One of the saddest stories I came across in practice was that of Tommy, the outdoor clerk with the firm to whom I was articled before I joined Simpson. Not that his story was anything but commonplace. It was just that I knew him.
Every working day we would trail around the Law Courts attending Time Summonses and Summonses for Directions. Then, before we went on to the business of filing affidavits and applying for subpoenas (this was in the days
when Latin was still the language of the law), we would go and have coffee in the crypt, where Tommy would refight the wartime battles in which he had taken part, drawing the ‘Eyetie’ lines in salt. He was particularly contemptuous of those managing clerks who were having an early drink.
‘It’ll be their ruin,’ he would say. In fact he was very firm about drinking. One Christmas he sent me home early because I and the other articled clerk had ‘sniffed the barmaid’s apron’, as he put it.
He was also the firm’s costs draughtsman and, years later when I had my own practice and wanted some bills drawn, I telephoned him. Could he do them for me? He was sorry, but no. He was now working for the local council and they didn’t like him undertaking outside work. Curiously I saw him a few weeks later. His work for the council was sweeping up the autumn leaves.
It was he who contacted me again, some years later. Now he told me his story. He had had a personal tragedy when his baby died and had taken to drink. He was cured and wanted to go back into the law. He hadn’t drunk in many a day.
Reliable and experienced outdoor clerks were always at a premium and I knew a south London solicitor who was on the lookout for one. Tommy fitted into the firm well and was a great success. He was hard-working, immaculate with his highly shined shoes and reliable. He was good with clients and sympathetic about their misfortunes.
Then one day he was with a client who had, against the odds, been acquitted at the Old Bailey. The man’s mother bought him a bottle of whisky to take back to the office as a thank you. He had drunk over half of it by the time the bus crossed London Bridge.
James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor