Any publication daring to print the above headline would normally anticipate only one response: a writ for defamation, swiftly issued by solicitors acting on behalf of the man whom it describes. Unless, of course, those words told the truth.
In A Drink at the Bar: A memoir of crime, justice and overcoming personal demons, former circuit judge Graham Boal QC confirms that all of these things were indeed true about himself – except for the suggestion that he is brave, which is entirely my own conclusion.
There has been a recent spate of books written by retired English judges. Among last year’s batch, Sir Richard Henriques (former High Court judge) and Simon Brown (Lord Brown of Eaton-under-Heywood, former Supreme Court judge) stand out. Stylish, self-deprecating, and primarily aimed at a legal readership, they provide an insight into life at the Bar and on the bench.
Through accessible prose that entertains and enlightens, Boal adopts a comparable approach in recounting his career highlights. But he also goes much further.
Having read his book in one sitting, Boal’s bravery is what struck me most in this self-effacing account of a working life sometimes spent in the spotlight, alternating with a personal life always lived in the shadow of the bottle. For a celebrity to reveal their personal demons in this way has become de rigueur; for a retired judge to make such confessions in print takes genuine courage.
Offering readers a candid portrayal of his alcoholism and depression, which were inevitably intertwined, this book’s appeal extends beyond the narrow readership of practising lawyers and fellow judges. These are struggles that resonate with the experiences of millions of people and their families across every stratum of society. As Boal puts it: ‘Many people, from differing backgrounds and lifestyles, face similar problems.’
His angst may regularly punctuate the narrative, washed down with recollections of tumblers full of whisky, but they do not dominate Boal’s story. Instead, they are neatly interwoven with his 30-year stretch as a criminal barrister, during which time he became First Senior Treasury Counsel.
Gliding through his early years, Boal’s Triumph Herald makes its way to far flung courts across London’s outer suburbs in pursuit of modest fees. Although Harold Wilson was PM and the Beatles ruled the charts, the culture of the Bar he evokes – and in which he felt comfortably at ease – was distinctly conservative with both a small and a capital ‘C’: almost entirely male, exclusively white, and predominantly privately educated. But crime was still crime, much as it is today.
Alongside vignettes of villains – the Kray Twins are described as looking ‘quite small and insignificant’ in court – he introduces some of the Bar’s bigger personalities. Among them is the twenty-one-stone figure of his great friend, James Crespi, who, after being injured by an IRA bomb, noted that he had ‘saved the fabric of the Central Criminal Court by inserting my body between the bomb and the building’.
By 1979, Boal’s career was firmly in the ascendant as Sir David Napley, the then doyen of criminal solicitors, retained him for the defence in what would become the most prominent case of his career: R v Jeremy Thorpe & others. Thorpe was charged with conspiracy to murder and incitement to murder. Anyone who has seen the BBC mini-series A Very English Scandal, starring Hugh Grant as Thorpe, will know the fate of the former Liberal leader.
At this stage, I should declare an interest. As Thorpe’s junior barrister, Boal was led by my late father, George Carman QC, who would be catapulted to legal stardom by the case. The first time I met Boal, his waistcoat adorned by a gold pocket watch and fob, was during the trial in the Old Bailey’s Number One Court. I should add that I have not seen or spoken to him for more than 20 years.
It would spoil the plot to disclose what he says about working with my father in Thorpe’s defence, and in a string of subsequent cases: many pages are devoted to describing this team effort. Despite their underlying tensions, his final judgment appears restrained – a quality one should expect from a former judge.
Boal spent the 1980s and the early 1990s prosecuting as treasury counsel. ‘Stress was really beginning to take its toll, leading to episodes of depression,’ he confides. There are lighter moments too, as a picture is painted of him dancing the night away with Elizabeth Gloster, now Gloster LJ., at the conclusion of the Guinness trial.
Following a spell in the Priory for clinical depression, Boal is keen to point out: ‘I was never drunk on duty and never consumed alcohol before going into court… but I drank to excess almost every evening.’ Predictably, a vicious circle emerges – he self-medicates to treat his depression by dulling the pain with alcohol.
Without the support of his wife, Lizzie, and their son, Thomas, one gets the distinct impression that he might never have survived. But survive he did. In 1996, he became a Permanent Judge at London’s Central Criminal Court, better known as the Old Bailey, trying cases involving the most serious crimes, such as rape and murder.
Ultimately the most engaging and uplifting part of his story, it is nevertheless far from straightforward. Through various twists and turns, Boal is never triumphalist, purposefully describing himself throughout as a recovering alcoholic.
He is also understandably contrite about a speech that he gave to the annual dinner of the Criminal Bar Association in 1999. This included a ‘racist’ joke, which the author says ‘caused much offence, and the terms of which I greatly regret.’ Reprimanded by Lord Irvine, the then Lord Chancellor, Boal was forced to issue a public apology.
In retirement, he has worked as a trustee and board member of Westminster Drug Project, a charity which provides a wide range of drug and alcohol rehabilitation services across the country. He dedicates his book to WDP. Beyond the law, he is very fortunate to have found a genuine sense of purpose and a contentment that have invariably eluded many of his fellow addicts.
According to research by the ABA Commission on Lawyer Assistance Programs, based on interviews with 13,000 lawyers and judges in the US, the problem is widespread. Nearly 21 per cent of them had problems with alcohol use. But when the questions were focused exclusively on how often the participants drank, more than 36 percent were seen as problem drinkers. The study also showed that 28 percent of respondents said that they had experienced depression.
Ultimately, Boal’s frank memoir is an uplifting tale that offers profound lessons for lawyers everywhere.
Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.