Barrister’s best…

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Best books, top tracks, fabulous films, artistic influences and an essential: Counsel invites barristers to share the cultural influences in their lives. In this issue, we talk to Sarah Langford, author of In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law.


Tell us about any books, poems or podcasts that have inspired, engaged or comforted you

On my desk I have a small poem which I ripped out of an anthology and pushed into a papier mâché frame many years ago. It is by Marianne Moore and is now faded and a bit grubby but has sat on every desk I have worked at since my twenties. It reads:

I May, I Might, I Must
If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.

Lots of people are keen to tell you that what you want is impossible, particularly, I think, if you are a woman. That has certainly been my experience, and it is all too easy to find yourself believing them. I love the stubborn logic and tenacity of the poem. I love its confidence that if a problem can be properly explained and the difficulty therefore understood, she will find a solution. I particularly love the last three words: ‘if I try’, which makes it seem as though the person who has declared the fen unpassable really hasn’t.

How about music; are there any pieces you find evocative of a time or place or perhaps listen to again and again and why?

On my wedding day I walked down the aisle to a choral piece I chose called O Magnum Mysterium by Morten Lauridsen – it is otherworldly, joyful, haunting music which makes the hairs on your arms stand up and causes you to hover three inches above the floor when you listen to it. There are a few singers I love listening to whilst driving through country lanes with the windows down in mid- summer (although it’s a bit less young and carefree with two small children in the back); namely Joni Mitchell, Ben Taylor, Etta James, Nina Simone, Florence and the Machine, Bon Iver and Parov Stelar turned up really loud. I used to play the saxophone so would happily throw some Miles Davis in there too. I also secretly wish I could exist in a musical, so a rotation of Les Miserables, West Side Story and Chess, with a smattering of Starlight Express is also a good afternoon pick-me-up.

What about art or films; do any stand out as life changing or seminal in some way?

I did go through a predictable stage in my twenties of watching bleak art house films, but I quickly fell in love with all the early, very funny Woody Allen films. It was the first time I had watched something which uses direct narration in the way he does, and saw how powerful and amusing an unreliable, narcissistic narrator can be when he breaks the fourth wall. I usually take quiet ambiguity over bangs and blood –The Good Girl, Revolutionary Road, The Way We Were – which also usually means that no one lets me choose the film.

With my first big cheque from a case I bought two small impressionist collages from what was the Hollywood Road Gallery in London. They are by a sixties artist, relatively unknown as far as I can tell, called Francois Dreulle and are always the first pictures I hang when I move house (which used to be quite a lot when I was renting in London). When we moved from London to Suffolk last summer I insisted that they come with us, even though they are contemporary and could look a little out of place in a tiny beamed cottage. Then all the belongings we had placed in storage burned down in a warehouse fire, and I realised how devastated I would be to lose them, given how many journeys they have been on with me. I still catch myself looking at them: I always see something new.

Are there any special places or experiences which stand out in your memory?

My grandparents’ old farm in a little hamlet in Hampshire which is where my sisters and I ran wild as children. I’ve travelled a lot but don’t think any beach or desert or forest or mountain will ever be quite as special to me as lying in one of their fields in uncut hay as it prickles my bare limbs and watching summer clouds skudding by overhead.

Finally, stranded in the middle of a trial, what piece of kit or comfort can’t you do without?

Earplugs. There is nothing comparable to the nerves of knowing you have a big case the next day and worrying that you won’t be able to sleep, knowing that if you don’t your brain will stop working and it will all be awful.

In Your Defence: Stories of Life and Law is a collection of 11 stories based on real life cases which span the author’s decade as a criminal and family barrister (Doubleday, June 2018). Each chapter tells a different story, taking the reader by the hand and drawing them into the lives of those involved and then, in turn, into the courtroom and Sarah’s life. The book explores the daily difficulties and victories faced by those caught up in the law, ranging from cases which are heart breaking to hopeful. It asks the reader to consider the very nature and purpose of justice, and what it does to those caught up in its system. It is available now in hardback, ebook and audiobook.

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