Richard Atkins QC, Bar Chair-Elect
Counsel has asked me to write about the books that have most influenced me. I am afraid I may be about to disappoint as I am not sure that there have really been any books that have ‘influenced me’ in the way that some of my predecessor Chairs or Vice-Chairs of the Bar have written about; it is people who have influenced me. That having been said, there are a number of books I have read over the years that have certainly stayed in the memory.
I like books that make me smile and laugh and John Mortimer’s Paradise Postponed is one such book, which I read at university. This introduced me to his writing and humour, and led me on to reading his Rumpole books before I had any thoughts about a career at the Bar. Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is another book from my university days that I still chuckle over. I also recently re-read David Nobbs’s Second from last in the sack race. This was given to me by my mother to remind me of the time I actually came last in my junior school’s sack race. (It’s a rather different sack race in the book, which I am not entirely sure my mother appreciated when she purchased it, but it is very witty.) Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Big Country was the first of his books that I read and which came to mind during my recent road trip through California.
I am a big fan of history, in particular the Second World War and anything written by Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor. Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s Dunkirk: Fight to the last man is a fabulous book which, in amongst chronicling the 1940 military disaster which was ultimately spun into a victory, captures some immense deeds of bravery; often at the cost of the person’s life. My generation is incredibly fortunate that we have never had to go to war, but I am constantly amazed at the phenomenal bravery of so many ordinary men, plucked from their everyday lives and thrown into terrible situations. The 1939-1945 War Diaries of Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the Second World War, gives a fascinating insight into the war from a different perspective and in particular his dealings with Churchill. Another book that combines my love of being a barrister and my fascination with Second World War history is Ann and John Tusa’s The Nuremberg Trial. The chapter dealing with David Maxwell Fyfe’s (later Viscount Kilmuir, whose portrait hangs in Gray’s Inn on the stairs to the Bridge bar) devastating cross-examination of Goering is gripping. I was fortunate to be able to visit the court room in Nuremberg a couple of years ago and the excellent museum attached to it.
Thomas Grant’s Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories is another fascinating book on one of the greatest barristers of the 20th century; I would dearly loved to have seen him in action in what were the greatest cases of the time.
The book which I have probably read more times than any other, is Someone Bigger by Jonathan Emmett and Adrian Reynolds. It is an enchanting story of a little boy, Sam, and his Dad, who go out on a windy day to fly a kite, and which I highly recommend to any of you with small children. It was my son’s favourite book when he was about four years old (hence the multiple readings!). I can still remember it word for word, 14 years on.
Lastly, as a criminal advocate, no current reading list would be complete without a mention of The Secret Barrister: Stories of the Law and how it is broken. We all have our own war stories to tell, but the author, whoever she or he is (and it is not me!) has produced a wonderful book that has captured perfectly the mood of the moment. It is, I hope, a book that will be read by all of our politicians (they have, after all, been given a free copy by the CBA) and those charged with ensuring that our criminal justice system is fit for purpose. It helps our ongoing fight to ensure that not just criminal law, but our entire legal system, remains properly funded and continues to be the envy of the rest of the world.
My best books (in 2018)
Amanda Pinto QC, Bar Vice Chair-Elect
Having spent years reading voraciously, I regret that I don’t find much time for this pleasure now. I mainly read on holiday, but, perhaps because I’m somewhat restricted, I am quite fussy in my choices! Having said that, each of the books I recommend here is easy to read and captivating.
For many years, my ‘Desert Island Discs’ book has been War and Peace by Tolstoy – I didn’t read it until about 15 years ago, but I am now evangelical about its merits, even giving it to my children’s friends for their 21st birthdays, for which, probably many years later, they will be really grateful. Following a lot of (wrong) advice – ‘it’s so long and difficult’, ‘skip the war bits’, ‘it’s old fashioned’, I found it surprisingly readable. The characters are just as relatable as those in contemporary writing and the war chapters are not just interesting historically, they also very much inform how the characters develop and drive the plot. I thoroughly recommend it as a holiday (though probably not a mini-break) read. I loved it so much that, when I came to read Anna Karenina, I prevaricated over finishing the final chapters, not wanting it to end, which led to weeks of prolonged tension and misery.
Apart from recommendations from friends, many of the books I read relate to places I have travelled to or become interested in through holidays or international work. Last year the Bar Council Rule of Law Lecture was delivered by Dr Shirin Ebadi, the Nobel Prize Winner and one of the first female judges in Iran. Her book Iran Awakening: A Memoir of Revolution and Hope is a powerful account of growing up in Iran, training as a judge, and what happened to her after the Revolution. Hoping that readers will follow my recommendation, I shan’t go into detail, but it is a great book, reflecting how an extraordinarily courageous person dealt with huge challenges – private and professional – over which she had no control. Life as a lawyer in the UK is tame in comparison.
I enjoy books that combine significant events with a personal perspective. I think both The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal and East West Street by Philippe Sands (who did law with me at university) accomplish that. Through the lens of their family circumstances and with great story-telling skills, they trace paths through the history of Europe and beyond. De Waal’s book takes you on a chase around the globe following some beautiful miniature heirlooms; the parallels and crossovers between the lives of Sands’ relatives and those involved in the Nuremberg trials are uncanny and fascinating and his meeting with their descendants lightly reveals how people cope in different ways with memories and the actions of their parents. The world events they describe are all the more powerfully portrayed by their personal connection. Both authors describe their relations’ foibles and failings kindly and compellingly. Each is so fluidly written that it is easy to get swept along in the narrative.
A similar effect is achieved by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her exquisitely observed novel Half of a Yellow Sun. A birthday present from a friend who lived in Nigeria, I could not put it down. Set at the time of the Biafra War in Nigeria, it deals so beautifully with family, love, political ideals and how human emotions and relationships inevitably affect the ways we react to outside events. The characters are complex and believable and one cannot help but become engrossed in what happens to them. Just as with Tolstoy, the fact that her story is set in a different era and country doesn’t diminish its relevance or appeal.
My mother is a great source of books for me, having an ever-growing library of paperbacks to choose from, with her personal recommendation. As a regular visitor to New York, I recently read and loved Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. It is based on an 80-year-old woman re-tracing her life by walking through New York. Please don’t let any of the last sentence put you off! It is the most entertaining, funny and delightful book, giving the added pleasure of recalling those parts of New York you know yourself and the characters you come across when there.
In the last year, I have also enjoyed Sweet Caress: The Many Lives of Amory Clay by William Boyd – and not just because it has pictures. Although it is a novel, I was taken in by the effect of having photos throughout the story, so that it felt truly autobiographical and gave the adventurous journey of its first-person protagonist (a photographer by profession) a realism that I completely fell for. Again, it is the story of a person living through and affected by enormous events in the 20th century, driven forward by her enthusiasm, courage and zest for life.
And finally, a book that I read many years ago and literally made me laugh out loud on the tube: Bridget Jones’ Diary by Helen Fielding. So many hilarious and relatable moments and featuring a top human rights lawyer – what more could one want?
If legal practice keeps you in the UK, these books will transport you to another place and time. You could easily lose train journeys to court, or even a weekend, enjoying these books, without the bother of international travel.