Friday, 11 November 2011

Howling For Vengeance

I know that this is going to be a controversial posting, but it is something that is one of those issues that nags at me so that I need to get it out of my system.  That was the prime purpose of my blog, which is why I need to write this posting even though I guess that, in turn it will irritate others.  It is a factor which has come up many times certainly in my memory over the past 20 years, but the particular occasion recently that it has come to my attention is following the sentencing of Vincent Tabak for the murder of architect Jo Yeates in December 2010.  Tabak received a life sentence with a tariff of a minimum of 20 years.  However, for Yeates's parents this was not enough.  I accept that they grieve for their daughter, but the statements they made after the sentencing suggest that the pair of them are very nasty people in themselves with an outlook which is barely different from Tabak.  The couple are David Yeates aged 64 and Teresa Yeates aged 58.  They seem symptomatic of the 'indignitary' approach which is so common in British society and is reinforced by the hysterical tabloid newspapers, notably 'The Sun' part of the Murdoch media empire of News International. 

I have no sympathy for Tabak and certainly believe he deserves a life sentence in prison.  What alarms me is the desire for the destruction of our legal processes, the move to arbitrary sentencing including execution and the fact that the language used in condemning the killer in fact help create an atmosphere which promotes such violence rather than seeks to reduce it.

The Yeateses, who have no legal training, complained that there was no death penalty in Britain and regretted it was not an option.  However, in fact it seems as if even that would have been insufficient for them.  Instead it appears they would have preferred to have Tabak tortured to death.  In an official statement they said: 'The best we can hope for him is that he spends the rest of his life incarcerated where his life is a living hell, being the recipient of all evils, deprivations and degradations that his situation can provide.'  They should be at least cautioned for trying to provoke fellow prisoners of Tabak from doing him harm.  What they have no understanding of, is that the behaviour they are lauding is just the kind that excited their daughter's killer.  To urge prisoners to visit such behaviour on the convicted man is simply to legitimise the kind of violence he carried out himself.  In turn this will add to an 'atmosphere of permissiveness' in that others will things such 'deprivations and degradations' are acceptable for them to turn on any man or woman they feel is 'guilty'.  Rather than doing anything to reduce future perpetrators, the Yeateses' language simply lionises such behaviour.

These days it seems entirely legitimate to wish for a 'lynch mob' approach to sentencing.  You only have to sit in a pub when the news of such cases comes on television to know how many volunteer executioners there would be.  In many ways all the legal reforms of the past three centuries seem to be forgotten and the average person in the street feels they are qualified to act as judge, jury and executioner for the person they believe to be guilty.  The selection of the 'guilty' seems more based on the appearance of the person than any legal arguments.  I am convinced that Amanda Knox is guilty of the murder of Meredith Kercher in 2007.  The murder was a particularly perverse one and yet because Knox happens to be a beautiful American, she has to be innocent in the public eye and no-one is going around saying she should suffer the kind of  'deprivations and degradations' that were visited on Kercher.  In fact, with her release on appeal earlier this year, she has mutated into a victim herself.  This highlights how patronising the Americans are to other people's justice systems.  Knox is portrayed as suffering at the hands of a foolish Italian court that somehow missed seeing her 'innocence' shining through.

A patronising attitude towards courts was seen in the Yeates case.  It is clear that her parents had no faith in the legal system.  Her father said: 'I always knew he was guilty but feel relief because I don't know how I would have reacted if the jury had come back with a verdict of manslaughter.'  Again the father feels he should have been the judge, deciding on the sentence, not through the approach of law, but simply on his gut feeling.  It is interesting, he probably felt the same about Christopher Jefferies, Jo Yeates's landlord who was an early suspect on to whom Tabak tried to shift guilt.  I am sure if Jefferies had been charged, even though we now know he was innocent of the crime, David Yeates would be telling us how he should have been executed and how he knew that man was guilty.

The simplicity of this ability to sniff out guilt without any legal training, simply by looking at a person, leads the indignitaries to become exasperated with the legal processes.  Teresa Yeates was disappointed that it took three days for the jury to decide on a majority guilty verdict (10:2) for Tabak.  She said: 'It was the right verdict but it took so very long.'  Of course, she sees the jurors as stupid for not being equipped as she clearly feels she is, to simply detect a guilty man and to sufficient level to satisfy the courts.  Of course, the courts, juries and the whole legal system are disparaged by people like the Yeateses and organs like 'The Sun'.  They self-righteously know the guilty and see any chance for the so-clearly guilty to have defence or to go through any legal process.  Their favoured approach would take us back in Britain literally to the Middle Ages, to the kind of situation England had before Magna Carta of 1215.  Such arbitrary execution characterises dictatorships of the kind the UK has helped to overthrow in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but apparently for our own criminals, it is perfectly the kind of system we need to introduce.

Of course, for 'The Sun' even the Yeates's ostentatious statement about the punishments they want inflicted on Tabak are insufficient.  The newspaper went further not missing the opportunity to slag off misguided foreigners, in this case, the prison system of the Netherlands, Tabak's home country on 29th October, appended to their article on the Yeateses saying: 'Dutch prisons are known for their luxurious hotel-style facilities, with each cell having its own heater, fridge and microwave'.  The British are stunningly nationalistic, no other country, bar perhaps the USA, can be good enough in punishing criminals.  Clearly they relish the overcrowded, insanitary conditions of British prisons which lead to murders and widespread reoffending.  Much of the British public and the majority of the UK press have no faith in what our Victorian predecessors did, that there is a chance of rehabilitation.  In their view as in the USA, guilty is guilty for eternity so the best thing to do is to kill the perpetrator, who will always be easily to detect, quite often because he is always going to be something like a 33-year old European man rather than a 24-year old American woman.

Infected by American culture the UK is now a society in which no emotion is sufficient unless it is taken to the fullest extent.  You some how appear neglectful if you are not howling in sorrow or in anger or in calling for vengeance.  Few seem alert to the actual words, most extreme so far in the Yeateses' statements, foster the kind of violent society which created the murder in the first place, a society with utter distrust in legal procedures so a society in which lawlessness in all its forms seems to be the only 'solution'.  By being indignant, by howling in the media, you only foster more of the same kind of behaviour as that which distressed you in the first place.  This is not civilisation it is a return to a barbaric age in all aspects.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The Strange Delight Of Lost Corners

This is another of those postings of me thinking back over quirky things that have caught my attention down the years and probably mean very little to anyone else.  However, perhaps I am wrong and my fascination with areas that I term 'lost corners' may intrigue others too.  When I was a boy at secondary school I was once on a school trip to London.  I was sitting in a coach somewhere like Wandsworth probably heading to the Imperial War Museum, maybe somewhere else.  Anyway I was on board a coach which was stuck in a traffic jam.  I was sat next to the window, uncommon for me as I generally sit in the aisle given the length of my legs and my concern about escaping from crashes.  Anyway, I looked down at a metal railing fence that enclosed the garden of a large house.  I was looking at the bit that came up to a post which marked the end of the wooden fence that surrounded the garden next door.  The garden with the railing fence was terribly overgrown, I remember.  Consequently I assumed that no-one ever went up to that corner of the fence, no-one picked up the litter there or did anything with the railings from that side let alone the concrete pole.  However, there had to have been some day when all of this had been important to someone.  Somebody had worked to erect the fence, to dig the hole and insert the concrete pole and yet now it seemed unlikely that anyone would ever set foot in that corner, perhaps for decades perhaps for even longer.  Of course, someone may have cut back the rhododendron and demolished the railings and removed the fence post later that day.  Even if they had, here was a space in which no human and probably few birds or other animals had been.

That was the day I realised that I had a fascination for spaces which were not invisible, but certainly lost to humanity for the foreseeable future.  It made me think that even in cities where we believe that every corner is jammed full of people, there are many areas which are untouched by people.  It reminded me of the UK as a whole.  We have some of the densest populations in Europe but there are large swathes of the country, vast areas of Scotland, Wales, the national parks, much of the South-West and the northern English counties, that are in fact almost empty of humans.  We are all jammed into quite restricted areas and there are these other spaces in which we do not go into.  I think it would be fascinating to map areas, particularly in London, where no-one goes.  I think this was one of the reasons why the Open House scheme has proven so popular.  Every year buildings to which the public and in fact very few people in general have access, are open for free.  I have been inside Marble Arch and down into Aldwych underground station plus various water pumping stations.  Typically those places for which you see a door but one that presents a blank face, a door as a wall in effect.

I have often thought this too about television and movie dramas when people come to London or some other great city trying to find someone.  Generally they do not experience how it is in reality.  Even if you manage to find the person among the teeming millions, you might reach their building and simply be faced with a door that will not open, through which no-one will let you.  So much of our cities are like this.  Wherever you walk you go passed location after location after location into which you could never gain access no matter how hard you tried.  I do wonder if one of the appeals of Neil Gaiman and Lenny Henry's 'Neverwhere' (series & novelisation, 1996) was that there was an entire 'London Below' (in fact, often above as well) that could be accessed by forming doors in those very blanks walls.  I have a feeling that Gaiman and Henry saw such spaces, especially in London much as I have done, though saw a way through rather than for me, just feeling repeatedly rejected by them.

That silent rejection, I feel is different to the lost corners.  Of course, someone may have had the intention to close them off; fenced them around.  Yet, for me the best of them have become a lost corner because they have become overgrown or simply because they are no longer important.  In the house I currently rent a room in, from the kitchen I look at the back of another house, set at right-angles as it opens on another road.  I have never seen the residents, but the entirety of the back of the house, is overgrown and blocked from the side of my house by an old iron fence.  Once that space was important, part of a building site for the house, perhaps a location where children sneaked around the house as I used to go between my parents' house and my neighbours' down the narrow gap.  Certainly for many days people tramped around that space and at some time, maybe then, maybe later put and iron fence in, presumably along precisely defined lines.  The space is still there and plants inhabit it, and yet whilst I can see it, without great effort I could never be in that space.  It reminds me too, of the wonderful views you see while driving down the motorway knowing that however beautiful it is, there is no way you can capture that precise view certainly not without a severe risk of death and being arrested, perhaps in the reverse order.

I think it is that fact, 'so near, yet so far', like the eyots you see from the trains as you go over or alongside the Thames.  You would love to go on to them.  There would be very little on most of them and one or two are protected, but it would be that excitement of stepping somewhere no-one has been for so long.  Maybe I am wrong and they would be full of leftovers of drunken student parties.  I wonder if it is a little like what motivates people to climb mountains or explore jungles, to go into spaces which you feel are rather outside the flow of time.  Reflecting on this interest of mine, I know that it is not restrained to overgrown gardens or disused yards.  It also stems to those rooms you see on the top of old buildings, equipped with windows and yet with no-one to look out of them.  You see them all over old cities, London, Oxford, Bath particularly among them.  Does anyone go into those spaces and what do they contain, bar dust?

My feelings about lost corners is one of wistfulness, feeling perhaps because they are not entered and walked across, that they retain a small scoop of the past of some days when they were something that warranted the attention of people, even if just the workers sent to put in a fence.  A teacher of mine explained how when he had gone to Arizona and saw so much of it as it would have looked many centuries earlier, he felt unnerved.  Returning to Britain he realised it was the starkness of the American South West that alarmed him in the very fact that it was wild, it had not been softened, worked on by humans.  Britain, in contrast, is very different.  You can go almost everywhere in this country and see the trace of humans.  Many rural fields have tumuli dating back millenia; others have Roman roads or forts or banjo enclosures or filled in quarries or torn up railtracks.  As 'Time Team' has shown seemingly ever corner of Britain has been impacted upon directly by humans, not simply in terms of pollution but messing around with it.  Archaeology programmes show us that not only has our back garden been part of centuries of structures but even on remote Scottish islands the trace of humans is there; the rolling valleys of the Yorkshire Dales were deforested before there was a written language.  I have never been anywhere as untouched as my teacher, but I imagine I would feel as unnerved as him.  This is why, I guess I am fascinated by these corners that show human intervention, but unlike the average stretch of pavement or even garden, that intervention has ceased and it is as if we are walking past a snapshot from some particular time, not out of time, but somehow on a parallel rather than bisecting path to the spaces we habitually go into.  I have wondered whether to take photos of some of these places and put them up on this blog.  However, I guess that is taking being a nerd just that little too far and instead will confine myself to the wistful enjoyment of such forgotten corners whenever I see them.

Monday, 7 November 2011

We Walk Straight So ...

When I was a boy at primary school, one of the activities that we would do in the playground was stand side-by-side with a friend, always another boy and cross over our arms so that we were locked together. We would then march around the playground saying loudly in unison ‘we walk straight so you’d better get out the way’ (enunciated so it sounded like ‘we want straitsa you’d bettah get out tha-way!). Generally we did not actually walk straight we would simply march into other boys who would often pair up just like us so they could march into us and the whole thing would descend into what was then termed ‘a bundle’. Where this ‘game’ originated from I do not know, presumably from the place most physical games did especially for children for whom kicking a ball around was forbidden as none of the playgrounds that I used while at primary school had less than one side which was a row of windows and in some cases three sides were windows. Why I was suddenly reminded of this game which I cannot have witnessed in over thirty years was as a result of trying to walk down a street in London.

I heard on BBC radio that officially Britain has become more polite than in recent decades, but as yet I have to see any evidence of this and one case in point is how difficult it is to move around as a pedestrian. Places like Oxford Circus and Leicester Square in central London have always been difficult not only from the numbers of people but the fact that many people on the street have no idea where they are going and/or have their attention distracted by everything that is going on around them. However, even in suburban areas of London, places like Ealing or Harrow or Richmond, you find it difficult. This is because on the pavement, as on the roads, no-one seems willing to yield even a few centimetres nor to wait even a matter of seconds to allow someone else to pass. I suppose if I see people in cars forcing their way out of side roads into the main flow of traffic and bullying people out of lanes, I should not be surprised that I see the equivalent of such behaviour on the pavement, especially as unlike car drivers, many pedestrians are young people. A television advertisement for an insurance company shows pedestrians behaving like cars and says we would not behave like drivers when walking. However, they are in fact wrong and most people do behave precisely like that replicating the scenes they show in their advertisement.

I am not going to go on demonising children and teenagers. However, it is probably unsurprising that witnessing what their parents and other adults do it should seem to them to be ‘weak’ to move even a fraction of a step. It is exacerbated by the fact that unlike older people, children and teenagers often travel in groups, and all want to walk side-by-side. Going along the pavement, even walking through pedestrian areas I find myself being pushed to the sides, hard up against buildings. No matter how large the space is, groups of pedestrians spread to fill it. Where I live during the week has broad pedestrianised areas but I find myself dodging between four or five family members or students strung out for a couple of metres across the space.

When I have run out of space and am squeezed against a shop window, even this does not seem enough and I get a tut or a sigh as if I have done something wrong as one person for a matter of seconds has to expend the effort to step around me. My journeys are lengthened by this constantly being squeezed to the side, having to pull my jacket or shoulder bag in, even having to turn side-on so the people can get by without having to adjust how they are walking. Often rather than be pushed into the wall, I am compelled to step into the road with all the risk that that entails. The difficulty is not only that the people I encounter have an utter unwillingness to move even a little, but they seemed exasperated that anyone should be walking in the opposite direction to them; they also tire of people moving too slowly in their direction too as she witness from the complaints about the elderly and disabled or parents with the off-road pushchairs if they are not proceeding fast enough for the bulk of pedestrians.

It often not the case that the people who are unwilling to move are aware that you are liable to collide with them. I have written before about how people are cut off from the world by their mp3 player and their mobile phone:
 Ever since mobile phones were invented no-one has seemed able to stand still while using them, I guess hence the name, it is not the phone but the user who is in fact mobile. The thing is now, with smartphones that there is so much to look at on the screen that using them takes the full extent of the owner’s vision. Yet, they do not stop, they keep ploughing on, gazing intently and fingering the screen of their phone, assuming that everyone will navigate around them. These people can be slow moving, giving you time to get out of their way. However, to me it rather seems an insult to the blind that people with sight do not use the faculty they have been blessed with. Maybe in the future mobile phones will be constructed with white sticks extending from them. Certainly someone needs to invent facilities that alert the user to other bodies within a certain proximity or even to allow the user to see in front of them as they are looking down at the screen, through having a camera in the top of the phone rather than on the back.

Despite all my ailments I can move freely and sufficiently speedily to avoid colliding with the ‘we walk straight’ pedestrians. However, this is not the case for all pavement users. The elderly, disabled people, people with small children or pets, are a lot less manoeuvrable and it appears that the message to them is simply that they should not be out walking at the times when ‘normal people’ wanting to walking in strict lines to get places. The issue of the we-walk-straighters is that they are symptomatic of a broader problem, the manifestation of the Thatcherite belief that there is no society just individuals and families (or their equivalent on the street, gangs of friends). Why it is so difficult to move around a British town on foot or by car is because so few people these days understand that to travel in an urban area is to become part of a machine or even an organism, one that has different components moving at different speeds.

I once saw an art installation which consisted of a video the artist had shot at a junction in Vietnam where five roads met. The range of traffic was incredibly diverse and included pedestrians, cyclists, mopeds, rickshaws, motorbikes, cars, vans and lorries all on the road rather than the pavement. The video was shot from an apartment overlooking the junction. What was startling was how soothing it was to watch. This is because despite all the variety of the traffic the different elements flowed so that no-one collided and no-one even held up someone else. To me it looked rather like blood flowing around the body. I am sure there are accidents and arguments in that city as anywhere but it is apparent that the Vietnamese in cities often far more crowded than London, had the necessary attributes to make such incidents rare rather than happening almost every minute.

To march through as a pedestrian is to disrupt the traffic ‘machinery’ to the extent that it causes jolts to the system, tensions and upsets. Things move far more smoothly when people look ahead, have patience and work in co-ordination with others. However, none of those attributes are now valued in British society so as a consequence we have all the huffing and puffing and the arguments, the need to squeeze against a wall to avoid a confrontation and the stresses that all this brings.