So many cases won and lost, so many small cigars smoked, so many occasions when a cold wind seemed to blow between myself and my wife, Hilda (known to me only as She Who Must Be Obeyed), so many cups of Old Bailey canteen coffee nervously consumed while waiting for a jury to come back with a verdict, so many devastating cross-examinations – the art of cross-examining is not the art of examining crossly, but the gentle task of leading a witness politely into a fatal admission – so many bottles of Château Thames Embankment have come and gone since I was a white wig and sprang to fame for my conduct of the Penge Bungalow affair, in which I scored a win, alone and without a leader, that I sometimes can’t believe my luck in having led a life so relatively free of a dull moment.
Now my wig isn’t only a darker shade of grey, it has also undergone a sort of yellowing at the roots. However, I have not, thank God, been forced into any sort of retirement. I deeply pity those who have not been called to the Bar. They are forced into retirement at an early age, to die of boredom on some unchallenging Surrey golf course, whereas I have kept going, am known to many as ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, and can die in a wig, however yellowing, swathed in a gown, however frayed, and perform as effectively as I hope you’ll agree I did during what, to many people, was a ‘reign of terror’.
Looking back on it now, I was, perhaps foolishly, less afraid of having a fist full of anthrax thrown in my face in Pommeroy’s Wine Bar, or of finding our chambers in Equity Court blown up on the instructions of al-Qaeda, than I was of a malignant judge, or of She Who Must Be Obeyed’s prolongued disapproval.
Like all the chambers in the Temple, 4 Equity Court had a list in the doorway which announced to criminals, adultresses or otherwise interested members of the public which barristers were available to help them through their troubles. As Head of Chambers, Samuel Ballard QC led the list, but as the oldest inhabitant, Horace Rumpole’s name led all the rest.
When I reported for work quite early one morning, I found – to my surprise – that strips of cardboard had been stuck over this white board, quite obliterating all of our names. Soapy Sam was at my heels on this occasion, and I pointed it out for his explanation.
‘Terrorists, Rumpole!’ He spoke as though stating the obvious.
‘You mean terrorists came and stuck cardboard over our names?’
‘No, no. I stuck on the cardboard. Well, I asked our clerk Henry to do so.’
‘May I ask with what particular end in view?’
‘If the terrorists get to know that these are the chambers of a well-known barrister, let us say, one of the leaders of our profession, they might well be tempted to leave a bomb in the building. Of course, it would be a propaganda triumph for them if they were able to murder such a person.’
‘It’s very good of you to take such precautions on my behalf, Ballard. I may have acquired a certain notoriety through various sensational victories and a long career down the Old Bailey, or in such far-flung criminal courts as Snaresbrook and the London Sessions, but I very much doubt whether al-Qaeda would think it worthwhile to launch an outrageous terrorist attack on me.’
‘Oh no, not on you, Rumpole. Certainly not on you.’ Soapy Sam was about to return to his usual irritating self. ‘I don’t suppose any terrorist would bother with a junior, however elderly and notorious, who never took silk. But blowing up a leading QC and a senior representative of our great legal system, such as …’. He seemed to be searching for a name, and then he remembered his own. ‘Well, for instance, myself, would be a distinct feather in al-Qaeda’s cap!’
‘Cheer up,’ I advised our leader. ‘I don’t suppose Bin Laden has ever heard of you. I don’t believe you’d ever get a mention in the mosques of Afghanistan.’
‘I don’t think any of us has any idea,’ Soapy Sam’s smile was rigid, ‘of what goes on in the terrorist mind. Now you go along in, Rumpole, and Luci Gribble will search that old portmanteau of yours. We can’t be too careful.’
So our fairly recently appointed Director of Marketing and Administration dug into the bag I’d bought on my earnings from the Penge Bungalow Murders, and discovered a treasure trove consisting of a couple of large clean handkerchiefs, a tube of Suck-Us-N-C cough sweets, a tattered copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse (the Quiller-Couch edition), an assortment of pens and pencils, a large notebook, and the brief in Regina v Timson, with details of Her Majesty’s latest attack on yet another member of that august family.
Now there was another group of tireless workers who had no use for the word ‘retirement’. They were the many members of that respected clan of south London villains, committing what has come to be known – in this age of drugs, knifings and blackmail – as ‘ordinary, decent crime’. There was little or no violence in the Timson records, only straightforward breaking and entering, burglary, and the receiving of stolen property; unlike the Molloys, their rival family in the area, who left a trail of wounded, sometimes murdered citizens, and persons dependent on exotic herbs, in their wake.
I must admit, if I have to be honest, that the day-to-day financing of the Rumpole household, with Hilda’s indulgence in such luxury items as furniture polish, Fairy Liquid, scrubbing brushes and Vim, would become considerably stretched if the Timson family ever did take it upon themselves to retire.