Simon Parke: Trial by appearance

12 January 2011

“WHEN I heard he had been arrested, my mind immediately switched back to his lessons, and that poem — because I always associated it with him.”

As I write, the tragic murder of Joanna Yeates remains unsolved. CCTV images recorded her last known steps on the night of 17 December, from Waitrose to Bargain Booze, and then to Tesco. In the post-Christmas news void, the case attracted much media at­tention, and, with the arrest of her landlord, Chris Jefferies, one and all leapt into a netherworld of supposi­tion.

He was a former teacher at a £28,000-a-year public school, Clifton College (suspicious in itself was the implication), although the head­master was quick to tell us that Mr Jefferies had “a clean teaching record”.

But that was never going to stem the conjecture. Soon, the newspapers were referring to him as a “wild-haired eccentric”, while neighbours told us that “he kept himself to himself”, which, for many, is almost certain proof of guilt in such cases.

Friends of mine were quick to remark on his “dodgy eyes”. But it was his ex-pupils who were given the most free rein. One in particular recalled that Mr Jefferies’s favourite poem was “the story of a man who was hanged for killing his wife”.

This, at least, was how the news­paper set it up, but the reality turns out to be less disturbing. “He was obsessed by Oscar Wilde,” said the ex-pupil whose words open this column. “His favourite poem by Wilde was The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Here is Wilde at his sad and moral best, surely? But his love of the poem apparently left some students with “the creeps”.

The Contempt of Court Act res­tricts publication of information that could seriously prejudice a future trial, and so it was not sur­prising when, on the sixth day of Christmas, the Attorney General voiced his fears about this informal trial by gossip.

Then, on the seventh day of Christmas, Mr Jefferies was released on police bail, and police began to talk of the strangler’s still being at large. Suddenly, it all seemed a little em­barrassing that people had con­demned a man on the basis of his unsatisfac­tory hair.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a meditation on the tragic con­sequences of our human tendency to kill the thing we love, and contains frequent echoes of Calvary. Whether it is in ourselves or in others, an as­pect of life is deemed unacceptable and duly killed and buried by the side of the road — or in our psychological undergrowth. The police pursue those who murder with their hands; but the ego is ever free for killing conjecture and gossip.

Simon Parke is the author of One-Minute Mindfulness (Hay House, £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-1-848-50269-7).

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