Justice, Jobsworth and the banning of Passion in Oxford

Months have passed since I last wrote anything here, mainly because I am usually either writing thousands of words a week elsewhere or am travelling. It has been a week of interest and oddities, in the press and in real life, and I thought I would capture some of it here. It is a kind of palate-cleanser for me, not an alternative to writing about eDiscovery / eDisclosure but a relief from the weekend spent largely doing just that.

The Ritz, the Tower and the Thames

RitzPhoneBox_250I gave a day-job talk on Tuesday for HP Autonomy at the Ritz. My subjects were twofold: the first was a reminder that the purpose of eDiscovery is to find evidence and improve one’s understanding of the case, not merely to find documents; the second was to suggest that whilst civil justice seemed to be going fast down the pan thanks to a combination of an ignorant Justice Secretary, a useless Ministry of Justice and some Court of Appeal judges whose idea of real-life bears no relation to real life, there were nevertheless opportunities for those ready and willing to take them.

My next meeting was close to the Tower of London, and I came out of it into the beginnings of a glorious evening with time on my hands before my train. It was an opportunity to merge two of my passions – walking city streets and photography – and I have some new camera kit to get used to. I entirely buy Malcolm Gladwell’s idea that you need hours of practice to be good at anything and I need to practice in the same way as soldiers learn to dismantle and reassemble their guns so that it became second nature. Equipment includes a tripod, the camera, a wi-fi trigger and an iPhone, all of which takes some assembly even before you get to the controls and settings. It is also slightly cumbersome to carry amidst the tourist throngs of Tower Hill

2WrensMonument_400
You don’t need all this kit to take decent photographs of the Tower and the Thames on a sunny evening. What I do find, and it is one of the reasons why I carry a camera, is that I become much more observant if I have a camera with me. I am not sure, for example, if I would have noticed this arrangement of two Wren churches and the Monument if I had not been equipped to photograph it.

No one, however, could miss the hideous bulk of the new buildings now rising in the city. The Gherkin and the Shard have elegance. Those shown in this picture have merely bulk and ugliness. We are threatened with 230 more towers to spoil the London skyline. I wonder what induces these approvals.

UglyBuildings

It is hard to take a bad photograph of sunsets and water, particularly when there are cranes, towers and steeples to enliven the skyline. I liked this juxtaposition of a 19th-century crane and the Shard.

WheelShard

I like the idea that smart London still has stretches of foreshore with the stumps of old pier supports showing through.

ThamesPierStumps

I particularly like the way PhotoShop allows you to remove the junk street furniture and leave the view as it should be. Street lights serve a purpose, I accept, but they are ugly, and always placed in just the wrong place. PhotoShop to the rescue:

StreetLampGone

I tweeted about this taking of photographs, and someone said jokingly that I would probably be arrested as a terrorist. I am ready for that in London with a copy of an official letter addressed to the Met’s police officers, reminding them that photography is not a crime. It was at a different place on a different day that somebody impeded my right to take photographs – more on that below.

Chris Grayling goes to prison

The Justice Minister Chris Grayling is not a popular chap amongst lawyers. One of Twitter’s legal elder statesmen (I refer to his gravitas and good sense rather than his age) observed last week that we should not direct our fire at Grayling the man. Many people, he said, hate lawyers and (he implied) Grayling is is riding a wave approved by the many. That is right, or at least is not wrong. There are good reasons, however, why Grayling is disliked personally. The man who relished the role as Conservative “attack dog” whilst in opposition, particularly for his onslaught on Labour sleaze, is not a man who wants to be liked. The fact that he was fiddling his expenses even as he criticised Labour does not help any assessment of his character.

When I say that he “fiddling his expenses” I mean, of course, by our standards, the standards of ordinary, decent people who watch with contempt but no surprise as MPs slurp from the trough of taxpayers’ money. Grayling has taken full advantage, and apparently a little bit more, of the benign and self-serving regime under which Members of Parliament buy and develop houses at our expense and keep the profit for themselves, whilst a supine and inept regulator signs off the expenses with alacrity, particularly if the claimant is a minister with a reputation for personal unpleasantness. If any of the rest of us dipped our fingers into public funds in this way – a benefit claimant for example – we would be off to serve time inside. As the greedy and dislikable Maria Miller went down in flames, new attention focused on Grayling’s own property dealings at our expense. This article in the current edition of Private Eye has the details.

It was not, perhaps, the best week for Grayling to pay a visit to Brixton Prison to admire the kitchens. I put it this way on Twitter:

GraylingPrison

 

Grayling2

Grayling’s offence is not his hypocritical attacks on Labour or his attacks on lawyers, but the damage he is doing to both civil and criminal justice. Giving him the Justice portfolio was like putting a precious vase into the hands of an ape. It was bound to get broken, and it is being broken.

HMRC to sell data for the private profit of others

As if to show that this government has no sense at all for the prevailing fears about privacy, it was announced this week that HM Revenue and Customs are to sell data to enable private operators to make a profit from it. Many civil servants find technology bewildering and HMRC perhaps more than most – try using any of their websites, which have apparently been designed by the committee of accountants, civil servants and programmers, with not a human being in sight. Blind alleys, incomprehensible instructions and infuriating illogical circles make the navigation of HMRC websites like climbing one of Escher’s staircases.

It is probable that the civil servants have no idea of the power of data analytics available to the sort of people who want this data. However much it is a anonymised, however much it is pseudonymised, it is certain that the buyers will be able to link this data to other data to supplement their already comprehensive picture of each of us. The civil servants will doubtless say, as the security forces say in analogous circumstances, “it’s only metadata” with all the self-assurance and ignorance of those who use terms they do not understand. The only thing which may save us is that HMRC’s data handling is appallingly incompetent and much of the data will be inaccurate. I spent much of last year facing a barrage of demands for a tax return, with letters of increasing shrillness threatening ever-increasing penalties – they rose to £1,200 at one stage. In fact, HMRC had invented a new taxpayer, with my name and address but a new tax reference.

HMRC1

HMRC2

The depths of their incompetence becomes clear when you learn that a grovelling apology and offer to pay the costs incurred in dealing with the problem was followed almost immediately by yet further demands. Good luck to anybody who pays hard cash for that.

Oxford City Council gets into a Passion

There are exceptions of course, but local authorities seem to be a kind of dustbin for those who are unemployable in any other work-place. My own local authority, Oxford City Council, is no exception to this, and not just at the dim and destructive planning department where a thick, lazy “officer” recently failed to spot an outright lie by Oxford University about the visibility of some hideous flats and went on to omit the required Environmental Impact Assessment, presumably because he couldn’t cope with all those syllables.

Last week, a group had sought permission to perform a Passion Play in the Cowley Road; a dim little chap at Oxford City Council saw the word “Passion” and, knowing nothing of Easter or anything else, withheld permission on the assumption that some al fresco sex performance was proposed. These are the people who decide the fate of our city.

Boiling Buzzards

One of those flights of fancy which appears on Twitter from time to time included a reference to the cooking time needed to make a buzzard edible. It reminded me of an old and probably apocryphal story of the days when the Washington Biological Survey used to put “Wash. Biol. Surv.” on bird tags. The practice was changed after an aggrieved farmer wrote to complain that he had followed these instructions and that the crow he shot had tasted disgusting.

Virtual road rage

My wife did a 24-hour trip to Cornwall at the weekend. As part of the planning, we considered whether she could cycle the final part of the journey and used Google Street View to assess whether this was viable. We both found themselves getting cross because we could not overtake the lorry which had been in front of the Google camera car. No-one cycles that fast anyway

Gotten in the Times and taking the stand

A few days ago, to my horror, I came across the use of the word “gotten” in an article in the Times. I meant to write and complain but ran out of time; fortunately, others did, apparently sending a stream of “apoplectic letters” at this misuse of the language. On the whole, I admire the vibrancy of the American language, as long as no one confuses it for English or uses it in the Times. On the same theme, some media outlets, referring to a trial in London, said that the defendant had “taken the stand”. What stand, where to, and was this not an offence in itself, I wondered?

The tripod police at Oxford station

I refer above to the risk of being taken for a terrorist whilst taking photographs in London. Mary Ann was due back from Cornwall on a very late train, and I thought it might be interesting to try out my new equipment at the station to see how it coped with night-time photography. The platforms were closed, and I set up instead in a corner of the car park overlooking the forecourt where the taxis and buses wait. As I was about to take the first photograph, a jobsworth in a high-viz jacket appeared, one of those who thinks that the wearing of bright yellow stands substitute for a brain. What was I doing?, he demanded to know. My usual line in these circumstances is to be rigidly polite while pressing for details of my alleged offence. The following conversation ensued:

Me: Taking photographs

Jobsworth: Do you have permission to do that?

Me: From whom do I need permission?

Jobsworth: The government

Me: From Mr Cameron, you mean?

Jobsworth: If you know him personally, yes.

The proper course here is to repeat back to the official exactly what he has said to make sure you have got it right and to emphasise what you think of him and it. I did so and he conceded that had been facetious in referring to the government. It would be First Great Western, who run the regional franchise (“run” in the wider sense of that term – “crawl” would be better for that bunch of  incompetent shysters) or Network Rail, the property owners. I asked Jobsworth to cite some authority for this but got no answer. Then:

Me: Can I please have your name?

Jobsworth: It’s on my badge.

I had to put my nose almost to his chest to read the badge in the dark corner of the car park, but established that his name was..well, we’ll stick to Jobsworth for now. Well Jobsworth, I said, you have won yourself a place in a blog post. And here it is. If either of us could have been in the right down to that point, failing to give his name properly put Jobsworth in the wrong.

Meanwhile, I have asked the ever helpful First Great Western Twitter team to follow this up and find out if there is in fact such a rule or whether Jobsworth was engaged in a self-aggrandising frolic of his own.

StationForecourt

 

I took only one photograph whilst Jobsworth was slithering up to me; dangerous stuff, as you can see.

A sock Machine in history and in the kitchen

I follow a number of historians on Twitter, including the excellent @HistoryNeedsYou Matthew Ward. He published a picture of Great War Red Cross ladies using a sock-knitting machine:

SockKnittingMachine

I imagine most of you have one in your kitchen. We certainly do:

SockKnittingHome

 

Au barricades as the French beat off the men who saved them on D-Day

One does long to love the French as much as one loves their food and their countryside, but they don’t make it easy.  The Telegraph reports that French bureaucrats (and it is no coincidence that the very word comes from the French for a desk or office) are making it difficult for English D-Day veterans to revisit the beaches on which their comrades’ blood was shed to save France in June 1944. As one of them says:

“We didn’t need to fill in a load of paperwork last time I landed in Normandy. In fact, I didn’t even need my passport.

This conflict between wartime veterans and officialdom reminds me of the story of the American commercial pilot of some time ago, who fell into an altercation with a German air traffic controller:

“Haf you not been to Frankfurt before?” 

“Yes, twice, in 1945. But it was dark, and I didn’t stop”

Saxon has a paddle, a drink and a shake

I leave you with a couple of pictures of our ancient labrador Saxon as he ambles into the water in the morning sun for a paddle and a drink followed by a good shake:

Saxon1

Saxon2

 

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