Monday 27 May 2024


Definitely the wrong sort of court for an enquiry

The recent spate of lengthy enquiries into a jaw-dropping series of misdeeds, miscarriages of justice, and malfeasance on the part of various official and governmental bodies – the Post Office's bad-faith pursuit and prosecution of postmasters for imaginary thefts, the shocking cover-up of the "tainted blood" scandal, Partygate, Grenfell, on and on – has led to the tragicomic spectacle of senior managers and government ministers declaring themselves conveniently unable to recall crucial events, conversations, email and WhatsApp exchanges, or indeed anything much that happened on their watch. Sorry, I just don't remember.

Which leads me to wonder, exculpatory fibbing aside, is there a mental statute of limitations on the idiotic, embarrassing, or downright bad things you have done, said, not said, or failed to do in the past? How many years does it take for the sting of the cringe induced by certain memories to wear off, or at least to become comfortably numb? If my experience is typical, the answers are "no", and "too soon to tell". But then, I have been exceptionally idiotic in my time, so "typical" may not really be appropriate. Plus, of course, younger generations will have the unforgiving memory of social media to contend with; to update Shakespeare, the stupid things men do are oft preserved with their phones (sorry, Will, but someone had to do it). 

However, one notable side-effect of advancing old age is that the witnesses to your deeds and misdeeds, passions and betrayals, and even your occasional acts of kindness and generosity are all gradually disappearing. When my old friend Tony Collman died recently, he took with him the only competing record of certain, shall we say, contested versions of events in my younger life. Well, OK, in his life, too, but unless there really is an afterlife with overworked angels keeping ledgers of our doings, his version has now been permanently wiped. It is now therefore an undisputed fact, to take just one particular example, that we were ejected from the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol for playing too vigorously with some large metallic kinetic sculptures with the memorable words, "This is an art gallery, not an adventure playground! Please leave now!". Any other versions of that story are now definitively non-canonical.

Mind you, some witnesses are simply unreliable. One of my other closest friends from those days has a memory so unretentive that a lawyer might reasonably question whether he was ever actually there. You would have thought – let's say, you were on a sixth-form geography field-trip excursion to Minehead, and later that evening on the seafront had to help wrestle into submission a six foot two classmate in the throes of some drug and/or drink induced seizure, then load him into the school minibus and pin him down on the floor – followed by a police raid with sniffer dogs on the Nettlecombe Court Field Studies Centre's dormitory – you would have thought that would have left some sort of impression on even the most sieve-like memory; but, apparently not.

Documentary evidence...

But conflicting accounts, lack of corroboration, and failures of memory from crucial witnesses are simply to be expected, it seems, even under oath. At times, your entire past life can seem like a flimsy self-constructed fantasy that just wouldn't stand up in court: your word against theirs, nothing more.

I put it to you, Mr. Collman, that we bloody well didn't fly to Amsterdam in 1971... We couldn't possibly have afforded it: we took the Harwich-Hook ferry and hitchhiked via Rotterdam! Let the court note that I have contemporary written evidence...

More documentary evidence of youthful folly
(if my writing is illegible that's probably just as well...)

On the other hand, it's a comforting fact that the prosecution will have just as much difficulty finding credible witnesses to put a solid case together. So my all-purpose defense, should it ever come to it, would be, in the words of Bart Simpson: "I didn't do it; nobody saw me do it; there's no way you can prove anything!" Or, simpler, Sorry, I just don't remember... (Even if, actually, I do, and can torment myself far more exquisitely over the worst things that I still remember than any forensic inquisitor).

So, as for getting the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth from anybody... Dream on. The truth is not just relative, contingent, and contested: it is always personal, and sometimes too private to share. In the end, in court as in life, it generally comes down to who has the best, most believable story. Unless, perhaps, someone took the trouble to take notes at the time, and kept them for over fifty years? Heh... Guilty as charged.

Rome in 1973 with Sandie Gill. Another key witness gone forever...


DM said...

Delightful writing, Mr C. You don't mention the Trump trial though! Any comments?

Mike C. said...

Thanks, DM! Thoughts on the Trump trial(s), though? Beyond "Lock. Him. Up! Lock. Him. Up!" and a sinking feeling of doom at the very real prospect that he might nonetheless win the election, even from a jail cell, nothing much, I'm afraid. It is interesting, though, to follow the "Mudline" and "Say What?" sections of Doonesbury. (see if you're not already a fan).