Courtroom 14: the Owl has landed

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The Independent Online
EUGENE TERRE-BLANCHE, the South African right-wing extremist, undoubtedly made an impression on his compatriot columnist Jani Allan. 'Right now I've got to remind myself to breathe. I'm impaled on the blue flames of his blowtorch eyes,' Ms Allan wrote, shortly after first seeing those orbs.

But exactly what sort of impression the fiery Mr Terre-Blanche made on Ms Allan is for a libel jury to decide.

A repulsive one, claims Ms Allan, who is suing Channel 4 for a film she says portrayed her as a woman of easy virtue. An intimate one, says Channel 4, which denies that its film suggested she had an affair with the strutting leader of the AWB party, but adds that if it had said so, it would have been true.

What is not in dispute is that this week Ms Allan met another pair of blue eyes that made an impression. She stood in the witness box in Court 14 at the High Court in London, chin high, shoulders back, and said so. 'His eyes bore into me much the way your eyes are boring into me,' she said.

'I'm not sure I welcome that comparison,' said George Carman, QC. Certainly Mr Carman's eyes are blue. There are not many other obvious similarities between him and Mr Terre-Blanche, who by all accounts has a mock-heroic, military air suited to a man surrounded by neo-Nazis calling themselves the Aquila, or Eagle Guard. Mr Terre-Blanche, apparently, even keeps a model bird on his desk as a symbol of the flight of the spirit. 'The Eagle has landed,' she concluded, describing her first blowtorch experience.

Mr Carman, by contrast, is an unheroic figure: a small man, tubby waisted, with a small but beakish nose. His eyes, and any fire, are usually concealed behind large gilt spectacles, whose glass thickens in the lower half. Sometimes he peers over them.

High-flier that he is, famed for his victories defending Jeremy Thorpe and Ken Dodd, Mr Carman is more of an owl than an eagle. His eyes have incredulity as their chief characteristic. 'Has it never struck you as a coincidence,' he said, 'that you were fantasising about other people (in descriptions of sex in her diary which Ms Allan says were fictional), and here was Terre-Blanche fantasising about you?'

'No,' said Ms Allan. 'A lot of people have become obsessed with me.'

Mr Carman's head had already swivelled to the jury, a habit of his while a witness answers, as though to say 'You see?'. '. . . I believe he became obsessed with me because he had never met a woman like me in his sexual milieu,' said Ms Allan.

'Well, that may well be right,' said Mr Carman, as though the answer had revealed what he always suspected. No answer, apparently, surprises the omniscient Mr Carman. Mr Terre-Blanche, Ms Allan once wrote, has a 'rich earth-brown voice' with 'the caress of warm corduroy', which on one occasion deepened 'as though blood had been stirred into it'. Mr Carman's voice, if anything, is pale grey, with the crispness of poly-cotton, but it has a way of implying distrust that even the sanguinary vocal cords of Mr Terre-Blanche might envy.

Why, Mr Carman asked, had Ms Allan kept tapes of this warm brown voice's calls to her answerphone? Ms Allan leant slightly forward. 'If I was terribly happy, as you imply, why . . .' she began. Mr Justice Potts, as umpire, was forced to intervene. He looked a little pink. So fast had been the exchanges that one had almost forgotten he was there. 'I'm sorry,' he said with a smile, 'You mustn't ask Mr Carman questions.'

Mr Carman peered up. 'It's the rules of the game, I'm afraid,' said he to Ms Allan. 'Terribly unfortunate. If you want to turn your hand to the Bar,' - suddenly the joviality snapped - 'take the exam.'

'Excuse me,' said the judge, politely. 'I'd like to ask a question. (Laughter) How many tapes did you keep?'

'I think about seven cassettes,' said Ms Allan. 'They were highly entertaining.'

From his perch Mr Carman pounced. 'Entertaining] Ah] Ms Allan] I thought you found them distressing]'

He was off again, reading, with feeling, Ms Allan's description of a training camp for Mr Terre-Blanche's guards. ' 'We won't hurt anyone so long as they don't stand on our toes, one Aquila told me . . . We walk outside into the navy night . . .' Navy night?' repeated Mr Carman, amazed, ' 'A sheep . . . is bananas . . ?' I can't read it.'

'Baas,' interjected a solicitor.

' 'A sheep baas',' went on Mr Carman. ' 'My shudders match the earth's quivering underneath their thundering boots' . . . You put a pretty good shine on these racist thugs, don't you, Miss Allan?'

Thus is ridicule mixed with attack. The blowtorch heat this time came from the speed and relentlessness of the questioning. On Thursday afternoon the jury were still snapping their heads to and fro like spectators at a tennis match.

Why, Mr Carman asked, did Ms Allan believe the witnesses for the defence were lying? This was either a chance to put her case, or hang herself on the lengthy rope Mr Carman offered. Ms Allan's flatmate and former friend, he said, holding out his fine hand, his voice soft - what was her motivation for saying she saw Ms Allan making love with Mr Terre-Blanche?

'I have heard,' says Ms Allan, 'she has told people she was obsessed with me and that was the only way she could exorcise me. She was openly bisexual.'

Mr Carman invited more. 'She was bisexual? Obsessed?'

'I disapproved of the number of men she had traipsing into her bedroom and suggested she should have a turnstile on her bedroom door.'

There was male laughter from the public benches. 'You're taking the opportunity, quite understandably,' said Mr Carman, apparently sympathetic, 'to undermine her morality. To your knowledge, is she a habitual liar?'

'Yes,' said Ms Allan.

'She is, is she?' Sarcasm had replaced sympathy. 'Habitual liar as well?' Mr Carman looked at the jury. 'Whatever you think of her morals, I may come to yours soon.'

'I'm sure you will, Mr Carman,' said Ms Allan, with feeling.

He probed her motives for undergoing this experience of the courtroom.

'Nothing is worth being cross-examined by you, Mr Carman,' she said.

On Thursday Mr Justice Potts interrupted on hearing this phrase, which is fast becoming the leitmotif of the case. '. . . which I think is the point on which we finished last night,' he said. 'It's a tense atmosphere in here.'

George Carman went out into the corridor, swiftly lit up a cigarette, and was surrounded by his team. The wings of his gown flew out behind him and then fell at rest. His cross-examination of Ms Allan ended at lunchtime yesterday. The hearing continues, but the Owl, for this moment, had landed.

(Photograph omitted)