Barrister’s best…

Best books, favourite films, top tracks and an essential: Counsel invites barristers to share their cultural influences. In this issue, we talk to James Cartwright, a criminal barrister at 1MCB who also paints, sculpts and runs BEWCC, the cricket team representing the Bar in the Lawyers Cricket World Cup which he co-founded.

Tell us about your early cultural influences

A key word in my Barrister’s Best brief is ‘civilisation’. Stowe School (pictured) has one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and all those years ago, its beauty soaked in. There was a handful of brilliant teachers and Ars Longa easily lodged in this young pupil. The building blocks of an individual life are usually laid down early and I read The Last of the Just by André Schwarz-Bart; I don’t believe I understood it at the time but it sits now in my mind, a warning, a scripture, a test. This happened in my lifetime, Treblinka v Stowe.

What about art; what pieces stand out to you?

Velázquez’s Las Meninas, Goya’s Disasters of War and Picasso’s vast output are witnesses to their time and thought and require different tools, especially history, in their appreciation. They are good because they are true. A sketch can catch what a finished picture may not and all art and literature contributes to our understanding of the human condition. Unfortunately, art has little effect upon mankind’s proclivity to oppression and destruction. The deterrent for that lies in politics, economics (a well-filled belly), a working law and institutions; above all, a watch on corruption. But this is outside my brief.

In my view, the greatest sculptures are Michaelangelo’s Pietà and Shelley’s two vast and trunkless legs of stone. The one is the human, the other is the inhuman. The human endures and the inhuman perishes. The ‘human’ is, of course, people, and therein lies the secret. You can, as Auden said, only love what you possess, your family and friends. Your team, your country? Well, I cannot say, it is too abstract.

What music do you listen to and why?

If it has something to say, it is good. Rev Gary Davis’s Cocaine Blues, a 1930s guitar piece, is nothing but it paints for me a picture of a lone man adrift in the hugeness of America and is as strong as Britten’s War Requiem. I try to eliminate the academic categories. I love the way the Americans have been singing about their country and troubles since long before the Delta blues. It is not as sophisticated as Mozart (The Marriage of Figaro is sublime), but it works.

How important are the arts to you generally?

Life at the criminal Bar is a privilege. Detached but involved, a barrister quickly learns of the tensions inherent in life, the individual and the team, power and the state and the need to be, above all, professional; a case well-fought maintains society. It is so easy, too, to retreat, when needed, into one’s own world, to write, to paint, to sing, to be oneself. Of course, in some ways, that retreat is even more precious than earning a living. Writing, painting, music being essentially evidence of their time and lucky are those barristers who are able to lead a dual life of work and art. ‘A lawyer,’ as Walter Scott said, ‘without literature and history is a mere mechanic.’

It should be apparent that all art, music and writing attracts me. We pass through music, art and books and they pass through us. Talking silently across time, only an individual response is possible. Do others, with hindsight perhaps, hear the collapse of European civilisation when listening to The Merry Widow? Do others, looking at a Goya portrait, see the same person that I do? Was the Duke, the Duke Goya painted? However familiar some of Chaucer’s pilgrims seem, do we really understand what they thought? But I love them all the same. We go back for answers and just for pleasure to all these things because they are important.

However, rising even above this is cricket. The day cricket is played worldwide, the last Treblinka will be demolished.

Finally, stranded in the middle of a trial in Nowheresville, what would you keep close?

It will have to be the Colonel Bogey March by Lieutenant FJ Ricketts. Why? Because it is a strong reminder of TA days when we held back the Russian Bear and kept the Iron Curtain drawn. Also the best cricket book by far – C L R James’ Beyond a boundary. The sketch of Cudjoe explains why cricket is life.


A small generation ago, we started a Lawyers’ Cricket World Cup in which, biennially, the Bar team, trotting across the Commonwealth, valiantly takes part in the, so far unrealised, hope that ‘We could win it, chaps.’ The Cup has created a wide web of friendship across a growing number of cricketing lawyers in the Commonwealth (and Eire) and is, without doubt, A Good Thing. Barristers who play cricket will help keep civilisation afloat. The next cup takes place in New Zealand in January 2020 and new recruits should contact jamesiccy@aol.com

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