How easy is it to reinvent yourself? I’ve been thinking about this recently because I’ve had to give up a succession of educational roles following a media storm about things I said on Twitter more than five years ago. Some people have advised me to ‘do a Profumo’, a reference to the disgraced Conservative politician who rehabilitated himself by devoting his life to charity. But that doesn’t seem to be an option in my case. I had to give up the voluntary work I was doing when my old tweets were dug up, for fear of embroiling the charities I was involved with in the scandal.
My sister suggested I become a teacher, which is quite appealing. I could sign up with Now Teach, the organisation started by the former Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway for people in their forties and fifties who want to retrain as teachers. Lucy certainly seems to be enjoying her own reinvention as a maths teacher. Unfortunately, I think I’m too toxic for any school to take on. In the current climate, the taint of having sent a few tasteless tweets is too great.
Trinny Woodall doesn’t have this cloud hanging over her, so her second act has been relatively straightforward. Indeed, she hasn’t reinvented herself so much as taken her persona as Britain’s makeover queen and transferred it from TV to social media. Her speciality 20 years ago was clothes and now it’s make-up, but the script is essentially the same. It’s arguably reinvention lite: a stylistic tweak rather than a full-blown makeover. And more power to her elbow.
A better role model for me is Tristram Hunt, the former Labour MP who is enjoying a successful second act as the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. True, he was an academic historian before entering Parliament, so he’s qualified for his new role, but it’s still a bit of a jump.
Then again, Tristram was never publicly disgraced. He wasn’t the most successful member of Labour’s front bench — as shadow education secretary he was no match for Michael Gove — and he subsequently fell foul of the party’s new leadership when Jeremy Corbyn took over. But to quote Enoch Powell, all political careers end in failure, so Tristram’s mediocre showing as a parliamentarian wasn’t held against him.
One of the experts on career car crashes and how to put your life back together afterwards is Jon Ronson, the Guardian journalist who wrote a book in 2015 called So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. I asked him which public figure had been least damaged by his or her ordeal and he immediately nominated Max Mosley, the Formula 1 chief whose unorthodox sex life propelled him on to the front page of the News of the World in 2008. The trick in his case was refusing to act as if he’d done anything to be ashamed of. On the contrary, he sued the News of the World for libel, won the case and then reinvented himself as the scourge of the tabloid press.
Admittedly, I spoke to Jon before Mosley found himself back in the headlines. It was reported in the Daily Mail earlier this year that he’d published a political pamphlet in the 1960s linking black immigration to the spread of diseases, a charge he denies. Even so, I’d give Mosley’s reinvention seven out of ten.
The drawback of this approach — of treating the cause of your downfall as an opportunity — is that you still end up being defined in some way by the scandal. On the one hand, there’s a satisfyingly judo-like aspect to this response, turning your enemies’ attack to your own advantage. But on the other, you’re still allowing your life to be fundamentally altered by the baying mob. You’re no longer the author of your own destiny.
For me, the most attractive role model is the anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon. He was publicly shamed in 2000 when a journalist called Patrick Tierney published a book called Darkness in El Dorado, which made a number of allegations against him, including that he’d exacerbated a measles epidemic among a South American tribe he was studying, resulting in several deaths.
The American Anthropology Association investigated these charges and failed to clear Chagnon’s name, forcing him into early retirement. But the charges were then investigated in forensic detail by a left-wing academic called Alice Dreger. In a 50,000-word article published in 2011 in a peer-reviewed journal, she rebutted all the allegations against Chagnon, detailing the various ways in which Tierney had fabricated and misrepresented the evidence. The anthropologist was found to be innocent on every count and he has now resumed his career.
So that’s my preferred route to rehabilitation: not reinvention, but exoneration. In my case, I really did send a handful of sophomoric tweets between 2009 and 2012. But I hope an Alice Dreger figure will come along, look at all the evidence and conclude that these minor misdemeanours do not make me unfit to work in schools. With a fair wind, I can then resume my career as an education reformer.