Sunday, November 30, 2008

Go Your Own Way

"Cool", or whatever new-fangled word is replacing it these days, is over-rated.

The pursuit of "cool" is what forces the Jeremy Clarksons of this world into wearing tight jeans well into their dotage. It's why you hide your record collection from your friends. It's what stops you spelling Rap with a Capital "C".

However, there comes a point where your street-credibility has fallen away to such an extent that you reach an Event Horizon and you realise that you will never be taken seriously by anyone half your age ever again.

And that's when you relax and buy trousers with elasticated waists and sensible slip-on shoes in whatever darned colour pleases you.

It's also when you don't mind admitting you spent the morning listening to Fleetwood Mac.

Hard to describe Fleetwood Mac. They've were formed the year after I was born, have survived a succession of line-ups of extremely variable quality and have produced some rather excellent music. If you've watched TV at any point you will have heard their music although these days it tends to be in the background or in the adverts.

The incarnation I prefer is the line-up they had for the "Rumours" album - their tricky thirteenth album. For a group that are pigeon-holed as being purveyors of shallow elevator-music, they were having a hard time of it :-
  • Mick Fleetwood (Drums) - divorcing
  • LIndsey Buckingham & Stevie Nicks - relationship disintegrating
  • John & Christine McVie - marriage imploding
I think that tension definitely raised the temperature of the music on that album. I do recommend dusting it off and having another listen.

Especially "Dreams" which is Stevie Nicks at her soulful conflicted best. If you want to know how great a singer she was, compare with The Corrs' painfully twee version of the same song. Yeek!

But just for the record, thunder doesn't only happen when it's raining.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Soft Justice

Anthony Marland from Ashton under Lyne, Greater Manchester was finally jailed for four months recently after being caught driving while disqualified for the 54th time. People are quite understandably asking what the heck happened on the previous fifty-odd court appearances.

Well, it seems he got a community order which he broke and a suspended sentence but otherwise the magistrates presumably kept fining him and re-banning him.

I would launch into a rant ... but ... er (fidgets nervously) you see ...

It's like this. At the recent magistrate training we were working through a example where a young driver was caught driving while disqualified. For the fourth time. I was in a group of five students and most wanted to send him down for 3 months or so. I suggested something along the lines of :-

"Isn't that an over-reaction, given that the worst he's had so far is a fine. Let's give him a high community penalty - a last chance to sort himself out"

Well, I managed to talk them round and we kept our fictional scallywag out of clink.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

Driving while disqualified is the moral equivalent of mooning the courthouse while smoking a joint. It shows total contempt for the court and the law and needs a punishment that would deter the vast majority and properly punish the odd one or two who think they can get away with it. Doing it multiple times is beyond belief.

Well, I know that now and I'm fortunate that I've been able to make my mistake in the classroom.

But you see I think even the old push-over soft-touch that I so recently was would have sent the guy down fifth-time. I don't know the full story obviously but as to why it took so long, my ghast is as flabbered as anybody's.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Magistrate Boot Camp - Day 3 : Virtual Reality

After a very technical session on dealing with fine defaulters, we spent most of Day 3 role-playing some fairly realistic cases.

It's going to sound strange but it surprised me how little my colleagues resembled rookie magistrates during the roleplay. It was always a fear of mine that when I walked into court it would be obvious to all that I was a newbie. You forget that there are no training wheels and there are no "L" plates, so there's really no visible way to tell just how experienced a given panel of magistrates are. It's possible that a sixty-something is just starting out, while a forty-something might have been doing the job for twenty years.

The least experienced magistrate of the three (I'm told) tends to be given responsibility for looking up the "book" value of any offences in the Sentencing Guidelines. And there's no way someone can screw up something that simple, right ?


I took my turn role-playing the chairman as we tried a low-level Ecstasy dealer (actually a fellow magistrate in his early sixties trying to play-act a sullen teenager). Now, "E" is a Class A drug and dealing it is a serious no-no. In fact, in all but the mildest cases it's too heavy a crime to be dealt with in the Magistrates Court and all we can do is to tee it up for the Crown Court.

M'colleague entrusted with the guidelines however had drifted off, hadn't listened properly to the charge and was under the impression that Ecstasy was a Class C drug. Thus we spent quite a while considering exactly the wrong scale of sentences and almost needed to be rescued by the legal adviser. Very embarrassing for all, because there's an enormous difference. Dealing Class A can attract a serious jail sentence (up to Life) while dealing Class B/C is most likely to be dealt with through a community order.

You can be sure that we've all learned a powerful lesson from this, and from now on we're all going to pay close attention to the charge and will triple-check that we've got the right page.

Drug trivia : If you and mates are sitting around and sharing a joint, when your mate on the right passes-de-dutchie-to-da-left-hand-side, he is guilty of supplying drugs to you. Equally, when you pass it on, you are supplying too. The technical term is "Sharing minimal quantity between equals on a non-commercial basis", but it's a step up in charge from "possession for personal use".

Violence trivia : A head-butt can be considered to be "assault with a weapon" and you're in a lot more trouble than if you had thrown a punch. Kicking too, if you're wearing shoes of any kind - even trainers.

Right, core training over. Now all I need to do is to somehow fit in three court observations and to attend the swearing-in ceremony.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Magistrate Boot Camp - Day 2 : Heavy Traffic

This morning was all about sentencing. Nothing to do with capital letters and full-stops, rather the art/craft/science of finding a punishment to fit the crime.

There are Guidelines - lots of them - to ensure that each bench of magistrates produces something like the same sentence for similar offenders committing similar offences. Still, these guidelines are written in English, and so differing interpretations are possible.

This interpretation can have quite an impact, for example where Magistrates differ on whether an action is considered to be "premeditated" and this has a devastating effect on sentencing in Actual Bodily Harm cases. For example, one way you could end up painting over graffiti at weekends for a while, another way you end up losing your job and slopping out in an overcrowded prison.

There is also the issue of whether the Magistrate is :-
  • A Guardian-reading, vegetarian, doe-eyed, bleeding-heart liberal
  • Sarah Palin
Honestly, I really tried very hard not to be either of these - but in every single one of the exercises I ended up sentencing lower than everyone else in the room. I wasn't necessarily wrong on individual cases, but I'm not sure I'm being an effective Justice if I'm consistently under-punishing.

To remedy this, I'm intending to embark on a toughening up regime. Think Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver" :-
  • Read the Daily Mail for a month
  • Memorise two or three of Norman Tebbit's speeches
  • Shoot a moose and eat it
The afternoon was all about traffic offences and the tedious 14-step process for working out how much to fine various varieties of car madness. It's a sausage-machine : feed in the offender's weekly income, match the crime to the example in the guideline, adjust upwards or downwards depending on circumstances, turn the handle and swipe the offender's plastic.

It's an important subject which I promise to study more later, but the truth is that I spent most of the afternoon session wishing someone would drill a hole in my head to let the boredom out.

We ended the day with a short talk from the guy from the Magistrates' Association. Poor guy had to give his presentation to a room full of people, slack-jawed and vacant after sitting through several hours of road traffic calculus. There was an undignified rush for the door afterwards as we all headed for our cars to drive home with even more Due Care and Attention than usual.

Two days down - one to go.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Magistrate Boot Camp - Day 1 : From Geek to Beak

You can be almost totally ignorant of the law and still pass the interviews to be selected to be a Magistrate. It's your common sense and judgement that is deemed important at that stage.

However they don't let you into the courtroom for your first sitting unless you've got some basic knowledge of rules and procedures.

Which is why thirty-odd of us are spending the next three days in a hotel conference room with the senior Justice Clerks and a blizzard of flipcharts and powerpoints, getting acquainted with the finer points of sentencing and case management.

It has been very practical - some very testing scenarios that would make your straight hair curl, and your curly hair straight. In particular, one unpleasant (fictional) sexual assault case where we had to decide whether (a) they were likely to get more than 6 months in prison, hence it was a job for the Crown Court or (b) Magistrates Court was appropriate.

Even though it was a printed example and it involved a fictional victim and assailant,I had a very strong emotional reaction to it. Fortunately all the particulars of the case that made me sick to the stomach turned out to be valid reasons to crank up the tariff for the crime and, as it turned out, I would have been right to follow my gut and pass it over to a judge and jury.

It's good to know that there isn't always a disconnect between how bad a crime feels and how seriously it is taken by the courts.

We had split into groups to discuss that case in different corners of the room and it was strange to listen in as four groups of earnest middle-aged people had similar overlapping conversations, slightly out of synch, using sexual words in a legal context. The word "ejaculation" in particularly seemed to pass around the room from one group to another, like some obscene sea shanty.

One day down, two to go.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Driving without due care

Driving drunk is a bad thing. Ditto for drugs. But driving listening to music can be just as dangerous. If you have a feeling for music, there are pieces that are not merely distractingly good, they are forgetting-to-breathe-and-ploughing-through-a-bus-queue good.

Take for example an old favourite of mine from 1994 : "Roads" by Portishead. After a four hour drive home during which it played constantly over the ostinato of my diesel engine, I stumbled into the house, sought out Mrs Stan and demanded she immediately explain why it just worked.

Not "Darling I'm home after four nights away on the road, kiss kiss", but a wide-eyed madman wanting musicology, stat.

As I've explained before, I'm not a sophisticated musician and there is usually some laughably simple trick that has tickled my reptilian brain-stem. The musical equivalent of waving something shiny at a baby. This time however, Mrs Stan had to resort to Purcell, Bach and Scottish folk music to explain what was going on.

Anyway, apologies to anyone taking the scenic route through the Cotswolds from the M4 to the M5 past Swindon and Cirencester yesterday evening. I hope my singing didn't affect the quality of my driving too much. It's a beautiful road and I promise next time I drive it I'll play something less distracting and keep my mind on the road.

Other Emotional Music I shouldn't listen to while driving (the emotion varies):-
  • "Karma Police" - Radiohead
  • "Exit Music (for a film)" - Radiohead
  • "End of the World News" - Tom McRae
  • "Paint it Black" - The Rolling Stones
  • "My Guitar Gently Weeps" - The Beatles
  • "Sinnerman" by Nina Simone
  • The Queen of the Night bit from Mozart's "The Magic Flute"
  • Richard Strauss' "Four Last Songs"
  • Mahler's Fifth Symphony
  • Schubert's Ave Maria
  • Sam Cooke - "A Change is gonna come"
  • David Bowie - "Wild is the Wind"
  • Nirvana - "Something in the Way"
Update : I found a live version of "Roads" on YouTube, and it's even better (apart from the yahoos whooping over the quiet bits).

Kenny : agreeing with your recent comments on Dido. I want to force her to listen to Beth Gibbons and scream "Like this, like this, you hack".

Dido is James Blunt with breasts - Beth Gibbons is a singer.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Magistrate Mentor Meeting

Sorry it has been a while since the last posting - I have been absurdly busy with my Day Job as well as working my way through the magistrate core training workbook in my copious free time.

I had a pleasant meeting today (Sunday) with my magistrate mentor. He's an 8-year veteran, who is currently in the throes of his magistrate chairman training. The idea is that in my first year we will sit on the same panel of magistrates together on between three and six occasions. The fact that he isn't yet a chairman means that when we do sit together there will be two old-hands with me, which is quite a comforting thought.

The workbook is hard-going. I've been repeatedly told that we're not expected to have mastered it before we attend training, but I'm someone who finds it difficult to do part of a job.

One of the ways I'm attempting to get on top of the material is with mind maps. I've recently discovered the FreeMind software which makes it very easy to draw them. Here's my crib notes on Road Traffic offences for example :-

Finally, some trivia on Road Traffic offences with which to amaze your friends:
  • You can get points on your license for disobeying a "Stop" sign, but not a "Give Way" sign
  • Kerb Crawlers can be disqualified from driving, even though the offence is not one which involves getting points on your licence.
  • Any sob-story you use to attempt to escape disqualification cannot be reused within 3 years.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Swearing can Big and it can be Clever

I thought there was a good chance that the recent kerfuffle about comedy on the BBC would be used by some people as a weapon to push home a prissy conservative agenda.

I figured it would the Undead Concerned Christian Tory Viewers Society or similar; but now it seems that the push is coming from tabloid newspapers which have made good livings from sex scandals and pictures of bethonged celebrities' girlfriends.

I'm against gratuitous swearing - but no swearing at all ?

Scott Adams, the creator of the "Dilbert" cartoons once extracted the basic elements of comedy :-
  • Clever
  • Cute
  • Bizarre
  • Cruel
  • Naughty
  • Recognizable
His theory is that only by combining a number of elements can anything be truly funny. Taking the example of the phone-message from Brand and Ross, this only ticked the box marked "Cruel" and that's why it was it wasn't at all funny.

The usually excellent Emily Maitlis on the usually excellent "Newsnight" programme took one of my favourite jokes of the last year and used it to beat up on a BBC representative as an example of how offensive comedy on the BBC had become.

I would contend on the contrary that this particular joke should be handed down through generations of comedians to show them what a well-constructed joke looks like. It should be ruthlessly compared and contrasted with the inarticulate dung-chucking in which Brand and Ross indulged. I'm disappointed that Emily Maitlis would pretend not to understand the difference.

Frankie Boyle's joke was on "Mock the Week" and if you missed it, it is currently available on YouTube here.

Here are the points I would make about it (no, I'm not going to repeat it):-
  • He said "Pussy" and not one of the more usual stronger, meaner words for the same thing, and that made it all the funnier.
  • He said it was "haunted" which is a bizarre notion and infinitely preferable to any other descriptions involving death, decay and dessication.
  • It was a clever, bizarre, admittedly cruel, naughty joke delivered by a cheeky chappie at the height of his powers.
  • It absolutely slayed the audience and his fellow comedians and me at home. You can forgive a lot when a joke just "works".
What's the harm in an adult listening to a joke like that ? None. Things get more complex when you talk about kids. Sure, there's a watershed but there's also YouTube, BBC IPlayer and Digital Recorders. There's a debate to be had here, but let's admit that it's a complex one and don't let's kill what is good with simplistic calls to ban everything.

Vote Frankie Boyle.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Unfashionable lack of anti-Americanism

You have to be impressed by the American people. Not just from seeing the pictures of fired-up voters queuing for hours to cast their ballots. The thing that got me was just how well-mannered the two candidates were after the result. Obama called McCain "a brave and selfless leader". McCain braved some booing from his defeated supporters to be equally nice to Obama.

McCain's concession speech was rather good. He made the point that being an American meant more to him than being a member of any of other organisation, the Republican party included. I wish I believed that British politicians had that level of commitment to their country.

I just love the fact that whatever the imperfections in the US electoral process it sets up a magic moment in January when the most powerful man in world will hand over power to his political rival without a shot being fired.

Could you imagine this happening in ancient Rome ? Sub-Saharan Africa ?

How many lives are lost in failed and successful coups throughout history ? How often has the best man for the job resulted from military regime change ? You usually end up with a macho gun-nut (or his inbred kid) who bankrupts his country in foreign adventures and brutal snuffs out dissent at home.

Not that George Bush was a good advert for a peaceful process. At least the American people were smart enough to bring in the 22nd Amendment which means you only ever get eight years of a bad president.

So hats-off to the American people. I hope you've got yourself the president you deserve, and if you haven't your Constitution will ensure you can get yourself another one without picking up any of those millions of guns you like to keep around the place.