The Presteigne One
On the morning of Thursday 17th of June, I was having a bit of a lie-in.
I’d been at an all day meeting in Birmingham on the day before, and had finished the meeting with a blinding migraine. Getting back home to Presteigne had proved something of a challenge, and I needed to sleep the migraine off.
At 10.30, my fiancée went down to answer the door. She came back up to our bedroom to tell me that there were ‘two people from the court’ who were asking for me. I pulled on my jeans, and went to see what the problem was. There were indeed two people at the door, both in the uniform of Her Majesty’s Court Service, which is all but indistinguishable from that of policemen. One was a shaven headed man in mirror shades; the other a tough looking woman, half my height, but twice as mean. The man told me that I was under arrest, and that I should get dressed, as they were to take me straight to Brecon Magistrates Court.
‘But how will I get back?’ I bleated.
‘Well, Mr Marchant, ‘ he said. ‘You might well be going to prison, since I’m taking you into custody. So I doubt you will be coming back.’
I went upstairs and pulled on a fairly smart shirt, and told my fiancée what was happening; she was, perhaps not without reason, very upset I grabbed my book, (Jonathan Littell’s ‘The Kindly Ones’), my reading specs, some medicine I need for my heart, my tobacco, and my fiancée’s mobile phone.
By this time the court officers had come into our flat, and were coming up the stairs, calling my name. So I kissed my fiancée, and told her not to follow. The Court Officers also told her not to bother, as I was quite likely to be going to prison anyway. She ignored them, and me, grabbed her car keys (but not her purse, which meant that she spent all day unable to buy herself anything to eat or drink), and followed as the officers led me through the streets of Presteigne, past my neighbours, past my friends in the café where I have my breakfast, to their van (which was illegally parked). It was a long wheel base Transit, with seats in the front for the officers, a row of seats behind, and, inside the back doors, a steel and perspex cage, perhaps one and a half metres square. They opened the cage, and invited me to enter. There was a steel bench, maybe four inches wide, on which I could perch. I am quite tall, so only by crouching could I get into the cage. My head touched the ceiling of the cage; every time we went over a bump on the 35 mile, hour long drive, my head took a knock against the perspex. I could see my fiancée following behind. It was a smashing day, just the kind of day you might well want to drive down from Presteigne to Brecon.
On arrival at the Magistrates court, I could see from my privileged position in the perspex cage that my fiancée was crying. The policewoman who wore the badges of Her Majesty’s Court service had gone over to speak with her through the window of her car. I asked the man in mirror shades if I could go and talk with my fiancée, and offer her some comfort, but he told me that it wasn’t possible.
‘Of course not,’ I said, ‘after all, you’re only doing your job.’
He backed the van up to the steel shuttered door of the Magistrates court, and released me from the cage. I was happy to stand up straight. I’d had enough foresight to roll myself a fag in the cage, and he let me smoke it. The policewoman walked across to tell me how upset my fiancée was. I handed the policewoman the mobile phone, and asked that she return it to my fiancée; she said she would, and popped it into the top pocket of her flak jacket. The door to the court rolled up, and two guards came out. The man in the mirror shades then handed me over to the charge of the security guards who were running the cell block. From the insignia on their sweaters, it was clear that they were working for a private security firm. I was then led into the cellblock, and told to sit in an interview room. A female guard came and told me to empty my pockets. I asked if I could keep my book and my reading specs, and after consulting with her colleagues, she agreed that I could. She told me to take off my belt. She frisked me. I was then taken through a barred gate into the holding cell area. Two of the cells were already taken; I saw the inmates peering at me as I walked by. They shouted, and banged on their cell doors. I asked if I could use the loo before I was incarcerated, and the guard assented. There was a steel urinal, and a steel toilet without a seat, whose rim was damp with piss; luckily, I didn’t need a shit.
Then I was what can only be called ‘banged up’ in the cell. It had bare walls, painted an attractive institutional eau de nil. It had a wooden bench built into the wall. It was cold. The steel door closed, and I put on my reading specs, and settled down to enjoy Littell’s study of the Nazi mindset.
One of the guards brought me a polystyrene cup full of tea. From the next door cell there was more shouting, banging, but I couldn’t hear what was being said. I’m 52, and hard of hearing. After perhaps an hour, I was brought another cup of tea and a micro-waved chilli con carne in a plastic tray, and a plastic spoon to eat it with.
After luncheon, one of the guards came and opened the door, and invited me to accompany him to the interview room where I had been searched, for a meeting with the nice young Duty Solicitor. He spoke into his mike,
‘I’d like to shake your hand Mr Marchant, but the screen prevents it’.
He told me that if I pleaded guilty, he would make a plea in mitigation, to see if the Magistrates might grant me a suspension of my inevitable prison sentence. He showed me the three forms that I would need to fill in, outlining my financial situation, and told me he would leave them with the guards. He asked me what I did for a living, and when I told him, he asked me if The Kindly Ones, which the guards had advised to take with me, was one of mine. I told him that it would be great if it was, since it had won the Prix Goncourt, but he seemed unimpressed. He told me that the court had adjourned for lunch, and that my fellow inmates would appear before the magistrates before me in the afternoon session, as they had come in first, which seemed only fair. But my case should be heard at around 3-ish. I was led back to my cell. I filled in the first of the forms, which was for the magistrates, but declined to fill in the other two, which were for Legal Aid, because I suspected that the State had already gone to a great deal of trouble and expense on my behalf that day, and didn’t want to inconvenience them further. The guard came to collect the forms, and slammed shut the door to my cell. I returned to my book. I read about how the narrator loved to be buggered, and began to wonder if I too might need to develop a taste.
The book, however absorbing, could not stop me from brooding on my situation. I realised that the arresting officers had not shown me any identity, had not at any stage read me my rights, and had entered our flat without invitation to chivvy me along. I thought about how I was under the impression that I was innocent until proven guilty, but that I’d bought utterly the solicitors advice that I plead guilty as it would earn me credit. I thought about how I hadn’t been offered a phone call or a visit from my fiancée. I realised that after only a few hours in a holding cell, I really didn’t want to go to prison, even though I read The Daily Mail when I find it on a train, and so knew all too well about the luxurious conditions in which prisoners are kept and molly-coddled.
When the security guards brought me my third cup of tea of the day, I found that I wanted very much to throw it in their faces; and that when they closed the door on me, that I wanted to kick it. I resisted.
Three o clock passed, and four, and it began to dawn on me that the Magistrates were busier than had been foreseen, and that I would certainly be spending the night in custody. It made concentrating on my book quite hard.
But I was wrong, and at four thirty I was led out of my cell, up a short flight of steps and into the dock of Brecon Magistrates court. The old ducks on the bench looked decent enough; a lady chairman in her early sixties, a bald gentleman farmer, also in his early sixties, and a third person of indeterminate sex, who looked to be wearing an ill-fitting wig, and who reminded me somewhat of those pictures of Phil Spector when he was on trial for murder. I was asked my name, address, and age. I thought they looked quite shocked to see me, as I was probably looking a bit bedraggled and sorry for myself, and that otherwise I look like what I am; a middle class middle aged man, a part-time university lecturer, an author, and not like their usual punters.
The nice young solicitor told the court all about my innate respectability, how sorry I was, and that I admitted to him that I had been ‘dumb’. He told them of the relative poverty of the writing life. He told them that my fiancée and I were due to be married on the following Tuesday, and that our collective grown up daughters were due to arrive the next day, so that they could come to the ceremony. Then he asked if he could consult with me. The court agreed. He told me that the amount I had offered to pay was too low, and that I should offer £150 a month, which I can’t afford. I had no choice, I felt. He told the court of my offer.
At no point was I asked to plead, to swear on a Bible, or if I had anything to say for myself.
The magistrates consulted amongst themselves. The chairman turned to me and smiled.
‘You are sentenced to 53 days imprisonment, suspended on condition that you pay a fine of three thousand four hundred pounds in instalments of 150 pounds per month.’. The Clerk of the Court was kind enough to point out that if I missed a payment, I would not be returned to the court, but taken straight to prison. I said ‘Thank you’ to the court, nodded my thanks at the nice young lawyer, and was led back down to the cells, where my stuff was returned to me. I was told my solicitor was waiting to speak to me in the interview room. I thought he might be there to tell me how I could appeal, or at least give me details of how I’m supposed to pay. But no. He showed me a green form which would enable me to retrieve my fiancée’s mobile phone. The policewoman had not given it back, as she had told me she would, but had handed it over to the security guard on reception. My fiancée had returned to Presteigne to collect her daughter from school with no money and without her phone. I was walked up to reception, where the smiling guard returned the phone.
The security guard called the bus company for me, to see if there was anything heading my way; luckily, there was a bus at 5.55 that would take me as far as Hay. I walked out into hot sunshine, rolled myself a fag, and phoned my fiancée, to ask if she would come and collect me from Hay. She asked me if I’d been given a travel warrant. My solicitor had told her that I would be entitled to one. I hadn’t. My fiancée had children to look after; it was 7.00 pm before she could come and pick me up outside the Registry Office where we were due to be married in four days time..
I expect I should reveal the offence for which I have now accumulated a criminal record.
Parking fines. Eleven unpaid parking fines.
I do not have eleven unpaid parking fines because I am a diplomat for a small African state. I have eleven unpaid parking tickets because I am a dim-witted moron. But, I would wish to argue, a dim-witted moron with some principles. Dim-witted moronic principles, but principles nonetheless.
I live on a street where parking is restricted to twenty minutes. It’s Presteigne’s main, nay, only, shopping street. It’s a narrow one-way street, so I understand that the traders don’t want the residents parking there. It’s already difficult enough to find somewhere to park on the streets of Presteigne. Fair enough. I’m happy to park in one of Presteigne’s reasonably large car parks. But I’m not happy to pay. The more I thought about paying, the more it drove me mad. And it wasn’t even me paying that drove me mad. It was the idea of anybody paying that incensed me. The streets are full of cars, and the car parks are mostly empty. If a tourist came to town, and put an hours parking on their car, what might they do? An hours parking might seem adequate, because Presteigne is small. You might well think an hour would be enough. But say you wanted to have a cup of something in Elda’s Colombian Coffee House, stroll around the shops, and then go and visit The Judge’s Lodgings, our excellent award winning museum. The trip round the Judge’s Lodgings alone takes an hour and a half. And then say you wanted to go for a leisurely lunch at the Hat Shop, our top High Street Bistro. And then, after a lunch, perhaps a visit to our wondrous church, and a bimble around the Withybeds Nature Reserve. You could spend a very nice day in Presteigne, but few visitors are going to take the time to keep popping back to feed the parking machine, are they? So people put an hour on the machine, wander about a bit, and then go. The traders, who need all the business they can get, have taken hardly a thing from the visitors. Charging for car parking in a small town like Presteigne is anti-business. That’s why the traders, the Presteigne Chamber of Commerce, and the Town Council are all opposed to charging for car parking.
So, I embarked on the dumbest, worst organised and most footling political protest of all time. If occasionally I needed to park in one of the pay car parks, I refused to pay. Then I refused to pay the fine. Perhaps if I’d told anybody what I was doing, there might, just, have been some point to the thing. Maybe if I’d got the Chamber of Commerce and the Town Council on my side, maybe if I’d organised a campaign, then it might have had some effect. As it is, Powys County Council can continue to impose unwanted and anti-business parking charges, and I am a criminal. A dim-witted moronic criminal: like most of them, I guess.
Last summer, when I was away, I apparently got a visit from a court official. He left a card with my daughter to tell her he’d called. In March, I was phoned by a collection agency, who said that the case had been passed to them. They told me I owed two and a half grand. I laughed! I told them I couldn’t pay, and what’s more, I wouldn’t pay. The man at the collection agency told me it would go back to court, and I said that was OK by me. I expected a summons, a chance to stand up in front of the magistrates to plead my case (and, by default, the case of all small towns whose streets are stuffed with parked cars and whose car parks are empty). I expected that the magistrates would lower the clearly disproportionate fine, and give me some time to pay. I thought, dim-witted moron that I am, that the case would be reported in the local press, and that lots of local people would speak up in protest at car parking charges in small towns which need visitors and business. Instead, when the summons came, it came in force. The fine seems to have arbitrarily raised. Two of the fines were addressed to an address where I’d never lived, or even visited. I was illegally arrested, not allowed a visit from or a phone call to my fiancée, and treated like a violent thug. And I wasn’t invited to speak at all.
One more point I’d like to make, which is that I hope I’m not special pleading. If not paying your parking ticket is a criminal offence, then I am a criminal. But all criminals, until they are proven guilty, are innocent. They (we) are all entitled to visits and phone calls while on remand. Nobody who is not a danger to themselves or the arresting officers should be locked in a cage in the back of a van. That wasn’t about security. That was a deliberate attempt to humiliate and intimidate me. The arresting officers loved their work. I expect they watch a lot of cop shows where people wear mirror shades. I hope their cocks drop off, both of them.
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