John Walsh: Tales of the City

The awesome majesty of a sad-eyed beauty with my fate in her hands
Click to follow
The Independent Online

I've reported from a few trial scenes in my time. I've sat in on some prize court cases (Archer, Fayed, Burrell) over the years. But I never thought I'd stand in one as the actual defendant. I might have covered the waterfront; but I never dreamt I'd be the guy in the dock.

I've reported from a few trial scenes in my time. I've sat in on some prize court cases (Archer, Fayed, Burrell) over the years. But I never thought I'd stand in one as the actual defendant. I might have covered the waterfront; but I never dreamt I'd be the guy in the dock.

Going to court should be a profoundly moral experience: knowing, or hoping, you have Right on your side, having a clear conscience, feeling the eyes of God upon you. Actually, it's nothing like that. It's mostly about acting, from choosing the right Defendant's Suit to choosing the right facial expression in the witness box.

I'd pleaded guilty to the heinous crime of having 12 points on my driver's licence, so there was no point in protesting my innocence. What I had to do was convince the court I'd be lost without my car. I practised in the mirror my range of lost expressions: aghast (think sad clown with mouth painted in downturned semicircle), pathetic (think tiny sparrow with broken wing at end of snowy branch), bravely resilient (think Martha Stewart). I found a barrister to speak for me in court, and cover those awkward moments when you're supposed to say stuff like, "M'lud, I freely concede that I have broken the law, but I would enter in mitigation a plea of nolle e mei faultus and crave your worship's indulgence ..."

He and I met in a pub in Wimbledon. He had done many speeding-fine cases and got people off, and explained how you had to prove terrible hardship would follow were your licence taken away. I told him about the children, the school run, and the exhausting weekend social life of pre-teens in which I play the all-hours, all-weather chauffeur. He nodded. He'd heard it a million times.

I expatiated about the necessity of having a car for journalistic work, about those heady moments when you have to race down the country to interview rock stars or politicians at a moment's notice. "That sounds promising," he said. "Such as whom?" My mind scrolled through a few names. "Iain Duncan Smith." He snorted.

Changing tack, I explained that I was writing a book set partly in Norfolk, and desperately needed to drive around the bosky lanes of the north coast, communing with nature, researching my main characters' busy comings and goings. A car, I argued, is a basic necessity for writing a novel. I could not understand how, say, Dostoevsky managed without one.

After some minutes I subsided. "Give it to me straight," I said, "What are my chances?"

"Put it this way," he replied. "Slim."

Court No 3 at the City of London Magistrates' Court is not a prepossessing place. On the morning of Friday the 13th, it does not fill you with confidence. Moleskin carpet, horrible strip lighting, wall-mounted TV monitors, smell of Mr Sheen. I sat at a low, schoolroom-issue desk, and answered questions from the court clerk. She held my driver's licence in her hand. It looked old and tired, like a family dog soon to be put down. Abruptly the clerk said "All rise!" in a Voice of Steel and the judges trooped in.

I looked at them, my Fates, my Furies, my collective, triple-headed Nemesis. On the left was a young woman, beaky, nervous-looking, a kind of secretary bird with her hair yanked back in a Croydon facelift. On the right was a broad-featured thirty-something Herbert with the well-fed-but-grumpy look of a public-school clubman. He badly needed a haircut. His lustrous barnet sat on his head like a Wookiiee-skin hat. Sitting on her leather throne, the judge was a lissom, sad-eyed, black-haired beauty, Sian Phillips crossed with one of Goya's society divas. As I stood in the witness box and took the oath (or "made a promise" as we say now), I turned my head and found her grey-blue eyes looking straight into mine with an intensity I couldn't fathom. Was she reminding the defendant of the awesome majesty of the Law and the crime of perjury? It was (I blush to admit) rather a turn-on.

I spent 15 minutes explaining why I needed to keep my car - the job, the children, the book, the research - and, while not straying beyond the strict boundaries of truth, it was quite a performance. If you'd heard the catch in my voice as I vowed never to let my nine-year-old on to public transport until she's 16, you would have been most affected. My right hand scythed the air with passion. My left hand clutched the witness box until its knuckles went white. I sketched a tragic, Dickensian picture of family trauma and personal degradation. The trio on the bench asked questions and nodded at my replies. We talked child management, nannies, siblings, traffic ...

It was going so well. We could have been at a cocktail party in Dulwich, nibbling blinis, sipping sea breezes, nodding, smiling. When they retired to discuss their verdict, I swore I saw the lady judge descend the stairs with a little kick in her step. Thank goodness, I thought, some people still respond to charm. The bench returned. We rose and stayed arisen for the verdict. "We do not believe Mr Walsh's livelihood is in jeopardy," said the Medean beauty in a completely flat voice, "nor that he has demonstrated exceptional hardship. Therefore your plea is denied."

I couldn't believe it. The woman had actually been smiling at me eight minutes before. She'd been cooing, indulgent, understanding; now she was condemning, inflexible, glacial. Say what you like about the law, it does not deal in charm. Bite on it anywhere, it's like clamping your teeth around sheet steel.

I was disqualified for six months, fined £600 and from next Monday will be hung in chains by Vauxhall Bridge where ravens will peck my eyeballs. Okay, I made up the last bit. But in a final, pissed-off flurry, I appealed against getting such a draconian sentence for driving at 39mph on a dual carriageway in east London. So the case now goes to the Old Bailey in the summer. I hope you'll be there, gentle reader, to cheer me on, or just up. There are parking spaces. But for God's sake, don't go over 30mph down Ludgate Hill.