Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Talk about niche publishing - the following post will only be relevant to the tiny percentage of my already tiny readership who own a Topfield 5800 Personal Video Recorder and are having problems with it.

I bought it from a small company (3wisemonkeys.co.uk) through Amazon earlier on in the year. Worked fine for a while but then we noticed that after a few hours the quality of the TV signal would fall away to 0%, even though the strength of the signal from Winter Hill was still coming through good and strong.

I engaged in a long-running set of emails with all three of the monkeys, during which we ruled out all the standard user-related ID10T errors e.g "Are you sure it's plugged in ? Have you tried switching it off and back on again ?" Speak to any techie - the worst thing you can do for their blood pressure is to treat them like just another user. 3monkeys were polite and thorough and eventually agreed to take the machine back to have a look - if they could replicate the error then they would send a replacement.

Guess which machine ran without error for days of stress-testing at 3monkeys HQ ?

I ended up taking the "defective" machine back - this was causing me some stress at a time I didn't need stress over a mere appliance. It then became something of a hobby for me to find out what was wrong with the thing. I had many theories and all of them were falsified by experiment over a period of months, during which time I learned a lot about digital TV broadcast, reception and storage.

Then at Christmas, when I had some spare time and was rested, I read a report of overheating in a different brand of recorder in Australia. They had cured the problem there by standing the unit up on its edge, with the power unit at the top so that heat would rise away from the sensitive electronics inside the box.

Bingo - works like a dream, but does look a little odd at that angle.

It seems that the current state of the art in these digital recorders is such that you have two choices

(a) A big fan, which cools but makes a racket
(b) A little or no fan, which is quiet but which can fry

Early adopters of this technology should beware. The Topfield is otherwise an excellent product and 3monkeys are the nicest, most patient people in electrical retailing - but even so this wasn't a pleasant experience.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Stan Awards

I love the end of year lists that clutter up the newspapers and TV schedules at this time of year. It's a great opportunity to pick up out the stuff that actually has lasting importance from the flashy and the superficial. So much the better that we've got a whole decade to look back on.

The following are the Stan Awards for the twenty-noughties - beverage of their choice in my local coffee shop for any of the winners who fancy collecting the award in person.

Book of the Decade

Carol Ann Duffy - "Rapture" (2005)

So few words, all of them exquisite. Never has the arc of a passion been more skilfully evoked. You can read the poems in the book in an hour and that's one of the best uses of an hour I can think of. Set aside two or three hours though - you WILL want to read it over again when you finish.

Band of the Decade


Look, they had the album of the last decade with "OK Computer" and still somehow managed to follow it up with four great albums that bore little resemblance to their greatest hits and to each other:

2000: Kid A
2001: Amnesiac
2003: Hail to the Thief
2007: In Rainbows

Seemingly infinitely creative, even going so far as to offer "In Rainbows" as a download with a voluntary price tag.

Album of the Decade

Florence + the Machine - "Lungs" (2009)

In a different mood I could have chosen :-
  • Radiohead - any of the four albums from the decade
  • Amy Winehouse - "Back to Black" (2006)
  • Arctic Monkeys - "Whatever people say I am, that's what I'm not" (2006)
  • PJ Harvey - Stories From The City, Stories From The Sea (2000)
But I couldn't resist making a fuss about this amazing début album - warped lyrics, a fine voice, sound textures like no other, and an intoxicating sense that here is a performer with a future and I can't wait to hear her next five or six albums over the next decade.

TV Show of the Decade

The Wire

You've heard it all before, not least from me. Makes the best of the rest seem amateurish and lacking in ambition by comparison. Mrs Stan bought me the complete box set for Christmas.

Best. Present. Ever.

Film of the Decade

Shrek (2001)

Funny and imaginative, rewarding repeat viewing in a way that the sloppy sequels don't.

In a different mood I could have chosen one of these :-
  • Mulholland Drive (2001)
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
  • Children of Men (2006)
  • Man on Wire (2008)

Thursday, December 24, 2009


There is a battle raging in the Stan household and poor Stanetta is caught in the middle, having to choose sides.

The dispute is around the use of the word "dialoguing", which Mrs Stan used in an essay recently and which gave me something akin to anaphylactic shock when I read it.

To me, there are valid situations where converting a noun to a verb just works. For example, I don't object to the use of "to oil" instead of "to apply oil" - nor do I whince when "chair" is used as a verb. Yet the use of "dialoguing", "medaling", "signaturing" and even "transitioning" can raise my blood pressure more than reading about a mere human rights abuse. What does that say about me ?

No, don't answer that.

In the case of "dialoguing", this was a perfectly acceptable verb form to Shakespeare, then it fell out of fashion for a few centuries before being enthusiastically adopted by the kind of management consultant that gets paid by the syllable. I'm sure it's this Bullshot Bingo association that provokes my response.

Mrs Stan and I agree to disagree on this, but really it's down to Stanetta - she inherits the English language from our generation and it will down to her lot to decide whether in future we will "dialogue our issues and language a response".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Troubled Visitor

Some days the visitor statistics for this blog throw up a surprise - some people find themselves here for the strangest reasons.

For example, one recent visitor had found my posting on the various grades of Assault by asking Google the following question :-
"if i plead guilty to a section 20 gbh will i go to prison"
The short answer is "probably", but I have a few pieces of advice for them:-

(a) Don't rely on a Google search to make a life-changing decision like this. Get a lawyer - get one now.

(b) Pleading guilty is a smart move if you are guilty and you know you are guilty - it is likely to earn you a significant discount on your sentence or even improve your chances of escaping a prison sentence altogether. But check with a lawyer before you do.

(c) Pleading guilty is the right and proper thing to do if you know you are guilty. Not just for you, but for everyone affected by the incident and for everyone who cares for you. But check with a lawyer before you do.

(d) If you're Not Guilty then it's doubly vital that you start talking to a lawyer now.

Did I stress highly enough the wisdom to getting yourself a lawyer and getting one now ? Seriously, nobody on the Web knows enough about your position to help you out of the hole you find yourself in. Stop doing Google searches and start dialling numbers out of Yellow Pages for solicitors.

And if you find yourself back at this blog sometime, I'd love to know how you got on.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

War Crimes and Bald Tyres

There's a big tray of forms in the retiring room - I figured they were all sentencing decision proformas or biscuit requisitions. Now that I know that somehow it's possible for Magistrates to issue warrants for the arrest of foreign politicians, I will definitely pay a bit more attention.

This week's sitting didn't have nearly that amount of drama, which was just as well because the Chair didn't show up and two Magistrates with a combined total of three years experience had to take care of business.

Pick of the cases was that of a confused old man who had had two blow-outs on his trailer. His response ? Keep on driving.

Eventually a concerned citizen called the police to report a car and trailer bouncing diagonally through the town centre. The vehicle examiner's report read like an air accident report - he had absolutely wrecked the brakes, the axle, the lights. Worst of all the tyres were so far gone that he had probably carved tramlines in the road surface with the rims.

What made the case interesting to me was his utter inability to grasp that he had done anything wrong. His story when stopped by police had been that he was on the way to the garage to get the tyres fixed. Even if that was true (and the vehicle examiner was doubtful), how did he convince himself that driving a death-trap through a population centre wasn't any kind of problem ?

He was genuinely gob-smacked when we found him guilty and docked his benefits for the next two years or so. Guidelines allowed us only to put three points on his licence though, which sounds mightily lenient to me given the potential mayhem that he was risking - imagine if he had kangaroo'ed through a bus queue ?

The thought that haunts me is this : When I do my 30,000 miles per year, how many people like this am I sharing the road with ?

Sunday, December 13, 2009


At the end of your first year as a Magistrate (assuming you haven't run away screaming by then) you get a couple of days consolidation training to prepare you for your assessment.

Good to catch up with my peer group - lots of great war stories, but we did all promise confidentiality so I'll resist the temptation to pass any of them on. Suffice it to say that I got some reassurance that my experience of the criminal justice system I sporadically document here is not at all untypical.

We did some role-play scenarios of the type that were fascinating when we tackled them in basic training, but now we've actually experienced dozens of real cases they are completely unsatisfying. We've all seen how the outcome can depend on a number of subtle features that you won't see summarised in a one paragraph summary.

Another difference from last year was that the groups didn't get wildly different answers from the exercises. Which is reassuring - shows that the training and the guidelines actually do seem to do the job.

The biggest shock was working without an experienced Chair. You don't fully appreciate what they do until you try to replace them with a rookie and watch the process unravel.

At the end we were shown a short piece of propaganda to the effect that we should consider the effect on witnesses before agreeing to a postponement of a trial. A very laudable aim that I'll definite take note of, even though the production values of the video nearly gave me the giggles.

All in all, not nearly as blogworthy as the initial training I'm afraid.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Strange Days Indeed

In my dreams I'd want to crash through the end of the decade sideways in a race car with bald tires, an empty tank and the brakes on fire shouting "BEGGAR ME ! WHAT A RIDE!"

What's actually happening is that I'm driving up a snow-covered hill in a 1966 Hillman Imp. My rusty 874cc engine is spluttering and my wheels are spinning as I slowly slide back into a ditch.

The run-up to the Christmas break has been so weird and warped. Stanetta has gone down with yet another ailment. Work has gotten strange in a way I'm neither enjoying nor understanding. I've got some Magistrate training and sittings to fit in. I'm tired, confused and short of patience and good humour. I've also acquired a Urologist.

Ho, ho flipping ho.

One recent task at work was to calculate the number of working days between two dates. Easy enough to say in English - actually quite difficult to write in an efficient piece of SQL. I found I kept testing it by calculating the number of working days between now and Christmas. I'd then run it again and again to see if I could get the number to fall.

Are we nearly there yet ?

And another thing ... why does "The Guardian" think I'd be interested in some free wrapping paper designed by Lily Allen ??? What's next - carpet tiles designed by Bamber Gascoigne ? Michael Palin's tiffin recipe ?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Becoming a Magistrate - The Case for the Prosecution

When I ask a salesperson to tell me about their product, they usually give a long list of the advantages. When I ask them about the downsides, in my experience they either tell a joke and change the subject or fib their heads clean off and say that there are none.

My favourite way around this is to ask the question :
"What do you think [[insert name of competitor]] will say about your product when we talk to them?"
This usually prompts a little bit more openness - they start defending the perceived weak points of their product. This is great - because five minutes ago there were no potential weak points that needed defence.

Let's look at the sales job being done to recruit Magistrates. If you read the Government website and the Magistrates' Association public pages, it's all a warm fuzzy glow of public service and personal growth. Sounds as though everyone ought to apply, right ?

But :
"What would a bitter ex-Magistrate say if you asked them if you should apply to be a Magistrate?"
I don't have access to one of those at the moment, but please allow me to speculate:-
Imagine wanting to help your community and improve yourself. Now imagine you can't do it, because you're stuck in a crummy building applying narrowly defined government policy.

You want to help your community ? Great - there are dozens of charities that need people with your brains and energy. Thanks to the legal bureaucracy, you will spend a vanishingly small amount of your time doing anything helpful as a Magistrate. And even then - many of your decisions will help no-one. Your guidelines say you need to fine someone with no money, you fine them. You can't help an addict - you just need to keep fining or jailing them for the crimes they inevitably commit. Yes, once in a while you "win", but it's such an inefficient process - you'd be better off helping to run one or more of the charities in your area.

Want to improve yourself ? Get a better job - the one you're in obviously isn't stretching you. All you'll do by becoming a Magistrate is to make your job more stressful by taking away your free time and holidays. Retired ? See my section above on charities - they need you and you'll learn so much. Want to keep your mind active ? Crossword puzzles are excellent.

Think it'll look good on your CV ? I don't even mention it on mine - it just confuses people - makes me look like a part-time IT guy whereas the clients are looking for commitment. If you think it'll improve your chances of a political career, I suspect stuffing envelopes, making calls and generally being smarmy for a political party would be a better use of your time.

Being a Magistrate gets you little respect. Most people either don't know what you do or suspect your motives. You're tied up in Guidelines and squeezed between the police who dish out fixed penalties and cautions and the higher courts. Your powers are limited, but this doesn't stop the press getting personal when something goes wrong.

In short, what the salespeople tell you might be true - what they don't tell you is that there are more efficient ways of helping people and of improving yourself.

And with that, the Prosecution rests.

If you are considering becoming a Magistrate, please consider carefully both sides of the story. It's not all good and it's not all bad. Consider the alternatives you have, and when you've arrived at a decision, act on it.

In other words, do exactly what a good Magistrate does.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Becoming a Magistrate - The Case for the Defence

Most instruction manuals are written by experts who really can't remember what it was like to be a clueless newbie.

For example, an AA operator once asked me whether my fallen-off-into-the-road-car-exhaust had "snapped forward of the manifold". I almost wept, because despite my extended education, there wasn't anything about the question that I understood.

Similarly, if you try researching a question along the lines of "what's so great about being a Magistrate ?" you tend to get rather unsatisfying answers.

Take the following page from the Magistrates' Association website Why become a Magistrate ?". It answers many questions, but "Why?" is certainly not one of them. I suspect the author of the page takes it totally for granted that everyone in the world knows the many benefits and that it would be a waste of typing to list them all out.

Try the main UK government website here and you get some vague Human Resources jargon and an even vaguer appeal to some kind of patriotic selfless idealism.

What you really need are some practical, tested and selfish reasons why you would benefit from getting involved.

These are my personal reasons and they are in no particular order and there are no money-back guarantees if they don't work out for you :-

  • Really quite a few of your pre-conceptions will not survive direct contact with the reality of the criminal justice system. This is a good thing - it's called "learning".
  • In your outside life you will develop confidence to make and carry out decisions that don't make everybody happy. I sweat and fret a lot less these days before doing the right thing. Look back in your life - have there been times when your attempts to please everyone have pleased nobody ? Have you avoided doing what you knew was right and mentally beat yourself up for years afterwards ? Yeah, try not to do that so much.
  • You'll meet some remarkable people in the retiring room. One or two opinionated bores and space-wasters but there again, too few to mention.
  • Doing something worthwhile that isn't motivated by the need to pay the mortgage feels great.
  • Stepping out of your day-job gives you some real insight into what's important and who you are. You realise that you are not just your job title.
  • Stepping out of your day job allows you to flex some new muscles, and to give the usual overused ones some much-needed rest
  • There will be times when your decisions make a real difference. During your next day at the office, check how many times you make decisions and of those decisions, how many of them resulted in any material change. Unless you're a forward air-controller or a heart surgeon, I suspect the number will be low.
  • By grappling with seriously hard (and often impossible) questions, you'll find that you aren't as clever as you thought you were and that there's plenty more for you to learn. I find it useful to be reminded of this now and again.
There are other minor points, involving biscuits and improved listening and note-taking skills, but the points above are the main reasons why I'm going to continue into a second year.

A bit one-sided ? Surely there are negative issues ?

Coming soon : my top ten reasons why you would be better off not applying.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My Name is Stan, and I am ...

... a snob.

Well, a recovering snob. Maybe.

There was a time when I'd turn my nose up at a film unless it was in some exotic language and consisted mostly of an old man smoking cigarettes for three hours and then moodily bouncing off on a spacehopper. Books with plots, dance performances that actually fitted the music, poems that scanned, paintings that looked like anything at all - how on earth could any of them possibly be any good?

"Mainstream" was my favourite four-letter word and damn you for a small-minded individual if you dared point out that it has ten letters.

The first piece of evidence that I'm changing is Miranda Hart's sitcom "Miranda" on BBC2. She is in no way tries to Subvert The Form or make us think and at no point am I tempted to rub my chin and murmur "Interesting ...." or "How True!". The physical humour is rather blatant, the language is simple and the situations far from complex.


She makes me laugh. Out loud and often.

I've applied my analytical brain to the reason why, and all I've got is this:-
She's a funny person doing and saying funny things.
Look also at "Flash Forward" on Channel 5. The acting is wobbly and the dialogue is risible. But, you know what ? I couldn't care less. Because what it does have is a white-hot plot and insane amounts of pace. And sometimes that's enough to get you through an episode to the usually jaw-dropping cliffhanger at the end which makes you want to tune in next time.

In my snobby days, I'd have called it a "popcorn drama" - in fact, I still do, but nowadays I add " ... and could you please pass the popcorn".

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Victim of Crime (but which one ?)

Following on from my blog about assault recently (here) - can anyone tell me what the scumbag in the following incident should be charged with ?
"I was cycling along a main road, very much "in the zone" when a car overtook me and the passenger leaned out of the window and yelled in my ear - hoping to make me fall off and damage myself in a vaguely amusing way."
It seems clear to me that some kind of assault happened, even though no actual damage was done, but I'm not actually the right person to make sense of this because :

(a) I'm a Magistrate and not a legal expert


(b) Because I was that cyclist, and my instinct would be to sentence him to a good kicking by the roadside. This is not a something the Sentencing Guidelines would approve of.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Don't ask me about my day - I might tell you

Up at 05:00 to dig my car out of an ice-block. Mrs. Stan made me a sausage sarnie for the road last night, but I left it by the door thanks to my early-morning head-fog. Drove down the M6 mentally kicking myself and actively considering turning around to pick it up. Figured if I did, I'd likely be tempted to take it upstairs to my still-warm bed and eat it and then go back to sleep and to heck with making a living.

I resisted temptation and pressed on. A stale croissant and weak coffee at Warwick was no substitute for the sandwich which I was starting to hallucinate about. I could taste it, smell it in my mind. Soft sausage, crispy on the outside with plenty sharp English mustard in cotton-wool bread. Six, maybe seven feet long ...

There was some honest-to-goodness fog too, which made driving difficult - and an overturned lorry near Oxford that made driving impossible. The Sat-Nav shrugged her shoulders and took me laboriously through the car-hating centre of Oxford and onto a route that almost, but not quite, converged with my intended destination. For an hour and half my Sat-Nav told me that I was 65 minutes from my destination. If you want a vision of hell, imagine being perpetually 65 minutes away from a destination you're not particularly looking forward to reaching. And more - with every mile, you're a mile further away from the world's finest sausage sandwich.

I arrived at work to find the car-park overflowing - I had to drive around twice until I found a place even to double-park.

And then my working day started.

Next week if you hear of someone doing a handbrake turn and driving the wrong way up the M6, you'll know I've forgotten my sandwich again and this time I've decided to follow my inner voices.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


If you are beastly to one or more of your fellow humans, there is a spectrum of charges that can be laid against you, depending on the degree of your beastliness :-

1) War Crimes - for this you will be flown to the Hague to face a trial lasting years at the International Court of Justice. Although the way things are going, this may become the next offence deemed suitable for disposal by means of Fixed Penalty tickets and police cautions.

2) Murder and Manslaughter - I think we all know about these. Go to the Crown Court and spend a fair chunk of your remaining lifetime inside.

3) Grievous Bodily Harm (GBH) - almost as bad as murder if done with intent. The less severe cases (section 20) do occasionally arrive at the Magistrates' Court, but typically these deserve more jail-time than a Magistrate can impose.

4) Actual Bodily Harm (ABH) and Battery - two offences relating to hurting or injurying someone in a way calculated to interfere with the victim's health or comfort. In general this involves the victim sustaining at least some severe bruising. Severe cases can lead to sentences up to 5 years in prison.

5) Common Assault (section 39)- this is the most thumbed part of a Magistrate's guidelines. It includes all manner of "Did You Spill My Pint???!"/"What you lookin' at ??!" after-pub incidents involving minimal injury. At most this is 6 months in prison - but more usually it's a fine/community penalty.

One Common Assault case I dealt with involved a woman throwing a doner kebab at her ex - so we're not talking about hardcore criminal behaviour here.

But ... I saw a serious domestic violence case recently involving a sustained assault on multiple people in front of children. The injuries seemed easily to justify a charge of ABH but I was gobsmacked to see that the charge was only Common Assault.

The accused jumped at the chance to plead guilty - which reduces the maximum sentence to four months, which means in practice that they will spend at the very most 8 weeks in prison.

Pretty well any sentence we came out with under those circumstances was going to look candy-assed and totally unfitting to the crime.

But forgetting the Magistrates and the victims, this strategy would seem to be a winner for quite a number of interested parties:-

Offender : under-punished
Jails : less overcrowded
CPS : successful, quicker, cheaper prosecution
Government : statistics on serious assaults reduced

I've got a sinking feeling that undercharging assault will become increasingly irresistible, and that this won't be the last time I will have to hand down a kebab-thrower sentence for a wife-beater crime.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Every Night You Cry

The Barnardo's report "Every Night You Cry" is difficult reading, especially for Magistrates. It contains some really heart-wrenching stories from the children of prisoners, showing how locking up their parents affects them.

The part where I stopped being quite so supportive is where they propose the following:-

" measures put in place for courts to have information on the impact on the children of a defendant of any sentence they may make"

To me this pushes the blame for the suffering of children onto the nasty Magistrates, when the blame properly belongs with the criminal parents, who should have thought about the effect on their families before doing the crime.

I've put a total of three people in prison in the course of my year so far, and in all of these cases the person had numerous warnings and last chances but still persisted in offending to the point where custody became inevitable. Should I really have thought "Hmmm - this one's got kids - she gets a curfew. But that one hasn't - he goes down" ?

Bad people should go to prison when they do bad enough things.

That's not something that should be changed - but I do hope that the State and charities like Barnardo's work out a way to cushion the blow for the kids.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Joke ?

"Say what you like about servicemen amputees from Iraq and Afghanistan, but we're going to have a f***ing good paralympic team in 2012."
I was going to have a bash at commenting on Jimmy Carr's recent attempt to squeeze humour from the plight of limbless squaddies, but the guys 'n' gals at ARRSE (the Army Rumour Service) have more right to comment and they do it much better than I ever could. Follow their link here.

Oh, what the heck, I'm a blogger, so I have a licence to rant about stuff I don't fully understand:-

The only problem I have with the joke is that it's lazy. It's very obvious and not particularly incisive - Oscar Wilde it aint.

The comment on ARRSE that he probably got it from a squaddie at Selly Oak hospital is probably not far from the truth. In fact he was probably told much worse while he was there - far too near-the-knuckle for public consumption. For example, there's a squaddie on ARRSE who adds the line "Can you imagine the scene when the starting gun goes off?". Now that would have dug him a properly deep hole.

You see, people who work in dark places have dark humour, and that humour no longer works when an outsider lifts that humour from its proper context and plonks it down into a happy Manchester Apollo.

If a wounded soldier had told the joke, it would have been a killer - it would have been their show of defiance and courage. But when a millionaire comedian squeezes it in between the knob-gags, then no wonder the joke falls flat.

And anyway, today a soldier from the Black Watch died from his wounds six weeks after being blown to pieces in Kandahar. As far as I know Jimmy Carr didn't send him out there and Jimmy Carr didn't plant an improvised explosive device by the roadside. So why is it that people seem to be more cross with Jimmy Carr than with the whole range of people more deserving of our rage?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

To BNP or to not BNP - that is the Question Time

Yes, let's allow the potato-faced fascist onto Question Time.

But, let's choose the rest of the panel carefully :-

(1) Al Murray's "Pub Landlord" character ("Where would we be if we had no rules? France! And if we had too many? Germany!")
(2) Ali G ("... is it cos I is black ?")
(3) Sam Kelly's character Captain Hans Geering from "'Allo ' Allo" ("Heil Hitler ! .... Clop !")

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

HIghs and Lows

You get to see the best and the worst of human behaviour as a Magistrate.

Take today for example.

"The best" was an experienced Magistrate who glossed over his high-flying career, his charity work and his twenty years on the bench. What he really wanted to talk about was his severely disabled foster-child who is about to start semi-independent living after years of struggling against multiple disabilities and bone-headed bureaucracy. He was so proud of her, and wouldn't hear of it that he and his wife had done something phenomenal to get her to this stage.

"It's just what you do", he said.

Then we left the retiring room and we met his polar opposite.

Slack-jawed and slouching, she had never held down a job in her forty-something years. She had, however, seemingly made a career of accumulating just about every variety of fine, from TV licence evasion via drunk and disorderly to a mediumly-shocking driving offence which also required that she pay compensation to her victim. There were probably a few overdue library books too.

She had been allowed to pay off her dues at £10 per week and in the last eight years she had paid a massive total of £20 out of £2,000. When she was pursued by the Fines Office, she had dropped off the radar and moved house and binned her mobile. She probably thought that that was that, but eventually she was picked up by police on another matter, all these outstanding warrants against her came to light, and she was bundled unwillingly into our courtroom.

You and I, if we were ever in the situation of being unable to pay a fine would have made contact with the court, told them what was happening and would have tried to negotiate some alternative. We would certainly have given up drinking, smoking, partying until we were quits. And the Fines Office and the Courts do fall over themselves to be flexible in cases of genuine hardship and where honest attempts are being made to discharge the debt.

However, going on the run while sticking your fingers in your ears singing la-la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you is a completely different matter. In my pre-magistrate days, I was convinced that short prison sentences were useless and that only violent offenders should go into custody. But you tell me what else you're supposed to do with someone unsuitable for a community sentence who has persistently defaulted on fines. Fine them again ?? Yeah, right.

She was led away, crying exaggerated tears of self-pity. In my previous life this would have affected me, but not now. My overwhelming emotion in her case was of relief that an eight-year overdue debt to society had finally been settled.

Like I say, it was an eye-opener for me to see such a contrast. To be reminded one minute that there are still heights of humanity to which I can aspire and then to see how far it is possible for someone to fall.

P.S Please note that I do try to avoid the above analysis when it comes to sentencing. The oath I took was to deal with everyone in a consistent manner, "without fear or favour, affection or ill-will." So, everyone gets the same treatment, regardless of my (imperfect) judgement of a particular individual's moral fibre.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Who is Jan Moir and How Can I Persuade Her to Give Up Writing?

Thanks to the brilliantly unreliable Charlie Brooker for setting my blood thermostat to "boil" this morning.

He pointed me to a barely literate hack on the Daily GuessWho called Jan Moir, who wrote a particularly hateful article this morning about the death of Stephen Gately that was barely worthy of a BNP blog entry, never mind a national newspaper.

If you were to follow Charlie Brooker's advice and complain on the Press Complaints Commission website, you'd see

(a) that the site is running extremely slowly due to the sheer weight of outrage
(b) they've had to set up a separate section specifically to handle complaints about Jan Moir

If you check out the article on the Mail's online service, you'll see that it's currently running without adverts, because Marks and Spencer have asked that their advert be removed - it seems unsubstantiated homophobic innuendo doesn't sit well with their brand values. You can imagine the voice-over : "It's not just any gay-bashing; it's Marks and Spencer gay-bashing ..."

Look, Stephen Gately was not a giant in his field. He was one of the least talented, but most ornamental members of one of the most insipid boy bands of all time. But he died without warning, aged 33 and his partner, his friends, his family and his fans are in mourning. The last thing they need is some gossip-monger incorrectly joining the dots between "Gay", "Pop Star" and "Early Death".

The overwhelming medical evidence is that Stephen died from the pulmonary oedema he inherited from his father, rather than any kind of gay debauchery.

But the truth is rarely interesting enough for the Daily Mail these days. Their readers deserve better.

PCC Code of Conduct (extracts)

Section 1 : "The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information"

Section 5 (i) : "In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively"

and especially :-

Section 12 :

i) The press must avoid prejudicial or pejorative reference to an individual's race, colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or to any physical or mental illness or disability.

ii) Details of an individual's race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, physical or mental illness or disability must be avoided unless genuinely relevant to the story.

*** UPDATE ***

If you do complain to the Press Complaints Commission, you get the following email back :-

Dear Stan
Thank you for sending us your complaint about the Daily Mail article on the subject of the death of Stephen Gately. We have received numerous complaints about this matter.

I should first make clear that the Commission generally requires the involvement of directly affected parties before it can begin an investigation into an article. On this occasion, it may be a matter for the family of Mr Gately to raise a complaint about how his death has been treated by the Daily Mail. I can inform you that we have made ourselves available to the family and Mr Gately's bandmates, in order that they can use our services if they wish.

We require the direct involvement of affected parties because the PCC process can have a public outcome and it would be discourteous for the Commission to publish information relating to individuals without their knowledge or consent. Indeed, doing so might unwittingly add to any intrusion. Additionally, one of the PCC's roles is dispute resolution, and we would need contact with the affected party in order to determine what would be an acceptable means of settling a complaint.

On initial examination, it would appear that you are, therefore, a third party to the complaint, and we may not be able to pursue your concerns further. However, if you feel that your complaint touches on claims that do not relate directly to Mr Gately or his family, please let us know, making clear how they raise a breach of the Code of Practice. If you feel that the Commission should waive its third party rules, please make clear why you believe this.

Press Complaints Commission

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The Benefits of a Scientific Education

Morning in my Travelodge pod-room, and I discover that there's no plug in my bath. I don't want to run down to reception, all angry and naked, and so I improvise.

I take the standard-issue plastic cup, invert it over the plughole and hold it in place until the water covers it completely.

At this point, a combination of air pressure and water pressure hold it in place and I can wash my bits and pieces, leaving me clean, fragrant, and not a little smug.

And yes, I spent some of this morning naked, taking pictures of a plastic cup in my bath and posting them on the Internet. Just be grateful the camera wasn't pointing the other way.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back Home

It's unusual for our court to see simple traffic cases. By and large, people tend to grudgingly pay the fixed penalty rather than to take on the inconvenience of defending themselves and to risk the possibility of receiving a much bigger fine.

Which was why it was a shock to see Private X the other day, fighting a minor traffic ticket (£60 fine plus 3 points).

He had actually flown back from his unit abroad at his own expense to defend the charge, had rented a decent lawyer, and had compiled a big thick dossier of photos and text (most of it of dubious relevance).

We heard the police evidence, were easily convinced by it, and fined the soldier more than twice the amount of the original ticket plus a contribution to the sizeable prosecution costs plus the blessed victims' surcharge.

Afterwards, off the record, the prosecutor shook her head and said she couldn't understand why he fancied his chances. She was plainly annoyed, saying that her department was run off its feet, and that the man-days devoted to this case were man-days that couldn't be spent on, for example, making a successful prosecution in a murder case.

Obviously that's just too bad - Private X has an absolute right to his day in court and the people our prosecutor should be angry with are the ones who are underfunding her department.

I had a theory why Private X came to court, but I kept quiet. You see, I had noticed that their first-born was in the back seat of the car at the time of the offence, and that Mrs Private X had been heavily pregnant. Was it possible that he just fancied a few days away from his unit at home with his wife and toddler and brand-new baby ? Would it have been worth risking a few hundred pounds to make it happen ?

In fact, would I be tempted, in his shoes, to do exactly that myself ?

I will, for once, take advantage of my right to silence.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


A group of people in this country are being oppressed, and I can't get Amnesty or any human-rights organisation to take an interest.

I'm talking about MPs. Apparently they are being forced to pay out of their own pockets for any cleaning fees beyound £2,000 per year and gradening beyond £1,000.

The Prime Minister spent £64 per week on cleaning a house that was hardly ever used, and this seems seems totally reasonable. You can imagine how dirty a house that is not occupied can become. And if his garden in Fife is under-pruned, you can imagine how badly it would affect his ability to do his job in London.

But seriously folks, the whining of our elected representatives (all parties) is repulsive. They've been caught behaving badly and the least they can do is to be adult about it and take their lumps. We have more to worry about than MP's private gardens. Maybe they could learn how to use a hoover and a lawnmower ?

"We're all in this together".


Ha ha.


Monday, October 12, 2009

Why? Because !

One of the hardest questions that non-parents ask parents is "Why did you want children ?"

You see, to a non-parent the downside is all too evident : expense, sleep-deprivation, worry, sudden absence of free-time, weight gain, possibility of death, labour pain, excrement. All the bad stuff is measurable and obvious : what is there that's non-measurable and subtle that could possibly compensate ?

I was listening to Nelly Furtado's "Turn Off The Light" in the car on the gridlocked M40 this morning and it reminded me of a time sometime last century when Stanetta was little. I was showing her how you could play an mp3 file on a computer, which was a quite a new concept back then. At the time I was working away a lot and this was one of my rare trips home.

I played "Turn Off the Light" in an early version of Windows Media Player, which interpreted the music on the screen with a visualisation composed of a swirling pattern of coloured lines, which seemed to please her and then slowly seemed to hypnotise her and she fell into a very untypically deep sleep on my knee. I let the music and the animation loop round as she slept and I snuggled my little girl for seeming hours, not just to stop her falling off.

If I could ever put that feeling into words, then that would be my answer to the question.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Saturday Night

I usually flee from the lounge as the title theme of "Strictly Come Dancing" plays, but today I stuck around long enough to boo Anton du Berk's entrance. Call me cynical, but I think the media storm may have turned him from being a racist to being a slightly more careful racist. I do hope in six months time, nobody will remember who the heck he was. Plenty of other good dancers can be employed with my licence fee money - why be stuck with this one ?

I'm now in my home office watching Channel 4 News on Channel 4 +1, surrounded by a lot of wires. I've been experimenting with a new database technology called "Hadoop", which involves connecting a whole bunch of machines together to work on hard sums. So, I've got it installed on any old, broken computers I've got lying around the place, and they are all running in one small room, connected by a pasta of wires. These are seriously outdated machines and they make one heck of a lot of noise. How did we ever put up with it ? I would have suggested installing it on every one of my kitchen appliances, but that's too much like the plot of the animated 3-D car-crash of a movie, G-Force.

Hadoop has enormous potential - if I were one of the big database vendors, I would be extremely worried. It's free, it holds the current record for sorting data, it's used for the biggest computing challenges on earth, and it will run on any hardware at all - down to my headless laptop and superannuated Pentium Zero tower.

It's not trivial to install - having tried it a few ways, I would definitely recommend going with Cloudera's distribution - although you do still need to make sure you've got the right version of Sun's JDK - if it doesn't have "rpm" in the file name, it's the wrong version.

I do not have the slightest idea how to end this posting - I'm actually keen to get back to my playing with my computer cloud, so I'll just suddenly stop typi...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Taken Down

When the nice police officer tells you that "anything you say will be taken down and may be used in evidence", they aren't just clearing the throat.

Maybe a better wording would be :-

"Any smart-alec statement you make really is likely to end up being repeated in court by a very smug prosecutor and nobody will find it the least bit charming.

You will want to die of embarrassment, your brief will want to strangle you, and the magistrates may have a collective coughing fit."

For example, I bet the young man I saw recently for drug-impaired driving really regrets telling the policeman "I drive better on cannabis".

There's not much a defence lawyer can do with that - in a nice snappy sentence he showed himself to be without remorse and a regular offender. Even "it's a fair cop, guv - you got me bang to rights" would have been better.

Incidentally, I doubt anybody does anything better on cannabis. Least of all something requiring reflexes and concentration like driving. Or talking to the police.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How can it possibly be "Yes" ?

I listened to a victim of Domestic Violence in court recently. She described the way that she was scrupulous about keeping receipts to prove to her man that she was telling the truth during his drunken evening cross-examinations.

The way she described it, she made it seem the most normal thing in the world that a woman would not dare lose receipts to avoid angering a man that most people would describe as "her ex".

This was a man who had assaulted her on numerous occasions, often in front of her child. He especially liked to humiliate her in front of her neighbours - which seems to be a common perk of abusing middle-class women : they likely care quite a bit what the neighbours think.

She was asked by the defence solicitor whether she still loved him.

"Yes." she said.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Proper Bad Guy

Anyone who's seen a few episodes of The Sopranos knows that major criminals don't live in the areas they control. They live way the heck out in the suburbs, where they can keep their families (and themselves) away from the havoc they cause.

I remember the chairman of the Big City court where I did an observation teasing me about the low-level nature of the crime I'd likely deal with out my way. The words "Poultry Rustling" were used. The truth is, however, that the senior dealers are more likely to live near me, even though the users are more likely to live near him. If you're looking for a top drug dealer/loan-shark/gangster, he's more likely to be wearing a Pringle at my local golf club than wearing a hoodie outside an inner-city fried chicken shop.

Incidentally, I couldn't possibly suggest that everyone wearing a Pringle at my local golf club should be arrested on spec ... No, really I couldn't ...

Anyway, suburbs are fantastic places to deal drugs. There's more cash sloshing around and the users are less street-wise, often paying well over the odds for substandard gear. Which means turf is well worth fighting over.

I saw my first major dealer the other day, passing through on his way to the crown court. Not that he was charged with dealing - he just had some questions to face regarding a business rival that he and some colleagues had supposedly taken for a ride (in a car boot) for an extended game of baseball (no ball, but plenty of bats).

It was a shock after so many of the Mad and the Sad who pass through my courtroom to finally see someone (allegedly) so genuinely Bad. He stood tall in the dock like it was his Local, totally ignored us and instead chatted constantly to his heavily pregnant woman in the public gallery. I really shouldn't have been surprised when I heard that his address was in one of the leafiest parts of our most leafy county.

When he wasn't talking to his woman, he was openly intimidating his much-younger co-accused. You felt that it was more than their lives were worth to cut a deal and plead guilty while he was around.

After the shortest imaginable time in the retiring room, we gave a big "Hell, No" to allowing bail and they were dragged away by the guards, the boss' discussion only being terminated when the door down to the cells closed on him in mid-sentence. I do hope he was giving instructions to his missus regarding the disposal of his portfolio of stocks and shares, rather than anything more sinister.

Then it was lunchtime - and we were faced with the small matter of how we would get to the sandwich shop without being lynched by his supporters who were hanging around outside the court. I always wondered at the number of well-heeled magistrates who brought in their own sandwiches from home. Now I think I understand why ...

Monday, September 21, 2009

You know you've a teenage daughter in the house when …

  • It takes you half a hour to find the shampoo among the chemistry set that your bathroom has come to resemble
  • Her quick showers take twice as much water and quadruple the time of your longest bath
  • You learn that there are four seasons in a fashion year - as opposed to the two that you recognise (t-shirt weather & too-cold-for-t-shirt weather).
  • Your paper recycling is full of glossy pictures of sexy half-dressed young women, and you didn't put them there.
  • Your bathroom smells good.
  • Shoes. Lots of shoes.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


I enjoy watching one particular defence solicitor work. She's not widely appreciated by some of the bench chairmen - they see her as insubordinate and rude. Personally, I see someone engaging in a full-throated support of the interests of her clients.

I've seen way too many lethargic defence briefs doing as little as possible for their money. Don't think for a moment that I give any extra credence to what she says, just because she says it well. It's just that it's good to watch a professional doing good work.

If one of my friends were in legal trouble, I'd advise them to do three things.

(1) Phone her and pay whatever it costs. It's probably a lot, but this one is worth it.
(2) In court, do exactly what she says.
(3) In court, don't do anything she doesn't say.

The last few times I've seen her in court she has been representing people on Legal Aid, and so they have been getting world-class legal representation and not paying for it. Do they rejoice in this and take full advantage by letting her work ? No, they tend not to. They answer back to the prosecutor, they chew gum, they swear under their breath. In one case they even turned up drunk and told a long rambling story while she was speaking.

She's a lot older than her clients and this is the point where she suddenly turns into Mother-from-Hell on her clients. In one case her client was in the dock behind a sheet of plexiglass, digging a hole for himself with his big mouth. She put on a face like thunder and turned and strode over. His eyes widened and he shut up, stepped back and involuntarily sat down. She winked to the bench and without missing a beat carried on with her argument. Pure class. Her client was someone too stupid to fear the police, the courts or anyone on the streets. And yet, through an inch-think sheet of plastic, a middle-aged woman in an ethnic skirt knocked him over with a look.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009


I'm still doing lengths up and and down England every week in the Big Stupid Spanish Diesel, which has given me scope to get extremely bored with the usual dozen or so albums I play on the journey.

For a change this week I went out of my way to pick out music I hadn't heard for some time - the theory was that if it was rubbish, Oxfam would get it, and if it was good then it would go on the list to freshen up my music rotation.

First up was "A Love Supreme" by John Coltrane. I've heard it half a dozen times without getting it at all. I've been told a few hundred times in hushed tones by better musicians than myself that it is brilliant - which always makes me feel thick.

After listening to it again, I'm no closer to understanding it and nowhere near enjoying it. Too many notes ! It still sounds to me like a pre-schooler blowing through daddy's sax after too much sugar. One for Oxfam.

Next though was a real find - Film Four's "Essential Soundtracks Compilation" album. Just check out the track list here - I listened to the second CD first and was immediately in Eclectic Music Heaven, where Chuck Berry, The Prodigy, Jimmy Cliff and The Pixies come together.

I had heard "Speaking of Happiness" many times before but would never have been able to put the name to the gloriously clear soulful voice that sings it. It's Gloria Lynne - she deserves to be better known.

But the biggest joy was hearing "Happy Heart" by Andy Williams. Big and unfashionable - it demands your attention. I imagined someone in 1969 driving up the pre-motorway trunk road in a Ford Anglia listening to it on a tinny radio. Then in my head-film, I cut to myself in 2009, driving at £60-fine-and-three-points mph on the M6 listening to it on my rather excellent stereo. Can anyone point me to more powerful voice from the last forty years. Tom Jones ? You're having a laugh.

The fact is - female "Torch" singers have never been more popular (Duffy, Amy Winehouse, the Pop Idol lot etc.) but all the male voices these days seem to be whiny indie kids. But these things should by rights come round in cycles.

So here's a prediction : the biggest selling song of the next 12 months will be a man in an Italian suit with a voice like a Viking God singing a torch song, backed by a big band playing real instruments.

Monday, August 31, 2009


They talk about "once in a generation minds", but there are actually few generations lucky enough to see a mind like Alan Turing's. Unfortunately Society's response to his homosexuality was to impose a deadly "cure" and to cut him out.

In the 1950's, his gayness totally eclipsed his accomplishments as it had with Oscar Wilde in the 1890's. Couldn't happen today, right ?

There's a petition on the government's website asking for an apology for the way he was treated. I signed it, not because it would actually help Mr Turing (it won't - he's dead), but because it's a timely warning that we need to cherish all our brilliant minds, irrespective of what they choose to do to get through the night.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Referee's Mistaken

I don't enjoy shouting at football referees as much as I used to before I became a Magistrate. We have too much in common :-

* We do an essential job that is under-valued
* We have to make complex decisions based on little information too quickly
* Everyone thinks they can do the job much better than we can

That said, I did add my my voice to the 20,000 or so Bolton fans to argue with Mr. Wiley whose shocking decision-making cost Bolton the game against Liverpool. On the plus side, it was a remarkable game of football, and Steven Gerrard's winner was an absolute belter.

I also had a bad day on the job recently, and there was one particular case which I was glad wasn't played out in a stadium.

It concerned a man that I can only describe as "a local gangster". Hardly any earnings reported on his means form, but dressed head to toe in designer gear. He walked into court holding hands with his girlfriend, who looked like a model and dressed like one too. Not cheap to run one of those I imagine.

He and some "colleagues" had been out drinking champagne in a local bar. One of them decided to do something really stupid. He went up to the bar and asked them to make "the gayest drink possible". Lots of fruit, little umbrellas, pink glass and a little pink straw. Then he brought it over to our gangster with a big stupid smile on his face.

When the dust had settled, many things had been tipped over, a face had sustained some aesthetic damage - all before Mr Corleone remembered that he was on a suspended sentence for another matter.

I don't want to go into the exact details, but every single person involved in the sentencing decision had a disaster, including this inexperienced winger. The chairman committed us to a decision early, probation took an early lunch break, and the legal advisor neglected to give us the full facts about his previous and the options available to us.

Looking back on it though, justice still ended up being done. Maybe he got a slightly lighter slap than he deserved, but it wasn't a complete disaster.

Although that's where the parallel with the Bolton vs Liverpool game breaks down - Bolton actually deserved to win, and they didn't. Thank you, Mr Wiley.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pour marcher sur un nuage

"Man on Wire" won this year's Oscar for best documentary film and I've only just gotten around to watching it.

It's the story of a French tightrope-dancer (not a mere walker) who limbered up on a wire over Notre Dame de Paris and the Sydney Harbour Bridge before taking on the newly-built New York Twin Towers in 1973.

It's a pretty cool stunt but the real story is the way his monomania sucked in a circle of friends to make this impossible dream happen. I won't spoil the plot, but there have been wars fought with less preparation and planning than went into this caper.

A highlight for me was the way he described the first step onto the wire - the moment when he shifted his weight from one foot anchored on a building to one on a swinging, dipping, twisting wire over a quarter mile column of air.

Why would anyone do that ?

Like Louis Armstrong said :

"If you have to ask, you'll never know."

Or as he put it :

"I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a 'why?' - and the beauty of it is that I don't have a 'why.'"

The very best Art forces you to change your ideas about what is possible, and by that standard this is great art indeed. A man walking on clouds certainly doesn't need a "Why?".

Speaking of great art, the soundtrack is amazing - Michael Nyman's greatest minimalist hits, including the jaw-droppingly awesome "Memorial". Also his equivalent from the century before - Satie's Gymnopédie and Gnossienne. And Fleetwood Mac's "Albatross" and "A Fifth of Beethoven" as a nod to the era of the stunt and just for laughs.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Out of Court

From "The Guardian"


Magistrates object to on-the-spot driving fines plan

Concern that fixed-penalty fines will make police 'jury and sentencer'


This is the Magistrate Association objecting to a plan to allow police to deal with minor careless driving offences with an on-the-spot fine and three points on the licence.

As I've mentioned before, a lot of the Magistrates Association's output makes me cringe. This is no exception.

If being "jury and sentencer" is a crime, then all magistrates are guilty. We establish guilt and we hand down the sentence and no-one seriously thinks that's an issue when we do it.

And anyway, the police aren't sentencing - they are handing out a fixed penalty notice that the recipient can refuse to accept if they wish to have their day in court.

Personally, I can't see what's wrong with the plan. Traffic offences (with a guilty plea) at the lower end are in any case a question of doing the sums from the guidelines, multiplying by the offender's fictional wage from the means form and swiping the offender's plastic.

I really can't put my finger on what value a court case would add.

And I can definitely see the costs.

This plan would :-

* Speed up the application of justice

* Cut financial costs

* Take pressure off the overloaded CPS

* Avoid dragging police off duty to attend court

I'm a Magistrate because I care about the criminal justice system. If I need to lose some of my "turf" to make it better, then I'm not going to whine.

The way I see it, we should be working with the police rather than seeing them as Competition and guarding our powers out of blind jealousy.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Kick Off

Finally - the football season is under way. Even watching your team capitulate in the rain in the opening game doesn't dampen that good feeling.

All summer long - these so-called sports, these mere pastimes : cricket, tennis, rugby. I ended up pretending to know nothing at all about them in order to stop people trying to discuss them with me.
"Hey, Stan - first Ashes test today !"
"Oh is it ? What teams are playing ?"

"Hey Stan, do you think Murray's going to win"
"Nah - guy can't take a punch. Probably lose by a knockout in Round 8"
There is only one sport - don't even try talking to me about any other. The best contest in any other half-sport is inferior to any football game. Not just any Premiership game - it's inferior to any soccer game, whether played by amateurs, women, children, in wheelchairs, five a side, on a beach or on top of a mountain.

I can't describe just how much better I'm feeling - football is here and this season will run into a World Cup summer, so basically we're at the start of around 20 months of non-stop football.

Life is good - and once Bolton work out how to get to the ball to a striker once in a while, it will get even better.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Florida man blames cat for illegal downloads

I just thought this was a marvellous example of the application of "beyond reasonable doubt" in criminal trials.

Sure, the cat might have done it - but 1000 images ?

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Corfu Curfew

Many would see me as a card-carrying member of the Liberal Elite - a Guardian-reading muesli-munching do-gooder.

And most of the time you would be 100% correct.

However, there are occasions when events in court turn me into "Angry of Tunbridge Wells".

Like the case of the woman who missed going to jail by a whisker and ended up with an all-you-can-eat buffet of punishments, one of which was a curfew.

"Curfew ? Like with a tag ?" she said, when she should have been leaving the court backwards expressing her gratitude to us for not banging her up.

"Yes. With a tag." the chairman explained "That's how we know that you are actually at home when you're supposed to be".

In reply she started waving a plastic folder and making crazy eyes at her brief, who suddenly remembered something and stood up.

"Your Worships, I apologise. I should have said something before, but my client has booked a foreign holiday in two weeks time and respectfully asks that the curfew requirement be suspended for the week they are away and for the week to be added to the end of the sentence."

That's the point where my inner Tabloid Editorialist woke up.

"How dare you ! You want to slouch off to Greece for some Sun, Sea and Sex while your victim is barely out of hospital ! You make me sick ! You should thank your lucky stars you're not in prison - and the loss of your holiday should be a blooming lesson to you."

But of course that's not what's happening. The day before the flight, the electronic tag comes off so she can go to the airport without setting off all sorts of alarms. Then she can lie on the beach and not come back with a tag-shaped white splodge on her ankle spoiling her all-over tan.

I guess it was within our powers to insist, but I suspect very rarely do Magistrates object. If we were jailing her, we wouldn't have taken account of her holiday plans, so why should we with a curfew ?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

The Hand That Signed The Paper

Dylan Thomas' poem tells of the impersonal mighty power of the hand that holds the pen that signs the document that ... etc. etc. ...

My hand hardly "felled a city", but it did have an eventful session in court recently.

First up, a local butcher had fallen well short of the hygiene laws and was in big trouble with Environmental Health. The tainted meat products had been confiscated and it was down to us to order their destruction. We were offered the chance to inspect them, but just looking at the photos were enough to convince us. In fact they were bad enough to turn the three of us vegetarian on the spot.

And so, with the stroke of a pen, meat was declared unfit and sent off for destruction.

Weird - when I heard the clerks talk about "all the pork pies downstairs", I assumed they were using cockney rhyming slang.

Before the next case, a constable needed a search warrant signed. He had some excellent reasons and so the document was signed. In this case, I did it personally. My scrawl with a borrowed biro meant that someone in a neighbouring big city is going to have a bunch of size twelve boots coming their door one early morning soon. It's a strange feeling signing such a document.

There followed a series of complex and rather stressful cases. So complex in fact that we twice had a split decision, the second one of these was my first experience of being outvoted.

That case involved a man suffering with a variety of mental illnesses, who committed crimes on three separate occasions while on a Suspended sentence. The theory with suspended sentence is that it is activated if you mess up even once. I thought three times was plenty, but my colleagues were swayed by his fragile mental state, so we gave him a curfew, which given his reported agoraphobia probably wasn't that much of a punishment.

The day ended around four and I went home with a sledgehammer headache. Some days I feel a toaster could sit in my seat and the outcome would be the same.

That day though, I honestly felt that I made a difference.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Forgetting Italian

My brain is full. Some would say it's shrinking as a result of the effects of ageing, but I prefer to think that nearly 43 years of Life has filled it dangerously full.

If my brain were a computer, I'd either upgrade it or toss it and buy a new one. But before it got to that stage I'd clear out all the failed downloads, free software that wasn't worth the money and all the various debris and detritus that litter an IT Guy's computer.

In that spirit I'm trying to forget Italian. Never used it, never likely to use it; so it's got to go to make room for the rest of my life.

Learning a foreign language is hard enough, but forgetting it is near impossible, especially when you never spoke it that well to begin with. When you try to forget the Italian word for "chair" (whoopie ! I did forget it !) - there's a chance you'll instead wipe out the Spanish word or the French words by accident. And then you'll have holes in the languages you want to keep.

So progress is slow and I'm not convinced that much space is being freed up, because I'm just as forgetful as I was before.

Plus, I'm looking for the equivalent of the "defrag" program that tidies up computer disks, putting information that belongs together in the same general area of the disk. Everything in my head seems to be smeared thinly across the whole brain like Marmite. Trying to piece
together a coherent train of thought involves an exhausting scavenger hunt :-

"Ah that sounds familiar - it's like the stuff I was listening to in that
place ... oh, you know, that place when I was doing that thing for the mobile
phone company in Bristol ... or was it Oslo ? Doesn't matter ... er, what did I
come in here for ..?"

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Anderson and Reed do Yellow Pony in Manchester

Update : Warning : if you believe the Guardian music critic, I don't know what I'm talking about.


I was waiting in the bar of the Palace Theatre in Manchester, idly people-watching and this guy took the empty seat at my table and said "Have you ever seen Lou Reed before ?" I had to confess I hadn't and it got a bit awkward because in truth I didn't know his work well at all.

I was there to see Laurie Anderson whose albums "Big Science" and "United States Live" were a regular background to my brave fight with university Mathematics.

Look up Laurie Anderson and marvel at all the different genres people attempt to confine her to. Art Rock ? Avant-Pop ? Transethnicism ? I actually prefer her own term : "Difficult Listening Hour".

She's best known for "O Superman" - a track that (the more missed each day) John Peel helped to unlikely, improbable chart success in the UK in the early '80s. Spoken poetry over an electronic backing from an idea by Massenet really shouldn't be so popular. That said, while she was #2 on the charts, #3 was The Tweets "The Birdie Dance", so there was obviously something in the water at that time.

The pieces that were hers on the "Yellow Pony" show were clever, stimulating and technically brilliant. Lou Reed's pieces were human and emotional and man, can he play a guitar.

The real treat though were the pieces where you had no idea if it was one of hers or one of his. Where two unique talents mingle and where the result could not have been created by any single human.

So many sounds, so many words - I have no idea where to start to explain, so I will leave it unsaid.

It was chuffing good though. Possibly the best performance by an over-60s married couple the world has ever known.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Drunkenness is nothing but voluntary madness

"Drowning your sorrows" with alcohol is akin to putting out a fire with gasoline. There is a proven link between excessive alcohol consumption and depression and schizophrenia. And it's nothing compared to what heroin will do with your mind once your last high has become ancient history.

So, when a violent man with drug and alcohol problems is brought before the bench, the Defence will often suggest that he has (for example) bi-polar disorder and so we should refrain from banging him up so that he can get treatment.

This seems reasonable, until you consider that maybe his mental problems are actually a drug/alcohol induced depression that will depart/reduce when he gets himself off the booze and the pills. Maybe he's just a violent man who drinks and his lawyer is trying to "play the system".

Magistrates are not legal experts, but we have an experienced legal adviser we can call on. What was more significant in my most recent session was that we're not mental health experts either, but often we will have to make decisions that would make Sigmund Freud himself sweat.

A large number of our clients have mental problems and all we Magistrates have are (a) The Sentencing Guidelines (b) experience and (c) compassion and integrity.

That didn't feel like nearly enough today.

Saturday, July 11, 2009


Magistrates need some kind of appreciation of the prisons to which they send a small percentage of their customers. To this end, the entire new intake of rookie Magistrates in my county have been invited to visit some penal establishments.

For my first one, I was bracing myself for a distressing life-changing experience - a real voyage to the heart of darkness for this suburban magistrate. You hear stories about the conditions, but no-one I know well enough to ask has actually been inside.

In this case though, there was no amount of preparation that could have prepared me for the surprising reality.

That it was really quite OK.

The prison is for younger prisoners (18-25 years old). The typical inmate is doing the last year of a longer sentence, and this place is something of a reward for good behaviour so far during their sentence. It is therefore not at all typical of the majority of prisons.

It's an Open prison, and even I could hop the small fence into the residential gardens behind the sports fields. Although I can't think why anyone would want to with all the education and entertainment provided inside. Car Maintenance, Plumbing, a decent library, cooking lessons and from time to time there's even a spot of Karaoke in the evenings.

The grounds were quite pleasant : a bit like the kind of technical college that you'd go to if your A-Levels weren't that stellar. The rooms were single occupancy and I've got to say I've stayed in less comfortable hotel rooms this year, although on the bright side I didn't have to submit to random searches.

One thing I learned from the visit was that inside this Guardian-reader, there's actually a Daily Mail-reader. He usually sits quietly but he was screaming in my head throughout this entire visit.
"These are Criminals ! Everyone of the these people has hurt a law-abiding member of society in some way and their victims would never stop throwing up if they saw what a cushy life these guys have.

See the facilities ? Good luck getting that kind of training if you're law abiding. What's the message here - start with a life of crime and if it doesn't work out you get sent here and become a plumber?!"
The Guardian-reader counters as follows :-
Look, it's not to the benefit of the country that these guys hang from their thumbs and get fed on gruel. They're still kids and it's not in anyone's interest to give up on anyone by the age of 20. Educate them and instead of being doomed to swing in and out of prison, they might get a trade or see a possible future that doesn't rely on crime. One day maybe they'll even make a decent shot at being a competent father to their kids and it'll stop the whole sad cycle spinning round.
It's a tough one, and the battle continues in my mind.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Lessons from the Credit Crunch

  1. I really was paying too much for my car insurance
  2. You don't need to change your car every three years
  3. Home-made bacon sandwiches are the best
  4. Spend more than £40 on a hotel room? No thank you.
  5. Just paying for a gym membership doesn't make you fit
  6. Cheap tomato ketchup is just as satisfying.
  7. The M6 toll road does not save any time - you go faster, but the road's longer.
  8. Until you get a water meter you're subsidising the large family next door with the swimming pool, 9-hole golf course and rice paddy.
But buying budget disposable razors from the supermarket was less successful. They are blue and have two blades, just like the market-leading premium brand. Except the first blade fails to cut whisker at all and the second slices your face clean off.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Do Not Open until 2159

A judge has sentenced the anal wart Bernie Madoff to 150 years in prison, which sounds about right to me. I'm sure Daily Mail readers would have preferred 300 years, but making sure he'll spend this life and two or three of his afterlives in prison seems to me to be consistent with the scale of his crimes.

To put the length of time into perspective, 150 years ago Charles Darwin published "Origin of the Species", Lord Palmerston became Prime Minister and Isambard Kingdom Brunel died.

I've seen comments to the effect that the victims of Madoff's deceit were rich and stupid, and so somehow less deserving of our pity and the protection of the Law. These are likely to be the same people who think that a rape is less of a rape if the victim was beautiful and friendly.

And anyway, it's not true that the victims were rich and stupid. Many of them were middle-class people whose advisers got suckered. Some of them were exceptional people like Bill Foxton whose response to being wiped out by Madoff was to go to a public park near his home in Southampton, lie on a bench, and shoot himself in the head.

Some of the biggest banks in the world were victims too. Even Yeshiva University was taken for several million dollars. Bernie Madoff was a former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange - not some shiny-suited high-pressure salesman.

It really could have happened to any of us. Read the account of the sentencing hearing, which includes the testimony of some of these victims. And then tell me that fraud is a "white collar" crime where the victims had it coming.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Hammers, Spinach and Dairy-Free Cheese

One of the quotations I overuse is

"To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail".

This is confidently attributed to Mark Twain in many places around the Internet, but most smart things are. Whoever was responsible for it, it's a profound truth that when all you have is X, then X will be your primary way of getting things done.

Think of Popeye, whose solution to everything is to eat spinach and hit people hard in the head. It seemed to work for him, but his problems did tend to be rather same-y. Or as Kurt Vonnegut would have it :-

"The military men want us to find the bad guys and put bullets through their brains. These are not always the best solutions--particularly in the fields of sewage disposal and birth control."

Stanetta has had some abdominal problems - she's been back and forward to hospital. She saw a surgeon - who decided the solution was cutting her appendix out. She saw an Accident & Emergency consultant and got a fistful of drugs. Then she saw her GP, who actually gave the matter some thought and suggested she give up dairy products. Which seems to be working.

It's a phenomenon I've seen in my Magistrating also. There was one man who had several mental health issues and an industrial-strength case of alcoholism. He had been arrested in the picturesque town square, out of his head on supermarket cider, shouting at the pigeons. This was pretty usual behaviour with him, and the police would usually just have moved him on. But on this occasion, he then decided to urinate against a car, neglected to do his trousers back up and started shouting at the people who were trying very, very hard to pretend he didn't exist.

Magistrates have hammers. Quite a few varieties of them, but all we have is hammers.

This guy hadn't committed any offence serious enough to deserve jail, and in fact our guidelines specifically rule out that option. So we left that hammer alone.

He had no money, so fining him was an exercise in futility.

We could impose all kinds of community penalties - but he was incapable of doing work or abiding by any kind of discipline due to his many mental issues and crushing alcoholism.

We could give him something called a Conditional Discharge which says that if he keeps his nose clean (and his trousers zipped up correctly) then there will be no penalty. But, if he commits this crime again, he'll get sentenced for that matter plus a bit extra. He had committed score of similar offences, and I could see this was a popular choice for the benches who had seen him previously. Didn't seem to be working.

There's also something called an Absolute Discharge, where no penalty is imposed. What you are saying here is that the public interest is not served by imposing any penalties. The offence will be on their record and after you've had a good talking-to by the Chair, you can go home.

We chose this final option. It's not a solution, but one thing you learn quickly as a Magistrate is that we can't solve problems. Because all we have is a bunch of hammers, and sometime hammers just don't get the job done.


On a lighter note, here is Stanetta's guide to what's worth having in her new world of dairy-free food :-


Where found


Rating /5


Provanel organic

Holland and Barret

Soya chocolate flavoured milk


Truly disgusting, tasted like sick

Sainsbury's free from


Chocolate bar and rice crispies


Yummy! Just like real chocolate

Sainsbury’s free from


Chocolate bar


Yummy! Just like real chocolate

Sainsbury’s free from


Chocolate brownies


Ok, wouldn’t call them Brownies, more chocolate flavoured stuff...

Provanel organic

Holland and Barret

Chocolate soya dessert


Went from ok to overly sweet to cardboard to yuck...


Holland and Barret

Dairy free butter


It was good- nice and creamy! However, not like the real thing.


Holland and Barret

Dairy free cheese


Regurgitated cheese anyone?


Holland and Barret

Dairy free rock and roll ice cream cones


Nice ice cream, the nuts and the soggy cone were a bit of a letdown though

Alpro soya


Unsweetened soya milk


Ok, not like real milk, like cold custard. NB not good with scrambled egg