A matter of contract

Independent on Sunday: Talk of the Town, September 2003

Unlike Peter Carter-Ruck, one of my former bosses, my motivation to enter the legal profession did not arise from an incident involving a haddock. In his memoirs, the grand old man of libel famously recounts a traumatic moment from his childhood, which sowed the seeds of what he calls “a passionate feeling of the importance of justice.” He was six and haddock was on the menu for Sunday breakfast. But his parents announced that he would not be having any, “because of something I was wrongly accused of having done.” Outraged, the nascent doyen of defamation lawyers took hold of the haddock by its tail, and ran off with it.

I used to think that my own emergence into the law was informed by the relatively prosaic realisation that my degree in American and English Literature would yield nothing by way of income. What could keep me in the style to which I had yet to become accustomed? Why, the law. And so I did a conversion course and before I knew it was offered a job by Mr Carter-Ruck, or, at least, one of his partners.

But it struck me the other day, upon visiting a friend in Brixton, that I have a childhood trauma to rival that of CR, as we used to call him, and his haddock. There I was, idly chatting to my friend, when he reached down beside his armchair and brought forth a collection of seven-inch singles. “Do you remember these?” he said, with a sly smirk.

They were a motley collection but immaculately preserved. There was Milk and Alcohol, by Dr Feelgood; Anarchy in the UK, by the Sex Pistols; various Ian Dury hits and almost everything The Stranglers had released. My life flashed before my eyes, and I remembered: they were mine. My friend watched as I thumbed through them, until I came to the piece de resistance. There it was, The Stranglers’ version of Dionne Warwick’s Walk On By, good enough in its own right but with the astonishing ‘B’ side track Old Codger, an amazing, surreal bluesy number with George Melly on vocals. To my knowledge, this track has never been released in any other medium.

I wanted to hug my friend for looking after them so well. How, though, had he acquired them? “I bought them off you,” he said, with a firm and steely stare. This was preposterous, why would I sell my prized punk singles? At 13, I was too young back then to have been on drugs, and even under the influence of alcohol wouldn’t have done anything so stupid. Had he stolen them from me? Far from it. “You part-exchanged them for my air rifle,” said my friend, leaning back in his armchair like a Whitehall mandarin.

It was true. For a long time I had coveted my older, and wiser, friend’s sleek 2:2 rifle. With neither income nor capital to my name, the only way I could obtain it was to swap the singles that Mum and Dad had unknowingly financed with their pocket money. A contract had been concluded, its constituent elements all present and correct: offer (can I have your air rifle if I give you my singles?), acceptance (yes), and consideration (the exchange of the goods).

At the time, I thought nothing of this. My friend played my singles and I spent many happy hours leaning out of my bedroom window and shooting seagulls, before graduating to the sign across the road, which told dog owners they couldn’t use the beach. Then one morning, a letter arrived. It was from the local police. “It has come to our attention that you have been discharging a firearm from your bedroom window,” it read. “Significant criminal damage has been done to the dog guidance sign. Unless you hand over the weapon to us by 5.00pm this afternoon, steps will be taken towards your immediate arrest and imprisonment.”

I spent the morning in terror, the afternoon under my bed. The deadline came and went and I looked at the letter for the hundredth time. At tea-time, my father, himself a lawyer, arrived home. How would I tell him? I read the letter again. It was signed “A. Knytt.” The date? 1st April. CR and his haddock have nothing on my Dad, the air rifle and the contract for sale of Old Codger.