Where’s Wally?

(Or why Twitter and Facebook are bad for your confidence)

This is the usual dinner party narrative:

“So, what do you do then?”  – asked with polite interest.

I try to keep my face neutral.  “I’m a novelist.”

The answer is still quite new, and my natural response is still somewhere between grinning with pride and faint embarrassment at the perception that I’m showing off.

“Oh, really?” – asked with genuine interest.  “Will I have heard of you?  What’s your name?”

Now, there used to be a light sprinkling of glamour around authors.  It sparked people’s interest and made you stand out somewhat from the crowd.  Traditionally it meant you had an agent and a publisher and so presumably at least two independent people thought you had talent.  Not so nowadays.  Too often the next question is: “Self-published?” as if self-publication meant you couldn’t write (not always true) and were indeed just a show off.

But when you confirm that you do indeed have an agent and a publisher and your sales are not too bad, the response is still heart-warming.  “Wow, that’s interesting,” (or something similar) “I must have a look on Amazon.”

And you feel just a little bit special.  You write words which other people want to read.  You create characters who come alive in other people’s heads.  As one of my favourite reviews of The Brief says, “I kept wondering what the characters were doing after I finished the book.”

I recently left the Bar, and there are only 16,000 or so barristers in the whole of England and Wales.  When I started practice in 1978 it was half that number.  Everyone in the profession was familiar with “the runners and riders”; the up-and-coming juniors, the battle-scarred senior juniors, the brilliant silks and the duffers, those with no real practice but who clung on by feeding off the scraps from others’ tables.  It was easy to know your place in the rankings.  Basically, as long as you didn’t get caught with your trousers down in the clerks’ room or your hand in the till, if you were any good you would slowly rise to the top.  Merit was recognised.

Having returned to writing for the first time in 25 years to an age of social media, it was a bit of a shock to discover that there are, literally, millions of authors out there.  Every author appears to have a Facebook page and is on Twitter.  And every one of them is apparently the author of a best seller and the next “Best thing since…”  Every nanosecond Twitter twitches with another bit of self-promotion, until it becomes a white noise of voices shouting “Me!  Me!  Me!”  I have had a picture in my head of the wonderful “Where’s Wally” cartoons.  In the US it’s “Where’s Waldo.”  You’ve seen them: a sea of people, and somewhere in the jostling crowd is Wally wearing his distinctive red and white striped shirt and bobble hat.  The purpose of the cartoon, the trick, is to find Wally in the throng.  I feel like Wally – lost in a sea of others, hoping to be spotted.

I grew up in a time and a profession when you didn’t shout about your achievements, you let them speak for themselves.   Self-promotion just wasn’t classy.  Indeed, for most of my practice at the Bar barristers weren’t even allowed to have business cards because handing out a card implied you were touting for business.  It was frowned on even to have lunch with solicitors (the source of our work) for the same reason.

But everyone tells me that nowadays there is no choice but to join the clamour.  Without a social media presence, unless you’re willing and able to invest massive sums of time and money in marketing and PR, you won’t be noticed.  It’s a business and your book is a product.  Sell, sell, sell!

I loathe it.  I have real characters inhabiting my head who insist on having their stories told.  They are real people to me and, it appears, to the small band of reviewers who have stumbled across them.  They are not the sort of people who want to be the subject of fairground loudhailer advertising.  “Roll up!  Roll up!  Read the story of Charles Holborne and his struggle to stay on the right side of the law!  Watch as he displays his dysfunctional family relationships!  Marvel as he has sex!”

It’s just plain unedifying.

So, although I have a Twitter presence and a Facebook page, and several very patient experts have tried hard to instruct me in how they should be used to improve my “social media profile” you’re not going to find me using them very often.  Every now and then I will share my thoughts with the small band of people who know about these postings, and I will do my best to reply in kind to those fellow authors who are so supportive and who tweet and post lovely things about my writing.

But I won’t be shouting much from the rooftops, as it’s too dispiriting and it’s against my nature.  You’ll have to look for me somewhere out there in the ether, wearing my red and white striped jumper, looking modest.

Trial By Jury

 

The life of a criminal barrister is one of high stress, sweat-inducing responsibility, poor pay, unbeatable camaraderie and extremely funny stories. I have often thought that the “life-and-death” issues in which barristers deal – like police officers, surgeons and firemen – make humour an essential coping tool.

I was a pupil barrister in the Chambers of Robert Flach QC, in the Middle Temple, of whom hilarious stories are legion – but this guest blog is not about him. It is about two very green barristers, your writer and a man who was to become a close friend, whom I shall call Derek. We were both about 23 years of age and pupils to an up-and-coming criminal barrister, hereinafter referred to as “Mr Smith”, who was at that time being led by an eminent QC in a high-profile criminal trial at the Old Bailey.

Mr Smith had left us to do some paperwork while he was in court that day and we were, as always, floundering around a mountainous pile of papers involving arcane and unfamiliar concepts, nattering away and finding every available excuse not to deepen our knowledge of the Law.

Then the telephone rang. It was our senior clerk. Mr Smith had left behind some important documents, and one of us needed to run the papers down to Court 2 at the Old Bailey immediately. Enormous excitement – this would be the first time that we had actually been in the legendary Central Criminal Court. Did we need to be robed? Mr Smith didn’t say, replied the clerk, but better safe than sorry.

So we changed our Windsor collars for brand-new wing collars, pushing the brass and mother-of-pearl collar studs through the buttonholes closed with dried starch, tied our bands (those white things worn also by vicars) pulled on our gowns, and grabbed our wigs. Then we looked for the papers on Mr Smith’s desk and found what amounted only to two short Statements, no more than ten pages. So, only one of us was needed to make the delivery.

‘Toss for it,’ I offered.

‘Fair enough,’ agreed Derek. I won.

‘Best-of-three?’ suggested Derek. Like an idiot, I agreed. He won the next two.

‘Best-of-five?’ I suggested.

‘No time,’ he said, looking at his watch, and off he scuttled, wig in one hand, statements in the other and black gown billowing behind him. I followed; having changed into my fancy dress, there was no way I was going to miss the adventure.

It took us little more than five minutes to jog down Fleet Street, over Ludgate Circus and left into Old Bailey. We paused outside the heavy swing doors of Court No 2 and Derek placed his wig on his red Irish hair. Inside we could see the tall wooden dock in which sat our pupil master’s clients, the raked banks of jurors, the massed ranks of reporters and the packed gallery. The back of the prosecution QC could be seen as he addressed the Recorder of London, who sat robed in black and purple, higher than everyone else in the court, under an enormous pediment bearing the crest and the words “Dieu et mon droit”.

‘How do I look?’ whispered Derek.

‘Fine,’ I replied.

‘Okay. Here we go.’ He took a deep breath and reached for the door.

‘Don’t forget to bow,’ I reminded him.

He turned back to me, his face slightly pale. ‘Right, thanks,’ and he pushed open the door.

The door made a loud squeak just as, unfortunately, there was complete silence in court. The jurors turned at the noise, followed by the members of the press. Derek’s progress down the centre aisle towards the barristers’ benches at the front of the court was followed by forty pairs of eyes. The prosecution barrister began speaking again but realised that the attention of everyone in the court was on something going on behind him. He turned, and every other barrister on the benches followed suit. Within a few seconds Derek was the centre of attention of everyone in the court.

Blushing as red as the hair emerging from under his wig, Derek located Mr Smith in the second row amongst all the other identically-dressed barristers. He walked along the front of the row and handed our pupil master the Additional Statements. He then turned and, apparently remembering my last comment, bowed to the judge. He bowed to the ranks of barristers. He bowed towards the dock, causing the jurors to giggle. Hearing the noise he then made a quarter turn, and bowed to the jury, causing the giggle to become a ripple of laughter.

He then backed back up the aisle – bowing once more to a surprised court usher holding a water jug – felt behind him for a door, opened it, and stepped backwards – into the exhibit cupboard, closing the door behind him.

Everyone in the court knew that poor Derek was now standing in complete darkness surrounded by boxes of exhibits, and they waited to see if he would emerge again. Like the rumbling of distant thunder, the laughter grew until it became a crescendo of hilarity ringing around the court. After about thirty seconds of what must have been complete torture to Derek, but during which he was utterly immobilised by embarrassment, the Recorder of London took pity on him.

‘For heaven’s sake, usher, let the poor fellow out,’ he directed.

The usher put the jug on a bench and walked up the aisle. She opened the door to be greeted by a mortified pupil barrister standing in the dark. Derek stepped into the court to an eruption of wild applause. He cast about himself, saw me furiously beckoning from outside, and ran to the safety of the corridor.

I’m delighted to tell you that despite this setback, Derek enjoyed an extremely successful career at the Bar, but perhaps unsurprisingly he forsook practice at the Old Bailey, opting instead for the quieter life of a civil practitioner, toiling through mountains of papers, but safe from the ridicule of any jury.