“Councils of despair don’t interest me,” says Gay Edwards. “Of course you can’t make it all better, but its wicked not to try.”
The new High Sheriff is earnest, with a humour born of heaps of common sense. She describes herself as “a law and order person”, having been involved in the criminal justice system for years. She also lends order to gardens, and, since one gardener leads to another, I raise the inevitable “how d’you follow Alan Titchmarsh” question. I suggest that at least he’s made the office of High Sheriff so well known that no-one makes the ‘where’s your gold star?’ joke any more. Apparently they do. The plate of biscuits Gay offers me is decorated with a gold sheriff badge – a present from her son-in-law.
The real answer to the question is that she won’t attempt to try to ‘follow that’. “He’s a lovely man and has done the Office of High Sheriff a great service. A lot of what I am going to do will not be high profile at all: meetings that no-one gets to know about.”
She explains her agenda thus: “You know when you drive and somebody waits for you, you put your hand up – chances are you’ll get a thank-you back. So in everything you do for someone else, there’s that little tiny ripple of something nice.”
Sending ripples sums up Gay Edwards’s intentions for her year as High Sheriff. She wants to raise the profile of organisations which work with young people who are on the margins of breaking the law, to catch them before they hit the downward spiral.
“I think it’s a pity we can’t spend more energy and resources keeping them out of the court in the first place.”
She had just met a team of fire fighters who run a project called LIFE, which trains young people in fire-fighting skills, giving them a sense of responsibility they’ve never had before. What Gay notes particularly is that “these fine men are beautiful, good looking young guys. Which is important: children respond to the idea of a fine upstanding guy, a hero. “
This is no naïve over-the-rainbow stuff. Gay Edwards’s ideals are firmly routed in years of observation in the criminal justice world. Children misbehave for all sorts of reasons – bad parenting, bad experience at school, or even behavioural problems which remain undiagnosed. But if they are not sorted out at a young age they become an expensive problem for us all.
One of her favoured projects, Catch 22, uses restorative justice to bring young offenders back from the brink before they are sucked too far into the criminal system. It involves meeting the victim of the crime they have committed, to help them connect the consequence to the criminal act. “If your house has been burgled, you can say ‘why?’ and they can say ‘sorry’.
She uses a lovely expression, “stuck naughty”, to describe adults who have never been taught to collaborate with one another. “As human beings we like some sort of order. If you don’t queue, you’re always watching out for yourself. If there are too many queue-bargers, order breaks down.” Then, grinning, she remembers once queuing for a parking space and being cut up by a man who drove a huge American show-off car. Gay was so incensed that when she did eventually park she found the car and, in pink lipstick, wrote “WORM” all over his windscreen.
For she is not straitjacketed by convention. She has a delicious wryness, and a sense of humour born of her incisive observation. But she is the first to acknowledge that it’s all very well for us to be chatting in her comfortable lounge eating biscuits – from a plate with a touch of irony. But far from being exclusive, what Gay wants is for everyone – everyone – to have opportunities.
“When several generations of a family haven’t flourished, they see themselves as outside – and the rest of us is ‘them’. They are disengaged. And if your grandmother’s like that…”
Her answer is “generosity. It’s not about giving people things, it’s about giving a damn,” she says. Controversially she is scathing about people who criticise the ‘treats for naughty boys’ approach to serious dysfunctional behaviour and who criticise the councils who give grants to allow people to do what ‘decent people’s’ children can’t afford. “Who said it’s a fair world?” If that grandmother had been shown a bit of generosity maybe she would be passing it on to the boy who torched his school.
We’re back to those ripples. That warm feeling that saying thank-you gives.
It is as well she will be staying away from political issues: she gives unfashionably short shrift to political correctness. Girls shouldn’t join scouts because it puts off the boys. Men should be able to exclude women from their social clubs because they need a bit of space. Young people, boys particularly, should be allowed to experience danger rather than be protected from it. Words of hymns shouldn’t be watered down to make them easy. “I think we can cope with the odd ‘ye’ and ‘thou’, don’t you?”
She puts her ideals down in part to her Christian faith, and is looking forward this year to visiting as many different parishes as she can. “I meet people I wouldn’t otherwise have got to – from high Anglicans to the more relaxed and modern people. It’s great!” She would love more involvement with the Muslim community, and hopes they will come to the Legal Service in the Minster.
What Gay is acutely conscious of is that her tenure will end after a year: “The people on the Pan Estate in Newport got fed up being labelled as home of all miscreants. So they did something about it for themselves, and created Pan Together. Unlike me, only doing it for a year, they keep on doing it. Bloody marvellous!”