As often happens with great breakthroughs, the recent one in jurisprudence has gone barely noticed.
Yet Judge David Hale’s ruling in a drug-dealing case not only blazed new legal trails, but also opened up dizzying new horizons.
Two drug dealers guilty of possessing cannabis with intent to supply were spared jail because His Honour found their “grammar and pronunciation” to be at a much higher level than normally expected from drug dealers.
Admittedly I haven’t had the privilege of meeting many, indeed any, drug dealers. Yet on general principle I doubt they set the locution and elocution bars at a vertiginous height. Therefore the two criminals in question didn’t really have to evoke the memory of GK Chesterton and Evelyn Waugh to get off.
In fact, the only sample of their linguistic attainment provided in the newspaper report is rather inconclusive: “Mad flavours from 10 tonight – let me know for more details.”
Now, should I ever feel inclined to trade in illicit substances, I should fear no punishment whatsoever, for I could express the same, admittedly rather basic, thought even better.
I would have found a better adjective than the slangy ‘mad’ to describe the enticing flavours, and I would definitely have said ‘contact’ instead of ‘let me know’. After all, it’s up to the seller to let the prospective buyer know about the wares available, just as it’s up to the prospective buyer to contact the seller with any inquiries.
Yet it’s of course commendable that two youngsters are better-spoken than the chaps one hears conversing behind King’s Cross Station after dark. Moreover, as a writer I welcome the value our legal system attaches to the tools of my trade.
However, I do wonder if Judge Hale considered the full legal implications of his momentous ruling. For, if decent locution can be seen as an extenuating circumstance, it follows logically that speaking badly should be regarded as an aggravating one.
One can just hear a colleague of Judge Hale delivering a sentencing statement along these lines: “Young man, normally what you did doesn’t call for a custodial sentence. But because you use double negatives and glottal stops, and because you drop your aitches, I have no option but to send you down for life with no possibility of parole.”
That, however, would be regarded as class, and quite possibly racial, discrimination. After all, a poor chap who says ‘I’m, like’ instead of ‘I said’ is a victim of society, which, and not he, should hence be held responsible for whatever crime he committed.
The upshot of this is that, since all criminals speak either well or badly, none should go to prison. There has to be a logical hole somewhere in this conclusion, but I can’t spot it offhand.
Judge Hale’s ruling also casts a new light on another case. Some 20 years ago, a drugged-up aristo I knew, a man educated at a good public school and Cambridge, used a replica pistol to knock off a convenience shop.
I can vouch from personal experience that he spoke with perfect diction and impeccable syntax, and yet the poor man had to serve a year in prison and for ever carry a blot on his CV.
His year of captivity can’t be returned to him, but the least we can do is demand that his criminal conviction be excised from his record: I’m sure the two dealers spared jail couldn’t match his Sloanie vowels.
Sentencing them to community orders, Judge Hale explained that he didn’t want to “fetter the prospects” of either man by sending them to prison. One prospect that may soar unfettered is that they’ll graduate to flogging opiates rather than cannabis, but obviously their superior locution precludes this, otherwise likely, possibility.
The Judge then proved his knowledge of such matters by explaining to the relieved youngsters that, although “cannabis may be an experiment that you find pleasurable”, they could be “desperately affected” by it.
That, though undeniably true, misses some of the point. For the chaps were guilty not of finding cannabis pleasurable, but of finding it profitable. Chances are they sample what they purvey, but that strikes me as being beside the point in the context.
The Times article reports on the case in the spirit of journalistic objectivity that in some circles may be seen as moral anomie. The only quality judgement is reserved for the alma mater of both criminals, the Bishopston Comprehensive School in Swansea, “which is rated excellent”.
Even though I know nothing about that school, on this evidence I disagree with its rating. The school may have been moderately successful in teaching two lads how to speak proper, like. However, it didn’t teach them not to peddle drugs, which I’d describe as a gross failure.
In conclusion, I have a piece of avuncular advice to anyone contemplating a career in crime. Learn your grammar and keep your aitches where they belong – you just may be able to get away with murder.