Saturday 5 July 2014

On avuncularity

I'm an only child, and therefore incapable of being an uncle, not having any nephews and nieces. This is no great loss as if there's one thing I don't do it's avuncularity. 
Uncles generally get short shrift in fiction - they tend to trail a whiff of Soho or Brighton or Epsom Downs. Usually hard up (or flush from a recent win) they wear camel-hair coats and trilbies, drive rented cars, wear after-shave and cash cheques in pubs. They are bachelors, of course, and sometimes 'not the marrying kind'.

Uncles in the past were, or claimed to be, ex-army officers (ideally played by Cecil Parker). There was often a woman in the background, possibly married or a widow and clearly unsuitable. There was also, often, a hint of perversity. They came, necessarily, from outside the immediate family yet were also privileged insiders. 
Uncles were sanctioned alternatives to the grim, unyielding and authoritarian figure of father.

Think of Uncle Giles (aka 'Captain Jenkins') in Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time. He's reliably unreliable, occasionally missing without trace , surely related to Waugh's Captain Grimes, the opportunist one-legged pederast in Decline and Fall ('I'm in the soup again, old boy!'). I suppose they both trace their literary origin back to Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, another military relic, deeply eccentric and childlike and unemployable, pursued by the widow Wadman .

Uncles - you wouldn't let them babysit your little chicks.

Rolf Harris, the very popular Australian entertainer, was sentenced yesterday, following a lengthy trial, for sex offences against young, sometimes very young, girls. His prosecution and imprisonment shocked (as they say) the nation. Not Rolf! Star of all our childhoods (though not mine, not really), beloved clown singer, performer, didgeridoo player, inventor of the wobble board and the immortal Jake the Peg ('with his eggsttra leg diddle diddle diddle dum') and so on and on. He was also some people's idea of a good painter. (Non-British readers who have never heard of Rolf Harris and readers with a taste for unlikely cultural pairings and showbiz kitsch should watch  Liberace and Rolf together.)
Rolf is, or was until his 'dark side' became manifest, invariably described as avuncular. He was certainly not a sinister weirdo like Jimmy Saville, but, perhaps on account of his Australian brand of warm informality (now of course revealed as a chilly form of deviant manipulation), earned a place for over half a century as the nation's antipodean uncle - trusted and admired, loved even. His downfall really is spectacular and it's likely that he will die in prison. 

A phrase much used in the cases of Savile and Harris is they they were 'hiding in plain sight'. They were very visible, instantly recognisable public figures and Harris even fronted a campaign to promote awareness of child abuse. The phrase (new to me) sets off an alarming tendency (in myself) to think of the many much-loved public figures who are self-evidently doing just that even as I blog. Of course they are protected by the law (and rightly) from being named by the likes of me, but the time cannot be far off when I write an 'I told you so' piece about a high profile entertainer or politician, now 'outed' as a predator. Watch this space.
What, by the way, is the female equivalent of avuncular? Is there a word meaning 'aunt-like'? A facetiously pedantic option offered by the OED is 'materteral' from the Latin “matertera,” which refers to a mother’s sister. But the OED can only muster one published reference, from 1823, and it's fair to say that it hasn't caught on. What does this tell you about our cultural values? Am I right to suppose that we don't need 'materteral' because the faintly disparaging term 'spinsterish' covers it, especially since the apparent demise of 'maiden aunt'?  But just as there are apparently very few female paedophiles we may as a society have come to the conclusion that we don't need a word corresponding to the now-tainted 'avuncular'.

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