MAY IT PLEASE YOUR LORDSHIP

CHAPTER THREE PART TWO: 

AT THE BAILEY

This was the moment I had been dreading all morning. I had to release myself from my starched white day collar and replace it with an equally starched wing collar and bands. To avoid attracting attention to myself, I moved around the room as though deep in thought.

My very smart Gray’s Inn tie was the first obstacle. In my efforts to remove it from the vice-like grip of the collar, it became firmly knotted around my neck and the loop was not quite wide enough to lift it over my head, as I discovered when I attempted the manoeuvre. It looked to the innocent bystander – a rare commodity at the Bailey – as if I’d decided to end it all.

Next came the problem of trying to separate the collar from its restraining stud. The two were locked together in mortal combat, and it took all of my strength to prise them apart. My composure was slipping by the minute, but fortunately Berger had shuffled off to the lavatory and was not witness to his pupil’s discomfort. At last, with numb and aching fingers, the offending restraint was torn from my neck and I collapsed, exhausted, into a chair.

The reverse performance with the wing collar had barely begun when Berger, refreshed and ready for the day’s drama to unfold, poked his head round the corner. ‘I’ll go ahead,’ he whined, in that high-pitched voice of his. ‘We have a clear start in Court One, and I want to check if all our witnesses are here.’ I nodded with difficulty, speech being all-but out of the question. ‘And don’t be late.’

Easier said than done, I thought, as I returned to the uneven struggle.

‘Having trouble?’ I turned to see a tall, distinguished man with a friendly face smiling indulgently in my direction.

‘I’m afraid so,’ I gasped, swallowing hard. ‘I can’t seem to get the hang of this collar.’

‘Let me help,’ said my saviour, and, with years of practice, he soon had me battened down and laced up. ‘You must be a pupil,’ he continued, standing back to admire his handiwork.

‘First day,’ I confessed.

‘Never mind,’ he replied. ‘It can only get worse. Who’s your pupil master?’

‘Ronald Berger.’

He chuckled. ‘Known affectionately in the profession as “Ham” Berger,’ he said, ‘but don’t tell him I said so. He’s not renowned for his sense of humour.’ He glanced up at the clock. ‘You’d better get going, it’s nearly half past ten. Good luck.’ And with that, he swept majestically out of the robing room.

Donning my snowy white wig and black, well-pressed gown, I made my way purposefully, and with as much expedition as the dignity of my profession would allow, to the ground floor and thence, after helpful directions from a passing usher, to Court One. Opening the door as quietly as possible, I tiptoed in and glanced around for Ham. He was nowhere to be seen. To my left were rows of seats dotted with a few members of the public; to my right were more seats, fortuitously unoccupied. As I was beginning to feel conspicuous, they seemed as good a place as any to sit and observe the trial process.

Barely had I sat down when Ham burst into court with his gown billowing behind him and clutching his brief, ready to do battle.  Before I could catch his eye, a loud bang of the gavel announced the arrival of the judge.

AT THE BAILEY

THAT FRIDAY EVENING, as instructed, I phoned Berger’s Chambers.

‘Mr Berger will be at the Bailey on Monday,’ garbled the senior clerk, in between mouthfuls of tea and ginger nut crunchies. ‘So if you care to meet him in Chambers at nine o’clock sharp, he’ll walk down with you.’

I put down the phone with a frisson of excitement as I contemplated my first day in pupillage – and at the Bailey, no less. I had obviously underestimated my learned pupil master.

Berger of the Bailey! What a thrill!

According to my frequently boring lectures on the history of the English legal system, the Bailey – or, more precisely, the Old Bailey – was the highest criminal court in the land, and had been since 1673. It was where murderers, rapists, and other felons were prosecuted, convicted and then taken to a place of execution to be hanged by the neck until dead, and may God have mercy on their souls. Man, woman and child, guilty and innocent alike, were charged, condemned and dispatched to their Maker by Judges who had only a passing acquaintance with the law, and who went about the more pleasurable business of eating and drinking and fornicating without a moment’s reflection on the plight of those less fortunate than themselves.

Juries fared no better. They were threatened, cajoled and suborned into returning guilty verdicts regardless of the evidence, and those who had the temerity to kick against the prick were kept without food, drink, heat, or other creature comfort, until they saw the error of their ways.

I was as nervous as a kitten all weekend, and greatly relieved when the momentous day dawned. I was awake to greet it, which was just as well as it took me the best part of an hour to strap myself into the starched white collar, which was as stiff as a board and totally unyielding. I reflected that a dry run might have been a good idea, as the collar and I fought each other, neither willing to yield. But if I were to become a successful barrister I had to meet adversity head on. No good falling at the first hurdle. Vires in adversum, and all that.

Once locked into place, it felt like a medieval tourniquet. To make matters worse, I found it nigh on impossible to turn my head independently of my body, attracting a number of very strange looks and a helping hand across the road from an elderly lady as I made my way to the Underground.