Book of a lifetime: The Brer Rabbit Book, By Enid Blyton


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The Independent Culture

When I was young, every night at bedtime some patient soul would read to me. For many months, only two books were permitted: The Adventures of Robin Hood and Enid Blyton's Brer Rabbit Book. Both have had an influence on my life, but the rabbit has probably had the greater impact.

 Brer Rabbit is a complex character who knows a thing or two about psychology. Chapter Two illustrates the most significant lesson he taught me. One day, he comes upon a figure made of tar. He tells the Tar Baby to move out of his way. Naturally, the Tar Baby remains mute. The angry rabbit hits him with a paw, which gets stuck. He lashes out again; another paw gets stuck. This goes on until Brer Rabbit finds all four of his paws glued tight.

At this point Brer Fox steps out from hiding and gleefully announces that he plans to cook his nemesis at once. Brer Rabbit, understanding the ruse, tells Brer Fox what an honour it would be to be devoured but begs: "Please, please, please! Don't throw me in that briar patch." Predictably, wanting to do the maximum harm to his enemy, the fox hurls Brer into the thorns. Brer Rabbit has prevailed once more.

This is the way that the US criminal justice system often works. Some people are so intent on doing injustice that they will do the opposite of whatever you demand. When I first went to Guantánamo, I begged the government not to censor evidence of torture, because I knew they would – which would make them pay twice for their crimes. First, there is the cover-up, often excruciating - as when the censors argued to suppress Moazzam Begg's tale of two prisoners being murdered in Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. It reflected the "methods and means of interrogation" and so was a matter of national security. That was itself a horrifying suggestion, and we got the information unclassified.

I recently filed a petition on behalf of Kris Maharaj in one more attempt to seek a fair hearing. Kris has spent 26 years in prison for a crime he patently did not commit. Such a case creates a mountain of information. The strict page limit on a petition is impossible to meet, so we asked the prosecutor to agree to extra space; she refused. She even protested that we should not single-space the pleading. It was a marvellous illustration of her petty approach to injustice. The staff of Reprieve, the human rights charity of which I am director, have long since understood that the greatest legal philosopher is not Plato or Aristotle, but Brer Rabbit, so many times have they heard me recount his tales.

Clive Stafford Smith's 'Injustice: Life and Death in the Courtrooms of America' is now a Vintage paperback