Isaiah, Chapter 40, Verse 3.

Sometimes when writing a diary, the finger trembles and, in the case of an e-diary, is loathe to touch the computer key. Memories can be painful and unwelcome. Such it was recently when I was thinking about yet another appalling and pointless act of terror followed by an equally pointless reaction by politicians playing a round of their favourite parlour game, ‘Send Me to Parliament!’; this time in a special Christmas edition of this perennial favourite.

The painful memory was somewhat tangential. It was of reading Law at university. For a variety of reasons, I had really wanted to read History. Thus, when scanning my potential options for the last two years of my course, I was not thinking of a legal career so much as dodging topics such as Roman Law, the law of Evidence or English Legal History. As a development which began in my year, it was possible for me to take Moral and Political Philosophy as an option, much to the amusement of those undergraduates who were taking it as their real subject. Additionally, there was another pleasing option: Criminal Law and Penology.

Several of my friends on the same mission found ourselves taught by a very enthusiastic, single-minded and unintentionally eccentric young tutor who, instead of teaching us in a college, gave his tutorials in the bowels of the university law library. They lasted an hour and a half every fortnight and, apart from saying ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’, myself and my tutorial partner were not required to speak, as our tutor posed hypothetical questions which he answered himself at the last moment, just before your heart stopped. We waited for our tutorials at the far end of this basement maze. What we had not appreciated was that a large pipe transmitting heat around the basement also had the unhappy effect of carrying a voice from where we stood into the lion’s den. This was only discovered after I had spent ten minutes imitating the slightly querulous tones of our teacher to my tutorial partner only to find that as the existing tutees departed, they had tears of laughter streaming down their faces and we saw a darker than usual look on the tutor’s visage.

However, despite the frivolous intent in taking the subject, I became strangely drawn to it and remember it better than other more customary tutorials on Tort, Contract and Land Law. I learned that crime figures fit the old quote about ‘lies, damn lies and statistics’ better than any other example. I studied the true communities that existed in a prison which were far from an ordered hierarchy from Principal Governor at the top to lowest prisoner at the bottom; but perhaps the thing that struck me most was the extent to which human beings were incapable of perceiving long periods of time.

The topic arose again last week when Hetty Briar-Pitt and her husband, a High Court judge, invited me to a pre-Christmas dinner at their flat in the Temple. For years, Hetty fled to the country at every available opportunity to see her beloved horses. Her marriage to Ernst Pennington in September 2012 caused a slow drift in her enthusiasm culminating in the employment of ‘Fiona’ this year. Fiona turned up at our summer party, was charming and capable and had an unmistakeable air of pure healthiness about her. She was a great hit. More than anything, Hetty trusts her completely with the equine children. And so, Ernst’s bachelor pad of old had now become a family flat.

Over Hetty’s cassoulet of Gressingham duck, which she told us had been killed humanely just as I was putting my fork into the first mouthful, I asked Ernst whether he was of the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ variety. He put on his best High Court manner: ‘I judge each case on its specific facts.’ Then I told him of my penological background and the research that suggested the human mind could not conceive a time-period of more than a few weeks, so that increasing the length of sentences was no real deterrent at all and I added that in the early 19th century, capital punishment was the prescribed sentence for some 220 crimes, including ‘being in the company of a Gypsy for one month’, but it proved to be precious little deterrence. ‘William,’ said Hetty, as she glided in from the kitchen with her gooseberry sauce, ‘you are a simpleton sometimes. It’s not the prisoners’ attention that politicians are seeking to command. It is that of the voters.’

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.