Secret E-Diary - November 2013

After life on the circuit and (not far) beyond, la dolce vita beckons

October 11, 2013: “All things atrocious and shameless flock from all parts to Rome” – Tacitus

A London criminal barrister’s life has a pattern: a case at Snaresbrook, a plea at Inner London, a trek out to Harrow, something juicy at the Bailey, the joys of Woolwich. True, some buildings look increasingly ropey, the facilities in the Bar Mess diminish on an almost hourly basis, the coffee comes in larger cups at higher prices; but our interest does not come from these sybaritic niceties as much as the infinite variety of people that we meet.


Then, particularly as practices grow, we go further afield and, indeed, off-circuit. There, the first few days of barely concealed hostility in the foreign robing room makes way for a grudging necessity to gossip and compare war stories and ends in some best-forgotten “all-nighter” at the local wine bar. But, where our friends and relations in banking and commerce seem to fly to exotic locations as part of their routine, our travel is confined to the outposts of our circuit and away from it to Preston, Sheffield, Birmingham, Cardiff, Peterborough, etc.

Just occasionally, something different comes along. Years ago, I developed a small Personal Injury practice in East Anglia and was asked to visit fishing fleets to examine engine rooms and slippery decks. On my first such occasion, I went to a curry house with my instructing solicitor and boasted to him of my naval experience, in reality based upon a family holiday on the Norfolk Broads in 1972. On board the trawler, the grease and grime of the engine-room started speedily to produce symptoms of what my mother used to call “queasiness”. “Bit choppy!” I said to the Captain. “Choppy? We ha’nt left harbour yet, boss.” Amidst sniggering from the crew, I reappeared on deck to share my curry with the local marine life.

But last Monday was much nearer James Bond than Billy Budd as Andrew, my senior clerk, announced that I had a consultation out of London. “For goodness sake, Andrew!” I said, “I know things change, but the rule still is that clients call on us and not the other way round.” Everyone in Chambers knows that when Andrew has something unpleasant to say, his face collapses into what sci-fi aficionados call shape-shifting. He remained immobile. So, it was good news.

“Rome, sir,” he announced, with a faint twinkle in his eye. You, Mr Corkhill and his pupil, Mr Awaz, will be going to Rome.” I started to say something. “Expenses paid, sir.” I stopped and opened my mouth again. “Brief fee up front, sir.” I closed my mouth. Then, to avoid looking like one of those expensive fish my more successful clients have in their Essex fishponds, I did manage to say something. “Is Mr Corkhill going to be paying for his pupil to come with us?” Suddenly, just like an episode of Star Trek, The Next Generation, Andrew’s limbs collapsed into a rhythmic collage and he came very close to me and whispered: “He’s the reason you’re all going.”

There are moments when conversations should not be conducted in the Clerks’ Room. Despite all the computer clatter and the multiple phone conversations, junior clerks have an uncanny knack of hearing anything juicy that is said despite all the cacophony. I used my eyes to beckon Andrew to my room. The only method of hearing what is said there, short of bugging, is to secrete oneself in a smallish cupboard that lies adjacent to it. It is effective. I used it myself as a junior at a critical moment in my career to listen surreptitiously to my then Head of Chambers. The only drawback is that if anyone happens to open the door, it is rather difficult to give a convincing explanation for one’s presence.

“What’s this all about?” I asked. “It’s top secret, sir, but Mr Awaz will call you later on to explain it… in a coded way.” I was, and must have looked, bewildered. “It’s for a government that wants money…not ours…well I mean ours does want money, but this one is foreign. One of these sanctions jobs. The foreign government knows Mr Awaz’s uncle. He’s brought in Mr Corkill out of loyalty and you’ve been chosen because you represented Charles I in that Balloon Debate at Middle Temple recently.”

Occasionally, I have a sensation that what is happening around me must be part of a dream from which I have not yet awakened. However, since I am typing this entry at Heathrow watching Paddy Corkhill staggering towards me across the concourse, this is either a very long dream indeed, or it is really happening.

William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious.