The alarm rings at 4am, but I am already awake and packed. A calm walk through Darlington's centre with the trusty rucksack, a holdall of books, plus sandwiches and flask. At 5am I am on the train for London. This is the first leg of a journey to the centre of France, to carry out research for the law school of Cardiff University. It is a six-month contract in a one-year project.
The journey is extraordinarily smooth and rapid - British 225 train to London, Eurostar to Paris, then French highspeed TGV rail to the Loire. I am at my destination by 6pm, even with a short break in Paris. I muse that when I made a similar journey as a student in 1970 I travelled by coach to London, slept overnight on Victoria Coach Station; took a slow combination of coach, hovercraft and train to Paris; slept overnight again in the waiting room of Montparnasse station, and arrived at my destination close to lunch time of the third day. How public transport has changed! Ironically, my slower, uncomfortable 1970 journey was probably more expensive in real terms.
The only difficulty is arrival. The station has two exits and my fellow researcher and I miss one another. Finally, I take a taxi and arrive at my studio bedsit distinctly disgruntled.
I have a well designed studio in a block on the semi-industrial edge of town. It is very definitely 1990s France. There is a living room with a pull-down bed; a kitchenette, toilet/shower, lots of storage and shelf space. Pale green wood-effect melamine is the furniture style not only in this studio but, apparently, in all the others. Plastic panels form the toilet/shower. The building houses a television room, coin-op laundry, snooker table, and small salle de musculation. These bedsits are a good find. Since being made redundant by the University of Teesside in 1993 I have got used to working away from home on fixed-term contracts. This will not be the least comfortable of my various digs over the last years.
Make a quick trip to the hypermarket. Supermarkets are one of my weaknesses, especially abroad, and especially if they stock DIY and household goods as well as food. This one is dazzling.
Discussions with research colleague on the project. We are researching defence lawyers in the French criminal justice system. French avocats are allowed much less access to prisoners and much less initiative in the seeking out of evidence than in the United Kingdom. The investigating magistrate is the appointed official seeker of truth. There is less room for adversarial combat, less of a role for legal representatives, and much more of a role for the official dossier of statements, expert evidence, written requests for investigative actions, medical reports, and written summaries.
Our task is to investigate how the French inquisitorial system works in detail and in practice. The tradition of empirical socio-legal research is much less prominent in France than in fact-grubbing Britain.
Trip into town for an interview with one of the city's more radical criminal lawyers. Spend the evening reading through two sets of papers. I spend a lot of time listening to the radio in order to retune ear and mind to French. My life is normally conducted in English and Spanish and to plunge again into French is awkward.
I am editing a special edition (UK contributions translated into French) of the socio-legal journal Droit et Societe. It is a pleasure to be away from the pen-pushing that dominated my last job as assistant dean for law at King's College London. I read my way back into the project, thinking already of grant applications to take the research forward. I compare my colleague's most recent research notes with the official documents that prompted them. It is obvious that the first month or so of the research, early last summer, was dominated by improvisation and a quest for influential contacts. There were some lucky breaks and diplomacy. The project now enjoys the trust of the local legal community.
We discuss gaps in the coverage so far. Local avocats tend to introduce us to "interesting" cases - major charges and/or complicated issues (eg an allegation of police provocation and falsification of witness statement). Since these cases are the ones where an avocat may make a difference, they are a major focus of the research, but nevertheless we still do not have enough run-of-the mill cases. One of my jobs will be to investigate the brief interviews that duty solicitors are allowed with prisoners after the first 20 hours of detention (in the French system there is no immediate right on detention to consult a lawyer).
We end the week setting up some meetings for the coming days. The evening is spent reviewing the local paper for legal reports and doing some more language work. My fiancee telephones from Madrid, where she works. She says that I sound different. Although I feel fine, and certainly more relaxed than when working in London or dashing back and forth to Darlington, I have to admit that I probably am different. After all, it has been a different sort of week.
Senior research associate with Cardiff Law School, Cardiff University.