Oops, that reminds me — I must return that library book...

Times Online, June 02, 2006

A recent trip to Ireland to research a book on surf culture should, by all rights, have been wholly free of all things legal. I was making my second visit to the Dingle peninsula, a stunning region where the air is pure, the waves plentiful and the Guinness always good for you. The reason was that in Jamie Knoxx, a 43 year-old Dingle resident, there exists one of the real characters in contemporary surfing. This is a man who has surfed or windsurfed in 27 countries and 33 islands, whose ability in the water is second to none. I was there to talk to him and, if research deemed it necessary, go surfing.

It was a Sunday morning and I was not blind to my good fortune. I bought the Irish edition of the Sunday Times and settled down for a pleasant perusal on an unusually balmy day. Later, I would go for a surf at a break known as "Dumps", having already windsurfed at the rather more unremarkably named "Straggane" beach. My mood was as good as it gets. But there, lurking at the bottom of the front page, was a story that made my head spin.

It appears that Irish barristers are in the frame for the serial theft of law books from the Law Library of Ireland in Dublin. As Dearbhail McDonald reported, Hugh Mohan, the chairperson of the Irish Bar Council, has warned that, after 1,239 items from the library have gone walkabout, enough is enough: "If the abuse continues," wrote Mohan in a letter to Ireland’s 1,500 barristers, "offending members will leave us with no option but to recover the cost of replacing depleted stock when possible through an increase in membership fees."

Membership of the Bar Council of Ireland currently weighs in at a respectable figure in the region of £5,500. One legal tome, ironically enough entitled Criminal Procedure and costing around £230 new, turned up in a second-hand bookshop in Limerick with its Law Library stamp removed. Eight copies of a £100 text on judicial review by barrister Mark de Blacam are missing, other books have had entire chapters ripped out and even library laptops have been stolen. The culprits have been variously hypothesised as ultra-competitive barristers who seek to prevent rivals from looking up vital points of law or individuals in the mould of Keith Lueders, who, disguised as a barrister, walked past security men five years ago and stole chequebooks from desks in the Law Library. He was jailed for 11 months.

As I read this account of skullduggery at the heart of Ireland’s legal system, I suddenly visualised a book on my shelves back in England. It is a slim black thing, a hardback, and I last read it twenty years ago. It has a habit of popping into my life in the most arbitrary manner. Now, in Dingle, my enjoyment of Dearbhail McDonald’s story was seriously compromised.

I confess: the book is not mine. Possession may be nine tenths of the law and there are even occasions, in land law, when effluxion of time (in other words, no one has done anything) can result in the unexpected boon of one acquiring land that is not one’s own. But I know that these principles are of no use to me. However long I have had it, and however much no one has done anything, the slim black book belongs to my university.

It is not a law book but rather one about a certain American playwright, for I studied American and English Literature in my idealistic youth. I borrowed it a few days before my finals, and am not sure how much help it was. Certainly, thereafter, I forgot all about it. It would appear subsequently in random fashion, poking out from the bottom of a mountain of books, staring at me implacably. Each time I would swear to return it. Once, I even gave it to a friend who was visiting our respective alma mater, for him to slip it through the library doors. He said he would, but got drunk and forgot, and brought it back to me. Another time I put it in the car and took it to the post office, only to find that the shop was shut. And so the slim black book returned again to its disdainful, genuinely-owned comrades.

In Dingle, I swore again to return the book. Not for me to be tarred, if only by own conscience, with the brush of book-stealing lawyer. After all, unlike the alleged miscreants among the Irish bar, I do not face a mere increase in membership fees, but perhaps a prosecution, certainly a large bill, maybe even the need to hire my own lawyer. But now, back home, I cannot find the book. I have looked everywhere, but its slim black covers have vanished. I couldn’t believe that this shot at redemption would elude me again and fell into despair. My wife reminded me of a play by a recently-deceased mid-20th century American playwright, one of whose characters, she maintains, once said: "The pure in heart need no lawyers." I am not sure which way I am supposed to take this.