A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Imagine the biography of a public figure: he is possibly the last living person who has met and mingled with the Bloomsbury set, being one of its youngest members. His mother was a Strachey, who had a long-standing relationship with Clive Bell and whose portrait was rather cattily painted by Vanessa Bell; his cousin was Lytton, his family album is full of photos of him in family groups with Eliot and other 20th century literary and artistic giants. He had a Good War in the Navy, one of the officers in Mountbatten’s ill-fated ship HMS Kelly. He was married to one of the greatest actresses of the 20th century, Dame Peggy Ashcroft. He was a notable art patron and instrumental in the development of the Tate Gallery. He has lived out a long, contented retirement, reaching his 100th birthday, in the Sussex countryside close to Charleston.
Now imagine another public figure: he is the son of a notable QC and followed him to the Bar after a Good War; he made his name as one of the foremost defence counsel at the Criminal Bar in some of the most notable and notorious cases of the 20th century. As a Junior and later as QC, he defended Penguin Books, Howard Marks, George Blake, John Vassall, Christine Keeler, the defendants in the ABC trial – the list goes on. He is the most successful advocate you’ve never heard of (John Mortimer being the one that you have). He has lived out a long and contented retirement, reaching his 100th birthday etc. etc.
Yes, this is one and the same person: Jeremy Hutchinson QC, Lord Hutchinson of Lullingstone. His fellow-barrister and lifelong friend Thomas Grant has brought together his life story and some of his most famous cases in a book to celebrate his 100th birthday.
When I was much younger, readers’ passion for crime fiction was supplemented by non-fiction series of case histories. Charismatic advocates, generally defence counsel, were followed avidly in the press and in casebooks – the careers of figures like Sir Edward Marshall Hall were marvelled at, and authors such as Edgar Lustgarten had huge success in published casebooks and on TV. At the heart of the success was the drama of the courtroom to which the English adversarial system lends itself, the cases and their dramatis personae as structured and rhythmic as any play on a stage, especially when the longueurs were eliminated and high points crafted by skilful reporters such as Lustgarten. Everyone is a lot more careful now – I am sure that authors would have more reason to look over their shoulder if they embroidered the truth for effect. Legal memoirs are published, but the genre of true life cases for entertainment is not what it was. This book marks a return in a certain sense to this potentially exciting genre, with its accounts of trials structured round the narrative of the advocate as hero, either winning the day or making an indelible mark in defeat. Here, the advocate-hero has reached such a great age that his hey-day was firmly in the mid-20th century, moving out of reach of immediate controversy. It just so happened that he figured largely in cases that changed the legal landscape, indeed helped to shape our culture.
The English legal system is such a fertile ground for drama and storytelling. There are heroes and villains, attack and defence, there is rhetoric, and language used as a bludgeon or a rapier as required. Above all, there is the romance of, well, Magna Carta, and the contending rights of the state and the individual, which makes the role of defender in court such a nuanced and dramatic one. I don’t remember devouring quite so many books in my youth about magnificent prosecutions – it was the defenders who shone as heroes. There is something magnificent and magnanimous about allowing the accused, if pleading not guilty, the benefit of all reasonable doubt, or if guilty, the mercy of mitigation.
So this at its heart is an old-fashioned case book. It divides its chosen cases into groups. First, a linked group of cases from the early 60s that cumulatively took down the Macmillan government. The case of the spy George Blake was notorious for the handing down of the longest sentence ever in English legal history, 42 years, despite Hutchinson’s plea in mitigation. A later spy case, that of John Vassall, was held under the shadow of the Blake case, and the trail from Vassall to Ivanov, Stephen Ward, Christine Keeler and John Profumo led to the hugest scandal of my lifetime. Hutchinson defended Christine Keeler in her trial for perjury and perverting the course of justice, and this group of cases reads like a tragedy in which a number of powerless people were crushed in the attempt to bring the powerful to account.
Then Hutchinson, still a junior, was notable in marshalling the endless string of expert witnesses on behalf of Penguin Books in the Lady Chatterley trial, followed by the trial of a bookshop owner for stocking Fanny Hill, and a series of trials that tested the obscenity laws to destruction when applied to works with literary or academic intent. A miscellaneous group of trials involve unique personalities – Tom Keating, the painter of ‘Sexton Blakes’; Howard Marks, who managed to weave such a web of doubt and confusion over his relations with the secret state that he spent less time in prison than he might otherwise, and made the transition to national treasure. (It was reading of his death that made me reach into my To Read pile and bring this to the top). Next, another group of trials in which the state’s attempts to crush investigative journalism with secrecy laws, including the pivotal ABC trial, the facts and importance of which I now realise I had not paid anything like appropriate attention – this was the most riveting portion of the book for me, in which the meticulous defence strategy was to show that the information deemed to be secret was in fact in the public domain. Some of the cross-examination of witnesses who could not confirm whether a secret was a secret because that was a secret is profoundly entertaining. As a final flourish, Hutchinson encountered Mary Whitehouse in her crusade for moral cleansing, not in person, but in the shape of two hapless members of her organisation who had girded their loins to see, respectively, Last Tango In Paris and The Romans In Britain and take their complaints about them to court.
All in all, these cases are artfully chosen and arranged to illustrate the role that the law has had in shaping our cultural landscape in the past 50 or more years. These cases drew lines in the sand around politically motivated prosecution and sentencing (Blake), censorship, and the use of secrecy law to suppress investigative journalism. Thomas Grant the author writes a measured prose that slowed me down as a reader, but drew me in. Some of the more dramatic case histories are so gently and skilfully wound up that I was completely absorbed before I knew it. Some verbatim passages of cross-examination and speeches give a flavour of Hutchinson’s own legal style and language.
It is a book written by a friend, to celebrate a notably long and quietly successful life – essentially an Encomium. You will not find criticism of Hutchinson’s legal approach or personal views here – even his failures are triumphs of a kind, because he has attempted to hold by all that is best in the English legal system. And you won’t find any criticism of the long traditions of the English legal system either; both the author and his subject are shaped by it and have helped to shape it in their turn. If that is what the reader is looking for, this is not the book. Even less is it the book when we get to Hutchinson’s own Afterword. At 100 years old, what has he got to lose if he takes a broadside at the legal changes that have taken place in the past 20 years, starting with the abolition of the role of Lord Chancellor, and continuing with what he sees as the assaults by politicians on access to justice for all – unsurprising, when one considers how often in these cases he is standing between defendants and the power of the state. Some of this comes from a reactionary place, but much of it from the heart of a defender of criminals, an unfashionable place to be, but worthy of attention. He spares no governments, of either side. I found this book, after a slow start, a very enjoyable and thought-provoking read, with a flavour of those exciting case books of old, but more thoughtful and placed in a wider cultural context; and I was most intrigued to find out about a man who bridged two worlds (at least), and may be the last living connection to the Bloomsbury group.
Thomas Grant: Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories: from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Howard Marks. Pbk. ed. London: John Murray, 2016. 432pp