It is a cheerful scene outside the window of my London place. It is snowing gaily as old-aged pensioners slip over on the unsalted pavements. A series of skids have made some marvelous dents on those ghastly large vehicles that certain people drive in London to pretend they really come from Gloucestershire. Then my attention was drawn to “Breaking News” on the Beeb.Another fraternal plot against our Prime Minister, apparently. I felt some sympathy. I too was the subject of fraternal plotting last summer and, like Gordon, I saw them off. It can make for embarrassments, however.
Take Boxing Day, for instance. I entered the dining room of a splendid hotel in Rutland with family and friends only to encounter, amongst fellow diners at a table of what I later discovered were local East-Anglian worthies, Jacob Seely: he of the youthful pallor and prosecutorial bent, who had led the abortive plot against me.
Thankfully, one never really knows much about the private lives of fellow members of chambers unless they are personal friends. I had certainly never pictured Jacob as a “county” type. Then, recessing my deepest memories, I recalled that his family were rather substantial landowners in Norfolk. Looking at the remnants of Christmas pudding, I deduced that they had booked the first sitting for luncheon. I also gradually picked up that there were farmers, two magistrates and a bishop with him. I suppose some, if not all, were his relations.
After a few champagne cocktails, I abandoned English sang-froid and wandered over to give Jacob the compliments of the season. The male magistrate, a decided old bore who was becoming revoltingly drunk on a bottle of non-vintage port, said: “I see the government’s got you on the run.” I presumed he was referring to the consultation designed to facilitate the slashing of yet more money from the publicly funded Bar’s budget. I smiled, with difficulty. Jacob looked a little embarrassed and diverted the conversation. “Have you heard about Claude Allerick’s woes?” he asked. Claude Allerick, His Honour Judge Allerick, was a ghastly old member who had written a poisonous letter, about as long as an epic poem, to me in the summer to moan about the conduct of one of our junior tenants and demonstrated an uncanny prescience at our chambers’ party that, unbeknown to me, one of our senior Silks, Rico Smyth, was about to depart.
I opted for a witticism: “choked on his own bile?” I realised at once that this was an error. The Seely table fell silent and Jacob was writhing with discomfort. “No, William,” he said. “He’s dead. He was murdered on Christmas Eve at his flat in the Temple.” I grabbed a spare chair and sat down feeling genuinely sick. “Woes” was a rather curious way to put it: no wonder juries regarded him with deep suspicion. The magistrate poured me a glass of the inferior port, which I drank gratefully. “How did it happen?” I asked. “No one knows,” replied Jacob. “One of the porters heard shouting at about 8pm. Someone was seen running from his building and the body was discovered. He’d been throttled.”
“That is quite extraordinary,” I said. “I myself was in the Temple mid-evening on Christmas Eve dropping all my Christmas cards in pigeon-holes…bit late, as usual, I’m afraid.” Silence. “His flat isn’t far from Gutteridge, is it?” Deeper silence. Jacob reminded me it was next-door-but-one. Continued silence. Why had I said that silly thing about his choking? Then: “You didn’t like him, I take it.” This was from a farmer, who I presume did not favour using the “humane killer” on his sheep. “Old Claude,” I replied, “I wouldn’t say that…precisely…or at all really…” The sentence tailed off.
6 January 2010
Yesterday’s entry ended rather abruptly. I was disturbed by a telephone-call. The police were wondering if they could have a word in chambers asap. Perhaps I had better not write any more just for now. Some rather nasty thought about production orders has just occurred to me.
William Byfield is the pseudonym of a senior member of the Bar. Gutteridge Chambers, and the events that happen there, are entirely fictitious..