by Alan Taylor

Diary

February 18, 2011 | by Alan Taylor

The Left in the Dock

Towards the end of last year I spent as many days as I could manage attending the trial of Tommy and Gail Sheridan at the High Court in Glasgow. Shortly after nine in the morning I made my way through the Merchant City, via Trongate and Glasgow Cross, then down the Saltmarket, going in the space of a few hundred yards from a postcode where life expectancy is at least three score years and ten to one where the odds on achieving that drop precipitously. Most of the time it was gnawingly cold. Often I’d pass young men and women, the air sucked from their pallid faces, walking with the single-mindedness peculiar to those who have no particular place to go, and wearing no more than a day-tripper does to clamber up Ben Nevis. One morning, outside a pub advertising two-course lunches for £3.50, a woman challenged a man to a fight. ‘Goan then,’ she said, fists poised and shimmying as if she were a female Mohammed Ali, ‘Hit me! Goan!’ The man stubbed out a fag and said words to the effect that nothing would give him greater pleasure. In such circumstances, I’ve learned through experience that it is unwise to stick one’s oar in. I walked on, past Tron Pawn Ltd and the Tenant Participation Advisory Service and stopped outside Beauty by Debra, a safe distance, I reckoned, from which to observe the fracas. Nothing now, though, was happening. No one was outside the pub. All was quiet, eerily so. It was as if I’d imagined it all.
* *
The Saltmarket used to be what the legendary journalist Jack House called ‘the heart of Glasgow’. By all accounts it appears to have been a desirable place in which to live. How long ago that was I wouldn’t care to guess. In their excellent anthology, Glasgow Observed, Simon Berry and Hamish Whyte include a piece by Cuthbert Bede, a pseudonym used by the 19th-century English writer Edward Bradley, excerpted from a book called A Tour in Tartan-Land, which was published in 1863. Even on a summer’s day, reported Bede, he saw in ‘the Saltmarket, and the High Street, and their purlieus… evidence of so much that is sickening both to the moral and physical senses’. Come Saturday night, however, and things were even worse: ‘At every step there is an inducement held out to you “jest to wet your thrapple”; until a fight between two drunken women drives you from the scene, and you crush your way through the wriggling mass, wondering how often the girls get their naked toes trod upon on a Saturday night in the Saltmarket.’ What a difference 150 years make.
* *
The High Court is up a cul-de-sac opposite Glasgow Green. On a clear day you can probably see the People’s Palace, the Amritsar of Glasgow’s working-class history which, when I was last there, had no mention of the Sheridan-led resistance to warrant sales and the poll tax. When I first visited it the trial had already been going for a number of weeks. The prosecution was coming to the end of its evidence and, if one took at face value press reports, things looked bleak for the defendants, especially Tommy. Certainly, those journalists to whom I spoke were convinced of his guilt. One, a respected veteran court reporter, said that if he got off it would be ‘the mother of all miscarriages of justice’. When I demurred, saying that it might be best to wait and hear what Sheridan had to produce in his defence, he shrugged. As well he might. Reading the papers as a trial unfolds it’s hard to see the wood from the trees. Every day seemed to bring a new and lurid headline. Tommy said this. Tommy did that. Tommy was here, there, everywhere. What a witness said was reported as if he or she were Nelson Mandela or Mother Theresa. Prompted by the Crown they testified to having sex with Tommy wherever and whenever. Others swore blind that he’d confessed. Another, Tommy’s erstwhile best man, said he’d gone to the trouble of making a video of Tommy, ranting, raving and swearing, in which he appeared conveniently to substantiate the accusations against himself. The video was of a quality that couldn’t have been worse if it had been made by John Milton. For this, we learned, the Scottish editor of the News of the World had stripped off down to his boxer shorts and written a cheque for £200,000, clearly believing, as it turned out, that this would deliver the verdict denied him at the trial in 2006 which Sheridan won.
* *
It all started with a book by Anvar Khan,  a journalist. Pretty Wild: The Most Honest Diary About Men, Women and Sex You’ll Ever Read was published in autumn 2004 by Black and White Publishing, which is based in Edinburgh. On her website Khan says it is still in print. No mention, however, is made of it on the publisher’s website. Nor is the book in the collection of the National Library of Scotland which has a legal obligation to preserve all books published in the U.K. for posterity. There is, though, a copy in Cardonald Library, which is part of Glasgow City Libraries. Its catalogue quotes the book’s blurb which boasts that Khan ‘charts sexual encounters, the problems that face men and women when they get together, human sexual habits, desires and fetishes and lots more.’ Eager to procure a copy? Amazon has one for sale at 24p (plus £2.75 p&p). Fans of Khan will be pleased to learn that she has another book in the pipeline, titled The Female Warrior, which is described thus by her agent: ‘Academic and original in its ideas, yet irreverent, funny and as easy to digest as a Jackie Collins novel, this book is meant to be read by everyone from the white coats at the make-up counter in Boots to the lecturer in gender studies in CA.’ CA? Where else but California.
* *
After the civil case in 2006, at which a jury found in Tommy Sheridan’s favour, the judge, Lord Turnbull, ordered the News of the World to pay £200,000 in damages.
He also said that it may be necessary to investigate whether, due to the conflicting evidence given by witnesses, criminal charges should be brought against any witnesses for perjury. Hence Sheridan’s appearance in the dock and hence the charges brought in February 2008 against six of those who testified on his behalf. Much of the 2010 trial was a re-run of that held in 2006 with many of the same witnesses reappearing and giving the same, or similar, evidence. Lord Bracadale, however, did not follow Lord Turnbull’s lead. Indeed, in sentencing Sheridan to three years, he acknowledged his special contribution to the social and political history of Scotland. That people did perjure themselves is undoubted. Only they know who they are. It seemed odd, though, that all those investigated for perjury at the first trial were supporters of Sheridan. It is just one among many disturbing facets of this bizarre case. Were witnesses who testified on the News of the World’s behalf investigated by Lothian and Borders police? It would be interesting to know. Likewise, it would be interesting to know exactly who was paid what by the newspaper and for what services. But as we have seen from the phone hacking affair – the News of World’s equivalent of the Catholic abuse scandal – getting to the truth of what goes on within News Corporation is to delve into a Kafka-esque nightmare where memories have mysteriously been wiped and records irretrievably lost.
* *
Not the least of Tommy Sheridan’s difficulties was trying to explain to the jury in polite language how vicious and conspiratorial left-wing politics are. Most of us, when told that eleven people swear blind that someone said something in a meeting, would believe that they were telling the truth. Sheridan, however, produced others who, with equal firmness, said he did not confess to going to Cupid’s, the Manchester swingers’ club – why, in a roomful of archenemies, would he? – which was at the heart of the allegations against him, and that no such minute was presented to them to that effect. It was like listening to kids arguing in a playground. What it was not was edifying, the left publicly tearing itself apart while expressing regret. Shortly after the trial five women who were instrumental in Sheridan’s downfall gave an interview to the Guardian. ‘The time has come to rid the left of male misogynists who view women as appendages,’ said Rosie Kane, the former SSP MSP. Her solidarity, she insisted, was with Gail Sheridan, which will surely be a comfort to her. ‘Tommy only has two ways to deal with women,’ added Kane. ‘If he can’t fuck us, he will fuck us over.’ At the trial the question everyone wanted to know the answer to was: why did he decide to sue the News of the World? Money? Hubris? Self-righteousness? What seemed to occur to no one was that he might, just might, have thought it was his right to bring to court a newspaper that he believed had published lies about him.

From this Issue

A Higher Language

by Jen Hadfield

From Paisley to Peoria

by Jonathan Murray

The Book Group

by Colin Waters

Diary

by Alan Taylor

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