From Bad to worse: why do we treat Michael Jackson and Samuel Pepys differently?
I was recently asked to participate in a podcast, the topic of which was the documentary on Michael Jackson, Leaving Neverland. Is it possible, contributors were asked, to enjoy Jackson’s music now that we know the appalling extent of his activities as a paedophile? I declined, partly because I never liked his music anyway but mostly because it was always so glaringly obvious that he was indeed a paedophile. We were all complicit in that one, even while we were getting down to Bad (the subtly-named album which also featured the track “Smooth Criminal”), and earnest discussions of ambivalence towards Jackson’s music felt like the cheapest kind of virtue-signalling.
But the autres temps, autres moeurs question remained on my mind when I took down Claire Tomalin’s superlative biography of Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self, to swot up for a seminar on the Civil War at the Oxford Literary Festival. Mostly I don’t bother reading up before such events since as the sound technician in (I think) Margate once explained: “You won’t need a mike — they’ll all be asleep,” but I reckoned the university might provide a more demanding audience. Conscious, at least.
Pepys, as Tomalin frankly points out, conducted several extramarital relationships with girls young enough that “by today’s standards what he did would have earned him a prison sentence”. During the plague of 1665, Pepys amused himself with “little Mrs Tooker”, a pre-adolescent girl, with the apparent complicity of both the child and her mother. There was no age of consent at the time, but nonetheless, even at a distance of 350 years, the passage in Pepys’s diary makes for extremely uncomfortable reading. None of the parties involved appeared to have seen anything abusive in what occurred, but does this mean we still ought to categorise Pepys as the same kind of monster as Jackson?
Pepys was a Cambridge man, but Oxford is the site of a similarly disturbing relationship between classic text and dubious conduct in Charles Dodgson, the author of Alice in Wonderland. We know about the penchant for the company of little girls and the winsome amateur photography, but Alice is so universally loved a story that we remain able to look away from their implications.
In the original Tenniel illustrations for the book, Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole in the company of a jar of Frank Cooper’s Oxford marmalade, which between 1903 and 1958 was produced in a functional redbrick Victorian building near the station, a site which is now an extremely pleasant restaurant.
This used to be the strictly manky end of town, but the Jam Factory is representative of some pretty impressive regeneration. The interior is spacious and airy, with big skylights let into the factory roof, and a slip of a flower-filled courtyard outside. Menus state the restaurant’s commitment to “freshness and quality”, which is standard these days, but in this instance actually followed through with an explanation that fish, for example, is only sourced from day boats and never from the Pacific. We ordered some responsible whitebait with saffron aioli to share, and while the sauce was a little on the sloppy side it was golden and garlicky enough to make me fear for my afternoon’s interviewer.
Then burgers: Moroccan-style for me with falafel replacing the meat and a deep swirl of hummus beneath a twangy brioche bun, and classic beef’n’cheddar for my colleague. Both were plump and savoury and came with superlative truffle parmesan fries over whose chewy scraps we bickered amicably.
My colleague had a pint of stout, which is a very jolly lunchtime choice, and the “seasonal crumble”, which might have been apple or pear, but came with proper custard. A macchiato and a breath mint and I was ready to be quizzed about Charles I’s secret Catholicism.
I really like the Jam Factory. It’s bright and optimistic and unusually for Oxford seemed to have a genuinely mixed clientele. If I was going back for breakfast I’d definitely want to try the FacMuffin — pork and sage pattie with fried eggs and cheese — or the Beardy Weirdy vegetarian fry-up, or the now classic smashed avo on toast.
I didn’t know about the nebulous Alice connection until after I’d eaten there (or indeed that James Bond is a fan of Cooper’s Oxford, as featured in From Russia With Love), but the mention of it as an “interesting fact” on the restaurant’s website kept the question in my head. It’s an odd and probably tasteless issue upon which to hang a food review, but then it’s a discomfiting subject.
If Pepys and Dodgson seem somehow sanctioned by historical affection, a statute of limitations predicate upon charm, then is Jackson’s broadly-acknowledged genius only being decried on the grounds of his alleged crimes by their relative proximity in time? Should the error of anachronistic judgment be universally criticised or should there be exceptions? These seemed like good questions to ask before a history seminar in Oxford, and I imagine that many of the Jam Factory’s customers would have made a better job of answering them than I could.