‘A butterfly on a wheel’

laingThe phrase ‘A butterfly upon a wheel’ was used in originated in piece of writing by Alexander Pope in the Eighteenth Century, but was popularised by Sir William Rees-Mogg in a Times editorial in July 1967 in which he railed against the jailing of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on a drugs charge.

His piece finished with “If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr. Jagger is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr. Jagger received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.”

And so we fast forward 42 years to the story of Philip Laing, a 19 year old Sports Science student from Sheffield Hallam University who was incredibly daft in two ways; he urinated on a wreath on a war memorial, and was photographed doing it. 

My own view on his behaviour is that it was absolutely disgraceful; whether he deliberately set out to urinate on a wreath is a debatable point; I have no idea one way or another – but the bottom line is he committed a profane act on sacred ground, something frowned upon in all civilised society since Ugg the caveman decided to bury the body of his best friend rather than leave it for the vultures.

There is no excuse; there’s no excuse for using any street as a toilet, and to be honest he or his friends colleagues (one of which was obviously sober enough to take a photo) should have known, even in a drunken state, that there are certain places you don’t pass water on. 

Enough – I can go on for a long time about the fact that to me it’s desecration of the memory of the dead, and that the chap should be punished. 

What the punishment IS, however, is the point of this piece.   In the last few weeks I’ve seen some serious vitriol poured out about this young man on the two local forums here in Sheffield and on Facebook.  Indeed, I was told to ‘get a life’ because I dared to suggest that any form of urination in public for an adult is inappropriate.  I’ve seen people suggest that guy should be tortured, executed, thrown out of college.   I had the feeling that were it possible, his lands would be ploughed with salt, his house reduced to ashes (and then ploughed in as well), a sign saying ‘the glory is departed’ hung over the wreckage and he and his line cursed unto the Seventh Generation.

The judge at his trial yesterday said that a prison sentence is a possibility.  OK folks…STOP!

Isn’t this all getting out of hand?  If he’s jailed, will South Yorkshire Police be expected to arrest any drunken oik who urinates in the street with a possible result that the drunk ends up filling up a prison cell likely to be needed for a more serious crime?  Despite the emotions raised here, we do not have a crime of desecration in English Law.  For example – grave robbery tends to be treated as a particularly unpleasant form of theft, breaking headstones as vandalism or, in some cases, racially aggravated crimes. The closest we have in terms of a law that applies to this sort of thing is the Military Remains Act that covers war graves – that’s typically used to stop folks looting sunken ships and other designated ‘war graves’ for souvenirs and such.  No matter how deplorable and ill-advised his behaviour, this youth committed an act of vandalism on the wreath, and a public order offence. 

What might be appropriate?  Send him down from University for 3 years; have him pay a suitable fine and then have him spend some time cleaning our war memorials.  Appropriate punishment, I feel.

And perhaps, whilst we’re at it, we might invite the the company who organised the event to make a contribution from their profits to the British Legion as an apology. 

Oh…and whilst we’re at it…perhaps determine whether such events should require special licensing permission from the City Council?

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