Hospital porter Part 4: A fit-up

I have often attended courts as a psychiatrist. My experience of the justice system, criminal and civil, has ranged from matters trivial to grave. As a student, I was a plaintiff in a case in the small claims court. I was awarded the value of the faulty goods plus costs. At the other end of my career, I am asked to give expert testimony from time-to-time, usually in cases that have human rights implications. Despite my exposure to courtrooms over many years, by far the most memorable episode occurred when I was 18. I witnessed a fit-up on the very first occasion that I set foot in a court of law.

I had a friend from school, Paul, who belonged to a Maoist group. Even in the radical 1970s, Maoism was not popular. The Chinese Cultural Revolution (ten years of purges, brainwashing and brutality) was in full swing. The key text was “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung”, a small book of quasi-Confucian sayings with a red plastic cover. Paul gave me a copy. Two of Mao’s better-known aphorisms were “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea” and “Imperialism is a paper tiger”. They reminded me of decontextualised Bible verses on church billboards. The 1970s were the heyday of the rock star, and  the ubiquitous cult of the individual was incompatible with Maoism’s pseudo-collectivist authoritarianism. The Beatles sang against Chairman Mao in their song “Revolution” and the British masses showed a general tendency to side with them.

Picture of an open book "Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung"


A breakaway faction of the Communist Party of Great Britain took the Chinese side after the Sino-Soviet schism. This became the Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist).  Paul was not a member.  He belonged to a smaller, more obscure group, the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), who took their inspiration from a Canadian microbiologist called Hardial Bains. Bains was orientated towards the most unpalatable of the Leninist icons, namely Stalin, Mao and Enver Hoxha (leader of Communist Albania).

The CPE(M-L) would be completely forgotten in the 21st century but for the fact that Cornelius Cardew was a member of their Central Committee. It would be an exaggeration to say that I knew Cornelius Cardew, but I met him a few times. He had a serious, intense manner and an unusual name. I had no idea that he was an important figure in avant-garde music until I became interested in modernist composers many years later.

Paul gave me two song books, cheaply reproduced sheet music with handwritten musical notation. The tunes were very simple and the lyrics were slogans such as “Revolution is the main trend in the world today” or ballads of revolutionary heroism:

“Long live the spirit of Norman Bethune,

The great Canadian internationalist,

Norman Bethune, Comrade Bethune,

A doctor and a communist!”.

The songbook was credited to People’s Liberation Music. I know now that the songs and the handwritten notation were mainly, if not entirely, Cardew’s work. The songbooks have followed me from home to home for decades. They are dog-eared and battered. There has been a major resurgence of interest in Cardew’s music over the last twenty years. I expect that the song books would be worth something if they were in pristine condition; I cannot imagine they sold well at the time, so they may have rarity value. If so, inflated prices would sit uncomfortably with Cardew’s political convictions, which were unquestionably sincere. Karlheinz Stockhausen was the towering figure amongst modernist composers, and he considered Cardew to be his most brilliant protégé. Unfortunately, Cardew’s reputation as a composer was adversely affected by his public denunciation of his mentor in an essay “Stockhausen serves Imperialism”. He followed this up with a denunciation of himself. In the late 1960s, Cardew was one of the founders of an influential music collective, the Scratch Orchestra. The young, pre-Roxy Music, Brian Eno was a member, and by this route Cardew probably had a significant but indirect impact on a great deal of modern music. Cardew was also a graphic designer, and notated his more experimental music in rather beautiful graphics.

An example of Cardew's visual representation of his music

There were two general elections in 1974. A minority Labour government was elected in February. Harold Wilson slightly improved on this performance in October, securing a small working majority in the House of Commons. The CPE(M-L) put up a parliamentary candidate in Deptford in the October election, and Paul and several of male comrades went canvassing (as far as I could tell, the CPE(M-L)’s membership was exclusively male). As it got dark and they got cold, they decided to go to the pub, a reassuring triumph of personal comfort over revolutionary zeal. One of them had a car, so they crammed in as many as they could. Paul was very tall, so he followed on foot.

The overloaded car had only travelled a couple of hundred yards down the road when it was stopped by a police van, out of which poured a lot of policemen. A fight ensued, under circumstances that were later disputed in court. When Paul caught up, he weighed-in to defend his friends, who were outnumbered and who, by all accounts, were getting badly beaten up. They were all arrested and charged with assault on police, an imprisonable offence.

The case went to Crown Court early in 1975. On the second day of the hearing, I went and sat in the public gallery to support Paul. Cornelius Cardew, who I had met before, sat to my right and a reporter from the Daily Telegraph sat to my left. Cardew was pleased with progress the day before. The defendants had chosen to represent themselves, probably because no barrister could go along with their opening argument, which was an attempt to refuse to recognise the legitimacy of the court. This ploy failed, and the police evidence followed. The officers gave contradictory accounts of their reasons for stopping the car and of how the violence started. The defendants mocked the policemen, who did not react well. As the day wore on, the jurors started to openly laugh at the police officers’ evidence. By the start of day two, there was real optimism that the prosecutions might fail.

The public gallery was almost full. The defendants sat together in the dock. The jury filed in. We all rose for the judge, who took everyone by surprise by saying:

“I must start today’s proceedings with an announcement. My chambers are undergoing redecoration and I currently occupy temporary chambers immediately above the jury room. Unfortunately, the floor is not 100% sound proof and I unavoidably overhear conversation in the jury room. From what I overheard yesterday, it is clear to me that this jury is biased against the police. I dismiss the jury and I declare a mistrial. The case will be heard with a new jury at a date to be determined.”

The defendants started shouting slogans and were manhandled down to the cells. We rose and the judge left. I said to the Telegraph reporter “Has he just said that the jury room is bugged?” “Yup” said the journalist.

In the street outside of the court, outrage prevailed. A spokesman for the jurors approached the Maoists to say that although they did not support their political beliefs, what had happened was wrong, and that they were willing to speak out. The case was eventually retried and most of the defendants were imprisoned, leading to my first visit to a penal facility, Feltham Borstal. I lost contact with Paul after he was released.

Cornelius Cardew died on an icy December night in 1981. He was killed outright by a hit-and-run driver as he crossed the road in Leyton, East London. The driver was never caught. There is a widespread belief that he was assassinated by the security services. Personally, I doubt it. There was tremendous Establishment paranoia about “militants” in the 1970s and 80s. It is now common knowledge that there were police officers working undercover in a wide range of left-wing political groups. If the security services was prepared to assassinate far-left activists, they had no reason to restrict themselves to Cardew; there were dozens of left-wing activists and trade union leaders who represented a greater threat than he did. Some had many supporters and a substantial public profile. They did not suffer similar accidents. Why assassinate someone in a party with a membership of less than 100? In any case, there was no need to kill left-wing activists if the judiciary was prepared to brazenly subvert justice. This was facilitated by the collusion of the press. The Telegraph was not the only national newspaper in court that day, but not one of them reported what had happened. In contrast, when the Maoists were imprisoned, their alleged violent criminality received wide coverage.

My long relationship with the justice system commenced with a miscarriage of justice presided over by a judge who violated all rules of impartiality. The experience has had a significant impact on my attitudes to the fairness and reliablity of a judical system in which I am an active participant. Like the jurors, I had no sympathy with Maoism, but what was exposed that day was totally wrong. I probably would not have believed it could happen if I had not been in court to witness it.

The exercise of justice should not be dependent on membership of the mainstream. There were a number of high profile cases in the 1970s that proved to be miscarriages of justice. These included the cases of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. In the Jeremy Thorpe conspiracy-to-murder trial, the judge’s summing up was jaw-droppingly biased in Thorpe’s favour. For every such failure of justice that comes to public attention, there are probably dozens of cases that escape scrutiny. Injustice, whether individual or systemic, always favours the powerful. It is inimicable to democracy.

I shall give the late Cornelius Cardew the last word with the concluding verse of his song “The Ballad of Norman Bethune:”.

“Down with the two super powers

Down with US-Soviet hegemonism

US Imperialism get out of Canada

Canada belongs to the people”