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A case in point

Travails with a wheelie bag in Peterborough

22 October 2011

6:00 PM

22 October 2011

6:00 PM

You can tell that the economy of East Anglia is more flourishing than that of the West Midlands because the fine for drunken vomiting in the back of the taxis of Peterborough is £50, whereas it is only £40 for doing so in the back of the taxis of Wolverhampton.

The other difference between the taxis of the two cities (as I discovered on making the journey between them recently) is that the former are driven entirely by Muslims, the latter by Sikhs. How this arrangement came to pass — if, indeed, it is an arrangement — I do not know, but I am glad to report that both lots of drivers are extremely helpful and obliging, at least to their customers.

I never go to Peterborough except to examine criminals charged with serious offences such as murder in the prison there. It is a relatively new prison and is built in the style of one of those characterless hotels that have grown up everywhere beside ring-roads and motorway service stations, though of course with a few additional security features. It is a pleasure to be able to record in print, with gratitude, the helpfulness of the prison’s staff.

Having arrived in the city a couple of hours early, I had time to look around a little — as I have done before. Peterborough is essentially a sublime cathedral surrounded by a festival of British modernist architectural incompetence and brutalism, sponsored by a council planning committee that was both without taste and — let us at least hope, for it is the only charitable interpretation of what the committee has wrought — corrupt.

Civilisation having been thus destroyed, a small effort at resuscitation was taking place while I was there. A string quartet was playing Haydn’s opus 77 number 2 under the market hall, built in 1671, through whose graceful arcade could be seen the hideous concrete frame of a building that would have gladdened the heart (if that is quite the word for it) of Leonid Brezhnev or Erich Honecker. Bemused youths, grazing on fast food preparatory to dropping their litter sidled by, wondering what on earth was going on.

I went to the cathedral. In the west entrance was a large laminated notice bearing the signatures of the leaders of the many religious communities of the city, testifying to their laudable determination not to slaughter one another over their theological differences, but rather to live together in peace and harmony. The Buddhist will lie down with the Jehovah’s Witness, the Ismaili with the Plymouth Brother. Tell that to the taxi drivers, I thought, and immediately felt the sickly sensation I had as a child when I had eaten too many rose and violet cream chocolates in the space of a couple of minutes. And then I thought of Voltaire’s remark, that England is a country of 60 religions and one sauce, though fortunately in the meantime the number of sauces has increased even faster than the number of religions.   

Just inside the west door, standing at a table, were two women of the type whom only the Church of England can call upon: kindly, gentle, good-humoured, unworldly volunteers, charitable of mind as of manner and disposition (and so very unlike me). They were the Church of England’s answer to the 8ft-wide, androgenic-steroidal meeters and greeters who stand outside British nightclubs, intimidating lines of would-be clubbers into some kind of good order and discipline.

As it happens, I had with me one of those black valises on wheels that follow businessmen around in airports wherever they go. It contained the hundreds of pages of papers in the case of the prisoner whom I was about to see. The papers were very heavy (though lightened for me by such remarks as that of a witness who said, ‘When I’m drinking, time goes out of the window’), and I did not want to carry it around the cathedral with me. I therefore asked the two ladies whether I could leave it with them.

‘We used to be allowed to keep cases for people,’ they said, ‘but we’re not allowed to any more. We’re very sorry.’ What is more, they were very sorry.
‘That’s a shame,’ I said. ‘It’s very heavy and I didn’t want to carry it around with me.’ (The cathedral is very large.)

‘Has it got wheels?’ they asked.
‘Then you can wheel it round.’
‘But that will make a noise,’ I said.
‘Oh, that doesn’t matter. It’s allowed.’

It is true that the harsh rattle of my plastic wheels on the stone floor would not have interrupted the spiritual meditations of many worshippers: I was in the cathedral for about an hour, and saw only one person who could have been described as such. But still I felt that to fill the house of God with such a sound was sacrilegious — and I do not even believe in God. Perhaps it was the grandeur of Man’s work that I did not want to desecrate, so I ended up carrying the bag anyway.

The illogic of the church’s mistrust of my bag somewhat affected my appreciation of the building, boring into my mind as I once believed that earwigs bored into the brain if they entered the auditory canal. Have not the terrorists scored a signal victory in reducing us to such foolishness? What was the likelihood that an elderly man in a business suit was a bomber? And if he were a bomber, how would not allowing him to leave his case near the entrance to the cathedral, but allowing him to take it round the cathedral with him (with a hundred opportunities to leave it hidden somewhere), conduce to safety?

The women were not allowed to use their common sense, for fear that they might be discriminatory. But there is no intelligence without discrimination, even if judgment is necessarily uncertain and always prone to error. The church preferred to dehumanise the women by subjecting them to a rule they knew to be idiotic. Thus we injure ourselves with lies, to which we apply the bandage of unctuous platitude.

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