I have often wondered whether people’s interest in politics and world events is in inverse proportion to the amount they actually have to do. Who are all these people who are tweeting and emailing programmes like The Daily Politics every weekday lunch hour? As I said to Hetty Briar-Pitt only recently: ‘Do these people have nothing better to do?’ Her response was fair enough: ‘Well, you were watching it. When I’m not in court, I have my children to look after.’ Hetty did marry a High Court judge a couple of years ago, but there is no issue; so I took this to be a reference to her four-legged equine brood in the stables.
Anyway, I was interested in my own observation, even if no-one else was. I remember when at university, despite having an unhealthy interest in genealogy, described now I think as ‘geeky’, it took me four days to discover that the Duke of Gloucester was dead, despite the fact that the flags were all flying around the colleges at half-mast. There were rehearsals for plays, concerts and parties, tutorials and lectures. I really did not have time then for ‘news’.
I am in a strange case with Roderick Twist, who spends his whole life making sure he falls the right side of the fence post on which he appears to be impaled when any question of principle arises. It is one of those sagas that has the suspense of the film noirs of the fifties, where you know something awful is about to happen but not quite where or when. It is a perfectly simple case of one gang beating up another with tragically fatal consequences but, as each prosecution witness enters the witness box, you have no idea whether the dislike for snitching or the need for judicial revenge will win the day.
Defence counsel have a strangely sinking feeling, as each witness might or might not implicate their client, may say nothing at all or may simply tease the court. The prosecution is also in a state of queasiness, as it has to decide whether the witness in question is simply stupid, malicious or, again, having fun. The judge just wants to use New Labour’s hearsay revolution to have everything the witness ever said about the topic put before the jury to let them make of it what they will. Whilst that makes for an easier summing-up, it is not really clear to whose advantage it works, if anybody’s.
Many of the witnesses have chosen not to attend at all, at least to start with, and so this has allowed us the time to catch up in snatches on the great referendum debate or the resistible rise of Donald Trump. The discussions have not progressed terribly far. We are split over whether to stay or to go, not only between each other but also within our own minds. Harry Dashwood, a bright and enthusiastic junior from the chambers next to ours, summed up the dilemma. ‘We should be free to run our own country, create our own laws, and discharge our duties to the profession as we would wish to do.’ Comments around the table in the Bar Mess ranged from ‘Exactly!’, through ‘Do you mean Europe is worse than Grayling?’, to ‘You sound like Edward VIII’s abdication broadcast’. ‘Rats!’ said Harry, ‘and I thought I had made a decision.’ Donald Trump was somewhat easier. We started incredulous but became increasingly hopeful of his successful candidature based, I regret to say, on a friendly malice only possible between international blood relations.
However, we never have that long to put the world to rights. Our discussions are interrupted frequently by the sort of familiar messages that punctuate trials of this kind. ‘He’s arrived’ – referring to the next witness, calculated to induce the feeling of a rapid descent in a lift from penthouse to basement. ‘The judge wants you back,’ from a visiting usher, indicating that the judicial boredom threshold has been reached or that the ‘Film on Four’ offering is not particularly riveting. Worst of all, for defence counsel, are the dreaded words over the tannoy: ‘Would defence counsel please meet with their clients as soon as possible’ – a delicately coded message indicating that the staff in the cells have now themselves reached breaking point with the whining downstairs and want to enlist alternative entertainment.
So away with the momentous events; it is time to swill down the coffee, straighten the bands and return to real life.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.