I reckon I am one of the many millions. We pay our taxes. We obey the rules. We try to do the right thing. In some ways we never really get the chance to put ourselves to the test. The only option I get is to have a third of my income deducted at source in the form of PAYE. Nobody has ever given me the option of paying 1% instead by hopping on board some celeb friendly avoidance scheme. Would I take it? I like to think not. Most of us no doubt think the same. Would we do a Jimmy Carr if we were on three million a year? Would we do a Philip Green if we cleared a billion? Big questions that are hard to answer
I have only looked anarchy in the face a couple of times and it wasn’t a pretty site. Anarchy is a world where the semi psychotic six foot two skinhead suddenly rules the roost. If he wants your bag of shopping, he’ll take your bag of shopping and there ain’t a damn thing you can do about it. So rules are good. Rules keep the six foot two skinhead in his kennel. Rules are worth sticking to and the vast majority do exactly that.
I guess most of us who spend our lives doing the right thing feel that we maybe deserve a bit of credit if and when we take a baby step over the line: the moments when we suddenly find ourselves on the wrong side of the criminal justice system. It’s usually an accident and it usually involves a motor vehicle.
And so it was with me.
I changed my car in January. A £250 red Volvo Estate was cashed in for a £250 maroon Volvo Estate. MOT for 12 months and tax disc in the windscreen. Job done. The choice of car says a great deal about why as an author I am well off the radar of the 1% tax dodge boys! Grisham I ain’t.
Anyway, one Sunday morning a week after the car switch I parked up by the Agency to pick up some empty egg trays en route to feeding our 200 chickens. Note yet another element of the sheer undiluted glamour of an author’s life. Returning to my can I found two cops waiting for me.
What’s the problem lads?
No insurance sunshine.
Shit. Bugger. Bollocks. Bastard.
Yup. I forgot to call the insurance company to tell them I had cashed in a red Volvo estate for a maroon Volvo estate. Not exactly the Kray twins or Pablo Escobar, but all the same I had taken myself over the line to the wrong side of the law.
I explained of course. Look lads, I can make a call to Swinton here and now and get it switched.
Sorry sir, no can do. Of course they couldn’t. They needed something in the book to take to the desk sergeant at the end of a slow Sunday morning shift.
Into the squad car and on with the paperwork.
Any points on your licence sir?
Ahh. Sorry about that. This will mean you will go up to twelve points and face a ban. We wouldn’t have done it if we had known you had six points….. too late now I’m afraid. Already started the paperwork you see…...
Already started the paperwork. The grey inevitability of beaurocracy. We’re so sorry Mr Cohen, if we had know before that you have won and Iron Cross at Verdun we might have been able to…. but we’ve started the paperwork….. sorry about that. Where is the train headed? I small place called
I believe. Just up in the hills above ….. Magdeburg
I am afraid we will have to arrange for your car to be towed Mr Frankland.
But I can call Carol and she can come and pick it up. Her insurance cover her to drive any vehicle.
Sorry sir. The paperwork….
If we had only realised that it was Mr Anton Pavlov who had missed his production targets rather than Sergei Pavlov then we might have been able to ….. but it is the paperwork you see comrade……. Comrade Stalin is very particular about the paperwork………. The train? Oh, somewhere in
Kolyma I believe. You best
dress up warm…
So they got the maroon Volvo Estate towed. Half a mile. A hundred and twenty quid’s worth. Thanks lads.
But it really wasn’t too much of a problem they assured me. I could appeal exceptional hardship. I’d get a fine sure enough. But not a ban. No chance.
And so came the first day in court. A lawyer would come in at £350 and my kind of author can’t run to £350. I would have to do the Rumpole bit on my own. I was lucky. A lawyer took some time out to fill me in on the procedure of doing a DIY Rumpole in the courts of Dumfries and
And the news wasn’t good.
Exceptional hardship hearings are all sent to the JP’s court in Annan. And the JP’s of Annan have little time for exceptional hardship. They like throwing the book. So it will have to be something good. Really good.
Was I going to suffer exceptional personal hardship? Not really. Just huge inconvenience and a load of walking.
But the rules say ‘E£xceptional Hardship for yourself or others.’
So work was another issue. In my line of work I get calls which require immediate action. Calls when some of the veterans we support have reached the place of ultimate darkness where life is no longer worth a candle. Just ringing to say goodbye Mark. Thanks for all you help but….
And then I have maybe half an hour to jump into the £250 maroon Volvo and high tail it to wherever they may be to hopefully talk them down. Sure it doesn’t happen a lot. But it happens.
And the helpful lawyer told me that this was the story I would need to tell to the JP’s of Annan. But it would need more than my Rumpole efforts. It would need witnesses. Someone to corroborate the tale. My fifty years of abiding by the rules and trying to do the right thing would count for nothing in front of the JPs of Annan.
So I called Steve. Steve was a Scots Guardsman in another lifetime and he went to the dark places. Trenches ripped from wet fields by JCB’s belching thick diesel fumes. Crows in dark ranks of pine trees. Hard faced men in balaclavas and cheap anoraks laughing and crashing cheap unfiltered cigarettes. And bodies and bodies and bodies… The dark places. Night after night after night.
I asked Steve if he would be willing to help me out. To tell the court how the memories of the dark places made him harm himself.
And Steve said yes. Course he would.
I hated doing it. Outside the court I gave him a list of the questions I would ask to persuade the JP’s of Annan that sometimes my job became a matter of life and death. And the difference between life and death would probably be a £250 maroon Volvo. No problem Mark. Ask what you like. I just want to help.
We sat for two hours whilst bored lawyers dealt with about fifty cases. There wasn’t a single outcome. Fifty cases adjourned or re-arranged. Then a break. Then a special reasons appeal which was grudgingly granted.
Then the Rumpole with the £250 maroon Volvo;
I said my bit. I told them about the work of First Base. I told them about the Vets we work with and the dark places. I told them about James who reached a place where he couldn’t do it any more. Any of it. At the age of 22 on a cold night in January a week before I parked a £250 maroon Volvo outside the Agency. A makeshift noose and no more nightly visits to the dark places.
Then I called my first witness. Archie. Councillor Archie Dryburgh. Ex Gordon Highlanders and now the region’s Veterans Champion. A man of office and reputation. A man to confirm that what I had told the JP’s of Annan was no more than the truth. Were they buying any of it? Inscrutable faces. It didn’t look promising.
Then I called Steve and felt about an inch tall doing it.
He stood all of his six foot two and straightened his Guardsman’s back.
How low do you get Steve?
Lower than low. As low as it is possible for a man to get.
And have you ever harmed yourself Steve?
And have you ever considered suicide Steve?
Back a little straighter. Twice. Once in
Once in Peterborough .
Both times the ambulance crew brought him back from the far side of the line. Newcastle
Christ this was costing him.
I shouldn’t have done this.
I should have just taken the ban and lumped it.
He gave me a small nod. It’s OK. I’m fine.
Were you particularly low a few months ago Steve?
And did you call me Steve?
What was the reason for the call Steve?
I rang to say goodbye.
A call that had sent me flying over to Annan in a £250 Volvo.
And what would have happened if I hadn’t called round Steve?
I wouldn’t have been here today. No chance.
And if I had explained that I had no licence and had to send a volunteer instead would you have let them in?
Do you know any other veterans in Dumfries and
Galloway who are in the same
place as you?
The Procurator Fiscal had no questions for Steve. She looked down at her paperwork and seemed to be suddenly feeling the cold. A biting wind sliding through ranks of silent pine trees and a field with the angry brown scar of a recently excavated trench. And the smell of cheap tobacco. And the bite of hard brutish laughter and a coughing diesel engine. And bodies and bodies and bodies…….
The glimpse of a dark place for the JP’s Court in Annan.
A world far, far away. A world where there are no rules any more. A world where the weak are dispatched with a lump hammer crashed into the back of their heads. To save on the cost of bullets. Crows in the trees and humanity with its back turned. The bottomless hell of anarchy.
I thanked Steve and he took his place at the back of the court.
And I felt dirty and small and bad, bad, bad.
I summed up.
Exceptional hardship? Not for me but for Steve and all those like him. The ones we have sent to the dark places for the same pay as a traffic warden. Less than a bored cop on a slow Sunday morning.
Christ what had any of this got to do with forgetting to call Swinton bloody insurance to switch vehicle insurance?
The JP’s of Annan left the court to consult and minutes ticked by.
Fifteen long minutes.
And then they came back.
We have listened to the evidence you have presented Mr Frankland. And we agree there will be hardship if you lose your licence. But not exceptional hardship…
And I sense the anger rising in Steve.
I sense Carol quietly telling it’s OK. Really. It’s OK.
And that was that.
Six months and £200 to pay.
Out into the fresh air and a cigarette and Steve white faced with anger. And the JP’s of Annan emerged and headed over the road to a hotel for their lunch. And at that moment I couldn’t care less about the six months and £200 and the hoops I had been made to jump through for forgetting to make a lousy phone call. I hated them for what they had done to Steve. They had ignored him. Joined the long list of those who had let him down. Written him off. Discounted him.
Steve and all the others. The men and women who can find no way to rid themselves of their time in the dark places. The pine trees and the smoke hanging in the cold air and the bodies and the bodies and the bodies….
We shook hands and I thanked him. And Carol thanked him. And it wasn’t anything like enough. And he marched away with his Guardsman’s back as straight as ever.
It was the Justice of the Peace Court in Annan
A small room in great need of a makeover.
And there was precious little Justice.
And precious little peace.
Just a glimpse into the very darkest corners of our world.
And then a nice lunch.