Thomas Grant QC cannot sit still. He sits down and gets up again. He paces the room and then sits. I ask about his new book, The Mandela Brief (John Murray: July 2022) on the trials of the legendary Sir Sydney Kentridge QC in apartheid South Africa, and he is up again; striding, gesticulating and holding forth. The sweep of his mind ranging from Kentridge’s mesmeric advocacy to Russian show trials, from the architecture of the courtroom to the criminal trial as an engine of change. His frenetic, restless energy is like a whirlwind.

‘I was a late developer,’ says Grant, ‘but now I am quite focused.’ His prodigious productivity in recent years is testament to that: now a leading commercial and chancery silk, named Chancery Silk of 2021 by Chambers UK; a general editor of Grant and Mumford on Civil Fraud (‘a massive effort’ says Grant); recently elected chair of the Professional Negligence Bar Association; Visiting Professor of Politics and Law at Gresham College; frequent writer for the Times; co-writer of and participant in an annual play at the Old Bailey; oh, and father of three children. ‘If I am not overworked then I get nervous,’ he says.

He has also carved out a niche as a bestselling writer, historian and biographer. His first such book in 2015, Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories (John Murray Press) about the great criminal advocate whose cases from the 1960s to the 1980s liberalised Britain, was a Sunday Times bestseller. Grant followed it with a Times and Telegraph Book of the Year, Court Number One: The Old Bailey Trials that Defined Modern Britain (John Murray: 2019) examining the changing social and political mores of Britain in the 20th century through the prism of the most famous courtroom in the land, ‘the cockpit of the nation’.

His new book, The Mandela Brief, combines those themes: the gallant advocate and the battle between the individual and the state, conducted in the theatre of the courtroom. It examines six trials in which the Sir Galahad figure of Sydney Kentridge took on the might and brutality of the apartheid state, representing clients such as Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Bram Fischer QC, the Anglican Dean of Johannesburg and the family of Steve Biko with incomparable fearlessness and skill. Mandela later spoke of ‘the brilliance and courage of Sydney Kentridge which I witnessed day after day… His manner was always understated, controlled and relentlessly rational. His cross-examination was devastating.’ Grant explains this is not a biography; it is about the work, not the individual. It is a celebration of advocacy as a noble pursuit and the advocate as a noble profession.

I want to understand how it comes about that a young commercial chancery silk and author of black letter law textbooks, moonlights as a social historian of the criminal trial. Two themes emerge: a literary background and a career founded on pure serendipity in an age where modern legal careers are often so scripted.

The son of academics, Grant spent his early childhood in Nigeria, where his parents were lecturers at the University of Lagos. After Colchester Grammar School, he went to Bristol University to read English literature, tutored by the poet Charles Tomlinson. Grant says that he entertained no thoughts as to the future. Among his peers it was considered almost vulgar to talk about earning money in a future career. His university years were spent ‘posing’, reading poetry and writing plays (though he still got a first). He had no ambition to go into the law until his flatmate ‘breached the rule about living in the present’ and confessed to having applied to do a post-graduate law conversion course. Galvanised into action by such serendipity, Grant embarked on a legal career with a wig and gown handed down from a barrister aunt who worked for the Serious Fraud Office.

Grant did a common law pupillage at New Court Chambers, cadging cigarettes from George Carman QC and imbibing the tales of his great cases (‘very useful in retrospect when I came to write about Carman’s defence of Jeremy Thorpe’, says Grant). Another literary happenstance saw him assigned the ‘polymath’ Hugh Tomlinson (later QC) as his pupil-master, whom Grant now credits as having a seminal influence on his career (‘a brilliant legal mind’), but who at the time he recognised as the English translator of works by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. In his early years Grant did everything from family to landlord and tenant and a bit of crime, though he laments he never got to do a jury trial.

Grant’s big break was being led by Tomlinson in the gargantuan litigation between Francis Bacon’s estate and Marlborough Fine Art, instructed by Gerrard Tyrrell of Harbottle & Lewis, another important influence. ‘I became an expert on the literary and artistic Soho of the 50s and 60s… I was being paid to read biographies of Bacon and Lucian Freud.’ After the collapse of New Court, he moved first to 9 Old Square and then Maitland Chambers. There he spent much time acting for various oligarchs, including Mukhtar Ablyazov and Boris Berezovsky. ‘I owe a great debt to my friend and mentor, Anthony Trace QC,’ Grant says, with fondness: ‘he was one of the great civil advocates of his generation.’

It was ‘pure serendipity’ that Grant stumbled upon his niche as an author. A welcoming neighbour in Sussex, author Juliet Nicolson, mentioned that in the next village there was another barrister who had ‘done some interesting cases’ whom he might like to meet – none other than Jeremy Hutchinson QC, then in his mid-90s. Those ‘interesting cases’ including the Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Romans in Britain obscenity trials, as well as his ingenious defence of art ‘thief’ Kempton Bunton, a wonderful story recently brought to the silver screen in The Duke. And so it was that a new generation was introduced to the greatest criminal advocate of the late 20th century. Grant speaks with pride of being told recently by a young undergraduate that she had been inspired to read law and try for the Bar after reading Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories. ‘Here was an extraordinary advocate, who had led an extraordinary life,’ says Grant, ‘but unless you capture the power of their voice, great barristers are so easily forgotten. It is important to have heroes and I want to write about lawyers who are a force for good.’

Grant hopes to do the same for Sir Sydney Kentridge QC: to inspire a new generation with the life of a legal legend – now 99 and not long retired. The genesis of this book was equally serendipitous. ‘Edwin Glasgow QC, collared me and told me in tones of deadly seriousness that I had a public duty to write about Sydney, whom Edwin described as the greatest advocate of the 20th century. Edwin Glasgow is not a man you say no to… He was also right about Sydney.’

The Mandela Brief is necessarily darker in tone than Grant’s earlier books. Kentridge was a moral beacon of light, of course, but against the darkness of the apartheid regime. Lives not literature were at stake. Kentridge’s very first case as a young advocate (alone and without a leader) was a murder trial. His client was hanged. ‘I’ve always thought that if anyone had any feeling that the death penalty should be reinstituted,’ says Kentridge, ‘they should go and spend an hour on death row.’ Yet there are lighter moments. In the great Treason Trial from 1958 to 1961 in which Mandela and over 100 other members of the ANC were tried (for their lives) for treason, the state alleged the Freedom Charter was really a Communist manifesto, advocating violent revolution. The prosecution called a philosophy professor, Andrew Murray, as an ostensible expert witness on communism. A favourite game of the defence cross-examination was to read out unattributed quotations from the likes of William Pitt, Milton, Voltaire, Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson (at one point even a passage from Murray’s own writings) – and then ask the Professor whether they were communistical. When he emphatically confirmed they were, the identity of the author was gleefully revealed.

One of the themes of the book is the pathology of a legal system. Apartheid South Africa cleaved to the notion that it was an inheritor of the Anglo-European rule of law, with all the procedural trappings of an adversarial ‘fair’ trial, but the system was perverted by the apparatus of racial oppression. And yet it was in that space – between the ‘fair’ procedure and perverted outcome – that Kentridge worked his magic. In the inquiry into the ‘Sharpeville Massacre’ in 1960 (police officers opened fire on a crowd outside a police station, killing 69 and wounding 187 peaceful black protestors, the vast majority shot in the back as they fled), Kentridge was able to demonstrate that the police were not simply ‘trigger happy’; many had paused to reload their Sten guns using two or three magazines. The ‘rule of law’ required the police to account punctiliously for every bullet in the station logbook.

Similarly in the inquest into Steve Biko’s death in police custody in 1977, even though a whitewash verdict was inevitable, it was by a masterclass of advocacy in the only forum still open to opponents of the regime – the courtroom – that Kentridge exposed the venality of apartheid to the watching world. As Lord Alexander of Weedon QC wrote, ‘Through remorseless and deadly cross-examination, sometimes with brilliant irony, Kentridge established that the founder of the Black Consciousness Movement had been killed by police brutality. The verdict of accidental death was seen as risible.’

I ask what has surprised or impressed him most about Kentridge. ‘It is the sheer modesty of the man… he is so reticent about his phenomenal achievements; one of his favourite sayings, quoting Adlai Stevenson, is “flattery is all very well, as long as you don’t inhale”.’ What made him so exceptional, even peerless as an advocate? Grant explains that Kentridge was always quietly spoken, measured, understated – his flow punctuated by flashes of anger, humour or sarcasm – the smouldering, underlying rage all the more powerful for being so carefully tempered. He was never a ‘political’ lawyer but commanded the courtroom with his moral stature precisely because he was such a reasonable and urbane man, who could not be so pigeonholed. His submissions were transformed from adversarial to authoritative. During a legal submission in defence of P&O Ferries on corporate manslaughter charges at the Old Bailey (arising from the Herald of Free Enterprise tragedy), Kentridge developed his argument with such mesmeric authority that the famously brusque judge, Turner J, listened spellbound. At one point he said to Kentridge: ‘I have to agree with your lordship’s proposition.’ In his mind’s eye, he was back at the Bar and Kentridge was the judge. 

Kentridge had a reputation of ‘ruthless precision’ combined with wry humour. Ismail Mahomed (later Chief Justice of South Africa) told the story of his first brief with Kentridge shortly after he came to the Bar. It was an appeal against a disgraceful decision of a magistrate. Mahomed worked extremely hard on the draft pleadings, anxious to impress his renowned leader. He left it at Kentridge’s chambers. Later when they met, Kentridge looked at him gravely and said, ‘I am afraid that there is a mistake on every page.’ Mahomed was dismayed. Kentridge then handed the draft back to him. Mahomed had referred to what ‘the learned magistrate’ had said and done. Kentridge had crossed out ‘learned’ wherever it appeared. That was the only change he made to the draft.

The Bar, the books, the public lectures, the historical research. What makes Grant himself such an exacting taskmaster, albeit entirely self-inflicted? ‘It is my fear of the ephemerality of the law, of not having achieved something tangible, having left some lasting mark. I love books and being around books. With the written word I hope to capture the power of the courtroom to effect change.’ He has just finished an article on the 1938 trial of Bukharin in Moscow. He is contemplating his next book on the history of England in 25 trials. And with that, he is up again and off. ‘I’ve got an advice to finish, on a knotty point on the law of mortgages.’ He cannot sit still. 

The Mandela Brief: Sydney Kentridge and the Trials of Apartheid, Thomas Grant (John Murray: 21 July 2022). Sydney Kentridge carved out a reputation as South Africa’s most prominent anti-apartheid advocate – his story is entwined with the country’s emergence from racial injustice and oppression. He is the only advocate to have acted for three winners of the Nobel Peace Prize – Nelson Mandela, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Chief Albert Lutuli. Already world-famous for his landmark cases including the Treason Trial of Nelson Mandela and the other leading members of the ANC, the inquiry into the Sharpeville massacre, and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko, he then became England’s premier advocate. Through the great set-pieces of the legal struggle against apartheid – cases which made the headlines not just in South Africa, but across the world – Thomas Grant’s biography is a portrait of enduring moral stature.