In the pocket of my dinner-jacket, because I can’t bring myself to throw it away, is a slip of paper bearing in a neat italic hand the words ‘I expect you have remembered to ask the Bishop to say grace.’ It was passed to me some years ago during pre-dinner drinks at the judges’ lodgings in Lincoln by the butler, who had sensed that, though formally in charge, I was not to the manner born.

I had the same sense of not quite belonging in the Plymouth lodgings last winter. The lodgings, a terraced dwelling of colossal proportions on the Hoe, was once Nancy Astor’s town house. She left it to the nation, and it is now let out to visitors in all its glory by the city council; though I can’t believe that the ensuite bathroom, where the bidet has a jet resembling Lake Geneva’s, is as it was in her day. A small dinner party – all I could manage – huddled at one end of the 30-foot dining-table.

Lady Astor did not have a good press in my family. My father had served in North Africa and Italy with the Eighth Army, which Nancy had asserted in the House of Commons in 1944 was ‘dodging D-Day’. They returned singing to the tune of ‘Lili Marlene’:

We’re the D-Day Dodgers, out in Italy,
Always on the vino, always on the spree.
Eighth Army scroungers and their tanks,
We live in Rome among the Yanks:

We are the D-Day Dodgers
In sunny Italy …

Naples and Cassino, we took them in our
We didn’t go to fight there, we just went for
the ride.
Anzio and Sangro were just names –
We only went to look for dames;

The artful D-Day Dodgers
In sunny Italy.

Dear Lady Astor, you think you’re mighty
Standing on a platform talking tommy-rot.
You’re England’s sweetheart and her pride:
We think your mouth’s too bleeding wide.

We are the D-Day Dodgers
Way out in Italy.

Look among the mountains in the mud and
rain –
You’ll see the wooden crosses, the graves
without a name.
Heartbreak and toil and suffering gone
The boys beneath them slumber on.

They are the D-Day Dodgers
Who’ll stay in Italy.

Then after Christmas I read Gabriele Annan’s review in the LRB (7 January) of James Fox’s The Langhorne Sisters – Nancy had been the middle one of the five – and began to understand. Not long afterwards I looked through the manuscript memoirs of my old head of chambers, John Platts-Mills. John, now in his nineties and still occasionally practising, came to Balliol as a Rhodes Scholar from New Zealand in 1928. He boxed, rowed and through the Carlton Club became a protégé of Nancy Astor. Their friendship continued, with some alarming contact with a blood-and-nation group called the English Mistery and the offer by an emissary of the Duke of Devonshire of the safe Tory seat of Eastbourne, until the Hoare-Laval Pact sent John off to the left. He went to the House of Commons to tell Nancy of his defection. ‘She was sure,’ he says, ‘I would some day come back to her way of thinking’; but he never did.

John’s manuscript, a record of a remarkable life, omits anything his loyal amanuensis couldn’t independently verify. This includes the story of his maternal grandfather, the Reverend Frederick Charles Platts, an ensign in the Madras Light Horse at 16, who took first-class honours in classics at Aberdeen and then emigrated to Australia after taking holy orders. He was given a living embracing a radius of about four hundred miles to the north of Adelaide. This turned out to include Ned Kelly’s hideout. The Reverend Platts rode out, found him and persuaded him that it would look well if he came regularly to church. Kelly started attending; then he stopped, and when the parson rode out again to ask him why, he explained that he was attracting too much attention by dropping gold nuggets, which were all he had, onto the offertory plate. It was in response to this, John says, that his forebear invented the offertory bag. He also brought a succession of unsuccessful libel actions against soured critics who asserted that he had put himself in Ned Kelly’s pay. But if a diary can digress, I am digressing.

For me, it’s farewell now to the judges’ lodgings: the Court of Appeal, with occasional exceptions, stays put in London. ‘Lodgings’ sound modest enough, a bit like actors’ digs; but a few years ago I got home from my summer holiday to find messages on the answerphone from several broadsheet legal correspondents. After a false start (I phoned a journalist friend to ask what this was likely to be about. ‘Haven’t you seen?’ he said. ‘Judge and rentboy scandal’) I found out that MPs had been asking questions about the cost of judges’ lodgings and discovering that they were not cheap. True, they’re not. But High Court judges have been travelling the country on circuit (assize as it once was) for eight hundred years, and the reason still holds good. It decentralises justice and prevents idiosyncratic local cultures from developing in the court system. The judges have to stay somewhere, and up to nine weeks in a hotel is not only miserable but, given English hotel prices, more expensive than accommodation somewhere private and – why not? – agreeable. In 32 cities and towns, or near them, there are pleasant houses, each with an Edwardian domestic staff, where High Court judges sleep, eat, work and can entertain. There used to be more, but after Dr Beeching had finished with the railways he was turned loose on the court system and axed some of the handsomest assize towns, York, Cambridge and Durham among them. He replaced assizes with circuits and completed the confusion by creating the post of circuit judge, who does not go on circuit (only High Court judges do that) but generally stays put.

The old judicial progression from town to town was a fearsome pageant. The judge’s party was met on horseback at the city limits by the high sheriff and his pikemen and escorted with hangman, chaplain and entourage into the town centre. There the sheriff’s trumpeters blew a fanfare: today a police band still sometimes obliges. It was a civic obligation, probably a hellish one, to accommodate the judges – in Durham in the bishop’s palace; in Cambridge in the Trinity College Master’s lodge, where in Lord Adrian’s first term the less than lovable Mr Justice Melford Stevenson returned for lunch on the first assize day and placed his decomposing wig on the stand in the entrance hall. Lady Adrian came upon it and threw it in the bin. One of the county high sheriffs’ remaining functions, now that they’ve stopped collecting debts, is to make visiting judges welcome.

‘Well, at least you don’t have the high sheriff and his entourage sitting on the bench with you as they did in the 18th century,’ my Canadian historian friend Doug Hay said to me. But we do: it’s possible to have the complete party – high sheriff, high sheriff’s spouse, under-sheriff, chaplain – on the bench on the first day of a circuit, though they will readily accept a tactful intimation that some judges no longer find this appropriate. How has this come about? Richard II in 1396 enacted that ‘no lord nor other of the county, little or great, shall sit upon the bench with the justices to take assizes,’ evidently because local grandees were doing it and it wasn’t acceptable. I owe this information, let me say, not to any of my law books but to E.S. Turner’s May It Please Your Lordship, a repository of those bits of legal history which remind me of what Jack Hendy, a law lecturer who started life as a jobbing electrician, once said he had found in both trades: that the most useful thing you could have with you was a well-filled box of junk. By the 18th century, perhaps sooner, the statute was being disregarded; and in the 19th it was repealed as obsolete.

The Lord Lieutenant, if you’re wondering, is an altogether different figure from the high sheriff. The latter, who pays his or her own way, and an expensive way it is, changes annually by a form of apostolic succession. The former, the Queen’s representative in the county, has a job for life. At some point the red judges (a purely sartorial characterisation) and the Lord Lieutenants fell out over who took precedence on formal occasions. The Lord Lieutenants pointed out, reasonably enough, that they represented the Queen. The red judges trumped this by asserting that they were the Queen. This ontology of status has also, I believe, touched the diplomatic service, where ambassadors have been known on the same ground to insist on preceding members of the Royal Family in to dinner.

The old Lord Lieutenant of Lincolnshire, Sir Henry Neville, told me that his predecessor had warned him to keep well away from the red judges. He had apparently invited the two assize judges to dinner (this must have been in the Fifties) and had got out the last bottle of an ancient case of port. What had upset him was not that the judges had finished it, though they had; it was that after the first glass the senior judge had said to him: ‘This is an excellent port, Lord Lieutenant. We’ll have another bottle.’

But it’s the lodgings the editor wants to hear about, even though she came to dinner at the turn-of-the-century villa which serves as the Reading lodgings and sat on the brocade settee (my wife believes that lodgings decor is based on that of upmarket addiction clinics) below engravings of the Charge of the Heavy Brigade, the Charge of the Light Brigade, and the Allied Staffs before Sebastopol. I think I even quoted to her the description of the place in the prewar memoirs of Mr Justice Mackinnon: ‘a villa off the Basingstoke road, fairly comfortable but entirely hideous’.

The patrician note is owed, I think, to the remarkable decision of Grey’s Administration in 1832 to put the 12 judges of the High Court (there are now 99 of them) on salaries of £5000 a year. This was a reduction from a short-lived high of £5500, but it remained the wage until 1953. It made Victorian judges wealthy men, and wealthier still in the period of mid-Victorian deflation. They expected, once they could travel by rail, to bring their households with them and to be lodged somewhere where they could hold social court. When, as the century turned, the level of affluence began to slide, it fell to the municipality or the state to provide domestic staff in situ.

But now we walk or cycle to court rather than being driven there in costume. We work into the night rather than drink and dine, and when we do dine, along with the high sheriff, the bishop and the prison governor we occasionally invite interesting people to the lodgings – a privilege I have valued. Remembering that many years ago Pat Barker had asked my old college friend Mick Standen, the WEA tutor-organiser for Durham, to tell her if she’d ever be a writer, I asked her and her husband David to dinner when I was sitting in the North-East and exposed my dilettantish flank by letting slip that I was barely halfway through Regeneration. Even so we have remained friends. Coming to Devon in the winter of 1998 on my last-ever circuit, I wrote to ask Ted and Carol Hughes, whom I did not know, to dinner. In early October Ted Hughes replied:

Normally we would both be delighted to accept, but a combination of circumstances make it, I’m afraid, impossible.

Allow me to express my regret – without going into detail …

Perhaps an opportunity will recur not too far into the future.

Churlishly I took it to be a polite brush-off until, a few weeks later, he died of cancer. I wonder if he had expected to encounter his judicial creature in ‘Cave Birds’:

His gluttony
Is a strange one – his leavings are guilt and
Hung with precedents as with obsolete

His banqueting court is as airy as any idea.
At all hours he comes wobbling out
To fatten on the substance of those who
have fouled

His tarred and starry web.
Or squats listening
To his digestion and the solar silence.

I might, I suppose, have persuaded him that things have changed.

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Vol. 21 No. 24 · 9 December 1999

Stephen Sedley claims in his Diary that John Platts-Mills could not verify the story of his maternal grandfather finding Ned Kelly’s hideout ‘north of Adelaide’ (LRB, 11 November). Not surprising really. Adelaide is the state capital of South Australia but Ned Kelly’s hideout was north of Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria. Platts-Mills’s ancestor was perhaps as much as a thousand miles west of the true location. But then most tall stories are.

Richard Oxenburgh
Altrincham, Cheshire

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