Sunday, March 26, 2006

498: Bill Griffiths (Ghost Story 6): The Law-Speaker


Law and order was being talked up into quite an issue about this time. Unemployment was up, and robberies, cheating, drinking and sundry crimes flourished. The apparent impudence of some of the offences, and the slowness of response from the police only made it worse. The determination to do something grew. In fact, it was the ideal opportunity to canvas for increased police powers, increased police independence, increased police pay and pensions. Accountability was a concept from the past. Action was needed, and people were being telled as much, in the most unlikely ways, and in the most unexpected contexts. And by almost any political party you cared to name.


For example, that autumn, I attended, by chance, a local residents meeting that featured (unbeknownst to me) a talk on crime from a police officer. Myself, I had wanted to ask questions about homes being demolished, but that, I was telled, would have to wait: there was more important business first, before it would be decided if I could speak or not. Setting the agenda is the privilege of elected officers, after all. And on this occasion the main item was going to be something special, the show-piece of the local force, etc.

A policeman was addressing the meeting. Friendly his tone, but his matter (I could not help noticing) seemed aimed to play on the apprehension and even the fear of crime, as something he (a professional) was willing to admit he shared with them (the public, the victims, the generally law-abiding though not necessarily without their own little foibles that he would neither condone nor regard as serious). (I guess he meant little foibles like domestic violence, double-parking and the like. But Councillors set the moral tone of the area, so we can leave all that side of it to them.) No, the common trouble they all faced was burglary: them as proper house-owning citizens of Dawdle-Zone with their TVs and videos, their cars and garage freezers; the police as not being able to catch the villains or trace the stolen property.

Crime is a form of self-employment, after all, and they all knew (he pointed out) what the self-employed were like. Shop-keepers, especially those corner-shop laddos from god-knows what desert clime. (Groans of sympathy.) Car-boot-sale villains. (More groans.) Door-to-door salesmen and phone-calling double-glaziers. (Groans and laughs.) All after something. At your expense. At society’s expense. When respectable folk like yourselves paid the business rate on your shops and factories, you deserved a bit of help discouraging these elements from helping themselves, just breaking the law in their regardless fashion.

Now a bit of self-help is what is needed to combat them (he insisted). And fortunately burglar-proof locks were on sale and display at his very elbow from some lay figure he had brought along. A personable young lady, with all manner of alarms, chub locks, padlocks, circuits and systems. Costs a bit, of course, but what price peace of mind? They would all get an opportunity to look and buy during the interval. (Interval? How long was he going to go on for?)

It seemed he had only started on his main theme: the unalloyed evil of crime and the criminal, and the proper means of its discouragement. The shadowy, uncatchable thugs, younger and younger, that devoted their lives to wrecking decent homes and upsetting normal society. Quite early, he had dropped a neutral reference to the return of the death penalty, of the ‘some might think...’ kind. When there were murmurs of approval from his audience he took the hint, and was soon condemning ‘the lenient prison system,’ and in the end almost playfully regretting we did not accept the concept of mutilating offenders as practised in Muslim countries, gaining outright emphatic approval from his listeners the more deadly and outrageous his suggestions.

Had I come upon the scene of a Black Mass or some secret Coven of Mutilators? No. I shook my senses clear and looked again around me: it was just the same democratic gathering of local residents as encouraged and steered by decent Councillors and supported by proper Council grants. The same householders, pigeon-fanciers, freedom of extreme speech fans and family members as before, only kindled to bonfire heat at the thought of revenge - on whom? On some mythical class of offenders against honest genetic standards? Against their own sons, their neighbours or their neighbours’ children? For who can say who will say what when the figureheads of normality and propriety turn awkward? There is only the sheep-warm urge to follow them on any dead path they care to nominate, and at the present police power was on the up and participation in the State limited to playing the role of anonymous (possibly rewarded) informants. Posters asking for help to identify the ‘Anti-Social’ were now a feature of everyday life.

Still, she made a good sale of chains and locks, this gentle female lay partner of his. The audience were only too glad to show their appreciation in a practical way. And an hour or more had passed before we even reached the point where we were invited to leave the room, so the propriety of our presenting the case against community demolition could be considered. After all, discussing a Council plan, let alone admitting opposition to one, was a risky sort of business not lightly to be embarked on. We retired to the snooker room of the club, awaiting a decision, when a god-almighty scream came from the carpark just outside the window. We threw back the blinds; citizens rushed from the main room into the open to view the horror.


Well, I can only apologise. It seems I was wrong. The forces of evil are indeed everywhere around us and more powerful in this world than any Cathar heretic ever dared imagine in wild-dream scenario. I can hardly bear to describe the unholy scene we beheld. The policeman’s car was parked outside, and the policeman in it, revving his motor, and yelling, and banging his fists on the dashboard, and then getting out and smashing his own windscreen with the steering-lock, in terrible motor-rage. For in the light now flooding from the windows and doors of the club, we could see, as he had surely guessed himself by now, that all four wheels had been neatly removed, and the car propped up on its axles with a few spare bricks.

At that point his car-alarm went off with ear-splitting majesty.

{Dawdon Residents Association; the visit of a chief constable to Sunderland}

That’s all from Bill’s Ghost Stories. Appropriately, British Summer Time began today and it rained, but light remained until at least 7.00 here in Liverpool. Bill’s story should remind us that the forces of darkness don’t need darkness, anyway. But they've helped us through the dark days of the Winter.
Page 498

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