Sunday, May 06, 2007


With only a couple of reservations, I don't have too much of a problem with the notion of capital punishment. I think it sits ill in the mouth of someone who has murdered, perhaps in a grotesque fashion, to complain about infringements of their human rights. I think it equally self-serving for those who have destroyed the lives of others, through excesses of violence or unwillingness to respect others (here I am thinking of those who peddle drugs on the scale enaged upon in The Wire), to cry about their human rights. Maybe it isn't an effective deterrent, maybe it does have an aspect of revenge about it, but these arguments are insufficient to change my view: I don't think it turns society into a murderer to deal to such criminals in such a final way, and the one clear thing is they won't be doing it again. And I am not convinced that making someone languish in jail for a lifetime is any more humane than giving them a quick end.

One reservation is that the criminal justice has to be sufficiently effective in its operation that we can be sure the guilty are those who are convicted. Even then, I'm not sure it has to be 100% effective: there is much rhetoric about it being better that 99 guilty go free than to punish one innocent, but it only takes one of those 99 to kill an innocent and we've gone backwards. A second reservation is that whenever we kill someone, others will be affected. The criminal won't have given them much thought, but the presence of his or her family and friends might give reason to pause. My other reservation is that any method used to carry out the sentence must be humane: there shouldn't be massive periods of waiting for it to be done, and the final process should be as peaceful and dignified as possible - to avoid any possibility of "us" taking pleasure in the process. I couldn't hope for a better person to conduct this service on society's behalf than Albert Pierrepont, at least as portrayed by Timothy Spall in a recent movie:
Pierrepont was the last British executioner. He was appointed not long before the beginning of World War Two and stayed in the position until the mid 1950's and, according to the film (there seems to be some variation) carried out 608 sentences. This film is largely focussed on him in his professional capacity: about the only things we learn of his home life is that he never takes anything of his work home (he needs this separation to stay sane) and that he does a bit of amateur stand up comedy with his mate Tish. He was a master of the measured drop - tailouring the length of rope needed to ensure that death was painless and immediate. The only mode he adopted was one of dignity (the one odd note struck was his competing to be the fastest hangman): it was not his place to judge any of those he met professionally and, once they were deceased, they were to be treated as having atoned for their sins and thus innocent once again. So, any failure to respect their corpse was wrong, such as when there were insufficient coffins. This was in the aftermath of World War 2, when he was sent to Hameln in Germany to hang war criminals, including the so-called Beast of Belsen. Here he had a long schedule of sentences to carry out (one source says there were 190 in all).

This was the beginning of the end for him: the deaths started to trouble his conscience, and I imagine that once one such death starts to intrude, each subsequent death becomes a further burden. We are not shown much of this: instead, the last straw comes when Peirrepont is called upon to hang his friend, Tish. The movie shows Tish as being comforted by the fact it is his friend who carries out this last task for him; Pierrepont for once drops his professional mask to give his friend some words of farewell but he can no longer perform his task. Finally, we see his demeanour crack, and it is revealed to us that he has felt tortured for some considerable time.

One other factor was the growing sentiment in Britain that hanging was to be abolished: there were public protests, accusations that he had blood on his hands. In fact, Time magazine has it that it was the British Parliament decision to do away the death penalty which saw him lose his job.

I doubt that many will choose to see this film, which gives an unusual insight into the process of capital punishment, but it certainly provides a good model for those societies which decide to use the process.


Following The Equator by Mark Twain

How this book came to be called Following The Equator, I will never know. Sure, it is some sort of circumnavigation of the world, but there is no dedication to the task the title might suggest is Twain's objective. Instead, it is an account of his lecture tour of the British Empire, undertaken in the late 1890's in an effort to stave off bankruptcy after an over-enthusiastic investment in a hopeless product. None of the subject matter of the lecture tour is revealed: it is ostensibly a travel narrative but Twain's tendency to tall tales often gets the better of him. For me, these tales have been the best part of the book: had I not known them to be untrue, I would have been taken in by them.

He starts out innocuously enough, suggesting that the Equator can be seen as a blue ribbon, which "several passengers kodak'd" (I have vague memories myself of thinking that the Equator could be seen). Another suggestion is that the Moa (a large, now extinct, bird native to New Zealand) had been used in the early days of Australia to carry the mail but when they came into competition with the newly built railroad had had to be exterminated.

His best performance involves Cecil Rhodes (better known as the founder of Rhodesia and the de Beers diamond business). Here, he locates Rhodes in Sydney with no money, no job and no prospects. He is so down on his luck that he is willing to spend the day monitoring some fellow's shark fishing rod - the deal being that he can keep whatever he finds within any shark he might catch. Sure enough, he catches a huge shark, and is next seen approaching the richest man in Sydney, wanting to borrow a large sum of money to corner the wool market, saying that war has just broken out in Europe and the price of wool is shooting up. Since he looks like a "sundowner" (tramp), the reaction is not favourable: proof is required, especially since the most recently available English newspaper in Australia makes no mention of the war. Triumphantly, Rhodes produces a newspaper of a mere ten days vintage - this is what he extracted from the shark, along with a few buttons.

Another story involves one of the Vanderbilts (although, curiously, the story is not set in any place Twain visits on his journey but appears completely randomly). A young fellow working in the tobacco industry in Memphis is given a fake letter of introduction by his mates (they liked to play jokes on him because he was so serious) to Vanderbilt. The fake reminiscences within the letter are so good that Vanderbilt obviously so wants them to be true they become true to him. Thus, the visitor from Memphis is given a very grand reception and does very nicely indeed from the joke.

Apart from poking fun at the rich, he gives good accounts of the scenery encountered and of the political situation of the native people in the various countries he goes to (although there is a tendency to romanticise - hardly surprising since it appears he manages to visit Australia and New Zealand without once seeing or talking to an Aboriginal or Maori). He ends up being quite impressed with New Zealand, although his first real mention of it is to demonstrate how obscure it is:
If it would not look too much like showing off, I would tell the reader where New Zealand is; for he is as I was; he thinks he knows. And he thinks he knows where Hertzegovina is; and how to pronounce pariah; and how to use the word unique without exposing himself to the derision of the dictionary. But in truth, he knows none of these things. There are but four or five people in the world who possess this knowledge, and these make their living out of it. They travel from place to place, visiting literary assemblages, geographical societies, and seats of learning, and springing sudden bets that these people do not know these things. Since all people think they know them, they are an easy prey to these adventurers... All people think that New Zealand is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge. But that is not so.
This is then transformed into a great story about a Professor of Theological Engineering, who journeyed from New Zealand to Yale. The Professors there are so embarrassed by their lack of knowledge about New Zealand ("it is close to Australia or Asia, or somewhere, and that you cross to it on a bridge") that they all agree to research various aspects of New Zealand and make it their topic of conversation when they give the visitor his dinner. So staggered is he by their knowledge of New Zealand ("a remote little inconsequent patch"), that he dare not engage them on any other topic.

But Twain seems genuine in his praise for New Zealand, in at least trying a more humane way of colonising it and in giving both Maori and women the vote and the right to be in Parliament. This might seem a little patronising today, but when he was writing this, New Zealand was the first country in the world to be so progressive: he is holding us up as an example of fair play.

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