Book review: Playing off the Roof and Other Stories

By Simon Brown, Marble Hill Publishers (February 2020) ISBN 9781527254268. Reviewed by David Wurtzel

‘A patchwork of memories’, is the sub-title of this volume of recollections from Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood. Instead of a conventional autobiography, he offers us vivid descriptions of those episodes in his life which meant most to him. Amongst the myriad of cases that have come his way as an advocate, a trial judge and an appeal judge, he has selected a number ‘less for the intrinsic interest of the legal issues arising... than for the stories to which they chanced to give rise’. Since he says that his life has been a Dance to the Music of Time, there are plenty of coincidences as well. In an era of misery memoirs what stands out is that he has had a very happy life.

Throughout we have the picture of a barrister and judge who is tolerant, humane, generous in praise of his colleagues, and never without his sense of humour. As Treasury Devil he was reluctant to take proceedings for civil contempt of court against Harriet Harman, then the legal officer for the National Council for Civil Liberties, who had disclosed to the media documents which had been disclosed to her purely for the purposes of the litigation but which in fact had been read out in open court. It was only on the day before the first hearing of the case against her that the politicians caught up with Lord Brown’s misgivings. He was allowed to offer to settle the matter on the basis that she paid her own costs. She refused but duly lost in the domestic courts. It did not end there. ‘My only vivid recollection of the Strasbourg visit is of Ms Harman on our arrival there ushering me with uncharacteristic graciousness out of the plane ahead of her, and then looking back to see her descending the exit steps to a crescendo of flashbulbs as the assembled press captured this lonely civil rights campaigner on her mission for justice.’ He appeared as counsel for the government some 12 times in Strasbourg and lost 10 of the cases. He did his job well but, as he concedes, at stake were some of our more antiquated and illiberal laws. He was not sorry to see them go.

A lifelong love of golf indirectly provides the title of the book. Playing in the Scrutton Cup (the competition between the four Inns), he advised his partner, Nigel Wilkinson QC not to play a nine iron in a particular shot. Nigel complied but ‘played the shot with no intention other than to land the ball on the clubhouse roof beyond’. In this he succeeded. Since the roof counted as in bounds, Nigel called for a ladder and made Lord Brown climb up to play the ball. He rose to the challenge, chipping the ball off the roof and onto the green below. Someone tipped off the press and the incident appeared in newspapers throughout the common law world.

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David Wurtzel

David practised at the criminal Bar for 27 years and is a door tenant at 18 Red Lion Court. Prior to his retirement, he was a consultant in the CPD department at City Law School and consultant editor of Counsel. David is a member of the Counsel Editorial Board.