One of my favourite places to spend an hour when I visit London is the Waterstones bookstore in Picadilly. In part that’s because I don’t live in the UK anymore, and maybe take the bookstores in Ottawa for granted, so it is exciting to access a different stock of books.
Mostly I like spending time there because I find it soothing, and the tables of stacked books on display are especially appealing. It feels a bit like a treasure box to rifle through in a time constrained fashion. I also think it reacquaints me with a piece of my UK identity that I’ve been blowing the dust off, in recent years. I rarely fly to Europe, but when I do, I try to squeeze in a layover in London.
When I spent a couple of days in London mid March, I came across ‘In Your Defense’ by Sarah Langford. I have to admit that this particular book cover didn’t appeal to me - it looked a little glam and trashy to my eye. Maybe I’m not the target audience. However, the subject matter was very appealing, and I’m so glad that I picked it as one of two books to read while traveling. It is a first hand account of a young barrister working in England, shared through a series of her cases.
I’m writing these notes a few weeks after devouring the book while traveling, so working from memory. Most of all I was swept away by the style of writing. I really wish I could do justice to the book in describing how well written it is. It is minimal, yet vivid, cool, elegant yet grounded. It feels like a really good bottle of wine. I loved how it was written, and hope Sarah writes more books.
The cases were fascinating, moving, and revealing. But for the harshness of the N. Ireland troubles when I was growing up, my life has generally been pretty privileged - grammar school, university, and then a work life in corporate software labs and design studios. My world has been blinkered, focusing on homelife and worklife success and problems. In contrast, Sarah’s cases offer a glimpse into a world of people who are mostly much less lucky with the cards they were dealt. Many of the cases surface people struggling with problems originating from the dislocated family they were born into, or their innate identity, or people wrestling with very broken hearts.
Most moving for me was the case of a young mother fighting hard for the legal permission to raise her own child, because the state initially considered her history and circumstance too hazardous for the child’s future. It’s a story of determination, and hope. A fragile hope, that the author reflects on. I think her reflections and emotions anchor a lot of these stories, when she relates milestones in her own life to the complexities in the cases.
It’s a book I hope to read again, and want to share with my son who is beginning his own quest for a career as a lawyer. My eldest brother is a lawyer too. Growing up with him was ( on reflection ) a gift of education in debate, human nature and observation. He told me early in his career that he didn’t want to defend rapists, or drug dealers - so reading this book gave me another perspective on what it means to do that - and what the stories are around cases like that.
My mum loved the ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’ series when I was growing up, and so, by absorption of those wonderful cases, I guess I must have a subconscious interest in that world. I was grateful to stumble across this window into it.