I was hauled over by the police about 18 months ago under anti-terrorism legislation, largely because I was looking a little unusual. I was wearing shorts with a briefcase, one of the privileges for those of us who are self-employed on a hot day.
It only took 20 minutes or so and they were perfectly nice about it, but it reminded me of the vulnerability of people who can be portrayed as being very slightly peculiar, or even mildly different – especially when things get serious, as they did in the Joanna Yeates investigation in Bristol over the New Year.
I thought back to that incident when the landlord, Christopher Jefferies, was arrested. As the days went by and the police time limit was continuously extended – while he was vilified day by day by the tabloid press – I began to obsess about it, constantly tuning in to hear whether he had been released, as he was inevitably going to be.
You may not know somebody well by sitting in their classroom for two years, but you learn some things about them. It seemed extraordinarily unlikely that he could have been involved in anything like that.
We haven’t even spoken for nearly three decades, but the truth is that I owe a huge debt to him, and not just him but to the whole English department at Clifton College, which in the 1970s became a kind of Rolls-Royce operation of huge ambition, civilisation and generosity, and from which I learned a very great deal.
As the days wore on, and he remained in custody, and the column inches grew, I came believe that those civilised values were under attack, maybe not so much by the police – I don’t know what was going on in their investigation – but by the rest of society, and by my own profession,
Yet only a handful of what must have been hundreds, if not thousands, of pupils spoke to the press. The rest must have been aware, as I was, that almost anything we said in his defence could fuel the flames. I am hugely relieved that he was released, if only because the investigation could then continue in a more fruitful direction.
But just for a moment, I felt I glimpsed a miserably intolerant and illiberal aspect of the nation – which I had naively ignored before. It makes me realise a little more clearly that, because I see the world differently from the prevailing culture, those parts of it constructed by a monopolistic media, then perhaps I am also at risk. More than just being questioned occasionally because I'm dressed unconventionally.
I was prompted to write this by the report in the Daily Mirror today that Mr Jefferies has been told by police that it isn’t safe for him to be seen in public. Every generation has its abuses which it seems to be blind to – we seem to accept, with merely a quibble, that loss-making banks should paid inflationary bonuses while corroding the economy.
We also, apparently, accept that some of the most civilised people in society will have to hide themselves away because of a police and tabloid cock-up, and from fear of the mob. I find that frightening.