Sadly, more advancing years bring financial, health and existence issues and the numbers shrink. There are, however, miracles. First is the miracle of regeneration. You see people you have not seen for 30 years or more and their faces are old and altered. Then, even as you look at them, faces change to those you remember from undergraduate years. Second is the miracle of time-travel. Standing in the quadrangle talking to a friend, after consuming many and various things, you are suddenly transported back in time to your old rooms to drink coffee, finish an essay, or put on an LP on your deck. Your forward leg actually starts to move. Faces long forgotten, events from the past, sounds, tastes or smells briefly sparkle in the mind like the brief coloured burst of a firework.
On this occasion, I found myself seated next to William McQuarry, former undergraduate of the college, and presently Warden of another one – following a distinguished career in the home civil service. Neither of us needed the miracles of regeneration and time-travel on this occasion, as he had stayed with me just four months previous.
Indeed, it was he who congealed my breakfast egg by warning me that what the Government then appeared to be doing to our profession was but a sleight of hand to disguise a more diabolical scheme he ominously called Plan B.
“Well done!” he said. I must have looked puzzled. He made clear he was referring to the Bar for fending off further, and probably fatal, cuts proposed by the Government to our graduated fee regime in publicly funded criminal cases. “I must say I thought the brethren were finished this time, but you spooked the politicians enough to abandon it all, at least for now.”
I explained that the happiness was neither universal nor unalloyed, even though the criminal Bar had voted two to one, accepting the proposals to kick the cuts into the long grass. I told him I understood the anger of the “withstanders”: they thought we had retreated when total victory was in sight and left our solicitor colleagues helpless on the battlefield.
“Would we have won if we had gone on?” “You might have done,” he said. “Would they have given in to everything we wanted?” “They might have done,” he replied. “Should we have gone on then?” McQuarry paused for thought. “You had two problems,” he said. “First, the public only has a tenuous grasp of legal-aid funding.
Your carrying on with what the public wrongly saw as a strike when most of what you had actually asked for had been conceded would have lost you sympathy – and you certainly had more of that than anyone had ever expected. Second, and fundamentally, what would you have really done, and for how long, if the Government had decided it would have to be a fight to the finish? And the odds of that were fifty-fifty.”
An hour later, I was outside and clutching a glass of port when I suddenly felt an irresistible urge to run round the large quadrangle. For half the circuit I lost the intervening years and flew round past the chapel. Sadly, and in sight of the library, all my puff vanished and I halted, rather sharply. A rather unpleasant and fast thumping pounded the left side of my chest. I quickly swallowed an extra beta-blocker to supplement the second statin I had already taken with the Angels on Horseback and port. A great truth dawned.
Whatever the powers of mental and physical illusion, the limitations of life eventually insist on being heard.
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.