The land of embarrassment and breakfast.
March 17, 2022 – Julian Barnes.


In one’s early years at the Bar, public events in court were usually attended only by chance. I remember one into which I was drawn. I had arrived at court early and was eating egg-on-toast in the Bar Mess when my opponent dragged me into our courtroom.

It was for a ceremony to dispense small monetary awards for exceptional public service learnt about by a judge while hearing a case. The courtroom that day had an uncanny air of a sitcom set for an episode of ‘Dad’s Army’ and I feared a sense of impending catastrophe for some reason.

The resident judge, Ernest Derry QC somewhat resembled Captain Mainwaring with his number two, Eric May as Sergeant Wilson. The High Sheriff was a very impressive looking man in shrieval robes. The other judges looked jolly but bemused. In the jury box were the recipients of the awards with family members.

It was perhaps unfortunate that there had not been greater guidance as to consistency in the sums being awarded or that two ceremonies had not been held on different days. Alternatively, it may have been one of those small acts of personality, spirit and humour propagated by those toiling in the underpaid and undervalued world of the List Office.

Ernest welcomed the Bar and the recipients in his usual ponderous way and announced a £100 award to a man who had tackled an armed robber with a skill seen normally on the international rugby field, bringing him to the ground and subduing him pending the arrival of armed police.

Eric, an altogether more generous man, then awarded £200 to a woman who had called the police when she saw her neighbour’s house being burgled, which one might have thought an act not really requiring much acknowledgment at all.

The group of recipients and their families became restless: that British sense of fair play had been wounded. As the ceremony went on with increasing financial contradictions, the agitation became a distinct rumble of discontent. Actual whispering could be made out: ‘Why has she got more than him?’

Ernest detected the treacherous ground on which the judges were now treading and made a short, pompous speech to draw proceedings to a close. He was also desperate to get the jury out in my case, which was being tried by him, and it was already half-past ten.

He had reckoned without the impressive-looking and elegantly attired High Sheriff who felt it was time he said something. ‘Ladies and Gents,’ he started, in an unexpected and very broad Brummie accent, ‘what a great day and thank you Ernie for organising it.’ The Bar froze, although there was a delightful internal shiver of pleasure we all felt simultaneously. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to round it off with a cup of something in your rooms, Ernie, if that’s OK and let’s do one of these again soon?’

Ernest drew himself up to his full height, which was not great, and said through gritted teeth. ‘Yes, splendid! Can’t be too long of course ha ha ha, but anyone who wants to come in is very welcome.’ An evil look at the Bar suggested, correctly, that this did not include us. A very tetchy day in court followed…

Chance never came my way again for one of those ceremonies but over the years I have attended an increasing number of valedictory services for retiring judges. They come with a growing feeling of one’s own mortality. They, too, of course vary in feel with the judge concerned but are usually rather uplifting events, when you remember the judge as a fellow practitioner and often a friend, and you see them there with their family in court. Indeed, it would be a hard person who did not have a small tear in the eye.

I myself attended a valedictory for a wonderful lady and judge at a senior criminal court only last week. The court was packed with the judiciary and the Bar as well as many court staff – always the litmus test of a judge’s true reputation – and the whole event including the ceremony and speeches were, on this occasion, a huge collective embrace of the person concerned.

I thought back suddenly to that rather different event all those years ago as I listened to the very moving and meaningful speech she was giving. I had to smile, thinking what a huge pity it was she hadn’t been there on that day as we would have ended up on the floor laughing uncontrollably, and a happy tear ran down my cheek.