Friday, 27 December 2013

If it's Christmas, it's Crisis

Let's start with the small print: the guests signed Crisis consent forms to release these pictures.

So. Dickens would have tried to make you weep if he'd seen Crisis in operation.

But there's no time for Mr Popular Sentiment. If you drop your guard and glimpse the enormity, the appalling insolubility of the underlying problem, or if the red rage coshes you from behind, do something constructive. Be a manicurist, make up the numbers for ping pong, unload food supplies, look after a rough sleeper's dog, give someone your undivided attention, sing.

Don't get dehydrated, don't let your blood sugar sink. Here, have a Quality Street. No, I don't know what flavour it is. Forget choice. The only reality is here, where any stray sparks of discord are quickly dampened by firm kindness and tolerance.

I'm at the West London Day Centre, the Downton Abbey of Crisis. There are tougher gigs.

We all know the chorus. There's no room for cynicism. You'll find camaraderie, instant life stories, jokes, hope.

'Put the date on this picture please. I don't intend to be here next year.'

'How long do you sleep at night? For me it's five foot ten.'

'Do you draw before you go to bed? I do. I draw the curtains.'

'Oh, don't do his picture. He thinks he's good looking enough already. He'll stick it on the wall and pray to it.'

A softly spoken guest, courteous and deferential, has a personality change at karaoke time. He knocks out I like the way you move by the Body Rockers. Cue tumultuous applause. Then he goes quietly off to the canteen on his own.

Make sure guests know what services are on offer. Would you like a shower? Game of football? Language tuition? Advice on housing or addiction? Sewing repairs to your clothes or bags? Do you just want to spend the afternoon asleep, safe, warm, dry, fed? Surrounded by scruffy and unfussy volunteers? 

I said unfussy. At this time of year I park all the crap outside - it's a relief, frankly.

The drawings here show yoga, exercise classes, the art and craft room, the hair and nail salon, karaoke. I give each drawing to the sitter as a rule, but I've kept some of the group pictures.

It's The Wizard of Oz on TV.

A guest grabs the mike and sings that Boney M song.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

She goes around showing the drawing to people. 'Look at this.'

It is herself.

Please scroll down for more images.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Uneaseful death

For with my own eyes I saw the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her, 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she replied, 'I want to die.' (Petronius, Satyricon)

But she couldn't.

As the price for her virginity, the Sibyl had asked Apollo for as many years of life as the grains of sand she could hold. But she rejected him and he punished her. She had forgotten to ask for continuing youth and beauty. Over a thousand years she dwindled to nothing more than a voice.

Doctors can dish out what feels like immortality when we don’t want it. If we're fit enough to get to a cliff top, we can jump. For some, there’s a ghastly trip to that Swiss clinic. But if we can't make even that journey, what then?

I thought today’s hearing, about assisted suicide, might be unbearable but the courtroom formality anaesthetises emotions to an extent. It’s tense though. Before the start, a barrister confesses to a court official: ‘I’ve already knocked over one of those jugs.’

Nine justices are hearing R (on the application of Nicklinson and another) v Ministry of Justice.
It’s too late for Tony Nicklinson whose widow Jane (above, centre) is in the public seats.

There’s a bit of bother with rogue mobile phones but the packed court is silently intent when counsel talks about cruel modes of death which near-helpless people have chosen because something kinder is against the law. Drowning. Asphyxiation. Dehydration.

At lunchtime the neighbours come to the foyer to sing carols: the Treasury Singers are raising money for Crisis. The holly bears a berry as red as any blood, as sharp as any thorn, as bitter as any gall. The law’s prevailing view about the right to assisted suicide is a Christian one. For discussion today is an unholy stew of human rights, the Suicide Act 1961, compassion, morals. What’s Parliament going to do? ‘There are some inactions by the legislature which are effectively decisions,’ says the bench today.

After the hearing I make my way through the dark streets. Strong healthy people step out in front of cars without looking, as usual. I meet a friend who’s a GP. I hope he'll be around if I need him for something terminal. No chance, he says. Not after Harold Shipman.

In The Savage God A. Alvarez writes that the American poet Robert Lowell 'once remarked that if there were some little switch in the arm which one could press in order to die immediately and without pain, then everyone would sooner or later commit suicide.'


River Landscape with Apollo and the Cumaean Sibyl
Salvator Rosa, Wallace Collection

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Ghosts in the plaster: a thirties council block on Ladbroke Grove

I'm at Kensal House, a council estate on Ladbroke Grove which is a long road of savage social contrasts.

Architect Maxwell Fry's white Modernist block, a riposte to the stucco terraces at the posh end, was built as part of slum clearance in 1937.

Teenagers from SPID Theatre Company are giving dramatised guided tours of the estate. Who needs a Swiss finishing school? They are poised and polite.

Full of natural light, the flats were a pioneering example of social housing, each with hot water, a bathroom and more than one bedroom. 'They were called the sunshine flats,' says our guide.

It's a listed building so the answer's no as a rule. Lifts can't be installed, for example. The tour takes in an empty flat, recently vacated through death; you can almost taste the damp plaster. A resident tells us that the neat little cupboard in the hallway is where the coal was kept.

In the community hall, lined with bunting for the occasion, there is a slap-up tea with jugs of squash.

When the flats were built, the Notting Hill race riots, Peter Rachman and that deodorised film were still to come.

I remember another council estate where I arrived as a foetus.

Thirteen-to-25-year-olds can still get involved in the Kensal Voices youth project, which is in collaboration with the V&A, the Twentieth Century Society, and North and Central Kensington Libraries. For information about SPID's free shows, email 

More pictures if you scroll down.

Monday, 25 November 2013

You can’t get the senior partners these days: a lesson in style from Ashurst Morris Crisp

In 1988, when dinosaurs roamed Hyde Park devouring hideously-attired yuppies, I wrote to the senior partner of Ashurst Morris Crisp. I’d spent an uncomfortable evening at the theatre in a badly upholstered seat sponsored by his firm.

Martin Bell's reply, dictated by the flickering light of a tallow candle, makes me wonder which senior partner today can match his style.

And has the Law Society changed?

If you can’t read the text in the photo below, this is what he wrote:

27th April 1988

Dear Miss Williams

Thank you for your letter of 23rd April. I am sorry to learn of your discomfort.

There seems to be something of a curse on that seat. When our name first appeared on it a complaint was made to the Law Society that we were thereby breaking its rules against advertising, as it might attract clients’ custom. My predecessor replied that if that had been the intention the ploy had proved singularly unsuccessful, but offered to have the plaque and, indeed, the Seat removed entirely. Unfortunately his offer was not taken up but the Law Society warned (and I do not jest) that if the Seat did effect the introduction of a client then their rules would have been broken.

It was, therefore, at first of some comfort to me, though I appreciate of none to you, that the Seat was unlikely to have that effect; but on reflection one does not wish one’s reputation to be at the mercy of an unstuffed seat and I will therefore write to the Manager of the Barbican.

Yours sincerely,

M. G. H. Bell

To find out if Mr Bell is still with us, I telephone Ashurst. The operator hasn’t heard of him and puts me through to an answering machine in the HR department.

A search of Ashurst’s website yields nothing but an exhortation to ‘adjust various search criteria’ and press the ‘Go’ button. There is no ‘Go’ button. There is something which says ‘submit’. I wonder what Mr Bell would have said.

We will be forgotten too. Now get back to work.


Friday, 22 November 2013

Supreme Court art: unpicking immigration law

My father's father is unknown. He got an 18-year-old factory girl from Toxteth up the duff then disappeared from history. He must have looked Semitic. Not Lloyd George, then.

The only visual representation of him I have - apart from my face - is the straight line of reproof in the relevant box on my father's birth certificate.

At least my father's nationality was neither questioned nor an obstacle to life. My dinner guest tonight is a German Jew whose family tale is inevitable.

Today's case involves refugees.

AA (Somalia) v Entry Clearance Officer (Addis Ababa) concerns a Somali girl born in 1994. Separated from her mother and siblings by the fighting in Mogadishu in 2002, is she entitled to enter the UK as the adopted child of her brother-in-law who has been granted asylum, even though she does not comply with certain Immigration Rules?

For all the general slagging off I give to some aspects of it, I don't live in a country that has failed at being a country and is famous for exporting female genital mutilation to other countries such as, well, mine, but that's another story.

Someone in court says: 'In immigration law there is more than one purpose or policy at play at any one time.' (I note down the comment but not who said it, relying on short-term memory. Hah!)

Is that why the law has so far failed to give an answer in this case? Language is secondary to intent. Not even the meaning of  'parent' is clear here, let alone 'adopt'.

And if you tell me to go back where I came from, I won't know where to go.

I can retrieve only one certainty from today: Lady Hale did not arrive in Court 2 with a hole in her cardigan and dodgy antecedents. That was moi. The most senior female lawyer in the land was wearing a glorious non-black ensemble - a flattering dress in deep, rich colours and an elegant knitted jacket with clever ribbing at the shoulders.

The hole is almost undetectable but needs mending, like holes in the law.

More pictures if you scroll down.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Another audience with Pandemonia...

...and her engaging companion Snowy, of course, who never leaves her side.

Serene as ever after a recent hectic trip to Brazil, Pandemonia holds forth on anatomy and the proportions of the ideal body, borrowing my pens to sketch rapid demonstrations.

I marvel at her unlined complexion, never besmirched with a tan or bronzer.

'Look at the back of the picture,' commands Pandemonia: she takes one of my drawings and holds it up to the light the wrong way round. 'It usually looks more free.'

My previous encounter with Pandemonia is at

More pictures if you scroll down.