John Mullin: Our hate figures under fire

THE strength of feeling over issues and scandals of the day are as much a thing of media fancy as they are of our own, sometimes painful experiences, writes John Mullin
The reaction to Walter Palmers kiling of Cecil the lion has been vociferous, probably more so as he is a dentist. Picture: GettyThe reaction to Walter Palmers kiling of Cecil the lion has been vociferous, probably more so as he is a dentist. Picture: Getty
The reaction to Walter Palmers kiling of Cecil the lion has been vociferous, probably more so as he is a dentist. Picture: Getty

News stories often fail to elicit the required Pavlovian response in me. Take Jeremy Corbyn’s now seemingly unstoppable march from loony no-hoper to Labour leader.

Read the spluttering coverage in some elements of our press and it’s clear the right-thinking member of society should be outraged, while some excitable souls on the leftie papers believe a Corbyn win may be the finest development since Harry Perkins – briefly – became PM in Chris Mullin’s fictional account A Very British Coup. Me? I find it all faintly amusing. It illustrates – again – how badly wrong the ever-so-certain Westminster political and media classes often get it.

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And what of Lord Sewel and his hookers-and-cocaine shame? It’s clear how I am meant to react: with fulminating, righteous fury.

Yes, no doubt his juvenile, selfish behaviour is wrong. And, true, he is hardly the greatest living advertisement for someone to be in charge of peers’ standards or, indeed, legislation of any sort.

But, come on, there are delicious elements to enjoy in this farce: not least that his damning summaries of our leading politicians – delivered unwittingly to call girls whose inquisitorial skills put many political correspondents to shame – are so on the money.

And so to the astonishing story of Cecil, the first lion to feature so comprehensively in the world’s media since Simba out-thought his wicked uncle Scar to emerge victorious in The Lion King. Readers of a certain vintage will remember Elsa in Born Free or my own favourite, cross-eyed Clarence from Daktari. To those who have been on Planet Zog and may have missed leonine developments, Cecil, with his distinctive black mane and apparently friendly nature, was a big tourist draw in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. He headed a pride with two lionesses and 12 cubs.

Hunters lured Cecil out of the park’s sanctuary with a dead animal tied to a car. The brave soul who shot him did so with a bow and arrow, but failed to kill him. Cecil, wounded, wandered about for 40 hours before his assailants cornered him, finished him off with a rifle, skinned him and beheaded him. Some sport, eh?

With this story, like everyone else, I am angry. But it also highlights our failures in the media. For Cecil is no one-off. Almost 700 lions are killed by trophy hunters every year in Africa.

So it is a shame that Fleet Street investigations into British firms offering such services are only now getting under way. We could have been exposing them for years.

Nor is there much reflection in the press coverage that hunting is still very much a white man’s game, irrelevant to the difficult daily lives of the indigenous population. Even calling the dead lion after Cecil Rhodes, founder of Rhodesia, carries a colonialist whiff.

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Still, it is to be welcomed that Cecil has at last focused our attention on hunting. Why has that happened though?

With the silly season upon us, it is the perfect storm, really. A great heroic lead character, despicably cut down in his prime in an exotic location; his family left behind, its future uncertain; and, most importantly of all, a fantastic villain, one against whom we can all rally.

He is Walter Palmer, an American businessman who paid £32,000 to kill Cecil. His business in Minneapolis has been closed since the story broke, as protesters carry placards proclaiming “Justice for Cecil” and “Trophy Hunters are Cowards”. More than 100,000 Americans have signed a petition calling for him to be extradited to Zimbabwe to face charges there.

Palmer is a dentist – and one with the dazzling gnashers all Americans inexplicably love despite them being so obviously false. What better villain could there be?

There have been toothsmiths we can admire. Doc Holliday, gambler and gunfighter, was one until he caught TB from a patient. Mark Spitz, seven-time Olympic gold medallist in the Munich swimming pool in 1972, had trained to be one. And full-back Jim Craig, a lion of the Lisbon variety, combined his defensive duties for Celtic with drilling and filling on the side.

But no-one, in truth, much likes a dentist. One of the best movie baddies of all time is Christian Szell, the Nazi turned dentist played by Laurence Olivier in Marathon Man. The torture scenes – where Olivier carries out unnecessary dental work on Dustin Hoffman in an attempt to recover missing diamonds – are painful to watch because they play to all our fears.

There are real life baddies in the dentist profession too. My former colleague Deric Henderson, PA boss in Belfast during the worst of The Troubles, recently chronicled one of the strangest stories ever to come out of Northern Ireland in Let This Be Our Secret.

It tells the unlikely – but true - tale of how staunch churchgoers Colin Howell, a successful dentist, and his lover Heather Stewart, both married with children, killed their respective spouses. They then faked the murders to look like a suicide pact as, bereft, they had discovered their partners’ infidelities. They were found in a car in a garage, the engine running with hosepipe attached.

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Howell and Stewart, who were together for only four years afterwards, somehow got away with it. Only 17 years later, when Howell had lost £350,000 in an unlikely diving scheme to find gold in sea off the Philippines, were they undone, and only because he decided to confess.

I did often wonder how his patients must have felt, knowing they had been treated by a murderer all these years. Perhaps not quite like visiting Sweeney Todd’s and getting away with just a short, back and sides. But a close shave nonetheless, and something to brag about in the pub.

I’ve had my own runs-in with the dentist over the years.

As an 11-year-old, I lay there as the dentist went all Larry Olivier on me after I broke my front tooth playing football. He drilled and drilled and drilled until he removed the worm-like nerve, allowing him to drill some more to cement in a crown post.

Thirty years later, the root was smashed in another football match, and the crown had to go. The drilling was all in to the jaw bone to have an extremely expensive implant inserted.

And there was the time when the sweat was fountaining off my brow while – conscious – I was having my wisdom teeth removed. “Perhaps we should give him another injection,” the assistant helpfully suggested, in the nick of time.

As it happens, I have an appointment on Friday. I haven’t been for years. I do hope Mr Shah hasn’t been reading. Wish me luck!