Secret E–Diary – January 2014

Expect the Unexpected

 One of the great joys of my life is returning home after a hard day’s gossiping in Chambers: shoes off, feet on the stool and a stiff gin and tonic. Or should I say “some gin with tonic”?

A friend of mine at university once over-reached himself by taking out a girl called Jane, whose family was from the deepest Shires: the sort that disdains titles, never double-barrels and considers the Royal Family to be parvenus. He was invited for a weekend. Jane later told him in the Kardomah Café (she was a girl of simple tastes) that, after his departure, her mother had listed in order the ten social solecisms of his visit. Top of the list was that he had asked for “a gin and tonic” and not “some gin with tonic”. How we laughed when he told us until I next ordered a combination drink and heard myself asking for some whisky with soda. 

The said friend, who actually married an ostensibly grander lady called Clarissa Plumley- Browne and eventually became the Warden of a leading Oxford college, came to stay last week. He was in London for a dinner. It was fun to see him, even though my shoes had to stay on and I felt it better to avoid mentioning the subject of mixed drinks altogether. He is called William McQuarry and had once been a permanent secretary in Whitehall.

Most of my friends tend to buttonhole me late in the evening after a glass or two of something, but not William. He retires about ten and rises full of beans at seven. Breakfast is his battleground: not a meal I invariably even consume, let alone use to conduct philosophical argument with a man who can discuss the propriety of a semi-colon over a comma for half-an-hour. Nevertheless, he had been a mandarin before academia and it seemed a golden opportunity to test the waters of our present professional diffculties.

It’s the politics and only the politics that matter, old friend. They don’t share your romance of the law, particularly the ones who weren’t too successful at it. They were never serious about Plan A... It’s Plan B you have to worry about

“I expect you’ve heard of the bust-up with our lords and masters.” “Yes,” he said, with a glint in his eyes, suggesting that this was just what he wanted to talk about and added: “the toast!” I passed it to him; but the charming little silver rack that a maiden aunt had purchased, rather eccentrically, for my Confirmation present, was waved away. I really must go to the doctor about my hearing. He had, in fact, said: “you’re toast!” – a phrase I did not altogether connect with the corridors of power. Perhaps I read too much C.P. Snow as a youth. As I placed part of a fried egg in my mouth he continued.

“It has always amazed me how such clearly talented people as yourselves who must also know a thing or two about the world – particularly in your neck of the woods, so to speak – have absolutely no idea about politics or politicians. It is doubly curious since many of your brethren seem to be magnetically drawn to it as an additional excitement to the day job.”

Then I remembered, years ago, having written an earnest letter on behalf of a small charitable trust associated with the dramatic arts to the relevant government department in search of a grant in which I set out the indubitable merits of the case. I was not hopeful, and rightly so. A polite refusal followed three weeks later. I showed both to McQuarry who began by sniffng, proceeded to tutting and then took out a curiously flamboyant fountain pen and started amending. Eventually, he gave up altogether and asked if he could rewrite the whole thing. When version two arrived, which I duly signed, I could not see that it was greatly different from mine, but I dutifully sent it on to the civil servant in charge. Three days letter, a rather chatty response came through my letterbox that was “more than delighted to accede to my request”. No reference was made to the earlier letter.

“No enterprise is more likely to succeed than one concealed from the enemy until it is ripe for execution”

William returned to his theme. “It’s the politics and only the politics that matters, old friend. They don’t share your romance of the law - particularly the ones who weren’t too successful at it. Worse, they are never serious about Plan A in the first place. It’s Plan B you have to worry about; the one they haven’t quite mentioned yet, unless you can read the runes.” “And do you think there is a Plan B here.” “Oh yes,” he said, “there’s a Plan B.” I looked down at the plate and noticed that my egg had congealed.

William Byfield, Gutteridge Chambers