The Westminster Coroner, Dr Paul Knapman, might seem an unlikely hero, except in so far as he has excelled in his chosen profession and been showered with honours by the great and the good. But he's my person of the month, perhaps of the year.
It was Knapman, you may recall, who presided at the inquest into the death of Mark Saunders, the depressed and alcoholic banker shot dead by police at the window of his Chelsea flat. And you may have misgivings, as I do, if not about the verdict, then about some aspects of the police operation that emerged. I ask myself, for instance, how the Met were able to summon up a couple of hundred officers, many armed to the teeth, and floodlights, and a helicopter, when they find it so hard to provide routine policing on difficult London estates. I suppose everyone runs to an emergency. The inquest also raised questions about the chain of police command and – most extraordinary – the instruction to Mr Saunders's wife to turn off her mobile phone.
Anyway, the jury found as they found. This sad tale now belongs to the past. Very much future business, though, and the reason I add my own accolade to Knapman's many others, is a recommendation he made afterwards to the Home Secretary. Noting that firearms officers were required to plough through more than 300 pages of guidelines in at least six separate manuals, Dr Knapman said this:
"My perception is that 'not being able to see the wood for the trees' may be a problem. You may take the view... that much of this material may be amalgamated, simplified or dispensed with. You may also take the view that there has been over-reliance upon the printed word of instruction in the police service (as with other public services) in recent times. It may be that there is merit in encouraging one or two shorter documents and all documents set out in simple and unsophisticated language, thereby minimising jargon – indeed, encouraging more common sense rather than slavish adherence to written documents and protocols."
That pretty much says, I think, what needs to be said. Of the few examples of these documents I managed to find in the public domain, the language and presentation veered from the puerile to the impenetrable. The usual bureaucratic buzzwords – delivery, conflict management etc – are two a penny, along with easily parroted phrases – "identity, locate, contain and neutralise the threat" – designed for rote-learning from a whiteboard at police college. Flow-charts communicate absolutely nothing.
The police, of course, are not the only service whose written procedures would benefit from radical pruning, followed by the close attention of the Plain English Campaign. Education, the NHS, public transport, many local councils, find themselves bound up not just in the operational red tape they all complain about, but incapable of writing anything without prefacing it with a meaningless "mission statement" and then peppering it with opaque professional jargon. This degrades the language and breeds contempt for written instructions of all kinds.
The actress Emma Thompson recently deplored the propensity of many young people to "sound stupid" by preferring their own limited argot to the Queen's English. I'm less concerned about this – there's a fair chance that they will grow out of all those "likes" and "innits" – than about a generation of professionals who cloak their work in a verbal mystique that suggests they are cleverer and more exclusive than we are. Dr Knapman, you have called their bluff.
London 2012 may not be such a bad party, after all
Maybe it is because, with the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, we became aware of an international sports gathering that almost didn't make the grade. I wonder, could the tide of scepticism about the London Olympics be starting to turn? After years of whatever the opposite of cheerleading is, encouraged principally by a metropolitan elite that would prefer not to be disturbed, various happy truths are quietly surfacing.
The Olympic Park is taking shape and attracting praise for the sensitivity and practicality of what will be left behind: in particular, housing appropriate to London. Already, even in its very incomplete state, the park has become a tourist attraction, with visitors from Britain and abroad flocking to look. A first appeal for volunteers, advertised on London buses and elsewhere, has drawn 100,000 enquiries in the first two months. Registration for the first tranche closes shortly, but you have until December to express an interest in becoming a London ambassador. Best of all, construction of the facilities is, so far, achieving that almost unheard-of British goal: being on time and on budget. It would be tempting fate to suggest that success might be creeping up on London 2012.
Postcode snobbery– too close to home
I'm always a bit worried when, asked to key in my postcode, almost every element of my address appears instantly on the electronic form. "They" seem to know more than is strictly necessary. Postcodes are narrowly drawn – down not just to streets, but parts of streets; in our case, parts of one block of flats. And they are important, not just to house-hunters, but to a host of others, from advertisers to street gangs.
But there are addresses that need no postcode to inspire a sense of inferiority. I noticed last week that the car showroom on the opposite side of our street was suddenly empty; the Minis, always endearingly lined up inside, had vanished. I then saw a huge notice on the window: Mini has gone home to Park Lane. Home? Park Lane? So there you have it: our street just wasn't good enough.
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