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Date: 19/02/11

Locked In

Preface: I have thought long and hard over whether to put this post up here at all; it speaks of the inner workings of my mind, and may be giving way too much away about myself. But I've spent a week or more writing it, and as others seem to use their blogs to express their feelings I'm not inclined to let the effort go to waste. I don't want anyone who knows me to worry unduly about its content; it's an attempt to work out what's going on. In any case, if you don't want to read self-indulgent crap in the first place, perhaps you should just skip this piece.

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This piece was originally intended to serve a number of purposes.

Firstly, it was an attempt to describe a certain rather worrying state of mind which I seem to have fallen into in the last few weeks; secondly, an attempt to make sense of that state of mind and where it might be coming from; thirdly, an attempt to exorcise (as it were) that state of mind and clear some clutter out of my head; and finally (if I got that far without getting myself into a state of complete cranio-rectal co-location) to voice some opinions on a matter I've long found engaging my concern, if at times only morbidly so.

It was thinking about the Woollard case which has cast me into the emotional fugue I seem to be inhabiting, but I know that this is not the first time it has happened. There was a case in about 1994 which presented similar symptoms. In that instance, it was the case of a fifteen-year old boy in South Wales who had been convicted of rape (although the reports at the time merely referred to 'a sexual act', which means it might have been rape in the strict legal sense of the term, but not rape in the way that the ordinary person would usually take it as meaning). Upon his initial conviction, the boy had been given a non-custodial sentence (which the details of the case may possibly have merited - this wasn't well enough reported to determine). Unfortunately, presiding over the case was a judge called Prosser who was notorious for eccentric sentencing and bizarre remarks. In addition to the sentence, Prosser ordered the boy to pay his victim a sum of money (memory suggests it was either £300 or £500) so that, as he said, the girl could have a good holiday. It was a crass decision to make and a crass way of expressing it.

Of course, all hell subsequently broke loose. The victim's family was understandably vocal about it (as much as they could be under the necessary condition of anonymity) and - inevitably - the press got hold of it and started its usual sub-human screaming.

The Crown appealed on the grounds that the sentence was too lenient (as it by then had the power to do). In due course, the case found its way to the Court Of Appeal, where the boy was sentenced to two years in a Young Offenders Institution (YOI).

Here's where the workings of my mind started to baffle me (I mean in this specific example; its other workings had baffled me for years - they still do). In all reason and objectivity the revised sentence may have been correct, at least in principle. So why did I start identifying with the boy? Or, to be absolutely accurate about it, why did I start projecting onto him? For what anxieties, fears or other strange considerations was I using his fate as a lightning rod?

Because I started imagining myself in his position. Here was someone who was scarcely through adolescence, suddenly removed from everything he had ever known and put into a setting and environment which would have been completely alien to him, full of people who may well have been older, stronger, tougher and more vicious than he had been (and that one act may have been the only truly bad thing he had ever done in his life). How would he survive? What sorts of things would happen to him? What sorts of things would be done to him, by whom, and how frequently (especially bearing in mind that - as a sex offender - he would be at the very bottom of the heap; even granny-stranglers look down their noses at nonces)? What state of mind would he spend his time in? What sort of mental or psychological condition would he be in when he came out again? What sort of life would he have thereafter (fortunately for him, this was before the introduction of the Sex Offenders' Register, a piece of political grandstanding which has been abused more often and by more members of the judiciary and the police even than the bail laws and ASBOs). Lying abed at night with nothing much else to think about while I awaited sleep, I concocted scenes, dialogues, whole narratives about what he might be going through.

In short, I couldn't get that case out of my mind. Not for months. It was only about a year after the Appeal Court's decision, when it was reported that the boy had been let out (and that was only reported because the girl's father had once again kicked up a fuss, just as he had done about the supervised home visits the boy had made in the run-up to his release) that I seemed able finally to let go of it. Or so I thought (see later).

Fast forward a decade and a half to the Woollard case, and I find myself doing the same disconcerting, dislocating thing. Like just about everyone else outside of Dibden Purlieu, I had never heard of this lad before the trial was reported, but again I have found myself projecting onto this youth's circumstances some form of my own hang-ups. How would he as - by all available accounts - a gently-nurtured boy from an obscure part of Hampshire cope with being on the receiving end of a sentence deliberately designed to be disproportionate? What would happen to him in the notorious YOI at Feltham? What hope would he have of a successful appeal? Again, how would he fare once he was let out (be it after sixteen months, twelve or less) with a conviction for a violent offence on his CV (possibly for the rest of his life)? What would happen to his relationships outside of prison? Would he still be able to bring himself to live with - or even speak to - his mother, who encouraged him to hand himself over to the bizzies and who must now be wondering if it would have been better had she told him to cut his hair, grow a beard and keep a low profile for a few months? If he had a girlfriend, would she stand by him, or would she find the behind-her-back comments too much and dump him in his time of greatest need?

As I must again point out, all of this is mere projection. It is not me imagining him in that situation; it is me imagining me in it.

So why do I find myself once again doing this? There is certainly one common element to the two cases I've referred to, and that is the peculiar behaviour of the judges in them. In the first case, the non-custodial sentence might well have gone almost entirely unreported in anything other than the South Wales Argus had Judge Prosser not made himself look a complete tool with the monetary penalty and his comments in connection with it. In the second, we are confronted with the sight of Judge Rivlin making sentencing calculations and decisions which were clearly political in the broad sense of that term. It could have been anyone (and Charlie Gilmour must be shitting a stick right now, given that he has been charged with two counts of the same offence), and Edward Woollard - being one of the first to be tried in connection with events on that day in November - just happened to be the fall guy for a particularly emetic act of judicial activism.

In short, both the South Wales boy and Woollard found themselves at the mercy of something over which they had no control, in the form of two show-off members of the judiciary. And that perhaps is one reason why they attract my attention. The unfairness of being punished more than once - or punished disproportionately - as a result of factors beyond one's own control; to be singled out; to be 'made an example of'; that is something which a true system of justice should not be willing to countenance, and something which shouts out its wrongness to me. A sentence - like a conviction - should be decided on the basis of the facts of the individual case and the individual perpetrator; allowing external considerations to negatively influence sentencing is not justice, as a one-time Lord Justice once said.

But I know that there is far more to my own reaction that just a case of a sincere - if perhaps misplaced - compassion ('misplaced' because there are almost certainly many other more worthy objects of it - those whose very convictions may have been wrong, for instance). It taps in to something I know has been in my psyche since time was.

Wherever I have been, at whatever time, I have always felt myself to be an outsider. I was very poor at making friends at school - the scrawny old hag who was headmistress of my infants' school actually told my mother to her face that I was 'anti-social'. I was not a 'good mixer', finding my own company - and the company of my fantasies - to be more congenial than hanging out with other boys who were into such empty (and rough) pastimes as playing football or games of 'commandos'. Also, I was probably the brightest kid in the class for most of that time, which in a working-class area was, by the early Seventies, not the cleverest thing to be. These two factors, combined with the fact that I knew how clever I was and was thereby ripe for the kicking, meant that I was regarded as easy prey for others who wished to express a dominance over someone else. I was bullied for much of my time in school from the age of four to the age of sixteen, and looking back I recognise that some of that was my own fault (anti-bullying campaigners will no doubt express horror at this statement, but all I can say is that I didn't exactly help myself much of the time, and most children will take any advantage going to bolster their position in the pecking order). It is quite possible that - were I of that age now - I would have been diagnosed as being somewhere at the high-functioning end of the autistic spectrum. Back then, I was merely 'shy' or even 'anti-social', and that was that.

And so I never developed the social or psychological ease that most of my contemporaries seemed to demonstrate, whether it was being pretty relaxed about breaking rules at school, or doing the sorts of things that 'normal' teenagers got up to, or by being part of some in-group or other. Oh, I hung around with a certain crowd for most of my time at secondary school, but I never felt fully part of it. This was mostly my fault rather than theirs; I never felt that I 'fitted in' anywhere with any degree of assurance. This aspect of my life continued into sixth form and university, and I only became remotely comfortable in social situations once I had turned thirty-five or so, which was a tad on the late side to be of any real use.

Possibly as a defence mechanism, I adopted this 'outsider' status as a sort of identity at least in my own mind, and came quietly and gradually to embrace it.

Because I have never had either a wife or a life (those in the know claim that possession of these are mutually exclusive options, but I can at least confirm from personal experience that it is possible successfully to be devoid of both), and having long had trouble getting to sleep at night (the 'off' switch on my brain having developed a permanent fault many years ago), I tend to while away the time before I doze off in inventing scenes or storylines in my head, as I mentioned earlier. This started off as being strictly practical, in that I fancied myself as a fiction writer and this seemed a useful way of running through some ideas and seeing where they led. However, long after I reached the sad conclusion that as a writer of fiction I made a damn good typist, I continued to play out these scenes, partly out of habit and partly out of a need for entertainment.

However, although adopting the rôle of the outsider can be a liberating experience, it takes only a small mis-step of the imagination to turn it into playing the rôle of the outcast. As someone who enjoyed - particularly in his twenties and thirties - reading stories about the excluded (encompassing also the self-excluded) to be found in many of the short stories of - for example - Robert Silverberg and Harlan Ellison, this position too has (or had) its attractions. For what could be more romantic (there, I've used the word) than being the brave individual who stands outside convention and 'normality' as a standing rebuke to the dull, uninspiring world-view of what my chum Alex refers to as The Mundanes? The true man who stands alone, defying the quotidian, the humdrum, with himself as his only resource?

All very romantic, as I have said. But dreadfully, culpably immature. It is the ultimate fantasy of the followers of that false trail of adolescent self-righteousness which nowadays calls itself 'Libertarianism'. But then, as I have always been immature - in line with the poet Robert Lowell's description of himself as having gone through "thirty years of adolescence", and with Wilhelm Stekel's dictum which Salinger quoted in The Catcher In The Rye - and as underdeveloped emotionally as I have been socially, such a stance would at least be consistent with the rest of my personality.

Where it can - and, if my experience is any guide does - go wrong is where one starts to create a rationale - a back-story - for how one's imagined character attained that pariah status in the first place. For instance, in one particular such storyline (for want of a better word) - one which I have revisited so often that I could run the whole story as a film in my head any time I choose - I was an outcast because I had - at a young age - committed a terrible crime, for which I served a term of imprisonment during which I myself had been subject to routine brutality, and following which I was left with little hope in life and little consolation (this storyline obviously stems from the time of the South Wales case I've already mentioned).

This internal screenplay then goes on to delineate the sense of despair, disconnection and worthlessness felt by the character, before he goes on to try as best he can to make something of value of his existence before finally being rescued from the prospect of lifelong darkness and isolation by the love of an open-minded, compassionate and determined young woman.

I'm beginning to wonder if I have already given away too much here, and imagine that I can hear the scribbling of psychiatrists both professional and amateur at all this, but I'll wade out further into this open drain by saying that I have an adjoining fantasy which I indulge in broad daylight. In order to enliven (for certain values of that word) the daily tedium of the bus ride home, I sometimes imagine that I have come back to the area for the first time after a period of many years' banishment, again for some dreadful but unspecified offence. By this method, I feel that I get some fresh perspective on the over-familiarity of the landscape. This may be a little weird, but ultimately harmless, I think.

You can possibly discern a common thread here. It's probably a projection of a poor sense of self-worth or of low self-confidence that I so regularly imagine myself into - and, at least in my head, act out the fate of - a character who is the object of general scorn and contempt.

But none of this seemed a satisfactory explanation of why I appeared to be turning myself inside-out about something over which I had no control happening to someone I didn't even know. And then a Good And Wise Friend to whom I have spoken about this had a Good Thought: perhaps, she said, I identified with the South Wales boy and Edward Woollard because I too perceived myself as being powerless, trapped and victimised. This may be The Key; I've mentioned before that my working environment has been made toxic for some time due to the high-handed stupidity of people in positions of power (I still can't say anything about that; I'd hoped to be able to by now, but the thing's dragging on). There was, I soon realised, a lot in what my Good And Wise Friend said, and her acute perception seems - if not to have lifted the load much - at least to have enabled me to identify where the problem is coming from. Identifying and naming the Beast is an essential precondition for fighting it.

But it would be a terrible waste not to take advantage of an opportunity to take the dog psychologising a little further. There's another common element in all of these concoctions, and one which relates back to the point at which I started these half-crazed ramblings (by the way, you don't mind my having a breakdown in front of you, do you? Jolly good! Stick around - it could get entertaining). That is, the fear of confinement of some sort and - perhaps more significantly - a feeling of horror at the thought of having all of one's freedom of action removed without any possibility of negotiation or mercy.

Although I have long held a dark suspicion in my mind that I would some day - for whatever reason - end up in a cell, up until now I have never even seen the inside of a police station or courtroom, let alone a prison. Perhaps this lack of experience has again led me to create wild imaginings of what being in prison might be like. However, I don't think so. I don't believe that I need much imagination (or any imagination at all) to find the prospect truly terrifying. I can imagine the appalling combination of being removed from all that mattered to me - my home, my music, my books, my ain folk - and being placed somewhere without any of these comforts to the psyche, in the enforced presence of people whose company I would not naturally choose (this is not snobbery, merely a statement of cold fact), knowing that I had no control over any of my circumstances - not when I got out of bed, not what time I ate, not what time I washed, not what time I went to bed, possibly not even what time I went for a shit - and that control over everything other than what went on inside my head had passed into the hands of a bureaucracy which would know nothing of compassion or even humane values, concerned only with the hard rules of its own machinery.

I have found myself in recent days doing routine, humdrum things - cooking, listening to my choice of music, reading my e-mails, or simply standing by my back door listening to the robins and blackbirds - and thinking, "If I were in prison, I simply wouldn't be allowed to do this". And at that I feel the walls - metaphorically speaking - closing in.

That combination of isolation, helplessness and the sheer frustration at not being able to do anything either to mitigate my circumstances or to simply get on with my life would destroy me. I'm sure it would. Those walls would close in on me within hours, chew me up and spit out the remains.

Some might point out (if they knew me at all) that this is a bit odd given that I live alone, don't go out much, and maintain a routine which even I have, of late, come to find deeply boring (thus also fitting the perfect tabloid stereotype of the weirdo/pervert; middle-aged, never married, "a bit of a loner", "kept 'imself to 'imself" - you know, the usual clichés). The point is that I do all this by choice (or whatever degree of choice any of us really has); the idea of a hard-and-fast pattern being imposed on me from without, and by those who have no interest in me as an individual and no concern for my physical or psychic well-being, is what disturbs me at some atavistic level. It's the 'fight or flight' instinct; and if you are barely capable of the former and the entire possibility of the latter has been totally removed, you end up in the waking version of those nightmares where something is after you but your legs simply refuse to carry you to safety.

This, of course, is what criminologists, psychologists and philosophers would call "the bleedin' point, innit?". In our type of society we are ultimately ruled by fear, whether it be by straightforward conscience (what the old hippies called "the cop inside your head") or by the terror of losing all that matters to us to a bad action or judgment (our own or someone else's). It may not be 'morality' - in one of its innumerable and often mutually-exclusive varieties - which is the ultimate arbiter of our actions, but fear of punishment.

And this is the nub and crux of the matter for me. During the period of gloomy introspection which has dogged me these past couple of weeks or so, one of the most painful realisations is this; I have got within stumbling distance of the age of fifty, and have done nothing of any note, and nothing upon which I can look back with one of those rueful smiles which one keeps for use when remembering things which may embarrass one now, but which were 'fun' at the time. I never got chased by the irate father of a girl I was knocking off, for instance; nor did I ever wake up in an unexpected place with a traffic cone (or wake up with a traffic cone in an unexpected place for that matter); nor did I ever have to lie low for a few days to evade detection following some largely harmless tomfoolery or other.

In modern parlance, I have lived a 'risk-averse' existence, and whilst that may have been quite soothing at the time in that it avoided adding further complications to my life, now it means that I feel that I have never really lived. I have a couple of relatives in their early-to-mid teens, and if they were bothered enough to ask I would strongly advise them to live and love to the full while they can (taking reasonable pains to avoid anything too serious or dangerous, natch), because the follies of youth - although they may be wasted on the young - are what youth is actually for. It's the time we are supposed to use to learn about life. It's no use trying to do these things later on; you look ridiculous for one thing - there are few sadder sights in our society than some forty-something with a flash car trying to impress young women while having trouble controlling his waist- and hair-line. With certain obvious exceptions - murder, rape, incest (although this last one is dependent on individual circumstances) and wasting an hour of your life listening to a U2 album - it is far, far better to be able in your declining years to regret - be it with a smile or a grimace of embarrassment - something you did do rather than regret all the things you did not do. That latter form of regret lasts and hits painfully deep.

The possible reasons for my lifelong avoidance of risk (or even anything remotely adventurous) may be rooted deep in my past, but they have always manifested themselves in forms of fear; most notably, fear of looking foolish (even now, I hate not knowing what I'm doing, which means that I can never comfortably do anything new), fear of failure (and hence of looking foolish), and fear of punishment (from being foolish or a failure or both). I spent my entire childhood in fear of either the flat of my father's hand or - often worse still because of their duration - my mother's sulphurous sulks, and I considered the administration of either - because as a child I was as self-absorbed as I was over-sensitive - as being equivalent to the end of the world. Combined with the lack of self-confidence which has been my constant companion for as long as I can recall, it makes for a pretty toxic brand of psychic screw-up.

Enough. This is not only getting embarrassing for You, The Reader, but boring as well. I realise that I have got to here and still haven't talked about the fourth element I referred to in the opening paragraph of this piece. That element is a more general view of something central to a civilised society - namely, the way we treat those who transgress against such a society's rules - and will therefore now be given a post all of its own, as I have much to say and haven't quite worked out how to say it yet. As 'they' say (to 'their' eternal shame), "Laters"an arrow to click on to take you to a follow-up item