by Alan Watkins
A combination of circumstances have kept me away from the crown court in Maidstone.
Some would say it was fortunate; some that it was a badge of honour to appear there, and some that they never want to return.
I used to spend a lot of my working life in court in Gloucester.
Last Friday, I made my first visit to the crown court in Maidstone. It was as if I had never been away.
OK, the location was different, the faces were different, but the purpose, the players and the ambience were the same.
The rattle of the warders’ chain and keys has not altered, nor the wicked grins of the wise-cracking barristers, nor the stern scowl of the judges dressed in their various uniforms.
Maidstone is a modern court. Gloucester was not.
It was sandwiched at the back of the Shire Hall, a splendid Georgian edifice nearly 200 years old.
It was designed by Robert Smirke with a grandiose portico at the front for the rulers to enter, and a circular court room at the rear for the rest.
My great-great-great-great grandfather and his brother both appeared there in 1834 for stealing a couple of bales of hay from a nearby farm. The sentence? – transportation to Australia for life.
A century and a bit later I was there as a reporter (in Gloucester, not Australia), listening to major crimes – and the vagaries of humanity….
Like the judges who could never mention any item of underwear – it was always referred to as nether garments (complete with a desperate splash of snuff mopped up in a yellow handkerchief with large red dots).
Another had piles and would wander around the presiding area in search of relief.
They are still there, or at least the ghost of those days is.
Today’s judges look like TV stars, grumpy codgers or are frantic to avoid embarrassing people.
The juries are the same – good men (and women) though the sartorial elegance is less and the tattoos more.
The villains look the same: their crimes sound the same (though the charges are couched in fresh phraseology).
The one thing that is missing is the black cap being placed on the judge’s head by his clerk.
I saw that once.
Gone it is, and thank God it is.