A Bunch of Thickos?

After the jury in the trial of Vicky Price was discharged following their now notorious ten questions and the Judge’s comment that they had completely failed to understand their role and responsibilities they were the object of ridicule and abuse in the so-called twittersphere. The consensus was that they were just a bunch of thickos.  But were they? Whilst some of the questions were naive two of them got to the heart of the matter.They asked the judge to clarify the meaning of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ and asked for further guidance on the concept of ‘;marital coercion.’ The latter is a defence very rarely used these days and may not be well understood by lawyers, let alone laypeople. To ask for further explanation is not, I think, a sign of stupidity but rather of people fully aware of their responsibilities. Did anyone consider that judge may not have made a very good job of explaining things to them?

That ordinary people are too thick to understand complex arguments has been a common refrain in recent years with the last government moving to abolish jury trial in some fraud cases. This was a Labour government treating with disdain the very people on whose votes they depended!

Democrats and socialists should unequivocally reject such arguments. The right to be tried to by one’s peers is a fundamental pillar of our criminal justice system. The ordinary people on the jury may have insights into the circumstances of a case that public school educated judges and barristers cannot. But the glory of the jury system are the  cases where a jury exercises its privilege to stick two fingers up at the law in the cause of justice.

It was in 1985 that the civil servant Clive Ponting was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for leaking documents relating to the sinking of the General Belgrano during the Falklands War. According to the law he was guilty and the judge directed the jury to convict. Twelve ordinary men and women decided that this was a politically motivated trial with the aim of punishing a man for embarrassing the Government and that they wanted no part of it. They defied the judge and returned a verdict of Not Guilty.

That is the great thing about juries. They are not beholden to the law and can take a wider view. It should be a cause of rejoicing when, as in the case of Ponting, ordinary people rise to the occasion and strike a blow for freedom.

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I stumbled across this blog just before Christmas. t says most eloquently a lot of what I have long felt. Beware! It;s dangerous. Those who spout the management orthodoxies in large organisations do not take kindly to critical thought. You may find yourself in a lonely place!

Krakow 1984

A poem inspired by a picture seen at an exhibition in the Water Hall Birmingham in 2003

KRAKOW PORTRAIT

Water Hall Birmingham 2003

This half smiling woman
will never leave 1984,
chilly October in a city
I was still to know.

She sits before a window
through which light slants in
distilling darkness in corners
to which our eyes are drawn
to conjure up other darknesses
of our own.

I imagine the thoughts meshed
in her Slavic language. Perhaps,
too she had thoughts that words
could not express. I thought of
things she could not know

that, in five years’ time
I will come to Krakow and
fall in love, or, that even in the
icy stillness of her smiling moment,
three hundred miles away,
the bloody broken body
of a priest was being carted
north along potholed roads.

Of Highbury and High Cross

It was an unplanned visit to Highbury. As the Piccadilly Line train left Finsbury Park I made a snap decision and, for the first time since 1978 alighted at Arsenal station, whose tiling still displays the original name of Gillespie Road, and turned left to the site of the North Bank turnstiles.  That April day thirty five years ago I had come to support my team West Bromwich Albion in a losing FA Cup semi-final against Ipswich Town. I do not have happy memories of the place. Walking down little seems to have changed other than the obvious signs of gentrification which, back in the late 1970s, was only just beginning. Even the entrance is still there. I take my first look at the Highbury Square development, completed in 2009, following the football club’s relocation to nearby Ashburton Grove three years earlier.

The famous and listed Art Deco stands remain, sympathetically converted into flats whilst retaining original features, such as the players’ tunnel, and the East Stand’s  magnificent entrance lobby with the bust of Herbert Chapman the club’s manager in the 1930s who not only achieved success on the playing field but showed a sharp business sense in helping to develop Arsenal as a brand. (It was at his suggestion that the name of the tube station was changed). There are new blocks at either end while the area that was once the pitch, home to Ted Drake, Cliff Bastin, Charlie George and Liam Brady is  now a peaceful garden. A sense of space and tranquillity pervades the place.

It is not surprising that a residential development in a former football stadium, is turned in in itself and away from the surrounding streets but that is one of the problems. Highbury was the focus of the local community, accessible to most on match days for a few shillings. Highbury Square is a gated community and even the public access promised by the developers along the front of the Clock End, linking Highbury Hill and Avenell Road is not always open as a disgruntled local resident informed me.

As Islington gentrified and turned away from the club, so Highbury has introduced a yet wealthier demographic into N5, one which turns its back on the professional middle classes who live hereabouts. Highbury is in Islington but no longer part of it.

Of course, Highbury has always been private and simply become more private. This is not true of the many regeneration schemes and developments in our major cities where streets and long established public rights of way are swallowed up in vast retail and leisure complexes. This is all described in detail in a paper produced for the Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors by Anna Minton. She argues that this has already produced major  changes in many places and that we are only at the beginning of a process of change which is little understood. Indeed in the case of Liverpool the Paradise Street redevelopment effectively means that pretty much the whole city centre is being privatised. Inside this private/public space there will be strict controls on behaviour enforced by private security. No skateboarding, no begging, no Big Issue selling, You may only eat and drink where you are permitted to do so. This strikes me as a further step in the creeping infantilisation of the British public. The amazing thing is that so many people accept being ordered around with such docility.

All of this raises many issues. Chief of them, I think and of most concern, is the decline of the communal. If Highbury, though privately owned, was once a place that local people considered to be in a sense communal property, it is even more true of the mall, be it Brindley Place in Birmingham or High Cross in Leicester, both of which have absorbed a significant number of what were one public highways.

With the decline of the communal goes the decline of communal activity, of the things that make citizenship meaningful. In a street you could meet, debate, demonstrate. In a mall, the private security force will soon remove you. A while ago the hoody ban at Bluewater attracted a lot of publicity. This was, in reality, a minor issue. The true implications were missed by the media. This is also an aspect of the depoliticisation of our society. Citizens are recast as consumers. If anyone doubts this let them try setting up a pitch to sell left-wing papers or hand out leaflets on Leicester’s High Cross on a Saturday morning, or try busking in Birmingham’s Brindley Place. These are not public spaces any longer but places where the public is admitted to consume.  

All of this reflects a fundamentally passive political culture where mass membership parties are in decline and serious debate replaced by the sound bite. Every five years we have a referendum, dressed up as a parliamentary election. The living standards of the middle income sections of the population are being remorselessly squeezed and there seems to be no appetite to fight.

And as we pay ever higher prices, see our incomes cut in real terms, as we are turned into frustrated consumers rather than concerned citizens, the rich who have climbed to wealth on our backs, lock the gates. When the gates of Highbury are locked you know that, even at three o’clock on Saturday you will not be allowed in. 

A Tale of a Tunnel and a Bridge

The footpath skirted the top of the cutting as it followed the contour of the land down to the level of the old railway. I scrambled down the side of the cutting onto the trackbed which was waterlogged and overgrown with birch saplings. I pcked my way through the baby forest and from barely ten yards away a massive brick structure was suddenly revealed. It came as something of a shock. Above the portal was the date 1898. I walked up to the now barred tunnel entrance and gazed into the dank gloom. There was a pinprick of light. This was the north portal of the tunnel 2,973 yards away. It was proof that the tunnel was gun barrel straight, a fine example of Victorian civil engineering. .

I was in Northamptonshire and this was Catesby Tunnel  on the Great Central railway London Extension, opened in March 1899 and closed south of Rugby in September 1966, a line that died so young that children who stood excitedly to see the first train arrive at their local station were still alive to bring grandchildren to see the final train in more sombre circumstances. In view of recent discussions about HS2 it is worth reflecting on what was lost when the GCR closed and on the short sightedness of British transport policy.

The GCR London extension was the brainchild of Sir Edward Watkin Chairman of the Manchester Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway. The line ran from Annesley in Nottinghamshire to Quainton Road in Buckinghamshire where it joined the previously existing Metropolitan Railway which Watkin conveniently happened to own. In London two new miles of line were built, tunnelling under Lord’s cricket ground to a new terminus at Marylebone.   When the line opened on 15th March 1899 the MSL changed its name to Great Central Railway. Commercially the line was a failure. All the major places it served, such as Nottingham Leicester and Rugby already had established connections to the capital and passengers mainly stayed loyal to the older railway companies. Although via its branch to Banbury and link with the Western Region it provided a useful link between the East Midlands and the West Country it was considered vulnerable in the harsh climate of the Beeching years and became the most spectacular casualty of the closure programme with complete closure south of Rugby in 1966.

What was lost was a superbly engineered railway with no level crossings, no curve of less than a mile radius and no steep gradients. It was also the only British main line built to a continental loading gauge. This was because Watkin planned to go beyond London to the South Coast and to the planned Channel Tunnel.  Watkin and his railway were a hundred years ahead of their time. Had the GCR not been closed we would not need to spend the next fifteen years building HS2 as a large part would already be in place. Indeed some of the GC formation south of Brackley has been proposed for reuse. As part of East West rail trains will again run from Calvert through Quainton Road to Aylesbury. In a few years heritage steam trains will again connect Nottingham and Leicester over GC metals. The railway did not die but as a through rourte it is broken up beyond recall. Catesby Tunnel will continue to disappear into its wilderness. It could all have been different.

And what of the bridge? The GC crossed Leicester on a series of bridges and viaducts of which substantial sections remained until recent years.  A particularly fine latticed girder bridge, known as the Bowstring Bridge, spanned the junction of Western Boulevard and Braunstone Gate not far from the castle. It was a popular local landmark and you could almost imagine that, if you waited long enough a train would eventually rattle over it. It was demolished by Leicester City Council in November 2009 despite a long and bitter campaign to save it. The plan was to release land to sell to De Montfort University to build a sports hall.Officially it was announced that the bridge was in poor condition and would cost too much to make safe. In fact the demolition costs were higher than expected because the bridge, built in 1898 by Henry Lovatt of Wolverhampton was in such good condition, forty years after the final train passed over it.  More fine Victorian engineering. To read just how fine, indeed unique,read this.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Braunstone_Gate_Bridge

Three years on the site is windswept and empty. It is  sad and fitting comment on the treatment of the finest railway this country ever had. and the narrow minds that failed to see its potential.