Five-Minute Memoir: Charity Norman recalls a very bad day at the Bar


It was a Friday morning, almost a quarter of a century ago, and my clerk had sent me to a far-flung Crown Court. I'd been on my professional feet only a matter of weeks; my wig was still dazzlingly white.

My most valued possession was a copy of 'Archbold', the criminal practitioner's Bible. I clutched this shield against my chest, hoping to deflect spears of sarcasm from judges who – to my youthful eyes – seemed incalculably ancient. Under my other arm nestled two very slim briefs, both of which I knew by heart.

On this particular day I was especially uneasy, and with good reason: my cases were listed first in Court One (we'll call him His Honour Judge X) and second in Court Two (Her Honour Judge Z). I'd been aghast when my clerk broke this news to me.

"First and second on?" I whispered, gulping. "In two different courts?" He waved an airy hand. "Not a problem."

"But what if I'm late into Court Two? Judge Z eats people." There are many rules to life at the Bar, and one of them is Never Keep a Judge Waiting. During my pupillage, I'd witnessed several unfortunate souls scurrying in tardily with their wigs awry, spilling unctuous apologies. I had squirmed for them.

The clerk landed an avuncular pat on my back. "There's a six-handed Affray first up in her court. You'll have plenty of time, Miss Norman." He called me "Miss Norman" only to my face; "Chazza" to my back. I knew it, and he knew that I knew it. When it came to the see-saw of power, he had all the weight. Fair enough, too. He was a marvel.

Things went awry from the first. Judge X began his list late; I forget why. Then the Prosecution's opening of my Appeal seemed endless, while I fidgeted and fretted. Finally His Honour, who was sitting with two magistrates, announced that they would rise to deliberate.

Rise? I raved silently, feeling a clutch of dread. Why the hell do you want to rise? My case is hopeless, damn it!

They rose. The minutes passed. Sweat gathered under my very white wig. Finally the trio meandered back and – to my astonishment – allowed the Appeal. My lay client sprang free as the next case was called, and a band of swarthy men trooped into the dock. That was when the kindly usher from Court Two appeared, beckoning frantically.

"C'mon!" she mouthed from the doors. "Judge is waiting."

Her words froze the blood in my veins. With a pounding heart I rushed to follow, but found my way barred. The old building sported high ceilings and wooden panelling; I daresay the ghosts of highwayman lurked in its shadows. It certainly wasn't designed for speedy escapes. The advocates sat along a wooden bench, and I was in the middle. To my right, two grandfathers slumbered; gouty fellows with yellowed wigs who seemed oblivious to my muttered "Excuse me". To my left, the woman who had prosecuted my Appeal sat deep in conversation with her instructing solicitor. Possibly she was a gentle soul at heart, but that day she seemed a merciless carnivore. I dared not ask her to move.

Staring wildly around me, I saw my chance. Of course! I had merely to hop over the back of the bench, and I would be free. I'd vaulted many a five-barred gate, having worked for a New Zealand shearing gang. Swift action was required. Laying my hand on the wooden rail behind the seat, I launched myself into the air with what I felt sure was casual athleticism. As I did so, two things happened.

First, I discovered that this part of the seating was raised up with a sort of chasm behind it, so that I was about to drop six feet. The effect might have been no more than painful had my gown not snagged in mid-leap, causing my sporty vault to turn into a nose dive. And there I stuck. It is quite a challenge to uphold the majesty and dignity of the British legal system when suspended upside-down in mid-air, arms flailing, blinded by the skirt and gown enveloping one's face. I have no idea how long my fruit-bat impersonation lasted before the gown unsnagged and gravity plumped me unceremoniously to the ground.

Well, the years passed. My wig lost its Persil newness, and I my girlish figure. Judges seemed mysteriously to grow younger and younger, until the tragic day when I began to think that some were positively dishy. Life has brought challenges and triumphs, but through the decades I have been comforted by one thought: no matter what clangers I drop, what acts of clumsiness or social gaffes, I'll never outdo the moment when a Circuit Judge, two lay magistrates, an entire public gallery, a dock officer and five Class A drug dealers… all saw my knickers.

Charity Norman's novel, 'After the Fall', is published on 3 January by Allen & Unwin

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?