Rich literary pickings from our learned friends

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The Independent Online

According to the American Bar Association's website, the "Live Like a Lord and Lady Tour" - one of a score of post-conference travel opportunities offered to delegates - has been cancelled. I can only guess that this is because the average English aristocrat lives a life more pinched and undignified than the average American lawyer - and a bit of heritage slumming wasn't actually what the customers were after.

According to the American Bar Association's website, the "Live Like a Lord and Lady Tour" - one of a score of post-conference travel opportunities offered to delegates - has been cancelled. I can only guess that this is because the average English aristocrat lives a life more pinched and undignified than the average American lawyer - and a bit of heritage slumming wasn't actually what the customers were after.

It can't have been a distaste for fantasy that discouraged the ticket sales, though, because this week's London conference (the second half of a two-city extravaganza that began in New York last week) is heavily dependent on the imagination of its participants.

Yesterday afternoon, for example, delegates kicked off proceedings by putting Henry VIII on trial on a whole series of charges, ranging from breach of pre-nuptial agreement to domestic violence (a defence lawyer's euphemism for decapitation, one imagines) and today they are due to discuss the proposed sale of the New York Yankees to "Sir Alister Fleet-Street", a British media tycoon.

On Thursday the row already sparked off by the release of The Patriot will be given a legalistic edge when American lawyers arraign George III for tyrannical behaviour, and English barristers file a counter-suit against George Washington for terrorist tactics.

Lawyers have always played these games, of course - play-acting and pretending in preparation for the lifetime of masterful dissimulation that lies ahead of them. Sincerity and truth to self is not what you pay lawyers for, after all - it's plausibility, however far-fetched the lines they have to utter. And what is odd, given their whole-hearted commitment to legal fictions, is how little traffic flows in the other direction.

A few years before George Washington's flagrant acts of criminal insurgency, Sir William Blackstone described the English law as "an old Gothic castle, erected in the days of chivalry but fitted up for a modern inhabitant". But "old Gothic" will hardly do justice to American law today - which is more like one of Ludwig of Bavaria's exercises in architectural self-indulgence. The castle now is what you get when unlimited funds fuel a baroque imagination.

It is, you would imagine, an untouched gold-field for the contemporary novelist - for a Mailer or a DeLillo or a Wolfe. But, while the workings of the American legal system are bread and butter for popular novelists, from Scott Turow to John Grisham, very few serious writers have ventured on to this ground. The only one to stake any kind of decent claim is the novelist William Gaddis, whose masterful book A Frolic of His Own is fenced off from the wider public it deserves by his own commitment to avant-garde style (no speech marks and no punctuation).

Press on through the bramble of the mannerism, though, and you discover some wonderfully funny inventions. The book's tour de force is a 35-page pastiche of a legal argument (conventionally punctuated) from a lawyer retained by an evangelical preacher. The preacher has been hit by a lawsuit after accidentally drowning a young boy during an alfresco baptism. His parents are seeking damages for emotional distress and loss, but the lawyer counter sues, calculating just how much the preacher has saved the couple in schooling and upkeep by presiding over this act of God. Look at American legal practice today and you can find these sort of nuggets lying on the ground everywhere, just waiting to be picked up. Which makes Gaddis's lonely digging in the field all the stranger.

Perhaps they're all just frightened of a class-action by injured lawyers, but someone out there really should be working on a Bleak House for the 21st century.

sutcliff@globalnet.co.uk

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