Entry from March 22, 2011

There was a bit of a kerfuffle in the British media over the weekend about Cherie Blair’s telling an interviewer that she and her husband, the former Labour prime minister Tony Blair, “have been married 31 years and known each other more like 35 years and even after 35 years he still excites me, in all possible ways.” (Emphasis added.) Inevitably, this has proved the occasion for more than one writer to bring up again the most notorious quotation from the former prime minister’s own memoir, A Journey, published last year: “That night she cradled me in her arms and soothed me; told me what I needed to be told; strengthened me. I needed that love Cherie gave me, selfishly. I devoured it to give me strength. I was an animal following my instinct.” This was so embarrassingly awful that, although he claimed not to have been referring to specifically sexual love, it won Mr Blair a nomination for the Bad Sex award of the Literary Review, an honor usually reserved for writers of fiction.

The fuss about Cherie’s latest indiscretion — she will never be forgotten in Britain for her having explained the conception of her youngest son as resulting from her prospective embarrassment about bringing her birth control device with her to Balmoral, lest the Queen’s servants should find it while unpacking — has drawn up battle lines between female columnists for the Sunday papers. On the anti-Cherie side there is Jemima Lewis of The Sunday Telegraph who begs: “Please, Cherie, do it a bit quieter.”

Once you get married you are not supposed to talk about your sex life. It sounds like boasting. It is boasting. The polite thing is to moan self-deprecatingly about how you’re too tired and wrinkly for that kind of caper. Anyone who is having sex can then feel superior, and anyone who isn’t feels comforted. It’s not about morals, but manners.

In the pro-Cherie corner there was India Knight of The Sunday Times who scolded, somewhat irrelevantly, that “Women still want sex at 60, so get used to it.” About the renewed criticism that Mrs Blair came in for, Miss Knight concluded that “it’s not the sex” — since we are otherwise avidly interested in this and in who is doing what to whom. “Which leaves only one answer: it’s the woman’s age that makes us gag. It’s the fact that she’s middle-aged. Specifically, 56 years old. Ew!” Perhaps this columnist thinks that it is a matter of “manners” too — the bad manners we consider it to refer to sex beyond a certain age — but is against manners.

A third possibility, however, is that it is neither manners nor sex nor age that people object to but the public position occupied by the couple in question. Sex involving actors and other celebrities, even in age is OK, but politicians and sex remind us that there is (or ought to be) a distinction between them and mere celebrities. We naturally want to hold them to a higher standard of decorum and discretion — which are not quite the same things as the “privacy” that celebrities and politicians alike are said to want to protect. The negative public reaction is really to the fact that there isn’t, much difference between the two any longer — and that the media are all in favor of making celebrities out of politicians. Out of journalists, too, by the way. Celebrity for everyone in the public eye can only be good for the media. But I think the rest of us will always be more shocked, and differently shocked, by John Edwards than by Charlie Sheen.

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