Devil walks into a libel lawyer's office...

Times Online, July 13, 2006

How many lawyers does it take to tell a joke? Answer: it depends. There are some lawyers for whom humour comes as naturally as Donoghue v Stevenson. They relish the opportunity to entrance an audience with the words "Have you heard the one about…", and treat impediments such as the remains of a decomposed snail (that which was encountered by May McAlister when drinking what was to become the most famous bottle of ginger beer in legal history) with appropriate Olympian indifference. Neither metaphor nor the possibility of no one laughing at their punch-lines will hinder them.

Others, though, do not go gentle into the world of repartee and riposte. To listen to these lawyers tell jokes is to understand what Sisyphus must have felt like, pushing his rock to the top of the hill, only for it to fall down again, each and every time. Theirs is a labour at once futile and humiliating. For all the strength they undoubtedly possess – that which enables them to get the rock to the top of the hill – it is ultimately worth nothing as the joke collapses upon them, sending them mercilessly back to the bottom of the pile.

I was reflecting on this following a discussion in my local with a man known as Flash. Needless to say, this is a nickname, its provenance betrayed by the title of Flash’s business. He is an electrician, and calls his business "Plug." He has a van, on which an electrical plug has been painted. Some customers, unaware of Flash’s soubriquet, do in fact call him Plug. This is an error: his nickname, bestowed on account of his work and a penchant for lightning-quick wit, is, for the avoidance of all possible doubt, now and hitherto, Flash.

Flash was in an unusually sombre mood when I arrived. "Still doing the law?" he asked, as mournfully as I myself often feel when I realise that yes, I am still a lawyer. I replied that I was indeed still a cut above everyone else because, unlike mere electricians, I am a Solicitor of the Supreme Court. Actually I didn’t say that, but I was once told by one of the partners, when I qualified a few decades ago, that I should never forget that we solicitors occupy an exalted position in society because we are Solicitors of the Supreme Court. I have only rarely, when tired and emotional, felt it sensible to point this out to laypeople, and given Flash’s mien, certainly didn’t think the time was right. So instead I said that yes, I was still doing the law, specifically (as regular readers will know) the libel clearance for Baddiel and Skinner’s World Cup podcasts.

There was an uneasy silence. Flash sipped his pint and glared menacingly at his cigarette lighter. "I know," he said at last, "I’ve been listening to them." That sounded all well and good, but Flash was not a happy man. "They nicked my jokes," he said, eyeballing me moodily.

Now, Flash is not only an excellent electrician, but also the funniest man I know. Sometimes he is so funny that talking to him becomes impossible. He cannot seem to get through a sentence without making a joke, which can be exhausting (I rather sense that Frank Skinner might be like this, too). Flash also enjoys the odd wind-up, and, assuming that I was on the end of one, I opted to play along. "That’s awful," I said, "but how can you be sure? Where is your evidence of such a serious copyright infringement?"

"Evidence? Why do I need evidence? It’s obvious. Anyway, my wife’s going to Italy." Luckily I knew the answer to this apparent non sequitor. "Genoa?" I asked. "I should do – I married her!" said Flash. Thanks to Baddiel and Skinner, I was primed for this, but Flash’s next question threw me completely.

"What happened when the devil visited the young libel lawyer’s office?" he asked. I told him that I had no idea. Flash provided the requisite illumination: "The devil looked around and made the lawyer an offer. He said: ‘I’ll quadruple your fee-earning overnight. The partners will love you, clients will respect you. Your secretaries will always be gorgeous and unaware of the laws of sexual harassment, your cars will be faster than everyone else’s and you will spend half the year in the Caribbean, without demur from anyone. All I ask in return is that your wife’s soul, your children’s souls and their children’s souls rot in hell for eternity.’"

Flash paused. "How many lawyers would it take to tell that joke?" he asked, and then answered with a punch-line as ambiguous as it was accurate. "It depends," says the young lawyer, "what’s the catch?"