John Walsh: Tales of the City

'Why treat this town as if it were Peckham or Moss Side? Do police anticipate a turf war between rival furniture restorers?'
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The Independent Online

A hero of our time has emerged in the figure of Ian Readhead, Deputy Chief Constable of Hampshire. On BBC1's The Politics Show at the weekend, he issued a warning about the rise of surveillance cameras, and had many citizens dancing in the streets: "I'm struggling with seeing the deployment of cameras in our local villages as being a benefit to policing... are we really moving towards an Orwellian situation, with cameras on every street corner?"

Well, quite. What's amazing about this outburst is not just that it comes from a modern, crime-fighting copper, but that Readhead is also chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers Data Protection Group, whose raison d'être (as I understand it) is the gathering and keeping of information by any means and at all costs, and the weighing of this need against wet, libertarian impulses to protect civil liberties.

To find Readhead coming down on the side of libertarianism is like finding DCI Gene Hunt from Life on Mars sticking up for an immigrant gang of felonious hairdressers. I've been puzzling over what prompted this outburst, seemingly so counter to police thinking. Was it the cost? (CCTV cameras cost £10,000 to install in a small town.) Was it the counterproductivity element? (Crime in Hampshire went up slightly after cameras were installed.) Then I thought of the town that Readhead mentioned as an example of a place where CCTV installation was of "questionable benefit", and the penny dropped.

It's Stockbridge, Hampshire, in the Test Valley, a town I know well: my children's grandparents live nearby, in Over Wallop; when one drives down to visit them, it's where you stop at the baker's to buy a coffee cake for tea. The High Street runs for a quarter-mile, studded with antique shops, art galleries and little pubs, against a prospect of gently rising hills and the Iron Age forts of Danebury and Woolbury. Beside the road there's a duck pond, and, if you turn off the main drag and stroll 100 yards, you find yourself beside the Test, watching the swans glide along, and the odd heron eyeing a trout.

Two hundred years ago, on market days, herds of cattle roamed the main street, en route to Portsmouth and Southampton. You can still see the thatched Drover's House, with its offers of "Season's Hay, Rich Grass, Good Ale, Sound Sleep". Edward VII used to nip down here in the 1890s for the Stockbridge Races, bringing his mistress Lillie Langtry; they discreetly stayed at different houses on either side of the river (but with a connecting footbridge.)

All right, I'm being all sentimental and Akenfield-ish about the place, but I can guess at the thought processes that went through Readhead's head: why, in God's name, are we treating this quintessentially English town, where nothing worse than a shaken fist or the scrumping of strawberries ever crosses the radar of local crime-fighters, as if it were Leith or Moss Side or Peckham?

Do police anticipate a turf war between rival gangs of furniture restorers? Have informants told them of a shipment of cocaine, hidden in pot-pourri destined for Broughton Crafts Shop? Has a drive-by shooting in Nether Wallop been traced to Robjean's Country Sports Equipment in the High Street? I doubt it. I'm not so Luddite as to suggest that CCTV hasn't benefited police enquiries. But just as we don't wear bulletproof vests to the supermarket, let's stop putting cameras where they're not needed or wanted. I would say, "Dammit, they'll be clamping cameras on to Stonehenge next", if I didn't have a sneaking feeling they've done so already.

Much horrified squeaking from fans of the Brontës over the news that, in the forthcoming Hollywood "biopic", all three girls will be played by American actresses. Yes, Michelle Williams, Bryce Dallas Howard and Evan Rachel Wood will impersonate Charlotte, Emily and Anne, writing away in sisterly competition in the front room at Haworth Parsonage, and, presumably, striving to perfect decent Yorkshire accents.

Or will they? Jan Newton, writing in A Rival Newspaper, pitches the whole literary world into disarray by her outrageous suggestion: "I have always understood that the sisters, taking after their Irish-born father, spoke with strong Irish accents." Can it be true? What would they have sounded like?

The scene: Sunday morning at the parsonage. Anne and Emily are having breakfast. Enter Charlotte. She has a desperate hangover

Emily: Is it yerself, Charlotte?

Charlotte: Why wouldn't it, sister? Pass me that pot of stirabout, for the love o'Jaysus and see you put a drop o' Jamesons in to keep out the cold that does be risin' from bog these mornin's.

Anne: Were ye out late last night?

Charlotte: I was shootin' rabbits with Billy Doyle, dancin' at the crossroads with Seamus Flynn, and drinking poteen in a shebeen with Paddy Green.

Emily: How goes the buke? Still writin' about the miserable oul' governess?

Charlotte: Jane Eyre is not miserable, you eejit. It's about th'indomitable nature of th'human heart, so it is. And it makes more sense than your buke about that growly fecker, Heathcliff.

Anne: Will we go to Mass? The Da will be down in a minute, swearin' an' givin' out about what heathens we are.

Emily: I'm not goin'. I'm stayin' here with me heathen thoughts.

Charlotte: Me head is splittin'. I've a thirst on me now that'd stop a stampedin' buffalo.

Anne: This family is gettin' more Frank McCourt every day.

Enter the Rev Patrick Brontë: You girls not ready for Mass? I brought ye up to be obedient, God-fearin' childer...

All: Arrah, feck off, Da, willya?