My colleagues at the commercial and chancery bar are all at their chalets in Gstaad, funded by the endless fees from Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and the family bar are out en famille in Mustique, awaiting the festive fallout — there’s something about turkey, port and the Queen’s Speech that pulls marriages apart like a pound-shop cracker, and divorce doesn’t come cheap.
But for we poor criminal hacks, it’s business as usual: crime never sleeps, and never less so than when Santa Claus is coming to town.
As a junior barrister I made out like a bandit. Booze flows, blood follows; office parties are a magnet to drug dealers keen to ensure that all enjoy the right kind of white Christmas. Burglars do well with houses full of new iPhones and PlayStations — and they all come ready-wrapped!
My favourite client from those halcyon days was a chap who decided to give watches to his loved ones. He went to Argos, identified a tray of suitable Swatches (it was about 1989) and jemmied the cabinet lock with a tyre lever. He secreted the entire tray inside his coat and made to leave. But then he noticed the security camera and heard onrushing feet. Thinking as quickly as he could with the brains God gave him, he removed the tray and held it up for the store detective to see.
‘How much are these?’ he said.
The court was not impressed.
My first armed robbery was a Christmas caper — blagging being popular during the season of goodwill, because the security vans are full of cash frittered on tat by desperate husbands. Foolishly, the gang had sourced its getaway car from my client, who was not a Nobel prize winner.
‘If the police come round, say you don’t know nothing about no armed robbery,’ said the chief robber.
A few days later, the police did indeed come round. Before the copper even opened his mouth, my client immediately blurted out, ‘I don’t know nothing about no armed robbery!’
The rest of the gang was soon rounded up. At trial, the gleeful prosecutor cross-examined my man. ‘When you opened your door,’ he said, ‘you had no idea why the policeman was there?’
‘Correct,’ said my client.
‘So what made you say that you knew nothing about no armed robbery?’
‘Because I didn’t,’ said my client, as though m’learned friend was a little simple.
Amazingly, the jury acquitted him; his mates were not so lucky.
I’ve had a few unconventional Christmases myself, the most memorable when I was homeless in France in 1979. I was 20, and a retired football hooligan who’d left school without taking any exams and had a criminal record, and I was in Cannes, trying to find casual work. There was none, so I was sleeping rough on the beach.
I spent that Christmas Day huddled in the sand reading a dog-eared copy of Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge, eating half a stale baguette which I’d found somewhere. I’d have preferred to be back home in my Nottinghamshire pit village, watching Morecambe and Wise, scoffing mince pies, and knocking back Carling Black Label, but it taught me something important.
I was reminded of it years later, after I’d gone back to school to do my O- and A–levels, and then to university, and was just starting out. I’d landed the not-very-plum job of prosecuting the list at Swindon Magistrates’ Court, two days before Christmas. There was a snow warning, and I was anxious to set off home to beat the weather. The final case involved a single mother — with no previous convictions — who owed £87 in poll tax.
‘Why haven’t you paid?’ said the chairman of the magistrates haughtily.
‘I haven’t any money,’ said the defendant.
‘What about your benefits?’ scowled the magistrate.
‘I’ve spent them.’
‘Mostly rent and bills,’ said the girl, dabbing her eyes. ‘Then Christmas, and presents for my kids.’
‘It wasn’t your money to spend!’ said the magistrate.
‘I know,’ said the girl, now crying openly. ‘I’m sorry.’
There was a moment’s confab between the magistrates, and then the chairman spoke again. ‘It’s too late for sorry,’ she said. ‘If you can’t pay you’ll go to prison for one week.’
The defendant was led, stunned, down to the cells, and the magistrates left for an end-of-term sherry.
I understand that people have to pay their taxes, and I wondered where the father of the children was, but at Christmas? This seemed Dickensian in its harshness.
I hurried down to the court office and paid her bill myself (something I’ve never been tempted to do since), and then went to the cells to obtain her immediate release. There I found the jailers having a whip-round of their own; they released her in two minutes flat, and gave her the whip-round money for good measure.
A nice, juicy, multi-handed gang killing pays more, and a three-month fraud trial is better still, but something about that piddling little Christmas poll tax case in Swindon has stayed with me for nearly 30 years.
Gary Bell’s memoir Animal QC is out now in paperback.