- No Ordinary Man: A Life of George Carman by Dominic Carman
Hodder, 331 pp, £18.99, January 2002, ISBN 0 340 82098 5
George Carman QC, the best known British advocate of his time, died of cancer on 2 January last year. Shortly afterwards, the Daily Telegraph published an obituary which listed the famous criminal and libel cases he had won, and examined his ferocious court-room reputation before concluding: ‘Away from work, Carman was a reasonably enthusiastic guest on the party circuit, but essentially lived a quiet life.’
Perhaps the terror evoked in the press by the mere mention of Carman’s name had led the Telegraph to forget that the dead can’t sue for libel, because as anyone who has frequented the pubs and wine bars around the Temple would confirm, George Carman did not lead a quiet life. In the 1980s and 1990s it was usual to find him on several nights of the week in Daly’s, a wine bar near the Inns of Court, drinking heavily, flirting and holding forth to whoever would listen, as he had in the two decades before that in the after-hours drinking clubs of Manchester, where he began his career. He was never short of listeners, there being no audience like one made up of junior members of the Bar, ever sycophantic in their quest for advancement.
Though the Telegraph may have been seeking to protect the innocence of its readers, there is nothing unusual in an ageing QC using his money and position to gain young admirers; nor about a gap between perceptions of the public and the private man. Yet, despite the excesses to which some barristers are prone, it is almost unknown for them to become notorious for their bacchanalian lifestyles.
So why is it that George Carman’s private exploits now threaten to overshadow his achievements in the courtroom? Because he had a son who was waiting until he died to get his own back. Carman’s motto was ‘never trust anyone’ and he would have done well to heed his own advice. In No Ordinary Man, Dominic Carman exposes the lawyer who took his court victims to task for their moral turpitude as an alcoholic, gambling, bisexual, wife-beating, impotent, chain-smoking monster. Where there is no available evidence to support an allegation, the son is always gamely prepared to speculate wildly, at his father’s expense.
The catalogue of Carman’s misdemeanours is so long and so heterogeneous that it’s difficult to know where to begin in describing them. It’s clear Carman junior feels this way, too, for the book is a messy hybrid of straightforward narrative, legal case history and pop psychoanalysis. The preface is representative of the confused tone of the whole, being at once contradictory, camp, Pooterish, self-pitying and vindictive. After reading its melodramatic final sentence – ‘To those who will argue that many things would have been better left unsaid, I can only comment that after a lifetime of enforced silence, there is no choice other than to tell the truth’ – one can only regret that the dying advocate entrusted the task of writing his biography to his son with the fateful words: ‘I’m not going to be able to do it. You have a go.’
George Carman was born in 1929, in Blackpool, to Albert, an auctioneer, and Evelyn, a seamstress turned dress-shop owner. Evelyn was Irish; Albert a former Black and Tan. Carman despised his father and doted on his perfectionist mother, who thought the world of him. They shared an obsession with cleanliness and most of all with success. In response to sustained pressure from Evelyn to come first in everything he did, Carman suffered, until he was in his mid-thirties, from panic attacks that caused him to black out.
At 14 he was sent to a Roman Catholic seminary to test his vocation. He received an excellent training in philosophy and, Dominic speculates, may have been sexually abused – a further instance of the attitude, at once coy and prurient, the son adopts in writing about his father’s sexuality. Carman enjoyed a number of platonic relationships with women and owned a pair of velvet trousers with an embroidered butterfly on the front (‘Something flipped and I ripped it off,’ one of his wives remarked). Worst of all, he was bisexual, a tendency which his wives collectively hold responsible for his bad behaviour and which Dominic tackles with the finesse of the National Theatre of Brent: ‘He was indeed, as his first teenage girlfriend Mary Williamson said, “a man of many secrets”.’
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.