By Ian Simpson, 16-Nov-2012 13:17:00
Last week I met Paul Johnston, a mature student at Adam Smith College in Glenrothes. An engaging and enterprising bloke, seriously into music, quizzes and radio, he is doing a project which involves Scottish crime writers reading one of their own short stories. I read Just Deserts? for him, and he has made an excellent job of producing it. There are two characters and a lot of dialogue, so I put on a Scottish voice for one and an English accent for the other, speaking normally the rest of the time. It comes across quite well, I think, although my diction is not always as clear as a bell and I don't expect the Royal Shakespeare Company to try to sign me up any time soon. If you want to hear it, click here. It lasts about quarter of an hour and has adult content.
By Ian Simpson, 04-Apr-2012 07:45:00
In Murder on Page One, Willie Johnson spends his time in jail writing. In real life, a number of prisoners have turned author, having used their sentence productively in days when rehabilitation was taken seriously by the prison authorities.
One of the most unusual people I met during my career in the courts had come to love poetry, in particular Wordsworth’s, during his many years of incarceration. I’ll call him McTavish. I first met him when he had been charged with a variety of crimes and I was to represent him as defence counsel in the High Court. Although I found him perfectly pleasant, he hated police and prison officers with a passion and, like some dogs with postmen, lost no opportunity to attack them.
The most serious charge on his indictment was an armed robbery on a Glasgow branch of what was then the Trustee Savings Bank. He and two others planned to enter the bank via the premises upstairs, but instead of doing so at a time and in a manner of their choosing, accidentally fell through the ceiling. An imitation firearm fell with them and they used it to threaten the staff, leaving with £10,000. When arrested two days later, McTavish took the opportunity to attack another policeman.
The comments he allegedly made to the police are classics of their kind: ‘I never put any gun to any ****’s heid. Just ask the wumman in the bank. Christ we nearly broke our necks getting into it … By the way, they were imitation guns, big yin … If ye get me a sentence in Peterheid I’ll plead. I don’t want to go to Carstairs (the State Hospital for the criminally insane).I’m no daft. You were wasting your time taking my prints. I always wear gloves.’
The evidence was overwhelming and he did plead guilty. There was little to say in mitigation, but I thought the judge should know about his love of poetry, and quoted these lines he claimed to have written, entitled ‘The Institutionalised Prisoner’:
‘Your life is blood
The heart so bored
With scattered years
In lifeless vessels.
Tattered, worn away
Veins have travelled
All your life
In little cells.’
The judge gave him fourteen years. He did have a dreadful record.
Some years later, I was on the bench in Hamilton when a prisoner at Low Moss Prison appeared before me and pled guilty to assaulting prison officers. I was handed his previous convictions and the last sentence, fourteen years, caught my eye. I looked again at the accused and saw that it was McTavish. I asked if he objected to me dealing with the case, but he did not. I added four months to his sentence and he returned to his study of poetry, seemingly quite happy.
By Ian Simpson, 25-Jan-2012 12:46:00
Honestly, I don’t bear a grudge against literary agents. I may have killed off a handful of fictional ones in Murder on Page One, but I know they are ordinary men and women doing their best to survive seismic changes in the publishing world and a dire economic situation. Most are courteous to wannabe authors, but they have to give almost all of them the bad news that they are not prepared to represent them. I believe that is something that should be done with respect. The victims in my story paid the ultimate price because of their poor attitude towards aspiring crime writers.
I was on the bench for eighteen years and had to give bad news to thousands of people: they were to go to jail; they were to be fined; they were to be disqualified from driving; they would not be allowed to see their children – and so on. I probably failed more often than I would like to think, but I did try not to add insult to injury. To be sent to prison for five years would be bad enough without being treated with contempt by the person sentencing you. I called the men ‘Mister’ and, while condemning their crimes, rarely if ever applied words like ‘evil’ or ‘depraved’ to the criminal.
The very few agents who did not reply to me may have done so by accident, swamped with submissions. But I fear that there is a rudeness and lack of personal respect seeping through society that is not nullified by the constant use of first names and political correctness. And it is disgraceful that a young person paying a company the compliment of applying to work for them should receive no response. I am old enough and ugly enough to shrug off a lack of respect, but a young graduate or school-leaver will probably have a thinner skin. Of course, they could always write a novel in which the perpetrators of such corporate rudeness die horrible deaths …
There is a lot of rough justice in Murder on Page One. Every day, our courts hand down judgments as fair and as carefully weighed as a process designed and operated by humans can make them. But justice is another matter ...
It was the 1970s. My first High Court trial for the defence was a huge occasion – for me and my client, a short, strong-looking Glasgow youth charged with throwing a rock through the windscreen of a moving police van, then whacking the officers with an iron bar as they spilled out to apprehend the culprit. Predictably, the evidence was overwhelming (I wouldn’t have been given the case otherwise), but my client denied doing anything wrong, and we went to trial against a very experienced prosecutor and before a crown-minded judge.
I got through the crown case pretty well, asking detailed questions about what each officer was doing as his colleagues were being hit with the iron bar, but when the time came for my client to give evidence, and I started by asking him: ‘You did nothing, did you?’ the judge and the prosecutor combusted independently. You are not supposed to tell your own witness what he should say. Judge and prosecutor became increasingly irate as I squeezed my client’s story out of him. Fortunately it was very simple: he had done nothing.
After he returned to the less fraught surroundings of the dock, we made our closing speeches and the judge summed up. The jurors were not out long; they convicted him of throwing the rock through the windscreen but acquitted him of hitting the officers with the iron bar. The judge gave him four years and I went down to the cells to commiserate.
‘Honest, Mr Simpson, it wisnae me that threw that rock,’ he said. I was devastated. A miscarriage of justice in my first High Court trial. It couldn’t get worse. Then, smiling for the first time that day, he added, ‘But Ah didnae haulf belt they polis with that iron bar.’
In the days before CCTV cameras and mobile phones might capture anything, anywhere, the police were not afraid of meting out rough justice. My wife remembers calling the police because some youths she and her flatmates did not know were banging incessantly and aggressively on the door of their flat. A number of officers arrived in a van. They apprehended the youths and pushed them into the back of the ‘meat wagon’. Ten minutes later, the youths emerged looking sore and cowed. They did not bother the girls again.
If called by a wife abused by a drunken husband, sometimes officers would take the man in a police car to some remote spot in the country where they would leave him to walk home, arriving tired, cold and hung-over about breakfast time. This paper-saving practice ceased abruptly when one drunk found a nice, comfortable ditch to snooze in – and died of hypothermia. Old-fashioned methods didn’t always work as they should.
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