We’ll meet again, do know where, do know when!
With apologies to the late Vera Lynn – December 8, 2020
Two memories came to my mind on Monday last. First, a very old friend who had taken a year out of his practice to become a very important person in our profession. He found returning to the Bar depressing. In the paid job he had been given a secretary,
sick days, holiday and, most importantly, a chauffeur to take him to very important meetings with other very important people who all talked about very important things – usually money. Now he was back to the Tube, begging the judge to allow
an early rise for the dentist and working until 2 am.
The second recollection was of a silk, still alive, still hopelessly naughty and for years rated amongst the top 10 advocates at the Bar whose improper sense of humour kept generations of barristers corpsing in court in front of bewildered judges, who
rightly wondered if they were being laughed at. The first time he led me, I was therefore somewhat surprised to find him in the loo being violently sick. Although sympathetic, a junior’s main concern in these circumstances is that he may be
like the ill-prepared understudy finding himself starring at the royal premiere. ‘I’m always like this on the first day of a trial,’ he said. ‘How awful!’ I observed. ‘Not really,’ he said. ‘If I’m
not like that, I know I’m going to be completely flat in court.’ For him, the excitement was always there.
I felt both sensations getting myself ready for court for the first time in nine months. Where was my wig? Did I get the wing collars back from the laundry? Would the spray starch come out of the tin to clean up my bands? Entry to the court had new hazards.
Failing to rub in the hand sanitiser sufficiently caused the laptop to slip from my grip and crash to the floor. It is astonishing how a British queue can express its silent disapproval, even when everyone is standing two metres apart.
The interior of the familiar building felt eery, rather like entering a school during the holidays, and my neck felt bigger as I attempted to secure collar and stud with a vice-like pinch in the robing room. In the Bar mess there was no smell of the cholesterol-laden
breakfast to which I had been looking forward or the freshly brewed coffee I was gasping to drink. This was not surprising, as there were no operative catering facilities of any kind. I made a wry joke to Amjit Singh QC who was in sole occupation
of the room trying to access the digital case system on his iPad. ‘Looks like a trip out for sarnies,’ I quipped. He looked up mournfully. ‘You’ll be lucky, there’s nowhere open round here.’ My stomach rumbled ominously
as my brain processed the implications.
A few ghostly figures entered, disgorging sandwiches wrapped in greaseproof paper from cases, an assortment of fruit, bottles of water and, in a few cases, flasks of coffee. I began to realise I was guilty of inadequate planning – although it might
have been helpful to have been given some warning. My junior, Heather Gibbons, an extremely well-organised person, looked as if she had come for a long stay and, knowing me well, clutched her store of liquids and foodstuffs possessively.
Robed and masked, like some 18th century highwayman, I abandoned the wraiths upstairs and strode into court. Heather went with the judge and my opponent to give the jury their preliminary pep talk and discover how fast they could get holidays booked or
their employers on the warpath after the judge had imparted the glad tidings that they might be here until Christmas. When all but a few excuses had been courteously brushed away by the judge and they had been selected, they were placed in plexiglass
corrals within the jury box.
The prosecutor opened his case and then the judge looked at me as if he vaguely remembered me from somewhere and said, ‘Mr Byfield? Yes, Mr Byfield. Would you like to tell the jury your defence in a few words?’ Wondering if the year had changed
me so very much, I rose to my feet as Heather beamed encouragingly. ‘Members of the jury…’ I commenced. The air conditioning caught the back of my throat and I groped quickly for the water jug while offering the jury a sickly smile
as I tried to cough discreetly. Three jurors put on their masks. The water jug? I should have guessed. There was no water jug. It too had gone.