Book review: Jeremy Hutchinson’s cases of history in the making
From the ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ trial to representing spies, lawyer Hutchinson was there
Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories
Jeremy Hutchinson is 100 years of age and sharp as a tack. This book is dedicated to some of the celebrated cases in which he appeared as defence counsel. It does not purport to be a biography; rather, it examines history through the eyes of a man who was effectively on point duty when key events unfolded.
The narrative spans the prosecution of Penguin Books for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover to later cases that severely tested the boundaries of freedom of expression, particularly in the press. This was an age when the court, not parliament, was the battlefield, where controversies were fought and resolved.
The book is divided into sections: espionage (George Blake and John Profumo), literary censorship (Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Fanny Hill); freedom of the press (including a fascinating portrait of a young, idealistic Jonathan Aitken prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act for leaking a document to the Sunday Telegraph about covert government support for the Nigerian government during the Biafran civil war) and film and theatre censorship (Last Tango in Paris, Mary Whitehouse et al).
Hutchinson is an old-style civil libertarian who believes a jury is an essential bulwark against state tyranny. An Oxford graduate, leader at the criminal Bar, member of the House of Lords, chairman and trustee of the Tate Gallery, and deputy chairman of the Arts Council, he has the accoutrements of a fully fledged member of the British establishment. But Hutchinson is not a snob: he joined the British navy as a rating before the outbreak of war and had a celebratory dinner with Howard Marks following his sensational acquittal on drug-trafficking charges, after a jury accepted that the intelligence services had sanctioned Marks’s involvement in the largest ever importation of cannabis.
It irritated Hutchinson that colleagues sometimes looked down on him because he acted on behalf of unsavoury types, plying, as they saw it, a dubious trade for the undeserving.
Left a Monet
Hutchinson, whose parents were part of the Bloomsbury set, grew up in the company of artists and counted many as his friends. He took a gap year, travelling the world by tramp steamer, and stayed with Aldous Huxley in Los Angeles, where he spent a hectic summer. He went to one of the most extravagant armistice parties thrown by the family friend and art historian Monty Shearman, at the Adelphi Hotel. When Shearman died, a couple of years later, he bequeathed a small Monet to Hutchinson, who was then making his way at the Bar. He promptly sold it and bought a house in a good area with the proceeds.
He cut his teeth doing dock briefs, for £1.7s.6d on legal aid; the accused would pick his brief from the back-of-a-head view of barristers in the well of the court below. Along the way he built a glamour trade defending the rich and famous on drink-driving charges. He ploughed a long and frequently lonely furrow to build his reputation. A natural enthusiasm for his cases, combined with meticulous preparation, was his hallmark.
In court Hutchinson became absorbed in directing answers to his questions – in what was described as an Oxford languor manner – that revealed a doubt in the prosecution case. Contemporaries spoke of his priceless ability to create an atmosphere in court. He never forgot that his most important cases did not involve the named clients.
As with conversation and theatre, the author writes, the essence of advocacy is the impression it makes, at the moment it is given voice, to the immediate audience. The words themselves and the meanings they are intended to convey produce only half the effect. Put fine words into the mouth of a poor advocate and those words die on the tongue; a great advocate can conjure magic from the proverbial laundry list.
The case summaries are rich in detail and beautifully contextualised, and they communicate a strong sense of time and place. That Mr Justice Hugh Byrne, the judge in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover trial, was a devout Catholic and arch conservative on moral issues does not, perhaps, come as much of a surprise. But the fact that his wife joined him on the bench for the duration of the trial, and the revelation that it was not then uncommon for a judge to be accompanied by a wife or friend, is different.
Hutchinson recollects Lady Byrne, seated beside her husband, glaring at him; grim and disapproving. A photograph in the Evening Standard shows the judge, his wife beside him, on his way to court to deliver his summing up, both faces seemingly locked in determined grimaces. Grant speculates that her presence was tactical, an attempt to make it more difficult for the jury to forgive the book’s racier passages in the face of her moral authority.
The diverse themes explored by the author gel seamlessly and present remarkably lucid snapshots of a society in a state of flux. Hutchinson’s commentary, which is mingled into the accounts, adds a layer.
Meat and veg
Yet something is missing. The very fact that Hutchinson was counsel of choice in so many high-profile cases speaks for itself – and, no doubt, played a part in cementing a reputation. But how representative are they of his career?
Hutchinson was junior counsel in the Lady Chatterley’s Lover case. The jury were obliged to read the book before evidence was heard. They were, even at that juncture, nine-three in favour of acquittal. The Fanny Hill case involved the prosecution of a bookseller in the magistrate’s court, and its precedent value was shaky. The three espionage cases all involved guilty pleas. The sentences in two – 42 and 18 years – were unflattering. A plea of guilty is its own craft.
Neither can an assessment of counsel’s contribution be made solely by reference to the result. But the meat and veg of a criminal lawyer’s practice are cases that go to trial. These take up the first half of the book.
They are not, I suspect, the cases that shaped him. These are referred to only in passing – the midranking civil servant in a magistrate’s court charged with soliciting in a men’s public toilet, his life and career on a thread, were the sort that taxed him most.
In contrast, the biography of George Carman, former doyen of the libel bar, by his son, was a warts-and-all profile, full of grisly anecdotes, that highlighted Carman’s very significant human failings.
Between the great court battles (recounted at length) we learn that Carman lost £35,000, his fee for defending the comedian Ken Dodd on tax-evasion charges, in an afternoon at a Liverpool casino the day before the case began. His response was to say that the only thing left to do was to win the case, which is what he did. His terror that the court of appeal was going to criticise his handling of a particular case was palpable. These are details that linger. There is very little of this here.
Norman Birkett, another outstanding advocate in his day, once said of barristers that “the thing said can never be separated from the moment of its saying or from the person saying it, and any attempt to recapture the fire and glow of past moments is foredoomed to failure”.
Another observation might be that, although the early lives of successful people might offer many fascinating insights into what was to follow, their careers can often be summarised by: “And then I worked very hard for a great number of years.”
Somerset Maugham once said it is not enough to write great books to be a great writer. That accolade is earned only by a full evaluation of a lifetime’s work. The development of a band is often measured progressively, by the albums they release. In time, if success permits, a “greatest hits” album will be released. Purists shout sell-out.
Biography re-creates a linear narrative rarely apparent at the time. Those written after a decent interval offer perspective but at the expense of valuable detail lost to memory. The results, like shuffling a deck of cards or turning a kaleidoscope, are unpredictable. The method here works well from a historical perspective, and properly accords Hutchinson’s role in it, but lacks the sort of personal detail that rivets or fascinates.
Michael O’Higgins is a senior counsel. His first novel, Snapshots, is due from New Island Books in September