Miles Kington: Even if it's cemented down, someone will steal it

'In park administration, you see the sordid side of human nature. Flowers, trees, see-saws - once we even had a swimming pool taken'
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The Independent Online

Here is some more of the High Court case I brought to you yesterday in which a Mrs Grace is suing the royal parks for having mislaid a bench dedicated to her husband. The witness is Major-General Sir Arthur ffinchley, head of park furniture...

Counsel: So, Sir Arthur, when she inquired where it had got to, you told her it had gone to Gibraltar.

ffinchley: Yes, that is so.

Counsel: Why had you sent it to Gibraltar?

ffinchley: Because they were short of park benches there.

Counsel: Who were?

ffinchley: Perhaps I can explain how the system works. Park benches are always in short supply everywhere...

Counsel: Why is that?

ffinchley: Oh, because they get stolen... they get chopped up for firewood... they get used for dangerous children's games and fall to bits...

Counsel: You mean people actually steal park benches?

ffinchley: Certainly. That's why so many are cemented in place. Not that it deters everyone. Sometimes they saw the legs off. There must be some very short-legged benches in people's gardens.

Counsel: I find it hard to believe that people would bother to take a bench.

ffinchley: People steal everything. In park administration, you see the sordid side of human nature. Flowers, trees, see-saws, sandpits - they all get nicked. I thought people in the Army were light-fingered, but civilians are real shockers. When people use the expression "swings and roundabouts", they mean that things usually even out in the end. When I use it, I mean that someone's been thieving stuff from the playground again.

Counsel: People actually take things like sandpits?

ffinchley: We had a swimming pool taken once.

Counsel: A swimming pool?

ffinchley: Yes. They took advantage of it being emptied for cleaning. They spent all night taking the tiles off very carefully...

Counsel: Coming back to Mrs Grace's memorial bench...

ffinchley: Ah, yes. Now, one of the nice things about the public is that people do occasionally donate things to us, usually as a memorial. In former times it used to be drinking fountains and water troughs for pack animals. Nowadays it tends to be benches, with little brass plates saying who is being remembered. Well, we in the royal parks have informal links with parks and gardens in the few remaining elements of the old Empire. The Falklands. Gibraltar. Places like that. Sometimes we get requests from them for equipment. Sprinklers. Rollers. Benches. Anything.

Counsel: So are you saying that in response to a request from a park in Gibraltar, you sent them the bench that Mrs Grace had endowed to her husband?

ffinchley: Yes.

Counsel: It's a long way for her to go to have a sit-down.

ffinchley: That's where we made the mistake. We forgot to take her brass plate off and fix it to the next bench that was donated. Or on to a bench that was being reallocated.

Counsel: Reallocated?

ffinchley: Yes. You see, if a bench has a plate saying "in memory of bill perkins, 1923-1979", there is a good chance that after 25 years none of Bill Perkins's kith and kin will be around to care if the plate is there or not. So we take Bill Perkins's plate off, and put Mr Grace's on instead.

Counsel: Just a moment! If I understand you properly, you take Mrs Grace's money - several hundred pounds - and instead of spending it on a new bench, you simply recycle an old bench.

ffinchley: Yes.

Counsel: So where does Mrs Grace's money go?

ffinchley: Brazil.

Counsel: Brazil?

ffinchley: Yes. We have a dedicated stretch of woodland there, where the trees grow from which all royal park benches are made. Thanks to the generosity of people like Mrs Grace, we can maintain this sustainable stretch of woodland. But our work needs money, and we receive no government support. Can you find it in your heart to help us? If so, please send your donation, however small to PO Box 4033...

I am truly sorry. If I had known that this trial was another dreary charity appeal in disguise, I would never have brought it to you. I can only apologise and promise it won't happen again.