A Legal Life

The Times, Law, 23 March 2006

The village green was resplendent in the summer sun. I had been away for three weeks, surfing the warm waves of Andalucia, and had forgotten just how pleasing the Cotswolds can be. But there, parked on the edge of the green, was a large blue car, a Rolls-Royce or Bentley. Around it flocked sundry black-clad London media types. A television camera was being wielded. This was most unusual.

I drove slowly past, trying to work out who or what was disturbing the happy ennui to which my family and I had become accustomed. Not being inclined to watch anything other than sport on TV, my celeb-spotting powers are limited. None the wiser thanks to my drive-by, I persuaded myself that an evening sortie to the pub was essential. Only by supping with the landlord would I have my finger on the pulse of this unprecedented commotion.

"Whose car was that on the green today?" I asked with lawyerly subtlety. "Don’t you know?" he replied. No, I said. He leant back behind his bar, and, for a second, resembled a rather too knowing preacher at his pulpit. "Well, I’m surprised," said the landlord. "What with you being a lawyer and all, I’d have thought you’d know these things."

I protested that I had been away in Spain for three weeks. "Sorry," he said. "I just thought you’d have known who your new neighbour is."

What? A new neighbour? I hadn’t even been aware that any of the houses next to ours had been for sale. Or even for rent. "No, he’s moved in opposite," said the landlord.

But who had moved in? "Dom Joly," said the landlord.

As one of Independent Newspapers’coterie of lawyers, I had often read Joly’s Independent on Sunday column for libel. As is the way with this kind of work, a columnist rarely, if ever, meets his or her newspaper lawyer. Joly would have absolutely no idea who I was, all the more so since there was rarely a problem with his column, though he once went a bit far with a joke about the Ivy.

A few years earlier, before I had been tasked with legalling his copy, my wife and I had been enthusiastic devotees of Trigger Happy TV (back when we watched TV). What a curious coincidence that a comedian whose words had, ever so slightly, suffered my libel lawyer’s blue pencil had moved in across the road.

Ten pints of Stella later it struck me, as I lurched down the hill to my house, that I should introduce myself to Mr Joly. Surely he, too, would be mesmerised by so positively Kunderan a coincidence.

But wait a minute, what about his right to a private life? He had, presumably, moved to our village to escape this sort of attention. I fell over a few times before concluding that in circumstances such as this, the way forward was a polite knock on the door in a day or two, with a hale and hearty "Welcome to the village!" accompanied by the suggestion that we share a beer at the pub. Yes, that was what I’d do.

Except that as I neared my home, my eyes were drawn across the road to Mr Joly's new house. The lights were on. In my condition, that was basically the same as a sign proclaiming: "Welcome all libel lawyers! Especially any who live opposite and have bastardised my copy! Come in!"

The more I thought about it, the more the invitation was clear. And so I rose — limb after limb, eyes opening and closing, hands pawing the air — to my full drunken and invincible height. I staggered to the front door and knocked.

"Yes?" asked the village’s new resident, peering at the total stranger before him. Immediately it occurred that I had perhaps made a mistake. I was wearing surfing gear, looked far too tanned and one of my flip-flops had come off. I was rather drunk and, quite understandably, was given the kind of scrutiny that only a lunatic deserves. I had to do something. Fast.

"It may be something of a surprise," I said, "but I’m your lawyer."

Joly looked bewildered. I told him why this was so and he invited me in; we shared some drinks, smoked some cigarettes. I have since learned much of the law of privacy but, quite bizarrely, I have not been invited back.