Saki and Sven Goran-Eriksson

There is a Saki story about a woman who begins telling the truth about everything, even her age, which greatly annoys her older sister. ''Veracious, even to months,'' she goes around informing everyone that she is 42 and five months old. The habit grows on her, ''like lichen upon an apparently healthy tree''. Soon she can no longer restrain herself from truth-telling. She tells the truth to her dressmaker - which is reflected in the bill. Finally, in a few ill-chosen words, she tells the cook that she drinks: ''The cook was a good cook, as cooks go, and, as cooks go, she went.'' Sadly, this satirical portrait of the pitfalls encountered by the sanctimonious truth-teller will probably seem rather shocking today.

Our increasingly puritanical society seems to demand that those in the public eye tell the truth about everything, even or especially, those matters about which  it would once have been de rigueur to dissemble.

Did Sven-Goran Eriksson have sex with the FA’s secretary, Faria Alam? The world demands to be told. Worse still, did he lie about it? If so, he could lose his job, according to commentators. In a ridiculously po-faced interview on Radio 4 earlier this week, a journalist pontificated over this issue as if it were a matter of legitimate public concern. The FA had earlier issued a denial that the pair had sexual relations.

Her bosses appeared to have examined Miss Alam’s private correspondence in the form of e-mails and to have discovered that they may have been given an erroneous impression. This was a matter of grave concern and internal probing, and the question of the day was: was the FA misled by Eriksson? Had he been mendacious or even economical with the truth over the question of whether or not he had had sexual relations with Miss Alam? If the two connected in a sexual way, the implication is that his bosses should have been told. And if he did not confess, this may be a sacking offence. But surely there are times when it is okay and perhaps preferable to lie.

Questions to which no-one should have to answer truthfully include: ”Does my bum look big in this?”, ”How was it for you?”, ”What are you thinking?”, and ”Have you had sex with a fellow employee?” To know whether or not lying is okay, you need to know who is asking the question. In my view, your boss has no right to know what goes on outside office hours in what used to be known as your private life. Equally, when the boss walks into his office and, passing the secretary’s desk, throws a question like, ”How are you?” it is okay and perhaps preferable for her to answer, ”Fine,” even if that is a pathetic lie. Better, perhaps, than admitting the truth, which may be: ”Terrible. Can’t you see the shadows under my eyes? My boyfriend likes to dress up in a Superman costume and jump off the wardrobe into bed – last night he missed and cracked his skull open so we spent the night in
casualty.” Or whatever. At the time of the Clinton scandal, when he was being pilloried for his denial of sex with Monica, on television, I remember interviewing the formidable grand dame of the Mills & Boon, Barbara Cartland. Although in her nineties, she was completely on top of the story and behind Clinton. In her day, she purred, the rules were
different and no true gentleman would ever have dreamed of revealing the secrets of a lady’s boudoir and would certainly have lied if asked.

Clinton’s big lie was clearly to protect himself and not a lady’s name, but perhaps Barbara Cartland and her explanation of the etiquette of a bygone age have something to teach us. It is possible that the Victorians, and at least the Edwardians, had a pretty racy time, nipping in and out of each other’s bedrooms at house parties and so on, while maintaining in public an appearance of utter decorum. Thus, they deprived the nation of vicarious enjoyment of their high-jinks, but perhaps lessened the need to sack perfectly good football managers and find replacements.

How far will this modern urge to tell the whole truth go? Will we be required to write up on the whiteboard on arrival at the office each morning any conquests that might have happened the night before? Perhaps we could just put a discreet tick against names in a
register. But all this ridiculous fuss must seem rather alien to relaxed Scandinavian Eriksson. It is, in fact, hard to imagine this occurring in any other European country. Perhaps the subtext is that the English are fed up with Eriksson. The England team acquitted itself well in a tough field in Euro 2004, but a creditable showing among some of the world’s top footballers was nowhere near enough for a nation that, in a display
of overweening arrogance, set out expecting to win. The growing dissatisfaction is probably mutual. England should be careful that its orgy of truth-telling doesn’t produce the same result as it did for Saki’s anti-heroine and that the story ends: ”He was a good manager, as managers go, and as managers go, he went.”

The Scottish Herald
July 28th 2004