Showboating

John Upton

  • 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”.’

Carman was academically brilliant, winning a scholarship to Balliol in 1949, where he took one of two top firsts in law, decided to become a barrister, and wrote his fellow law student Jeremy Thorpe’s tutorial essays in return for Thorpe’s help in drafting speeches for the Oxford Union – a curious prefiguration of what was to come. Carman also came top in his Bar school finals. It is an indictment of the way the Bar worked, and still does work, that someone of his talent was forced out of London by financial constraints and social elitism and had to find a tenancy in Manchester, where he was taken on by a Jewish set of chambers: he was rumbled when he failed to take note of the Day of Atonement. The melancholy theme of rejection by the establishment recurs all through his life, culminating in his failure to gain access to the ranks of the judiciary, the one great aim of his career. Much later, he was promised a Liberal Democrat peerage by Charles Kennedy, which also never materialised. These rejections both spurred him on and crushed him.

Sadly, life at the Bar has not changed a great deal since Carman began in practice. He almost left it a number of times in his early years because of the lack of money as he scrabbled to build up a practice, a problem, like snobbery, which is still endemic in the profession. In the 1950s any notion of women and members of ethnic minorities being barristers was almost unthinkable: at the contemporary Bar sexism and racism are still major obstacles for those who do not form part of the Bar’s core constituency of white middle-class males.

Dominic makes great play of a technique of his father’s which is common to all criminal barristers, who vary their accent depending on who they are speaking to – from mockney when talking to clients in the cell to Little Lord Fauntleroy’s posher cousin when addressing the judge. We learn also about Carman’s pressurised working arrangements: how he would return from a heavy drinking session to begin preparing for an important cross-examination, or even call in at his house to shower having been out all night, before going on to court. These aren’t necessarily symptoms of an overdeveloped ego or a devil-may-care genius: they may also be interpreted as the actions of an insecure man providing himself with the alibi of lack of preparation in the event of things going wrong.

Carman had to wait more than twenty years for his break into the big time, years during which he developed a practice in the unglamorous area of personal injury cases on the North-Western Circuit, and took silk. His gambling and drinking problems assumed Hogarthian proportions: at one moment he is pawning his wife’s wedding ring, at another he invites thirty people back to his place for drinks, at a third he is in an illegal drinking club mixing with criminals and ‘hostesses’. In one of the more serious episodes, in 1968, he sold the family home to pay off his gambling debts.

Then in 1978, the influential solicitor Sir David Napley, having seen Carman mesmerise a jury in a closing speech, decided to brief him to defend Jeremy Thorpe in one of the biggest criminal trials of the decade. Thorpe, the urbane Old Etonian leader of the Liberal Party, had been accused of conspiring to murder Norman Scott, a former male model and Thorpe’s sometime lover, who had become a danger to his reputation and career. In the event the only victim was Scott’s great Dane, Rinka, shot dead on Exmoor by a hired hitman (a former airline pilot). At one point during the trial, the unstable Scott screamed in open court: ‘Jeremy Thorpe lives on a knife edge of danger.’ In cross-examination, he admitted to biting a pillow during lovemaking in order not to disturb Thorpe’s mother, asleep in the adjacent room.

In his closing speech, Carman came up with the first of the memorable lines that would be his stock in trade for the next twenty years, and which had been rehearsed again and again in private as the trial proceeded:

You have the right as citizens to vote in elections. But you have a much more important right and a much greater responsibility to vote guilty or not guilty. Mr Thorpe has spent twenty years in politics and obtained thousands and thousands of votes in his favour. Now the most precious 12 votes of all come from you [pointing dramatically to each of the jurors]. In accordance with your conscience, I say to you, on behalf of Jeremy Thorpe, this prosecution has not been made out. Let this prosecution fold their tent and silently steal away.

Thorpe was acquitted.

Taken out of context it is difficult to understand how huge slices of ham such as this are ever swallowed by juries, and yet Carman’s heightened language and his courtroom presence must have had some effect on the verdict. Perhaps of even greater assistance to Thorpe’s cause, however, was the summing up of Mr Justice Cantley, whose outrageously biased speech (in favour of the defence) was satirised by Peter Cook in the character of Justice Cocklecarrot.

In the 1980s, Carman took on a series of high-profile criminal cases. He successfully defended Dr Leonard Arthur, who had been charged with murder when he deliberately left a Down’s syndrome child to starve to death; Peter Adamson (Len Fairclough of Coronation Street), on trial for indecently assaulting children; and, most famously, the comedian Ken Dodd, who was accused of defrauding the Inland Revenue. (Carman’s famous line on this occasion: ‘Some accountants are comedians. But comedians are never accountants.’)

In jury trials success can’t be definitively traced back to the advocate, however. Verdicts are influenced by a number of variables, and while Carman and the media contrived to make all his victories seem as if snatched from the jaws of defeat, many would have been achieved by any competent and experienced barrister testing the weaknesses in the prosecution case. His clientele always had a better chance of acquittal by star-struck juries. What counted for much was the cultivation of his own reputation, a key skill for any barrister and one in which Carman was an expert.

After a decade, like other highflying criminal barristers who feel they are worth more than the Legal Aid Board is willing to pay, he turned to the libel courts to make his fortune. There, the name of Carman struck fear into the opposition. On hearing that the Guardian was being sued for libel by Jonathan Aitken, its editor, Alan Rusbridger, remarked: ‘We’d better get Carman before Aitken does.’ But Carman QC was never a libel expert and, like other converts to this specialist area of law, relied on a succession of talented juniors to do the academic preparation for him, leaving him free to showboat in front of the jury. He was also blessed in several of his most spectacular trials with crucial pieces of evidence which, turning up at a late stage in the proceedings, doomed his opponents.

Dominic Carman gives us potted histories of all his father’s major libel cases, but he dwells on two actions in particular, quoting liberally from those parts of the cross-examinations which are sexual in content. In the first, Carman represented Channel 4 against Jani Allan, who was suing the television company over a 1991 programme, The Leader, His Driver and His Driver’s Wife, in which it was alleged that Allan had had an affair with Eugene Terre’ Blanche, the leader of South Africa’s Neo-Nazis.

Carman, Allan and the trial judge Mr Justice Potts took part in a number of exchanges worthy of the Marx Brothers in which Allan was forced to comment on the content of a sexually explicit diary delivered to the Court while the trial was underway.

Carman: Can you read that sentence?

Allan: It says his wife has a weak . . . I can’t read that word. I think it says ‘heart’.

Carman: Are you sure it begins with an H?

Allan: It’s not the word you think it is.

Judge: What word is it Mr Carman is thinking of?

Allan: A word beginning with the letter C.

Judge: Well what word is Mr Carman thinking of?

Carman: A word referring to a woman’s private parts, my Lord.

Allan: I didn’t know they would be weak in that area. So I don’t think it could be that word.

Allan lost the case.

In the second case, Gillian Taylforth, an EastEnders star who sued the Sun for alleging that she had given her boyfriend a blowjob in a lay-by after a day at the races, was also sunk by the last-minute delivery of a package to Carman, this time a video showing the actress simulating masturbation and fellatio with a sausage and a bottle at a party celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Anna Scher Theatre Company:

Carman: You were implying oral sex, weren’t you?

Taylforth: I don’t think I was. I blew on the bottle to make a sound.

Many of Carman’s clients later in his career were household names: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, Marco Pierre White and Elton John, Robert Maxwell and Richard Branson. There were also memorable victories against Jonathan Aitken on behalf of the Guardian and Neil Hamilton on behalf of Mohammad Al-Fayed.

Aitken sued over various allegations, ranging from a claim that he was financially dependent on the Saudi royal family to the assertion that ‘he pimped for Arabs’ and had stayed at the Ritz Hotel in Paris (owned by Al-Fayed) to attend a clandestine business meeting and lied about who paid his bill. Aitken maintained that his wife had paid it but, once again, late in the case, evidence arrived at the Royal Courts of Justice proving she couldn’t have done. Aitken thereupon abandoned proceedings and was subsequently imprisoned for perjury.

Carman’s final major case was that of Al-Fayed against Neil Hamilton, the former MP for Tatton, who was accused by Fayed of accepting cash in return for asking questions in the House of Commons on his behalf. Hamilton sued for libel and lost, but not before landing a rare shot on his tormentor:

Carman: Do you pay close attention to anything you find particularly disagreeable?

Hamilton: I’m paying close attention to you.

Dominic Carman’s accounts of the various trials in which his father participated show a talent for tabloid reportage: his style is uncomplicated and he is alive to the humour of the courtroom. In dealing with the private man, however, the tone of the book is almost hysterical. Where balance is most needed it is seriously lacking.

In a section entitled ‘The Three Graces’ Carman’s three wives detail the indignities to which they were subjected by their husband. These range from not including one of them in his Who’s Who entry to throwing another down the stairs and cracking her hip. It is claimed that he frequently beat his wives as a displacement activity for gay sex. These are serious allegations made by three people who knew Carman well, and they shouldn’t be dismissed lightly, but they shouldn’t be presented as cheap entertainment either. When the subject of the allegations can no longer present his own defence it’s up to the biographer to test his evidence with special care – and in this case I’m surprised the author wasn’t reined in by his editors rather than given carte blanche to rant.

Dominic Carman’s greatest hatred is reserved for a girlfriend of his father’s called Karen Phillipps. The younger Carman doesn’t explain why he dislikes her so intensely, which only adds to the bad impression he makes. ‘When introduced to the 30-year-old Karen Shirley Phillipps in 1986, it was George’s turn to be besotted. He had met his match. The slim, blonde, well-manicured barrister was to become his biggest challenge.’ And you can almost hear the crackle of jealousy as he writes of the ‘glamorous’ lifestyle which so beguiled his father: ‘Her friends included Julia Morley, who co-ran the Miss World Beauty Contest, the comedian Russ Abbott and Winnie Forsyth, a former Miss World and wife of the entertainer Bruce Forsyth.’ Lucky old Karen. She was the love of Carman’s later life who, like all the things he really wished for, he couldn’t have: she sensibly refused his numerous marriage proposals.

Responding to this book a few weeks ago in the Times, Phillipps herself advanced an alternative version of events. According to her, Carman wasn’t gay, or a gambler, or alcoholic, or a wife beater. Given Dominic Carman’s onslaught on her, she puts the boot in surprisingly delicately. She will no doubt inflict the most exquisite pain, however, with the claim that her attraction for Carman sprang from the fact that she found in him a surrogate for her own father, who left when Phillipps was nine.

Are we to believe all that Dominic Carman tells us? Not if a letter to the Guardian written by his own 17-year-old son after the book was published is anything to go by: George ‘was a kind, honest and loving man . . . It saddens me deeply that the greatest defender of our time is not here to defend himself.’ Indeed, the treatment of Carman is so unrelentingly hostile, even if dressed up on occasion in the language of compassion, that it brings the veracity of the whole exercise into question. It’s hard to avoid the impression that Carman junior is more than capable of holding his own when it comes to dissembling. He continually demonstrates the profound lack of insight of which only a close family member is capable. In the face of all the evidence to the contrary, he says of his father in the final chapter: ‘the only thing he ever believed in with total conviction was himself.’ It would be terrible if everything said about George Carman in these pages were true. If the numerous allegations are false it is even worse.

During the Thorpe trial, Carman was promised a ceremonial sabre, presented to the politician’s grandfather by Tsar Nicholas II, ‘if you get me off’. For all his brilliant performance, Carman wasn’t given the sword. Instead, many months after the acquittal, he received a letter of praise from Thorpe, written, patronisingly, in the style of a school report and concluding with the lofty remark: ‘As for the Bench, I am sure it will only be a matter of time.’ The incident seems fully in keeping with the way he was treated by his betters throughout his life. It’s no wonder he bit back.