So long on introductions and scene setting I don’t arrive.
Now I’ll miss the 7 17 train and have to wait half an hour, and I was so pleased with myself for starting work a couple of times at 7. I love the early mornings. I like being out early on my occasional work days, out with the manual workers, the cleaners and the builders, before the office workers. So much fuss about a simple journey to work, though admittedly having to finish early makes it more difficult to arrive late, no wonder I get into a state when I’m leaving the country, that punishing, journeying state, the feeling that I won’t arrive, or if I do, I won’t come back. It’s more than worrying that I’ve forgotten my passport, or that the flight will be cancelled, it’s that being there is unimaginable, even though it’s so familiar in my imagination, as if the place has only an imaginary existence. In fact the journey was unremarkable, but to suddenly be there! To be looking out at the low mist at dawn over the Lea valley and then to be in the mountains of Slovenia by lunchtime, excited but numb. The extraordinary has become common place.
In the waiting room at the station I thought I saw out of the corner of my eye a woman teasing out her wool before beginning to knit, but she was only untangling the wires of her MP3 player.
It was as I sat at a table in Vodnikov Dom. Behind, the layered cliffs of Tosc, in front a rocky , herbaceous tumble with, after the storm, rare running water – nearly everywhere in those thirsty mountains the limestone absorbs it – flowing down to Velo Polje, a fertile, flat bottomed basin among the mountains. A copy of The Week, which I’d never read before, lay on the window sill among mountainous magazines in Slovenian, and in it were two obituaries, one of Felix Dennis, his wild life an advertisement for himself. Enviously we wonder, how could someone so impulsive and self indulgent become and stay so rich? The other obituary went out of my head. Back home in the bedroom one morning, the radio on as usual and I was still trying to remember. I tried categories. Poet, historian, feminist, philosopher, footballer, general, politician, trade unionist, revolutionary, scientist, doctor, actor, photographer, explorer, historian, novelist. All the shelves were empty. Then I heard the newsreader on the radio say the word ‘police’, and it came to me: the obituary was of Gerry Conlon, framed by the police as an IRA terrorist, who spent 15 innocent years in prison. So he was a member of that most common of all categories: victim. (sub categories: innocent, forgotten, exploited, misunderstood etc.) I wondered what happened to the police who destroyed his life.
Ha! That’s an easy one. Here’s something that Chris Mullin wrote:
The release of the Birmingham Six was a watershed for British justice. In the months that followed there was a string of further releases. At the time of writing, twenty-seven other people have either had convictions quashed or charges against them dropped after evidence from West Midlands detectives was discredited.
A number of other terrorist convictions also collapsed. In July, 1991, Mrs. Annie Maguire, five members of her family and a friend who had been convicted of making bombs had their convictions quashed. In June, 1992, the Appeal Court quashed the conviction of Judith Ward, then in the nineteenth year of a thirty-year sentence for the M62 coach bombing. The judgement was a damning indictment of the police officers, forensic scientists and Crown layers responsible for the conviction. Judith Ward’s release brought to eighteen the number of innocent people wrongly convicted of terrorist offences committed in 1974. Of these, ten would certainly have been hanged had the death penalty still been in force. So, too, would at least one of the three people wrongly convicted of the murder of PC Blakelock during a riot on the Broadwater Farm Estate in north London. Their convictions were quashed in November, 1991, amid a great deal of official wailing and gnashing of teeth. The case made legal history. For the first time anyone could recall, a British judge apologised.
By the time the Royal Commission reported in July, 1993, the agenda had been re-written beyond recognition. Understandable public concern over the inability of our criminal justice system to cope with the tidal wave of yobbery unleashed by the Thatcher decade had been skilfully mobilised to smother concern over miscarriages of justice. No one but a few alleged do-gooders, any longer cared whether innocent people languished in jail. What mattered was that the guilty were going unpunished. What was needed was not more safeguards, but fewer. At the same time the vast edifice of lies which appeared to have been demolished with the dramatic release of the Guildford and Birmingham defendants was being carefully reconstructed.
A whispering campaign started from the moment the first convictions were quashed. It could be heard wherever two or three lawyers or police officers were gathered. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, Mrs. Maguire and her family are all guilty, it said. They were released on a technicality. Okay, maybe the forensic scientists souped up the evidence a little. Maybe the police cut a few corners, but everyone is guilty so there is nothing to worry about, nothing for which to apologise. It is a tribute to our capacity for self-delusion that there is scarcely a policeman or a judge in the country who does not believe this falsehood.
As the months passed the servants of the lie have grown in confidence. By April, 1993, with the start of the much-delayed trial of three former Surrey police officers charged with fabricating the confession of Patrick Armstrong (one of the Guildford Four), the lie was being spoken aloud. Indeed it formed the basis of the defence case. Like most policemen charged with perverting the course of justice, the three officers claimed their right to silence. Meanwhile their counsel, under cover of privilege, concentrated on attempting to re-convict the four persons whose convictions had been quashed, even though they were not on trial and not represented in court. The prosecution was fatally hobbled by the unwillingness of Crown counsel to argue that the confession was false. All he was willing to allege was that the notes were not contemporaneous. Unsurprisingly the jury acquitted. At Blackpool 2,000 delegates of the Police Federation, meeting for their annual conference, received the news with a standing ovation. An editorial in the Daily Telegraph caught the new mood.
“Until now the received view of the Guildford Four … is that they were all innocent victims of a scandalous miscarriage of justice who spent many years in jail for crimes they did not commit. The acquittal of the three ex-policemen, and some of the new evidence heard in the course of their Old Bailey trial, suggests that there are reasonable grounds for suspecting that two of the Guildford Four, Mr. Patrick Armstrong and Mr. Gerry Conlon, might have been guilty after all. This raises the disturbing possibility that the real miscarriage of justice in their case occurred when they walked free.”
There was, of course, no new evidence. The Guildford Four were convicted on the basis of confessions in police custody and nothing of any significance has since emerged.
Given the fiasco the Surrey officers’ trial, it was never very likely that the outcome of the Birmingham officers’ trial would be any different. No student of this extraordinary affair was surprised when, on October 7, 1993, Mr. Justice Garland ordered that charges of perverting the course of justice against three of the West Midlands detectives involved in the pub bombings case should be dropped on the grounds that publicity surrounding the case precluded the possibility of a fair trial.
The judge’s decision means that no one will be held responsible for the huge quantity of fraud and perjury that led to the conviction of innocent people for the Birmingham pub bombings. Or for the millions of pounds of public money squandered in a fruitless attempt to sustain the convictions. Or for the fact that the four persons responsible for the bombings got away.
At the time of writing, not a single person has been convicted for their part in any of the proven miscarriages of justice in the last five years and it is unlikely that anyone ever will. Some progress, however, has been made. A review body is being set up, on the recommendation of the Royal Commission, which will remove from the Home Office responsibility for deciding which cases should be referred to the appeal court. It remains to be seen how this will work. The omens are not auspicious. The Chairman is to be Sir Frederick Crawford, a senior freemason.
So – there was no watershed.
At Vodnikov Dom I met an Irish couple, they only stayed the one night. He told me that the DUP had successfully put pressure on the National Trust to include in their story of the Causeway, or to add as a possible alternative to the geological history, the creationist theory of the origins of the famous basalt columns. She told me that she had taught in a junior school which had a snake, a californian garter snake I think, and it became her job to look after this snake, which although it didn’t have a venomous bite it could still draw blood, which it did, twice. She wondered, though, whether the the Irish had a greater fear of snakes than other people, because there were, famously, no snakes in Ireland – thanks to St Patrick. I said I’d often seen snakes in the Alps, adders, they just coil away from you, unhurried. The only time I got a scare was going up a mountain just across the border from Slovenia, in Italy, which was so steep that my hands were clutching at the turf and my face was pretty close to the ground in front of me, so that when a snake started up just in front of me it felt as if it could have kissed me on the nose.
The Irish couple, Linda and ? , had no sticks, they hadn’t thought they’d need sticks, and he was quite experienced at walking n the mountains, but they’d picked up some jaggedy, rough sticks up in the forest, and found them very useful for getting across some of the wide, steep, gulleys where snow has accumulated all winter, snow on snow, tumbling down from the cliffs above, and which you have to cross as the path traverses the screes and rocky slopes below Tosc on the way to the refuge, and I had a hazel stick myself; I used to always have a hazel stick, but this was one that I’d picked up after my walking pole went missing, luckily I found one which had been cut and had dried out, because I didn’t have a knife with me. There was very heavy snow up in the mountains last winter and in early July it was still deep in places. On the white limestone scree Thlaspi rotundifolium was in flower, a crucifer found right across the Alps, from France to Austria, wherever there is barren, treacherous, limestone scree, and its little bunches of pale pink flowers have a sweet smell which it keeps to itself so that it doesn’t fill the air like, say, honeysuckle, but when you get down on your knees it hits you. Intent on the path and the tightly packed snow you tread in others’ deeply sunken footsteps, and there is some comfort for the lonely traveller in this collective act, and it was only on the third time that I crossed it, on a grey, rainy morning after the thunderstorm (which I had enjoyed in the night from my narrow bed in my very small wood panelled room, amplified rain roaring on the roof and frequent flashes of muffled lightning), that I noticed them, their pink in the silvery light now almost a grey-lilac. So rare, so common, they were like old friends. Looking for the thing itself and its place I’m disappointed with my photos, either I see the flowers larger than life or I see the stones, looking as infertile as railway ballast, and the flowers are reduced to a far away blob.
Thlaspi rotundifolium, Vallon de Nant, Switzerland
and in the Gasterntal, Switzerland
and in the Vallon de la Selette, France
above the Spittelmatte, Switzerland
And near Vodnikov Dom. The next picture shows the refuge and the path which leads to it over the snowfield, at the edges of which the flowers are pushing through
Lastly, a view of the refuge at the foot of the cliffs of Tosc, from Velo Polje