Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 11th February 2019

THE Wetherspoon’s pub chain has a record of saving old buildings, architectural beauties and places of historical interest that would have been lost to the bulldozer.

Keswick’s Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, honouring local worthy Sir John Bankes, who was Chief Justice to Charles I during the English Civil War, was the magistrates’ court and police station until it closed in 2002. It reopened 12 years later as a Wetherspoon’s and was quoted recently, in an article in the “i” newspaper, as a prime example of buildings, once at the heart of the community, which had outlived their original purpose.

Keswick’s Wetherspoon’s still retains the witness box, bench and cells and Veronica Lee, under the heading “make mine a pint … and a rescued old building,” said: “I like to think that some drinkers may have been, er, customers in the building’s previous life.” I couldn’t possibly comment.

Old cinemas, theatres and banks have been revived and added to Wetherspoon’s 1,000-strong estate. Not all, as a recent planning inquiry in Keswick discovered, are to the pleasure of nearby residents. Wetherspoon’s founder Tim Martin may indeed have given Keswick a tactical swerve on his recent trip to Cumbria where he espoused his pro-Brexit views.

The real issue here, whether or not you are a fan of the Wetherspoon philosophy and Tim Martin’s political views — for the record I am most certainly not a supporter of the latter — is the closure of our police station and the loss of a vital visible presence. Police chiefs argue that crime is changing fast and the old front desks were an anomaly of the past. Yet successful policing relies on community support and in many parts of the country the public perception is of a force invisible and in retreat.

I think it’s a dangerous idea, no matter how well-meaning, that vigilante groups are entrapping suspected paedophiles. Across the UK there are believed to be around 75 such groups whose supporters maintain they are helping overstretched police forces catch abusers. Some senior police officers worry that vigilantes could harm legitimate investigations and risk breaking the law.

More and more there is a blurring of edges between community action against crime and the role of the police. Can it be true, as one headline declared recently, that cops in parts of the Lake District are allowing private security firms to detain violent suspects with the use of handcuffs? Security firms have trained staff in their use so they can detain suspects while waiting for the police to arrive from up to an hour’s drive away.

Cumbria has lost 10 per cent of its frontline officers in the past decade. An extra 20 police are to be funded through a rise in the county council precept this year. There’s certainly variance between the Police Federation spokesman who was quoted as saying crimes that were routinely attended five years ago can no longer be dealt with and police and crime commissioner Peter McCall’s response that Cumbria is “a policing success story”.

County drug lines, online grooming, mental health issues. These are growing, modern-day problems for our police to address. So yes, policing has changed. But local knowledge and information, not to say confidence, has been surrendered to a degree because police have, through closures of town centre offices and the reduction in beat bobbies, lost important contact with the eyes and ears of local communities.

While I might enjoy fish and chips and a pint in the Chief Justice, I would feel a lot more comfortable if it was still the cop shop and we had faith that the police and not self-appointed vigilantes were looking after us.

TESTING COURTS’ PATIENCE

WITH prisons full and in crisis, the Ministry of Justice thinks short sentences of up to six months don’t work and community service orders would be more appropriate. In one sense I agree. Six months is a waste of time. Make it 12.

Having spent many thousand lost hours of my life sitting in courtrooms I can tell you now, it takes a heck of a lot to get yourself sent to prison. The majority of offenders handed short terms at HM’s Pleasure have already gone through a whole gamut of non-custodial options. Courts deal with a depressing number of regulars and magistrates will say prison is the last resort when all other sentencing ideas have failed.

I’ve spoken to ex-prisoners and they say it’s not the “holiday camp” image so often portrayed. Prisons are unpleasant, over-crowded environments populated by some unpleasant people. Often the courts will bend over backwards to avoid sending offenders down. Unfortunately the alternative of community work is seen by many small-time criminals and fines evaders as a joke. There are persistent criminals who, like Fletch in Porridge, regard jail as an occupational risk. The public feel they play the system to their benefit while the interests of their victims come a poor second.

We’ve come a long way since Willie Whitelaw’s “short, sharp shocks”. But the public, especially those who have been victims of crime themselves, feel that sentences in the middle and upper tiers are not adequate reflections of the damage, physical and mental, that offenders cause.

I’m not sure than sentences of less than six months do a lot of good. Much as I deplore the dishonourable MP who got three months for persistently lying about a speeding ticket and was convicted for perverting the course of justice, the cost of her imprisonment is out of proportion to the offence. Had she been a bit more humble and coughed for it at the start then she may have avoided prison. A refusal to resign and forego her 70 grand a year salary didn’t help her cause.

But I do believe, for serious and regular offenders, sentences should mean what they say. Five years that become two with early release is no way to make victims feel justice is serving them.

SIZING THEM UP FOR SHAKESPEARE?

AS a kid I remember how I hated being dragged off once a year to be measured up for a new pair of shoes. I don’t exactly know why because no pain was involved, but to my young self it was only marginally less unappealing an experience than a visit to the dentist. It wasn’t any fault of the shop’s staff. They were unfailingly patient and well-practised in the art of small talk about the weather that, to an eight-year-old, seemed utterly tedious.

I’m bemused that, with over seven million kids growing into adulthood lacking basic literacy skills, the government thinks shop assistants at Clarks shoe emporiums can somehow be trained to help children with their reading and writing with a quick chat.

What next? Amo, Amas, Amat while purchasing a pair of wellies for the winter? Staff could even dress up and do a quick Midsummer Night’s Dream scene while discussing whether junior is likely to grow into a size six by next time.

This is just having a laugh, surely. Educating kids for life is a serious business that demands the investment of time and money, not some idiot initiative. A recent survey found that only one in 20 adults had a clue about the Holocaust. The rest were not anti-Semitic, just thick. What would happen if you asked youngsters in the street to quote a line from the Bard or name the Chancellor of the Exchequer? I can guess.

Children and families minister Nadhim Zahawi says that, by working with businesses and charities, “we’re making it easier for parents to kick start early development”. It will take more than an annual visit to a shoe shop to educate these kids. And anyway, isn’t it the posh parents and clever kids, the ones that will know the answers, who shop at Clarks?

OCTOPUS OFF THE MENU

SOME years ago, litter pickers discovered a dead octopus on the summit of Scafell Pike. Explain that if you can.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to our great seats of learning and their proclivity for providing the columns of our tabloid press with amusing items. The latest is Somerville College, Oxford University, where octopus has been taken off the menu in the interests of accessibility for students of all backgrounds.

Do they not realise that, while posher lads and lasses spend winter hols ski-ing in Switzerland and Austria and summer breaks in Barbados, students from less well-off backgrounds, have been living it up in Ibiza and Benidorm for yonks and, while there, chomping merrily on octopus — with chips and red sauce, naturally.