Bruce Anderson

Vintage law

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History is duty as well as pleasure. We ought to chronicle our own times, so that posterity will know what manner of men we were. The other night, that thought struck me in the context of John Smith. When it comes to his politics, the task can safely be left to historians; there will be plenty of material. But some crucial records are in danger of effacement. I am referring to the John Smith legal archive. John used to delight his friends with stories drawn from his career as a lawyer. There were, apparently, about 35 of them, and it is time that they were collected, before old men forget.

Two follow, both related to drink. In the early 1970s, in a major crime case, John was led by Lionel ­Daiches, a distinguished Scottish silk, the brother of David, the literary critic. Florid of face and orotund of manner, Lionel lived to be 88, a tribute to the preservative power of alcohol. The client, one of Scotland’s most impressive malefactors, was on remand in Glasgow’s Barlinnie jail, with every prospect of remaining there for many, many years. En route for a case con, Lionel and John fortified themselves for the rigours of prison life with a jolly good lunch at the old Malmaison restaurant, one of those pre-privatisation British Rail establishments which were an oenophile’s affordable delight.

At the end of the session, Lionel summed up: think Andrew Cruickshank. ‘Well, my good man, I and my learned junior, Mr John Smith here, have had your case under continuous review, and I may say that we are not wholly gloomy. We do see some positive features. [That the death penalty had been abolished?] Now before we go back to Edinburgh, my learned junior and I, have you any more questions? Have you any further requests?’ ‘Aye, Mr Daiches, before ye go back tae Edinburgh — would ye mind just breathing on me once more?’

Shortly afterwards, John was the sole advocate for a lesser villain. Although merely detained in the Edinburgh jail, he was a revolting specimen. When he was not scratching his balls, his knuckles dragged in the dust of the cell floor. His solicitor came from Morningside, a district of Edinburgh notorious for preciosity, and spoke accordingly: think Malvolio with a refeened Scottish accent. ‘I hev retained for the services of your defence Mr John Smith here, one of the more distinguished advocates of his generation. I would aver that in the long fullness of time, the very highest offices in our legal system will lie open to him. He will be a luminary of the Scottish bar.’ At the word ‘bar’, there was a brief flash of 40-watt lightbulb while the youth’s sullen frame experienced a convulsive twitch, as if he had been jolted by an electrode (if only). But he instantly subsided into ­cretinousness. The solicitor realised that to make his point, he would have to come down a few rungs in the social register. ‘So will ye sit doon in that corner, ye wee c***, an’ listen tae whit he tells ye.’

The other evening, glasses were raised to John’s memory, although no one present shared his politics. I was being lobbied by a lawyer, who knew how to argue a case. We stated with a 2002 Meursault: Cuvée Tête de Murger, from the Domaine Patrick Javillier. It had a delicious nose, yet the fruit was not immediately apparent. It improved with decanting, but by the time it went the way of all last drops, we could not decide whether it was past its best — or needed longer. The next wine was easier. These days, everyone is talking about Grand-Puy-Lacoste, pointing out that as it is only a Fifth Growth, it is still a bargain. That, alas, is no longer true. As its fame has spread, its price has risen. The 2001 was excellent. Somehow, it led on to John Smith and to a toast to his immortal memory, in a wine that he would have enjoyed.