‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

L P Hartley: The Go-Between

Someone should write the geographical life of a Silk. It began for me all over the country and moved to London; then, as austerity threw its clammy pall upon the publicly funded profession, travel began again. Some London Silks moan that they are given the cold-shoulder out of the Metropolis but I have never found that; indeed, the greatest moaners about manners off-Circuit are not always the most popular individuals themselves in central London robing rooms. I find travelling far afield the opposite of what the doom merchants say.

For a start you always know someone, or someone who knows someone who knows you. At the Bar the famed theory of six degrees of separation is an absolute maximum of two degrees. The judges view the arrival of PLCs (‘Proper London Counsel’ – not always meant as a compliment) as a rare treat and you need to prepare for a degree of teasing, roasting and the odd practical joke. But, in reality, you are besieged with tons of useful advice on where to stay, eat and enjoy yourself in the odd moments of free time. And the camaraderie of the Bar is frequently much more in evidence than nearer home. One of our great Chambers’ Silks of yesteryear relished his trips up, down and across the country. The son of a naval officer whose ship went down at the Battle of Jutland, Wally, as we knew him, although it was not his actual name, was famed for his stories: often your own told back to you later the same day with Wally assuming the starring role. He had false teeth carried in his pocket, for use only when talking and a canny sniff for gossip. He was a hit on all Circuits. He also had another less appreciated habit.

As a junior I travelled north to defend in a fraud. I knew Wally must have been there recently after a brief conversation with my opponent over coffee. ‘Had a wonderful Silk a few weeks ago from your part of the world, William,’ he said. ‘Fantastic value! He had us all in stitches; told the judge where to get off when he wanted early sitting hours and he was a fantastic cross-examiner.’ This could have been a number of people. ‘It was sad, though,’ he went on. ‘He wanted to stand everyone dinner in this swanky restaurant a couple of miles from here and organised everything. Really good wines! The problem was – and he was incredibly embarrassed – that when the bill came, he’d lost his wallet. Of course, we all chipped in and settled the bill. He wanted to send us a cheque, but we wouldn’t hear of it.’ ‘Wally? Was his name Wally?’ I asked, light dawning. ‘Yes, that’s it,’ he replied, ‘What a great bloke!’ Wally’s wallet was seen as frequently as a total eclipse of the sun.

"Fantastic value! He had us all in stitches; told the judge where to get off when he wanted early sitting hours and he was a fantastic cross-examiner."

Last week found Hetty Briar-Pitt and myself trudging from the station of my old university city to a palais de justice to co-defend in a saga involving knives. I remembered another weird thing about Circuit practice. However much you love a place, even if you have lived, worked or studied in it, when you go there as a barrister, it doesn’t feel yours as it once used to and will do again when you next visit it socially. The centre of your world on Circuit is the court, your colleagues and your client. I wonder if actors in a repertory company know the feeling?

Hetty detected something of it in our walk to the court. ‘You’re looking weird,’ she announced. ‘I had a strange evening in that place,’ I said, pointing to an old house opposite in a little lane. ‘I fell in with a group of monks one May and spent the whole weekend there getting drunk. They called it a cell.’ ‘Come on!’ said Hetty. ‘Time to get you into some other cells otherwise I’m in danger of losing you to the past.’ So, I walked on to the gritty day ahead, as if having surfaced from a deep and warm lagoon that wanted me to stay.

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.