Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Clare Holtham's memoir 'Under the Stars': alone on the lost hippy trail

I went as usual to sell some blood.

Clare Holtham (1948-2010) was a fearless traveller. Under the Stars is the unpublished memoir of her independent journeys overland from England to India in 1969 and the early 70s.

Here is the full text in four pdfs - just click on each link. Please email me (see right) if you have difficulty in accessing them:

Under the Stars Part 1
Under the Stars Part 2
Under the Stars Part 3
Under the Stars Part 4

Clare took public transport or hitch-hiked. The world turns, and the Buddhas of Bamiyan she photographed have been destroyed. Unprotected travellers can no longer follow her routes - but even Clare's account tells of westerners killed by tribesmen or a nervous border guard.

She smells water in the desert; keeps a meticulous food diary; engages with languages, literature, history and anthropology rather than hippies on the trail. She dallies with a customs officer and is attracted to an Uzbek chieftain she meets on the road, becoming his bride for a night. She maintains that drinking the local water builds her resistance to illness; brushes off a threatened robbery at gunpoint; makes her own luck (for example, one morning she gets up early to visit a tailor, thereby missing the Mickey Finn breakfast administered to other Europeans in the Afghan hostel who then have their passports stolen).

Clare writes with detached candour, driven by restless curiosity. She feels safer in central Asia than in 'cold Europe'. She banters politely but as an equal. She meets illiterate tribesmen bristling with guns and knives and knows at once that she can trust them with her life. Where does this equanimity come from in such a young woman, travelling mostly alone?

The answer is lost in the negative space of her narrative. There is no reliable account of her rudderless teenage years, which included a remand home, sleeping rough and a forced self-reliance. We don't know what norms she acquired while many of those who went on to join her at Newnham College, Cambridge, were being hot-housed and cosseted.

From the prologue to Under the Stars ('parents' = father and stepmother; L.C.C. = London County Council):

Clare's memoir is archived at Newnham, email archives@newn.cam.ac.uk.

Clare's book of poems, The Road from Herat, is featured in this short account of her extraordinary life: click here. Copies are available from Newnham's Roll Office (roll@newn.cam.ac.uk, tel. 01223 335757, personal callers welcome, preferably with prior notice), price £8. All proceeds go to a Newnham travel scholarship in Clare's name.

Any use of Clare's writing and pictures needs to be approved first by her literary executor Roger Garfitt, email r.garfitt@btinternet.com.

Drawings and maps

Clare drew beautiful maps and pictures. Some are here; the Newnham archive contains more, together with photographs and many rolls of film. She took Bartholomew's maps with her and may have traced some of them, but she was also capable of drawing maps freehand on a train window in Indian ink.

Thursday, 21 November 2019

Supreme Court: Gerry Adams's appeal

'I'm sufficiently old to be able to remember something of the contemporaneous events,' says Lord Kerr, who is presiding over R v Adams. To the girl who briefly sits beside me, flicking through WhatsApp, it's ancient history.

I remember the British confusion when the IRA bombing campaign reached the mainland in 1973. Metropolitan litter bins disappeared. Public lavatories at railway termini were briefly closed. It was said that the Bakerloo line would never be bombed as it serves the Irish community in Kilburn. I was told about a girl with an Irish accent carrying her brother's birthday cake on the Tube: the police cut the cake into little pieces to prove that it didn't contain explosives. Did that happen? There were more sophisticated ways of dealing with suspect devices but it was plausible at the time.

Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice, has joined the Supreme Court bench today. Gerry Adams is absent. The court is tumbleweed alternating with tour parties who come and go with a swish of Gore-Tex on the wood and leather seats. The air conditioning is barely audible; the bagpiping busker outside can't be heard thanks to triple glazing. Now and then the Welsh slate clock on the wall makes its sinister rasp; disappointing too was the harsh, dissonant voice of Gerry Adams once the British were allowed to hear it, instead of the silver-toned actors who dubbed him from 1988-1994, when a broadcast ban applied to Irish dissident groups.

Professor Alan Paterson, author of Final Judgment, about the early years of the Supreme Court, slips in towards the end of the appeal.

At one point Lord Kerr, who was previously the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, appears to be attending to a paper cut on his finger. This is not the time or place to hold a silence for the adults and children killed because of the Troubles but a tiny drop of blood shows up as a pathetic fallacy.

Gerry Adams is trying to clean up his criminal record. In 1975 he was convicted twice for attempting to escape from the Maze prison where he was interned without charge or trial. But government papers released under the 30-year rule showed that his interim custody order, made by the Minister of State under the Detention of Terrorists (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 art. 4(1), had not been considered by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who was then Willie Whitelaw. Does this make the order invalid?

The wording goes under the microscope. As with Brexit ('a' customs union versus 'the' customs union) we are in 'a' Secretary of State versus 'the' Secretary of State territory. In play is Carltona Ltd v Commissioners of Works which equated acts of government officials with acts of the minister.

Counsel makes a reference to 'groping at perpetual twilight' and when the Supreme Court puts the recorded film on its website I will be able to check the context but meanwhile I am left with Isaiah 59:10: We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noon day as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.

After the hearing I encounter a real live hunger strike on Victoria Street, far in distance and time from the ten Provisional IRA hunger strikers who died in the Maze in 1981: beyond House of Fraser's twinkly Christmas display, Extinction Rebellion campaigners are lodged outside Labour Party HQ.

Further up and down this street which connects a Protestant abbey and a Catholic cathedral, rough sleepers are muffled against the cold or insensible to it. A woman handing out leaflets says, 'Give your lives to Jesus, people.'

Coda: the British have a long and painful tradition of indifference to/ignorance of Ireland. I am beyond sickened by those who would trash the Good Friday Agreement for the sake of pitiful delusions about Brexit. It has been keeping a fragile peace, more or less, since 1998.


Friday, 1 November 2019

Noises on and off: in the magistrates' court

When it comes to penetrating the studied opacity of a magistrates' court I'm a bungling novice, so I'm waiting for the appearance of a defendant who's already been bailed and gone home.

I'm encumbered by my sodden folding umbrella (the stand at the entrance is reserved for weapon-umbrellas, the non-telescopic kind).

I am in a row of public seats at the back. About 18 inches in front of these seats is a horizontal steel cylinder, the height of my jaw when seated. I feel penned in. When I inadvertently knock the bar's upright hollow metal support, it sounds like the demonic church bells from the drug-induced Dream of a Witches' Sabbath in Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique.

The courtoom is largely composed of horizontals, from the long wood panels behind the wide raised bench to the narrow stripes in the carpet tiles. This makes the greenish verticals between the security glass panels of the dock rather striking: they evoke bars.

The dock's separateness says 'guilty as hell'. It has a locked glass door to the courtroom and another door at the back leading to mysteries below. There are chairs and a big red panic button. Defendants who have been detained emerge through the internal door. Those who have not been detained are ushered into the dock from the courtroom by an official and locked in. (This contrasts with the doorless lavatory cubicles in the same building.)

The official takes away the key. The defendant stands when addressed by the person I assume to be a district judge, no longer called a stipendiary magistrate, who is wearing a lot of very white pearls.  

When it's quiet you can hear the clock ticking. The microphones for bench, clerk and advocates create a flattering, authoritative resonance. The person in the dock is miked differently if at all and speaks from a different acoustic: the effect is drier, duller.

In Winchester Crown Court I saw the Naked Rambler lean forward in the dock at times, straining to catch through the glass what was being said in the courtroom, and thereby forced to adopt a servile posture.

Much has been said about the message sent out by the dock. At least this one can be seen from the public seats. In many courts, including some built this century, it is not.

To the left of the bench, a door leading backstage is propped wide open with three legal tomes. Behind it, another door stands open onto a corridor from which we occasionally hear incongruous snatches of conversation and laughter. Mortals at liberty are glimpsed walking past on a raised level, indifferent to the courtroom scene.

The accumulation of cases is depressing. If someone is already working mostly to pay fines, what is the effect of imposing another fine? If someone can be provoked to violence, or has a mental disorder, or has been changed by long-term use of drugs, or has had a miserable education or a rotten family life or any combination of these factors, is another prison sentence going to accomplish anything other than keep an offender out of the public's way for a while?

During a brief adjournment, someone pops his head round the door for a chat with his colleagues.
'What have you got later?' he asks.
'All your rubbish from Court 10.'

Outside in the waiting area, a lawyer at the end of his tether addresses the air: 'I've been waiting for a Polish interpreter for one and a half hours.'  He is a living cliché from the well-documented, underfunded travails of the justice system.

The day ends with a surprise trip to A&E for excellent treatment from EU citizens in an understaffed hospital, a last hurrah before the NHS swirls down the plughole of despicable political ambition.Will the justice system join it?

Saturday, 12 October 2019

In court with Extinction Rebellion

When it comes to stopping London traffic, Extinction Rebellion is pathetic. They may be creating up to two weeks' inconvenience, but there's no let-up from TfL's ever-tightening stranglehold all over the city.

Meanwhile the court system, already congested, struggles to deal with XR arrestees from the April action. City of London Magistrates' Court is processing most of them. Today, about 50 are attending plea hearings. A cluster of the red rebel brigade, with their whitened Buster Keaton great stone faces, clings to the doorway like a scarlet sea anemone waving its tentacles.

The staff are under pressure. One of them prods my handbag. 'Is that a bottle?'
'Do you want me to drink some?'
'Yes,' he says, but turns away.
I ask him to watch, which annoys him, but I'm not going through this pantomime without an audience.

About 30 people crowd into a small annexe to Court 4 - defendants, being rapidly briefed by a solicitor, plus supporters. Vegan snacks are spread out on a table - cereal bars, grapes, bread, hummus, nuts (courtesy of XR, not the court). In this air-conditioned building the room is stifling. An official opens the misty double-glazed windows. Something for an eco architect to sort out. We hear the occasional banshee wail from the red brigade outside.

A woman tells me that, while protesters were sleeping in a crypt last night, an infiltrator stole electronic music equipment, including one man's entire music output. Back up, people. Also her phone, which contained her rail ticket home.

Eight defendants who have pleaded guilty are ushered into the functional starkly lit court room, together with their supporters, who outnumber them and sit at the back.

'I was locked on to the hearse on Trafalgar Square yesterday,' says the supporter next to me. She released herself as the police didn't have time to get round to everyone. How do glued-on people unstick themselves? She says you can use acetone or Coca-Cola, which confirms everything I've always thought about that evil drink. I ask politely about the lavatory arrangements for the glued-on and I'm told people bring round buckets.

The district judge is businesslike but benign and keeps the atmosphere calm. The defendants have been charged under Section 14 of the Public Order Act 1986 - generally because they ignored police instructions to leave a static, passive protest. A policeman is quoted: 'I saw the defendant lying in the carriageway singing.'

The youngest is a student aged 19, the oldest is retired. Three women, five men. One is represented by a lawyer. The magistrate advises the others to note what the lawyer says in case it helps their own statements.

'We will hear very eloquent speeches from the self-represented,' says the lawyer to the magistrate. 'Think about the range of people before you and the number. This is possibly the largest campaign of civil disobedience for 150 years.' Is he referring to the Chartists?

He quotes an apocalyptic open letter from Professor James Hansen, NASA's former head of climate research, which highlights catastrophic 'climate denialism and associated pseudo-scientific canards.' I think it's this one.

The lawyer adds that the protest 'is about the survival of humanity itself. Bear in mind their good character, the danger they seek to avoid, the clear scientific consensus and the failure of government to act.'

In justifying their actions he refers to the case of R v Jones (Margaret) [2007] 1 AC 136. Ask a lawyer.

The magistrate says that he has 'spoken eloquently on behalf of all the defendants', and has claimed that 'the law has been broken for a noble motive' using a 'scientific basis'.

Among the observers sits a tricoteuse. Crochet, anyway. She casts on and does about four rows of openwork using two skeins of thick yarn simultaneously, pink and purple. She is wearing the black tee shirt with glittery spider motif in honour of the Supreme Court's prorogation judgment. It has become clique-wear. Like mods and their parkas. Or some French aristocrats during the Revolution and their blood-red necklaces or ribbons in defiance of the guillotine.

The remaining seven defendants each make a short speech in mitigation, mostly from notes, although the one who apologises for not having prepared anything speaks concisely and makes a good impression. She works with children in care and doesn't want to risk her career. 'I'm deeply sorry people have been impacted... I am ashamed and terrified by being arrested but I sent a message to our government that I'd no longer be complicit in this mass extinction.' She is reluctant to have children.

The magistrate says that she has expressed her 'moral obligation' and this term is adopted by other defendants.

On the Strand
'I'm the sort of person who always follows the rules,' says a scientist with a PhD and two young children. The current level of carbon dioxide was last seen three million years ago. 'Brexit will be a side-show in comparison [but there's linkage - Ed.]. I don't want to disrupt people - I feel incredibly uncomfortable with that...There is no non-extreme future. There will be extreme cuts or extreme impacts. Nature doesn't do deals... You can't argue with the physics... Environmental activists are being killed in other countries... I was kept for two hours in a van and 24 hours in a cell, with no phone call allowed until the next day, causing distress to my family... This should be a political issue. Calling us "uncooperative crusties" is not helpful.'

The magistrate points out that many defendants 'are highly qualified people with insight into the issues.'

They continue.

'I plead technically guilty, morally innocent.' (That is not recognised by the court.)

'The UK is among the most nature-depleted countries in the world. Since 1970, 77% of airborne insects have disappeared.' I think of the tapestry of insects which no longer impacts the windscreen on motorways.

'I didn't expect to find myself as a middle-aged man in the back of a police van... I apologise for taking police away from normal duties... Many officers shared our concerns if not our methods... I would have acted differently if I'd known how this was going to play out.'

'Business as usual is killing us.'

'The Government declared a climate emergency after our last action.'

Charles I looks down Whitehall where he was beheaded
The district judge says that, unusually for people who break the law, 'you did it from a sound motivation and genuine and legitimate concern about the planet and man's activities.' Even so, 'it is the court's duty to look at offences from all perspectives.' The police statement said that there was 'very considerable impact on transport infrastructure, local people and business.'

Each defendant is of good character. One defendant's encounter with a class A drug is old enough to be exempt. Another's 'excellent A-Levels' have been referred to earlier, so keep revising, kids.

Full credit is given for a guilty plea, making the sentence 'lower than it might otherwise have been.'

Each is given a conditional discharge for six months. 'If you choose to commit an offence and are found guilty, this matter can be reopened and you can be sentenced afresh.' They are given two months to pay £105 - three months in the case of the student. The magistrate asks those who want information about the police body-worn footage to stay and talk to him.

I leave court and go to the Strand, where rough sleepers open another chasm.

It's easy to feel alienated by the dominant tribe within XR - the public yoga, the suffocating middle-classness, the terrible poetry which admits no criticism, the right-on self-righteousness. Don't patronise me, don't parade your cloying sense of moral superiority.

But in court today the argument is distilled. The professional framework, the crisp pace and the display of true conviction without the dafter stunts help to unscramble the message. And I like the stipe, who combines a man-of-the-people air with the reassurance of a top-class obstetrician.

NB if you want to find out about court listings and other data, good luck.

I wander around Trafalgar Square, hoping to see any of the people I used to draw in the emotional sprawl of the Occupy camps, most of all our beloved Tom who avoided the horrors to come by dying at the age of 28.