British Prime Minister Tony Blair, as he keeps telling us, is content to be judged by history, a court to which others from Hitler to Castro have also been happy to entrust their ultimate reputations. But since it's not clear how long history is likely to take to arrive at its ultimate judgment on Blair, and since I could not remember reading its verdicts on either Hitler or Castro, I thought it might be worth going down to the court of history to try to discover the likely timescale.
To those who have not been there before, the court of history comes as a bit of a shock. I'd expected to find an imposing modern building with computer screens whirring away behind every window. But in fact what I finally found, at the end of a dingy alleyway, was something more like an early Victorian warehouse overdue for redevelopment.
The scene within was even more disturbing: a huge room, crammed with people who seemed to be clerks, many with beards reaching down to their knees and a few with beards grown so long that they drooped through the cracks in the floorboards into the cellars beneath.
Everywhere disconsolate claimants were milling about, some in the uniforms of second world war generals, some dressed as crusaders, a handful in woad. At the very far end of the rostrum one could just discern a tribunal of sapient figures seated around a table. A benevolent elderly gentleman, noting my amazement, came forward to offer his services.
"Who are all these people?" I asked. "They are waiting for the judgments of the court of history", he replied. "You've heard of the law's delays? Well, here they're particularly serious. We have cases waiting here which go right back to Cain and Abel.
"Look, there's the emperor Nero. His advisers have put in fresh evidence: a new biography which says he was never the villain public opinion thinks he was and Tacitus cannot be trusted. Many people here have come, like him, to appeal to the court of history against the verdicts of the court of public opinion.
"That woman in red, who's whispering in his ear, for example, Lucretia Borgia. Look, I've got a photocopy of here's her latest submission: a piece from the Daily Telegraph article, `Lucretia Borgia: sex-mad poisoner or stateswoman?' It seems there was an exhibition in Rome last year at which an expert said the Borgias were victims of biased accounts based on malicious rumor. `Lucretia poisoned no one,' this fellow apparently said. `She was poisoned by the pen of history and 19th-century romanticism ... nor were claims that she had an incestuous relationship with her father true, probably.'"
"Don't you just love that `probably'?" I exclaimed. "Of course," my mentor replied, "so do we all. But you see how difficult it makes things for the court of history. It's had this case before it for the best part of 400 years and even now it has to consider fresh submissions."
"Would that," I asked "be the case the court is hearing today?" My adviser laughed so uproariously at this question that even Lucretia and Nero appeared alarmed. "Why, bless you, no," he replied.
"I'd say they'd get round to that in around the year 2050. Today it's Henry II and the death of Becket. I gather Henry's advisers put in new evidence some years ago that when he expressed his wish to be rid of his turbulent priest he was trying to save his kingdom from rule by religious fundamentalists." But surely, I protested, that matter had been settled. Within 18 months of Becket's murder, Henry had been reconciled with the church after admitting that, while he'd never wished for or ordered the killing of Becket, his wild words might well have occasioned it. My mentor smiled kindly on my naivety. But that, he said, was really a political deal, shored up with appropriate penances. Political deals might be good enough for the 12th-century papacy, but the court of history had to deal with the deeper realities.