ONCE A CATHOLIC by Clare Boylan
GOSSIPS make delicious company. The most entertaining dinner party guests are those who can hold forth amusingly on the human condition and the most piquant ones are those who can supply names and dates. To hear about someone else's illicit affair or the humiliation of a common enemy adds a fizz like champagne and makes us feel a lot better about our own shameful or embarrassing secrets.
But then there is the question; where does the borderline lie between lively exchange and malicious gossip?
Gossip is a popular form of entertainment at the moment, both in the press and at dinner parties, probably because it costs nothing and in times of recession people always look for low-cost amusements. But it's worth thinking about the cost to the scapegoat of social tattle. the panic of a person who suddenly finds that they are the victim of hearsay and realises that their marriage, their public reputation, their business, their whole lives are jeopardised if the rumour spreads or gains ground. Gossips will say that their victims are fair play. If they don't want to get talked about they should watch their behaviour. But it isn•t an even exchange. Indiscreet behaviour is ruled by emotion. Indiscreet talk is motivated by envy or egocentricity. Gossip isn't just a plaything. It can be a weapon deliberately employed to reduce someone else's standing. As a weapon. it is a knife in the back, for the principle of hearsay is that as subject is not present to defend themselves.
Worse, the innocent associate of the person under discussion may become the ultimate victim of the slander. It is possible that Lady Eva Green, enstranged wife of the former Director of Public Prosecutions, had just listened to one suggestion too many in relation to the man who had been her friend and partner for most of her adult life. I know of a suicide when a woman was treated to numerous "confidences" concerning the behaviour of the man she loved, by women who had been involved with him previously. An appalling thought; but careless talk can cost lives. It's difficult sometimes to know where to draw the line. Nobody likes a boring party and you can't talk about the weather all the time. And we are naturally curious about other human beings. Everyone loves a gossipy biography because it is the human face of history, and it's not just a matter of seeing the mighty fallen. It draws us closer to the people we admire to learn that as well as their talents, they had passions, jealousies, eccentricities.
A friend, who is otherwise one of my favourite people. is such a magpie for information and harvests it so energetically and disperses it so bountifully that whenever she mentions someone, I know I automatically that she is looking for information to pass on elsewhere. And 1 can't ever be close to her because I can't confide in her. Who gossips to you will gossip of you, is an old saying. Even if the revelation is not scandalous but merely personal, it still makes one feel uneasy if it concerns an acquaintance. You can't help thinking if that person had wanted me to know, they would have told me themselves.
The recipient of malicious gossip loses both their freedom and their innocence. Next time you meet the person discussed, you feel uncomfortable. If you meet their unaware partner, you feel shabby.
There are certain people with a talent for scintillating and biting conversation which harms no-one. My friend Molly Keane. the octogenarian novelist, is one. Her stories are marvellous and mostly concern the actors and producers of her playwriting days in the '40s and '50s. What makes these tales acceptable is that they concern people who are dead, or, as she would say (of herself) "ga-ga". We don't know the people personally. Time and distance has rendered them harmless.
The hallmark of the malicious gossip is that they rarely tell stories against themselves. Often they are shy, unhappy people who cannot achieve intimacy in any other way. They get through to people by making them feel privileged to be the recipient of this exclusive information. They always appear to have a wide circle of friends, both because they are entertaining and because people fear them, but they are rarely loved. Victims rarely retaliate but those who have formed their audience can be relied upon to supply bitchy obituaries when they die.
I suppose this in on my mind because of the recent death of a favourite uncle a man of great charm and wit, and everyone's favourite dinner guest. When he died we all felt his loss and had the same thing to say about him: "He never said a bad word about anyone."
I wouldn't mind that on my headstone.