"If one cannot catch a bird of paradise, better take a wet hen"
Nikita Krushchev, June 9, 2019
I sat down recently to watch a DVD of Barry Lyndon, based on the eponymous hero of William Makepeace Thackeray’s picaresque novel of a young eighteenth century rogue trying to become an English aristocrat and ending up in Fleet Prison.
I am very fond of Thackeray’s creation as, during my time as an undergraduate, I chaired a society specialising in recondite ancestries. Someone suggested the society should have an aristocratic patron and, with no expectation of
success, I contacted a Dowager Baroness who not only agreed but came to our annual dinner and stayed until 5 am.
A little later she wrote to me and asked if our members might like to visit the stately home of which she was the Chatelaine, her son being unmarried at that stage. One could not take the members anywhere. Their likely behaviour even at the annual
dinner was enough to have me taking the strongest antacid medication known then to science for at least three weeks beforehand. The upshot was that I went by myself to the most wonderful lunch in an enormous dining room overlooking acres of rolling
countryside with a diverse group of guests, including a second Baroness.
She was not some crusty old stick, but a singularly beautiful young woman. She asked me about university and I told her of the usual undergraduate woes. I did not feel it appropriate to say ‘and how’s life for you?’ so I opted for
‘are you very busy at the moment?’ She turned and said: ‘You cannot imagine! Have you ever heard of someone called Stanley Kubrick?’ I nodded vaguely. I had very definitely heard of him but was unsure as to whether this
was a good thing. ‘Well,’ she continued, ‘he is making some historical romp set in our home, Barry Lyndon. Horses everywhere, duels in the deer park and constant noise. The Dalai Lama is also staying. Most inspirational! But
he keeps very odd hours, needs milk at regular intervals and requires quiet to meditate. I’m exhausted.’
‘Must have been wonderful to live in those times,’ I said. The man opposite, who turned out to be a Bencher of one of the Inns, said: ‘Absolutely not! Do you know what the average life expectancy was? You contracted a minor sniffle,
it went to your chest, you died. No antibiotics! In Versailles under Louis XIV,’ he went on, diverting a little in period, ‘you don’t even want to know what was likely to be tipped over your head when you were walking outside
below a window…’ He was halted at this stage by our hostess. ‘Not during luncheon, Mark,’ she said with a smile on her face, ‘and, anyway, William wants to know if he should become a barrister or do something entirely
different.’ ‘Barrister,’ he said, ‘not that much work around at the beginning but you’ll probably get a tenancy if you stick at it. Like young actors and auditions. Also, join…’ He named his own Inn.
I took both pieces of advice.
Watching the film, I pondered whether there is some survival instinct we all have whereby our brain filters out much of the bad we suffer in our earlier years, replacing it with sepia tinted memories disproportionately favouring the pleasant; like
memories of childhood holiday locations, destroyed by revisiting them in older age. Outside the rain poured down. I had read earlier of the leadership candidates for Prime Minister revealing eccentrically curtailed memories of former drug use
before someone else did and an email about how the criminal Bar was contemplating going on strike again and wondered… Was the golden age we all hark back to so golden? Were the facilities that wonderful then? True, there were beacons of
hope in new Palais de Justice and in central London individual cooks at courts produced decent food instead of branded nightmare, but there were also courts with no facilities at all or just dreadful coffee. I cross-examined a man once in a Berkshire
county courthouse above the Co-Op, sitting next to him in a cramped space. Work was better paid, but did we think so then? Did we just take it all for granted? I think there was one big difference. There was hope, based on going forward. Now it
all seems like a race to the bottom with little for young barristers to aim for when they are more senior. But, if we are truthful, just like the charm of the eighteenth century, it wasn’t all a bed of roses.
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.