Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Constance Briscoe, barrister and writer

'I was told to consider a job at Boots'
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The Independent Online

Constance Briscoe, 48, is one of the first black women to sit as a part-time judge. She is the author of the childhood memoir Ugly, out in paperback today. She was recently involved as a witness in a court case in which the defendant was convicted of racially abusing her

When I was a child, I had to have an operation, and while I was recovering, I watched Crown Court , a daily legal drama series, on the television at lunchtime. All the barristers were dressed in really nice gowns and, as the programme was on between 1pm and 2pm, I thought that they only worked for an hour a day.

At the age of 11, I went on a school visit to Knightsbridge Crown Court and met some of the lawyers there. I liked the look of Michael Mansfield, the radical QC, and asked whether he would be my "pupil master". He said that he would.

I decided to find out how to become a lawyer. The school careers adviser said that I couldn't: "You failed the 11-plus." I was stunned. I didn't even remember taking it. "You can have dreams, luvvie, but they must have boundaries," she continued. Why don't you think about Boots?"

At the library I discovered that to be a lawyer you needed O-levels, A-levels and university. I kept Mr Mansfield up to date with what I was doing, and 15 years later, when I eventually had my degree, I started my pupillage with him.

I knew I was not like most other children. I had this bed-wetting problem, so had to make sure I had a good wash before going to school so that I didn't smell. I saw expert after expert, and the bed-wetting alarm was upgraded to a de-luxe model with flashing lights. The bed-wetting stopped when I was about 14, when my mother moved out and left me with two older sisters.

I was happy, being educated. I enjoyed St Christopher's primary in Camberwell. I liked the religion - mind you, it was forced upon us, all part of the process of getting to Heaven. At Sacred Heart secondary-modern, we had the best Catholics in south London: if anyone was going to get to Heaven, it was us! I was taught that there was a space in Heaven for us all - and there was this huge fence around Heaven to stop C of E people getting in.

The teaching was very good and we had a lot of homework, but there was a bit of disruption. I took A-levels in religion, economics, law and art. I had a cleaning job from 6am to 8am, and, for a time, a second cleaning job from 6pm to 8pm, as I had to pay my mother for my share of the electricity, and, eventually, rent. She kept asking me for money, and pulled out the fuses and took away my bed.

We were not university fodder at all. We didn't have delusions of grandeur. We were there to get to Boots and Woolworths; we weren't posh enough for Marks & Spencer. I wanted to go to a university as far away from home as possible. Newcastle gave me an unconditional place but I had to get a grant, which was means-assessed on my mother's income. I went to her house on the bus and said: "I'm going to university: would you fill in the form?" She said: "Only clever people go to university." She started to tear up the form and threw it in the air. I asked Newcastle to defer my place and worked at King's and Guy's hospitals as an auxiliary nurse and X-ray assistant until I was entitled to an "independent" grant.

Newcastle was fantastically cold, but I didn't have to get out of bed to go cleaning any more. I could lounge around, reading books in superb libraries - although you were not there to have a holiday. The lecturers were excellent. We had, among others, Professor Elliot, the author of The Law of Evidence, and Professor Clark, author of The Law of Property.

I got a 2:2 and finally joined Michael Mansfield's chambers. In 1999, my mother wrote to the Bar Council to ask them to strike me off because, according to her, I had hired Yardie gunmen to murder her! She is in the process of suing me for libel: apparently, she didn't abuse me but left me alone in the house to study in a peaceful environment. I stand by every word in my book.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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