In my last post I promised to reveal how I became a clerk. Prepare yourself this is not for the faint hearted.
Trigger alert – there are some very bad puns and a reference to prog rock in this post. Please don’t read any further if this may cause you distress or discomfort of any kind.
My own story is a turgid tale which twists and winds around itself like the cheap headphones in your pocket. I had wanted to be a chemist, not the sort who sells packets of three to blushing acned adolescents. I wanted to be mad professor surrounded by test tubes of bubbling liquids and bunsen burners, a modern alchemist looking to turn my efforts into gold. Sadly I didn’t have a high forehead and a mass of frizzy hair1 nor did I have the work ethic at 17 to apply myself fully to Maths, Chemistry and Physics A-levels. This is back when A-levels were hard, not these A triple stars that you get nowadays for spelling your name correctly on the exam paper.
After a year of A-levels and a stern word or fifty from my tutors I decided that further education wasn’t for me and I would therefore get myself into the working world, earn a crust and become a man. That didn’t initially turn out too well. Prospective employers saw someone who was either too bright and would in all probability leave to seek further education or else someone who was not bright enough and under qualified. I ended up taking whatever work I could find to try and pay my way. I did some painting and decorating in a retirement home and had a brief spell in retail selling model railways and scalextric. I also worked at a picture frame factory where the fruits of my efforts were sent on to Athena to mount that picture of the bloke2 holding a baby so beloved of teenage girls in the early 90’s.
Whilst there were enjoyable aspects of all these different jobs there was definitely something missing, though I was buggered If I knew what it was. A friend suggested getting into law, you could get on the job training and become a legal executive. I had no idea what that meant but it sounded cool so I switched my focus to the legal recruitment section of the local newspaper. I had a couple of interviews but I have always been a somewhat overly confident soul3 and it seemed that solicitors weren’t looking for someone of my mien. Then one glorious day I spotted something slightly different – Office Junior required for barristers’ chambers. In my younger years I had watched Crown Court at lunchtime at my Grandma’s with pie4 and chips and mushy peas. I had also seen and read Rumpole of the Bailey. What a cracking bit of fun that all looked. I duly applied and was invited to an interview.
I am not a cockney barrow boy and I work in what what London clerks call the provinces i.e. everything that isn’t the Temple. The chap who interviewed me, the senior clerk, was a cockney. Initially I struggled to understand what he was saying but after a few minutes I started to grasp the thread, it seemed that watching Dirty Den and Angie war in the Queen Vic had been useful after all. It all seemed to be going well, not brilliant but not awful. He asked if I had any questions. I didn’t but I did declare that I didn’t have a criminal record. He said he did but it was by Rick Wakeman. I asked if it was the same Rick Wakeman who was in Yes.
That ladies and gentleman is how I got the job! I knew who the long haired keyboard playing prog rock legend was, who had released an album, which was wittily called Criminal Record, which had been purchased by the senior clerk who was now my new boss. I don’t suppose this actually counts as careers advice but it worked for me.
My early years of clerking involved lots of running around collecting and delivering a whole host of different things. In addition to the normal things you would expect a junior member of staff to move around (post, banking, stationery, sandwiches etc) there were also some more unusual things. Wigs and gowns frequently needed to be rushed down to court. I never quite understood how a barrister could go to court without them, imagine a plumber turning up to a job without his tools. I often had to go and pay barrister’s personal bills – gas, electric, phone and wine merchant were common. For one particular barrister it was a regular trip to purchase a packet of small foul smelling cigars called Agio Meharis. When not running hither and thither with an armful of briefs and a couple of red bags5 over my shoulder I would be expected to make enough tea and coffee to sink a small flotilla of racing yachts. I was plunged into the bizarre middle class world of the cafetiere, at home we just had Mellow Birds. I can’t actually remember anyone showing me how to use the blasted contraption but someone must have otherwise I would have just thought it was a posh teapot and shoved in a couple of bags of Tetley’s and boiling water. I was not allowed anywhere near the management of the diary or the agreeing of brief fees for many, many years. I was however thrust into the magical world of listing meetings. This is a topic all of it’s own and I will explore it in more depth in a later post.
I was soon exposed to the often puerile humour of the clerks’ room. My favourite running joke revolved around the manner in which one particular barrister would ask what was happening for the following day.
Mr. Niedermeyer – Position tomorrow?
Baz – I’ll just check sir *hand held over the mouthpiece so that the following could be announced loudly to the room* Handcuffed to the bed, blindfolded with a broom handle inserted in his rectum
All of the clerks – Guffaw, chortle etc
Trev – Tell him he’s got a backer trial at Mold Crown Court the papers are being faxed
Baz – Oh not faxed. It will take hours and the bloody paper curls up and jams……….
We would take great joy in trying to outdo each other in the outlandish nature of the positions we could think up. My old senior clerk had one brilliant gag which he rarely got the chance to use but when he did his timing and dead pan delivery was immaculate.
Mr. de Vier – Trev I have just seen my diary for tomorrow, surely this sort of thing doesn’t need someone of my seniority.
Trev – Not sure I know what you mean sir.
Mr. de Vier – Driving without due care in Halifax Magistrates! Due care Trev!
Trev – ‘Course I care sir.
There was one gag which was solely the reserve of the more junior clerks. There was a long running case in which the plaintiff was call Mycock. The case had been running for quite sometime and so the papers were voluminous. This was a goldmine of hilarious silliness which provided much entertainment for all concerned:
After a junior clerk failed to find the brief in a barrister’s room – “what do you mean you couldn’t find Mycock, its massive”
When the case had to be returned to a relatively inexperienced female barrister – “do you think Ms Wallace-Jones can handle Mycock”
When the case was moved by the court on several occasions in a short period of time – “Mycock just keeps going in and out”
In amongst the humour and menial tasks I learnt a great deal and my grasp of the law grew rapidly. I developed a taste for red wine thanks to the Agio Mehari smoking eccentric who thrust a bottle of claret into my hand one Christmas. My friend and I polished it off after a session in the local pub not realising that it was £20 a bottle (this was in the early 90’s!). I had also found that thing I was looking for, a career. There was something about clerking and barristers and the courts it pulled me in and wouldn’t let me go. Not that I would have let go. I had found my purpose and my place and I never looked back.