Monday, 25 December 2017

Annie Curtis Jones

Costume designer Annie Curtis Jones had many facets to her life and I knew only one: her ingenious designs for Notting Hill Carnival outfits as creative director of Elimu Carnival Band at Paddington Arts.

She achieved lavishness, wit, flamboyance and an eighteenth century sensibility on a strict budget.

As designer and maker (trained at the Central School of Art & Design) she was calm and cheerful amid the clamour of preparations, never losing sight of the detail.

Annie died unexpectedly on Christmas Day, leaving a shocked carnival community.

Forgive me if any of the unrepresentative pictures here are not her costumes - the chaos is mine and never Annie's.

Friday, 15 December 2017

Carols in the Supreme Court

The Treasury Singers are never knowingly over-rehearsed and a good thing too, considering the day job. This year they are raising money for Shelter by singing carols in the triple-height library of the Supreme Court, boosted by voices from the Parliamentary Choir, the Westminster Abbey Choir and the court's own Can't Sing Choir, a misnomer in Santa hats.

The library inscriptions include a quotation from Martin Luther King: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

The Lords and ladies are away leaping or dancing - no Justices are here. But are job applicants casing the joint? The bench has vacancies.

I find a discarded note downstairs in the café. A girls' school party has been observing today's appeal, which is not about cats. I learn from the internet that baffed [sic] is a word, distinguishable from baffled. Girls, judge not, that ye be not judged (Matthew 7:1), or at least don't leave the evidence lying around.

Should've stopped at this stage, I never learn

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

Johnny Hallyday live at the Albert Hall

The warm-up act is a brassy blonde in a fondant-pink dress with a belief that she sounds like Amy Winehouse. Simeon, The Only Person Who Would Come With Me To This, says she got the verses of Back to Black mixed up.

‘I wonder if she’s quite famous in France,’ he says.

Johnny loves the audience and is loved in return. Especially by the gangly Frenchman in front of us who shimmies and punches the air. He works in the veterinary laboratory of an equestrian centre. Simeon’s going to make him big on YouTube.

Our seats are very high up but Simeon says he doesn't mind; he was in the Paras.

There are three large autocues in front of Johnny. ‘Johnny does karaoke,’ says Simeon.

‘That riff is plagiarised from Eric Clapton’s Crossroads. You've got to hand it to him, he knocks the socks off Engelbert Humperdinck, know what I mean?’

Johnny gets down on the floor with the mike stand. ‘So French,’ gurgles Simeon. ‘He’s giving it a dry shag.’

There are three backing singers. ‘Look at the knockers on that one,’ says Simeon. ‘They're huge.’

From the arena, long white arms wave towards Jonny like sea anemones and stiffen at his touch.

‘Is he touching your heart?’ asks Simeon.
‘No,’ I say.
‘Mine neither.’

But he's a great entertainer.  'He doesn't waste time in a power ballad. Goes straight from nought to sixty,' says Simeon, miming hanging himself. 

‘Vous êtes chaud ce soir!’ Johnny keeps saying to his enraptured fans. Men and women cry 'Johnny! Je t'aime!' Most of the men are in shirtsleeves.

Johnny sits down and reminisces about Elvis, Eddie Cochrane and the first time he went to Nashville, in 1962. He is pretend-edgy but genial. Then back on his feet.

Simeon says, ‘This is direct plagiarism of Credence Clearwater Revival’s Fortunate Son. How he gets away with it I don’t know.’

The concert ends bang on eleven. It's raining. I suggest we visit some ex-Occupy squatters in The Cross Keys off Cheyne Walk, Chelsea’s oldest pub, with memories of Bob Marley, Dylan Thomas and the Rolling Stones. It’s now boarded up: the owner wants to convert it into a mansion with a basement pool and flog it. Locals want it to remain a pub.

Seconds after we arrive in Simeon’s car, a police car and a meat wagon draw up. There is already a sinister black Range Rover with tinted windows outside.

I ring someone inside. He says the Range Rover belongs to the owner, who’d rather not go to court for an eviction order; he’s trying to lure them out by offering to leave a bag of cash in the middle of the road. They are staying put. In the store room they found a five-kilo block of chocolate which they chopped up with an axe.

We sit in the car with the windscreen wipers on, watching the police watching the pub. 

PS That was in 2012. It's still a pub.

Monday, 4 December 2017

Brexit symposium at IALS

Health warning: personal views on Brexit

The country has split like a failed sauce. 

The atmosphere is officially one of acceptance today at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies. Elizabeth Gardiner, First Parliamentary Counsel, is giving the Sir William Dale Annual Lecture: 'The Legislative Side of Brexit' (1 December 2017). 

The Princess Royal receives a bouquet, pictured above the speakers
Speaking after her are Sir Stephen Laws KCB QC, former First Parliamentary Counsel and Senior Associate Research Fellow at IALS, and Hayley Rogers, Parliamentary Counsel and Associate Research Fellow at IALS, introduced by Dr Constantin Stefanou, Director of the Sir William Dale Centre for Legislative Studies at IALS. 

The aim is to look at Brexit without the politics. That's easier for the legal representative from Buckingham Palace than for some others here. Professor Vernon Bogdanor (David Cameron's former tutor) feels there will be a hard Brexit or none, and would like a second referendum. Did he plant the idea in a young mind that a referendum was ever a good idea?

During the tea break we eat cake. There is some left over. But less than when we started. The sugar rush fuels earnest chat about Miller 'I think both Lord Neuberger and Lady Hale are wrong...' 

Draftsmen past and present are in the room. Speakers and audience address the legislative heavy lifting needed to impose Brexit on a country which has been rendered unfit for purpose. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has some 500 proposed amendments. Secrets are being guarded by parliamentary counsel. 

As we hurtle towards the foggy chasm there are more questions than answers. 'It's sort of above my pay grade as to what training there is for judges.'

You will soon be able to watch the recorded conference on the IALS website.

IALS is in a Brutalist building designed by Denys Lasdun, the architect of the Royal National Theatre. At IALS's 70th birthday bash the night before the conference we are shown crisp designs for a tactful, welcoming refit by Nicholas Burwell of Burwell Deakins Architects. He points out that Brutalism implies rawness (here, concrete) rather than brutishness.  

We ask him to preserve the graffito, UNITED, on the lecture theatre wall. Director and Librarian of IALS Jules Winterton thinks it might denote union action rather than football. Perhaps one day it will evoke a lost kingdom.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Spid Theatre Company outside

'Where's the tower?'

Goldfinger's fashionably brutalist Trellick Tower looms over us so I assume he means that one. But he and his companion are seeking the scorched exoskeleton of Grenfell Tower. They've got out at the wrong station. I hope they're not going to take selfies like the others.

Spid Theatre Company is filming scenery in brief snatches by both towers and its HQ, the modernist council block Kensal House. It's cold.

Drummers under the overhead railway line
Grenfell Tower in the distance
There are toys and tributes outside Notting Hill Methodist Church

Wednesday, 1 November 2017

Read Not Dead: Jacobean tragedy at Gray's Inn

It's suspenseful all right. Will Philip Massinger's neglected Jacobean tragedy, The Unnatural Combat, survive a script-in-hand performance in Gray's Inn Hall? And will the pro-am cast - the Bar v. Shakespeare's Globe - be oil and water? 

This is part of Globe Education's commendable Read Not Dead project, dedicated to resuscitation.

She's absent, but I have her figure here; 
And every grace and rarity about her 
Are by the pencil of my memory 
In living colours painted on my heart. 

Malefort, an ambivalent war hero dragged out of jail for his first scene, is racked with desire for the beautiful Theocrine - his daughter, ew. He kills his equally ambivalent son and the wheels of retribution grind away.

I don't guess all the lawyers/actors correctly, which is instructive. Sir Michael Burton QC and Colin Manning have a forensic élan. Emily Barber, who was a touching Innogen in Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, plays Theocrine with doomed delicacy; Tok Stephen deals well with the ambiguity of her half-brother; Tim Frances takes command of the hall, explores the light and shade of Malefort and builds an intimate connection with the audience. The play's director Philip Bird dips in and out, taking miscellaneous parts. The only run-through happened this morning.

It's a tale of cynical politics and betrayal, and there's speculation that Malefort was based on George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham (1592-1628), the royal favourite who was assassinated after his popularity waned. Here he is, probably as Lord High Admiral, painted by Daniel Mytens the Elder (National Maritime Museum).

This performance is a counterpoint to last week's appeal in the UK Supreme Court about abortion law in Northern Ireland, which addressed rape and incest. With no jury present, counsel knew better than to try to stir emotion. Their approach can be studied on the court's website. This afternoon the play-reading lawyers have to tackle an emotional open runway. There is a sympathetic audience and plenty of room to move in the round, with clothes mainly their own and hardly any props.

After a court hearing it might be interesting to cast a play with the same line-up. King Lear for Miller, the Brexit Article 50 appeal, with Lord Pannick QC and James Eadie QC splitting the title role and Gina Miller as Cordelia.

Throughout this afternoon's performance the Director of Globe Education, Patrick Spottiswoode, has been willing everyone on like a parent. He has a battered book with him. It's a source for next year's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the abolition of theatre censorship in the UK ('the Lord Chamberlain regrets...').

Like me, he went to the 1968 London production of Hair, its first beneficiary. I saw the watered-down London revival a few years ago and felt it was a period piece misunderstood by the cast. How times change. But time is the key to this afternoon's shared mystery. This is not about taking something out of the freezer, but celebrating a continuous river. It's an important process.

Supreme Court: lighting-up time

The tobacco-laden fug of Courtroom 1
The tawny sky over parts of England in October was the colour of a pub ceiling before the ban on smoking in some public places.  

But what is a public place? Today’s appeal, R (on the application of Paul Black) v Secretary of State for Justice, asks whether the Health Act 2006 applies by necessary implication to a prison administered by the Crown.

Mr Black, a prisoner, complains that the ban is not enforced in his prison’s common parts. He says prisoners should have anonymous access to the NHS Smoke-Free Compliance Line which allows callers to shop violators to the local authority. To be practical, this line does not exist. Perhaps that indicates how long the case has been in the courts. A number that does come up online, 0800 587 1667, is unobtainable.

Philip Havers QC (who must be fed up with being described as Nigel Havers's brother) points out that some 80% of prisoners smoke. This is more than four times the national rate. I know nothing about smoking or prison so I asked someone who has experience of both to comment. The following words in italics are his.  

Surprised (and not surprised) they haven’t sorted this one out. When I was a guest, after the ban came into force, smoking happened in cells and all communal areas, but was officially allowed only in cells. Officers (in the open prison) usually went outside to smoke, but very likely smoked on the wing after lock-up. I don’t recall smoking in the gym or education block. I got the impression that the ban was not enforced because it could increase tension, violence etc, even riots. Also many prison officers smoke. 

As we know well from the debate about the distribution of condoms in the early days of the AIDS crisis, prisons are public places (condoms could not be distributed to prisoners because homosexual acts were permitted only in private). 

This is the Orwellian/Carrollian unreality of the prison system. The entire system is about fear, first of the ‘other’ who needs to be locked up, but much more pervasively from the point of view of the lower castes of the criminal justice system (prison officers, some police officers), fear of ending up on the wrong side of the door, very justified by the fact that the state monopoly on violence attracts these servants who take a deep enjoyment in the enactment of this violence. They are often people with strong criminal tendencies who are able to act out their natures in a structured and legalised manner. 

Tobacco, clean urine, drugs etc are currency in prison. And as such vectors of violence. The removal of the privilege of being able to purchase tobacco from the canteen is also a major (violent) sanction available to the prison authorities.The health of prisoners is of no account. So that is not a reason to stop smoking in prisons. All actions by the prison are intended only for the benefit of the prison. It is a closed system: physically, emotionally, spiritually, legally, morally. Read Solzhenitsyn.

There are as many opinions on prison as there are prisoners; prison reformers - professionals and volunteers - would do their best to counter some of the views above. Meanwhile, the current situation on the smoking ban’s application to prisons seems to be an obscure tangle of expediency and riots.  

He looked past him and seemed indifferent, but he noticed that after each puff (Tsezar inhaled at rare intervals, thoughtfully) a thin ring of glowing ash crept down the cigarette, reducing its length as it moved stealthily to the cigarette holder. Fetiukov, that jackal, had come up closer too and now stood opposite Tsezar, watching his mouth with blazing eyes. Shukhov had finished his last pinch of tobacco and saw no prospects of acquiring any more before evening. Every nerve in his body was taut, all his longing was concentrated in that cigarette butt—which meant more to him now, it seemed, than freedom itself—but he would never lower himself like that Fetiukov, he would never look at a man's mouth.
– Alexander Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich  

Story Time, a free exhibition in the Supreme Court, features works by offenders, secure patients or detainees under 18.

Two items in particular catch my eye. The first, Inside, represents either the controversial Hymn by Damien Hirst, or the Humbrol toy of which Hirst asked technicians to make a 20-foot-high copy. In 2000 Hirst paid an undisclosed sum to avoid a breach of copyright action by the toy’s designer and manufacturer.  

The Guardian wrote: ‘The artist has also agreed to restrictions on future reproductions of the polychromatic bronze figure, described by one critic as "a masterpiece" and "the first key work of British art for the 21st century", which Hirst admitted was inspired by his son Connor's anatomy set.’

I am also intrigued by Vinopoly, a cryptic board game by an entrant from Vinney Green Secure Unit (detail shown here). The exhibition, run by the Koestler Trust with Victim Support and the Supreme Court Arts Trust, ends on 7 December 2017.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Supreme Court: there's rue for you

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I live, runs a special group for young mothers. A mother has to be at least 12 years old to join. 

For the 40-odd years of their fertility, girls and women are playing in a fixed match where the other side doesn’t get pregnant.

At university I was naively surprised to meet otherwise educated girls – even biochemistry students – who were slapdash about contraception. It seemed that they were more likely to come from secure, well-off families which could cope privately with any consequence, rather than humbler stock haunted by ancestral fears of ruin. I never met my Toxteth grandmother who was a teenage unmarried mother without chances.

Fifty years after her experience, metropolitan women could sign up at the Margaret Pyke Centre, a legendary NHS birth-control research and training powerhouse (now shrunk by the cuts). Back in the day you might have got an appointment there with one-time physician to The Grateful Dead Dr Sam Hutt, aka country and western singer Hank Wangford, whose albums include Cowboys Stay on Longer

I remember him being rather touched during a coffee shortage in the 1970s when grateful vasectomy patients plied him with jars of instant. He still trains doctors and nurses between gigs.

Until 2002 the Centre was led by the non-judgmental Professor John Gillebaud who in his book The Pill points out that giving a child or a woman the right to say no is a powerful contraceptive. He is concerned with population and sustainability, and as we move to standing-room-only we are reminded that the planet has the right to say no to the lot of us.

Nobody would advocate abortion as primary birth control, but when there’s a failure of hardware or society or health a pregnant woman may find out who claims to own her. 

Today’s case (day two of a three-day hearing) is In the matter of an application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission for Judicial Review. It asks if failure to allow abortion in cases of serious foetal malformation, rape or incest violates the European Convention on Human Rights. 

In Northern Ireland, abortion is allowed only to preserve the mother’s life, because the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply there, and the maximum penalty for illegally procuring a miscarriage is life imprisonment. Some of the cases cited today are heartbreaking.

In The London Review of Books (17 Aug 2017), Joanna Biggs writes: ‘Northern Irish feminists can’t rely on Westminster: many people reminded me of the moment in 2008 when Harriet Harman blocked a move to extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland in order to gain votes from the DUP for 42-day detention of terrorism suspects. If it makes travel to England harder, Brexit will make access to abortion harder too.’

She adds: ‘The 1967 act was preceded by the Bourne case of 1938, when a gynaecologist turned himself in having performed an abortion at St Mary’s Paddington on a 14-year-old girl who had been raped by several soldiers. (She had been turned away by St Thomas’s on the grounds she might be carrying a future prime minister.)’

We have a prime minister who is still in hock to the pro-life DUP. A report on abortion law in Northern Ireland, completed last year, is yet to be released because of the stasis in Stormont.

In a letter responding to Biggs’s article, writer Elizabeth Gabriel describes what happened after a condom failure when she was a student at Bristol before the Abortion Act: ‘I knew that I wasn’t ready to have a baby, so I tried jumping off tables (gingerly), taking scalding baths, drinking a lot of whisky. Then a friend gave us the name and number of a midwife in the docks who sometimes provided abortions to dockers’ wives whose husbands refused to use contraception.’ Legal minds will know whether that was technically an assault by a husband on a wife.

In court today, Lady Hale pounces on a contronym: she asks counsel if he is using the word ‘sanction’ to mean ‘permit rather than punish’. Contronyms have contradictory meanings, such as cleave and oversight. I am at the stage of life where I feel more keenly how quite a lot of things harbour their opposite, including life itself.

‘It’s an emergency,’ says the young woman asking the pharmacist in Boots for a continuation supply of the Pill without a prescription. The pharmacist and I glance at the self-conscious emergency himself, standing beside her. She gets her supply. True privilege is not knowing how privileged you are. 

Counsel cites Lord Bingham on Pretty beneath his portrait

'There's rue for you,' says Hamlet's Ophelia, handing out an abortifacient. Is she pregnant?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

Supreme Court: a shard of history

I wish I'd watched a recent episode of Coronation Street in which an artist breaches section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 by drawing live action inside one of the lower courts (i.e. not the Supreme Court, which doesn't sit in Weatherfield).

In real life, an artist has to draw such scenes from memory. This was not a plot line but a collective mistake. The subject of the picture is the alleged victim of sexual abuse so she would not be portrayed anyway, even from memory. It has led to complaints to Ofcom and apologies from Corrie chiefs.

This is Lady Hale's first session as President, joined by two of the three new Justices, Lady Black and Lord Lloyd-Jones. All is serene on the bench while courtroom nerves are about normal: just before the second half, a lawyer breaks a glass. Symbolists would say this represents a ceiling.

The usher emerges cheerfully from behind the scenes: 'Did someone make an impact in there? Everything OK? I've seen a lot worse.' He sorts everything out.

The appellant, who in 2010 was the first barrister to become a partner in a legal disciplinary practice, is here to observe. Daphne Evadne Portia O'Connor v Bar Standards Board asks whether, in a claim that a prosecution breaches human rights, the time limit for bringing proceedings under the Human Rights Act 1998 runs from the date of acquittal/conviction or the date on which any appeal is concluded. And was the High Court judge right to conclude, for the summary judgment application, that Portia O'Connor's claim of indirect discrimination under ECHR had a realistic prospect of success?

Counsel are softly-spoken. Lady Hale reminds them: 'The first duty of any advocate is to be heard,' adding that the microphones are mainly for recording and transmission, with only a small amount of amplification.

'I can't hear anything,' says the woman behind me. She adds, 'They are all beautiful,' referring to the row of students in front of us, and leaves.

Outside, another bench, another beginning.