The night Queen's Counsel almost died

by Alex Williams

The night Queen's Counsel almost died

Twenty years ago I became a barrister. A barrister is a kind of English lawyer – the kind that wear wigs. Think John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda. If you want to become a barrister in England, you used to have to dine formally on 24 occasions with your fellow law students, in the dining halls of the Inns of Court, (in theory) discussing the finer points of law and jurisprudence. So I spent many evenings dining in Lincoln’s Inn hall.

Lots of my fellow students used to complain about dining in hall – but I loved it. Good food, plenty of drink (and I mean plenty) and the chance to dine in what could easily pass as the Hogwarts dining hall. And if you were lucky (and drunk enough) the staff would even let you pass around the 300 year old Queen Anne snuffbox at the end of the evening. Snuff is like crack for 18th century gentlemen – powdered tobacco that goes straight to your brain, and makes you sneeze a lot.

A barrister.

One evening I was dining with some friends of mine and my mentor, Ian, who was a barrister some years older than myself. His job was to guide me through the perilous shoals of the junior end of the Bar. At the time, I had just started doing my satirical law cartoon strip Queen’s Counsel in The Times a few weeks earlier. I had not told many people about it because I was doing pupilage interviews with barristers' chambers and I was worried that if they knew about it, they wouldn’t take me on, because they would think I would write cartoons about them. Which, of course, is exactly what I did.

So my friends knew about the cartoon, but my mentor did not. But he did know that I had done cartoons in the past and, after a few drinks, he said to me "you know Alex, you should do a cartoon strip about lawyers". And before anyone could say anything, he said “after all, you couldn’t do any worse than that crap in The Times”.

There was a horrible silence as this sunk in. No-one knew what to say. I tried to change the subject but Ian kept returning to it. “Why don’t you send The Times a cartoon?” He said, “it really couldn’t be any worse”. Finally I couldn't stand it any longer. "Look, Ian" I said, "actually, that’s my cartoon strip. I do it.” He laughed and said “yeah, right”, and poured another drink.  I said, "no really, I do it. It's my work. Seriously.” There was a further horrible, worse, silence. We all stared at our soup.

Finally, after a long pause, Ian said “well, actually, you know, the strip really isn’t that bad…". We blinked at him, stupefied. "What I really meant to say was…", he went on, gamely trying to retrieve the situation "…that it is quite a good strip really…”

The rest of the evening was a disaster. I left as soon as I could, and slunk home, devastated, convinced that I should give the whole thing up as a bad job.

In some ways though it was a good thing. This was the first time I had actually received honest, unvarnished criticism of my work. I realized that the strip was not good enough, and that I had to raise my game and try a lot harder. I worked at it, improving the drawings and the jokes. In time, with practice, it got better. And it's still there today, 20 years later.

So, Ian, if you're reading – don't feel bad. You did me a huge favour.


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