Last week I opened a particularly sinister-looking brown envelope that I'd had in the microwave for some time and it turned out to be a court summons. I was due to appear before Swindon magistrates the following day, charged with driving through a red light. The summons also informed me that I had been sent two letters offering me the chance to plead guilty and pay the fine by post. Those were also in the microwave among the unopened bills.
I had to run for the train at Paddington the next morning, and bought my ticket from the conductor when he appeared in the aisle, punching tickets. The conductor seemed very ill at ease. He as wearing an absurdly ill-fitting uniform and was almost crazed with amiability.
"Return to Swindon, please," I said.
He stepped back in alarm, then recovering, said: "Ha-ha! Yep. Good. OK."
When I handed him a twenty pound note he said: "Right-ho! Brilliant! Great! Fantastic!"
After examining his ticket machine, as if he had never worked one before, he tentatively prodded a few buttons with an outstretched forefinger. When the ticket finally emerged with a whirring noise from a place where he had clearly least expected it, he carefully tore it off and presented it to me, saying: "There you go, sir! Jolly good! Super! Fantastic!"
And when I'd thanked him for the change, which he carefully counted out as he placed it, coin by coin, into my palm, he said: "There we go! Much obliged! Lovely! Ta!"
I was about halfway down the list of Swindon Magistrates' Court No 4, so I sat at the back for a while to enjoy the spectacle until I was called myself. Normally I enjoy appearing before a magistrates' court, especially if I'm not being charged with anything that might lead to my being thrown into chokey. It is a bit like being awarded a leading part in an immensely popular and long-running farce. You enter from the wings wearing your best suit, you take centre-stage and when it's your turn to speak, the rest of the cast listen carefully and respectfully to what you are saying, while the audience lolls about in the public gallery assuming that the whole business is nothing more than some kind of an elaborate, formulaic joke.
First up before the beak was a thin, middle-aged man wearing a red shirt, red tie, red jeans and red shoes. He had been apprehended outside a supermarket for shoplifting. All the items he had stolen were red: red peppers, red apples, tomatoes, tomato puree, Red Stripe lager, and so forth. A female community psychiatric nurse came forward to testify that the accused man was a schizophrenic who was obsessed by the colour red. He only ever wears red clothes. His furniture is red. If he goes on a bus it has to be a red one. He hates green. He was even thrown off a green bus on one occasion for using foul and abusive language.
Although the man in red had got us off to such a flying start, there was nothing very interesting then until a young skinhead belched openly and fruitily at the magistrate. The magistrate peered enquiringly at the skinhead for a moment, but finally chose to ignore it.
When it was my go, the head magistrate asked me why, if I was pleading guilty to the charge, I hadn't done so by post and saved myself a long journey. I said it was because I thought the summons was a bill and couldn't face opening it, so I had put it in the microwave instead. After briefly consulting with her colleagues, she fined me pounds 130 and dismissed me with a nod of her head.