On serving on an Old Bailey jury

Published June 22, 2017 by tootingtrumpet

A letter arrives with the dread word “SUMMONS” blazing on garish, John Waters pink paper, screaming its way past the junk and the bills, demanding attention. You scan the key paragraphs, fill in the slip to confirm that you do not fall into the limited disqualified demographics and set aside the advice leaflets that nobody ever reads.

A few weeks later, you make your way to the heart of The City, to the site of Newgate, where crowds would gather to see public hangings (until as late as 1868). Once you locate an entrance door that defines the word “unprepossessing”, clear airport security, prove your identity and register, you ascend to a fifth floor room with which you become very familiar. Part airport terminal, part polytechnic refectory, you find a seat amongst the curiously long rows and stare at a lost world from the time before the franchising / branding / management of such spaces became a globalised, homogenous “customer experience”.

Notices are blutacked on walls, the words formed by letters individually printed, one per sheet of A4, to make up words like “E N Q U I R I E S”. A canteen area offers coffee from a machine, a croissant or two – and I do mean one or two – and an almost heroically limited range of sandwiches, as if it were still 1974. Later, a hot lunch is offered, “choice” limited to three dishes, my old school dinners inevitably brought to mind. It’s not the fault of the staff who multi-task in the way of things today, serving food, taking the money, clearing plates – but quite why a Starbucks or a Pret-a-Manger cannot deliver something a little less 70s I do not know. (One day, I did glimpse the kitchen staff arranging a tray of rather attractive looking asparagus, lightly buttered, but I suspect they were delivered to the Barristers Mess on the other side of the fifth floor).

While court announcements (which we have been told to ignore) blare on the (excellent) PA, staff dedicated to managing juries use a local system that cracks and hisses but, just about, gets the job done. Indeed, that is but one example of the staff’s patience, professionalism and bloody good humour in the face of an infrastructure that shows the impact of The Years Of Austerity – perhaps best exemplified in seats the PVC upholstery of which is held together with gaffer tape (you really have to see that to believe it). For all that, the security guards, the court ushers, the canteen workers, indeed all the staff I met, were a credit to the country.

Though it was barely an hour earlier, the information imparted in the induction is entirely forgotten as you file into a court for selection and avoid eye contact with the defendants. I was one of forty or so candidates for a trial we were told would last up to eight weeks, news that caused an invisible, but perceptible, frisson of excitement to pass through our number. Names were called out and we squeezed past the desks, up to the judge for a whispered conversation and then, more often than not, were recused due to family obligations, holidays booked, hospital appointments. Reasons for standing down did not need to be substantial, but they did need to be real and, after an hour or so of this palaver, we were whittled to 12 + two reserves that soon became just 12 – charged with being a just 12 after swearing in.

Court is assembled every day before the jury enters (and we’re first out come 4.00pm too), so you can’t help but wonder if there’s a Toy Story thing going on with dancing and singing (perhaps a Rocky Horror style party with the Judge as Frank N. Furter and the usher as Riff Raff) that stops the moment we walk in and starts again the moment we leave. It is an eerie experience to file out of the court each afternoon and see it, identical in all details, the next morning. Such fantasies have plenty of time to brew in the long hours of argument.

While the Judge sits on the biggest chair and gets the coolest wig and lots of “Milords” and bows from the barristers and police officers (and the more experienced witnesses, who know the bureaucratic ropes in the same way that Fletch knew them at HMP Slade in Porridge), we sit in two rows like the worst Blankety Blank panel ever. But the Judge is very solicitous of our needs, eying us for signs of fatigue (and there, ahem, a few such in the post lunch watches) and ensuring we can hear the arguments and the words of the more reticent witnesses. There’s an occasional glint in the eye and cutting aside from the Bench that allows just enough humour into what is often a grim, occasionally tragic, show – but those lighter moments serve as an inoculation against a sometimes strong urge to shout or laugh loudly, Tourettishly, as the hours drift by.

There’s jargon of course – there is in any workplace – but it’s genuinely limited as far as we are concerned since explaining matters to the jury is a priority for pretty much everyone involved. There’s a “My Friend” or two in court naturally, and notices around the building are splattered with acronyms, but my favourite bit of inside talk was the Judge’s reference to chats “downstairs”. Yes, you guessed it – “downstairs” refers to the custody cells. When things got a bit heated amongst the QCs – and they did – we were ushered out of court since there were points of law to decide (matters that you wouldn’t want to expose to your wife or servants to I suppose). On return, things were noticeably less fraught, and the ship sailed on.

One of my few talents is an ability to concentrate – six hour adaptations of Shakespeare in Dutch and three hour subtitled Russian epics I can lap up – but one’s mind inevitably wanders a little to the personalities on show and, for all the talk that wigs and gowns divest the actors of their individuality, the people really matter and we get to know their habits and foibles quite well. Because of severe restrictions on what we can talk about with regard to the evidence – every day is akin to the interval on a Press Night with its omertà on discussing the play – so, in the long periods of waiting, we default to talking about the cast.

The avuncular judge gets a good press from us – firm but fair always goes down well. Counsels get mixed reviews, the inevitable verbal and physical ticks revealed over the hours in court provoking amusement and annoyance in roughly equal measures. There’s fun to be had observing the more spiky exchanges that emerge when briefs run cut-throat defences, attacking each other as much as the witnesses. With the stakes as high as they were, the emotional temperature could rise swiftly and unexpectedly, the posh boys getting stuck in for their clients. Some of us enjoyed analysing the relationships between barristers and their hardworking, but usually silent, juniors too – and speculating on how much time it took to tousle out the hair, just so, from beneath the horsehair wig.

That said, the real stars of the show were the witnesses, telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth… or so their oaths obliged them. What a cross-section of humanity were paraded before us! There’s an ultra-professional pathologist, seemingly flitting from one court to another, graphics in hand, his Estuary English accent tempered by education and erudition – a wonderful turn. There were the nervous, the frightened, the hungover, the confident, the aggressive, the submissive, the meek, the bold and the utterly compelling. That last descriptor fitted a pair of brothers, key players in the case, with pasts that might be charitably described as “chequered” (even they admitted that) but the kind of presence that is the product of a charisma given to few. It was plain to me how they could easily have made successes of many walks of life – The Bar for one – but the dice had rolled differently. That said, if Guy Ritchie is pitching another one of his Lock, Stock follow ups, casting directors need not look too far beyond this pair of likely lads.

We’re not always in court of course, and not always in the waiting room. The halls and corridors of The Old Bailey form a warren of ill-described rooms and spaces, one ideal for parkour boys to glide, vault and slide through – indeed, a film of such an escapade would open up the whole stuffy environment beautifully, humanising the harsh wooden panelling and hard marble floors that turn the brightest of summer days an autumnal grey. Tall people are everywhere – some police of course – but I’ve never seen so many stiletto heels this side of a production of Chicago. Must be a thing.

Outside court, I mused on how things had changed, yet had not, as a group of builders, carapaced with hi-vis jackets and lots of training, carefully avoided flirting with a group of mollish women, all push-up bras, lycra-based fabrics and spiky shoes, waiting for their men to complete evidence inside or be released on bail from the dock no doubt. The jury box can be a grim and silent space too, so I enjoyed the good humour and smiles at Coco di Mama across the road, whose wonderful staff stood me a valedictory cappuccino on the house when I told them it was my last day.

I have a letter now that offers a free pass for ten years if I am called to serve again, but I doubt that I’ll use that er… Get Out Of Jail Free card. Not only is jury service an important civic duty, it’s also a longstanding check and balance on the powers of the three pillars of government: Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. And, if court proceedings aren’t quite as packed with razzmatazz as they were in medieval times when The Assizes would come to town trailed by jesters, jugglers and pickpockets, there’s still plenty enough to entertain and inform. But one should never forget – and it never was, not even for a minute of my eight weeks or so as a juror – that lives are being weighed in our hands and that justice, expensive, slow and cumbersome as it is, is very much worth the whole crazy show. 

A bientôt, rather than farewell, to the Lady with the Sword and the Scales.

A 48 teams FIFA Men’s World Cup? Yes please

Published January 11, 2017 by tootingtrumpet
FIFA's 2026 plan is not a load of World Cup balls

FIFA’s 2026 plan is not a load of World Cup balls

What’s a World Cup for? “To make money”, so the “Elite” (who aren’t getting a good press anywhere) can fly the world First Class, drink Dom Perignon champagne from golden goblets and, for all I know, pay Russian chambermaids to turn down their bed linen. But it’s also for the “World” (the clue’s in the name), so it strikes me as a good idea to invite as many guests as one can – within reason. Look at the FIFA’s decision to go to a 48 nation tournament for men from 2026, and the sniping and snarling it has provoked begins to appear a little like the media bemoaning a 50% increase in its “research” for all those “Ten players to watch” listicles that will start pretty much the moment the presentation ceremony of the 2022 shebang finishes.

Okay, there are genuine concerns about a bloated competition, the matches splattered over weeks like a Jackson Pollock painting superimposed on a 2026 calendar… but, heavens above, FIFA have actually thought it through and have devised an intriguing plan that preserves the current 32 days “Opening Ceremony to Bouncing For The Photographers” schedule . There are 80 matches to be played rather than 64, but is 16 more games once every four years really too much to bear? If we can stomach the Europa League (aren’t IFK Sheepshaggers playing CKSA Stasischaft in that competition’s preliminary qualifying round for the group stage play-offs somewhere next week?), surely a few more World Cup games will be okay, particularly with (I presume after a bit of haggling) some matches being played simultaneously on the red button – so you don’t, you know, have to watch all of them.

The three team groups format may mean fewer dead rubbers and, though the (mooted) penalty shoot-outs for 90 minutes draws are hardly satisfactory as a decider, if the actual bloody Final can go to pens, that ship has long sailed. Okay, shares in local bus companies may rise as national coaches look to park them, then hope their goalkeeper can give it the wobbly legs and sneak his team through, but recent World Cups have hardly been short of unambitious teams and dull defensive matches, nor the possibility of sides producing a mutually beneficial scoreline. Why not see if coaches do the equivalent of leaving two men up when defending a corner and decide that the best way to defend is to make opponents defend – getting their retaliation in first, so to speak?

The pundits’ version of “Who will think of the children?” is “What about the quality?”, a phrase of which I’ve heard plenty over the last few days on radio discussions, often from people whom I am sure would be hard pressed to name five countries ranked between 32 and 48 (the imperfect, but best, indicator of current “quality”) never mind the players comprising such squads. So who are these minnows tipping their hats to the regulars, “giants” (like England) who must agree to share their ball. the “no-hopers” set to pollute the purity of the 32 team tourney?

The current rankings suggest that the extra teams would include the likes of: Senegal, Ivory Coast, Tunisia, Egypt, South Korea, Algeria, Romania, Paraguay, Sweden, Greece, Czech Republic, Serbia, Japan, Denmark, Australia, DR Congo. Okay, not many likely winners there, but plenty of contributors – all of them worthy of being described as “dangerous floaters” in any draw, certainly as far as England are concerned.

But the qualifying competitions are structured so a straight “Top 48” to progress to the Finals will not happen because each confederation has an allocation: Europe 16 teams (13 currently); Africa 9 (5); Asia 8.5 (4.5), South America 6 (4.5), Concacaf 6.5 (3.5), Oceania 1 (0.5), Host nation 1 (1). Who wants to deny Africa and Asia that representation given that football is the global game and the continent’s players’ tremendous progress over the last generation? South America only get 6 qualifiers, but that’s from the 10 nations in that confederation. Thus the Jackson Pollock tournament begins to  look more like a Piet Mondrian, the blur resolving into something quite neat.

In as much as World Cups can be summarised, my experience of the Finals since 1970 is one of a flattening of differences in talent, tactics and skills: the lesser teams are more competitive; the top teams less dominant. A true “World” Cup Finals should reflect the world, with as many hats thrown into the ring as possible. FIFA’s clever plan balances that objective with a manageable schedule (easily accommodated in a limited number of stadiums given 21st century pitch preparation and recovery) to the benefit of all.

So, England to play Mexico and Senegal in their group matches in 2026? What times are the kick-offs?

American Pastoral – Review

Published November 15, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

apTwo images stand out more than most in my memories of watching television as a child. The first is the summary execution of a civilian on a Vietnamese street, and the second the self-immolation of a Buddhist monk protesting against that war. Even now, I can see the charred skin and the upright body toppling sideways, a human being disintegrating. As a child, it both horrified and fascinated me. What kind of will was required for such a fate to be embraced? How could this be happening in what looked like an ordinary public space? How did the “victim” retain such preternatural calm? There were no trigger warnings back then and, since these pictures were “real”, they were almost certainly not subject to the 9.00pm watershed, before which “private parts” and patently fake violence could not be shown, but the unspeakable consequences of war were fair game.

Meredith Levov, a pre-teen, sees what I saw on television and reacts with the same horror – but decides to do something about it, eventually hooking up with an terrorist cell based in New York at the peak of the late 60s urban riots. She “brings the war home” by bombing the post office in her sleepy middle class Newark suburb and goes on the run, to be pursued by her father as her mother’s mental health spirals out of control.

That is the central storyline of Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut, American Pastoral, based on the Philip Roth novel of the same name. Though I have read a few Roth novels, I have not read this one and, in consequence, the simplifications, the telescoping of plot and the awkward shoe-horning in of an unnecessary framing device, did not concern me as it did others (reviews, largely negative, continually refer back to the source material).

Ewan McGregor is a little monochromatic as “Swede” Levov, high school football hero and successful businessman – everybody loves him, but the charisma seems secondary to the square jaw and seeming immunity to ageing, physical gifts trumping emotional intelligence too easily. Jennifer Connelly does the crazy-beautiful turn (with which we have become familiar) as Swede’s shiksa goddess wife, Dawn, at her best when facing down old man Levov (Peter Riegert in midseason form) when brokering her marriage conditions across the Gentile – Jew divide. She gets the therapy and “moves on” but it’s all a little predictable.

Dakota Fanning’s work stands out as the troubled Merry, full of the burning certainty of youth and the solipsism of teenagers. She never loses touch with the child she once was, even dead-eyed and broken in an inner city squat. Fanning ensures that Swede’s obsessive pursuit of his daughter is genuinely grounded in rational hope, because Merry is forever only just out of reach – she isn’t totally brainwashed and she’s not that far away.

There’s much that is wrong with the film – themes such as the Merry’s precocious Oedipal rivalry with her mother, morphing into vehement hate and the racial dimension of the riots, are treated with an almost flippant haste, dropped and disregarded. Instead of the film broadening its perspective as the narrative moves forward, it narrows to the kind of “Parent vs Cult” trope that we have seen many times before. A sprinkling of visual cliches to mark the passage of time doesn’t help lift the sense that the desire to make Roth’s always complex work more accessible, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

And yet this is a thought-provoking movie, especially for parents of bright teenage kids. It’s barely worth stating that teenage lives are a closed book to their families – and there’s a strong argument for saying that they should be – but we know the lure of cults, the pull of the easy solutions offered by radical politics or religions, the understandable dissatisfaction of finding an identity in a world full of unacceptable elements yet demanding that they “fit in”. What do we do to “protect” our kids? The film shows that a carapace built on orthodox family love allied to a kid’s bright and inquisitive nature, may not be enough to repel the call of something different – the “Whaddya you got?” reply given by Marlon Brando in The Wild One when asked what he was rebelling against.

Reviewers have been too harsh on this movie – there’s a distinct feeling that McGregor’s hubris in starting out as director (and star) with the notoriously difficult Roth needs calling out – but there’s something universal and something particular in this work that bubbles up through the film’s flaws. I need to read the book I suppose – and I expect that I will.

Rio 2016 – The stars you may have missed

Published August 19, 2016 by tootingtrumpet

M.T.C. Ting waiting to take to the sand

1. Snottey Greenpool – American swimmer who picked up a silver medal behind Michael Phelps in five events and is still waiting to be interviewed by American TV in the mixed zone.

2. Konstantli Fallinova – Ukrainian distance runner who paused to help Mo Farah back to his feet in the 10000m only to be lapped by the British athlete ten minutes later.

3. Malaria Shok – Romanian sailor whom organisers did their best to keep off-shore.

4. Jung-al-Kanopi – Out of favour Qatari athlete hardly seen in Brazil having been a major presence there for many years.

5. M.T.C. Ting – Thai Beach Volleyballer who has attracted little attention despite being a regular on our screens.

6. Guus Pairinoff – Dutch cyclist specialising in tandem events and much sought after by the Daily Mail.

7. Braak Keerfu – Sent home for the South African synchronised arm-wrestling team for unspecified reasons.

8. Britt Goldeggen – Danish reporter seconded to the BBC, famous for her only question, “How does it feel?”

9. Viagra – Exciting Brazilian footballer now an iconic veteran.

10. Lord Teflon – IOC member.

Rio Olympics – Ten To Watch

Published June 28, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
So I can go back to Spain now?

So I can go back to Spain now?

Zika Panikova – Will team up with fellow Ukrainian Ivana Jabnow in the women’s doubles, where they intend to cause havoc in the tennis.

Ray N. Forest – American golfer ranked 370 in the world. Favourite for the gold medal.

E.P.O. Putin – Russian 50km walker whose recent world record bettered the marathon world best by ten minutes.

Skinnilatte Venti – Italian long jumper said by some to have his name on a medal.

Favela Kerfu – Unpopular local, but likely to challenge in the shooting events.

Charlie Coker – As usual, he’s likely to feature strongly in the Closing Ceremony.

P.K. Nelson – Rio taxi driver who guarantees the shortest time from city centre to Olympic Stadium, and, maybe, back.

Anna Konda – Big hope in the wrestling, with her famous strangle hold likely to kill off opponents.

Cameron Brexit – Pole vaulter who sensationally cleared a high bar last week, but now looks likely to spend months on the sidelines as his coaches squabble over what comes next for him.

Robin Hoodie – Teenage Brit who aims to take gold in the Archery (and if not, silver – or just cash).

A route out of Brexit

Published June 25, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
Let's help him back down to Earth

Let’s help him back down to Earth

The problem with pressure group politics, referenda and suspension of cabinet collective responsibility is that two can play at that game.

The British people have voted Leave and already its implications (real ones this time, not “Project Fear” or whatever soundbite was last doing the rounds the last time the bickering was underway) have begun to sunk in, not just to horrified Remainers but to quite a few Leavers, who never really expected their vote to be on the winning side, but wanted to give David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn a bloody nose. There’s a petition collecting signatures to re-run the Referendum, but that’s not going to happen – not as the result of a petition anyway. But there might just be a route back for the UK, a way of carving out a kind of “cooling off” period that applies to big financial decisions and subsequent reconsideration. Fire must, after all, be fought with Fire.

A new political party should be formed which defines itself as a kind of reverse Ukip (say “Ukeu”), a single issue party with the sole objective of putting MPs in Parliament who will move a Referendum motion immediately after the next General Election, therefore long before the mechanism to divorce the UK from the EU has run its course. The Labour Party, the SNP and other parties committed to EU membership should allow their members to join and campaign for the Ukeu alongside their usual party work and commit to voting for the motion. Ukeu would, in return, only stand against candidates who refuse to back their Referendum Now position.

The beauty of this proposal is that it would bring lots of political outsiders into the electoral arena (they would commit to resign any seats they won immediately after the Referendum is secured). Eddie Izzard might be the figurehead / leader but many more well known, non-politicians may wish to take up the chance to stand as prospective Ukeu MPs. The party would be a magnet for the protest vote against the political machines, something that surely motivated plenty of Leavers on June 23.  Ukeu need not win any seats  – how many has Ukip won – its mere presence in marginal Tory seats being enough to jeopardise chances of a Tory majority and, in consequence, Boris’s grip on Number 10. And, having fought so hard and sacrificed so much to get there, he’s not going to let go easily is he? An EU associate membership, a five year suspension in the leaving process, a new treaty might all look attractive to Remain Tories if the alternative is a Corbyn – Sturgeon coalition. Compromise, presented sensitively, might stick with all but the Farageist Right.

This is why referenda are such dangerous and unpredictable political beasts to unleash – it’s a reason why they are so rare, why so many governments of such differing political hues did not reach for the option. If the plebiscite worked to get us out, can we not use it to get us back? There’s millions of Scots thinking the same thing now about their referendum for independence and it’ll take a lot of denying if the UK moves quickly to Brexit. A broken UK (with rumblings in Ireland) is a prospect that many natural Tories will do all they can to avoid.

In the febrile political climate in which we find ourselves some 48 hours into thinking the unthinkable, it might just take a leap of Machiavellian boldness to show the way forward. If there’s a Ukeu for me to join on the terms above, I would and I suspect I would not be alone.

 

 

 

Andrei Rublev – Review

Published June 24, 2016 by tootingtrumpet
Iconic

Iconic

We’re there. Right there. Somewhere. Near a ruined castle, as a man fills a rudimentary balloon with hot air and clings on as it climbs and pitches and yaws. And we’re still there. With him, as he looks down on a desolate landscape of swamps and broken woods, like Passchendaele centuries later. He, like the country on which he gazes, is not destined for a soft landing.

So begins Andrei Tarkovsky’s uber-arthouse masterpiece, Andrei Rublev (part of this summer’s retrospective), its opening sequence an extraordinary inspiration for much of the best work in The Revenant and a signal for what Tarkovsky will do later in Nostalgia and The Sacrifice. The film continues, in episodes that sometimes work chronologically and sometimes don’t, the images building into a tapestry depicting Russia, past, present and future, in all its appalling glory. Fleeting through one’s mind as images pile on top of each other never less than visually gorgeous, come thoughts of spirituality, artistic endeavour, friendship, honour, compassion, joy, sex, war, cruelty and, ultimately, love. They crowd the mind, the film demanding that the viewer meets it half way in its work.

An immense bell is cast in an sensational imagining of the sheer effort and elemental complexity of that task as undertaken in the Middle Ages. The works are led by a boy thrust into the role through his chutzpah and desire to save his skin and by his father’s sudden death. On the bell is etched the familiar scene of St George slaying the dragon – is the boy the Georgian Stalin and the bell Russia itself, being called upon, deep in Soviet times, to find its voice and ring again?

There are plenty of Tarkovskyian long takes, but a relentless pace too – not necessarily of narrative, but of imagery, the landscapes filled with people moving in the foreground and the background, battle scenes suffused with the fog of war, life always vibrantly present, yet always hanging by the sliver of princely favour or warlord’s whim. It’s a frighteningly modern evocation of the fate of ordinary people slain as they are caught in the backwash of alliances forming and fading of which they know nothing, shocking in its visceral impact, random in its dispensing of death and salvation.

It’s also a totalitarian film (reminding us of how the making of Apocalypse Now descended into a kind of dysfunctional fiefdom) with the director’s hand present at all times, his apparatchik cinematographer the instrument of his complete control. It has nothing in common with the Hollywood epics of today, but does trigger memories of the scale and confidence of Birth of a Nation, but without DW Griffith’s neo-fascist ideology polluting every scene. Over and over again, as the film plays back in your mind, you wonder how it ever got made – technically and politically – its authenticity irrefutable. But how?

Ultimately, it’s a extraordinary cinematic experience, made to be witnessed on a big screen, on grainy film, in the company of others with you for the full three hour runtime, still pinned to our seats as the titles roll by, in indecipherable Russian script. It is cinema as an aesthetic, collective assault on the senses – and, in those terms, it’s never been more ruthlessly conceived and executed.