Rumpole and the John Lewis List
Who might have suggested this defence?
There is nothing I like less than being rudely awakened.
“Rumpole? I say, Rumpole? I’m coming in, so put on your trousers, there’s a good chap”
It was ten after three, and my mind in twixtplace-slumber was turning to thoughts of a decent bottle of Chateau Thames Embankment and a bitter cheroot, when my door was rudely knocked and opened by my one-time pupil, part-time dilletante, and occasional imbibing-partner, Alistair.
“What the devil is it man? If this is about some ghastly chambers meeting…”
“No, no, no, Rumpole – you have a new client in some distress. She arrives at half-past, so I need to equip you with the particulars.”
I find it most irksome when pleasures of the flesh must be tempered and delayed by those activities which purport to fund them, but a professional to the extremities of my meta-carpels, I acquiesced to his exuberant demands on my busy schedule.
“And what indefensible dregs of humanity shall I be defending on this dreary occasion?” I asked the boy, as he sought (in vain) to wipe the ash-marks from my finest robes, and to gather the straggling wisps of my best and only wig.
“Her Majesty’s Government, Her Loyal Opposition, and an assortment of Parliamentary brethren” he blurted, “They are being harassed by unsightly computer journalists over the basic necessities that allow them to work for the betterment of us all”. His tone was hurt, the first realisation that the plebs didn’t actually admire his sort as much as he did himself.
He detailed the various aids to flesh and spirit that were provided to these industrious souls; up to Â£20,000 on articles of furniture and home-making, beyond their salaries, staff, London and mortgage allowances, with moneys to be made available for utilities and taxes, as well as Â£25 any night that saw them travelling. There are, apparently, communications allowances, and resettlement allowances, security allowances, and all travel expenses and office supplies to be covered. No need for receipts below Â£25, and an unaudited petty cash draw of up to Â£50 a month (which would cover more than a case of Pommoroy’s Cooking Claret).
Now, I am as fond of the meagre corollary benefits of the workplace as any man, but even I struggled to wonder what madcap justification could be given for the excessive and vagrant luxuries that I had heard first reported through the gutter press and in the tittle-tattle on Fleet Street. It seemed to me quite absurd, nonetheless, that one should be hounded in the way of one’s work for daring to indulge in the peripheral benefits that were legally owed one in the course of one’s work. An absent mind turned to the petty delights of the weed, and the glasses of non-vintage plonk that I myself had partaken and billed to my adoring customers, and a well of indignation for the injustice of their trial by media burst inside of me.
How dare these petty men and women of the cyberspace presume the guilt of their legal representatives? What murderous intent might be harboured in their rogish accusations? It became clear to me that in spite of their mindless destruction of that which I hold dear, the Magna Carta herself, I would be their counsel – rising to salute this most noble of thoughts, my hand reached for my least-worst wastecoat, as my trousers threatened to escape my rotund midriff.
She was a Queer Customer by all accounts, and full of the airs and graces of She Who Must Be Obeyed, with just a slight snobbery that even my Hilda would never dare to entertain. Her case was largely ill-thought-through, containing some nonsense about National Security, and protecting addresses of the MPs’ sproglets. She was adamant that the work to uncover the precise nature of the House’s expenses should be discarded, that the enviable perks should be maintained as far as was possible, and that no-one should be able to impugn the reputation of those stalwart lifers who had no intention of surrendering their warm green benches. Yet there was a hint of panic too, amidst the bravado – a certain fear of those who…well to think it would hew the Golden Thread of British Justice, so Rumpole shall not entertain such thoughts, but our conversation did not make for comfort in her case.
“Madame, it seems you and your fellow members are accused of attempting to prevent the Taxpayer (that mythical beast in the worlds of which I considered myself an inhabitant) from seeing how his money is spent. You are furthermore accused, as a body of public officials, of nepotistic hiring practices, self-enrichment beyond the requirements of your positions, and obfuscation of any and all information that might be of use to those who would see accountable and transparent politics. What precisely, given your previous professional judgement, would you recommend that I tell the court?”
It was at that moment that her face lost its brazen smirk for the first time, as she tentatively suggested that a settlement might be negotiated with those bumptious lions on the bench. She was rebuffed in no uncertain terms. Instead, I recommended that she excercise a legal means of preventing the case from proceeding, without petitioning the court in the first place. All it would take would be an Act of Parliament to tie the hands of even the least sympathetic judge.
She cheered up a little, and began to see how my wily creativity might indeed prove the perfect solution to her predicament, and I in my turn began to think of the corner table at Pommeroy’s, and a bottle of his Vintage Very Ordinary. And yet there was to be just one last thing.
“There are some members” she spilled gently “who might…support…the release of this information, and a restriction on our hard-won benefits. I can get my Right Honourable friend the Lord Chancellor to move the Bill, but in such difficult times, there might simply be too-many hair-shirted ascetics to be overwhelmed, even by Don Touhig and Sir Nicholas Winterton in-tandem. Should it come to pass that we are unsuccessful, would that be the time to accept our fate and enter a guilty plea?”
I could not help but drift to that wonderful closing couplet from Keats: “Then on the shores of the wide world, I stand alone and think//’Til cash and power to nothingness do sink”.
She looked at me blankly. Not a woman who had ever read poety, I suspected. And suddenly I saw it – that the expenses and the expensive furniture were filling an empty void in the lives of her ilk. Men and women who had set their sights on expunging from Our Realm the real pleasures of smoke and vintage, who knew neither joy nor freedom, and who had sacrificed it all to die but five years later as opulent philistines in the geriatric ward of the Sunset Old People’s Home in Western-Super-Mare. My disdain turned to pity, in seeing that the greatest joy they would ever know would be the mildly-kleptocratic acquisition of kitchenware from John Lewis, and I knew that I would help them.
“Madame”, I opined, “even in such a case as this, where justice flows so obviously against your chosen position, my dearest and longest-standing principle of the law abides: I never plead guilty”.
“Never Plead Guilty” she repeated. And with that, she returned to her duties in the House.
Morus, in memory of the wonderful Sir John Mortimer CBE QC
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