SecretE-Diary - October 2011

A sortie into the outside world leads to questions about how to adapt to modern times 

September 10, 2011:  “Take care to get what you like or you will be forced to like what you get”
- George Bernard Shaw.

The life of a barrister can be self-absorbing. From the Temple we venture out to all points of the compass, meeting people from walks of life we would rarely, if ever, encounter in real life.

We return to the Strand and perform the day’s dramas to each other in various wine bars and slosheries within a quarter mile radius before returning home where our loved ones give each other knowing looks as we either try unsuccessfully to repeat the sharing experience with them or, more likely, clam up with irritated monosyllabic answers when asked how the case went today.

We are received by an outside world that thinks us more important, and certainly richer, than we are – questioned by no one except the odd security person. However, when we are out of costume, such as on holiday, we are unaware how much the world has moved away from us. True, most barristers affect to be “current” and, in criminal practice, deploy street argot like good ‘uns, but, in reality, we are a race apart. Holidays can expose this. Clothes just ever so slightly wrong … a touch too modish or fractionally eccentric, from a bygone age that never really existed. Language, so effective when the customer knows who we are, is rather lost on those who do not and a certain querulous style irritates rather than intimidates. We do not like the tick-box world that gives the powerless power.

Hetty Briar-Pitt would now say: “Oh God, you’ve been away again!” Yes, it is true. I have been. Our holiday last Christmas, as this diary records, was something of a disaster. A bizarre hotel and one exasperating guest forced us back to London full of New Year’s resolutions not to repeat the experience. But, as our clients and the Bourbons prove only too often, we have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. And so, despite the weather, the journey and our depleted finances we sallied forth for the Welsh mountains and the coast.

Trouble started early. After an overnight stop in rural Shropshire, we made breakfast in good time. The production of scrambled eggs and smoked salmon took an interminable time so, whilst on my own for a few seconds, I queried, merely queried, whether I might expect delivery of this less than complex dish in the near future. All right, I may have looked over my spectacles in classic courtroom style …

Our previously pleasant waitress developed a frosty mien when she returned with the said dish, and Eggs Benedict for the now-returned other party. In the absence of any obvious explanation as to why the human thermostat in the young lady had veered from very warm to freezing, I explained, sotte voce, that I had become irritated by the wait and could have scrambled an egg faster myself.

She had obviously expected some such remark and, though a little distance away, had tuned her antennae to distance reception. She charged over to our table and said: “I heard what you said. I don’t get people like you. Your attitude.” She then moved off with this parting shot: “I think you’re odd.” Not enjoying situations where not only did I not get the last word, but barely spoke any at all, I called her back.

My remonstrance: “First, I was not speaking to you. Second, kindly repeat your final comment.” Hesitation. “Life’s too short. I don’t get you.” I pressed the point: “No. Your last comment.” “I don’t get your attitude. Life’s too short.” It was the old days at Snaresbrook again. “Do you understand my question? Your final comment …” Much hesitation. “I find people like you sorta odd.” This was immediately followed by: “My gran’s unwell and I have got a lot of other stuff to deal with. I don’t get it. Just over breakfast taking a few minutes.” I concluded with the coup de grace. “Fetch the manager, please!” She gave me one final withering look and, as she turned to head back to the kitchens, said: “Manager? Manager? Here?!”

Am I odd? Are we odd? Have we fallen for the old fiction that we are the normal ones, the majority, the community, society as a whole? Whereas is it she and clients like the hapless and wrongly accused alleged killer of the distinctly odd circuit judge, Claude Allerick, or, indeed, the whole mass of humanity with whom we rub shoulders every working day who are the real society?  If so, then protected whilst we busy ourselves with the only thing we truly love, holidays cruelly expose our bluff.

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