We used to have a Chambers’ Dinner every year. There was always a new Silk or a successful application to the High Court or Circuit Bench. There was a Garden Party every summer: a lavish affair to say thank you to loyal solicitors and to entertain the great and the good of the legal profession. Now, Chambers’ Dinner is an occasional event: few successful juniors want to hazard Silk. The newly anointed judges increasingly want to put the Bar behind them and the Summer Party vanished some years ago. The guests still came because the party was legendary, but not, alas, the members. Having to explain to all those solicitors and eminent judicial figures the dwindling turnout from within became rather wearing.
This year, a few weeks ago, we did have a dinner after a bumper year. Two members had rashly decided to try for those once magic letters and both had succeeded. No less than four members had opted to take the Queen’s Shilling and dispense justice for a living. I have to say that the impetus for this dinner came from our new recruits to Chambers, perhaps seeing something here that the indigenous population has lost, and, in a fit of defiance worthy of Alexis Tsipras, the General Management Committee ordered that nothing should be spared: glittering location, scrumptious fare and venerable wines. “Fin de siècle,” I commented to Paddy Corkill after his seventh glass of Prosecco. “Well, whatever it is, it’s nice to see the fish course reinstated,” he replied. Hetty Briar-Pitt had taken my meaning, however, saying “The Masque of the Red Death, more like.” I did not know she enjoyed the works of Edgar Alan Poe.
Anyway, all was going pretty well on the whole until speeches. I gave my own abridged State of the Nation address with a few sarcastic jibes, which Chambers always seems to enjoy after consuming a few gallons of wine, and a delightful former member and now circuit judge somewhere off the M25, Jocatta Marsham, replied on behalf of the guests. It was, as sometimes these speeches are, very touching and I felt a tear in my eye. Then came my mistake.
Alastair Gordon-Jones has not appeared in my diary before. He had a rather eccentric career in Chambers before departing to the sun and sand to be some kind of Attorney General in a faraway imperial outpost. He then returned and proved to have a remarkable talent for writing biographies and memoirs. His oeuvres often found their way into print and on to the shelves of the smaller legal booksellers and were, unusually in my experience, both funny and original. He had been a door tenant for years, keeping up that tenuous but important connection between Chambers and the world beyond. He never actually came to any events, so it was a surprise when he told the clerks he would attend our special dinner and even more of a surprise when he accepted my invitation to say a few words.
Time is a strange old thing. It leaves one with a blurred impression of people and their characteristics. Indeed, it was only when he got to his feet I remembered that his voice, unlike his written words, had a Colonel Blimpish tone rather out of tune with the modern age and just ever so slightly false. His speech was jolly enough to begin with and, indeed, I was beginning to feel for my mobile phone to order the carriages after a successful night, when I heard him say: “…I was surprised to see so many fillies in the Gutteridge paddock tonight. Nothing against it myself. Beautiful creatures. God’s better idea. But, rather inclined to rear up at the starting tape, what?! Nasty old judge equals lots of young tears, eh?” There was a stunned silence except for the junior tenant who had an uncontrollable paroxysm of laughing. Mad thoughts flashed across my mind. I rose to my feet, clutched the microphone stand and said: “The Queen!” Amidst the noise of chairs scraping, and coffee spoons falling, we had an unconventional second loyal toast and fled to the bar.
The next day I opened my emails. There is a demand for an Extraordinary General Meeting of Chambers to remove Gordon-Jones’ door tenancy and a message from a leading broadsheet asking if I might give them a call. The era of austerity may have had more goodness in it than I had realised.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.