Privacy is Paradise.
December 31, 2022 – Holly Hunter

Just after Christmas lunch this year, I saw an email from a solicitor on my phone asking how the advice I had promised him was coming along. I sighed and wondered whether all those work-life balance classes I had approved in Chambers had any point at all. I stared with loathing at my smartphone, my computer and my electronic pad. I decided I would have an immediate rest upstairs but I couldn’t sleep. Technology and communication: so essential nowadays but such controlling monsters. Then a memory came to mind and I started to laugh as I lay back on the bed.

It started in a restaurant near Chelsea football ground when I was about eight years’ call dining with a barrister friend, Stephen Caudwell, who is now stratospherically successful. He ordered a whole decanter of vintage port at the end of the meal and in a parody of a famous scene from Brideshead Revisited, I asked him: ‘Ought we to be drunk every night?’ ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘I think so.’ ‘I think so too.’ There was at least a gap in Brideshead before Sebastian Flyte ended up in the Moroccan dipso ward, whereas I felt very strange at Clacton Magistrates’ Court the very next day.

On arrival there, I saw my client with his father who had a rather inappropriate college scarf wrapped round his neck. He was appearing on some affray charge. His father took me to one side. ‘Can’t you do anything for him, William? The evidence is overwhelming, but if he pleaded guilty he needn’t go inside.’ I don’t know when the realisation first struck me that he wasn’t in fact my client’s father. It was certainly not immediate. Nor am I entirely sure when I realised he was actually the prosecuting advocate. By the end of the conversation, I not only knew he was my opponent but also who he was – some notorious horror I had always managed to avoid thus far.

At lunchtime I had the bright idea to go and lie on the beach, having placed my jacket behind my head as a pillow. I thought the health-giving qualities of the sea air might restore me. In the afternoon, I felt hot and took out the silk handkerchief in my breast pocket to mop my brow. With it came a rather large quantity of sand that fell on to the advocates’ table. Even without looking, I knew the Bench was staring at me and I have always put my client’s acquittal down to their sympathy for him. ‘University Challenged’, as I now remember my opponent was nicknamed, walked off in a huff.

Looking up my symptoms in mother’s 1929 edition of the Daily Express Book of Good Health, I concluded I was having a nervous breakdown and visited a private doctor a few days later recommended to me by an old friend (whose aunt she apparently was) as I felt this all needed to be private in every possible sense of the word.

Dr McWallis had an immediate and electrifying effect on me. It was matron, Margaret Thatcher and the late Queen Mary all rolled into one. She listened to me in silence but with pursed lips as I explained I was a young member of the Bar whose career might be ruined by gossip relating to my stability and how I needed a private psychiatrist of the most discreet kind. I detailed my symptoms.

Dismissing mother’s book out of hand, she said: ‘I don’t know about your brain, Mr Byfield, but there’s something pretty fundamentally wrong with your liver and, while you’re here, just pop yourself on the scales if you would.’ Today, it would be clinics, blood tests (with little asterisks by the bad ones), consultants. She recommended a thorough and abstemious rest in the hills above Naples at a specific hotel to which I decamped the week after. On the second day, Antonello, a young waiter who had attached himself to me for some reason, had bad news to impart as he brought a light herb soufflé. ‘Your-a-clerke, he phone, and he say a pinion is needed for some case of something.’ I looked up like the hunted animal hearing the hounds. Antonello smiled: ‘I tell him you are-a-not here. Did I do right signore?’ ‘Yes, Antonello,’ I replied, trying to remember how many lire made a pound before passing him some notes. ‘Brilliant, and I won’t be here for the next two weeks.’ So peaceful… so restful… Then the memory was rudely interrupted by a deadly ping and a text: ‘sorry W, me again! If I can have that advice by midnight, it would be great.’