a quick fix for the trial junkies

REAL LIVES It's in the papers, on the TV and, if you live in Winchester , just around the corner. But why would anyone queue all day to see Rosemary West?

shivering in the misty damp at a bleak half past seven in the morning, with the prospect of a long cold wait ahead, seems an odd thing to do voluntarily. But ask the woman in the floral anorak at the head of the queue outside Winchester Crown Court why she is there, and get a basilisk stare in return and a snapped "No comment. What a bloody stupid question!"

Well. Maybe so, maybe no. True, the latest instalment of the trial of the decade (or of the century, depending on which paper you read) would be kicking off inside at 10.30; Rose West is answering 10 charges of murder, including the killings of her daughter and stepdaughter. But if you aren't directly involved, a relative or friend of a victim or witness, why would you be hanging about on the court steps waiting for the next batch of juicy details? Those who frequent the public gallery for cases such as this are evidently sensitive to the possibility of being labelled a prurient gore-goggler. Nearly everyone had a damn good reason to be there - far removed, of course, from mere idle curiosity.

Second in line was a gaggle of students, warming up with hot tea and sticky buns. "It's educational - I wanted to see how the court system works," explained Sophie Taylor, 20, a media studies student at the local college. Her interest was not only educational, but historical: "It'll be something to tell our kids - it's the Jack the Ripper of the Nineties."

Behind were three trainee journalists and their friend, a fledgling lawyer. Their interest was professional. "We have to practise our shorthand," explained Claire Furlong, 21, who had left home at 6.30 that morning (with notebook) to be sure of her place. "And in our careers as journalists it's the biggest case we'll ever see."

Gerald Eagle, 46, next behind them, reading his Guardian, is a senior building surveyor. "I'm on leave today and I've come in from Basingstoke. I work in that office over there and I've seen them going in and out every day from the window. I've always fancied coming to a court case and taking a look at the British legal system."

Gervase, who claimed he was all of 17, didn't want to give his full name as his school "wouldn't like it". He was taking advantage of four free lessons. "It's nice to go to a high-profile trial to see if what's in the papers is what you've seen yourself."

"It's a bit of a cult at college, and it's free entertainment," confessed archaeology student Peter Fairclough, 26. His friends Nicola Sturgess, 21, another archaeology student, and Kate Olliff, 20, a politics student, had been down every day - but, said Kate hastily, "as I'm interested in the law, it doesn't mean I'm too gruesome."

"Maybe seeing them in the flesh it'll hit home that these are real people, flesh and blood," suggested Max Jones, 22, an unemployed graduate in Japanese and religious studies who had turned up at five that morning, and, finding the queueing hadn't started, had gone home again for breakfast. "We live round the corner - we'd be stupid not to come," said his friend Rory Cavanagh, 23, yet another archaeologist. "It's got nothing to do with being morbid, it's just human interest."

Peter Kenyon, 74, was visiting from Devonshire. "I used to live in Kenya and I was in the part-time police force chasing the Mau Mau. I'm interested to see how the court operates as compared to the colonial days," he explained.

The doors of the courthouse opened at 9am; the queue clambered stiffly to its feet and trotted eagerly forward. There are a minimum of 31 seats available to the public each day. First come, first served: the lucky 31 picked up their passes at the reception desk. There was still another hour and a half before the proceedings got under way, so most made a bee- line for the cafeteria. But even after a warming cup of tea, there was still time for a quick resume of the story so far from the veteran trial- watchers, hanging about on the saggy orange leatherette seats in the waiting area. The previous Thursday had been quiet, a bit slow, but the Friday had been fascinating, and the rumour of the day was that a Key Witness would be taking the stand.

"We came twice last week," explained a friendly elderly lady from Southampton, immaculately dressed for her day out in a smart red jacket and black skirt - a contrast to the students' denim and trainers. "Our neighbours think we're morbid and I thought our family would pass comment, but we're retired now and we've got the time to come." Had she been harrowed? "It hasn't been too upsetting so far - we've only seen the witnesses, which hasn't been too bad. The most terrible thing was when we heard about them putting those children to bed in the room over the bodies," she added with a shiver.

Outside Courtroom 3, the cheery security guard checked passes, searched bags and plied his metal detector, joking with the regulars. Inside, there was a shock for the first-time visitors. The public gallery at Winchester, with tip-up cinema-style seats tastefully upholstered in puce, really is a gallery, way up at the back of the court, and directly over the dock. There's a clear view of all the main figures but one: Rosemary West is completely invisible, even from the front seats. Deprivation!

"Oh, no, we haven't seen Mrs West," said the lady in the red jacket. "A lot were disappointed. There are just a couple of seats where you can catch sight of her when she goes in and out."

"I wanted to see her. I'm gutted about that," complained Max Jones.

Sitting in seats 16 and 17 were Mrs Chudley from Waterlooville and her friend, veterans of a number of visits. "We like to come as much as we can," explained Mrs Chudley. "It's very interesting to see if justice is done - and see the reports in the press the day after." Mrs Chudley and her husband, who was sitting behind her, had recently returned from a holiday in the US. "We went to the [Ted] Bundy residence, and we saw OJ's place - we've got all the photos, including one with his dog in the drive. That's what started us off on trials. I wrote to Marcia Clarke [the OJ trial prosecutor] before we went, to try and get tickets, but she wouldn't let us in - I was quite upset."

And then in came the judge, the jury and the witness and we all had to shut up; no hardship, because it was all compelling stuff. A youngish but matronly brown-haired woman (described the next day in the Sun as a "sobbing blonde") was tearfully describing the details of a vicious sexual assault that she had allegedly received at the hands of Rose and Fred West.

Up in the gallery, everyone was leaning forward avidly, eyes fixed on the woman's half-averted face. The trainee reporters scribbled madly. There was only the occasional uneasy shift or whisper when things got too lurid. "They look so much like ordinary people," murmured Mrs Chudley. "Well, they are!" her friend pointed out.

A midday break was welcome all round. The veterans of the gallery all agreed that this was the most shocking evidence they had heard so far. Gervase looked flushed and pink. What could a schoolboy possibly be making of this? "I don't know what to say, really. I didn't come expecting anything in particular. I shouldn't be prevented from hearing all this - I'm not sure I'd want to hear it again, though," he said.

"If it was my son I wouldn't want him here," said Mrs Chudley.

"Though it opens your eyes," her husband said.

"My parents don't know I'm here," piped up Gervase, who had to hurry off back to school, but later, fascinated, reappeared. "But I have told my housemaster, who's in loco parentis. He asked if I thought it might be boring. I didn't know all this would be going on."

Through the breaks, discussion ran high in the cafeteria and the waiting area and the loo. Was the witness telling the truth or a pack of lies? Was it right for the witnesses to sell their stories? And, highly absorbing, what would the papers make of it the next day? Everyone was looking forward to saying knowledgeably to friends and neighbours, "Well, actually, that's not quite how it was, you know."

At the end of a long day, the sympathies in the public gallery had flowed, ebbed and completely changed direction. Discussion had been fervent, but there was a distinct lack of any desire to chew over the gory details.

"It doesn't seem real," said Claire Furlong. "It'll be totally different seeing the news now."

"I do feel some guilt for being here," said her friend Richard, the law student, thoughtfully. "But although it's unpleasant, it's very clinical, and I've found it remarkably un-disturbing. There's a lot to learn from it - you see the whole process of law, rather than the gory picture that the press love."

Outside the court, the police had put up crash barriers and closed off the road to let out the escorted van taking Rosemary West back to prison. A few people had stopped to watch the cavalcade, but I was the only one from the public gallery to linger. And why would any of the others bother? The same spectacle can be seen every day, and most of them were planning to come back.

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