Smirking over Dunner? Careful
Taking delight in the fall of the rich and famous, however good they were reputed to be, has its own moral pitfalls
A couple of weeks ago - I really can't remember why - a writer friend and I found ourselves discussing the phrase "a whited sepulchre". I must have across it long ago in some work of Victorian or Edwardian literature, but I had never known its meaning. Anyway, I went home and looked it up. "Whited sepulchre - a person who is inwardly evil but outwardly professes to be virtuous" was the Oxford definition. It appears in the King James edition of the New Testament, in the book of Matthew as "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye are like unto whited sepulchres, which indeed appear beautiful outward, but are within full of dead men's bones, and of all uncleanness".
Now, of course, I am all in favour of scribes, and readers of this paper are likely to be more generally pro-Pharisee than your average Christian. But what you can't deny, and what the words convey, is the pleasure involved in slagging off the supposedly virtuous. In Middlemarch, the sanctimonious Methodist banker and philanthropist, Mr Bulstrode, is brought low by revelations about his criminal past - but what is clear is the vindictive delight in his fall taken by those who had been in awe of him.
You may recall the case last year of the North London barrister, Bruce Hyman, who was imprisoned for attempting falsely to incriminate the estranged husband of his client in a child-access case. His victim might even, had the fraud not been discovered by the existence of CCTV footage, have gone to prison himself. Note the components of this newspaper description of the disgraced lawyer: "With a home in Hampstead, London, and a chalet in the Alps, he was wealthy and had an enviable social life. His dinner parties were eagerly anticipated, thanks to his skills in the kitchen and ready wit."
Well, when another friend of mine stopped by in the cafe for a soya latte or three, he expressed his surprise, his shock, his upsetness, at the fall of Hyman, but couldn't - despite his unquestioned sincerity - prevent both a smile and a glint, as well as an admirable command over the details of the case.
So, if you didn't know him (and I appreciate that many did), the revelation that the property tycoon and philanthropist Benzion Dunner had been ingesting cocaine some time before his fatal road accident earlier this year will have come as a - let us be frank - a guiltily agreeable surprise. If you did know him and were, perhaps, a beneficiary of his kindness, it will have been the opposite. Most people, however, will fall into the former category.
He does certainly appear to have been an extraordinary man. "During the Festival of Purim," said one report, "hundreds of people with financial troubles would flock to Dunner's home in Golders Green. They queued patiently to see him and tell him their problems and, depending on his analysis of their needs, he would write them a cheque." Just before the accident, Mr Dunner had disposed of £2 million in this way. It all sounds like Good King Wenceslas. And in a way, that's the point: Wenceslas was Good, but he was a King. Or he was a King, but he was Good. You can choose which "but" suits your version of the comparison.
On the King side, we are told that he "lived a relatively modest lifestyle", yet he was killed driving a £175,000 Bentley. "An invitation to the Dunner's table for Shabbos or Yom Tov was prized like a winning raffle ticket," said one orator. "The table was set with crystal, with silver. It had all the gravitas of a royal banquet, though none of the pretensions. Yet," this eulogist continues, "the many guests at his table almost always included the forlorn and lonely. Among the most regular, indeed ubiquitous, guests at his table were those whom someone described as shivrei keilim (broken vessels)."
There is something amazingly condescending about the way in which the objects of Mr Dunner's charity are described by some of his friends. "There was a young woman in the neighbourhood," wrote one, "who became as if a member of the Dunner household over a period of years. Her lineage was, to put it charitably, undistinguished." And the thought arises that charity is not entirely without moral risk for the recipient.
Mr Dunner was described as "God's postman", but when he clipped a Toyota near Bournemouth, he nearly posted several other people to God. So, should we be less condemning of the philanthropist than of some Wembley chav in a souped-up Ford, driving while over the booze limit?
Yeats, as ever, has it, when his Crazy Jane meets the Bishop on the road and tells him that "nothing can be sole or whole that has not been rent". In its way, the urge to take cocaine is as complex as the urge to be philanthropic.
Let's not be so surprised - or pleased - to find them together.