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My Arts: Michael Mansfield QC

The radical lawyer, who has worked on some of Britain's most famous court cases, briefs Angie Sammons ahead of his appearance in Liverpool next week

Written by . Published on March 22nd 2010.

My Arts: Michael Mansfield QC

A REPUBLICAN, vegetarian, and socialist, Michael Mansfield QC's illustrious list of cases and trials reads like a history of the judicial system.

As well as representing those wrongly convicted of the IRA's Guildford and Birmingham pub bombings, Mansfield, 69, has represented Brian Keenan; James Hanratty (in posthumous appeals); those involved in the Israeli Embassy bombing; Stephen Lawrence's family; Michael Barrymore at the Stuart Lubbock inquest; Barry George at the inquest into the death of Jill Dando; the Bloody Sunday families; Arthur Scargill; Angela Cannings; Fatmir Limaj, a Kosovo-Albanian leader prosecuted in The Hague; Mohamed al-Fayed in the inquest into the deaths of his son, Dodi al-Fayed, and Diana, Princess of Wales; and the family of Jean Charles de Menezes.

What are your feelings on the age of criminal responsibility debate currently in the news?
Having a cut-off age is arbitrary. I think there has got to be a much more flexible approach. This applies to almost any age actually, there are some people of the age of 10 who do have a sense of what is right and what is wrong, and it seems to be difficult to conceive of young people, or people of any age, who don't really recognise that killing, extinguishing life, is something that is abhorrent. And that goes for treading on a bird right the way through to killing a person.

You have to be a Banksy in the law court situation, bring a bit of street art into it so that people can see you are being vaguely relevant

However it is possible, that some even at a much older age than 10, some may not have that sensibility because of the conditions in which they have been brought up. In other words they have been anaesthetised to violence. I don't want to sound like Mary Whitehouse - but the media does not help, in terms of preconditioning. In particular I find the cultural output – and I'm thinking of films in particular – contributes to that dulling of the senses.

Entertainment has become thrills and spills and horror, you say?

I am pretty horrified by the level at which it is OK. The example I use quite a bit is the film Slumdog Millionaire. I speak to all the people who rave about it and I say “What was the opening sequence?” and nobody can remember. It was actually of a child being tortured. It may be like real life but I don't think this is the way you entertain people with scenes of torture. The idea that this is the way you shock people into wanting...what? Wanting more of the same or less of the same, I don't know.

I realise they will say we are only replicating what is going on in the world, well sure, but on the other hand what we should be trying to do is overcome that. The more you portray it as acceptable then that's what it becomes. It's what the Americans are doing now. They say it's OK to torture, as part of their policy.

So going back to your question, you would have to look on it on a case by case basis. It depends on the individual. I wouldn't like to say that somebody of the age of 10 can't, in principle, be held responsible. Whether you should say it's different at 12, or 11, or 10 or 13, I don't think you should approach it that way.

Last week the Children's Commissioner was talking of raising the age. You don't think that's appropriate?
I sympathise with why she wants to do it, but to specify an age is a hostage to fortune.

Do you take any case on, or do you choose or reject cases on a matter of personal principle?he short answer is that I don't choose. The selection process is done at the other end, and of course I can turn stuff down but normally that would only happen if I was too busy. Obviously there are cases I would prefer not to do and they don't come to me. Because those people or cases realise that sympathetically I'm not there. I don't think a member of the BNP would rush off to hire me.

Or a member of the hunting lobby perhaps.
Well quite.

What are your top three albums of all time?'m cheating a bit because my top album is really four volumes. Blue Note 50th Anniversary Collection, and it's a history of everything I love in jazz. The next one down is one you will never have heard of called GRP Super in Concert. It's jazz fusion. Chick Corea, Lee Ritenour, who as a guitarist I love.

Sting did a fantastic album, All This Time, a live concert in Italy, which took place on 9/11. I mustn't forget Ella Fitzgerald's Collected Works either.

What was the first record that you bought?
Benny Goodman's One O'Clock Jump. I was somewhere between nine and 12. He was extraordinarily proficient because he played classical clarinet before turning his hand to jazz.

I had you down as a jazz man.
Yes, I am a member of the 606 Club, which is the oldest jazz club in London after Ronnie Scotts.

What was the first live gig that you went to?
You'll laugh at this. As a child/adolescent I never went to gigs. Pop music didn't feature in my life until much later. So the first one I went to, which blew me away completely was Pink Floyd's The Wall at Earls Court in 1980. I knew the drummer because our children were at school together and he invited me. I saw it three times.

What about non pop?
I used to go to the Proms a lot as a teenager. I would go with friends who knew far more about classical music than I did and they would talk me through what I was listening to. refused to go to the Last Night of the Proms because it seemed to me so jingoistic.

The concert I remember most was the Halle Orchestra in the Potteries performing Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. All very popular stuff but their version was simply brilliant. Every time I hear it, it's shivers up the spine, tears to the eyes stuff. I can't stop feeling totally emotional.

And so I came to prefer live music to listening to records to be honest. It has to be live, right there, overwhelming you and embracing you.

And the last concert?
A jazz guitarist called Antonio Fortuoni. at the Edinburgh Music Festival. I have got to know him and have followed his career since he arrived in England. He is an extraordinary person.

Did you pay to get in? And if not, why not?
I did. Although I could have got in for nothing, but I said to him, look, musicians are living on next to nothing anyway.

What tune is running around your head at the moment.
Unforgettable by Nat King Cole. Lots of other people have tried, but they have never got near his recording of it. And I just avoid all karaokes where people are doing it. Terrible.

You wouldn't be persuaded to take part in a karaoke then?
No, no. Murderous! I'd have to be well pissed to do it. And even then I wouldn't. I can't believe people want to do it.

Does music help you to think when you are working?
No, it would interrupt. I would go off on one. It's either there because it's got something to say to you or it doesn't happen at all. I don't see it as wallpaper.

You are a lover of lyrics then, rather than merely an absorber of melody?
It's got to be lyrics. That's why I loathe music in supermarkets and restaurants, trains, planes...for God's sake! What do they think we are? That we can't live in silence? For five minutes, or hear each other speak?

What newspapers/magazines do you read?
A cross section of newspapers, Guardian, Independent and the Times and Telegraph, particularly the Telegraph which has another take on things, not that I necessarily agree with it. Red Pepper magazine which is an independent Left subscription magazine dealing with all sorts of international issues. And Socialist Lawyer. Occasionally Time Out and Big Issue and Private Eye – for the covers.

What word do you most like the sound of?

Oh lovely. You say it so elegantly as well.
It communicates exactly what it is. The English language is incredible for many reasons, but foreign languages have words which have more passion, particularly, the French, Italian and Spanish. Aficionado...I mean there you go.

Which websites do you visit most often?
None. We are living in a screen culture, I abhor it. Wherever I go, people are either looking at their mobiles, or laptops. We are fast approaching a situation where the only way in which we communicate or learn information is through a screen. If I'm desperate, I can say to someone, “Can you google me this?” but I do live without it pretty well.

Who or what do you listen to on the radio?
Radio 4. Some of the current affairs programmes are becoming a bit stale, the usual talking heads. Similarly on television it has become celebrity driven. I'm getting mildly bored with all that. But comedy is undoubtedly the thing that keeps me alive. I used to love Humphrey Lyttleton. Jeremy Hardy is brilliant and political, and Sandi Toksvig. Anything that those three are on – well one of them is dead – I listen to.

Would you have fancied a career as a stand-up comic?
Too difficult. That's why I don't do after dinner speeches. I can tell stories and build an anecdote, but I don't do jokes.

Addressing a courtroom, particularly in some of the bigger showpiece hearings you have been involved in, must have presented similar challenges
Yes, it has. But after 40 years, I have now worked out what the parameters are. I can work humour into it to liven it up, otherwise it's extremely dull. People go off to sleep. You have to be a Banksy in the law court situation, bring a bit of street art into it so that people can see you are being vaguely relevant.

You have six children and they mostly work in music
Yes, aged from 42 down to 22. One for the BBC, another for an independent record label and so on. They know much more about music than I do.

None of them wanted to follow the old man into the wig and robes then?
Oh God no. I think they respect what I do, but they know it possesses your life. The law is like that. I hope they haven't, but I feel in a way they might have paid a bit of a penalty for the fact that I've been there less. But I told them, I don't care what you do in life, but you've got to be passionate about it.

Watch much TV?
Not really these days. Every other programme is about cooking. Sophie Dahl is about to do one. Do we really need another one? Then there was dancing - strictly, on ice, in wheelchairs. They get something and they flog it to death. I absolutely loath these shows where you vote people off all the time.

Top film ever?
Yves Montand in both State of Siege and Z. They are both about individuals taking on the search for justice. They are in a similar vein to The Insider, Missing, Erin Brockovich. You can see where I'm going with this, can't you?

What book in childhood made the biggest impression on you?
The Just William books. I read every single one. He was brilliant. Maverick, renegade, socks around his ankles. Undermined all the conventions of middle class England. For me, he was a release from it.

What's your current book at bedtime?
I'm lazy. I listen to Book at Bedtime. Print has become an anathema. I do so much speed reading at work that it's very difficult to do leisure reading. Sometimes I go to the end of the book to see where I am heading. The most recent book was Alan Bennett's The Uncommon Reader which I thought was brilliant. And short.

Do you go to the theatre and what did you last see?
The Power of Yes at the South Bank. I am also hoping, in Liverpool, to see my friend Barry Rutter's company Northern Broadsides in The Canterbury Tales. I have to say that Barry Rutter opened my eyes. I really didn't like Shakespeare but then when I saw their shows I suddenly knew what it was all about. So a big thank you to them.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Spike Milligan. A complete genius. There isn't anyone who has the inventive political humour that he had.

What single work of art do you find the most moving?
The Girl with Pearl Earring. I bought a print, but when I saw the vibrancy of the original in The Hague, I realised why. I liked the film with Colin Firth too. It had a pace to it. It encapsulated what the picture was about. Unusual relationships, oppression, social difficulties, unexpressed love...Everything was there.

Which public figure (living or dead) do you most admire?
Bertrand Russell because I did a philosophy degree. His History of Western Philosophy is a masterpiece and I like the fact that he was a liberal peacemaker. Another dead one is Edward Saeed who was also concerned with the Middle East and I am very, very angry about Israel and their treatment of the Palestinians. When I come to Liverpool, for my Rebel Rant, they do not know what I am going to be talking about. But I can tell you now that I am afraid it's going to be the Palestinians' plight.

On the living side, the Canadian author Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky.

What is your favourite piece of architecture?
The Millau Viaduct in the Languedoc. It's a huge stretch. Instead of being overwhelming, it is very delicate. Like a piece of web. I look forward to seeing it as I come around the corner of a mountain and when you drive across it it is like flying.

Least favourite?
Elephant and Castle Shopping precinct ought to be flattened. I did the Lawrence Inquiry in there so I know the inside, but the outside ...they keep trying to paint it a different colour thinking that someone will love it. Town planners don't seem to realise that space would be a help sometimes. To see wonderful vistas, a bit of sky.

Know any good jokes?
What do you call 200 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean?

Don't know
A start.

*A 'Rebel Rant' with Michael Mansfield QC, Thursday March 25, is part of the Writing on the Wall series of events, at The Arts Centre, Liverpool Community College, Myrtle Street, Liverpool 7. Tickets £8/£5 concs from the Philharmonic Hall box office. See here for more info.

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Pop-PickerMarch 18th 2010.

Not the Director of 'Top of the Pops' then?

Z CarsMarch 18th 2010.

Cracking interview. Shall look forward to next week, having just booked tickets.

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