Updated: Sep 11, 2019
A late Nazi leader’s son once said to me: ‘My wife and daughter left me this morning, and I feel a little strange.’ (At the time he was trying to atone for his father’s enormous crimes by restoring an Eighteenth Century Austrian castle from its state of utter ruin, room by room. He’d completed two, and had another seventy-eight to go.) Talking of crime, the most genteel cocktail party I ever attended was full of mass murderers, in a maximum security prison. Aunt Julia took me there because it was one of her regular haunts as a prison visitor. I was handed a glass of medium sweet sherry by a man who’d beheaded two wives, and accepted a cheese puff from a handsome youth who garrotted people on a fairly regular basis in Sunbury-on-Thames. It was a charming evening, and the inmates were ideal hosts until they discovered that one of their own number had been stealing from them. ‘What a fucking nerve,’ said a tiny serial killer with a facial tick. ‘Fancy nicking from us,’ said a fat bloke who’d shot and dismembered his parents. Later I learned that they chopped off the thief’s fingers that night and made him eat them in an over-sized vol au vent left over from the cocktail party. The experience gave me a new take on crime and punishment, which played out next day in the magistrates’ court, where I went as a reporter. In the witness stand was O’Bannion – an army squaddie in a mess: he had a black eye and a cut on his face, and one of his teeth was loose. A pathetic sight, made all the more pathetic because he was so small and helpless-looking – a full-on victim. The head magistrate wore a large hat and a lot of lipstick, some of which had smeared across the top of her upper lip. Army-friendly, I guessed, until I saw her blanching at the sight of O’Bannion. She actually groaned when he failed for the third time to read the oath, and made the usher lead him through it word by word. For his part, the usher looked like he was dying to get down to the pub. ‘Now just tell us in your own time,’ said the prosecutor, as the magistrate groaned again, ‘what happened at the Pak Wook Chinese restaurant on the night of the 22nd of March.’ ‘Well…’ An agonising pause. ‘Yes, Private O’Bannion, go on.’ ‘Well…’ For ten minutes O’Bannion struggled through the four or five sentences making up the core of his evidence. He and three other squaddies had been eating a meal. Sweet and sour pork, chicken with cashew nuts, beef chop suey, prawn crackers: all their favourites. They were having a really good time when, for no reason, the waiter Lin Fu had charged up to their table and thumped O’Bannion in the face. Looking around the courtroom I noticed that the shorthand writer, hardly pressed by O’Bannion’s tortoise-like delivery, was secretly reading the Daily Telegraph. The usher had nodded off and the custody officer appeared to be in a sort of trance, gazing into a corner of the ceiling. I stared at this Lin Fu character, who was sitting very still in the dock. Dignified: sad and serene at the same time. A bit like a statue of the Buddha: one of the thin Indian ones, not the fat Chinese sort, Bodai. He was miles away, gazing into the desk in front of him or beyond it into the abyss, the old existential void. Who knows? Then it was the turn of the defence lawyer. Smarmy little git. A bit hunch-shouldered, pair of glasses, a superior look. ‘Now then, Private O’Bannion,’ he smarmed, ‘you say this was an unprovoked attack?’ ‘Yes, sir,’ mumbled O’Bannion. ‘Would you like to tell the court exactly what you had been saying to the defendant just before this unprovoked assault on you took place?’ ‘I don’t really remember,’ said O’Bannion. He looked more pathetic than ever. ‘Well, let me help you. Did you ask Mr Fu if he had a sister?’ O’Bannion shifted uneasily in the witness stand. ‘I may have done. I’m not sure.’ ‘Then let me help you again. Did you say to the defendant, “Hey, Chinkie, have you got a sister out in the kitchen? Would she like to come in here and pick up the five-pound note I’ve just nailed to the floor?”’ O’Bannion attempted a pathetic grin to placate the head magistrate who groaned and adjusted her hat. It was the kind of ghastly smile a dog gives when it realises you’ve just watched it eat the family lunch. A stream of fellow diners and waiters attested to the appalling behaviour of O’Bannion and the other squaddies. The pitiful thing was that O’Bannion had been happy that night. Dinner at the Pak Wook with three dreadful friends was the high point of his month, even his year. O’Bannion, the wet little misfit whose ragged parents had dragged him over to England from Limerick as a boy. This O’Bannion, against all the odds, had enjoyed a night out in a third rate Chinese restaurant in a provincial garrison town. He’d shown off to curry favour with the other three brutes. He would have mumbled something about it to his parents when he spoke to them on the telephone next day: ‘Lovely night out with the lads. Great crack...’ And not a clue about what the evening meant to Lin Fu. The magistrate adjusted her hat and moved her scarlet lips before offering the defendant a bright red smile. ‘Mr Fu, would you like to give your evidence now?’ He was dignity itself. Under careful guidance from the smarmy solicitor we learned that respect for sisters is essential in Chinese culture, and that there’s no greater crime known to humanity than insulting someone’s sister. The three magistrates scowled at O’Bannion in unison before retiring to consider their verdict for all of two minutes, disturbing the usher’s sleep in the process. On their return they glared at O’Bannion. ‘Mr Fu,’ said the head magistrate, who had added more lipstick during the two-minute recess, ‘you were clearly subjected to the most appalling and excessive amount of provocation on the night of the 22nd of March – and, though we are bound to find you guilty of the charge, we intend to impose the most lenient sentence allowed us. We’re giving you an absolute discharge and send you from this court with no stain whatever against your admirable and unblemished character, as well as the bench’s very best wishes. You are free to go.’ Lin Fu bowed and left the dock with great dignity. The custody officer smiled and shook his hand, the usher woke up and the shorthand writer started reading the Daily Telegraph again. I headed to the Pak Wook for a late lunch. I was curious about the sister.