Saturday, 18 December 2021

BVL cover pictures

BVL, formerly Big Voice London, now reaches beyond the capital to inspire students in non-fee-paying schools to explore the legal system. Since 2017, Peter Sloper and I have been doing the covers for the students' annual reports on how they would change the law.

Graphic design: Peter Sloper
Illustration concepts: me. Execution: me 2017-9, Peter 2020-1

For the background I used the painting overalls of Ben Wilson, the Chewing Gum Man - I write about being out on the pavement with him here.




BVL approved the concept - then I got lockdown lumbago and was unable to lift a paint brush, so Peter kindly finished the job.

Same again minus lumbago

Tuesday, 4 May 2021

Life class and a Gerry Adams court case: sketchbook muddle

Don't take anything for granted. Things I sort of took for granted were the weekly life class, the Good Friday Agreement and live drawing (with permission) in the UK Supreme Court. Two are currently impossible because of Covid-19 and one is under threat because of human idiocy.

This muddled-up sketchbook has become an accidental record of two, with overtones of the GFA, in that a court case in central London involving Gerry Adams (although absent) did not require massive security.

It shows life drawings from a couple of weeks' sessions, and sketches R v Adams (Northern Ireland) which was heard on 19 November 2019. In May 2020, the Supreme Court quashed Gerry Adams's convictions for escaping from the Maze prison in the 1970s.

Thursday, 14 January 2021

Shibari (Japanese rope bondage)

Catullus: Shibari Carmina, my illustrated free translations of 60 poems by the late Roman poet Catullus, is published by Carcanet Press.

Bemused by the equipment, the stagecraft and the risk of permanent nerve damage, I wonder if it would just be simpler for them to have sex. But that’s missing the point.

I’m at a performance of Japanese rope bondage (shibari or kinbaku), the block-and-tackle pinnacle of BDSM in which a DIY-minded master suspends a submissive from a beam or ceiling hooks. I’m also sketching, in the hope that the hectic spectacle will loosen my line as the riggers tighten theirs.

I’ve been asked if the performers have sex as part of the show. Oh, spare us. They’re here for knots. Such as the Somerville Bowline, derived from a knot called ABOK 1445, aka the Myrtle Hitch. It’s named after a place in Massachusetts, not my old Oxford college. I’m wondering if this is the opposite of sex.

The rope is less than 1cm thick. Silk for La Perla moments. Hemp rope is pale and soft - think of macramé hammocks for hanging baskets. If oiled, it’s tacky, smells farmyardy and leaves a grease mark on fabric. Coloured rope is for mood-signalling or matching the curtains. Harsh jute rope doubles as sash-cords. A rigger shows me his hands red-raw from smoothing out the kinks in new rope: this reminds me of the Victorian prison punishment of picking oakum.

During the set-up you hear the click of carabiners. A lot of climbers are drawn to this caper. Dr Phil, a burly French top, is an electrical engineer: he tells me it’s all about working with cabling.

Gorgone and Esinem
The top re-fashions the puppet this way and that. The pace is fast. But despite the apparent helplessness of the bound captive, who’s really in charge? Ask Gorgone, a French pioneer of both tying and being tied. It’s a paradox, she says. As a top, the experience is about humility. As a bottom, it’s about power.

And it goes beyond flesh or seediness. She says her bondage work is ‘born from the desire to break free from the sexual and S&M connotation that it carries. My mission is to convey the unique experience and aesthetic of the body in ropes to a broader and more mainstream audience.’

Gorgone performs and teaches around the world. No western woman has won more esteem from the Japanese keeper of the flame Akira Naka. ‘When he ties me,’ says Gorgone, ‘I feel like a river under the rain. Powerful, fluid and peaceful but very melancholic.’

Gorgone is a no-carb vegan vaper without any apparent room to store her internal organs. She can shape her spine like a U-bend. Naked, she is invulnerable, and turns up the voltage for an audience.

‘Ropes are my oxygen,’ says Gorgone. She feels like the golem, the formless creature of clay moulded when the Hebrew word emet (truth) is written on her forehead. The rigger creates the model. Rope shapes the shapeless. 'I was nothing and your eyes saw me,' she says. 

Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them. – Psalm 139, verse 16

And how do you cope with the pain of being hoicked up in rope? ‘Eroticise it,’ says Gorgone, with a headmistressy stare through her vapour veil.

Kitty Rea

That leads to the inevitable question – what is erotic?

‘Eroticism is irrational; explicable but irrational.’ That’s Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, quoted in the Financial Times, in an aside about eroticism and power.

Dry Sin and Billie Rose
It’s easier to say what is not erotic. Nudists. Nudity. The Naked Rambler. Life class. Valentine’s day. Synthetic fibres. A body harbouring silicone. Anything contrived.

To generate an erotic charge in shibari, stay covered up. I give extra points for spectacles although they fall off. I revere kimonos, in which the site of érotisme is the exposed nape; acres of fabric cascade from the suspended body. Inside or outside the bondage arena, you can’t go wrong with a twinset, pearls and well-fitting gloves.

Participant in class at Anatomie Studio

The shibari cliché remains bloke-ties-fit-bird but there is an increasing amount of woman-ties-woman. I like older-man-ties-older-woman for the mellow emotional currents, like the switching moods in the ember days of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. 

Ayumi LaNoire

Koi Ku Nawa and Isabell

Then there are solo diversions – people self-tying in rope, or realising variations on Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man in a metal hoop. Ayumi LaNoire, whose portfolio includes shibari and fire-eating, is a star performer on a golden pole – as geisha, Hello Kitty schoolgirl, tragic blindfolded vamp. She can support herself horizontally on the pole. After her performance, the brawny guys have a go. They can’t do it.

Nina Russ tying Missy Fatale

At the beginning of tonight’s show, Nina Russ, an empress of rope, calls me over. Eyes bright, she starts to tell me about her day: 'I felt a wave of pleasure all over my body. And adrenaline.'

Ayumi LaNoire

Steady on, girl. But she’s talking about gardening as usual. ‘Rope bondage is like growing vegetables,’ she says. ‘When you start to tie someone, you don't know what you'll end up with.’

‘Suspended in rope,’ writes Gorgone, ‘my body forgets the ground. It falls, but doesn’t fear any impact. In this space between high and low, gravity turns into benediction; the fall is veiled in immortality.’

And that’s eroticism. Anything veiled.

Friday, 3 July 2020

A Court of Specialists: Judicial Behavior on the UK Supreme Court

Wisden will be rather thin next year, so if you like chunky facts and statistics why not console yourself with A Court of Specialists: Judicial Behavior on the UK Supreme Court, a volume to make the spotters’ eyes sparkle. (The American spelling reflects the key market of the publisher, OUP.)

The author, Chris Hanretty, is Professor of Politics at Royal Holloway, University of London. Although he is a political scientist, his aim is not to probe the Justices’ personal politics: ‘There has been no suggestion that politics matters for appointments to the Supreme Court. Indeed, it is difficult even to form an impression of what nominees’ politics might be.’ (What Justices may do in retirement is another matter.)

This book covers the period from the Court’s beginning in October 2009 to September 2017, so it misses out the turbulent prorogation spectacular of 2019, R (on the application of Miller) v The Prime Minister and Cherry and others v Advocate General for Scotland, which did much to raise the Court’s profile. 

Professor Hanretty’s thesis is that specialisation dominates every aspect of the Court’s work, from who gets heard to who dissents. He calculates, for example, that Lord Neuberger weighed in at 74% tax/chancery before reaching the Supreme Court, while Lord Sumption, appointed from the bar with no bench form, ‘has been imputed values equal to the mean for English and Welsh judges.’

‘The argument of this book,’ he writes, ‘is that…the Supreme Court is a court of specialists, and that its work should be interpreted in that light…Although the court may sit in panels of five, seven, or nine, the bulk of its work…is carried out by…individuals who have given over a substantial part of their career to tax law, family law, criminal law, or public law. This specialization means that the effective size of each panel is much smaller. This in turn reduces the scope for disagreement, and makes it much easier to sustain higher levels of unanimity.’

This book is for anyone engaged in Supreme Court haruspication. Although Professor Hanretty points to the turf guide which suggests that the Government and parties using the most costly counsel tend to have a good chance of success, there are no easy answers and you are cautioned to cast your net widely: ‘Betting markets [in this case Betfair]…proved accurate in the [first] Miller case. Two weeks before the court handed down its judgment, a £1 bet on the eventual winner would have given a return of just £1.23, compared to a return of £4.70 in the event of the government winning…The betting markets thus made a confident and correct prediction about the outcome of a Supreme Court case.’

That case (R (on the application of Miller and another) v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union) is one of two appeals spotlit in the introduction. The other is R (on the application of Newhaven Port and Properties Limited) v East Sussex County Council and another, a lyrically English village green case with added maritime romance. As Lord Carnwath points out, perhaps misty-eyed, the appellants relied on Hall on the Seashore, Phear’s Rights of Water, and Stuart Moore on the Foreshore. A 1904 decision of Vaughan Williams LJ is cited: he was the uncle of Ralph Vaughan Williams and you can hear the swelling strings.

The poet George Crabbe keeps trying to break out in the scene-setting at the beginning of the judgment (Lord Neuberger and Lord Hodge). Their conclusion is elegiac: ‘The poet Ovid spoke of time as “the devourer of things” (“tempus edax rerum”. Metamorphoses 15.234).’

I’ll bring in the translator Arthur Golding:

Thou tyme, the eater up of things, and age of spyghtfull teene [vexation],
Destroy all things. And when that long continuance hath them bit,
You leisurely by lingering death consume them every whit.

There is no poetic soul in Miller 1, enacted before a sour and riven nation, with angry tides lapping at judges left undefended by a feckless Lord Chancellor. The only balm was to see the Supreme Court, at a time of unprecedented pressure, being hospitable and accessible (‘The communications could not have been better,’ wrote David Allen Green for the Financial Times), and to witness competent, articulate people at work, contrasting with the strident reverse-talent contest across the square.

I hesitate to judge this book by its cover because it uses one of my drawings of R (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice, the assisted suicide appeal. On his feet is Paul Bowen QC, representing the late Tony Nicklinson and Paul Lamb. He was leading Guy Vassall-Adams, seated to his right, who became a QC in 2016. I blogged about it here.

Nicklinson was one of the rare hyper-important cases with a panel of nine Justices instead of the normal five – not surpassed until both Miller appeals with panels of 11. Professor Hanretty uses Nicklinson to show that the UKSC may find ‘in favor of the government, but at the same time puts the government at notice that it might not be so lucky next time… The court was asked whether UK policy in relation to assisted suicide was compatible with the Convention right to respect for private life (Art. 8)…Three judges (Neuberger, Mance, and Wilson) said that it would be appropriate for the court to say whether or not the policy was compatible, but that there was insufficient evidence for them to do so in the present case…Decisions…like this suggest that judges are eminently capable of reaching decisions that are political in this sense.’

The book concludes: ‘There has been almost no study of public opinion regarding the court, of media coverage of the court and its rulings, or (save in very specific cases) the reaction to the court in the political sphere. An investigation of this kind seems necessary if we are to know whether the court’s expertise brings with it the trust of the people.

The feverish public response to Cherry/Miller 2 moved things on a bit. And we might well ask, post no-deal Brexit, who will protect the judiciary from the suspicion of a squalid government? Where would the people rather place their trust? This book takes the Human Rights Act 1998 as a given.

A Court of Specialists: Judicial Behavior on the UK Supreme Court by Chris Hanretty, OUP, £64, also an ebook

Friday, 26 June 2020

Judging by appearances

Pope II, Francis Bacon, 1951, Kunsthalle Mannheim
Online hearings, eh. Screenshotting and drawing from the screen are illegal. I don’t see the point of drawing from memory when you can google the postage-stamp faces.

Robed or not, the judges trapped in their doll’s house squares on Skype for Business evoke Francis Bacon’s screaming popes. The stifled command, the confinement, the frustration with the bundles.

Above the Master of the Rolls, the grid lines of polystyrene ceiling tiles recede to infinity. They echo the popes’ geometric cages of paint.

The Master of the Rolls’s camera is not static so we view his surroundings from different angles. A green glass banker’s table lamp, a Victorian tiled fireplace, photos on the mantelpiece, highlighter pens, teal and dark red curtains in a design I would call ‘John Lewis first nation’. 

He sips water from cut crystal while presiding in a panel of three judges which I represent thus:
Sir Osbert Sitwell; Sir Sacheverell Sitwell, 6th Bt; Edith Sitwell by Cecil Beaton,
vintage bromide print, 1927, National Portrait Gallery, London

At a time when we are encouraged or mandated to wear masks, the case concerns automated facial recognition (AFR). Counsel muses where AFR stands in relation to other areas of identification such as fingerprinting,  DNA or CCTV. He asserts that CCTV is a greater intrusion than AFR in that it identifies ‘what a person is wearing or doing’, makes a ‘moving record of a person’s actions…happy or sad, peaceful, drunk or aggressive’; ‘identifies who a person is with and [apparently] talking to’. AFR is a tool that ‘simply narrows the pool of individuals that an officer would be looking at.’

Ed Bridges disagrees. Liberty, supporting him in R (Bridges) v CC South Wales & others, comments: 'In the world’s first legal challenge to police use of this tech, Ed is arguing the force is breaching rights to privacy, data protection laws, and equality laws.' One argument is that AFR can produce false positives/negatives, like Covid-19 tests.

Jason Beer QC wears antlers made of a light fitting. No one is robed, but if this were a real court should masks be added? Yes, says barrister and singer Ben Seifert, campaigning on the basis that courtrooms are enclosed talking shops with poor air flow.

Here is a faithful representation of the hearing:
Francis Bacon’s Study for a Head under the hammer at Sotheby’s New York, 2019

A – pumped-up legal commentator holding gavel
B – observer in jacket by Cath Kidston (subsequently in receivership owing to Covid-19 but now trading online)
C – legal teams
D – bench
Artist Jacqueline Nicholls in her own mask
Next day brings an application hearing for Depp v News Group Newspapers Ltd & another before Mr Justice Nicol. The start is delayed while Skype for Business is temperamental. The name of Johnny Depp appears among the blanked-out observers. Numbers diminish as time goes on.

The clerk, looking cool and elegant, announces: ‘Judge has said if you want to remove jackets that’s fine.’ Counsel X waits for the judge to say it himself, then takes off his jacket, revealing too much information (sweat).  

Counsel Y, more crumpled and tousled (but in a showbizzy way) than counsel X, sagely keeps his jacket on; he also has the best lighting. He laments 'a strong sense of ambush' having received 58 documents from the other side yesterday. He presents a controlled amount of head-shaking exasperation without lapsing into querulousness. When he is not speaking we see the cornice and the top of his head – he could be eating a fry-up or talking to Johnny Depp out of sight of lip-readers, who knows.

We see the jacketless judge only in close-up, in Caravaggesque chiaroscuro. He appears to be wearing a blue and white Bengal stripe shirt from T. M. Lewin, one of which I am cannibalising for masks.

I recoil from the unedifying Punch and Judy content of this application, on a tiresomely hot day when disease, political mismanagement and climate disaster stalk the land. There is talk of vodka, domestic violence, a post-nup. The judge slows right down when taking notes about the drugs (‘MDA?’ he enquires), not on familiar working territory it would seem.

While l am watching, tech problems are confined to muffled underwater sound from one, and the capriciousness of the Skype connection. The participants display Covid-friendly face and hair touching, nose and ear scratching and one imaginary beard stroking.

The obligatory offstage electric drill strikes about 90 minutes in.