What is one to make of the behaviour of Sir Hugh Laddie, better known as Mr Justice Laddie, an awesomely distinguished, vertiginously eminent senior judge at the Chancery Division of the High Court of Justice? He has done a runner. He has legged it. Bored with judicial protocol, enervated by the daily wrestling-match with arcane questions of copyright and "intellectual property" (his special subject), he has chucked it all in, to join a firm of solicitors as a consultant.
Okay, I appreciate he's not quitting to join a circus or a motorbike-rider pyramid act. He is not leaving the Bench and the Bar to play the piano in a Shanghai brothel. But it's still quite a shock. In the hushed citadels of judge-dom, where the path to the senior Bench is generally regarded as a one-way street, you'd think he had gone off to join an end-of-the pier dance troupe in Blackpool.
Asked why he is leaving, Sir Hugh told friends that he no longer finds the work "stimulating". He'd had, apparently, "25 years of fun" as a barrister and now wanted to leave "the isolation of the Bench" for a wild time with the zany crew at Willoughby and Partners. New photographs of this stern and forbidding legal dreadnought show a ludicrously happy man, unable to believe his good fortune, grinning from ear to ear and looking as if Maria Sharapova had just stuck her tongue into one or other of them. Laddie indeed.
It's the word "fun" that jumps out at you. The judge used to have fun. Then he became a judge and found it was no fun at all. Now he's going back (his words) "to the fun and mutual support of working in a team". This is surely a dodgy precedent. If awesome establishment figures start citing "fun" as the raison d'être of their working life, where will it end? The hierarchical structures of British society work by having small numbers of earnest, thrusting people taking serious hikes up the ladder of importance until they reach the top and stay there. Bethroned in splendour, they do not sit around wondering where their next laugh is coming from. The whole point of being a legal (or political, or theological) panjandrum is to be beyond fun - or any further ambition.
Imagine if everyone who'd reached the top of their profession behaved like Laddie. Imagine the Archbishop of Canterbury giving up Lambeth Palace and the spiritual direction of his countrymen for a new career in hairdressing. Imagine the Chancellor of Oxford University saying, "Sod this, I'm bored, I want a new career as a stand-up comedian." Think of Field Marshal X or Rear-Admiral Y sending a note to the Home Office saying, "Look, I never said this was for ever. What I'd really like to do now is become an estate agent."
See what I mean? If, after a lifetime's striving, you get one of the glittering prizes - you become President of the Royal Society or Royal Academy, Chairman of the Pearson Group, head of the civil service, Dean of St Paul's, Provost of St Andrew's, Headmaster of Eton - the idea is to stop there and loom magnificently over the landscape like a restored statue of Ozymandias. The last thing you do is chuck it in after three months and become a cocktail waiter at the Baltic. Now Sir Hugh has come along and turned this conventional wisdom on its head, all in the name of having fun for a few years before you die. God knows what will happen now. Will we find some senior royal abdicating because the job just isn't "stimulating" any longer?
How revolutions start
Early yesterday morning, John Humphrys and Jim Naughtie were ruminating on Radio 4's Today programme about a report which suggested that civil servants were ceasing to wear ties to work. Could it be, they speculated, that ties will go the same way as the spat and the bowler hat? What, after all, was the point of them? "Of course," Humphrys pointed out, "We're all tieless, sitting here."
Into my inward eye came a vision of John and Jim - not, for once, sitting in dark formal suits and prison-warder ties, hunching forward behind the 200-watt Anglepoise, wagging admonitory fingers at their quaking guests, but, instead, lolling back on sunbeds in open-neck Bermuda shirts and rolled-up sleeves, surrounded by fake sand, sun-screen and stuffed seagulls, sipping Planters' Punches and trying to look relaxed. And all because of the word "tieless".
It's something to do with the Humphrys intonation that made it sound vaguely indecent (like "topless"), as if the veteran broadcasters were in fact doing the programme stark naked from inside a BBC sauna. It shows how tenaciously we hang on to notions of dress protocol. It wasn't that long ago that we assumed radio announcers read the news dressed in tuxedos. Now that the nation's top interrogators have stopped wearing ties, I don't think I'll bother any more, (I notice Sir Hugh Laddie has given them up as well).
My own contribution to this sartorial rebellion is - the end of socks. Having just been away in Thailand, where all is heat, rain, deck shoes and flip-flops, I have resolved never to wear socks again. Suddenly, after half a century of wearing the things, they seem oppressive encumbrances - sweaty, woolly, intrusive, pongy, old-fashioned, wholly unnecessary for the trendy young gadabout. I shall contact Dylan Jones, fashion guru of this parish, and explain how wearing a summer cotton suit with Oliver Sweeney moccasins and bare feet is the only look to have this summer. And in no time, I shall hear Humphrys and Naughtie tell the world, "Of course, we're all sockless here ..." This is how revolutions get started.