated version of the Pied Piper child-snatcher of folk memory beamed into living rooms by the Brit establishment for half a century. And, also as with Savile, everybody who mattered in Great British institutions like the BBC, parliament and the Royal Family knew about it – and did nothing.

More and more people are coming forward with accounts of being abused as a child as the Operation Yewtree investigation gets closer and closer to the corridors of power. The internet seethes with rumours about which big name politician, senior police officer, judge, establishment figure or even royal will be next. Surely coming soon will be the long overdue exposure of George Thomas (1909-1997), the vile Cymruphobic Speaker of the House of Commons who made a career out of grovelling to power while punting for underage rent boys. His charities and plaques and toadying monuments across Wales will all have to come tumbling down too.

But here’s the problem with this scorched earth approach to historic paedophilia: if the desire to eliminate child abuse from society were genuine, those plaques and monuments wouldn’t be obliterated with such indecent haste; they would be highlighted – as an awful warning of what happens when mediocre men are lionised, when commercial imperatives determine culture, when youngsters are commodified, when self-serving establishments hold unaccountable power and when exploitation is a fundamental plank of the economic system. Yet again in the UK, amnesia rather than understanding is the preferred solution.

We are reduced to spectators wincing at the pitiful sight of broken Rolf Harris clinging to his poor wife and daughter on the way into Court, his reputation destroyed and a lifetime of work discredited. Starting 5¾ years in jail at age 84, it’s doubtful he will ever be free again. I can’t hate him, I can only feel sorry for him: after all, he’s just a man. And, as the devastation of the conviction plus sheer age have clearly rendered him completely harmless, his imprisonment’s only purpose is cruel punishment, a tit-for-tat nastiness that debases justice.  Mostly though, I weep for wife Alwen and daughter Bindi, put through hell by the husband and father they loved and trusted. In the time they have ahead I hope they find some comfort and kindness.

*I am maintaining the anonymity of the Scout troop and the people involved because of my doubts about the application, relevance and pursuance of current values retrospectively.