Memory is the mother of all wisdom.

June 13, 2020 – Aeschylus


One unexpected side effect of lockdown is that people are contacting long-lost friends and acquaintances. A day or two ago, I had finished a specially commissioned virtual talk to Chambers entitled ‘Excellence in Advocacy’. Numbers were better than expected, although Paddy Corkill did say he thought he had pressed a link to another advertised Chambers presentation – ‘My Favourite Cocktail’.

The talk actually illustrated all the worst features of advocacy, particularly as I was finding it difficult to centre my image on the screen, but there was one interesting question from a recent tenant – Anna Browne. She asked how one could deal with the cross-examination of witnesses who stuck consistently to an account that one’s client had perpetrated some awful crime against them in circumstances where they were, on the defence thesis, deliberately and determinedly incriminating an innocent person.

The effect of looking at all those faces in vivid colour on my screen caused memories of the talk to linger in my brain well after the meeting had ended. I was thinking about Anna’s question when my mobile phone rang and a voice I did not recognise said: ‘Hello William. It is William, isn’t it?’ ‘Yes,’ I replied, wondering if I was about to be asked if I had recently been involved in a motoring accident. ‘It’s Peter Davies.’ I was none the wiser. ‘Peter Davies from Heathpoint.’ I certainly remembered Heathpoint, an academy of learning I had attended until I was about 12. Peter Davies… yes, I remembered him. We can’t have spoken in more than half a century.

‘I got your details from Robert Wakely,’ he said. I know Robert but Peter did not expatiate on how he did. ‘How are you?’ We went through the slightly amended COVID version of this standard enquiry. ‘My parents are both dead,’ he said. This, I thought to myself, was hardly surprising given the passage of time. Then he went on and revealed why he had called: ‘My brother and I were talking about you on a recent Skype call. Didn’t our father take your appendix out?’

Then the memory hit with an almighty thud. Mr Davies, the surgeon. He did remove my appendix. Not when we were at Heathpoint but when I had moved on to a different school about two years later.

The day had dawned bright but not cheerful. I had failed to learn some rather awkward French verbs and faced Anton Catesby, my then young and very radical French master who rather treacherously, given his communist sympathies, used to beat us if we were awarded under 80% in any piece of work. Nowadays, this teaching device would rightly cause shock and horror. I should perhaps record that at the end of that year I was bottom in French with 79 out of 100.

Anyway, in Geography, the lesson before, I faked a stomach ache so well that I was sent home and my mother called our lovely old family GP to come and see me. He could usually be relied upon to write a sick note and give you nice-tasting medicine but I had acted out of my skin and he called in a specialist. ‘I will tell him,’ I thought. ‘He doesn’t know me so it will be easier.’ Into my bedroom walked Peter’s father. I never knew he was a surgeon and the truth froze on my lips as he said. ‘Hello, young William.’ He examined me rather vigorously and pronounced, in a way that caused me to distrust doctors thereafter, that I had appendicitis. The offending organ was surgically removed the next day and I never told a soul the truth ever. My parents would have killed me. They were so worried.

‘What I was saying to my brother,’ said Peter, ‘was that dad always thought you had faked it because your appendix was perfectly normal. Had you?’ The virus had brought us here after a lifetime and for the first time in my life, I confessed. ‘Why didn’t you stop them and just tell the truth?’ he said, laughing. ‘I couldn’t, once I had started it,’ was my reply. We caught up for a little while and then parted, probably, sadly, never to speak again. I picked up the phone to Andrew, our senior clerk. ‘Andrew,’ I said, ‘is it possible to post something to that meeting we just had? I realise I can answer a question asked me by Anna Browne.’