Adam Mars-Jones

My father’s background in congregationalist Denbighshire was teetotalitarian: his own father took only one alcoholic drink in his life, and that was (fair play) a glass of champagne at my parents’ wedding reception. I imagine him choking it down as if it were sparkling rat poison. The early prohibition left traces: not having a taste for beer, Dad rather disapproved of pubs, but had no objection to drinking at home or on classier premises.

Sometimes I wonder how anyone of his generation got home safely after a party, at a time when refusing an alcoholic drink was bad manners and the breathalyser didn’t exist. One of Dad’s early cases as a barrister, and one of his favourite anecdotes, involved a charge of drink-driving from that ancient time (the 1950s). His client had been charged on the basis of his poor performance at walking a straight line. This was the period’s low-tech gauge of intoxication, a white line drawn on the floor at police stations.

The client’s defence was that he suffered from Ménière’s disease, a problem of the inner ear which affects hearing and balance. His was a severe case, making it impossible for him to walk a straight line. Dad marshalled an expert witness to testify to his medical condition. The crown did the same. The outcome of the case depended, as it so often does, on which of these two carried more weight, whether Tweedledum or Tweedledee excelled in authority and gravitas. The expert witness called by Dad gave evidence that the accused did indeed suffer from Ménière’s disease, and could not therefore be expected to walk a straight line. The crown’s counterpart testified that he did not suffer from the disease. His inability to walk a straight line amounted only to a confession by the legs that unlawful quantities of alcohol had been admitted to the mouth.

The verdict went in favour of Tweedledum, and Dad’s client was acquitted. His driving licence was safe – but then it was officially rescinded, on the basis that severe Ménière’s disease rendered him unfit to drive. This was the bit of the story I liked best, the irony of the trump card turning into the joker. The law is not mocked! Except that Dad’s client asked if there was a mechanism for getting his licence back. Yes, there was. He would need to get a medical expert to certify that he didn’t have Ménière’s disease. A phone call to Tweedledee, and Dad’s client was on his way to a new driving licence. The law is mocked on a regular basis, most heartily by those who make a living from it.

Dad the raconteur, in full flow at the dinner table, was a very different creature from Dad the solemn upholder of his profession, though he was always confident of his own consistency. I don’t think he noticed that this view of the law as an amoral game, which he could pass on with such relish while telling the story, was the same one he so violently objected to if other people advanced it and he wasn’t in the mood to laugh along.

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