42 Days

By Philip Pullman

Why 42 days?

What they mean is six weeks, of course. Six weeks! Six weeks in prison without being charged! Anything could happen in six weeks. Wars have lasted less than six weeks. In six weeks, Christopher Columbus crossed the Atlantic and discovered the New World. Six weeks was enough time for Mozart to write three of his greatest symphonies. William Faulkner took six whole weeks to write his novel As I Lay Dying; John le Carré wrote The Spy Who Came In From The Cold in five. In six weeks, on average, each of the 2,710 Liberty Ships were built in the USA during the Second World War to supplement the Allied merchant fleets. Robert Louis Stevenson took three days to write Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but six weeks to revise and polish it. In six weeks the Wright brothers’ mechanic, Charlie Taylor, built from scratch the light and powerful engine that powered their first flight. In one month in 1819 the poet Keats wrote his Ode to a Nightingale, Ode on a Grecian Urn, Ode on Melancholy, and Ode on Indolence.

I could multiply the examples a hundredfold, taking in every sphere of human activity, but you get the point: people can do complex, extraordinary, profoundly difficult things in 42 days or less. Six weeks is a long time.

And now we learn that among the almost insuperable obstacles needing the full majesty of the human mind to overcome is the task of interrogating a prisoner and gathering enough evidence to bring a conviction. Apparently it’s so subtle and complex a process that it too needs no less than six weeks to complete. What makes it even more impressive is that this discovery has only been made in Britain. No other democracy has realised the profound difficulty of this process; some countries appear to think so little of the intellectual challenges of the task that they allow only two days for its completion. 48 hours! Preposterous.

We don’t know how lucky we are, to live in a nation where police officers have all of six weeks to discover why they’ve locked us up. Ask them after 41 days why a prisoner is still behind bars, and they can honestly and innocently say “No idea, mate.” But give them that extra day, and they’ll crack it, and be up there with Mozart and Christopher Columbus.