Once upon a time, sound was new technology.

May 13, 2020  – Peter Jackson


Life in this new technocracy is getting a little out of hand. We had a remote meeting yesterday of Gutteridge-19, the steering group set up to guide Chambers through novel times. Suddenly our screens were filled with a series of blurred images and sounds of panting. As the online screen resolution stabilised, we could see a scene reminiscent of those police documentaries: someone apparently fleeing through bushes.

‘Sorry!’ came a voice from the screen, ‘I’m chasing a blasted mare that’s got out. I’m wearing a body-worn camera.’ A chorus of voices came over the link – ‘It’s Hetty!’ Eventually we saw her hands held out to embrace a tree trunk. ‘I’m puffed,’ she said. ‘It’s all this slouching around.’ ‘Hetty, Hetty, where ae you?’ Another person was in the undergrowth. I was wondering if it might be David Attenborough, but my screen suddenly became filled by the face of Mr Justice Ernst Pennington, Hetty’s husband. ‘There you are,’ he said. ‘Why are you wearing that camera on your head and carrying your iPad darling?’ ‘Sshh darling!’ said Hetty, in a tone normally reserved for the horses, ‘I am inter-connected to Chambers.’ Ernst dived into a thicket and, cheered by this vignette, we went on to our current financial worries.

My idea of a daily Zoom briefing where senior members of Chambers’ committees, flanked by appropriate experts from the worlds of accounting and psychology, made daily statements and showed us charts was rejected without a vote. I only had to look at the faces in the little presence boxes around my screen, as well as listening to the giggling of three juniors who thought they had muted the rest of us and were only connected on audio to each other. ‘What a ….!’ I heard one say, and, yes, everyone did catch the last word.

There is huge anxiety in Chambers, as there is all over the country, about where this is going to end. Roderick Twist, part of the ‘trimming’ duo known as the Twist Brothers, put it unusually well. The preliminary little cough, not dry or repetitive thankfully, caused his face to appear on all our screens as he read out a digital headline from a newspaper reporting that Chief Constables feared a massive crime-wave once lockdown was over. His words – ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ – resonated with us all. Paddy Corkhill, clutching what was either a glass of sparkling water with large chunks of ice and a slice of lime, or something else, bemoaned the demise of proper chief constables, those colonels or other stalwarts of the gentry so beloved of Miss Marple, and their replacement with ex-plods who have now become second-rate bureaucrats wearing uniforms garlanded with self-congratulatory spaghetti.

The following day I found myself on another remote cloud floating into court at the Royal Courts of Justice to pursue a rather hopeless appeal against conviction. The courtroom was empty except for a couple of what looked like matchstick people in the centre of my screen. It turned out to be the associate and a short-hand writer. The judges came up in three separate locations and listened to me in complete silence: a unique experience and very different from the real thing. This completely threw me as I had no idea whether my submissions had gone down (a) very well, (b) very badly or (c) somewhere in between. The solution to that lockdown puzzle proved to be (b) when they emerged from their virtual retirement room. Ah well… I tried.

Later in the day a drama unfolded which is rare in these ghostly times. Paddy Corkhill’s wife rang me to say that Paddy was in hospital. ‘Not Corona?’ I asked with fear as Paddy must have a full house of risk factors. ‘No, William,’ she replied, ‘he is so unused to traffic now that he just walked across a main road and got clipped by a taxi.’ I went cold. ‘He’s not seriously injured, but he has to stay in for a few days. Usual drill. No visitors.’ Later in the day I saw a remote link from someone I did not recognise. It asked me to connect at 7pm. I did, and there was Paddy on my screen looking rather like a mummy, swathed in head bandages. He managed to give me a thumbs-up. I noticed some medication on his side table with ‘Fever’ written on it. Rather pointlessly, I said ‘What’s that bottle? You haven’t got a fever have you?’ Suddenly, a nurse’s face came into view. ‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘He’s fine. That’s a bottle of tonic water…’