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posted by charlie x alias little tramp on Sunday 22nd of April 2007 07:27:13 PM

From The Sunday Times April 8, 2007 Goodbye Magna Carta Dan Kieran, author of Crap Towns, is so fed up with the loss of traditional British freedoms that he turned criminal to shake us out of our apathy These days it’s not enough to talk or write about something. People don’t notice. They haven’t got time. You’ve got to do something visual: You’ve got to make a statement by proving you can be stupid on a scale never seen before. We’ve seen many types of desperate behaviour to which people will lower themselves for celebrity status, but we’ve never seen anyone deliberately attempt to become a criminal to point out how far from real-life experience and how authoritarian our “democracy” has become. Well, not for a while anyway. So there was nothing for it. I would have to turn my back on the law. In the interests of the greater good, of course. My descent into this new shady criminal underworld began when I arranged to meet a man called Neil Goodwin one bright morning in Parliament Square. Protest and the right to free speech have always seemed to me to be part of our national DNA. It’s perhaps not surprising then that another of this nation’s great traditions, the tendency towards eccentricity, was soon being employed to fight the government’s exclusion zone that has banned spontaneous protest for a radius of one kilometre outside the seat of our democracy, the Houses of Parliament. I arrived on time and found Neil dressed, flawlessly, as Charlie Chaplin’s tramp. He whispered: “I’m not supposed to talk, and my girlfriend says she’ll leave me if I get arrested many more times, but do you fancy going up to Downing Street?” He’d actually been in the cells the day before for holding up a sign by the Cenotaph that said: “You have the right to remain silent.” Crowds of tourists seemed to think that he was some kind of official attraction and began to ask for photos as he hobbled up Whitehall with me in tow. Neil duly obliged. A few tried to give him money afterwards but he motioned them away. As we got nearer Downing Street he leant over to me and said: “Chaplin was the man, you know.” A few minutes later I began to understand exactly what he meant. The tramp is not one of the most widely loved icons of cinema for nothing. Despite many of Chaplin’s films being over 70 years old and having had no major cinema release in generations, everyone still knows and loves his character. The tourists by the entrance to Downing Street laughed and clapped as Neil took up his spot outside the gates. They queued to have their photograph taken with him, but the police were not amused because he soon produced a sign from his rucksack that said “NOT ALOUD”, which because of the ludicrous nature of the government’s new Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act’s exclusion zone meant that he was breaking the law. Within minutes an armed officer called over to him. “You can’t stand there, mate. It’s illegal.” Neil shrugged as though he didn’t understand. The policeman tried again. “You can’t demonstrate. Move along or you’ll get arrested.” The crowd of people began to boo at the policeman. “Doesn’t he have the right to remain silent?” I offered. The crowd laughed. The officer angrily looked at me. “Are you trying to be funny, mate? Who are you? Are you with him?” I shook my head and he turned back to Neil, who was doing his best to look scared, which was drawing sympathetic noises from the crowd. One called out: “Leave him alone, he’s only standing there!” Someone else put in: “It’s a free country, isn’t it?” Neil shook his head with a rueful smile and the crowd began to applaud and cheer. The policeman spoke into his radio. I decided to explain to everyone that because he hadn’t got permission from the police “Charlie” was breaking the law for holding an illegal demonstration. A man behind me laughed. “You’re joking, aren’t you, mate?” Others seemed astounded. One woman looked at me as though I was deranged. “You can’t be serious?” she said. “Protest can’t just be made illegal!” The policeman rounded on me: “Look, who are you? Can you just move along?” I refused and pointed out that I wasn’t breaking the law. He became contrite and lowered his voice. “No, you’re not breaking the law, I’m just asking you out of courtesy if you’d move along because you’re adding to this disturbance.” I refused again and he said into his radio: “There are two of them holding an illegal demonstration. Can I have back-up?” At this point, again to a vast array of boos from the crowd, another armed policeman emerged and asked Charlie his name and if he had any ID. A group of lads who looked like builders began to laugh, and one called out: “What’s his name? His name’s Charlie, you muppet!” Again the swelling audience fell about. The policeman pleaded with Neil to move a few yards away to stop the crowd blocking the entrance to No 10. Charlie shuffled along, only for another two officers to approach him and ask again if he had any ID. Neil let go of his sign, revealing that it was chained to his wrist (so it wouldn’t get confiscated like the last one) — cue more laughter from the crowd — and began theatrically to look through his pockets. Eventually he found a scrap of paper which he unfolded as if he had all the time in the world and turned it's contents towards the crowd. “NO COMMENT” was written on it in large black letters. There must have been 50 people at this point and they all began to cheer. Even the armed policeman laughed. “Well, he is funny, I’ll give him that.” Two officers then ushered him a few yards down the street. Neil was given a piece of paper that outlined the exclusion zone and explained about section 132 of the Serious and Organised Crime and Police Act, which solicited a huge guffaw from sections of the crowd. The policemen told Neil that if he was still there in half an hour they would arrest him. Neil shrugged his shoulders. Part of the crowd began to disperse. More tourists emerged and had their pictures taken, but none could believe that he was about to be arrested. One came over and chatted to me to learn what was going on. I explained that in a few minutes’ time Charlie was going to be taken to Charing Cross police station for holding his sign. The man was incredulous. “They can’t arrest you for just standing there, can they? What about our rights?” He was about to see exactly what had happened to our rights. A police van pulled up, the two uniformed officers emerged, and Charlie Chaplin was read his rights and manhandled into the back of the van. As he was carted off in a police wagon the funny side of Section 132 of SOCPA seemed to go with him. The crowds seemed unsettled, too. Their laughter gave way to bewilderment and shock. If only the architects of SOCPA and all the MPs who voted for it in parliament had been on hand to explain to us all why there was nothing sinister about a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin being arrested outside Downing Street for carrying a sign that said “NOT ALOUD”. I’d had enough. It was time to get off the fence and put something on the line myself. As I walked away down Whitehall in disgust an idea began to amble around inside my head. This law, to steal an old-fashioned English phrase, simply “wasn’t cricket”. So it was surely time for an illegal cricket match to take place in Parliament Square. A cricket match for the “Ashes” of the Magna Carta on St George’s Day perhaps. Oh yes. I liked the sound of that . . . and what about a teddy bear’s picnic in Parliament Square, too. Voltaire once quipped: “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” The use of a quotation from a Frenchman to define what it means to be British may offend some, but then that neatly sums up the contradictory nature of the British people. Sadly, today no one can claim that Voltaire’s words speak for this country any more. On August 1, 2005, to the widespread shrugging of shoulders across the land, it became illegal to hold a spontaneous political demonstration outside the House of Commons — as what happened to Neil demonstrates. The nation’s apathy towards losing the right to free speech at the seat of its government, something supposedly as intrinsic to this “green and pleasant land” as warm beer and Freddie Flintoff, posed the question of what, if anything, does Britain actually stand for today? Twenty miles from London, along the Thames, you will find a field opposite an island in the river. The field contains a monument erected by the American Bar Association. In the field next to it there is a memorial garden to John F Kennedy commemorating his role in the civil rights movement. Why on earth, you may imagine, are there American monuments in fields by the Thames? There are no other monuments. There is nothing to commemorate anything British. Perhaps an important figure in American history was born there? Nope. The site is far more important to the American people than that. On that unmarked island in 1215 something was written down that more than 500 years later became the fifth amendment of the American Bill of Rights. “No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned . . . or in any other way destroyed . . . except by the lawful judgment of his peers, or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to none will we deny or delay, right or justice.” For Americans this became: “No person shall . . . be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The original document was, of course, the Magna Carta. Nearly 800 years ago King John was held to account by a group of rebel barons who demanded a charter of liberties to protect England from his unfair and erratic behaviour. That was when the principle of a power higher than the sovereign was established. That higher power was the rule of law. The Magna Carta has since been described as the most potent symbol of freedom under law in western civilisation. It is something, you would imagine, that even our embarrassed nation would manage to be proud of. At the very least you’d think we might have one of those blue plaques down there somewhere. “Liberty under law started here” perhaps, nailed to a nearby tree. It would be nice to have something to commemorate the birth of British freedom, but there is nothing. So I thought I’d better go out and find the Britain of our dreams, sometimes known as Albion. My original idea was to write a guide to some of the most absurd ancient legislation still on the statute book. I’d had this great idea to go round the country on a crime spree, breaking as many silly old laws as I could find: imagine if Fred Dibnah met Bonnie and Clyde. There are hundreds of these ridiculous laws still in force in Britain. For example, to this day it is illegal to flag down a London taxi if you have the plague. In Chester you can’t shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow before midnight, but you can after midnight. It’s also against the law to beat a carpet in the Metropolitan police district. Neither can you carry a sack of soot along a path in a place called Congleton, and it is still unlawful to get within a few hundred yards of the Queen without wearing socks. However, in the process of researching these laws I couldn’t help noticing another glut of legislation that seemed even more ludicrous. Most of our silly laws have trickled onto the statute book over centuries, but this particular set had all come from our current government. And when you meet a man who got arrested after eating a cake with “Freedom of speech” written on it in icing, and someone else who has a criminal record for holding a banner made of fridge packing in Parliament Square that had “Freedom of speech” written on it in Biro, the idea of breaking the Adulteration of Tea Act of 1776 starts to seem a little frivolous. Of course, once I started lifting up this legal concrete slab in the garden of England all sorts of other creepy crawlies emerged that cast doubt on the health of the nation. Of course, on paper Britain is doing rather well for itself. There are more billionaires in the UK today than ever before, there are more shiny things to spend our money on than you could possibly imagine, and we do appear to have some standing in the world at large. But who else lives in Britain apart from all the high-flyers, overachievers and entrepreneurs who help us stay members of G8, the club for the most economically powerful nations on earth? How does Britain seem to everybody else who lives here? You know, the other ones. You and me. Those of us floundering in the highest levels of debt in Europe; the ones afraid of poverty in retirement; the ones being forced to work 40-plus hours a week with only four weeks off a year; the ones terrified of violent crime, of their children being adversely affected by the MMR jab; the ones suffering from depression because they can’t handle the stress of their jobs; the ones Carol Vorderman is hoping will consolidate their debt so she can keep her no doubt lucrative advertising contract. To find out, I went on a journey around Britain to meet some of the people still fighting for Albion among the uniform high streets, no-go estates, monochrome offices and shopping malls of Britain. I found an unlikely selection of eccentrics to guide me on my journey. People like the pensioners who let off stink bombs to force an extension to a public inquiry. The hairy history expert who got paid to have custard pies thrown at his beard by Ant and Dec. The world-famous fisherman with a penchant for firing homemade rockets into space. The man who enjoys howling like a wolf in his back garden. The Robin Hood of the squatting world who gets into empty buildings and hands the keys over to homeless people who can’t afford anywhere to live. The woman living on the roof of a bus station in Derby. An activist who organises picketing campaigns outside the homes of drug dealers. The former MI5 agent reduced to peddling conspiracy theories to complete strangers about 9/11. Now I don’t usually go round practising criminal behaviour. Although that’s not to say I wasn’t outgoing and interesting when I was younger. I drank alcohol before I was 18. I stole a rubber once when I was 12. I’ve taken illegal drugs, broken the speed limit while driving, been drunk (although not while driving), ridden my bike on the pavement, and skateboarded where signs strictly prohibited me from doing so. But the protest exclusion zone outside the House of Commons was different. This was one of those laws you could actually get a criminal record for breaking. Up to that point in my life I had also managed to exploit the middle-class force field that put the police off the scent if I was ever up to no good. My friend Greg took this idea one stage further. If the police ever paid him any attention while he was driving to a rave in the possession of illegal powders he would simply turn on Radio 4 before they asked him to wind his window down, “because it formed an impenetrable bourgeois sphere that the police simply couldn’t penetrate”. But as it was, I didn’t mind being arrested. You see, it was all part of my plan. Cecil Rhodes once wrote that being born an Englishman was like winning first prize in the lottery of life. Now clearly sentiments like that are rooted in the British Empire, which it has become rather politically incorrect to admire today, but there is still an element of that quotation that has always made me feel a certain sense of pride. Whenever I heard it the empire was certainly not what dominated my thoughts, just the simple idea that the things in life that mattered were still valued here. Looking around the nation in the 21st century, however, Rhodes’s words seem hollow and out of date. When my girlfriend Rachel and I started a family the future into which our country was heading began to preoccupy our minds. It wasn’t just the question of civil liberties being eroded, although that weighed heavily enough, it was the maternity ward with invisible midwives where our son was born; the grotty, leaking community centre down the road where the government’s Sure Start initiative was being implemented; our badly lit and nerve-racking local train station; the grimy local swimming pool threatened with closure; and the community police officers taking a breather in our local park instead of proper old fashioned bobbies walking the streets. If you have the good fortune to be alive, you’ll certainly have spotted the huge disparity between the way we are told things are and the way your experience proves them to be, whether it’s the difference between what the brochure said about your holiday and the holiday you experience when you get there; the pert, tight, 17-year-old bottom enclosed by that pair of size 6 jeans on the billboard by the bus stop as opposed to the way your 30-year-old size 14 bum looks in them when you get home; or the politician who tells you what you want to hear then mocks your naivety as soon as your back is turned. Rachel and I were becoming terrified that our son would grow up in a country stripped of its values and sense of place. I was determined to do what I could to preserve what I felt this country stood for so that my son could experience it and enjoy living in Britain too. You may not think the idea of my deliberately becoming a criminal went down well at home, but Rachel was rather pleased by the change of direction my journey had taken. Breaking new laws rather than old ones meant that, among other things, I would no longer have to contract bubonic plague before attempting to hail a London cab. In fact, the enthusiasm that seemed to fill her at the prospect of my being given a lengthy jail term made me think that she was quite keen to get away from me for a while. Despite such misgivings I took her enthusiasm as nothing more than simple, unconditional support. And then my criminal life began. With a teddy bear’s picnic. In Parliament Square. © Dan Kieran 2007 Extracted from I Fought the Law, to be published by Bantam Press on May 7 at £9.99. Copies can be ordered for £9.49 including delivery from The Sunday Times BooksFirst on 0870 165 8585

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