Thursday, 22 September 2011

On this day...

...September 22nd, 1656, a remarkable event in US legal history occurred. In the recently-established colony of Maryland, a young English maid-servant called Judith Catchpole was on trial for witchcraft. Having only landed in America in January of that year, poor Judith found the land of the free to be a place of almost immediate imprisonment. A fellow-passenger on the voyage from England had accused her of murdering her new-born child, as well as killing several fellow passengers but then restoring them to life by means of witch-carft. Had her accuser survived the voyage perhaps Judith Catchpole's fate would have been sealed. But as there were no other witnesses and as the case was so unusual, the Maryland authorities took the unique step of appointing an all-female jury to try the case. They needed to know whether Judith had, indeed, given birth. The jury - seven married and four single women - duly conducted their examination and concluded that Judith could not possibly have given birth to a child and she was acquitted.

The trial took place a good twenty years before the celebrated Salem Witch Trials. And almost three hundred years before women in America got the vote. It's remarkable for the unprecedented lengths the authorities at the time seemed to want to go in order to secure justice.

Would that that were always the case.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The cane

There's been a call today - reported in the Daily Express - for a return of this...


Yes. The cane. Apparently almost half of parents interviewed were in favour of the re-introduction of corporal punishment and almost a fifth of secondary school pupils agreed. But I suspect both the parents and pupils might start to think again if it directly affected them.

The cane in schools is like a lot of things - uniform, National Service, policemen cuffing ruffians round the ear - we're happy to agree with if it doesn't involve us and ours. The thought of anyone caning any of my children - whatever they had done wrong - is anathema, as was the thought - as a teacher - of having to cane anyone.

And anyway, are things really that bad? With riots on the streets and stabbings in the playground it might seem so. But as today's Telegraph points out, it was ever thus. 'Are today's children wickeder?' screamed a headline back in... 1932.

But perhaps the single biggest reason for not bringing back the cane is the fact that - surveys like this notwithstanding - parents today would never react in the way they used to do back in the 'good old days'. We had the cane when I was at school. I had it once myself. And I distinctly remember talking to boys after they'd 'had it' and asking them if they were going to tell their parents. 'No fear' was the reply. 'If I did that I'd get it again as soon as I got home.'

Judging by the number of anguished 'phone calls I had to take from parents whose children had been given an after-school detention ('he can't possibly have done it/stay behind/be that sort of boy') I rather think the reaction these days of parents being told by their son (or daughter) that they'd got the cane would be a little different.

Which makes the survey findings all the more ironic. Hear what I had to say on the matter on the Peter Levy show on BBCiPlayer (8mins 40secs) for the next seven days

Monday, 5 September 2011

Back to School

Ah September, when the sound of squeaky new school shoes can be heard in our land once again; when the whites of crisp new shirts dazzles the eye like no sun ever did this summer; when pencils are sharpened, bags packed and unfamiliar yet familiar journeys taken.

Yes, it's back to school time again and not just for our children (except, perhaps, in the loosest sense). Because today also marks the day when our beloved MPs return to the parliamentary bear-pit or - as they so quaintly refer to it - 'work'. Some, no doubt in common with the thousands of servicemen who received redundancy notices last Friday, may be doing so for the last time. But not half enough of them. Because amid all the many (and necessary) cuts there have been to public services, amid the redundancy notices and rationalisations, there seems to have been one notable public institution to have escaped completely. While MPs wring their hands about the pain of putting people out of work, while Ministers moulder on about each sector of the economy shouldering its fair share of the burden, while every public institution from schools and hospitals to the police and the armed forces seems fair game for each fell swoop of the Osborne axe our dear old MPs - and their local equivalent, the councillors - seem to sally forth regardless.

And yet, they're not cheap. Salaries, expenses, not to mention the cost of administering the ridiculous process that gets them elected, would all amount to a considerable saving I'm sure. Do we need so many of them? Do we need elected representatives at every level from the Parish Council to the European Parliament? I feel sure there's a bit of slack in the system. I'm certain there's scope for a few redundancies. And you never know, a leaner, fitter Town Hall might actually work better; fewer 'yah boos' shouting in Parliament might actually make the debates a bit smarter. I'm all for a bit of democracy, in its place. After all, it's been what people in Libya have been fighting for all summer.

But you can have too much of a good thing, surely?