The Mrs Robinson affair

Does the fixation with Iris Robinson's psychiatric state reveal social prejudices?

It's the kind of story that the tabloids pray for. The affair between Iris Robinson, MP and wife of Peter Robinson (the Northern Ireland Assembly leader), and the then 19-year-old Kirk McCambley has a strong cast of characters: the dying butcher, his strapping son, the powerful statesman and his wayward wife, all brought to their knees. Is it the drama and pathos of a Greek tragedy, or more Jackie Collins?

The temptation to stereotype is almost irresistible. Yet in doing so, society has exposed as much of its own prejudices as the private lives of the protagonists.

So what makes this "scandal" quite so scandalous? Is it the affair or the age difference?

The parallels between the seductive Anne Bancoft's filmic Mrs Robinson and her real-life counterpart are too obvious to avoid. Both are attractive, successful married women in their fifities embarking on illicit affairs with young men.

Yet while Bancroft's glamorous femme fatale character stalked the dreams of a generation of pubescent boys, Iris is all too painfully, embarrassingly, real. She is presented not as a glamorous adulterer, but as an unfaithful wife. Out of control, even deranged, she is in need of urgent psychiatric treatment, and certainly too ill to appear in public or talk to the press. We have had to latch on to her psychological condition in order to stay the shock, and this informs and conditions our understanding of her behaviour.

In a statement to the Today programme, a spokesperson for Peter Robinson announced that his wife was "receiving acute psychiatric treatment from the Belfast Health Trust", and that "the information was being made public following speculation about her health and whereabouts".

I do not doubt that Mrs Robinson has genuinely suffered from depression. What is striking is the centrality of her psychological state to the story. Galen, a prominent physician from the 2nd century, wrote that hysteria was a disease caused by sexual deprivation in particularly passionate women. This "illness" was given particular credence by the Victorians. Two hundred years later, are we subconsciously accusing Mrs Robinson of having the "wandering womb"?

Ugly as it is to admit, had the roles been reversed and a man of equivalent standing been caught playing away with a teenage nymphet, the affair would have been met quite differently. I don't doubt that there would be widespread moral disdain, but there would also be kudos. From Ronnie Wood to Tiger Woods, you do not have to look far for examples.

In this case, Mr Robinson has not emerged unscathed. He too is subject to trial by vox populi. Commenting on Radio 4, Robinson's predecessor, Lord Trimble, pronounced that the First Minister "would be gone in days because he has lost his authority". Faint shades of the Shakespearean cuckold, of the logic that a man who cannot control his household surely cannot be trusted to lead?

So who is the victim? The 19-year-old boy (now 21)? I think not. The cuckolded husband? Perhaps. As for Iris Robinson herself, it is difficult to sympathise with a woman who proudly states that homosexuality is worse than child abuse.

No. Sadly, in this instance, the victim may well be the fragile devolution that Northern Ireland has fought so hard to build.

 

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The beggar used to be friendly – now he was ranting at everyone

What was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The first beggar was walking but still wretched. Probably in his early twenties, clearly ravaged by more than just alcohol, he made a beeline for me, as if he had an appointment. He was not to know that I was in a mood from hell, though the look on my face would have told him, if he’d been in any kind of state to register it.

“Excuse me, have you got 10p for…”

“No.” And I walked on.

Why? I am almost invariably a soft touch for this kind of thing. But as I said, I was in the foulest of tempers.

Also, this was East Finchley. For those who do not know London, East Finchley is a northern suburb, which at one end hosts the wealthiest street in the country – the Bishops Avenue, where multimillionaires tear down houses and erect new ones even uglier than those they have replaced – and at the other end a typically seedy, dull collection of terraced houses.

The main supermarket is Budgens, a name so ungainly that it could only have belonged to a real person, either too proud or unimaginative to think of something else.

But what, I asked myself, was someone this wretched doing in East Finchley? And what was I doing, dismissing him with maximal curtness – and not caring?

The second beggar, further up the street, I met the next day: much older and clearly mad, rather than chemically poisoned. He asked how I was doing.

“Not so well, as it happens,” I replied.

“Would you like me to say a prayer for you?”

“Why not?” I said, and he placed a clenched fist to my forehead and made a brief incantation, something like an exorcism, and then kissed the large white plastic crucifix hanging from his neck.

I half-expected to feel a jolt of faith, some kind of divine restructuring. This time I gave him money: a pound coin and a 50p coin. But then later I thought: why didn’t I give him more? I’d been doing some tidying earlier and had retrieved a heavy pocketful of change; I could have given him a generous handful.

The third beggar was in Shepherd’s Bush. I knew him from the days when I lived there: a skinny, middle-aged guy who would occasionally stop and rant in a friendly way at me, just sane enough not to ignore. That was ten years ago. Now he was raging at everyone, accusing the teenagers queueing in the kebab shop of being batty boys and saying “bloodclaat” a lot. (Batty boy: homosexual. Bloodclaat: tampon.)

The people he was addressing knew perfectly well what he was saying. They shrugged it off. I got on the bus; so did he, and the whole bus knew about it. There was nothing friendly in him now, and I wondered through which hole in the increasingly threadbare welfare safety net he had been allowed to slip.

That’s it, I thought. I’m getting out of London, its pampered core oblivious to the surrounding anguish. The world in a nutshell. Luckily, my great friend S— had asked if I could cat-sit for her in Brighton. I know her cat, and I know Brighton. Also, I know about a dozen people there who I keep meaning to see, so why not? London was making me ill, and possibly a bad person. So S— invited me down a couple of days before she was due to go on her holidays, and I took the first train I could.

And now I find myself sitting on a sunlounger in a tiny backyard, in a charming house just abutting the North Laine, and the mood is palpably different to the capital’s. It is like a city ought to be: compact, diverse and funky. There is no reek of High Capitalism. It is healthily decadent. It would appear to be full of people who have rejected the idea of London. It still has an enormous number of beggars, but more people were dropping money for them than I ever saw do so in W1, W12 or N2.

So this is what it’s like to fall out of love with the city of one’s birth. What most surprised me was the speed and force with which it happened. I’d made my mind up over a nice lunch that my friend N— was buying me, to cheer me up.

“Don’t you have to stay in London? You know, for book launches and things like that?”

“I don’t go to fucking book launches any more,” I said. I was taken aback by the vigour of my reply. I’m only here for ten days but I have plenty of people to see and dozens of memories, all good, to bump into. I’m already feeling better. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem