‘When I was three months old my parents brought me to Nallers Farm near Askerswell, which they had taken out huge loans to buy for £12,000 in 1970 with 100 acres. My father, John Bolton, then working as a builder and stonemason, had found himself with a pregnant ballet dancer on his hands and deciding that Gabriel Oak ended better than Jude Fawley, called the Dorset Horn Sheep Breeder’s Association to find out where to get one of Gabriel’s sheep. He was sent to North Poorton and came home with three ewes and an apprentice’s respect for the masters of the breed, Wilf and Alan Fooks.
The stonemason and the ballet dancer had to learn from scratch about looking after 200 sheep and 20 simmental cattle (and a baby), but they put their heads down and got on with it, and the Fooks brothers, as well as neighbour and friend Graham Foot were fine teachers. The apprentice even got the upper hand at the May fair a couple of times. The first was for a pair of ram lambs by a Powerstock ram known as the Giant Alexander out of Poorton W44. One of these was sold to Alan Fooks for what my father insists gleefully was a lot of money. My father won another first prize with a group of three—thanks to some marvellously devious trimming by George Payne. The local story about my father coming to the Fair in women’s clothing is apocryphal—it was just a fur coat and eyeliner.
My mother, Gayrie, is Australian. While better known now for enhancing the core stability of Bridport through her Pilates classes, she danced with Ballet Rambert in both its classical and modern iterations. At Nallers, my parents’ way of life fluctuated from rural idyll to rural slum with the seasons, and making a living was a struggle. My mother sewed my clothes out of the remains of her 1960s wardrobe and books were endlessly re-read, with Watership Down holding the record—42 times. As for toys, they were of the cloven-hoofed variety, and were periodically “sent on” to Jack Norman’s.
I went to Loders primary on a bus that picked up from the Askerwell square—or by tractor if I missed the bus. I can see many echoes of my Loders school life in the experiences of our son Wilf, now at Symondsbury School.
In 1978 my parents sold Nallers Farm. My mother retrained as a ballet teacher and we moved to Australia. I lived there until I was 24. At my inner-urban high school in Melbourne I was the one of a handful of teenagers whose first language was English. At university I studied philosophy, history and feminist theory, where I think I first saw something that I wanted to change about the world, personally.
I remember sitting on a sofa in Hardware Street, Melbourne and asking myself aloud what work I could usefully do. The choices seemed to be: animals, from my life at Nallers Farm: architecture, from my father’s intuitive and informed eye for buildings and townscapes: and what came to be called “human rights”, from what I had gleaned about abusive regimes such as Pinochet’s from my mother as she wrote letters seeking the release of prisoners of conscience.
In the meantime my parents had returned to England and I was kept up to date with the doings of West Dorset both through my father’s beautifully observed and very funny letters, and long holidays spent at Chilcombe thanks to lifelong friends Caryl and John Hubbard. My parents ended up living at Chilcombe for ten years, becoming the closest thing that artist’s paradise ever got to garden gnomes, before retiring to their eyrie opposite the town hall clock in Bridport.
I worked at Amnesty in London for a year after university, becoming fixated on the death penalty in the United States. I took the savings from my first year’s work and went to volunteer at the New Orleans law practice of English-born Louisiana lawyer Clive Stafford Smith and to cut a disgracefully short story shorter, Reader, I married him. I found my element investigating the facts of criminal cases, coaxing out the histories of the men on death row and trying to wrangle justice from the law.
When I finished law school, I was funded by George Soros and others to launch Innocence Project New Orleans. We revisited long-standing cases where prisoners were still protesting their innocence after many years’ incarceration, using both modern forensic methods like DNA testing and traditional “gumshoe” investigation. I’ve just heard that the project, which undertakes the hardest cases, has now brought about the release of the 28th innocent person since its inception. All of whom have been African American, which says something about the continuing role of racism in wrongful convictions in the deep southern United States.
Human beings make mistakes, and no system has more human parts than the criminal justice system. If it can’t identify and rectify its mistakes, it is doomed to repeat them.
Back in this country I have set up a charity that carries out very similar work to Innocence Project New Orleans, called the Centre for Criminal Appeals (www.criminalappeals.org.uk). We rely on donations from foundations and the public, and a small amount of legal aid. My colleagues in London work on cases mostly from urban areas, whereas I focus on cases in the South West, which are rather different. For instance, I represent the Freshwater Five in a purported smuggling case from the Isle of Wight. The five men have been wrongfully locked up for 6 years and counting. The fishing boat’s skipper recently had to read his wife’s eulogy at her funeral handcuffed to a prison officer, while waiting for his day in the Court of Appeal.
It’s a sad fact that if I was wrongfully convicted of a crime here in England, I would have a better chance of that verdict being overturned if I was in New Orleans Louisiana or Jackson Mississippi than at the Royal Courts of Justice on the Strand. That’s because in the US there are provisions derived from the Bill of Rights that allow access to a trial transcript and the police files when appealing a conviction, whereas here these documents are off-limits to the likes of you and me. That means that here there is only incredibly limited investigation of the facts of a case in the appeals process, so that although we may have fine legal minds on the job here in the UK, if the facts presented in court are wrong the judgement will be wrong as well.
My husband and I are incredibly lucky to be able to work from home—it’s disconcerting to think that Clive’s work on Guantanamo and drones has implications that resonate in the White House, but emanate from a thatched cottage in Symondsbury.
We live a life here that reflects an ex-patriot’s fantasy of rural England. It is measuring up. The village has been incredibly welcoming, not just to us but our visitors, including former death row prisoners and Guantanamo detainees, as well as the occasional invasion by satellite TV vans on stake-out. Our work reminds us daily how incredibly fortunate our son is to be growing up in such a peaceable local community, where the police help people find their cars when their memory of where they parked fails them, and you know in your heart of hearts that every local would in fact not hesitate to take in a Syrian refugee if they actually met one.
At our son’s school he’s learning about sharing, about being kind, about working together and about standing up against bullies. Given what seems to be happening in this country and the US, I think that the sooner we hand over the keys to the kingdom to him and his classmates the better. It’s just getting to the handover point that is the challenge.’