Friday 14 November 2014

Ian McEwan on trial

My latest TLS blog is about Ian McEwan's recent novel The Children Act. 

I've admired McEwan since the early days and hate to see him off form, but over the past few years each book he writes seems better than the next. In his latest the two main subjects are the evangelical millennial Christian sect known as Jehovah's Witnesses and the workings of the British legal system. He gets them both very wrong. You can read about the former in my TLS blog. As for the latter . . .

A barrister friend with literary inclinations kindly offered to read the The Children Act and, with her keen legal brain, common sense and critical acumen, came up with an amusing list of errors before abandoning the book halfway through. Here are just a few of them (and with my grateful thanks to her):

1. McEwan refers to witnesses taking 'the stand'‎, but that's what they do in America. In England they go into the witness box. When a barrister says 'my expert's in the box' it means their expert witness is giving evidence, and most likely being cross-examined. (This reminds me of how annoying it used to be to see American movies ostensibly set in Britain but filmed on a Hollywood backlot featuring cars - with white-walled tyres.)

2. He refers to senior judges as, for example, Lord Hoffman and Lord Hailsham. But on page 15 we have the late Senior Law Lord, Baron Bingham of Cornhill, referred to as ‘Tom Bingham’. Now this may not strike you as a momentous error, but bear with me.

How to address judges is a bit of minefield (although rich material for a novelist with a satirical bent. McEwan, alas, is not a satirist).

In court you call them 'My Lord', 'Your Lordship', (or 'My Lord Lord Hoffman' if you're facing more than one of them); or 'My Lady', 'My Ladyship', 'Your Honour' – depending on which court your are in. If you know judges socially you tend to use their Christian names. (‘Hello Lenny how are you?’). If you're a barrister and don’t know them you are expected to call them simply ‘Judge’. (‘Hello Judge how are you?’). If you introduce them to someone who’s not a barrister you're expected to use their title. (‘Robert can I introduce my friend Ian McEwan? Ian this is Sir Robert Akenhead.’). When talking about them socially you use both names. (‘I saw Lenny Hoffman at the opera last night’ - but when referring to his judgments you would say ‘Lord Hoffman says  …’). So when McEwan drops Bingham’s title the reader won’t know he was the most senior judge in the land.  Now this may not matter in the great scheme of things but it's the kind of things that novelists (and their editors) are supposed to get right. Otherwise readers may begin to suspect that it's all made up.

3. He refers to the 'Courts of Justice' (p. 19) but to be pedantic (and the law is nothing if not pedantic) there is no such place. He presumably means the Royal Courts of Justice building on the Strand. Barristers refer to it as ‘over the road’ as in ‘I’m doing a trial over the road’. People who work there call it the RCJ.

4. More white wall tyres.  UK judges are not 'elected' as McEwan claims on p. 45, but either 'elevated' or 'appointed'.

5. Still on acceptable forms of address: a judge would not refer to a fellow judge as 'Mr Justice Sherwood‎ Runcie' (p. 49) simply call him 'Sherwood'.

6. Barristers are instructed by solicitors, who refer to them, with predictable accuracy, as 'instructing solicitors'‎. The reference to an 'instructing solicitor' in the context of advising a client is therefore wrong. (p. 49)

7. McEwan also seems to think that Judges sitting in the Family Division are 'robed' (i.e. wear wigs and gowns in court like Rumple) although this has not been the case since 2008.

I could go on, but rest my case. Does any of this matter? I submit that it does (catchy, this). I put it to you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I put it to you that a novel of the kind written by Mr McE -

His Honour Judge Mental (interrupting): Mr Collard. I hesitate to correct such a distinguished advocate  as yourself but feel that in the circumstances I have to make it clear to the members of the jury that a novel of the kind at the centre of this unhappy case was not so much 'written' as 'perpetrated'.

Bunty Collard Q.C. : I am most grateful my Lord. (continues)  . . . that a novel of the kind perpetrated by the accused makes a claim on our time and attention and even admiration based, at least in part, on its accuracy and authenticity and must therefore be judged, at least in part, by those very standards.  If I may make a humorous observation, m'lud?

His Honour Judge Mental: By all means, but keep it clean, keep it clean

Bunty Collard Q.C.: It is not so much a case of 'the biter bit' as (mnk, mnk) 'the writer writ'.

(Gales of laughter fill the courtroom. Judge Mental wipes tears from his eyes. The jury dissolve. McEwan, in the dock, looks crestfallen.)

His Honour Judge Mental: Oh very good! AHAHAHAHAHAH. "Writer writ' indeed. Mr. Collard you excel yourself my dear.

Bunty Collard Q.C. : Your Lordship is too kind. Now if I may I should like to summon my next witness. Call Margaret Attwood.

Usher: Call Margaret Attwood!

More distant usher: Call Margaret Atwood!

Even more distant usher: Call Margaret Atwood!

(A woman enters the witness box or, as the luckless defendant would say, 'takes the stand')

Bunty Collard Q.C: You are Margaret Attwood?

Woman: I am not. I am Lionel Shriver.

Sensation in Court!

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