When Joe Murphy, chairman of Derbyshire’s highways and transport committee, harried a local greengrocer all the way to the High Court to stop him displaying fruit and vegetables outside his shop, I thought this was just another example of spirit attachment.
Earlier in the week, a former policeman claimed in court that the spirit of a 19th century man called Peter the Pervert had entered his body and forced him to make obscene telephone calls.
Rightly anticipating a raised eyebrow on the bench, the accused had taken the precaution of calling a consultant psychiatrist as an expert witness. Alan Sanderson, resident shrink at Fairfield Hospital in Bedfordshire, duly obliged, telling the court that spirits were attaching themselves to people all over the place.
“It seems to be extremely common. It is there when you look for it,” he said, adding that he had personally treated no fewer than 70 patients who were thus afflicted.
There are gaps in this evidence. Since Alexander Graham Bell filed the patent for a telephone in 1876, it is safe to suppose that Peter the Pervert was a late 19th century man. An earlier wraith would have urged his victim to use the electric telegraph, even though a dirty message loses much of its impact in Morse code. As for the nature of the calls, did the policeman use words put into his head by the spirit? Heavy breathing interspersed with references to breeches, camisole, whalebone, and exposed ankles would point powerfully in the direction of an acquittal.
But back to councillor Murphy. Assuming Mr Sanderson is right and the ether harbours countless spirits endowed with Araldite-like qualities, Murphy’s actions would suggest that he is carrying on his shoulder the ghost of Mr Bumble.
He and his committee insisted that Mr Brian Godfrey should remove the fruit and veg from outside his shop in Bath Street, Ilkeston, even though no members of the public had complained and no accident had been caused. When he refused, they brought him before the Ilkeston magistrates, who took Mr Godfrey’s side. They accepted there was sufficient room for people to use the pavement safely, agreed that no nuisance was being caused and dismissed the case.
But petty tyranny is at its most malevolent when brooked. Armed with suitcases of the folding stuff lawfully exacted from the council tax payers of Derbyshire, the county council took its case to the High Court where, to the surprise of no one who has studied the judgments emanating from that bench, the judge ruled that notwithstanding the fact that no nuisance was being caused, a nuisance was being committed.
Mr Godfrey now faces an uncertain future. Not so councillor Murphy who, puffed with success, spoke through his interpreter Mr Bumble. “I am pleased that the High Court has today upheld the county council’s argument that any unlawful obstruction of the highway is a nuisance.
“The council is firmly of the opinion that pavements are for people, and that they should be kept clear of all obstructions for the benefit of pedestrians – particularly disabled people, people with impaired sight and parents with pushchairs.
“If we had made an exception for Mr Godfrey, a precedent could have been set which could have affected the rights of pavement-users throughout the county.”
To which the heavenly choir of shopkeepers past would surely reply, “what a load of mealy-mouthed bunkum”.
Since no member of the public had brought a complaint (indeed, the greengrocer received the support of a 750-signature petition), it is quite plain that some officious council busybody took it into his or her head to pick on the unfortunate Mr Godfrey.
Such harassment is commonplace. Which is why so many small businessmen and women were mightily unimpressed by John Major’s speech to the Tory conference, in which he paid tribute to his late father’s enterprise in the garden gnome sector.
“I see the proud, stubborn independent old man who ran that firm and taught me to love my country, fight for my own and spit in the eye of malign fate. The knockers and the sneerers who may never have taken a risk in their comfortable lives aren’t fit to wipe the boots of the risk-takers of Britain.”
Never mind that the economic policies of Mr Major’s Government unnecessarily prolonged recession and did for thousands of risk-takers, small businesses are under almost daily assault from officialdom. Every new venture from its very set-up faces premature death from drowning in a sea of rules, regulations, and directives made and enforced by people who have “never taken a risk in their comfortable lives”.
People such as councillor Bumble. Has he ever stopped to think why there are pedestrians in Bath Street, Ilkeston? Has it occurred to him that, the beauty of the street notwithstanding, they cannot all be there for reasons aesthetic or constitutional? Most are there to do their shopping.
True, hounding small retailers out of existence would eventually leave the pavements entirely uncluttered for the use of disabled people, people with poor sight, parents, gays, lesbians, and all the other legions of the disadvantaged.
But would they still want to go there?