Smack a deviant child on the wrist and you might be looking at a stint in jail, but abandon a faithful spouse and you can sue for alimony. Whatever your political views, you might be forgiven for thinking that English law is uniquely perverse.
You would, however, be wrong, as I discovered when I lived in Italy. Having been subjected to a long and potentially murderous campaign of violence and intimidation by an invisible madman, I was called in by the police and informed that the person who would be facing a criminal investigation was not the one and only suspect, but me, the intended victim.
It all began in late 1997, during the heavy autumn rains, when water started dripping through the terrace above my small rented flat and on to the floor below. Soon, there were buckets everywhere and my bed was leaning up against a wall. The landlord – let us call him Signor Rossi – placed a plastic sheet over the terrace, but months later it was still there and the ceiling in my flat was still a sodden mass as comforting as a thundercloud.
Increasingly urgent appeals had no effect and, having exhausted all friendly means of persuasion, I gave Rossi an ultimatum: unless the terrace was repaired by the end of the summer and in time for the next lot of autumn downpours, I would start paying him the rent that was declared in the registered contract, and he could forget about the undeclared half that I was paying in cash.
Rossi’s reaction defied comprehension. From now on, said the angry message he left on my answering machine, our relations were to be conducted con il formalismo piu assoluto, as he put it. I was to pay the declared rent and nothing more; there was to be no further contact between us, except through lawyers; and yes, the ter- race would be repaired. A conciliatory letter from me elicited no response.
“He’s either very rich or very stupid,” said my lawyer. “Let him stew.”
Later, when the repairs had been carried out and when my contract still had three more years to run, Rossi’s lawyer wrote to me to say that his client wished to “adjust” the rent – to twice the amount that he himself had insisted I should pay. I said no. There followed another letter, full of the direst threats printed in bold, and giving me 14 days to agree to Rossi’s demands.
“They’re bluffing,” said my lawyer. “Don’t do anything. And don’t worry. They can’t touch you.”
Exactly 14 days later, the violence began. Just as I was drifting off to sleep at around two in the morning, there was a deafening crash. Convinced that a madman the size of Arnold Schwarzenegger had smashed down the door and was about to beat me to a pulp, I lay there while large doses of a very nasty chemical shot through my veins. As it turned out, someone had thrown a brick through one of the large double-glazed windows that ran all around the kitchen, and it had exploded like a bomb.
“You have to report it,” said my lawyer. “But for God’s sake don’t tell the police you suspect anyone.” That, apparently, would be a terrible mistake. “And don’t worry. It’s a nuisance, this, but nothing more. You’ll see.”
Nevertheless, I took action. Soon my Italian home resembled a fortress: bars over all the windows; shutters or polycarbonate sheets over the bars; and a new and very expensive lock on the front door.
“You don’t think anyone would put glue in the keyhole, do you?” I said to the security firm’s workman, as he pocketed a large cheque. “Glue in the lock? You paranoid or something?” was his answer.
Not long afterwards, an invisible hand duly did what I had feared. Another visit to the local police station, therefore; and another report, in which, under strict instructions from my lawyer, I again refrained from voicing any suspicions.
I next had a hefty padlocked device fitted over the keyhole in my front door. If anyone put acrylic glue inside the padlock, I’d only have to get to work with a strimmer. Whereas if they put it inside the unprotected keyhole of the main lock, I’d have to smash down the whole door.
The third attack came a few months later, when I was awakened at four o’clock one morning by a faint scuffling sound outside my front door. A reddish light was coming into the bedroom through the closed shutters on my window. The light got brighter and brighter and, peering through the shutter slats, I saw that my front door was alight. The flames were already coming into the flat and were spreading rapidly. I managed to put the fire out by throwing bucketfuls of water over it. Someone had poured petrol around the entrance and set light to it, right next to the gas pipe. But what if I hadn’t woken up? What if the flames had licked at the gas pipe for more than the few moments that they did?
Next day, I went down to the police station again; and this time there would be no nonsense about not suspecting anyone. At the end of a long interview, the inspector said he was sure that my landlord was the man; he asked me to write a report setting out everything I had told him . . . Oh, and would I care to teach his son English? But first, could he offer me a coffee in the local bar?
“I wish to state,” read the concluding paragraph of the document that I subsequently wrote in my most pompous Italian, “that I am not accusing Signor Rossi of any crime; merely that, granted the circumstantial evidence, it is impossible for me not to entertain certain suspicions with regard to him.”
Now that the situation had become physically dangerous, I also added a second line of defence to the flat, so that anyone wishing to get to my front door had first to clamber over a padlocked gate on the suspended walkway outside. By day Rossi besieged me with writs and nasty letters, each of which had to be expensively dealt with, no matter how empty the threats they contained; and by night the slightest noise had me waking with a start.
The constant threat of violence and lawsuits took its toll. My hair started falling out, and what was left started sticking up wildly in the air. I realised how bad things had got when a group of girls burst into fits of laughter when they saw me in the street.
Every single one of my Italian friends urged me to give in to the intimidation and leave. But wouldn’t that be cowardly – wrong, even? And anyhow, things could hardly get much worse, could they?
Well, yes, they could; because one day, a couple of policemen came round to inform me that I was wanted down at Rossi’s local station. There was nothing friendly about this summons, no suggestion of nice cups of coffee brought by smiling waiters.
I was shown into a small room where there were two plain-clothes officers, one young and in jeans, the other fiftyish and in a suit.
“Documento . . .” said the older one.
I showed him my passport.
“Mr Turner,” . . . Mees-ter Toor-ner . . . “you have been accused of committing the crime of defamation.”
“The charge has been brought against you by Signor Rossi. Your landlord, I believe.”
I gaped – and the inspector explained.
“Unless you can prove a person’s guilt,” he continued, “it is a criminal offence to say you suspect that person of having committed a crime.”
It made no difference, apparently, that I had been the victim of a potentially murderous arson attack; that compelling circumstantial evidence pointed towards my landlord and to no other person (I have left out many details in this account); that a police inspector had asked me to voice my suspicions; and that I had done so not publicly, but in a confidential report.
So what, I asked, was I meant to do? Shut up and wait to be killed? “And how does any case get off the ground?” I continued. “How do the police – how do you – do your job, if it’s against the law for anyone to say anything?”
“It isn’t against the law,” came the reply. “You should not have said you suspected your landlord.”
“What should I have said?”
“You should have said that you wished to narrate certain facts that might be linked to the events in question,” he replied, quoting the Italian formula: posso narrare dei fatti che possono avere un collegamento con l’accaduto.
At which point the absurdity of it all hit me and I burst out laughing.
What on earth was the difference? Whatever formula I used, I would be pointing the finger at someone, drawing the police’s attention to something that I considered suspicious. We were playing with words, surely.
Nevertheless, said the inspector, there was no doubt that I was guilty of the crime of defamation – a criminal offence, not a routine civil one – so would I please sign this statement undertaking to inform the police of any change of address and to name a lawyer who would defend me? I did so and walked out of the police station, a marked man.
That was a couple of years ago. Even though my flat was attacked a fourth time, I stayed until the bitter end; no action was ever taken against my landlord; and as far as I know, the case against me is still open. And Italy’s law of defamation is indeed worded exactly as the police inspector said. According to Article 595 of the penal code, “Anyone who, communicating with more than one person, offends the reputation of another person, is punishable with imprisonment for up to one year or with a fine of up to two million lire or E1,032 [roughly £725].”
Leaving aside the fact that this clause is so vague and catch-all that no ordinary person can avoid committing an offence several times a day, it is clear that my real crime had nothing to do with substance and everything to do with form.
It is fine, in other words, to say to the police: “You may or may not be interested to know that I saw him leaving the scene of the crime carrying a bloody axe.” But say: “I fink he dunnit, officer, ‘cos me an’ my mate, we saw ‘im slippin’ away wiv an axe wot was covered in blood,” and you’ve had it. It isn’t the reality of the situation that matters, therefore, but some tiny linguistic subtlety, some exquisite piece of sophistry. Just like a baroque church: it’s the twirls and scrolls that count, the arabesques on the facade.
Now I am the first to admit that the Italians are perhaps the most intelligent people in the world, masters of subtlety and ingenuity. But here, surely, we are up against an exasperation of intelligence; we are spinning off into an Alice in Wonderland world where semantics professors might possibly feel at home, but where no one else has a hope in hell. Except Silvio Berlusconi, that is.
Assuredly, it is not just in England that the law is capable of producing results that would have the Mad Hatter splitting his sides with laughter.
Sebastian Cresswell-Turner now lives in England