Mixed (up) heritage

Mixed_up_hertiage_1       Mixed_up_hertiage_2

My daughters have a Polish mother and a South African father. Their paternal great-grandparents come from a variety of places, including Scotland, Ireland, and France.

Their maternal ancestors have been cabbage and rye growers on a farm near Warsaw for generations.
The girls see themselves as English, or to be precise they say they are half Polish, half South African and fully English. Wonky arithmetic, flawless logic.

My nine year old writes stories. I believe this shows her subconscious effort to make sense of her mixed up heritage and national identity;

My dad is a werewolf, my mum is a witch, my granddads are skeletons, my uncle and auntie are zombies, one of my grandma’s died so she is a ghost now. But of course, the scariest of all is my other grandma, she is a… were-bunny. Lils is the only mortal in our family. She knows that she is the only mortal, but she pretends to be proud. We all know that she isn’t proud and wants to be one of us. The only way she could turn into an immortal is if we traded souls. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a human but it is extremely dangerous to trade souls. I asked dad once but he said that we should be proud of what we are and anyway, Lils doesn’t  know about trading souls, it is better that way.

The rest of the story available by written applications to Alexia’s agent.


All Around Us

You know it’s Christmas when a defence lawyer at court says this in mitigation:
“Your honour, he is clearly not a very good thief. He attempted bulk theft of baby milk formula for the second time in less than a month, and he got caught both times. He stated in his interview that the milk was for his baby. He now tells me that his son is 3 years old and clearly does not need Aptimil any more. He cannot even maintain a consistent lie from one day to the next. He would like to be treated leniently today so he can still go back to Poland for Christmas. Unless I can assist you any further”.

I suggested that the defendant could also offer, as a Christmas gift to the  court and to England as a whole, to buy one way ticket.

The mood this week is all excitement and anticipation, cheerfulness and empty trains. The world puts on tinsel-tinted glasses, pours itself a large Baileys on ice, and the countdown to Doctor Who special begins in earnest.  I, for one, am sold. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.

Merry Christmas!

Little Poland, SW17


Meanwhile in a remote Polish village of Balham, the locals have gathered for an annualOpłatek Parafialny (lit. the parish Christmas wafer), the ritualistic breaking and sharing of Christmas wafer. The tradition is sacrosanct in Poland proper and all its overseas outposts.  It consists of sharing a piece of white wafer, closely resemebling communion wafer in Catholic church, with one’s nearest and dearest, whilst at the same time exchanging lengthy elaborate Christmas wishes.  It takes place on the 24th of December, during traditional 12-courses Christmas Eve supper, a Polish national institution, known as Wigilia.  Non-Poles who try to imitate this custom with just a cheery Merry Christmas miss the point of reciting a list of well thought through and personalised wishes, enumerating all the ills to be remedied and specific aspects of prosperity that we wish the Christmas season to bestow on the recipient of our tiny piece of wafer. I digress.

Balham White Eagle Polish Club has been hosting the Opłatek event since time immemorial, or at least since the Polish settlement in Balham took hold some decades ago.  The ritual is observed according to a reassuringly predictable protocol. This might seem chaotic even brusque to outsiders, but Polish Balhamites find comfort in the proceedings.
To begin with, the Chairman of the Parish welcomes everybody in the room.  A panel of parish priests bow majestically. The hand movements are uncannily royal.

First artistic offering of the evening is traditionally provided by the parish choir.  A group of around 15 mostly female, very smartly dressed singers in white blouses and floor length black skirts, all with matching glittery necklaces, take over the stage and deliver a series of traditional Polish Christmas carols. Feliz Navidad it ain’t.
Operatic tones and solemn melancholy songs set the mood. This can be dangerously sleep-inducing to uninitiated outsiders, and looking around I notice some of the 200-strong audience  in semi-slumber.  As for the Poles in the room, the familiar Christmas music from their church-going childhood seems to be doing the trick as they are gently carried back to memories of  motherland. Warm fuzzy feeling spreads slowly around the room.  Foundations are laid for the main event of the evening.

The next hour or so belongs to folk dance groups Lajkonik and Orlęta. They are divided into four age groups, ranging from adoringly clumsy 4 year-olds to professionally looking dancers in their mid to late 20s. They are all simply amazing.  Basia Klimas-Sawyer, who has been running the groups for 42 years now, is a household name in Polish Balham and a true national treasure. Generation upon generation of Polish dancers in London owe their adventure with Polish folklore to her. She has to be seen to be believed.

After the show, the parish priest takes centre stage, says a few seasonal words, sprinkles holy water on the Christmas wafers and off we go, sharing the wafers with friends in the room, exchanging wishes and three kisses on the cheeks. Tea and coffee is served, as well as a selection of slightly tired looking cakes; a gift from the chairman of the parish, who happens to own a successful Polish bakery.

A couple of hours later we suffer from a serious case of Polishness overload. Still, we say our do widzenias safe in the knowledge that in less than three months we’ll meet again at Święcone (the blessing of the Easter food basket) gathering.  This time we will be sharing hard-boiled egg quarters. Same place, same crowd, same dancing routines.  I shall keep you posted.

Setting up

Guests arrive

Thrilled to be here

Lajkonik and Orlęta assemble on stage

Płynie Wisła płynie – a song about the Vistula river, which every Polish nursery child knows by heart.

The 7-10 year olds in action

And bow
Polish mountain region dances by 11-14 year olds



Sound engineer

The first lady of Polish folklore in the UK, the legend, Basia Klimas-Sawyer

In front row, the Balham high and mighty. Oh, and father Karol, far right.

Father Władysław Wyszowadzki in all his splendour.

Court Interpreting Backroom

Today is as good a day as any to start sharing the joys of my glamorous Court Interpreter career with you. Each day is different, each client is, erm, unique, travelling opportunities are endless, as can be seen from the timetable below. It keeps me fit too.
7.50 leave home in Upper Norwood by car
8.20 arrive at younger daughter’s school near Clapham South
8.30 park the car at Streatham Hill and take 133 to Brixton
8.45 arrive at Brixton
9.20 arrive at Southwark tube station and rush to Blackfriars Crown Court
9.55 leave Blackfriars Crown Court because I was f&&&!!!** booked in error as the defendant is not required to attend. I am signed off by a bored general office worker. He tells me that even though he has no idea why I was booked in the first place, I will be paid for one hour. He forgets to mention that it was him who booked me in the first place.
10.05 call my agency and get a last minute Wimbledon booking for this morning, can I possibly get there before 11, please?
10.10 board Jubilee Line at Southwark
10.15 change at Westminster for District line
10.25 change at Earls Cort for Wimbledon branch
10.26 get a call for second Wimbledon booking for the afternoon and accept it
10.45 arrive in Wimbledon and gallop to court
10.55 arrive at court, sign in at reception, sign in with list caller, say hello to clients, a married couple on fraud charges, sit down for the first time today, eat Pret takeaway breakfast
11.30 consultation with the solicitor who seems to be amused by certain aspects of the case. He decides they will need two separate firms to represent them due to obvious conflict of interest. He chooses to represent the wife and asks the husband to leave.
12.30 consultation ends, I am trying to get hold of bail duty solicitor to represent the husband, none available till after lunch.
13.00 court breaks up for lunch, I sprint back to Pret for staple chicken and avocado sandwich and another cappuccino.
13.30 back to court for my afternoon matter, pre-sentence probation report. Client is very chatty and  doesn’t take a hint when I am typing away these very words.
14.00 probation appointment begins, client no longer chatty, not volunteering any information. Hard work all along.
14.40 probation job completed, back to my couple from this morning.
15.15 case called on for transfer to crown court due to the seriousness of the charges
15.40 I leave court and sprint to Wimbledon station to catch 15.58 to Streatham.
16.15 arrive at Streatham station and take 109 to Streatham Hill
16.30 arrive at younger daughter’s school just as they come out of sewing club. I compose myself just in time to make it look like I have it all perfectly under control and I timed my arrival with precision.
17.15 arrive home after a long slog in near stationary traffic.
17.16 greeted on the doorstep by older daughter; mummy mummy what’s for dinner, did you pay for my choir trip, can I go to Melissa’s for a sleepover on Friday, and I need your help with French and history homework.
By the time I arrived home, I’d clocked up 10,383 steps on my garmin pedometer. I criss-crossed London expertly and ran everywhere.  I feel like a walking talking TFL journey planner.  Tomorrow, hopefully, I will tell you about a more static version of my daily devotion to Justice.
I love my job, I really do.

Drama as we go along

Drama as we go along

I love theatre in all its forms. I make a point of seeing most West End plays and musicals, with an occasional dip into open air, panto and fringe. The excitement and magic never fade. I saw Cats first time round. I saw Mousetrap in its 35th year. I even saw the doomed Martin Guerre. So I am no novice and I do not get impressed easily.

Last week I saw the best theatrical performance by far for a very long time. It took place on a makeshift stage in my daughter’s primary school hall.  The actors and the spectators were roughly matched in numbers.   The show was prepared by the all-girls cast, all veteran members of year 5 and 6 after school drama club run by the one and only Tanya.

The play is called ‘The Boy Preference’. It is set sometime in the future. It vaguely resembles Lord of the Flies at times, and takes place in the world where for some reason girls are slowly becoming a thing of the past.  I believe that the play was not originally intended as a comedy, less so a parody of itself. But it worked brilliantly as both.

To an audience consisting entirely of dutiful parents and one baby brother, the play was utterly incomprehensible. It offered no explanation, no apology. It dropped us right in the middle of a scene between two girls pretending to be boys, acting out an argument in a very girlish manner. The confusion lingered on for 45 long minutes. There were moments of passionate expression, beautiful sulking, scarily convincing pre-teenage anger, and an excellent nerdy performance from Stephanie.
The best thing about the show, however, was how wrong it kept going most of the time, and how the 10 and 11 year old girls kept rescuing it again and again, all by themselves, with no help from the drama teacher.
Half of the girls forgot their lines. The ones who remembered theirs, seemed to be saying most of everybody else’s too. All this was being decided live on stage.
Most of the scenes were acted out in pairs. Alexia ended up saying most of Sherley’s lines for her, while Sherley just stood there looking terrified, you could almost hear stage fright crunching through her bones. At one point, a girl came on stage, sat down as per script, looked around, and then apparently nerves got the better of her, so she got up and left, without a word. Brilliant!  A while later Damola refused to come out so Kansola, her twin, improvised rather cleverly and said ‘my friend is too shy to come and play so please just talk to me’.
Taliyah and Emily had to resort to so much improvisation that at one point they went beyond one of Alexia and Sherley’s scenes. That was the only time that Tanya felt the need to intervene, and calmly suggested from the front row that Taliyah and Emily take that scene one more time. This time they said hardly anything, and hastily made room for Alexia and Sherley to do their bit. Alexia said most of the text again, with Sherley next to her, kneading her knuckles quite expertly by now.

Props were forgotten backstage only to be thrown onto the stage by helpful friends half way through a scene in which they were needed.  Ingenious, and totally spontaneous move. It all ended with Stephanie driving an invisible bulldozer, for no clear reason, grinning like a loon.  The dystopian vision of futuristic world without girls turned inadvertently into a gem of comic genius.
When it was all over and the applause died down, another parent stared at me blankly and asked in all seriousness if it was Shakespeare. It wasn’t. It was way better.

Changing lives word by word

Today, an extract from a court interpreter’s diary. The interpreter shall remain anonymous in the interest of justice or, as you often hear in our industry, to protect the guilty.

I saved this guy from prison today. As I took my seat on the top deck of 109 to Brixton, I smiled an amused pensive smile. On the great scale of things, the degree of influence I exerted over the order of universe this morning was negligible, but from the point of view of my client, Piotr, I was fairy godmother, Superwoman and Buffy rolled into one.

I arrived at court nice and early. Piotr was there already, young, nervous, fidgety and very Polish. His barrister was running late. I was watching him with semi-interest, sipping my Costa and flicking through the Metro absent-mindedly, pretending to be just about anybody else, except who I was, his interpreter. You see, sometimes I just don’t feel like making small talk with my client, all I want to do is my job, which is ‘facilitating communication between a member of criminal justice system and a non-English speaker’.  Piotr was being very popular with his friends and family in the meantime. He received numerous phone calls, all in Polish, which he was cutting short with ‘cool, thanks, still waiting, will do, bye’.  Half an hour later his barrister sashayed in, her robe flapping, wig slightly askew.  We found a quiet room and started the conference. As an interpreter I am thrown right in the middle of a drama series, a life changing mistake, a tragedy. I am trying to piece the full story together quickly from morsels of information.  This time there were two charges; a burglary and an attempted burglary, but, as the barrister explained, seen as a part of one continuous activity.  The victim assessed the value of stolen goods at £7,000 but the totality of items actually found on Piotr was one Michael Kors scarf. According to Piotr, he was very drunk at the time. He needn’t even have said that, this is always, but I mean always the case. He was walking along after a heavy night out, when he noticed an open door, so he went in, took a scarf and a handbag from the house, no, he really didn’t know why he took those items, and then he left. A few minutes later he panicked and threw away the handbag somewhere along the way. He might have had a cigarette while in the property, he couldn’t be sure now, what does it matter, anyway?
This was the downstairs flat, which, according to him, had already been broken into when he entered it. There was also an upstairs flat in the property, and the police believed that whoever broke to the downstairs flat, also attempted to break into the upstairs flat, but abandoned the project, having smashed the window and kicked the front door a couple of times. No other suspects were apprehended. Piotr was found not far from the property, detained, arrested, interviewed, charged with the burglary of the downstairs flat and attempted burglary of the upstairs flat, and then bailed to court.  He pleaded guilty to the burglary on a previous occasion, today was his PCMH (plea and case management hearing) in relation to the attempted burglary, which he was consistently denying. Well, actually, not exactly consistently. During police interview he lied, according to what he was saying today, and admitted both offences. He then changed his story and was now claiming that he had not gone near the upstairs flat at all.  Today the plan was to maintain the non-guilty plea to the attempted burglary charge and to confirm trial date later this month.

As the conference progressed and the barrister was completing the trial preparation form it became obvious that Piotr is not following the ins and outs of the court procedure, but he insisted that he was not going to plead guilty to the attempted burglary because he did not do it. The barrister was not advising for or against. She must have already resigned herself to losing the trial, as Piotr was likely to be found guilty by the jury. The lying to the police, or in any event changing the version of events from the police interview to the court hearing never looks good.
Piotr was only interested in one subject now. Is it definitely going to be a prison sentence if found guilty after the trial and how long for; the answers were most likely yes, and between 12 and 18 months. This news upset Piotr greatly. He welled up and was visibly shaken. Because you see, his brother is getting married in May, and this would mean missing the wedding, and they were very close with his brother, and the whole family was going to be there and … his voice broke, and tears flowed.  He didn’t care about anything else, but the date was set, the reception booked, invitations sent out, and it was going to be the highlight of his year and now he was going to miss it.  

We finished the conference, the barrister disappeared in the courtroom, and we stayed outside. Piotr resumed his fidgeting and his endless telephone conversations, I opened my book, happy to wait our turn for however long it took. We are paid by the hour you see.
But then something switched and the quiet reading went out of the window. I hate it when it happens. I try not to, but I knew I was getting involved, I kept thinking of this bloody May wedding and there was no use, I closed the book, let’s see what can be done.
I started talking to Piotr, casually at first. I asked him if he’d understood everything and whether he knew what his options were and blah blah blah. And then I had an idea, a possible solution, but I needed to steer him in the right direction and then make is seem that it was his idea all along. Interpreters are bound by rules of impartiality at all times, so we need to tread carefully.  I told him that sometimes (‘I had a similar case once in this court…’) it is possible to request of the judge to indicate whether they would give a defendant a prison sentence should he plead guilty to all charges on all facts on that day. I was tempted to show off and say that this approach was called asking for a Goodyear indication, taking its name from a name of a defendant in a case where it first came about, but I resisted. I further explained to him that he had nothing to lose, and if the judge said that he could not guarantee non-custodial sentence on full plea, then he could always maintain his original non-guilty plea and proceed to trial by jury.
Piotr was bought, I called the barrister and briefly summarised that Piotr was keen to find out whether he would be going to prison if he decided to plead guilty today. Oh, I see, the barrister said, this is called a Goodyear indication (duh) and even though it is not being practised as much as it used to, this case it actually a perfect candidate for it, as Piotr had already pleaded guilty to one charge. Leave it with me, let’s see what I can do. To cut the rest of the story short, the judge agreed to Goodyear, indicated that he would just about be able to suspended the sentence today, Piotr pleaded guilty to both charges, the prosecutor, taken aback by the turn of events did not have any input, and Piotr walked out with 12 months sentence, suspended for 2 years. Piotr wanted to hug me and worse, he kept thanking me, rather than the barrister, to the latter’s confusion, and he danced out of the court already on the phone to his brother telling him good news about the wedding.

How does the butterfly effect go? If only I’d packed the latest undownputtable Robert Galbraith yarn this morning and not David Cameron’s biography, Piotr would definitely be missing the wedding.  

Courtroom Drama Nitty-Gritty

Somewhere-in-London Crown Court, application to vacate plea hearing, time estimate half a day.

As usual I am the first to arrive and so I sit outside court 10 and wait. Three rather grumpy solicitors arrive together and plonk themselves beside me. What they say makes little sense, they seem rather nervous and keep flicking through pages and pages of typed up statements and handwritten notes. They ask me if I am the Polish interpreter in the case of Daniel so and so. Yes, I reply ready for a friendly chat, and ask them if they are their defence team. ‘Not any more’, hisses one of them, his barrister will be with you soon. Okay, then… Attempts at small talk abandoned, I wait on. Larger than life barrister arrives and we go to the cells to talk to Daniel. I have a vague recollection of dealing with both of them before on the day of his ineffective trial. As the conference progresses, it all comes back into focus. Daniel arrived in London 7 months ago. Three days later he managed to get lost in Brixton. Not having a bank account he carried all his money, several hundred pounds, in a wallet in his trouser pocket. He got on a bus and attempted to pay for his ticket taking out a £50 note from his wallet. The bus driver told him where to go.  He got off. He noticed that another man, who got on the bus just behind him had now hopped off too. This planted a suspicion in Daniel’s mind that the man intended to rob him. When the man then followed Daniel to another bus stop and, according to Daniel, brushed against him, it was confirmation enough and at this point he punched the man in the chest. A single punch, as he maintains. The other man fell to the ground and sustained multiple serious injuries, including fractured pelvis, fractured skull and brain haemorrhage. The victim turned out to be a severely autistic frail man. Daniel was arrested, interviewed and charged with section 18 and section 20 offences.  Which is industry jargon for GBH with intent and plain GBH respectively. On conviction the two short words ‘with intent’ can add 5 years to the prison sentence.

From the word go Daniel was being advised by a firm of solicitors that shall remain anonymous. A solicitor who assisted him during police interview advised him early on not to answer any questions. This confused Daniel who  was desperate to tell the police his version of event, which was that he punched this man in order to protect himself from being robbed. He maintained the same position throughout. He did not assault this man, did not attack him, he acted only to protect his property. He emphatically denied any intent to cause harm to the victim. He claimed the solicitors advised him that based on the extent of the victim’s injuries he should plead not guilty to section 18, but guilty to section 20. At court he followed their advice, adding a basis of plea. Basis of plea is a kind of ‘yes, but, no but’ approach. I admit the offence, but not quite, not all of it and I am generally a nice person. The basis of plea needs to be put in writing and offered to the prosecution. Most of the time a lawyer writes this up and the defendant agrees it and signs.

Sometimes, quite often actually, defence are able to make a deal with the prosecution and if the defendant pleads guilty to one offence, the prosecution are prepared to remove the more serious charge and proceed to sentence the defendant only on what they pleaded to. In our case the prosecution did not accept Daniel’s plea to section 20 on the basis and insisted on keeping section 18 offence on the indictment, so the trial date was set.
In the intervening months the solicitors visited Daniel in prison, went over details of the case with him and prepared his defence statement.

On the first day of trial his barrister went to the cells to say hello and to confirm the position.

Just to clarify, barristers often meet their clients for the first time on the day of trial. They are the big guns of justice complete with moth-ridden wigs and other intimidating props. The case is prepared by a firm of solicitors, who then assign the job of representing the defendant in court to a barrister.
Daniel repeated his mantra that he only pushed or punched this guy once to protect his wallet as he genuinely thought that the victim was about to rob him.

And this is when the brown stuff hit the fan. The barrister asked Daniel, ‘Just out of interest, why did you plead guilty to section 20 assault if you claim that you were acting in self-defence?’
Daniel shifted in his chair and said in a rather tired voice the line he had repeated endlessly in the recent months, that he did not assault anybody, he was just protecting his money. In the next twenty minutes the barrister patiently unravelled the case thread by thread and came up with new course of action for Daniel; sack your solicitors, as they did not give you correct advice on self-defence, waive the legal privilege in relation to the confidentiality of advice received, and then he, the barrister will make an application to the court to vacate the guilty plea to give Daniel an opportunity to enter a not guilty plea to section 20 as he believed he acted in self-defence.

That was two months ago and here we are today, the barrister reading himself for battle against Daniel’s previous solicitors. He is rearing to go, almost boyishly excited about the whole thing. He whispers to me, shaking his finger, you see the solicitors are pulling rank now, they all recently prepared statements claiming that they had fully advised Daniel on self-defence and the use of reasonable force. But they didn’t, you see! They didn’t! He literally jumps up and down.  None of them mentioned it in in their attendance notes from court or notes taken during any of several conferences they held with Daniel! I am sure of it!

We go into court. The judge makes his displeasure with the barrister’s application abundantly clear. The idea of putting a team of solicitors in a witness box so their professional judgement can be challenged by a defence counsel does not sit comfortably with him.

Daniel gives evidence first.

– What is your understanding of section 20 is and why did you plead guilty to it?
– I pleaded guilty because I did hit the man.
– Did your lawyers explain the concept of self-defence to you at any stage?
– No.
– Did they explain the concept of reasonable force at any stage?
– No.
– Do you accept that you assaulted the victim?
– No.
– Did you intend to cause him any harm?
– No.

We break for lunch. The solicitors outside view me with suspicion. Al a bit childish really.

In the afternoon the solicitors all give evidence. The barrister is grilling them on the lack of any reference to self-defence in any of their copious notes and documents prepared during all previous court hearings. He suggests that they did not advise Daniel properly in the case, and they denied him the option of running self-defence argument during his trial. They are all asked the same questions, all give more or less the same answers, which is that they did not see the need to write this up in the documentation but yes, they fully advised Daniel on self-defence, of course they did, as they always do. The judge clearly sides with the solicitors throughout. At some point he actually apologises for all the questions, and shouts at the barrister for trying to doubt the solicitors’ professional integrity. This part of the early afternoon courtroom drama makes for very uncomfortable viewing. I wish for a commercial break or two.
The judge announces his decision. He starts by telling the barrister off for accusing the solicitors of unprofessional conduct. It all seems a foregone conclusion until, in a twist worthy of an episode of Silk, the judge picks up the, half forgotten by now, basis of plea document and says, ‘there is however an ever so small criticism that can be extended to the content of this document, which makes it equivocal, and therefore I am obliged to give the defendant benefit of the doubt, small as it is, and so I allow the application to vacate previous guilty plea’. Jaws drop, eyes open wide, silence in the courtroom.

Daniel gave up listening to the proceedings about an hour ago. I nudge him and repeat the result of today’s hearing. He stares at me blankly. All of this overwhelms him. He responds to being re-arraigned in a daze. A new trial date is set and we wrap up for the day.  Daniel’s exhaustion rubs off on me.

The barrister catches up with me outside. His excitement unabated, he rambles incessantly, giving his interpretation of today’s events; you see, judges don’t like exposing solicitors as incompetent, so he picked a totally inconsequential argument, limiting his criticism of their action to the drafting of one document, because he wasn’t going in a million years agree with me even though it was obvious he agreed with me, blah blah blah. I began to drift. It’s been a long day.

So, anyway, what I meant to say is, I love my job and one way or another, I have hardly ever a dull moment at court. Too drained to think of a better punchline.