Before coming to the Bar, I worked in what might loosely be called ‘education’.
My specialism was teaching those whose first brush with ‘A’ levels had not yielded the desired results. My own memory of them was not brilliant, but the Master of the establishment had a number of useful tips, such as ‘you don’t need to know much in subjects like history as long as you can teach them how to write an essay’. When I told him I could not teach the foreign policy elements of European History as I had ducked them all during my own ‘A’ level studies, he purchased for me a wonderful series of pull-down maps covering the relevant time periods together with a huge pointer. He gave me an illustration: ‘Look! There! Do you see now why Louis XIV and William of Orange fought here? Look where the river is!’ As I studied these maps a whole world came alive to me for the first time and several pupils sailed from a dodgy C or D to an excellent A or B answering questions on the War of the Spanish Succession.
As a tutor, if I had a very bad cold or felt rough for other reasons, I tended to take at least one day off. With the Bar it was entirely different. The ethos of dragging oneself to court with any illness short of death was inculcated from pupillage. If you weren’t there; your rival for a tenancy most certainly would be. Once established in Chambers it became just as impossible to pull a sickie, because, my dears, there was your audience to consider: the judge, the jury, the witnesses, your client.
On one occasion, my voice impeded by hoarseness, I asked a judge to let me address the jury whilst seated close to them. ‘Of course, Mr Byfield,’ he said, ‘but are you well enough to continue?’ The answer was ‘obviously not’ but I had another trial the next day in another court. I simply had to give my speech. Even though I say it myself, it was rather moving. When I came to the peroration which was ‘in my respectful submission, the prosecution has failed to make its case because he didn’t do it’ my voice stopped emitting sound and my lips moved silently until I reached ‘he didn’t do it’ which came out in a weak, but impassioned, croak. They acquitted in ten minutes. I was very pleased with myself until my opponent, now an eminent Silk in a particularly specialist set, said: ‘They just wanted to get out of this germ-laden death-trap before they caught it.’ That was an alternative possibility, I suppose.
What it comes to, however, is that, driven by the clerks, a barrister will struggle to court, irrespective of the level of remuneration, unless she or he literally cannot. Which brings me to my present predicament… Being a little short of my sitting days, I popped along to a pleasant court not far away from home a few weeks ago. At the judicial luncheon table, I noticed a variety of ashen faces coughing, spluttering and generally falling about with illness. On further investigation I discovered these were the judges returning from having had the ‘flu. I wish now I had not laughed and said that the last time I contracted influenza was over 30 years ago and also that I thought the ‘flu jab was a con and that I resolutely avoided it.
The comment was obviously noted by the being or beings responsible for combating hubris and by late evening I was boasting a temperature of 105 degrees. Aches, pains, fever, lassitude, violent coughing, voice loss and numerous other vile symptoms appeared. I called the doctor who seemed very keen not to see me. I have no idea how he could diagnose the French variety of ‘flu over the telephone but then remembered he is violently pro-Brexit.
I was touched, briefly, by a visit from some members of Chambers including Hetty Briar-Pitt who put a handkerchief over her face to protect her horses from contracting ‘the lurgy’ and Paddy Corkhill who discovered my best sherry wine and started an informal party downstairs. Just before I fell into semi-consciousness, the last thing I remember was Andrew, my senior clerk, putting his head round the door and saying: ‘any chance you would be fit for a con, sir, the day after tomorrow? It’s private…’ I hope it was an hallucination.