Redemption on ice


A man and a woman have been pulled over at the roadside by their local police.

To complicate matters further – at least for the man and woman in question – they are black.

The burly copper asks, ever so seriously, if they are aware of some obscure motoring infringement they might have made. It’s a belting hot Continental Summer mid-day and you can practically feel them sweating.

You might have seen the video.

Just when you think something awful’s going to happen, the second policeman produces two ice-creams – one each for the driver and passenger – and says it’s against Highway regulations to be driving without ice-cream.

The woman literally screams with laughter and as she and her passenger accept the proffered ice-creams the conversation becomes a little more natural – but only just – between more laughs. At which point I’m left thinking:

  1. Isn’t that a Happy Ending!
  2. But…

Now then. I’m not fully au fait with the past record of Halifax, Nova Scotia’s finest. Are they generally known as a friendly, approachable bunch, or do they have some ‘issues’ in their past (or worse, their present)?

And if the latter, or if – heaven help us – someone like Chicago’s force should try a stunt like this, what are we to make of it?

Meanwhile, I write my fiction. And in among the characters I’ve created is someone whose past deeds are dreadful but who has – quite literally – had a change of mind (this is sci-fi, after all). His ‘new’ character craves forgiveness from a past victim – or at the very least wants the said victim to trust him enough that they can carry out a scheme which both would want done, together.

How is one to write the new, ‘reformed’, character believably? Or in fact any ‘reformed’ character under more normal circumstances?

Because a writer of a tale involving ‘redemption’ has to deal with this dilemma: if the character changes too little, are they forgivable? And if they change too much, are they ‘credible’?

I think this little vignette shows a way.

Let’s imagine two police officers who have genuinely abused their power in the past take it upon themselves to imitate our two Nova Scotians’ cunning stunt.

Although their intentions may be laudable, and they are doing no-one any direct harm this time round, they are nevertheless putting themselves in a position of massive power over their ‘victims’. And in that way, although they look – and believe themselves – reformed characters, they still want to exercise power. In that one crucial dimension, even though they’ve gone from ‘evil’ to ‘good’, deep down they haven’t changed.



War and Peace


You’re out of luck. The raid that your Squadron Leader said would be a walk in the park has gone wrong: they were waiting for you and you’ve been shot down. You’re injured – no idea, as yet, how badly. And they’ve found you before you could get to shelter.

You’re carted off to some unknown place in the dark by men whose language you don’t understand but about whom you’ve heard… well, you’d rather not think about it.

The Enemy.

You’re thousands of miles from home.

After a preliminary roughing-up, you find yourself alone in a cell. Nothing happens, for what seems like hours.

The cell door opens. You feel a sick lurch.

You’ve already given your name, rank and number when you first got here.

What now?

But nobody’s shouting at you and, apart from the guards at the door who haven’t moved from their posts, there’s only one of him.

“Hi. My name’s Hans.”

He gestures to imply you needn’t bother rising from your bunk. He pulls up a chair. It occurs on you, as he recounts the events of the previous night and how your people were caught out, that he doesn’t even have that harsh accent. He sounds just like you.

You gather, as he carries on talking, that they must’ve known all about the raid days, maybe weeks, in advance. Hell, about the entire history of the Squadron, sounds like. You don’t know it, but you’re nodding agreement with some of the stuff he’s saying.

He asks when you last ate: you realise how hungry you’ve gotten.

We don’t get much in the way of decent food round here, but I’ll see what we can rustle up…

You find yourself joking about your food – about the guys responsible for getting it to you. The rats. The QM who’s always on the make. Yeah, same here.

He leaves, returning later with food, even a few magazines. Film stars. You haven’t been to the movies in months. You get nostalgic. He asks about your favourite films. Their lads, he tells you, stencil the Divas on their planes: how about you..? You banter a little, about the planes. He tells you there’s a movie theatre here at the camp, and as soon as the medic’s treated that burn…

You find yourself talking, over the food. You’ve been careful: not given anything away. No numbers, no strategies, no tactics…

Or have you?

His name was Hans Joachim Scharff. A successful salesman in civilian life, he became one of the Luftwaffe’s top interrogators: the very antithesis of the harsh, ‘we have ways of making you talk’ trope of war films.

On the other side of the world, at roughly the same time, former missionary Marine Major Sherwood Ford Moran, an American Japanophile who spoke the language perfectly, was working the same magic on captured Japanese soldiers following failed raids on Pacific islands.

They’d sit in the shade on folding wooden chairs not far away from the immediate battlefield, and just talk – about places, about food.  The captives were often grateful for someone who spoke their language: who understood them and knew the rhythm of their lives back home. It would almost be rude not to talk…

It got so sometimes they’d even seek him out, for a chat.

Because whether in the pub just down the road, or in mortal peril halfway round the world, everybody loves to witter about themselves, really.

Which brings me to my turn, and Kate in Portsmouth.

I was not a captured soldier in dread of what might happen next, and of course my job was to give information: not withhold it.

But shock has an unexpected effect on the mind and on your ability to deal with direct questions. You blank out. The people needing the facts are working against obstacles, but these obstacles are not of your deliberate making: they lurk in the hidden parts of the mind, with our species’ other survival instincts.

I don’t remember the room. I couldn’t recall her face for the life of me – not even hair colour – but I do remember that it was she who eased me in to the talking and that all else, bar the street incident, left my mind.

Someone brought me a coffee. I remember wondering how they knew I took sugar.

We ran through it, all of it, in the present tense. The only interruptions would come if I stopped for lack of inspiration. They generally took the form “and what happens now?”

I don’t recall giving any details about appearances at this stage: only actions. I’m poor at remembering appearances.

Or so I thought.

We came to the end of my run-through of the incident: to my arrival at Geordie-Man’s house.

I thought that was that – I’d failed almost completely to give any useful details…

Then we went back and ran through it all again: but different this time.

“He’s coming towards you. Can you hear his footsteps?”

“What’s his hair like?

“What sort of clothes is he wearing?”

And back I was, in Burnaby Road…

MRI scans have since that time shown that the brain activity of someone imagining a situation is all but indistinguishable from that of the same person perceiving it in real life. This, it’s my guess, is how the true victims – those less lucky than I was that night – find their interviews so traumatic. I can only hope that, like ‘therapy’ is supposed to do, it helps get some of the awfulness out of their minds.

My interview, as mentioned before, took a whole three hours. It didn’t feel like that. It didn’t feel like any time at all. I became kind-of suspended: taken out of the normal flow of time, re-playing bits of reality like an eighties film fan would re-play action highlights of a video.

And that is how it’s done: the technique now accepted as ‘best practice’ in police stations throughout the U.K. for victims, witnesses and suspects alike. Kate – who’d ‘been on a course’ recall – must have been one of the earliest pioneers.

Its name is PEACE:

Prepare – Engage/Explain – Account, Clarify & Challenge – Close – Evaluate

There’s a free course here, for the curious.

And for the skeptics – of whom I admit I was once one – I give you experts from Liverpool who’ve demonstrated how well this kind of interviewing works, even on hardened criminals and terrorists.

I leave you with two quotes from top interrogators:

“The best (interviews) suspended moral judgment and conveyed genuine curiosity.”

“Rapport is the closest thing interrogators have to a truth serum.”



In the light of an interesting recent find, I’m stepping aside from our history of interviewing techniques for a moment, to ponder their content instead.

How good can our memory for a face – a voice, a person – really get, even when poorly seen like in my picture here? And are some faces more memorable, on some kind of absolute scale, than others? What if we were witness to a crime..?

No-one should stand on the right. But below me, and blocking the way to walk down the rush-hour escalator, is a bunch of rowdy Italian lads with whom I’ve no desire to argue. It’s 1980s London and I’m on my way to work.

So I stand, on the right.

Till someone kicks me in the back.

I turn around to see a pin-stripe suit topped by a pale, contorted face. I can’t work out how old he is. The language shocks: I’ve never heard anyone in a pin-stripe swear before. I forget, today, the words of my mild protestation – survival instinct hands me uncharacteristic restraint – but I remember the kick in the chest – the loss of breath. I recall wondering if the Italian lads know CPR. But when I turn to step off the escalator, they’ve gone. A sturdy, white-haired gent in tweeds – my guess is a retired Colonel – addresses a point just beyond my right shoulder:

“I say! That’s no way to treat a young lady!”

The pin-stripe scuttles off like a rat.

I think – I hope – that I thanked the gent in tweeds. I hope he read the thoughts on my face as for the first time in my life 21-year-old feminist rebel me – the only woman engineer in my workplace – realised that men of the Forces could also be kind. There’d been a string of anti-war protests of late, and I’d been on every one.

Fast forward a year, and a train carriage rushing through deepest Hampshire. A man and a young woman in the heavy, sprung seats across the way from me are arguing, and it’s getting ugly. They’re not a couple: they’re strangers. She’s sitting in the draught from the window he’s just opened.

I hate an argument, and this one’s so easy to resolve. I lean over and suggest they swap seats, putting him in the fresh air and keeping her in the warm. She rises to move, but he lets fly at me. Survival instinct cuts in again: I recall the words and voice – the pinstripe, even.

“That bloke kicked me on an escalator on the tube last year. He’s a ruddy menace. I’ll find the guard.”

I wonder how many other women the pin-stripe’s picked on, over the years. Did he get worse? Did he get caught?

Another city, another year: Portsmouth, in fact, and at least two years on. It’s hot, it’s dark and I’m among friends in the student dive, all jumping to George Melly’s lively jazz. I’m dancing on a table. As you do. Someone tugs at my sleeve – well yes, I suppose I shouldn’t really do this: 8 stone might be too much for a Students’ Union table. I glance down to gauge my leap. The sleeve-tugger isn’t one of our crowd. She’s saying something, with difficulty over the loud music:

“I’ve seen you before. You were on that train: you stopped that argument…”

Two years. A flash of a face in the dark. I stared, gobsmacked.

To be fair, she might have been one of those rare people with the gift of super-recognition. But other strangers have remembered me, from other glimpses and other incidents. It’s just this particular one struck me as the most extreme.

And so back to that recent piece of research: how many other people, I wonder, do folk remember?

What it can’t yet explain, though, is this: why always me?

Nine steps to Guilty


So, we return from our brief intermezzo in York Magistrates’ Court to the matter in hand: how, in the face of overwhelming odds, to get at the truth.

We’ve progressed from the inciting incident, through primitive attempts to beat or twist the tale out of people, to the first science-based monitoring of the signals inadvertently given out by a body under stress – a process which carries with it the rather less scientific assumption that heightened stress implies lying.

The road now takes us to Chicago, a city still bruised from the beatings led by its recently-deceased Chief of Police, one Jon Graham Burge, and native city of one John E. Reid.

John Reid started out ‘on the beat’, but also trained in using the polygraph. A physical giant of a man, he enthusiastically embraced the idea of telling an interrogee that they were lying – ‘The polygraph says you are lying’ – in order to put them under stress. Recall, the philosophy that lies behind polygraph use is that constructing a fake tale is more physically stressful than recounting the truth. The interrogee doesn’t get to see the traces and these days, with electronic displays instead of pens on rolls of paper, they can’t even use sound as a clue.

Reid used this particular gambit in a gruelling interrogation which culminated in the confession, by one Darrel Parker from Nebraska, to the murder of his wife, Nancy. Darrel Parker was found guilty at his trial, and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The successful case launched Reid’s career. He developed and polished the method, now adopted throughout the U.S.A., which still bears his name.

In the preliminary phase the interviewer simply chats, in a non-threatening way, with the suspect. From this they ‘calibrate’ their body language: how the interviewee looks when relaxed, under stress, or puzzled. Questions about the crime are then worked into the conversation, and signs of stress and lying are sought. One of these signs, quoted in the manual, has an almost superstitious ring to it: a person trying genuinely to recall an event will look up and to the right, whereas one lying will look down and to the left. No-one, as far as I know, has proven this scientifically, nor indeed specified whether it’s the other way round for left-handers.

We now come to the meat of Reid’s method. It takes us down nine steps:

  1. The interviewee, having been left alone for a time, is re-joined by the interviewer, who is now carrying an impressive-looking file. This file is said – or implied – to hold solid evidence of the interviewee’s guilt.
  2. ‘But you’re, kinda innocent’ – perhaps there’s some excuse for the crime, such as desperation, impaired judgement, or being ‘put up to it’ by someone else, the ‘real’ criminal. The interviewer watches or listens for signs that one of these get-outs resonates with the interviewee, while all the time…
  3. Stymieing any of their attempts to deny guilt altogether.
  4. By this time the interviewee will want to try and explain why, or how, they couldn’t possibly be the guilty party. They’ll do this because none of their outright denials will have been acknowledged. This might take some time. Two hours without food will take its subtle toll on most civilians, without being outright inhumane.
  5. At this point the interviewer has to appear to soften. The manual advises lowering position, approaching the interviewee; speaking quietly and appearing comforting. Using clues from the previous discussion, the interviewer can then…
  6. Present the interviewee with a ‘soft’ and a ‘hard’ version of why, or how, they committed the crime.
  7. By now the interviewee would have to muster quite some will-power to dismiss the entire conversation and revert to protesting their innocence. They may think all grounds for protest have been exhausted.
  8. Other people can now come in to the room, and the interviewer encourages the interviewee to confirm what has already been said.
  9. The interviewee signs their ‘confession’.

Most juries to this day regard a confession, more even than forensic or eyewitness evidence, as definitive proof of guilt.

Variations on the theme crossed the Atlantic to the United Kingdom in the seventies. I still remember a Police representative in a TV documentary from that time describing their interviews using the delightful English euphemism of ‘leading the criminal into a walled garden’ – note the implied assumption of guilt.

But there’s a twist to the tale.

Recalling ‘Frenchie’ (Byrnes’ first case), and then the mystery of the missing diamond ring among those comprehensively-polygraphed young women from Berkeley, can you guess what it might be, before peeking?

To crown it all, psychologists have now found that the only difference between a typical person and an ‘expert’ in determining whether someone is lying is the degree of confidence expressed in the result – not its accuracy. To reiterate: a psychology professor, a police inspector, and others whom you may think would have some secrets gleaned from a career of experience, are no better at detecting a new acquaintance’s porkies than you are.

The problem of ‘false positives’ – guilty confessions by innocent people – has not gone away. Here in the UK it has brought us the Guildford Four, the Birmingham Six, and a slew of other miscarriages of justice.

And compared with certain techniques developed on both sides during the Second World War, we have gone backwards – away from our Navy Base encounter with Kate.

Intermezzo: See you in Court

York Magistrates’ Court is an impressive red sandstone edifice in busy Tower Street. Once you’ve trod the eleven wide steps of York stone and passed through a small, high-ceilinged lobby, you reach the main corridor via an airport-style bag-check and frisk.  The elaborate ceramic tiling here wouldn’t look out of place in a clean, tastefully-appointed Victorian public convenience. You’re not supposed to photograph it.

Double wooden doors lead into the stately space of Courtroom 2.

Courtroom 2 is a room almost completely devoid of plastic – I swear I can tell this in any room, just by breathing. The high, bright ceiling arches above white-painted cormices. A peeling damp patch looks down, embarassed, from one of the corners. Wood panelling covers the walls to above head height and all the furniture is of the same, warm, serious wood. The layout appears like a rolling valley, with the Magistrate’s seat up to the right, the proceedings on the floor in the centre and the dock, backed by the public gallery, to the left.

For our day, blue sky shone in through high windows and the square-paned skylight. We filed in and climbed, one by one, up the two steep wooden steps of the public gallery. The  curved narrow pews took our collective weight with a gentle grunt.

We were here – about two dozen of us – because Heather had had to come back.

Heather had chained herself to he gates at Kirby Misperton, a few days – so it transpired – after the Decision. The Decision, taken within days of New Year’s when it had looked as if nobody was paying attention, had been to let preparation works for ‘unconventional hydrocarbon extraction’ resume.

Heather isn’t a Quaker but she has the straight stance, calm demeanour and neat white hair that I always associate with the Friends. She’d delivered an 80-page binder of evidence, in person, weeks in advance of her previous appearence here but it had only got to the Magistrate the day before. Pointing out that he couldn’t do it justice in that time, he’d deferred the case.

So here we were.

The Prosecution went first. A dark-haired chap from the CPS treated us to larger-than-life footage of Heather being cautioned and arrested, clearly visible on the flat-screen on the far wall. No-one disputed that she’d chained herself to the high metal gates and no longer had the key. I don’t recall anyone disputing that this constituted an obstruction, and therefore an offence.

Heather led her own defence but had civilian help in the form of a McKenzie Friend – an idea I’d never heard of before. It appeared she could pass notes and advice, but not take the stand or say anything.

Heather quoted chapter and verse from laws – English, European and international – which allow for protest, for freedom of expression, and for prevention of a greater harm. This last needs the preventative action (for example, giving a potential burglar a black eye) to be ‘immediate’ (you’re doing it then, to prevent a burglary) and proportionate (you’re not, for example, deliberately killing him.)

She called a Professor of Climate Science for the ‘greater harm’ part, as well as quoting from countries – sadly not ours – who have laws against Ecocide. I began to regret I hadn’t brought my notebook: the detail was impressive.

Everybody agreed that the action was ‘proportionate’ –  in fact more of an understatement compared with the magnitude of the impending disaster outlined by the Professor of Climate science and known, at least superficially, by all of us. The ‘immediate’ requirement presented more of a problem. No-one, the Prosecution pointed out, seemed to have proof of when the Decision had been made…

No-one, that was, until one of the members of the public came forward: the Mayor of Malton. He had been at the relevant meeting – or else received its minutes. He was invited to step up into the witness box, swear in, and say so.

There’s a choice now of whether to ‘swear’ (on a New Testament) or ‘affirm’ (on your own, for folk like me). The Mayor and, I noticed in other trials I’ve seen since, the police officers, tend to ‘swear’ while other witnesses ‘affirm’.

The Mayor’s account confirmed the ‘immediacy’ of Heather’s action, which had taken place in early January.

The court rose. The Magistrate retired to a chamber beyond heavy red curtains behind his seat, to consider his verdict.

Over the past several months many Kirby Misperton cases have come through this Court, interwoven with all the more ordinary fare: drunken brawls and other petty crime. I hadn’t known this until Heather’s first appearance and the deferment, but all are heard by the same individual.

We stood up for his return.

He spoke of how impressed he was with the thoroughness of Heather’s defence, of her conscientiousness both in that and in her life in general – the file had included character witness statements.

Heather had to stand up to receive the verdict.

In the absence – yet – of any English law against Ecocide, the verdict had to be Guilty. The sentence was the lightest possible – six months’ conditional discharge.

Later that afternoon, when the Press had photographed us on the steps and Heather had given her interview, we headed for the riverside tables of the Kings Arms. You’ve likely seen it on the News, under water: it’s the pub they always come and film when York has its floods.

The Prosecutor turned up and bought Heather a drink.

I am a writer of fiction: not a journalist. There will be places in this account  where I haven’t caught all the details, or have got them wrong – not done justice to the people in that building, that day. This is just a blog post after all: not an affidavit.

But one thing – one abiding impression –  stands out above and beyond the legal details.

Our Magistrate never took political sides, never lost patience, never once raised his voice, through an entire day of proceedings.

The contrast with the whining, churlish meanderings of another judge who’s been in the news of late, is stark.


I cannot Tell a Lie


Her chest constrained in broad straps, one arm bound in a tight black band, the other tied by the hand, the crime victim sits in the windowless basement, looks at the man and tries to remember to breathe normally.

Her heartbeat spurts out in jagged red…

But this is not the scene of the crime.

This is the interview afterwards.

Welcome to the next stage of our efforts to get the truth straight from people’s minds: the first in which Science takes a hand.

Around the turn of last century, just as our man Byrnes was on the wane, several advances in tehnology conspired to enable monitoring of the inner workings of our bodies in real time. Investigators – scientific and otherwise – couldn’t resist the chance to take a peek at how, exactly, our involuntary metabolism reacted to the various emotions and stresses of real life.

Early Heath-Robinson (or to use the more local, American term – Rube Goldberg) attempts led to the ‘cardio-pneumo psychograph’ developed by John Augustus Larson, the first individual in American law-enforcement to hold a Ph.D.

His guinea-pigs, in the spring of 1921, were a cohort of young college girls accused of petty theft.  The case became a media sensation.

Thus the concept of the ‘Lie Detector’ was born.

The device used in the USA today monitors breathing rate using bands round the chest and stomach (top two lines in the illustration), skin conductance (dampness of skin –  smooth green line) and instantaneous blood pressure, hence also heart rate – red jagged line.

Stress ‘tells’ in the person being monitored include raised blood pressure and heart rate, raised skin conductance, and irregularity in breathing. Certain kinds of stress ‘tells’ – but not all – are taken to be signs that the subject is grappling with the process of telling a lie: a more complex business, the polygraph’s underlying philosophy assumes, than simply allowing the truth to come out.

Two ‘pre-tests’ are carried out before any serious questions are asked.

First, the interviewer chats with the subject about their past. From this, information is gleaned that can be used to devise ‘Control’ questions – questions which any normal person would like to lie about. For example, “Have you ever stolen anything from your workplace?”

Second, once the pick-ups are in place, the interviewee is asked to tell a deliberate lie. This usually involves them writing down a number and then having to conceal which number it is in the face of simple yes-no questions.

Most people think the questions in the main session come in two types: Relevant, and ‘Control’.

But there’s more.

Both Relevant and ‘Control’ questions are designed to put our subject on the spot, but in different ways. The Relevant questions refer to the particular crime being investigated and are assumed more stressful if the subject is lying, whereas the ‘Control’ questions are assumed just plain stressful regardless – the subject either has to lie, or to admit some misdeed in their past.

A third type of question, ‘Irrelevant’ – the type most people believe to be ‘Control’ questions – are those which are easily answered without lying. For example: ‘Are the lights on in here?’

So far so good. Under these conditions a guilty interviewee will generally, short of having mastered some arcane technique of body self-control, not be mistaken for innocent.

But here are you: you’re innocent, and you never lie – or at least, not about anything that matters. You’ve been picked up in error and you’re telling the truth without much sign of nerves. The lie-detector works, right? Else they wouldn’t use it.

Then this happens:

‘Did you hide the blood-stained dagger in the shrubbery?’


(after a long silence)

‘The polygraph says that you are lying.’

Your stress-levels go through the roof. And you know full well they’ll be showing on the traces behind you – the traces you, as an American citizen, have been brought up to believe never make mistakes.

What are you to do, now?

Do you cave and change your answer? Lie, and say you’re guilty?

Or do you double down on what you originally said, thus betraying a lack of faith in your country, its technology and its fairness?

Your thoughts twist in knots. A term whose origin is an old word for ‘twisting’ might come to mind. It may occur to you that no other country uses polygraphs – why does yours? You might even happen to know that the guilty party among those college girls was never found, the intense questioning into her personal life precipitated a nervous breakdown in one of the ‘suspects’, and that Dr. Larson, horrified by what his invention had spawned, went on to refer to it as ‘Frankenstein’s Monster’.

You might not believe it, but this last way of using the Polygraph – making false statements to the interviewee – forms part of the next ‘step’ in the erratic progress towards Portsmouth, and Kate.

Early chapters


The lyrics, over the rock anthem’s pounding heartbeat, are gruesome – and likely horribly familiar to anyone who has ever worked with victims of domestic violence.

She won’t give him what he wants. So he’s tied her to the railway in the path of an oncoming train. And so on. The night of crime only comes to an end when he throws her off a cliff.

You wouldn’t think so, but it’s a moral tale – almost a ballad. The man is eventually hauled in and ‘given the third degree’-

How many times have I, or anyone else, used the expression ‘third degree’ at someone who’s asking too many questions and sort-of wondered what it meant, but not thought any more of it?

The tale, of course, is fascinating. And particularly topical given this week’s Supreme Court situation

‘Third degree’, meaning the extreme of something, is a term with a long pedigree. It turns up in places as varied as Shakespeare’s plays and old medical manuals – ‘Rue is hot and dry in the third degree…’ (1578). It’s also a term in Masonic ceremonies, and in the Spanish Inquisition.

Aha: now we’re getting closer.

Of all the theories about how the phrase came to be used about asking questions, this one has to be my favourite:

New York at the turn of last century was a brutal place. Crime rates in the USA at the time were said to be anything from four to ten times those in Europe. Into this den of iniquity strode the impressive figure of one Thomas F. Byrnes. A former engineer and firefighter, he became notorious for beating suspects in order to extract confessions from them. His colleagues – or possibly himself – awarded him the nickname ‘third degree’ as a pun on his surname. All right, officer I confess: I can’t resist a story with a pun.

With such an impressive record of finding and putting-away the guilty he rose rapidly through the ranks.

As Inspector, he faced a case not unlike that of London’s ‘Jack the Ripper’.  Unlike his counterparts across the Pond, though, he caught his man.

Except he didn’t.

Eleven years later, the evidence against him being his confession and hardly anything else, Ameer ‘Frenchie’ Ben Ali was pardoned. Meanwhile Byrnes had been forced to resign. Better ways of catching criminals – ones which would not also indiscriminately sweep-up witnesses and other innocents – were needed.

Sad to say that incidents like the one that opened this story are still with us and so – and not always in the metaphorical sense, either – is the ‘third degree’.

But we’re one step nearer to Portsmouth – and to Kate.

(Oh and, bonus points if you know the ‘ballad’.)


Inciting incident


Burnaby Road, Portsmouth, was supposed to be well lit. It was a broad, quiet, back town street with pavement slabs, as opposed to tarmac, all the way across its width: if you drove through between its smart houses – formerly Officers’ Quarters for the Navy – you were supposed to do so at a respectful, slow pace.

But Burnaby Road – at that time student accommodation for the University of Portsmouth – had a design flaw: the siting of its lamp-posts and its street trees coincided, leaving most of the ground in darkness for the nights between mid-May and the end of October.

And that may – or may not – have contributed to_

“Have you got the time on you?”

I pushed up a sleeve and looked at my watch. “About five past ten.”

Normally people just walk off after such an exchange, but this one didn’t: he followed me from the brightly-lit High Street into Burnaby Road.

“D’you live round here?”

“No.” Thank God – otherwise I’d have the type of bloke who follows you into a dark street knowing where I live. As it was, I was on the way to my then-boyfriend’s house – past a second house in the street where I had, in fact, been living the previous year.

More questions followed. The darkness hid my blushes at the abject lies I concocted. At the age of 24 I just wasn’t practiced at this stuff.

“Where do you work?”

“I’m a student.”

I thought I heard the words “I’ve always wanted a student…” as my feet went from under me and I started to fall…

By now the sharp-eyed among you may have recognised the incident: it’s the one Verity recounts in ‘The Price of Time’ as part of her answer to Mills’ question about life without constant fear. It is also a vignette of real life: it happened to me in the late spring of 1987. As you can imagine it left a bit of an impression, even though I scared the man off with a scream before anything worse happened.

But the most interesting part of the night was yet to come.

My boyfriend had gone out, leaving the house deserted. Desperate, I banged on the door of my former place. The tall redheaded lad who answered_

Geordie-Man, one of my old housemates!


“I’ve been mugged. Can I come in?”

We went through to the kitchen. The rest of the lads, all of whom I remembered, were there. I was the only other northerner – the only one who didn’t think Geordie-Man needed subtitles when he talked.

“Sh’a get y’a cuppatea?”

“Oh yes please, that’d be great!”

I watched, puzzled, as Geordie-Man walked out of the front door and away. Perhaps he’d seen they didn’t have any milk. I didn’t notice the four-foot-high poster of Karl Marx in the next room until someone carefully detached him from the wall, rolled him up and stashed him in the cupboard under the stairs. Perhaps they were having a bit of a tidy-up.

Geordie-Man returned.

For a while nothing happened_

Someone banged on the front door fit to break it, and a commotion broke out in the hall. A split-second later four burly Police walked in the room. They all looked at me, the only woman.

“…been assaulted?”

My wits came to. That was the question Geordie-Man had asked me: the Police. Not tea.  I’d misheard.

I stood up. You needed something to show for it in these types of cases, or nobody would believe you.

“Yes. I can show you the bruises if you like.” I could feel them where I sat: they must be belters.

Nobody wanted to see the bruises.

They wanted a statement instead.

No note-pads appeared.

A statement meant going to the cop-shop with the four burly officers. As we got into the car the chap in the passenger seat leaned to his colleague sitting next to me in the back and said, “We’ll get Kate.” My seat-mate warmed to the idea, “Oh yes: Kate can interview you. She’s been on a course!”

There’d been cases in the papers. Genuine rape victims being given a gruelling time of it, giving their statements: having to put up with snide remarks implying they were at fault.

Kate didn’t do any of that. My respect for her hasn’t dimmed over time. She got 3 solid hours’-worth of detailed information out of a shocked civilian with famously poor visual memory, about a 20 second incident that took place in almost total darkness.

How she did it, why I happen to be recalling it right now, and the implications for the history of one country and the future of another, are for the posts to follow.