Poor old Jeremy Corbyn. There he was, having a perfectly happy life on the backbenches, when, through a series of mishaps, he found himself Leader of the Labour Party. It reminded me in one sense of Larry Lewis QC, an old friend of mine in a family law set of a similar size to Gutteridge. Larry had and has a very successful practice and delights us all with his wicked tongue and cheeky grin.
He used to be particularly good at setting off a fit of “corpsing” in court and then somehow managing to suppress his laughter whilst the rest of us either had to dive under counsel’s row or nearly burst trying to stop ourselves laughing out loud. I remember one occasion when we were co-defending a drugs gang. The key witness against my client was a man who identified him as having being seen with a number of black plastic bags that were later discovered to be full of class A drugs. When the witness came into the witness box and looked across the courtroom it turned out that he was severely cross-eyed. Whilst one would never find someone else’s disability amusing, the look on prosecuting counsel’s face as he appreciated for the first time that his star identification witness appeared to be looking in two different directions at once struck Larry as hugely comic. He rolled his own eyes across counsel’s row and suddenly we were all having the utmost difficulty in not exploding. I can still remember the strain to my own stomach muscles as I tried to stop laughing, particularly as the circuit judge trying our case was exceptionally starchy which, of course, made the desire to laugh even worse. Larry, however, managed to turn it off even as my junior was making audible noises caused by air escaping from the sides of her mouth.
I have it on very good authority that he used to sit at the back of his own chambers’ meetings and generally poke fun at his Head of Chambers by making observations sotto voce that would cause a ripple of laughter to spread around the room. That was until the day he was strong-armed into becoming Head of Chambers himself. His old head, James Ellis, had been the subject of dangerous little meetings in the Inner Temple tea room, now sadly gone for ever, where groups of members had sipped tea and eaten buttered crumpets whilst moaning about their clerks and criticising Ellis’ incapacity to adapt to a changing world. Larry, who was a brilliant orator, had his fair share of Lapsang Souchong and Lurpak and, without real malice, added his voice to those who thought James ought to go.
Then, in the twinkling of an eye, Ellis did step down. Those juniors, who had found Larry so perceptive and funny, came to him en masse and persuaded him to take over and, in a moment of heady madness, he did so. Never was a man more changed. I remember having a drink with him a couple of months later. All he could talk about was management committees, the perfidy of his fellow barristers and the inability of people to understand how running a set of chambers was no picnic. Others told me of tetchy chambers’ meetings where eventually even the slightest whiff of criticism would bring threats from him to resign and he had assumed an uncomfortable gravitas that was so unlike the Larry we knew. He even seemed to dress differently.
Rather as Thomas à Becket’s transformation from sinner to saint did not go down a bundle with either the Norman barons or King Henry II, Larry’s new role as the careworn landlord of his set did not suit his impish character even though his own members were prepared, in fact, to give him what I think the Strasbourg court calls a wide margin of appreciation and most certainly did not want yet another Head of Chambers to go under the proverbial bus whilst being watched with intense interest by a febrile Bar. The end came in the silliest way possible. At the annual chambers’ AGM his colleagues baulked at the choice of rather tasteless soft furnishings for their new reception area. He rose, left the room and had resigned ten minutes later.
He is one of the troops again now quipping and larking about, still in the same set, but somehow, and forever, things will never be quite the same – for them or for him.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.