I was born, in the late 1950s, the son of a coal miner. We lived in a back-to-back terraced house with no real cultural influences. We had no electric sockets and shared an outside lavatory with seven other households. We had no books, no TV and nothing to play music on. What we did have was a fantastic community who looked out for each other. We lived in the same area of Nottingham where Alan Sillitoe hailed from, and I still find comfort and solace today reading his brilliant books, particularly his collection of short stories The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner.
In the 1960s we moved to a new pit in a purpose-built mining village on the edge of the Vale of Belvoir. Things were looking up and we bought a radiogram. From then on music always filled our house and I fell in love with the Glam Rock music of the early 70s. Although I enjoyed Marc Bolan’s Get it On (‘you’re built like a car you got a hub cap diamond star halo’), the track that stood out for me was Slade’s Far, Far Away, where Noddy Holder listed the exotic places he’d been. It inspired me to want to see a bit of the world, but ambitions are never realised without action, and mine would have to wait.
I left school at 16 without sitting any exams and, following in my father’s footsteps, went down the pit. I didn’t last long, and the next two years saw me hired and fired from a succession of menial jobs. By then my father had abandoned the family and my mother was very ill. I was living a lawless and feral existence, ending up in prison in the late 70s for conspiracy to defraud. My role models were Jimmy Cooper from Quadrophenia and Swan from The Warriors. Both were desperate to break out of their miserable lives but, like me, had no idea how to do it.
Reading Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the scales fell from my eyes. Travel was the answer. All I saw was the carefree glamour of Dean Moriarty. I failed to spot the miserable pointlessness of his existence, until I started to live it myself. For the next two years I hitch-hiked throughout Europe, looking for odd jobs and usually failing to find them. After a few weeks I was back in London, sleeping rough. I couldn’t face going home a failure, so I headed for Nice. (If you’re going to be homeless I recommend the South of France over London.) It was a hand to mouth existence doing odd jobs and sleeping on the beach, but in retrospect it was a fantastic part of my life. I still have a print of Raoul Dufy’s La Promenade des Anglais to remind me of those halcyon days.
In 1980 I hitch-hiked to Madrid to see Nottingham Forest beat Hamburg in the European Cup Final. Nottingham Forest is in my bones. In my eclectic life the City Ground is an ever-fixed mark that transcends all changes. In Madrid I met up with some old mates. News from home was rare and it wasn’t good; my mother was seriously ill, so I returned home. After my father left my mother adopted Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 disco hit, I Will Survive as her anthem. Sadly, she didn’t, succumbing to cancer at the age of 40. To this day when I hear that song it brings tears to my eyes.
So back in Nottingham, aged 21, what to do next? I decided to become a barrister, and enrolled at a local college to sit my O levels. I financed myself by working evenings and weekends as a fork lift truck driver until they sacked me (the third employer to do so) when they discovered my criminal record. But it was the dawn of the New Romantic era and I adopted Talk Talk’s Life’s What You Make It as my mantra. My mother, who died the week before I sat my O levels, didn’t agree. ‘People like us don’t become barristers,’ she said, pouring scorn on my ambitions like Byron Mayo did to Zack in the inspirational 1982 film, An Officer and a Gentleman.
It was a long hard road to the Bar and to my delight and its credit, Inner Temple admitted me on the grounds that, ‘everyone deserves a second chance in life.’ It was tough at first, and for a time during my unpaid first six I found myself sleeping rough again, but this time I was on a mission. I have now been at the Bar for 30 years, specialising in criminal defence, and was made a silk in 2012. We only get one life and Talk Talk is absolutely right: life’s what you make it.
Gary Bell QC is a criminal defence lawyer at No5 Chambers. He has also had a successful stint as a stand-up comedian (crowned Midlands’ Comedian of the Year in 2008), qualified as a pilot in 2010 and in 2012 presented his own TV show, ‘The Legalizer’ on BBC1.
After the success of his autobiography, Animal QC (Monday Books, 2015) Gary teamed up with young writer Scott Kershaw to write legal thriller Beyond Reasonable Doubt (Bloomsbury/Raven Books, 2019), snapped up in a series deal and optioned by the BBC for a TV mini series. Its principal characters are the middle aged, hard bitten, cynical silk, Elliot Rook QC, and his protégé, the mixed-race pupil Zara Barnes. It is primarily a courtroom drama around a seemingly unwinnable murder trial at the Old Bailey but there is poetic license in terms of the background investigating Elliot and Zara get up to. Gary is currently working on a sequel.