Diary

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 His driving licence was safe – but then it was officially rescinded, on the basis that severe Ménière’s disease rendered him unfit to drive.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.

Alcohol amplified something Dad also felt in full sobriety: a sense of disappointment with the way his sons were developing. This was especially true in the mid-1970s, when he was a conspicuous High Court judge and we were coming to the end of our education. Where was our drive, our ambition? We seemed to be coasting at best. He wasn’t so much disappointed as incredulous. We seemed to think the world owed us a living! His ideal was that we would all become lawyers, which would be following in his footsteps in one sense, except that his drive and ambition had taken him very far from the paths trodden by his farming ancestors. To follow him would be very different from being like him, would mean in fact that we were very unlike him. The more we were like him the less we would follow him. All this tangle needs to be kept distinct from the common-sense awareness that we would most likely never emerge from his shadow, that, even if we went on to ‘great things’, it would be assumed that we got our start thanks to his eminence. It was understandable that he wanted us to soar, but how could we do that if we used him as a launchpad?

When the time came for my father to retire, in 1990, my mother organised a retirement party for him at the Garrick. She decided to serve champagne cocktails, the only such drink she herself liked. She also decided to do things properly, improving on the standard catering protocol whereby the drink is topped up with champagne but the other ingredients (a little brandy, a few drops of angostura, a sugar lump) are not reinforced. On this special occasion, there would be no mere top-up but the provision (expense be damned) of a whole new drink.

Surely she knew she was playing with firewater? Even the angostura raises the alcohol content. Only the sugar can enter a plea of not guilty, and even then it can be suspected of aiding and abetting by disguising the potency of the drink with sweetness. Dad had a strong head for alcohol in those days, which is only a way of saying that it distorted him less on the surface than in the depths. In the second hour of the party a woman of my generation, known to him since her birth, a person of great warmth and charm, made some mild inquiries about the ideological assumptions of the judiciary – the sort of thing that might be aired on Start the Week without setting the switchboard alight. She asked him if he thought judges as a group had really taken on board the recent upheavals in society, such as multiculturalism and the transformed position of women.

This was never the sort of speculation that Dad welcomed, but perhaps the champagne cocktails played a part in making him so coldly grand. He told her that she had spoiled his party and must leave immediately. She did what she could to make amends, saying that casting any sort of shadow on his special day had been the furthest thing from her mind. She was terribly sorry if she had given offence. Again it may have been the influence of the cocktail, multicultural in its own right, combining champagne and brandy from the Old World, sugar and bitters from the New, which gave Dad’s verdict its austere force. ‘That,’ he said, ‘is something you will have to live with for the rest of your life.’ This was a dismal own goal, taking all the shine off the occasion, a warning that some of Dad’s less appealing behaviour patterns were still some way from retirement.

There were times after he retired when he would have to be helped the two hundred yards home from the Hall at Gray’s Inn, more or less to the point of being carried. This was hideously embarrassing – for my mother, who had to receive this stumbling procession of dignitaries, for me if I happened to run into them as they tried to negotiate the steps – but it was nowhere as bad as it might have been if he had felt any shame himself. Hangdog wasn’t his style, or not until the next morning. He was serene, as if this was the way he always came home, or as if these nice fellows had wanted to give him a treat and he hadn’t liked to say no. The whole charade made it surprisingly easy to play along. Sometimes he would remain roughly vertical until he reached the bedroom, then topple slowly sideways without distress to the floor, perhaps pulling some bedclothes with him in what was more a slide than a fall, a controlled descent with a touch of the maladroit grace of the performers he most admired, Max Wall, Tommy Cooper, Ralph Richardson.

Moderation didn’t come naturally to Dad, and self-discipline needed reinforcement from outside. At various points in later life he went to a luxurious health farm – his favoured establishment was Champneys – to lose a few pounds. The regime also required abstinence from alcohol. These expensive bouts of self-denial could be redeemed if he happened to coincide with a woman who shared his taste and talent for flirting. Flirtation without possibility made the hours speed by. Age didn’t disqualify such compatible women, but neither did youth. The word he used for the second type was ‘sparklers’.

Flirtation as he practised it wasn’t a rehearsal for infidelity but a formal vocal display, lyrical rather than heroic, Wigmore Hall recitals rather than opera house tours de force. When a woman friend of mine paid a visit to the Gray’s Inn flat, Dad called her ‘darling’. My mother was only marginally piqued, but decided to patrol the marital perimeter by asking sweetly: ‘If Frances is “darling”, what then am I?’ In general Dad imposed himself on company by force of personality rather than brute quickness of wit. His preferred style was the polished story, not the dazzling improvisation. It helped that from his perch among the higher ranks of a hierarchical profession he didn’t often have to prove himself at short notice. But now he had to exert steady pressure on the charm pedal if he was to accelerate safely out of danger. ‘Darling One,’ he said, ‘Frances is Darling Two.’ This formula not only smoothed any ruffled wifely feathers but passed into currency. If Frances was visiting, or if Dad answered the phone to her, he would greet her as ‘Darling Two’, and be rewarded, as we all hoped to be, by her throaty smoker’s laugh.

In the absence of sparklers, Champneys could be a bit of a martyrdom, forcing his thoughts inward. I once received a postcard from him saying: ‘No sparklers here this time. You have always been a rewarding son.’ The lack of a logical connection added to the touchingness of the message. Except when in exile from bibulous normality, this was a vein of intimate introspection that he preferred to leave alone.

In retirement Dad was presumably not under as much stress as he was used to, but he could still come up with the odd explosion, so perhaps stress wasn’t a factor in the first place. One detonation was on a birthday of mine, which I had decided to have in the Gray’s Inn flat. My parents were out that evening, so there seemed no reason not to celebrate demurely on the premises.

They came home from their party in time to overlap with mine. My mother socialised for a little while, then started making preparations for bed. At first Dad was genial. Then he took offence at an innocent remark made by one of the guests, and told them all to leave. I pointed out that he could only logically order out people he had himself invited, and that my guests were welcome until I called time – but the mood was no longer festive, and we beat a massed retreat. As I was gathering together the presents I had been given, Dad came up and poked me in the chest. I could have dropped the presents and stayed upright, but like a game-show contestant I was determined to hang on to my trophies. I knew there was a sofa behind me and toppled backwards onto that.

This was not the birthday present I would have hoped for from Dad. As my friends and I trooped out of the flat and made our way downstairs, my mother appeared on the landing above us in her nightie, wringing her cold-creamed hands and saying in social agony: ‘It’s all right for you lot – you can leave. I have to live with it.’ She had left the sitting room for ten minutes, the way people do in films about poltergeists, and the next thing she knew her furniture was arranged on the ceiling.

The birthday assault was so out of proportion as not even to be properly upsetting. I decided to make an experiment in apology studies. Better in the circumstances to steer clear of any non-apology, un-apology, anti-apology. If demanding redress from Dad never worked, perhaps I should try a new approach, see if he was vulnerable from a different angle. The best rhetorical move (against a master of rhetoric) might be to say that I didn’t need one. Dad knew the martial arts of argument supremely well, and could turn almost any throw against an opponent, but if I stepped suddenly away he might topple backwards in his turn, from sheer surprise.

The next day I went round to Gray’s Inn and explained that I wasn’t expecting an apology. This was because Dad was a loose cannon when he had drink inside him, so if I put him and my friends together in the same space I had to accept the risk and not bleat when things went wrong. I knew from long experience that Dad’s apologies weren’t worth having anyway. In our teenage years my brothers and I were incensed by the forms of words that Dad would come up with after family rows. They seemed designed to wind up the tension rather than soothe it. They were strange cocktails of amnesia, shoulder-shrugging and indirect accusation. If I had to name a specific cocktail I’d nominate the boilermaker, with its bright and murky liquor floating in layers. An example might be: ‘Your mother tells me that you were upset by something I said last night … I don’t remember what it was, but all I can say is, you can be very annoying.’

Perhaps this was what is known as professional deformation rather than individual difficulty with the idea of being at fault. Lawyers will never be in a hurry to admit liability. For them it must always be a last resort. A.P. Herbert makes a semi-serious point along these lines in one of his ‘Misleading Cases’ for Punch. A. describes B. as not having the manners of a pig. B. demands an apology. A capitulates, saying that B. does have the manners of a pig. Does this count as an apology or as an aggravation of slander?

Dad didn’t exactly topple. He was outraged at this patronising and manipulative manoeuvre, and responded with one of his own. He told me to leave at once; when I didn’t move he made to pick up the phone, saying he would call the police and have me thrown out. This was low-grade bluster by his standards, as was the demand that I surrender my keys and pay no further visits to the parental home. My mother overruled him the moment he said it. I stayed long enough to establish formally that I wasn’t being thrown out, then left him to simmer.

I hoped that my destabilising tactics would enable my mother, who didn’t enjoy the rooted place of alcohol in the household, to make some demands of her own. This was a lot to hope for, given that she hated any kind of ‘atmosphere’ and had never made much headway when it came to influencing Dad’s behaviour. The morning of a hangover was one of the few opportunities she was able to turn to her advantage, reinforcing the self-disgust of Dad’s every lurching cell with a little tender chiding. At other times Dad had a blithe resistance to the virtues he had married, something I’ve seen in other men of his generation.

For a while I only paid visits when she would be alone. Did I wear him down? Not quite. I got a letter that combined different elements of his most characteristic manner: rueful charm and now-look-here-laddie-enough-is-enough. The letter was much closer to an apology than anything I could remember, in speech let alone in writing. It broke precedent in that respect, which is never a step a lawyer takes lightly. Precedent was holy to him, but now, unprecedentedly, fault was being admitted.

The rueful charm emanated from the address given at the top of the page: ‘The Doghouse, Gray’s Inn’. The note of enough is enough was struck by a passage making clear that he did not accept there was a pattern of behaviour attributable to drink. I could have a specific apology but no general admission. It was a lawyerly way of proceeding: an apology ‘without prejudice’, as if he was agreeing to make a payment to an injured party without technically admitting liability. He would accept chastisement so long as he wasn’t expected to abase himself. It was the most favourable settlement I was going to get.