Monday, 19 March 2012

John Cooper QC, leading counsel for Occupy London

‘Many people think that if they’d had a jury they’d have won,’ says John Cooper QC. He was leading counsel for Occupy London in the High Court case brought by the City of London to evict the St Paul’s camp. He also argued in the Court of Appeal for the right to continue the case there.

‘The atmosphere in the courts was great,’ he says. ‘It was very much – not that I was there at the time – the sort of atmosphere you could imagine would’ve filled the revolutionary courts of eighteenth century France but without the violent connotations - packed with different people from Madame Defarge to the aristocrats.

‘Occupy instructed me to put some really good questions to the City and the church. When Nicholas Cottam [the Registrar of St Paul’s Cathedral] was asked, “Are you giving this evidence with the church's blessing?” he said yes. That's always mystified my clients, the church saying that they were neutral and then sending Cottam to give the damning evidence which helped to build the case against Occupy.

‘A lot of the general public were supporters of Occupy. One argument was that schoolchildren were unable to visit the church - whereas a lot of schoolchildren were brought to see Occupy.

‘The dynamics of the whole thing were fascinating, between the church and the state. The irony of ironies was that St Paul was a tentmaker. The occupiers didn't aim for St Paul's in the first place – it was the police who kettled them there. If one believed in such things one could say it was the hand of God – forget Maradona, look at the iconic nature of St Paul's, surviving the Second World War.

‘There were some very quirky moments. On the first day of the High Court hearing a group of Cambridge students passed an academic letter to the judge asking esoteric points of constitutional and ecclesiastical law. And in the Court of Appeal the Master of the Rolls said he’d rather read The Occupied Times than the Daily Mail.

‘I got involved because Duncan Roy, a former pupil here at these chambers [25 Bedford Row], rang me up on 15 October and said, “We're occupying outside St Paul’s and we need some urgent legal help.” When I first took it on there were a couple of people who thought I was some sort of City undercover agent. One of the individuals who challenged me about that had the good grace at the end to apologise.’

The named defendant representing Occupy, Tammy Samede, was originally too shy to speak at meetings. ‘I wondered at one stage whether she was confident enough to get into the witness box,’ says John. ‘But she was very good, particularly in her addresses to the camera, and she’s become very assertive. She’s grown as a human being, quite frankly.’

I (this is your blogger talking) was in the public gallery when Tammy gave evidence. At one point the cleanliness of the camp was at issue, and she was challenged about a hasty clean-up organised when the occupiers discovered that the judge would be visiting.

Tammy replied coolly: ‘I would always clean my house if I was expecting a very important visitor.’

‘I’m very flattered,’ said Mr Justice Lindblom, twinkling behind his specs as the public giggled.

John says: ‘They achieved an awful lot in the High Court and came away with great credit. There was a defined amount of legal material with which to work, but as well as the black letter law argument my clients were interested in raising the principle of the occupation.’ Occupy’s entire legal team was working unpaid.

(Two of the arguments were that the City’s demand for eviction was disproportionate to the effects of the camp, and that the occupiers’ right to a protest site outweighed any need for eviction. Some witnesses wept while giving evidence, one while denouncing global warming as genocide, an issue worth having a protest camp site for.)

John says: ‘The High Court judge and the three judges in the Court of Appeal all commended the integrity and decency of the Occupy clients, which was really important because when it comes to the debate in the future I don't think they're going to have the stigma that was unfairly placed upon them of being loony lefty hippies – not that there's anything wrong with lefty hippies – but it was used as a derogatory term to distance the argument. From now on people are going to have to treat them with respect.

‘It's been a great experience with a group of people from disparate backgrounds – a broad church just as society is. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in May.’

(Events are being planned although John is not privy to that aspect of their work.)

John has just been named as one of The Times’s Top 100 Lawyers: ‘The first I knew of it was being congratulated on Twitter. There are very few genuine surprises left and that was one of them.’

His latest press article is on circus animal welfare in Criminal Law and Justice Weekly @CrimLawJustice: ‘I'm reviewing the law relating to keeping captive wild animals in circuses, commenting that the Government should do what they keep promising to do. That is, ban it. The Government are waiting for a decision in Austria to make sure they’re not going to be sued. Which is disappointing because they won't be. So although Defra are going to issue some licensing procedures, wild animals are still being used in circuses. How long do they have to wait?’

Animals ‘performing’ for human amusement include zebras, lions, snakes, tigers, camels, a kangaroo and a crocodile. John is also the chairman of the League Against Cruel Sports, which campaigned for the hunting ban and helped to draft the Bill.

The conversation drifts. ‘My education was at a comprehensive school. I come from a working class background, so no lawyers in the family, and I was told when I went to the bar in 1983 that “people like you don’t become barristers.” Funnily enough it wasn’t the barristers telling me that. I must say that the bar was very inclusive and supportive, and I’ve recently been made a Master Bencher of the Middle Temple which I’m very proud of. One of my loves in life is history and it’s one of the best inns of court to be involved with for history. Shakespeare set the start of the Wars of the Roses in the garden, and the hall is a fine example of Elizabethan architecture. A table there is made from the wood of the Golden Hind. It was also the setting for the first production of Twelfth Night, in the presence of Shakespeare.'

He reminisces about acting some years ago:

‘Apparently I was a good Iago.

' “Now, by heaven,
My blood begins my safer guides to rule;
And passion, having my best judgment collied,
Assays to lead the way. 'Zounds, if I stir,
Or do but lift this arm, the best of you
Shall sink in my rebuke.”

‘That's Othello speaking – I even learned Othello's lines.’

He studies the drawings. I’ve been talking too much, not concentrating on drawing enough. Still, ‘I love your style with the lines.’

Sunday, 4 March 2012

Occupy London at Finsbury Square - bones and mudslinging

Life class model
I came under attack for writing this particular post, which must now read as follows:

'You've got balls to [censored], ' she [censored] at me, yesterday's make-up scribbling dejection on her face.

It's raining. The Finsbury Square Occupy London camp is a mud bath with a track of slippery decking partly covered in chicken wire. Some of the puddles are filled with shredded Christmas trees.

(The Occupy censor commanded me to delete the previous paragraph, but the meteorological records for London are freely available and I don’t expect you to believe that Stalinist sunbeams dance perpetually on the blithe upturned faces of occupiers.)

She is certain [censored] Twin Towers [censored] myth [censored].

Look, I record. This blog is subtitled 'drawing from an uncomfortable position'.

Here's an example of what I mean. Last week the life-class model apologised before undressing: 'I've been ill and I'm very bony.' My callous eyes lit up. 'Don't diss yourself,' I said. I should have filled her with fish and chips and Guinness but I revelled in the skeletal sight. We purred at her frangible beauty as we drew.

And now I think I've achieved the unthinkable - being told to get the hell out of an all-inclusive Occupy site. Then the Scouser Jimmy, who has slept rough outside St Paul's for the last ten years, assures me that I have some way to go: 'You're always welcome here, Princess.'

There are rumours of imminent eviction even though no formal notice has been served. A black duffel coat lies in the mud. In the crowded kitchen tent, damp Occupiers steam gently, eat curry and watch West Ham in a football tournament sponsored by RBS.

The municipal flower beds commandeered to grow food make me think of anxious, undernourished evacuees. There is no root-room for fruit trees as a multi-storey car park lies under the six feet of soil.

The Occupy guide to management without managers is waiting to be written, starting with the need for nominated press spokesmen. Today's Sunday Times has effected a stitch-up by quoting Occupiers who are decidedly off-message: one says he raises funds and then spends the money on drink and drugs.

Rosa, recovering from viral pneumonia, has a damp tent. I fetch some old copies of the FT from the car to sop up water. I explain to her that I don't feel welcome on site. Oh, I hear someone clomping up the decking to seek me out. The look is minatory. 'I DIDN'T THROW YOU OFF THE SITE, I JUST SAID YOU'VE GOT SOME BALLS TO COME BACK HERE AFTER THE WAY YOU WROTE ABOUT ME.'

I go to St Paul's Cathedral. In the crypt cafe is Gbola, decorating his conversation with snatches of hymns. He needs shelter following last week's eviction of the St Paul's camp. Obi, a gentlemanly Occupier and Star Wars fan with a vast social conscience, is fighting fatigue: he spent last night making sure Gbola was safe, first in an all-night cafe then, from 4am, on the concourse of Liverpool Street Station, among homing clubbers.

Gbola can't sleep at Finsbury Square because his wheelchair will stick in the mud. Canon Mark Oakley and two vergers take up his case; a member of the cathedral staff takes Gbola in a cab to St Martin's in the Fields, by Trafalgar Square, in the hope of finding shelter for him there. I reflect that compassion needs to be dispassionate in order to work.

I go to Starbucks and draw three children. Their mother,Tammy Samede, found her voice as the named defendant in the High Court eviction trial.
Nathaniel gazes at me with the ancient wisdom of childhood. He understands that being a sitter is a job of work and has an unnerving grasp of the collusion between sitter and artist. Unlike many adults he does not look down at my paper: he knows that he, not the picture, is important, because I have to look at him more than I look at the drawing.

I drive home. On the car radio a choir sings: 'Keep calm and carry on' from Traditional Values, composed by Orlando Gough with words by Guyanese/British poet John Agard.

Gough tells an interviewer that the work reconsiders a 'warm beer, John Majorish' Britishness, focusing on tea, the weather and cricket. 

He's quoted on the internet: 'The tone is affectionate, ironic and celebratory, and the music is suffused with influences of pop, gospel, reggae, calypso, bhangra and qawwali. What is really being celebrated here, I think, is...stoicism, tolerance, adaptability, irony and...diversity.'

The choir sings:
Certainty can be a curse.
It can lead to bigotry or worse.