Author Archives: Clodagh Phelan
No, not the stuff you use to light a fire, though there have indeed been occasions in the past weeks when I would willingly have lit a fire under Kindle and all its works. I am in fact referring to the process by which a logical but not particularly technical person attempts to format a book for Kindle.
Kindling is a sure fire way to turn anyone into a raving loony. (I imagine the thought police will get me on that one. I’m past caring. That’s what Kindling does to you.)
Forget the fact that Kindle in its wisdom has brought out at least five different versions at the last count. Though even as I write I imagine pointy headed little sadists clustered together cackling evilly as they think up yet more versions. Forget the fact that your ‘formatted’ book has to be checked against every single one of these benighted versions plus iPad and iPhone and Android. And promptly turns itself into something that resembles the result of a nasty accident with a printing tray. So that you have to start all over again.
The fun actually begins way before you reach that point. It starts when you turn to the guides, either the ‘official’ Kindle ones (*sigh* as they say on Twitter), or any of the ‘helpful’ advice scattered around the Internet or in a series of e-books. All I can say is that if these guides were in charge of a party of climbers on a mountain they wouldn’t even get to first base. The mountain would be littered with broken bones, splattered bodies and severe cases of hypothermia.
Metaphorically speaking, these klutzy Kindling guides have forgotten to bring any crampons, will advise on the best type of climbing boot but forget to mention thick socks, offer chocolate crampons and, while some of them may remember to tie everyone together, they will totally forget to tie the end of the rope to the mountain. And in all likelihood they’ll be shouting the instructions from an entirely different summit. Some many miles distant.
Maybe I’m being harsh but pity the poor beginner. It’s something I’ve ranted about before so I will rant about it again. When people who know how to do something set out to instruct people who don’t know how to do it, their logic goes out of the window. Especially if they are techies. There are now maybe 10 different versions of Word. OK, you can’t cover them all but wouldn’t it be nice if you actually said which *expletive* one you are talking about. It would help. Or even demonstrate a sliver of awareness that other versions even exist.
It is beyond frustrating when you are told to go to X, click on the pull down menu and click Y, only to find that Y doesn’t exist. Like Monty Python’s parrot it is no more. At least not in the benighted version of Word you happen to be working on. My bookmarks are crammed with sites, all of which have a few bits of useful information the rest being either incomprehensible or utterly contradict something that’s been said on another site.
Much as it doesn’t seem so, I am grateful, I really am. Grateful that people are trying to help – those that are not doing it with an ulterior motive that is, and even some that are. But please, I beg of you. Think. Think clarity. Think logic. Write down those words, put them on a sticky, attach it to your screen. And always remember. You may have reached the top of the Mount Everest of Kindle but others are still in the foothills. And you need to guide them every step of the way. In case you didn’t get that I repeat – every step of the way. And, while you are at it, please make sure that, at the very least, you are all climbing the same mountain.
It’s been a crazy sort of week. A really good week but at the end of it I find myself dithering around and at a loss to know what to write about. This is not unusual. But it’s usually because I have too many things to choose from. This time it’s different. This time my mind is a bit like those squares of soft plastic that come in the boxes of stuff you buy from Amazon. And I’m not talking about bubble wrap; that would be interesting, at least you can pop it.
In the past weeks I’ve written about the danger of using mobile phones when driving, public address systems in airports, my deceased cat Eric and his life as a spy, sausages, cows, coastlines and contemporary art. I also love to write about the wacky, mad things people do and strange unknown facts. So, while I get my head together for next week, here are some things I’ve just discovered. They’re the sort of things that brighten up my life and make me smile. The links to the sites where I found them are at the end of this post. So, Einstein couldn’t swim and …
Isaac Newton invented the cat flap
Walt Disney – creator of Micky Mouse – was afraid of mice
The Tory (Conservative) party was founded by a group of Irish Catholic bandits. The name comes from the Irish for outlaw or bandit. They’re certainly living up to their origins.
Virginia Wolfe wrote all her books standing up.
Pigs love Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, except for the Mint Oreo flavour.
There’s a spider named after Harrison Ford.
Goethe could only write if he had an apple rotting in the drawer of his desk.
In 1980 Saddam Hussein was given the key to the city of Detroit.
Elephants purr like cats.
Bats always turn left when they leave their caves.
Tigers don’t just have striped fur, they have striped skin.
The Founder of Pringles was buried in a Pringles can.
A couple of weeks ago I made a grown man cry. He didn’t actually break down but had a hard job trying not to. Why? What did I do?
I made a speech.
I made a speech at my wonderful Early Birds Toastmaster’s club about the consequences of using mobile phones while driving. The purpose of that particular project, speech 9, is to persuade with power. I had some qualms about giving this speech to an audience of sensible, bright, intelligent people, as I did not believe that anyone who fits that description can possibly imagine they can control a car while holding the wheel with one hand, still less text at the same time, still less watch a video. I assumed I would be preaching to the converted. I was in for a shock.
I’d already had quite a shock when I researched the subject. I had intended to speak about holding phone conversations, specifically using hand-held devices and maybe mention texting. However, once I started to look into it I found that events had overtaken me. Not only is the use of phones in cars apparently accepted but texting is going the same way. It’s already endemic in the States but is rapidly taking hold here too. And it will come as no surprise to hear that the number of accidents and fatalities where phones were a contributory factor is rising steadily.
The thing that most alarms me and makes me despair is the creeping normality of it. Unbelievable as it seems nowadays, there was a time when drinking and driving was normal. Everybody did it. But the fatalities mounted, campaigns were instigated and gradually people’s perception changed. But not before many people had been injured or died needlessly. Though there will always be some people who ignore the dangers, nevertheless these days drinking and driving is just not acceptable. Sadly this is not the case with the use of mobiles and other devices. You just have to look at some of the new car models – with screens on the dashboard and Internet access. Some do have ‘eyes free’ voice activation as a safety device – but still.
Anything you do in a car besides driving it is a distraction. You’re in control of what is in effect a lump of metal travelling at speed. Those seconds of inattention can kill or maim you or someone else and should that happen it’s guaranteed to change your life forever. When you are driving a car you need to have every single sense alert, to be listening as well as looking. If you are speaking on the phone, dialling, fiddling with the radio or Satnav or, God forbid, texting you are not alert. And although you may be the best driver in the world you have to allow for the fact that there will be at least one idiot on your stretch of road and, in all probability, more than one. You have to anticipate their movements so you can take avoiding action where necessary.
When I made this speech I deliberately made it personal. I wanted people to stop and think how they’d feel if they killed someone. If they killed a child, deprived a family of their dad, their mum, a brother, a sister. How would they feel if they killed a friend travelling in the car with them, or a member of their own family? Or, to look at it from a totally selfish point of view, a few seconds inattention could cost you your licence, your job, your home and could land you in prison. It might be you who will spend the rest of your life in a wheelchair, who ends up brain dead. It might be your family who has the expense of adapting the house and the agony of seeing you incapacitated.
We all do stupid things. We are all capable of being distracted but we can minimise the effect. I don’t use my phone in the car but that doesn’t make me a saint. I am just as likely as anyone else to get infuriated by other drivers, to get impatient to be tempted to take risks. When I do I have a technique that works really well. I imagine that I have family in the car with me or if not that the woman in the vehicle ahead is my sister, the man walking along the pavement is my dad, that the young boy riding the bicycle that’s holding me up is my nephew. Believe me, it puts everything in perspective. So I’m late for a meeting – is that worth a life?
The distinguished German film director and producer Werner Herzog has recently made a 35 -minute documentary sponsored by the American cell service provider, AT&T and also supported by other groups. Entitled “From One Second to the Next” it follows to ‘a series of public service TV commercials he has already directed for the company aimed at youngsters to get them to stop texting and driving. The fact that the mobile providers themselves are spending money to discourage this behaviour is significant and welcome.
The Herzog film is powerful. The image above is the first image in the film; in the voiceover the child explains that she was walking along the pavement with her brother, hand in hand and ‘all of a sudden my hand was empty.” Her hand was empty because her brother had been mowed down by a car driven by a young girl who was texting. The little brother ‘X’ is now a paraplegic. I urge you to watch. Please watch it. It’s so easy to think it may not happen to us or indeed that it’s all a big fuss about nothing. I don’t think you’ll think that when you’ve seen the film.
I was shocked by the research and I was even more shocked by the reaction to my speech. I thought I was preaching to the converted. I wasn’t. So many people came up afterwards and said that yes, they used their phones when driving and yes, texted as well. The phones were not a great surprise, the texting certainly was. I didn’t set out to make anyone cry but couldn’t help but be gratified that my words had evoked such a response. I was also gratified by the amount of people who told me the speech had jolted them, who went on to look at the video and resolved not to use their phones in the car again. Here’s the link to the film again – we should all watch it from time to time. Just to remind ourselves of the devastation that can be caused by a moment’s avoidable distraction.
The Joy of Travel
No. 5 – Airport Announcements
I have no idea how many people pass through Stanstead every year – millions. Maybe billions. I assume that most of them reach their destinations,with or without their luggage. Which is something of a miracle if my recent experience is anything to go by. The incomprehensible screeching that passed for public announcements would do a good job of shattering glass and put any self-respecting parrot to shame. As to fulfilling its purpose – forget it.
Where on earth do they recruit these people? What criteria do they use in interviews? Do they only select those whose voices are so sharp they could cut a diamond? Or maybe they choose perfectly normal people with perfectly normal voices, though with a preference for those on the shrill side and send them to boot camps. Boot camps where recruits are required to speak at a given speed – getting faster and faster as they progress towards their diplomas. Somewhat along the lines of the old speed typing tests except with a requirement to run the words all together so as to be indistinguishable, one from the other. With extra brownie points for slurring.
Bad as it was in the departure hall, the situation at the boarding gate was even worse. I was a going to try to replicate it here to try and give some idea of what it sounded like but the nearest I can get to describing the tone is the sound of nails being scraped down a blackboard or the high pitched shriek of metal grinding against metal – and not in a good way. The only two words I caught were ‘the back’. Were we to were to board from the back (no sniggering please) or was the plane was for some unaccountable reason going to fly backwards or were we all to be herded back to departures? Impossible to tell. If we’d suddenly been rerouted to the moon we’d be none the wiser.
The long line of hopefuls milled about like sheep that were one dog short of directions. When I approached the desk I fared no better. I still couldn’t understand a word. All I achieved was more confusion, a cold stare and hurty ears. It wasn’t much better on board. Given the vital importance of some safety instructions this is less annoying than alarming. We are all a bit blasé these days about life jackets and whistles and stuff – we know its more to reassure us than a having any practical use. But the stuff about electronic equipment really does need more than a quick slur. And why not spell it out – mobile phones, MP3 players, iPads and computers can all make the plane crash. That at least might make some people sit up and take notice. That is if they could take those earphones out of their ears for three seconds.
The captain has just made an announcement. All I understood was that we are makings good progress, despite being bounced about like a celestial tennis ball. Whatever he did say was, I imagine, meant to reassure us. A bit pointless since he too seems to have been to boot camp with the rest of them. Bet he got top marks for slurring.
Despite fulminating and ranting about the misuse of English, I love some of the new ways the language is used. One of the words I’m particularly fond of is ‘random’. ‘Random’ meaning haphazard, without aim or purpose or without an underlying principle. Nowadays it’s often used to mean strange or weird – indeed sometimes it’s the only word that fits the situation.
Take last week. Last week was random in all senses of the word, old and new. Correct or otherwise. It was scattered. It was weird. It was definitely haphazard. I was editing blogs and writing content. I was trying to sort out the cover for my book, with the help of a friend who is not only kind but more knowlegable and technically savvy than I am in all things jpeg. I was dithering about booking plane tickets – cheap and lethal Ryanair or slightly more expensive but definitely more civilised EasyJet?
While juggling with all this I had foolishly agreed to enter a Tall Tales contest for my Early Birds Toastmasters Club, in aid of a good cause World Child Cancer. What is a Tall Tale? Wikipedia was unhelpful for once as none of the examples were contemporary. Having to fit a story into a formula, of sorts, did bad things to my brain. It froze it. The contest was on Friday. On Wednesday I was still staring at a blank sheet of paper. The only thing I could think of was my ex-cat, Eric, who used to send emails.
A brain frozen takes some time to defrost. Thursday morning I was still struggling. However, thanks to the encouragement and suggestions of my lovely Toastmaster and Twitter friends, a story gradually took shape. A convoluted story involving my beloved Eric, who had, it seemed worked for MI5. Pavel, the psychotic goat, a Russian agent. A plot to blackmail Larry, the Downing Street cat. An exciting chase across Whitehall into Trafalgar Square. A fall from the top of Nelson’s Column, a broken leg and the 73 bus also figured. A fortuitous cat flap and an Islington safe house appeared to signal the end of the story. But no. There was yet another dastardly plot involving the corgies and the Queen, a faked death and a mysterious box of ashes.
If the word random can be applied to anything, it can be applied to last week.
I came third, by the way.
“Laws are like sausages, better not to see them when they are being made.” This remark, in various forms and guises, is attributed to Otto von Bismarck, among others. Whether it was Otto who said it or someone else, they definitely have a point. Some of the stuff that goes into the modern sausage would have you reaching for the sick bowl. Or, in my case, the scotch. This is not to denigrate all sausages. Indeed sausage making has become something of an art form with thousands of varieties being created throughout the world. A cornucopia of flavours and combinations. Some delicious. Others frankly weird. Venison with redcurrant and red wine, duck with orange and apricot, beef and Guinness. Tasty! Rattlesnake and rabbit. Emu and Elk. Dubious to say the least
There is plenty of evidence to show that the sausage was well known in ancient Greece and Rome. Indeed the word ‘sausage’ comes form the Middle English, sausige, which derives from sal, the Latin for salt, that well known preservative. Early man made the first sausages by stuffing roasted meat into stomachs. Animal stomachs, I hasten to add. And dead ones at that. It would be a brave man or woman who attempted to stuff a living bear or bison. No guesses as to who would end up as the filling if it happened the other way round.
Our British banger got its name in the First World War. There were food shortages; meat in particular was scarce. There was little to spare for sausage making. So the manufacturers packed the casings with scraps – bits of vegetables and water. When they were cooked over open fires, notably on shovels in the trenches, the water caused them to hiss and burst and pop. Hence ‘bangers’.
The humble sausage is associated with far meatier things than the full English. Indeed it played a part in the birth of Reformed Protestantism. Not many people know that! It happened in 1522, in Zurich, when a small number of believers met together to defy the teaching of the Catholic Church, which banned the eating of meat in Lent. Led by one Christopher Froschauer they declared that nowhere in the bible did it say you couldn’t eat meat in Lent. So there. The city council finally got round to agreeing with them and passed a law stating that’ No Christian is bound to do those things which God has not decreed.’ And quite right too.
Not only did the modest sausage play its part in the birth of a religion, it also features in the annals of war. For this we again go back to the First World War when the German High Command had a weapon with which it planned to bring Britain to its knees. The Zeppelin airship. These engines of war were responsible for the first bombing campaign directed at civilian targets. Though only 1,500 people were killed – only! – the raids brought terror to the populace, in particular on the South and East coasts where the raids were heaviest.
It was bad luck for the Kaiser when, despite the widespread panic, the campaign failed in its attempt to completely smash morale. Bad luck too for the German populace and even more for German cows. Sausage eating was banned for the duration. Why? Because cows intestines, the very ones used to make sausages, were a vital component in the manufacture of the airships. The technique by which the intestines were turned into gasbags to hold the hydrogen has only recently been discovered and is the subject of a Channel 4 documentary.
So for the Germans it was the wurst case scenario (couldn’t resist!). They may have scared the pants off the Brits, but they didn’t succeed in ending the war. On top of that they were deprived of their favourite food. And spare a thought for the poor cows. In a macabre version of the old light bulb joke – how many cows does it take to make an airship? The answer – 250,000 and that’s just one Zeppelin. It’s enough to moo-ve you to tears (pun intended.)
Some words and phrases have become so embedded in speech that we no longer notice their absurdity and simply accept them. This is dangerous. Dangerous for clarity of thought. Dangerous for the language.
Of these expressions, the one I’m singling out today, among a myriad of candidates, is the use, or more accurately the misuse, of the word “absolutely”. Like the phrase “going forward” it’s redundant. It’s about as much use in a sentence as a snowman is in an avalanche. And you’ll hear it, in the main, on the lips of politicians and, to a slightly lesser extent, used by spokespersons of fat, self- important organisations. Our own prime minister uses it like a comfort blanket.
“We have absolutely no intention …”
“I absolutely agree …”
“Let me make myself absolutely clear …”
“I absolutely take that on board … “
“It’s absolute nonsense … “
At least I can agree with that last one. It is nonsense. Just listen next time you turn on the radio or TV, especially if the interviewee is a politician. Count how many times he or she uses the word. On the other hand don’t, as getting worked up does nasty things to the blood pressure.
Not only is sloppy language indicative of sloppy though – yes, I know, this is one of my frequently ridden hobby horses – it is also somewhat sinister. When a politician or a bureaucrat or a spokesman for some public or private monolith uses the ‘A’ word it’s like a signal. It means the opposite to what is being conveyed. “Absolutely” meaning “yes” is at best hypocritical, often a downright lie. Having “absolutely no intention” of doing something usually means the contrary. Making oneself “absolutely clear” means “I’m the one in charge, mate, so what I say goes.”
This Crazy World We Live In – No. 4
Well, they say it takes all sorts! It certainly does. Clicking around the Interwebs, as the cats call it, I came across a site devoted to the stuff folk collect. And then I found another site. And another. As you do. I’m indebted to all of them, just as I am indebted to the collectors – whether on the ‘almost normal’ end of the spectrum or those who are so far out in the stratosphere that they might have trouble getting back.
There’s navel fluff – oh yes indeed – you’re not going to get a picture of that on this post, look it up! There’s air sick bags; remember this post is subtitled Crazy World. There’s lawnmowers and street signs, mangles and backscratchers. Anything and everything that isn’t bolted to the floor, and even some that is. Here I can only scratch the surface, but I urge you to click the links below and have a good old browse, not to say wallow. That’s if you enjoy the quirky, the weird, the wonderful and the downright odd. If not, I suggest you move swiftly on!
Some strange collections have even been housed in museums, real or virtual. The Toaster Museum, founded by Jens Veerbeck, has over 600 models, many of them rare and most of them rather beautiful. Still on the subject of toast, so to speak, there’s the Burnt Food Museum containing examples of yes, you guessed it, toast but also ‘hash blacks’, incinerated macaroni and all manner of burnt offerings. Not moving too far from a collection of burnt food, the Asphalt Museum has a collection of, that’s right, asphalt. How weird is that. Boasting samples from 6 different countries and 11 states the museum is housed in a real building in a real university – the California State University, Sacramento.
Naturally, given the oddity of some of these collectors, there has to be a collection, if not of bananas, then at least of banana labels. There are also collections of toothpaste tubes, napkins, portraits in toast (yes, you did read that right), airline spoons, bars of soap, locks of celebrities’ hair (spooky) and sugar packets. Among my favourites are shoes – shoes shaped like foxes, horses hooves, boots with ponytails (eh!) and bondage shoes – don’t ask! And to add to the general weirdness, moist towelettes.
It will come as no surprise to hear that at least a few of these collections made it into the Guiness Book of Records. The world’s largest Pokemon collection has been held by a girl in the UK, since 2010, although on a different site that honour is claimed for an American woman. The world’s largest collection of Coca-Cola memorabilia also made it into the record books. The Happy Meals collection didn’t make it. While not breaking records some collections are so beautifully housed they are a work of art in themselves. Witness the Be@rbricks Collection. For those who haven’t come across them before, be@rbricks are collectible toys designed and produced by the Japanese company MediCom Toy Company. A collaboration between the creatives at Openbox and architects Onion, led to the superbly outrageous ‘Garage of the Bears’ which houses the iconic collection.
Welcome to the weird, wacky and often beautiful world of collections. Here are some links :-
Yuck. Yuck. And thrice yuck!
Business speak, sometimes called management speak. It’s got so ridiculous now that it doesn’t just obscure, it’s incomprehensible. Even to those who use it. But in true ‘Emperors New Clothes’ style, they can hardly open their mouths to say so can they? Poor lambs.
There are loads of great websites on the subject. I’ll give the links at the end. For now I’ll just expose some that drive me up the wall (only a few or I’d be writing for the rest of the year). And mention others that are new to me and that take my breath away. The only possible advantage to these expressions is that they give me, and people like me, plenty of material for our posts and rants.
Let’s start with the headline above ….
Bring to the party – so it’s a party now is it?
Open the kimono – a new one to me. Absolutely creepy, not to say pornographic. I think it ‘s supposed to mean show or reveal. So why not say so.
Low hanging fruit – quick win. Easy pickings?
Going forward – I absolutely hate this. I shout at the radio every single time I hear it. Of course you are going forward, unless you’ll admit to going sideways or backwards and no one in business will ever admit to that.
Drill down – You’re planting seeds are you? Or maybe you are doing some DIY. In any case you’re hardly going to be drilling up! What’s wrong with ‘explore’ or ‘analyse’.
Deliver – please not, unless you are the Royal Mail or UPS. Complete, fulfill, do? As to deliverables – don’t get me started.
Wrongside the demographic – yet another one I haven’t come across before. I know what ‘demographic’ means. I know what ‘wrong’ means and ‘side’. Put them all together and I may as well be talking to a Martian.
In this space – well, speaking of Martians, where did you think we were? Mars, Jupiter – most likely up Uranus.
Stakeholders – I can’t help but visualise vampires whenever I hear this expression.
Sunset – a new one on me. It means to cancel or kill a project. Apparently. Oh my sainted aunt. To make it even worse, it’s turned yet another innocent noun into a verb. Top marks for euphemism though!
Forward planning – er, planning? You don’t plan backwards. Well I don’t, anyway.
Best of Breed Cloud Burst – I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about and I doubt you do either.
There are many others who, like me, are driven nuts by management and business speak. I am indebted to them for discovering some of the expressions above, others are my own pet hates. Here are some links:-
If she were alive today, and once out of prison, she might be using her notoriety to her advantage. She could well have become a D list celebrity. Instead, not least because she lived in 1955, she was hanged by the neck until she was dead.
Ruth Ellis was the last woman to be hanged in England. She was 28 years old. After suffering persistent violence and humiliation, she shot her lover, David Blakely, outside the Magdala public house on Easter Sunday in 1955.
Ruth Ellis died nearly sixty years ago – fifty-eight years ago this month, to be precise. Yet she is still the subject of enormous interest, prurience even. There have been documentaries, academic studies, books, an over glamourised feature film – Dance with a Stranger – and, as recently as this Spring, ‘The Thrill of Love’, a play about her life, has been running in the West End.
So what is it about this case that so fascinates us? After all she’s not the only woman in history to have shot her lover? She is not the only woman to have suffered capital punishment in Britain, albeit the last one. Nevertheless hardly anyone has ever heard of Styllou Christofi who was hanged seven months to the day before Ruth. And who, coincidentally, murdered her daughter in law in South Hill Park, the very street where Ellis shot Blakely.
The similarities and contrasts between the two cases are extraordinary but here I’m concentrating on Ruth. Who was she? What drove her to kill? What was it about her that caused the establishment to crash down on her where it had been lenient with others? (Three people were reprieved from the death sentence in the months before Ruth hanged, one of them only five days before.)
Social mores and psychology are enormously complex and I won’t attempt to unravel all the threads. Suffice to say, for now, that it was a different era, with different mores and attitudes. Attitudes that, tragically, did not work in Ruth’s favour. She was a nightclub hostess, who had been abused as a child – though this was not something spoken about or even recognised in her day or for some long time. Witness the Jimmy Saville case, to take just one example. A sexy peroxide blonde, with a chaotic lifestyle, was not looked on with favour in by the establishment of her times. The more so because Ruth was also the ‘unmarried mother’ of two young children.
Her lover, David Blakeley, on the other hand was a spoilt, handsome and superficially charming young man, from a good middle class family and had an aura of glamour because he was an aspiring racing driver. He was, by the standards of the day respectable, a sort of hero. He was also weak, a hanger on, a serial philanderer and a violent alcoholic.
Neither of them were angels, that’s obvious; Ruth could give as good as she got. But there’s also no doubt that she was very badly treated by David Blakeley, with whom she was in love. Some would say obsessively so, although at the time of the murder she was living with another man, Desmond Cusson.
Shortly before the murder, Ruth Ellis had been beaten up by David Blakely, not the first time. This time however she was pregnant – a blow to the stomach brought on a miscarriage. On that that fatal weekend, she was distraught and irrational. Desmond Cusson, intensely jealous of David, fed her anger. It was he who gave her drugs, and the gun and taught her how to shoot it. He who drove her up to Hampstead, time and time again, that weekend, to look for David. And who left the scene immediately, coward that he was.
None of this was put to the jury. Neither the beatings nor the miscarriage were mentioned. Vital witnesses were not called so the jury could not even attempt a verdict of manslaughter. On the case presented to them the jury had no option but to find her guilty of murder. Her action didn’t fit the legal definition of provocation and since the death sentence was mandatory, the judge had absolutely no choice.
Tragically Desmond Cusson’s part in the case did not come up until 24 hours before Ruth was due to hang. He had promised her that if she kept his name out of it, he would look after her children after her death. A promise he broke almost immediately. It wasn’t a member of her legal team to whom she confided on that last day. It was to Leon Simmons, a lawyer she trusted and who had acted for her in her divorce. It was he who got the truth out of her. Too late. Cusson had gone to ground and the Home Secretary, who was the only person who could have ordered a reprieve, had made himself scarce. Leon Simmons was so badly affected by the case that he never practiced law again.
The press fell on the story with alacrity. Not all the coverage was negative. Indeed she engendered a great deal of sympathy and in fact her case was instrumental in the eventual abolition of the death penalty. However, while her courage and sad story evoked compassion in many quarters, it was her very courage and determination that turned others against her. She came over as cold and manipulative and her desire to pay for what she had done gave her a steely determination that was misinterpreted. Add to that her refusal to tone down her look – to the horror of her legal team she insisted on having her hair re-dyed her favourite platinum and wore a business like suit and refused to play victim.
Suppose we fast-forward 58 years. What would happen to Ruth had she shot Blakely today? Certainly she wouldn’t have been hanged, not in the UK anyway although she would still meet that fate and worse in some parts of the world. And for crimes far less grave than murder. But with regard to women and violence, has anything really changed here in the UK? We have, thankfully, moved away from some of the attitudes of the nineteen fifties. In recent years domestic violence is rightly seen as abhorrent but believing something and acting on it are two different things.
Some statistics show that one in four women in the UK will suffer physical or mental violence at least once during their life. Two women are killed every week by partners or ex partners. In 30% of all the domestic violence incidents reported to the police no action is taken. A warning only is given in a further 38% cases. Only 4% of reported incidents results in a conviction. Nevertheless, when these women (and they are mostly women1) flip and kill their tormentors, there is often just as little sympathy as there was for Ellis.
Sara Thornton suffered years of abuse. In 1989 she finally snapped and stabbed her husband. She was given a life sentence. The judge said she could simply have ‘gone upstairs’. The case was taken up by women’s groups and became a cause célèbre but did nothing to change the law. Sara Thornton remained in prison for ten years before being released after the jury in a retrial found her guilty of manslaughter.
Like most women jailed for murder, Kirsty Scamp says she loved Jason Bull, the man she killed. She had tried to help him break out of his increasingly frightening behaviour – high on cocaine and drugs he frequently attacked her. Kirsty Scamp worked in a care home looking after adults with learning disabilities and mental health problems. The judge took into account the strong character references from her employees but turned them against her saying – and I quote – “Her care skills should have made her better equipped to tolerate Jason’s violent and erratic behaviour.” She was convicted of murder in 2007. Released on appeal in 2010 after her sentence was reduced to manslaughter. The two cases I have cited resulted in reduced sentences and release from prison. However, there are many more instances where that is not the case.
What about Ruth Ellis? Would she get similar treatment were she to have committed her crime today? The Coroners and Justice Act 2009, replaced the controversial defence of ‘provocation’ with the defence of ‘loss of control’. Nevertheless there’s no guarantee that this would have succeeded. It would be hard to equate loss of control with Ruth’s apparent coolness at the scene and her steely courage in the dock, whatever the reasons given for her demeanour. Her state of mind would certainly have been taken into account, particularly in view of the miscarriage. However, Ruth used a firearm. This went against her in the original case only because a bystander suffered a minor injury, but an injury nonetheless. However today we do take a much more serious view of gun crime. That alone would probably be enough to ensure a long prison sentence.
So in spite of our changing attitudes and the rather slower changes in the law, I doubt that Ruth today would have been free to enjoy her notoriety, had she wanted to. But at least she would have been alive.
1 This post is about Ruth Ellis and the way attitudes and the law have changed, or otherwise, towards violence against women. If I had examined the whole subject of violence in general and the fact that men also suffer domestic violence, it would have been twice as long. Violence against men certainly exists but that fact does not negate the facts relating to domestic violence against women, nor the appalling treatment they suffer in other cultures. In the interests of balance I have included two links that go into this subject in more detail than I can cover here.