Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Sheffield's trees: a maze worthy of Kafka

Have you been following the scandal that I like to think of as Sheffield-street-tree-gate? No? You don’t know what you’re missing.

Let me start by giving a little background. This may seem a bit of a roundabout way of setting the context, but bear with me – it will make sense in time.

It’s his novel The Trial that made an adjective, Kafkaesque, out of Kafka’s name. In it, the protagonist K (and, no, the choice of that single letter is unlikely to be mere coincidence) comes under investigation for a crime without ever being told what it is. And yet, even if he doesn’t know what crime he’s accused of, he somehow knows that he’s guilty – a neat way of expressing the universal sense of guilt, over the harm that each of us has somehow done. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his contemporary Oscar Wilde said “each man kills the thing he loves.”

As any of us would, K does try to deny his guilt. But the policemen who arrest him make it clear there’s no point:

”Our authorities, as far as I know, and I only know the lowest grades, don’t go out looking for guilt among the public; it’s the guilt that draw them out, like it says in the law, and they have to send us police officers out. That’s the law. Where do you think there’d be any mistake there?”

“I don’t know this law,” said K.

“So much the worse for you, then,” said the policeman.

Near the end, K explains his predicament to a priest.

“But I’m not guilty,” said K. “there’s been a mistake. How is it even possible for someone to be guilty? We’re all human beings here, one like the other.”

“That is true,” said the priest, “but that is how the guilty speak.” 

Kafka's Trial: a vortex that sucks us in and grinds us down
The Sheffield street-tree scandal concerns the activity of a private company, Amey’s, that has been contracted by Sheffield City Council to look after its trees. It has started by felling a number of them, and in one particularly notorious incident, showed up at 5:00 in the morning, demanding that residents move their cars or have them crushed by falling trees. Two women aged 71 and 70 found themselves arrested for the first time in their lives when they tried to prevent the felling, prompting protests from Nick Clegg, the local MP, who denounced “scenes you’d expect in Putin’s Russia.” I suppose that, given the President Elect’s admiration for Vladimir, one might be tempted to add “or Trump’s America”.

This is the same Clegg who, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, made a pact with the devil by entering a coalition with the Tories. That kept David Cameron in power for five years with nothing achieved for himself but the reduction of his parliamentary presence from 62 to 8. 

But I digress. 

The Save Sheffield’s Trees group told the Guardian that if Ameys people “blitz the city’s trees in the first five years of their 25-year contract, they can spend the next 20 years with much lower maintenance costs”. I suppose some will see that view as unduly cynical. Not implausible, though, is it?

Another person arrested over the battle of the city’s trees is a Green Party member, Simon Crump. He apparently was held by the police for eight hours, but he believes it took that long because the police simply couldn’t find the right charge to bring against him in their computer.

“It was quite Kafkaesque,” he informed Helen Pidd of the Guardian. “I was being imprisoned because they couldn’t work out what to charge me with.”

He’s right. And no doubt, whatever it was the police thought he’d done, he was guilty as charged. 

Kafka would have been proud.

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