Saturday, January 23, 2021

2020 hindsight

As I barely wrote anything here last year, I thought I’d go through my diary to check what might have been. It’s not a long list (I’m a slow reader, writing here encourages me to read more, when I do it), but for what it’s worth, with a quotation from each:

John McPhee, ‘Oranges’

No-one worried much about freezes. For one thing, it was an era of scientific advances in which triumph over nature seemed not only possible but inevitable. A cannon had been fired in the streets of Jacksonville in 1888 in the belief that the concussion would kill all the yellow-fever microbes in the air of the city. (pp. 94-5)

Émile Zola, ‘Au Bonheur des Dames’

        ‘I want her, I’ll have her! And if she does escape me, just you see what a place I’ll build to recover from her. Oh, it’ll be magnificent, it really will! You don’t understand what I’m talking about, old chap. If you did, you would realise that action is its own reward. Doing, creating, struggling against harsh realities and either defeating them or being defeated – all of human joy and health are there!’
        ‘It’s just another way to drug oneself,’ the other man murmured. (p. 317)

Dava Sobel, ‘Longitude’

John ‘Longitude’ Harrison was born March 24, 1693, in the county of Yorkshire, the eldest of five children. His family, in keeping with the custom of the time, dealt out names so parsimoniously that it is impossible to keep track of all the Henrys, Johns and Elizabeths without pencil and paper. To wit, John Harrison served as the son, grandson, brother, and uncle of one Henry Harrison or another, while his mother, his sister, both his wives, his only daughter, and two of his three daughters-in-law all answered to the name Elizabeth. (p. 62)

Adam Rutherford, ‘How to Argue with a Racist’

It is therefore possible that you are genetically unrelated to people from whom you are actually descended as recently as the middle of the eighteenth century. (Ebook, ch. 2)

Isabel Wilkerson, ‘The Warmth of Other Suns’

Both sides were made up of rural and small-town people who had travelled far in search of the American Dream, both relegated to the worst jobs by industrialists who pitted one group against the other. Each side was struggling to raise its families in a cold, fast, alien place far from their homelands and looked down upon by earlier, more sophisticated arrivals. They were essentially the same people except for the color of their skin (p. 273)

He brought his crushed velvet, jitterbug demeanor to the gray, humorless bureaucracy of a government hospital. (p. 460)

Kristin Hersh, ‘Don’t Suck, Don’t Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt’

        ‘He loves you, I can tell,’ you threw out, bored.
        ‘Sometimes I think he doesn’t even like me.’
        ‘Nobody likes you.’
        ‘Fair enough.’
        You: ‘We’re never gonna be okay cuz we got fucked-up egos.’
        ‘I don’t have a fucked up ego,’ I told you, defensive. ‘I don’t have an ego at all.’
        ‘Well, that’s fucked up.’
        Pitching your magazine back in the bin, you grabbed another. ‘Every hurt heals with scar tissue.’
        ‘That’s what you said about painkillers.’
        Pointing at our loved ones: ‘Whaddyou think they are?’
        ‘Oh.’ (p. 50)

James M. Russell, ‘The Forking Trolley: An Ethical Journey to The Good Place’

Some of Eleanor’s previous bad acts also point to the snares of anonymous and remote interaction with other people. She once posted her sister’s credit card details on Reddit, simply because she had told Eleanor she looked tired. (p. 52)

John Wyndham, ‘The Kraken Wakes’

        ‘But they are trying, you know, Phyl-’
        ‘Are they? I think they’re balancing things all the time. What is the minimum cost at which the political set-up can be preserved in present condition? How much loss of life will the people put up with before they become dangerous about it? Would it be wise or unwise to declare martial law, and at what stage? On and on, instead of admitting the danger and getting to work.’ (Ebook)

Monday, January 11, 2021

The Secret Barrister – ‘Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken’

Meanwhile at the National Probation Service, inexperienced, inadequately trained staff are monitoring ever-increasing caseloads of high-risk offenders in the community. One employee reported that the target culture had reduced him from seeing his offenders weekly for an hour to holding appointments once a month for an average of twenty minutes. These are the institutions we entrust to supervise and rehabilitate the most damaged and dangerous among us. At twenty fucking minutes a month. (p. 327)

It’s not why I read the book, but I worked for the Probation Service once, for about six months. Just temping, typing up Pre-Sentence Reports mostly, from Dictaphone tapes or handwritten notes, or (this seemed to be a new thing at the time) copying text that a Probation Officer had typed herself from a document on a floppy disk to the template, proof-reading as I went. There’s a job that probably doesn’t exist anymore. It’s interesting, if not surprising, to discover what happened to the service in the intervening two decades: ‘low- and medium-risk offenders’ got farmed out to private companies, in the wearyingly familiar privatisation narrative, to save the taxpayer money by sweeping the work under the carpet and ensuring it was done as badly as possible while still hitting those targets. There are plenty of other examples of this kind of corrosive neglect in the book, and it’s to the Secret Barrister’s credit that it doesn’t get overwhelming or overly repetitive: there’s always enough human interest alongside the institutional failures, not to mention a stout defence of the principles on which the criminal justice system in England and Wales rests. In a section which feels rather like being led on by a barrister’s speech in court must do, this ‘adversarial’ system is compared with the ‘inquisitorial’ one which is used widely in continental Europe. Adversarialism pits prosecution against defence in court, in front of a jury, and cross questioning is used to undermine the other side’s version of events. Which does sound a bit juvenile: the fiercest (most eloquent / devious / best prepared) cock will win the fight. Surely the inquisitorial system, where the aim of the state’s investigation is to establish the truth, rather than peck its eye out, is the more mature, responsible, balanced practice? Doesn’t this just highlight everything we know is bad about UK individualism and good about EU (relatively speaking) socialism?

Then comes a stunning about-face. Haven’t you been listening to how bad I’ve been telling you the state is? At following its own guidelines, gathering evidence, disclosing evidence, acting impartially under government pressure for certain types of conviction? Do you really want all that to go unchallenged? Yes, but you said all that about the UK state, which you’ve just spent a couple of hundred pages showing how badly it funds all those things. Surely in a grown-up country like Germany or France… You’ve seen Spiral, right? Oh, I see what you mean. If falsely accused, the Secret Barrister imagines asking themselves,

would I have faith in an inquisitorial jurisdiction where the state, with its variable competence and political vulnerability, controlled my fate throughout? Or would I trust the presentation of my case to an independent solicitor and advocate, and hope that twelve ordinary people, shown evidence that is relevant, reliable and fairly adduced, would find the prosecution insufficient to convict me?
        Every time the answer is the same. (p. 277)

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