Secret E-Diary

Cheers for a new year

'It takes no more time to see the good side of life than to see the bad.' 10 January 2020 Jimmy Buffett

I am prone at Christmas time, instead of reading the new books kindly given to me, to go to the bookshelves in my study, avoiding company, and look at something I never read or never finished. This year it was The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga: a thematic work that seeps into the reader’s consciousness as a description of a passing age; an age not like the mediaeval depictions of a Hollywood movie – people like us, just from a long time ago and wearing silly clothes – but rather involving people who thought differently and were much more deeply rooted in the triumphs and disasters of everyday life. Whether it was a festive day or one of collective mourning or whether it was a time of passionate kindness or of intense cruelty, not only was it governed by the rhythms of nature, religious belief and planned diversions but interrupted at random moments by tragedy wholly beyond the apparent control of humankind.

As I swilled the forbidden port around my glass, I noticed an old photograph from my earlier days in Chambers. We were much smaller then, as were all sets, and I looked at the faces: some still criminal hacks in our set or another, some gracing the Bench, and some in politics, finance or retirement. An even greater number were… who knows where. And amongst the older members, most had passed on.

Glimpses of memory surfaced: kind Eleanor Sweet who had shouted at a judge for bullying me, when she was actually my opponent; the colourful George Arlington-Crabbe who had got six months for filching some money from a set he went on to run; Eric Wilson who had bored juries to death with endless recitations of much the same speech and R F V Lindon, whose very look whilst standing tall and elegant in court, had frozen opponents and judges alike.

Were they another age? Certainly they did not walk, talk and eat whilst taking surreptitious or open looks at mobile phones. They did not have the anxiety of wondering which pigeon-hole they fitted into socially, sexually or politically. They didn’t have 50 emails, text messages and the rest per day to read and often answer. Nor did they have the worry that climate change might shortly give them ‘something worth worrying about’ – a favourite phrase of one of my schoolmasters.

I was just wondering whether passing the port clockwise taking at least a nip, a superstition of my mother, operates in the case of a sole individual when the door opened and a military friend staying with us, Colonel Blimp as we call him although he neither holds that rank nor bears that surname, strode into the room and opened the window.

‘Good God William,’ he said, ‘bit of a fug in here, what?! Are you having one of your maudlin sessions?’ He grabbed the decanter (anti-clockwise) and proceeded to pour a huge glass of the precious nectar. ‘You barristers! Moan, moan, moan. Legal aid cuts this, incompetent prosecutions that, useless clients this, too much Chambers rent that.’ He paused to take a huge swig of the port.

‘You’re alive… somehow, and I must say a lot of us don’t know how. Don’t you ever consider that most people, the vast majority, have to work to live? They hate what they do. They are green with envy when they hear your stories, even the true ones. Some of them make more money than you, but a lot of them are miserable and wish they had done what they really wanted to do. Whereas you lot, you work with people like yourselves, people who are interesting and are all doing the job you love. Self-employed, but cosseted by nannies in the form of your clerks, you live in what is to most of the rest of the world a fairy tale.’

Then he stared at me. ‘I quite enjoyed the army but I wanted to be a barrister too. Just didn’t have the courage not to be employed. Funny thing that, isn’t it? An army man saying he lacked courage. It’s a different sort I suppose. Anyway, I’m going back to the party and you come too.’

I rose from my chair. I suddenly felt much more cheerful. There was possibly a little something in what he said. Perhaps we are lucky. Perhaps we are an age to which future generations will look back wistfully. And he would have made a very good barrister actually. Yes, I would join the party. Amongst other reasons, he had finished my port…

William Byfield*, Gutteridge Chambers

* William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.

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