Friday, 17 November 2017

Spid Theatre Company outside

'Where's the tower?'

Goldfinger's fashionably brutalist Trellick Tower looms over us so I assume he means that one. But he and his companion are seeking the scorched exoskeleton of Grenfell Tower. They've got out at the wrong station. I hope they're not going to take selfies like the others.

Spid Theatre Company is filming scenery in brief snatches by both towers and its HQ, the modernist council block Kensal House. It's cold.

Drummers under the overhead railway line
Grenfell Tower in the distance
There are toys and tributes outside Notting Hill Methodist Church

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Read Not Dead: Jacobean tragedy at Gray's Inn

It's suspenseful all right. Will Philip Massinger's neglected Jacobean tragedy, The Unnatural Combat, survive a script-in-hand performance in Gray's Inn Hall? And will the pro-am cast - the Bar v. Shakespeare's Globe - be oil and water? 

This is part of Globe Education's commendable Read Not Dead project, dedicated to resuscitation.

She's absent, but I have her figure here; 
And every grace and rarity about her 
Are by the pencil of my memory 
In living colours painted on my heart. 

Malefort, an ambivalent war hero dragged out of jail for his first scene, is racked with desire for the beautiful Theocrine - his daughter, ew. He kills his equally ambivalent son and the wheels of retribution grind away.

I don't guess all the lawyers/actors correctly, which is instructive. Sir Michael Burton QC and Colin Manning have a forensic élan. Emily Barber, who was a touching Innogen in Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, plays Theocrine with doomed delicacy; Tok Stephen deals well with the ambiguity of her half-brother; Tim Frances takes command of the hall, explores the light and shade of Malefort and builds an intimate connection with the audience. The play's director Philip Bird dips in and out, taking miscellaneous parts. The only run-through happened this morning.

It's a tale of cynical politics and betrayal, and there's speculation that Malefort was based on George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), the royal favourite who was assassinated after his popularity waned. Here he is, probably as Lord High Admiral, painted by Daniel Mytens the Elder (National Maritime Museum).

This performance is a counterpoint to last week's appeal in the UK Supreme Court about abortion law in Northern Ireland, which addressed rape and incest. With no jury present, counsel knew better than to try to stir emotion. Their approach can be studied on the court's website. This afternoon the play-reading lawyers have to tackle an emotional open runway. There is a sympathetic audience and plenty of room to move in the round, with clothes mainly their own and hardly any props.

After a court hearing it might be interesting to cast a play with the same line-up. King Lear for Miller, the Brexit Article 50 appeal, with Lord Pannick QC and James Eadie QC splitting the title role and Gina Miller as Cordelia.

Throughout this afternoon's performance the Director of Globe Education, Patrick Spottiswoode, has been willing everyone on like a parent. He has a battered book with him. It's a source for next year's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK ('the Lord Chamberlain regrets...').

Like me, he went to the 1968 London production of Hair, its first beneficiary. I saw the watered-down London revival a few years ago and felt it was a period piece misunderstood by the cast. How times change. But time is the key to this afternoon's shared mystery. This is not about taking something out of the freezer, but celebrating a continuous river. It's an important process.

Supreme Court: lighting-up time

The tobacco-laden fug of Courtroom 1
The tawny sky over parts of England in October was the colour of a pub ceiling before the ban on smoking in some public places.  

But what is a public place? Today’s appeal, R (on the application of Paul Black) v Secretary of State for Justice, asks whether the Health Act 2006 applies by necessary implication to a prison administered by the Crown.

Mr Black, a prisoner, complains that the ban is not enforced in his prison’s common parts. He says prisoners should have anonymous access to the NHS Smoke-Free Compliance Line which allows callers to shop violators to the local authority. To be practical, this line does not exist. Perhaps that indicates how long the case has been in the courts. A number that does come up online, 0800 587 1667, is unobtainable.

Philip Havers QC (who must be fed up with being described as Nigel Havers's brother) points out that some 80% of prisoners smoke. This is more than four times the national rate. I know nothing about smoking or prison so I asked someone who has experience of both to comment. The following words in italics are his.  

Surprised (and not surprised) they haven’t sorted this one out. When I was a guest, after the ban came into force, smoking happened in cells and all communal areas, but was officially allowed only in cells. Officers (in the open prison) usually went outside to smoke, but very likely smoked on the wing after lock-up. I don’t recall smoking in the gym or education block. I got the impression that the ban was not enforced because it could increase tension, violence etc, even riots. Also many prison officers smoke. 

As we know well from the debate about the distribution of condoms in the early days of the AIDS crisis, prisons are public places (condoms could not be distributed to prisoners because homosexual acts were permitted only in private). 

This is the Orwellian/Carrollian unreality of the prison system. The entire system is about fear, first of the ‘other’ who needs to be locked up, but much more pervasively from the point of view of the lower castes of the criminal justice system (prison officers, some police officers), fear of ending up on the wrong side of the door, very justified by the fact that the state monopoly on violence attracts these servants who take a deep enjoyment in the enactment of this violence. They are often people with strong criminal tendencies who are able to act out their natures in a structured and legalised manner. 

Tobacco, clean urine, drugs etc are currency in prison. And as such vectors of violence. The removal of the privilege of being able to purchase tobacco from the canteen is also a major (violent) sanction available to the prison authorities.The health of prisoners is of no account. So that is not a reason to stop smoking in prisons. All actions by the prison are intended only for the benefit of the prison. It is a closed system: physically, emotionally, spiritually, legally, morally. Read Solzhenitsyn.

There are as many opinions on prison as there are prisoners; prison reformers - professionals and volunteers - would do their best to counter some of the views above. Meanwhile, the current situation on the smoking ban’s application to prisons seems to be an obscure tangle of expediency and riots.  

He looked past him and seemed indifferent, but he noticed that after each puff (Tsezar inhaled at rare intervals, thoughtfully) a thin ring of glowing ash crept down the cigarette, reducing its length as it moved stealthily to the cigarette holder. Fetiukov, that jackal, had come up closer too and now stood opposite Tsezar, watching his mouth with blazing eyes. Shukhov had finished his last pinch of tobacco and saw no prospects of acquiring any more before evening. Every nerve in his body was taut, all his longing was concentrated in that cigarette butt—which meant more to him now, it seemed, than freedom itself—but he would never lower himself like that Fetiukov, he would never look at a man's mouth.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  

Story Time, a free exhibition in the Supreme Court, features works by offenders, secure patients or detainees under 18.

Two items in particular catch my eye. The first, Inside, represents either the controversial Hymn by Damien Hirst, or the Humbrol toy of which Hirst asked technicians to make a 20-foot-high copy. In 2000 Hirst paid an undisclosed sum to avoid a breach of copyright action by the toy’s designer and manufacturer.  

The Guardian wrote: ‘The artist has also agreed to restrictions on future reproductions of the polychromatic bronze figure, described by one critic as "a masterpiece" and "the first key work of British art for the 21st century", which Hirst admitted was inspired by his son Connor's anatomy set.’

I am also intrigued by Vinopoly, a cryptic board game by an entrant from Vinney Green Secure Unit (detail shown here). The exhibition, run by the Koestler Trust with Victim Support and the Supreme Court Arts Trust, ends on 7 December 2017.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Supreme Court: there's rue for you

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I live, runs a special group for young mothers. A mother has to be at least 12 years old to join. 

For the 40-odd years of their fertility, girls and women are playing in a fixed match where the other side doesn’t get pregnant.

At university I was naively surprised to meet otherwise educated girls – even biochemistry students – who were slapdash about contraception. It seemed that they were more likely to come from secure, well-off families which could cope privately with any consequence, rather than humbler stock haunted by ancestral fears of ruin. I never met my Toxteth grandmother who was a teenage unmarried mother without chances.

Fifty years after her experience, metropolitan women could sign up at the Margaret Pyke Centre, a legendary NHS birth-control research and training powerhouse (now shrunk by the cuts). Back in the day you might have got an appointment there with one-time physician to The Grateful Dead Dr Sam Hutt, aka country and western singer Hank Wangford, whose albums include Cowboys Stay on Longer

I remember him being rather touched during a coffee shortage in the 1970s when grateful vasectomy patients plied him with jars of instant. He still trains doctors and nurses between gigs.

Until 2002 the Centre was led by the non-judgmental Professor John Gillebaud who in his book The Pill points out that giving a child or a woman the right to say no is a powerful contraceptive. He is concerned with population and sustainability, and as we move to standing-room-only we are reminded that the planet has the right to say no to the lot of us.

Nobody would advocate abortion as primary birth control, but when there’s a failure of hardware or society or health a pregnant woman may find out who claims to own her. 

Today’s case (day two of a three-day hearing) is In the matter of an application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review. It asks if failure to allow abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape or incest violates the European Convention on Human Rights. 

In Northern Ireland, abortion is allowed only to preserve the mother’s life, because the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply there, and the maximum penalty for illegally procuring a miscarriage is life imprisonment. Some of the cases cited today are heartbreaking.

In The London Review of Books (17 Aug 2017), Joanna Biggs writes: ‘Northern Irish feminists can’t rely on Westminster: many people reminded me of the moment in 2008 when Harriet Harman blocked a move to extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland in order to gain votes from the DUP for 42-day detention of terrorism suspects. If it makes travel to England harder, Brexit will make access to abortion harder too.’

She adds: ‘The 1967 act was preceded by the Bourne case of 1938, when a gynaecologist turned himself in having performed an abortion at St Mary’s Paddington on a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by several soldiers. (She had been turned away by St Thomas’s on the grounds she might be carrying a future prime minister.)’

We have a prime minister who is still in hock to the pro-life DUP. A report on abortion law in Northern Ireland, completed last year, is yet to be released because of the stasis in Stormont.

In a letter responding to Biggs’s article, writer Elizabeth Gabriel describes what happened after a condom failure when she was a student at Bristol before the Abortion Act: ‘I knew that I wasn’t ready to have a baby, so I tried jumping off tables (gingerly), taking scalding baths, drinking a lot of whisky. Then a friend gave us the name and number of a midwife in the docks who sometimes provided abortions to dockers’ wives whose husbands refused to use contraception.’ Legal minds will know whether that was technically an assault by a husband on a wife.

In court today, Lady Hale pounces on a contronym: she asks counsel if he is using the word ‘sanction’ to mean ‘permit rather than punish’. Contronyms have contradictory meanings, such as cleave and oversight. I am at the stage of life where I feel more keenly how quite a lot of things harbour their opposite, including life itself.

‘It’s an emergency,’ says the young woman asking the pharmacist in Boots for a continuation supply of the Pill without a prescription. The pharmacist and I glance at the self-conscious emergency himself, standing beside her. She gets her supply. True privilege is not knowing how privileged you are. 

Counsel cites Lord Bingham on Pretty beneath his portrait

'There's rue for you,' says Hamlet's Ophelia, handing out an abortifacient. Is she pregnant?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Supreme Court: a shard of history

I wish I'd watched a recent episode of Coronation Street in which an artist breaches section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 by drawing live action inside one of the lower courts (i.e. not the Supreme Court, which doesn't sit in Weatherfield).

In real life, an artist has to draw such scenes from memory. This was not a plot line but a collective mistake. The subject of the picture is the alleged victim of sexual abuse so she would not be portrayed anyway, even from memory. It has led to complaints to Ofcom and apologies from Corrie chiefs.

This is Lady Hale's first session as President, joined by two of the three new Justices, Lady Black and Lord Lloyd-Jones. All is serene on the bench while courtroom nerves are about normal: just before the second half, a lawyer breaks a glass. Symbolists would say this represents a ceiling.

The usher emerges cheerfully from behind the scenes: 'Did someone make an impact in there? Everything OK? I've seen a lot worse.' He sorts everything out.

The appellant, who in 2010 was the first barrister to become a partner in a legal disciplinary practice, is here to observe. Daphne Evadne Portia O'Connor v Bar Standards Board asks whether, in a claim that a prosecution breaches human rights, the time limit for bringing proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998 runs from the date of acquittal/conviction or the date on which any appeal is concluded. And was the High Court judge right to conclude, for the summary judgment application, that Portia O'Connor's claim of indirect discrimination under ECHR had a realistic prospect of success?

Counsel are softly-spoken. Lady Hale reminds them: 'The first duty of any advocate is to be heard,' adding that the microphones are mainly for recording and transmission, with only a small amount of amplification.

'I can't hear anything,' says the woman behind me. She adds, 'They are all beautiful,' referring to the row of students in front of us, and leaves.

Outside, another bench, another beginning.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

Bench pressing: 'Debating Judicial Appointments in an Age of Diversity'

Are you bench-fit? There's a handy 'Am I Ready?' guide on the Judicial Appointments Commission website.

I picked up this tip in Debating Judicial Appointments in an Age of Diversity (Routledge, £115) edited by Graham Gee and Erika Rackley. These essays spotlight key questions, such as the level to which judicial appointments should be political.

And what is merit? Sir Thomas Legg, former Permanent Secretary to the Lord Chancellor, writes: 'We appear to owe the concept of merit for public appointments originally to the Chinese Civil Service in the Qin and Han dynasties.' I would like a whole chapter on this, with sample exam papers and ink drawings of Confucius, but it is not to be.

Legg expresses doubt about lay members of selection committees: 'For many reasons, lay members are often likely to defer to their judicial colleagues in these decisions.' This is countered by Jenny Rowe, the first Chief Executive of the Supreme Court: 'The judges were always very respectful of these levels of expertise and welcomed the perspective offered by lay members...There was no shortage of lively discussion and debate, and no question at all of the lay members being supine.'

Sadly, proof-reading budgets are slashed nowadays. For example, page 34, with its three references to the 'Prime Minster' [sic], sounds the Proof-Reader Attention Deficit Alert (PRADA), pointing to that trippy state in which subconscious urges to be skimming Vogue over-ride what you see. But cost-cutting doesn't allow for a second proof-reading and sometimes not even a first.

Sketch of Christopher Allan at Judicial Images workshop
Uncritically, I would say that the best bit of the book is Appendix IV - included in the free preview on Amazon - which is about how I came to draw the cover illustration. I'm indebted to Christopher Allan, Court and Ceremonial Manager at Ede & Ravenscroft, for giving me a close-up view of the robes in his care, groomed like champion race-horses.

If you think you're hard enough for the bench, then - even without issues of diversity - you'll be interested in the matters this book raises.

Coda: if you prefer the soft and fluffy, may I recommend The Supreme Court: A Guide for Bears.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

Another pro-EU march

People wear the flag any way they can. A woman with a seaside-postcard cleavage is wearing a plunging tight blue sheath dress and gold stripper heels. She sits next to the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square.

You can't beat a good reversible hand-embroidered placard.

The man wearing an ersatz space outfit didn't expect to meet a veteran of the Apollo moon landing programme. Pat Norris received the Apollo Individual Achievement Award from Neil Armstrong in 1969, and the Arthur C. Clarke Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016.

David Davis has said: "Half of my task is running a set of projects that make the Nasa moon shot look quite simple." But he's having a bash, on our behalf. Marvellous.

Brexit threatens to harm the UK space industry. Athough the European Space Agency sits outside the EU, a third of ESA programmes have EU funding. The UK is preparing to shut itself out of those.

The speakers here are a mixed bunch. Protest marches depend on volunteers and donations. But we're trying to look like the top team, not something dumped outside Oxfam in a bin-liner. So can we apply a bit of quality control? Be ruthless about who's allowed to speak. Set time limits. Screen out the ranters and the laboriously unfunny. Jab speakers in the arm with a darning needle if they go on too long. Today an emerging star is Conor McArdle, a twenty-year-old law student from Northern Ireland.