Persons Unknown


The action in which Mr Gordon Frampton sought to recover damages for 'opportunities denied to him between the 14th March 1954 and the present day' came before Mr Justice Sowerby this week, and got off to a stumbling start. Sowerby professed from the outset that he had no real inkling of what the case was about, and his first act was to request that the petitioner's solicitor, a Mr Salvador Collingwood, should elucidate.

"Your honour, members of the public and of the assembled press," Mr Collingwood began, striking what he considered to be a legal pose. "You see before you a man whom life has treated most cruelly. In the fifty years and more that he has walked this earth, my client, Mr Frampton, has been prevented from fulfilling his potential by diverse unfair practices and circumstances. Look at him, ladies and gentlemen. Look at him."

Sowerby: We are looking at him, Mr Collingwood. We are looking at him most keenly, but we have yet to learn why we are looking at him. Please get to the point.

Collingwood: Your honour, I am merely attempting to demonstrate how wretched and hopeless this man is. So wretched and hopeless, in fact, that upon our first meeting I very nearly tossed him out onto the street before he could even produce his chequebook.

Sowerby: That's as maybe, but unless your client has hired you expressly for the purpose of having you publicly humiliate him, I have yet to ascertain his reason for bringing this action. What has the 14th March 1954 got to do with it?

Collingwood: The date my client was born, your honour. From that day to this, my client has struggled to make his way in the world and met with only disappointment and failure. He believes that he has been treated unfairly and is seeking restitution.

Sowerby: I see. Be seated Mr Collingwood, you're standing in my light. I will now hear from the respondent... The respondent, please... Is the respondent in court?"

After a moment or two of deathly silence, and a smattering of nervous shuffling, Mr Grampion, the clerk of the court, approached the bench and whispered in Mr Justice Sowerby's ear. Mr Justice Sowerby looked grim and sat back in his chair. After a second or two of thoughtful contemplation, he requested that Mr Collingwood rise again.

Sowerby: I understand that there is no respondent?

Collingwood: That's right, your honour.


Sowerby: I see, I see... Mr Collingwood, I cannot say that I have ever heard of a compensation case in which a defendant was not deemed necessary. And I'm a judge, you would expect me to notice when a defendant remains conspicuous by his absence. I'm noticing it now, and I must admit it's a first. Please explain.

Collingwood: Mr Frampton is seeking damages against persons unknown.

Sowerby: Persons unknown? Persons unknown? Who are these persons unknown?

Collingwood: We do not know, your honour.

Sowerby: I see. Or rather, I don't. Am I to understand that these persons, despite remaining elusive, have nevertheless had such a tangible effect on your client that he is now seeking damages? I have never used the expression 'arrant nonsense' before, but I am starting to believe that this would be an appropriate occasion to give it a bash.

Collingwood: Your honour, I -

Sowerby: No, I don't want to hear from you any more, you're talking rubbish. I will hear from your client. Where is he? There. Well, what have you to say of this matter? Stand up, man.

Collingwood: He is standing up, your honour.

Sowerby: I thought I instructed you to button it? Now then, Mr Frampton, what is all this about?

Frampton: Well, your honour, it's like this. I never had much of a start in life, and opportunities have passed me by. When you see all these flash blokes wandering round in their expensive suits, and driving shiny sports cars (I expect you've got a nice motor, yourself, haven't you, your honour?) well, it makes you think "Where's mine?" How come life hasn't treated me so well? So I reckon that it's only fair that I get some sort of compensation.

Sowerby: And who do you think should compensate you, Mr Frampton? Who has wronged you?

Frampton: Well, I dunno really. It's just life in general, isn't it? It's all down to circumstance - I'm a victim of fate.

Sowerby: And you have our sympathy, but we can't very well put fate in the witness box, can we? Not unless you have an address where we can serve papers. Who, Mr Frampton, is to blame?

Sowerby: Well, it's the system, isn't it?

Collingwood: I think what my client is trying to say -

Sowerby: Your mouth is flapping again, Mr Collingwood. I thought I had already warned you about that?

Collingwood: Sorry, your honour.

Sowerby: Clearly something has gone wrong here. This case should never have reached court - or at least, it should never have come before me. We will adjourn for today, but please inform your client, Mr Collingwood, that when we reconvene tomorrow, I shall expect to see a defendant take the stand. Court dismissed!

Day two of the case of Frampton vs Persons Unknown began, somewhat chaotically, with a procession of brown-coated gentlemen dragging various battered and corroded pieces of machinery through the courtroom and arranging them in a pleasing display in the dock. Mr Justice Sowerby looked upon their efforts with much puzzlement. When they withdrew, he motioned Mr Collingwood to approach the bench. "I hope you have a very, very good reason for all this," he said softly, then shooed him away and brought the court to order.

Sowerby: Settle down, there's lovely! It is to be hoped that we are going to make a little more progress in this matter than we did yesterday, although I have to admit that my hopes are not high. Mr Collingwood, there is an elephant in this room, and I think we had better deal with it as promptly as possible. Why have you filled my court with scrap metal?

Collingwood: Your honour, this is the defendant.

Sowerby: I had a horrible premonition that you were going to say that.

Collingwood: As my client mentioned yesterday, he blames the system for his misfortunes. I have therefore arranged for the system to be brought into court to face these allegations.

Sowerby: And this... this rusted and bent pile of metal... This is 'the system', is it?

Collingwood: It is, your honour. Well, if it's not the system, it's certainly a system. To be precise, it's a Robinson-Whitley R406-T industrial grade air conditioning system. Or at least, those parts of it that we recovered from a skip on a nearby demolition site.

Sowerby: And this is the system which your client believes has seriously disadvantaged him, and from which he seeks remuneration?

Collingwood: We believe that this is as good as we're going to get, your honour.

Sowerby: Mr Collingwood, are you sure you're quite sane?

Collingwood: No, your honour.

Sowerby: I'm beginning to entertain similar notions myself. Still, we're here now so we may as well crack on with it. Mr Grampion, you had better read the defendant the charges.

Grampion: But how do I...?

Sowerby: Oh come, come. I don't need to instruct the clerk of the court on how to do his job. After all, you don't tell me how to bang my hammer.

Grampion: Oh... right... well... Ahem, Mr Robinson-Whitley R406-T, you are hereby charged that on or about the period between 14th March 1954 and the present day, you made repeated and concerted efforts to prevent Mr Gordon Frampton of reaching his full potential. How do you plead?

Sowerby: Hang on! Hang on! What's this?

Grampion: What's what, your honour?

Sowerby: What kind of a charge is that? Bit vague isn't it. No, no, no, it won't do at all. Will the plaintiff please approach the bench.

Collingwood: Your honour, I -

Sowerby: Oh sit down, Collingwood. I called for the organ grinder, not his monkey. Mr Frampton, step up to the oche.

Frampton: Yes, your honour. Nice day, your honour.


Sowerby: Why the sudden interest in meteorology?

Frampton: Just making conversation.

Sowerby: Well don't, this isn't a coffee morning. Now what's all this stuff about not reaching your full potential? We can't possibly proceed with that woolly nonsense. Can you be a little more specific?

Frampton: Well, it's stuff, isn't it? I've been hard done by.

Sowerby: That's no better, is it? Can you give me an example?

Frampton: Yeah. Probably. I never got anywhere in life, did I? Listen, every week I spend a quid on the lottery, and I've not won once. Didn't even get my quid back.

Sowerby: Do I take it that you wish to seek damages from this air conditioning system for your failure to win the lottery?

Frampton: Yeah. Can I do that?

Collingwood: Your honour, I think what my client -

Sowerby: Seriously Collingwood, you are going to get a belt in the mouth if you speak out of turn again. Now here's what we're going to do - I'm going to adjourn for an hour to give you and your client time to come up with something. And it better be good, because I'm missing the cricket for this. Adjourned.

Reconvening in the afternoon, Mr Grampion, the long suffering clerk of the court, found himself the centre of intense scrutiny as he cleared his throat and prepared to read the charges.

Grampion: Mr Robinson-Whitley R406-T, you are hereby charged that on various occasions on or after 14th March 1954 you did wilfully prevent Mr Gordon Frampton from winning the football pools. Secondly, you did deny him the opportunity of fulfilling his ambition of becoming a brain surgeon, by making the exams really hard. Thirdly, you were instrumental in arranging that his wife should run off with the window cleaner... Your honour there are one hundred and twenty similar counts, do you want me to...?

Sowerby: No, no, good grief no, I don't think I could stand it. We'll take the others as read. How does the defendant plead?

Grampion: Mr Robinson-Whitley R406-T, how do you plead?

Robinson-Whitley R406-T: ...

Grampion: I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch that.

Robinson-Whitley R406-T: ...

Grampion: Your honour, the defendant refuses to enter a plea. I fear its lack of sentience may prove to be a problem.

Sowerby: That's not something that presents much of an obstacle for most of the people who appear before me. Let's give it the benefit of the doubt and assume it pleads not guilty. It has an honest face. Mr Collingwood, you're up. Keep it brief.

Collingwood: Thank you, your honour. Now then, Mr so-called Robinson-Whitley R406-T - all that stuff that was read out... Did you do it?

Robinson-Whitley R406-T: ...

Collingwood: I repeat: did you do all that stuff, and that?

Robinson-Whitley R406-T: ...

Collingwood: Your silence speaks volumes. That concludes the case for the prosecution.

Sowerby: My word, that was brief.

Collingwood: Thank y-

Sowerby: No, don't spoil it. We will now hear from the defendant's counsel. Or would that be too much to ask?

Grampion: I don't believe that the defendant is represented, your honour.

Sowerby: And why not?

Grampion: Because it is an air conditioning unit, your honour.

Sowerby: Good point, have a biscuit. Now, what I suggest is that -

(At this point a man in the public gallery, a Mr Winkle, stood up to volunteer his services)

Winkle: Your honour, I will gladly represent the defendant.

Sowerby: What? Where? Who said that?

Collingwood: Up in the gallery, your honour.

Sowerby: Good grief, I didn't see all those people up there. How long have they been letting them in? So, err, Mr...?

Winkle: Winkle, your worship. Sammy Winkle.

Sowerby: Mr Winkle, yes. And are you a solicitor, Mr Winkle?

Winkle: No, my lord, I'm a bricklayer.

Sowerby: A bricklayer, jolly good. Is that anything like being a solicitor?

Winkle: Does being a solicitor have anything to do with spirit levels and pointing trowels?

Sowerby: Not in the slightest.

Winkle: Then the answer to your question is no, your eminence. But I'm very keen, and I'm sure I'll pick it up as we go along.

Sowerby: Very well. I'm sure you will want time to consult with your client, so we will end this session now. Everybody meet back here at nine o'clock tomorrow morning. Bring sandwiches.

With press speculation running high, and learned commentators feverishly predicting historic new precedents, the third day of Mr Gordon Frampton vs Robinson-Whitley R406-T got off to a vigorous start. Mr Collingwood seemed particularly anxious to get something off his chest.

Collingwood: Before we proceed, I would like to make it perfectly clear that my client Mr Gordon Frampton is not, never has been and never will be related to the musician Peter Frampton.

Sowerby: Duly noted, Mr Collingwood. I'm minded to ask why you should suddenly be so anxious to stress this point?

Collingwood: Do I require a reason?

Sowerby: If you intend to persist in interrupting this tribunal with pointless irrelevancies, then I suspect you may have need.

Winkle: Objection!

Sowerby: What?

Collingwood: Hang on, I didn't know we'd started.

Winkle: Objection again!

Sowerby: What is it, Mr Winkle? To what do you object?

Winkle: To my learned friend, Mr Collingwood, your majesty. He seems to be hogging the court's time. I thought it was my go.

Sowerby: Quite right. Objection sustained. Sit down, Mr Collingwood, you're messing with my aura. The floor is yours, Mr Winkle.

Winkle: Ta, judge. I would like to call Mr Gordon Frampton to the stand... That's you, shorty - get in the box. Right then - you are Mr Gordon Frampton of 42 Belvedere Drive, Mablethorpe?

Frampton: I am.

Winkle: You are the same Mr Frampton who is a branch manager of the Mablethorpe office of Scumm Credit Solutions?


Frampton: Yes sir.

Winkle: The same Frampton who released the multi-million selling album Frampton Comes Alive!

Frampton: Not at all. I don't know how these rumours get about.

Winkle: A likely story! Tell me, Mr Frampton, what were you doing on the night of the 24th June 1998, hmm?

Frampton: 1998? I don't remember.

Winkle: How very convenient. Allow me to jog your memory. Were you not attending a private party at a house in Shepherd's Bush? Don't bother to answer, Mr Frampton, I know you were. I have witnesses who saw you cavorting with several ladies of easy virtue, only minutes before the time of the murder!

Frampton: Murder?

Sowerby: Have I missed something here?

Winkle: Are you really a man of so little conscience, Mr Frampton? The fact that you could be seen openly partying with naughty women before committing such a heinous act shows a degree of callousness that can only lead to your downfall.

Sowerby: Hold on! What murder is this? Are you confident that you are fully acquainted with the facts of this case, Mr Winkle?

Winkle: I assumed that a murder would have been committed at some point. That's usually how it works on the telly. I admit it's a bit of a wild guess, but I felt it was worth a punt.

Sowerby: An unorthodox approach, and I feel that it's only fair that it has ended in failure. It's a big ask, I know, but do you have anything to add that might be germane to this case?

Winkle: In what way, your excellency?

Sowerby: Oh, I don't know. Something that might add to the sum total of knowledge of the circumstance involved, or something.

Winkle: No, my liege.

Sowerby: Thought as much. In which case I don't see any reason to delay my verdict.

Winkle: Hold on, I haven't finished.

Sowerby: Yes you have. This nonsense has gone on quite long enough. I have no hesitation in concluding that the defendant has no case to answer. I cannot, of course, comment on its efficacy as an air conditioning system. Indeed, as far as air conditioning is concerned, it may be guilty of the most appalling incompetence, which is no doubt how it found its way into a skip in the first place. But as for the charges that it has been hauled here to answer today, I find that there is no evidence of culpability. Mr Frampton, step forward please.

Frampton: I'm not happy about the way this is going.

Sowerby: And therein appears to lie your whole problem: you are not happy. You came here with the hazy notion that something somehow has gone a bit crap, and that someone somewhere must be to blame. Poor you, Mr Frampton. Poor, poor you. Let me tell you, it is frequently my sad duty to prevail over cases that involve all manner of unfortunate and neglected individuals. People who, through no fault of their own, have slipped through the cracks and fallen prey to opportunists, vagabonds or just bad luck. Sometimes these people bear their woes with a fortitude that I can scarcely begin to comprehend; sometimes they take the opposite path and sink into recrimination, deceitfulness and petty crime. But even in the most despicable of cases it is not beyond the limits of my humanity to appreciate that such people need our sympathy, our understanding and our support. But you, Mr Frampton...

Frampton: Your honour?

Sowerby: Ever since you were dragged kicking and screaming into this world, you have lived a charmed life, Mr Frampton. You have a roof over your head, a steady job and you're clearly affluent enough to afford the services of that fool Collingwood.

Collingwood: I protest!

Sowerby: Oh shut up, Collingwood. Mr Frampton, have you ever heard the expression 'into each life a little rain must fall'? You appear to have escaped a drenching in favour of a brief, refreshing April shower. No, you haven't got everything you ever wanted. Maybe you haven't even got everything you deserve. None of us has. But I rather get the impression, Mr Frampton, that you've sat back your whole life and waited for it to come to you. And now that your lack of effort has been rewarded with exactly what it merits, you naturally resort to what you do best - finding someone to blame for your own inadequacy. I know your type, Mr Frampton. I see you every day - pompous, pious little tin generals who believe that the world exists solely for your own comfort and convenience, and that you have some god-given right to a little piece of everything that's going. And when you don't get it, you rant, and rave, and squeak, and squeal and curse every freeloading scrounger, every obstinate bureaucrat, every crooked politician, every incompetent servitor, and each and every unconnected bystander that happens to cross your path. But you do nothing. You say nothing. There is a Mr Frampton-shaped hole in the universe that has been created just for you, and you refuse to take responsibility for the person who fills it. Get out of my court, Mr Frampton.

Frampton: Oh, but -

Sowerby: Out!

(Mr Gordon Frampton noiselessly shuffled out of the courtroom.)

Sowerby: Step forward, Mr Collingwood.

Collingwood: Yes, your honour.

Sowerby: Mr Collingwood, it is my sad duty to sentence you to be taken from this court to a place of execution, there to hang by the neck until dead.

Collingwood: You can't do that!

Sowerby: Hell yes, I can. It's been one of those days.

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