Secret E-Diary - October 2013

New Year in the Autumn, and the law of unintended consequences

September 15, 2013: “To be Irish is to know that in the end the world will break your heart.” – Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Some begin their new year in the Autumn; others start on January 1 and a third class commence on April 6. I am not here referring to the Chinese New Year, the Julian Calendar or the religious obsession with new moons, but the Professional New Year, followed by the universities, schools, and others, including the legal profession; the Traditional New Year celebrated with increasingly extravagant displays to warm the hearts of every rolling news channel, somewhat eclipsing those Scottish performances which were viewed by the rest of us with incomprehension and dismay in the sixties and seventies; and the Financial New Year celebrated by the Treasury, HMRC and accountants.


As I have commented in this diary before, adapting Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead, it is typical of the legal profession to start its New Year in the Autumn. For Silks, it comes with a difficult decision. Every so often, although I notice that it is considerably less often nowadays, one is invited to the Opening of the Legal Year in Westminster Abbey and the Lord Chancellor’s Breakfast. The last time I went, we had the old-style, and some would say authentic, Lord Chancellor. When I was a child I was very fond of a puppet show on the box called Rubovia. It can still be accessed on YouTube. It was the BBC at its best: in an eccentric kingdom that bore a strong resemblance to England at the Restoration or thereabouts, a series of highly camp characters extricated themselves from a variety of contrived situations. We are dressed in Rubovian style for this great event.

Processing through the Abbey, and trying to remember who is senior and junior to oneself to keep proper order, the Bar was seated somewhere around Poets’ Corner where most of the service was both visually and aurally inaccessible unless you were near to one of the broadcasting screens. You knew it was over when people in front of you started to recess. Then came the crossing of the road to the bemused stares of (for reasons I have never entirely understood) mostly Chinese tourists and entry into Westminster Hall. If you were very, very lucky you might have just snatched the odd sausage roll and if you were less fortunate you might have grabbed a glass of a substance that was called wine, but which I always imagined had been prepared by indigestion tablet manufacturers to test the efficacy of their products. The wise stayed a very short time and then repaired to Chambers where the clerks had brought in rather better fare.

I cannot imagine how this will have developed under the present Lord Chancellor; or, more truthfully, I can. I have never seen cream pies and pastries served at this event. This would not be the time to start, lest another fine British tradition of yesteryear were to assert itself. Doubtless the MOJ has used some austerity cookbook to tempt us with tasty canapés. Perhaps Capita has received the contract.

Sitting in my room on Friday with the rain pouring down outside and our hot August just a memory, looking at a desk waiting rather urgently to see some fresh briefs, I found a whole series of members drifting in until it was rather unpleasantly full. It is not unusual to be buttonholed by members of Chambers and the clerks, but this was different. For one thing, unlikely customers such as the Machiavellian Twist brothers were present together with a cross-section of all ages, from the junior tenant to Silks whose attendance in Chambers was an alternative to going to their local Day Centres.

It had a feeling of something from our national historical consciousness. All gathering to hear bad news that would shatter us for ever. What was the memory? The answer was provided by my old friend Paddy Corkhill, a senior Junior who had successfully defeated a coup against my leadership by reminding Chambers that the next Head could be worse – a clever political ploy that slightly dented our relationship for a time.

Paddy liked a drink and I could see he had already had a stiff one. “The bloody law of unintended consequences,” he said. We paused. “Falconer! Twitting about with the British Constitution. Now look what we’ve got. Now look who we’ve got.” We looked at each other. Andrew, our Senior Clerk, had put his head round the door. “Switch on the radio,” continued Paddy. His words crossed with my thoughts. “Our final summer’s over, boys and girls. Mr Chamberlain is about to declare war on Germany.”

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