Thursday, November 27, 2008
Our book today is Rumpole Misbehaves, the newest paperback title in the ongoing legal adventures of that Old Bailey hack, barrister-at-law Horace Rumpole.
Rumpole, writer John Mortimer's great and immortal fictional creation, is in fine form in Rumpole Misbehaves, here facing off not only against various villains and opinionated judges (in the Rumpole worldview, there's very little difference between the two) but also a foe seemingly tailor-made for his fiercely individual, perennially disheveled ways: ASBOs - Anti-Social Behavior Orders, writs against the rude issued in increasingly numbers in the UK as the 21st century commences, instruments of the so-called "nanny state" designed to tell people how they may not behave.
As Rumpole Misbehaves opens, one such ASBO has been issued against young Peter Timson for kicking a ball down a street in an upscale neighborhood. Peter is the latest scion of the infamous Timson clan, a family of London petty thieves whose inept and byzantine misdeeds have kept Rumpole in legal fees for decades. Their loyalty to him as a "first-rate brief" may not have endeared them to his imperious wife Hilda ("She Who Must Be Obeyed"), but their Legal Aid proceeds have over the years furnished Rumpole with the bare necessities of life: steak-and-kidney pudding, boiled potatoes, nasty little cheroots, and the occasional glass of Chateau Thames Embankment from Pomeroy's Wine Bar.
Rumpole has no sooner taken young Peter's case, however, than he's hit with an ASBO of his own, duly voted on and approved by the members of his own chambers at Number 3 Equity Court (whose oily ringleader, "Soapy" Sam Ballard, naturally came up with the idea). The list of particulars runs like this:
1. Bringing various items of food into Chambers such as portions of cold steak and kidney pie, various cheeses, cooked sausages and chipped potatoes. On several occasions a shepherd's pie would be imported from a public house and gradually consumed over a period of days. On several occasions uneaten portions of this pie were discovered left in a filing cabinet in the said Rumpole's room expressly provided for the storage of legal documents.
2. Bringing intoxicating drinks into the said Chambers such as bottles of wine and consuming them on the premises.
3. On several occasions singing in his room in the said Chambers, thereby causing embarrassment to the members and the clerical staff.
4. Smoking small cigars causing a health hazard in Chambers and further polluting the atmosphere and thereby increasing the risk of global warming.
Long-time readers of Rumpole's adventures won't need to be told how such flimsy stuff fares against our indefatigable hero, who finds it all a distraction from the dark forces swirling around the prosecution of young Pete Timson and what was really going on down that posh street. Another distraction is Hilda's ongoing effort to maneuver Rumpole into the silk gown of a QC (Queen's Counsel), which proceeds a little further in this outing than ever before, to the point where Rumpole is called upon to defend his court record before a QC examination board. The board has a letter of recommendation for Rumpole from Dennis Timson, leader of the wayward Timson family, and when they question Rumpole about it, they get a pure dose of the Rumpole philosophy:
'So you defend people you know to be guilty?'
'I don't know. It's not my business to decide that. That's for the judge and jury. But if Mr Timson, or anyone else, tells me a story that's consistent with his innocence, it's my duty to defend him.'
'Even if you don't believe it?'
'I suspend my disbelief. My disbelief has been left hanging up in the robing room for years. My job is to put my client's case as well as it could be put. The prosecutor does the same and then the jury chooses to believe one of us. It's called our judicial system. It seems to work more fairly than any other form of criminal trial, if you want my opinion.'
'So it means that you have appeared for some pretty terrible people?'
'The more terrible they are, the more they need defending.'
''So morality doesn't enter into it?'
'Yes, it does. The morality of making our great system of justice work. Of protecting the presumption of innocence.'
'So you never judge your clients?'
'Of course not. I told you, judging isn't my job. I'm like a doctor - people come to me in trouble and I'm here to get them out of it as painlessly as possible. And it would be a peculiar sort of doctor who only cured healthy people.'
There was a silence. Barnes [who resembles 'a particularly unfriendly camel'] seemed to have run out of ammunition. Then Madam Chair spoke. 'Mr Rumpole, you have defended yourself expertly.'
'I wasn't defending myself,' I told her. 'I was defending the British Constitution.'
And, as trite as it sounds, long may he continue to do so. Rumpole Misbehaves is a treat.