Dinner with John Humphreys

And so to London for the Orwell Prize dinner, and an evening of anthropological study among the chattering classes . I feel a positive tourist there these days.

Fortunately, the Humph was three tables away and my victim for the evening was Iain Dale’s Blackberry featuring Iain Dale as Himself. Double good fortune, by the time Iain had shimmied off to do 5Live and I had drunk enough to kill a small horse and begun to reason that it might be a joll’ good idea to into- intu- introduce mysel’ to Mssstr Humphreys and maybe Mssstr Porter and Mssstr Sparrow too, they were all in the process of wisely departing.

Still, the person I’m really sorry I didn’t meet is the one I was never going to – the pseudonymous NightJack, English detective, secret policeman and richly deserving winner of the big prize itself. NightJack is mesmerisingly written, with not a word out of place. I defy you to read this, in particular, and not find yourself as changed as if you had read a gripping novel afterwards. And there is of course a lovely symmetry in an award with Orwell’s name on it going to an anonymous policeman, one which ol’ Eric would surely have appreciated.

But more than that, reading NightJack was something of a wake-up call for me, one of a number of startlingly great blogs I ran across on the longlist. It reinforced my sneaking suspicion of being trapped in the bubble of the “political” blogosphere, unblissfully unaware of the important treasures in other blogospheres. There’s no good reason at all for avowedly political blogs to exist in a different universe to blogs by police officers, NHS doctors, social workers, call girls, knitting hobbyists, whoever. What a depressing reflection of reality that separation is. Some political bloggers do very well at linking outwards, and reading NightJack made me realise how important that is.

It will take more than one prize to melt down the barriers between blogospheres, of course, but I wonder if the thaw is slowly setting in? I was struck last year by the sudden head-on collision between the civil liberties political blogosphere and the techie blogosphere, as Labour’s thought police turned its sights on the internet and the two sets of bloggers suddenly had an enormous amount in common. Insofar as political blogging has a strength as a tool for campaigning and talking back to the ruling classes (and I’m not always sure about these strengths, though it’s a nice thought), its proponents need the expertise and wider world view of bloggers like NightJack.

And this is the traditional point at which to say “Long may he flourish” but he has, sadly, packed it in. So I’ll have to instead say that I hope others continue to follow in his blogsteps (and here’s a heartening example).

This is particularly important because, by unlovely coincidence, and apart from a last-and-positively-final appearance to accept the Orwell award, this happened a few days after the G20 protests. Police relations in this country are, notoriously, at something of a crossroads. I used to work a little bit alongside Met officers in my professional life and can’t reconcile the reality of the friendly, thoughtful and dedicated people I met with what NightJack aptly calls the “imperial stormtrooper” face of the police, tooled up with shields and tasers.

And it strikes me that this is the political and legislative reality of our day: the police have been set up, they’ve been smothered in equipment, given tasers and powers that Thatcher’s bullyboys only dreamed of, and they have a choice now between becoming the protector, and becoming the next great enemy, whether that is fair on the current generation of officers or not. It’s  just a bigger version of the same kind of choice individual officers face on the meaner streets every day – it’s not fair to be called upon to be a social worker and substitute parent as well as a law enforcer. Society has set them up with a bum deal there. But some of them manage it very well anyway, against the odds, which is how an awful lot of great things are managed.

Blogging might – it might – be one of the lesser tools that pushes us towards that better outcome. The more human voices coming out of those black visored helmets, even anonymously, the better for all concerned.


  1. Yes, that’s pretty much it Alix. Form follows function.

    As to how we get things better….To police a locality effectively (rather than to be a police officer working in an area) requires that you are known in and also know of the locality. Real police accountability is when people know who you are, your children go to the same schools, you shop in the same shops, go out to the same parks and pubs, live in the same streets. That is real accountability that you can scratch a window with. Sadly, that sort of local policing is gone, gone and never coming back. Now we mostly drive in from the suburbs.

    We also need to stop arresting so many people. All the “cutting red tape” talk dodges the fact that what takes officers off streets is arresting people and then all the paperwork that goes with it. If we really wanted to increase the amount of time spent in the other policing functions the only way to get a big worthwhile shift is to examine our attitudes to making arrests. This is difficult because we have a fewer and fewer officers who have ever worked under the old system where “No offences disclosed, advice given” was a much used phrase for marking off a job.

  2. First of all, commiserations on not getting top prize.

    Second, it was good to see Patrick Cockburn winning the main press award. Makes up for the BBC Trust dissing Jeremy Bowen.

    Third, is NightJack a scouser? You see, “jack” is a Liverpudlian term for “detective” (well, certainly “policeman”; the Z-Cars pilot was entitled “Jacks and Knaves”) and I suspect a constabulary pun.

  3. Frank,

    It is indeed police slang for detective. Didn’t know that it started in Merseyside. The Night Jack is whoever draws the short straw and gets to firefight all over the division when all the other Jacks go home at 5pm.

  4. Of course, an occupation such as Nightjack’s is going to politicise people if they have even the vaguest hint of a brain, & this is why he is a political blogger really whatever Wikio may assert.

    The same goes for professional blogs, along the lines of NHS Blog Doctor, or To Miss With Love (which to my regret seems to have vanished from the ‘sphere altogether), & so on. It is a great advantage of blogging that we not have unmediated access to the statements of the professionals themselves & a glimpse into their world of the kind which was once denied to us.

    It is my wish, likewise, that a blog about working in a low-paid job can become as big as them, along the lines of Joe Gordon, ex of Waterstones. Because the rank & file have obviously got their tales to tell, & it is known that a lot of intelligent people (myself included) are toiling away on the shop floor.

    I also take the view that there should be a blog by one of those many people who, being tasked to enforce the war on drugs, has realised what a load of fucking utter shite drugs policy is. Just blogs in general are what we want 🙂

    In short I am totally in agreement with your views.

  5. This also reminds me that it is about time for you to put a ‘roll on your blog.

    I like the system Blogspot operates whereby you can have a sidebar such as the one as I’ve got. Not sure if WordPress offers the feature though.

  6. we have a fewer and fewer officers who have ever worked under the old system where “No offences disclosed, advice given” was a much used phrase for marking off a job.

    But that would mean you were being allowed to use your discretion, and that would never do. What used to be called ‘discretion’ is now called ‘discrimination’, and there are increasingly few people who understand etymology (and therefore know that discrimination does not, contrary to popular belief, mean ‘unjustified prejudice resulting in the victimisation of a minority’ but simply ‘the ability to understand what sets things apart.’)

    I know nothing about policing, but I do find it interesting that the couple of coppers I have met on a social basis need very little encouragement before they start telling you how not to get arrested or charged.

    I also take the view that there should be a blog by one of those many people who, being tasked to enforce the war on drugs, has realised what a load of fucking utter shite drugs policy is.

    Surely there’s no-one left who has any connection with drugs policy at all, whether designing or enforcing, who thinks that prohibition is workable? When even the Conservative front bench are prepared to admit youthful dalliance with cannabinoids, not to mention hinting at the odd bit of chisel-snuffling, one has to wonder how long it will be before legalisation is seen as inevitable.

  7. A very long time, sockpuppet, as most people completely oppose liberalisation without giving it a moment’s thought.

    They assume that those who oppose prohibition are pro-drugs, want drugs to be more widely taken, etc. etc. etc.

    You just come up against a brick wall with your average apolitical person. Though it may be the case that the herb is legalised at some stage.

    Although arguing with those who haven’t considered the issue is a forlorn hope, I would nevertheless like to see an anti-prohibition blog from someone who knows from having tried to enforce the law. I know that as you say there are many such people, but do they write blogs? 🙂

  8. most people completely oppose liberalisation without giving it a moment’s thought.

    I’m not sure about ‘most’; I haven’t talked to enough to know, but you’re quite right that the second one starts to win the argument, you find your opponent saying “oh, so you want people to take drugs, do you?”. Or – the other perennial classic – “well, I knew a really nice young man/woman who worked hard/played sport/loved his/her mum/was a wonderful ‘cellist and he smoked skunk and now he’s a mentalist /vegetable/dead.”

    Because I’m not actually a total a***hole, I don’t feel that I can reply that a) that isn’t actually a point at all concerning the efficacy of prohibition as a tactic or b) that that occurred under legal prohibition which clearly failed to prevent it or even c) that almost all of my friends at university smoked like it was a sponsored effort for charity – and usually did a few other things as well – to no ill effect and on graduating packed it in. In fact one of the reasons I prefer not to say this last is that an awful lot of them are now city lawyers and would probably sue.

  9. you find your opponent saying “oh, so you want people to take drugs, do you?”

    The easy answer to this is just to say “everyone already does take drugs, it’s just that some of them are arbitrarily illegal.” We don’t have a problem with people taking drugs, even dangerous drugs that they can get addicted to, just as long as they a) are wealthy enough to convincingly hide the problem or b) don’t get high off them – in other words, drugs prohibition is puritan moralisation wrapped up in a class war.

    The idea that drugs prohibition makes it especially difficult to take drugs is laughable on its face, so the whole argument falls apart. In any event, pointing out that people who say “you want people to take drugs do you?” are normally the same kind of po-faced schoolmarms who react in horror when they learn that young men might wear baggy trousers and listen to that rap music or that a young lady might drink a pint of ale rather than a decorus glass of white wine can also do the trick. Of course we want people to take drugs. People have taken drugs for thousands of years. Making it illegal doesn’t stop people taking drugs, it just makes the drugs worse for you and sends all the money to criminal gangs. It’s not hard to figure out what’s wrong with that picture.

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