My Great Aunt Dora said that when watching Perry Mason on TV, I said: “That’s what I want to be when I grow up!” I also always wanted to be a writer, but, having started many books under the illusion that they would make my fortune, found it easier to be a successful barrister than a successful writer. I tried various kinds of writing, including a full length children’s adventure story, a novel, and poetry, but it was not until the birth of my eldest son Julius that I gained an enthusiastic audience – of one. He soon wanted a different story every night. “Dad, tonight I want a story about the witch Griselda” (who had purple hair like his mother), “Snuggle” (the misnamed family cat who savaged dogs and the vicar’s chickens), “the rabbit Scrooey-Looey” (a half-demented and extremely rude glove puppet who lived on a top shelf in the nursery) “and it starts like this…”. Then I would have to take over the story with no idea where it was going.
You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometime…
The stories were never intended for publication and would not have had a public audience had it not been for the property recession. The year 1990 was (at least for me) a fantastic year at the Chancery Bar. In 1991 everything went dead. The property side of my practice disappeared, leaving me with a 50% reduction in income and a grand room in Lincoln’s Inn with not enough to do. It was then I revived my childhood dream of becoming a writer.
Initially, publishers were not enthusiastic. As a result, I illustrated the stories with black and white ink-pen drawings and produced them in aid of charity for the annual Shoreham (Kent) Festival of Music. As part of the children’s events, I would tell a story to audiences of children and their families, numbering up to around 150. The response was enthusiastic and I knew that I had something of value. In 1995, I started illustrating the stories in colour. Over 2002-03, the first four stories were published, with a full page colour illustration for every page of text. Some 17 stories, with over 500 paintings, are now in print.
Audience and authorship
When I say I am big in Korea that is merely by way of contrast to my diminutive stature elsewhere! In Korea, I have a top literary agent, representing the works of Virginia Woolf and Umberto Ecco at one end of the alphabet and Che Guevara near the other (not that with my looks and political views have I ever aspired to be a poster boy for the revolution).
My work has also had a positive response from other countries in the Far East. While never consciously targeting that market, I have a longstanding love of oriental art (particularly Japanese wood block prints and screens) which has influenced my painting. In 1991, Julius was seven and I knew what appealed to him, but adults and girls also seemed to enjoy them (girls identify with the witch Griselda, despite her not being an entirely satisfactory role model), so they are not only intended for young boys.
There is a huge difference between what one can get away with during bedtime storytelling and what is needed for a published book. The stories are inspired by real family incidents, myths, fairy tales and ideas which seemingly come out of nowhere. There was not even a magical land of Ramion in the original bedtime stories. In fact, one day I was walking along Oxford Street when the name ‘Ramion’ came to me; it may have been a tourist calling out to a son, but what came to me was not merely a name but a complete world.
At the Bar, the demands are principally from the outside. In writing and painting, the demands are principally from the inside. There is (or should be) creativity in both, but writing and painting provide an outlet for creativity of a kind which I do not get from practice at the Bar. The pictures illustrate the words, but as part of a continuing process in which text can change in the light of the illustrations which force me to think about images in a very concrete way.
My wife Susan Haire is an abstract painter, installation artist and President of the London Group. She would not dream of doing children’s illustrations. She provided a very critical home audience, telling me everything I did wrong until I eventually produced something which met her approval. She encouraged me to produce flat blocks of colour, free from paint strokes.
The Bar is my profession. It has always taken priority. If necessary, publication dates have had to be postponed. If ever there is a lull in my work I press ahead hard with the stories which remain a great source of pleasure.
Despite the disapproval of my former senior clerk (whenever he caught me working on an illustration he looked at me with utter disgust), I have never been conscious of my books limiting a successful practice. When I applied to become a judge, the books as a commercial activity were deemed incompatible with judicial office and hence fatal to my application.
At times, the Bar is so demanding, physically and mentally, that nothing is left for anything else, but at least in my practice those periods of intense pressure come to an end and then I am delighted to have the release of the books. At earlier times in my career, when my creative side was largely unfulfilled, the two different sides of my personality seemed at times at war – one side having no respect for my ability to pass exams and make money as a barrister, and the other side viewing my attempts at writing as largely a waste of time. The two sides have now made peace and although the barrister side is still much more successful than the writer/artist, even the barrister side can see that I also need to be a writer/artist to have a full life. On my deathbed I am not going to regret failing to do another multi-jurisdictional trusts case, but I will regret failing to write all the stories I was born to write.
I do not set aside specific times to write or paint, but I am disciplined in not wasting time free from the Bar. If a case ends and I am not otherwise fully occupied I apply myself to the stories, knowing that any day the Bar may become once again all absorbing. A story may float around my brain for 10 or 15 years and from time to time I will write down ideas in an ideas book. Then suddenly one day, for no apparent reason, I will sit down and write the story in 2-3 days, although it will take many months afterwards of polishing and illustrating before that story is fit for publication.
The next story I will publish is The Dream Thief in which my wife’s dream of being an artist is stolen and her three sons set off to rescue their mother’s dream. Susan as a six-year-old child joins them in the search; by a cosmic freak she has been blown out of a picture frame in the attic. I am currently working on Frankie and the Dancing Furies, in which the boys’ father is possessed by the spirit of Jimi Hendrix: the sad fantasy of someone who wasted his youth in the examination halls of Oxford instead of joining his hippy (and later self-made millionaire) brother listening to Hendrix on the Isle of Wight. I cannot imagine ever stopping writing these books which give me and others so much pleasure. ●
Contributor Melissa Coutinho, Counsel editorial board member