Writing about what you know

H.H. Judge Peter Murphy talks to Counsel about his novel, A Higher Duty

Why write a novel about barristers?  This is really two questions in one, isn’t it? First, why write a novel at all? Second, why write a novel about barristers?

Why write a novel? For me, writing fiction is a form of self-expression and release. I have not written consistently throughout my life. There have been long periods when life, or the demands of my day job, got in the way.  But eventually, I always return to writing.

Why a novel about barristers? A Higher Duty was the first novel I completed, though not the first to be published. Writing a novel is a long and complex task. You need a story line, or several story lines, detailed enough to sustain the book over several hundred pages, and you need characters interesting enough to keep the reader concerned about what happens to them. Writing about things you know is a natural and reliable way to begin. For me, for a first novel, that meant the Bar.

I have never been a full time writer. I have always had a demanding day job. So I write when I can, weekends and evenings. It now takes me a year to complete a novel, and that is a comfortable pace. That was not the case when I started A Higher Duty. It took several years, and went through many drafts as I re-wrote it compulsively – often at the suggestion of helpful, but highly critical friends. One of the challenges with writing about what you know is not allowing the book to become a documentary or a lecture. The characters, not the author, have to be the insiders. They have to guide the reader through their world. This was a failing of A Higher Duty through many drafts. I am still not entirely happy with it – but then, I am never entirely happy with anything I write.

There is so much to admire about the Bar. A small self-policing profession with a real commitment to professional ethics and values is a force to be reckoned with. The higher duty to the court, the law, and the profession has always been paramount, perhaps even sacred. It is the consistent adherence to this selfless ethic, more than anything else, that has made the Bar so greatly admired throughout the world. It is remarkable that the Bar has clung to its values through all the changes it has necessarily undergone, and in the midst of the tribulations by which it is assailed today.

But, as with any institution, there is a dark side. I set A Higher Duty at the beginning of the 1960’s because, in retrospect, one can see that it was the beginning of a period of profound change. When I was called in 1968, that change was well under way. The expansion of legal aid and the increasing demand for legal services were changing the demographics of the Bar forever.  It had long been a small, exclusive, self-perpetuating club whose members were in general (not, of course, always) white males, educated at private schools and Oxbridge. Many did not have to rely on their practice to support themselves. Now, a more diverse group sought entry to the profession - women, minorities, products of grammar schools and redbrick universities, without private means. The dark side – resistance to change and sometimes outright prejudice – occasionally rose to the surface in response.

When I began work on A Higher Duty, I wanted to put the dark side under the microscope. I wondered how the higher duty would fare when set against the need to survive. I created a small but affluent set of chambers. I began with a simple, human tale of a barrister asked to represent an old flame in her proceedings for divorce from her abusive husband. Barrister and client fall in love again and begin an affair, which becomes known to the other side. Although the early 1960’s are comfortably within living memory, it is hard for many today to understand how serious the consequences of that simple human foible would have been then. Divorce proceedings, especially when founded on adultery, were quasi-criminal in nature. It had not finally been decided whether the civil or criminal standard of proof applied. A finding of adultery could result in social and professional ruin, not to mention an award of damages to the aggrieved party. The Queen’s Proctor might (and often did) intervene in the proceedings if there was evidence of connivance, condonation or collusion, i.e. if it appeared that the parties were trying to engineer (horror of horrors!) a consensual divorce. It was also difficult to re-create for today’s reader the atmosphere at the Bar during that period – in some ways so similar, but in other ways so different from today’s Bar.

I threw into the mix two pupils, one a woman, the other a Jewish man from the East End of London, whose applications for tenancies threaten to split chambers asunder. I added an apparently unrelated story of the death of a Cambridge undergraduate as a result of a drunken prank gone wrong, and of the ensuing cover up. Then I sat back to watch what happened. The result was hypocrisy, prejudice, blackmail, and a wholesale perversion of justice. Many people assume that an author has to have the whole of the novel in his mind before he begins to write.  Not so. You need a strong outline, on which you can begin to work. The characters will do the rest. If you listen to your characters, they will tell you what happens next, and how the book finally ends. I am conscious that this sounds slightly psychotic, but it is true, nonetheless.

Speaking of characters, I am sure some of my readers will be searching A Higher Duty to see whether they appear in it. Of course, any lawyer has the advantage of having a fund of interesting characters and stories on which to draw. I still make notes about people I meet and things that happen in court, which are invaluable sources of material. But it is a work of fiction. And let all my readers be assured that I never base a character on any one individual. I certainly borrow attributes from people I have met, but all my characters are imagined. Still, if the cap fits…

My main wish is that of all novelists – the wish that readers enjoy what I write and come back for more.

Peter Murphy is a Circuit Judge on the South-Eastern Circuit