A drink at the bar
Graham Boal QC writes frankly about illness and recovery
As you would expect from a former Old Bailey judge, Graham Boal QC is searingly honest about the challenges he has faced — and overcome. His autobiography, to be published by Quiller this week, is called A Drink at the Bar. In case that’s too cryptic, he has subtitled it A Memoir of Crime, Justice and Overcoming Personal Demons. And for anyone who’s still puzzled, he explains on the first page that it’s
an account of the life of a barrister who was, or became, an alcoholic depressive: or, perhaps more accurately, the story of a now-recovering alcoholic depressive who was a barrister and then a judge.
Writing about one’s human frailties is entirely commendable and Boal, 77, dedicates his book to the Westminster Drug Project, where he serves as a trustee and board member. But he reminds us of another demon that is harder to defend, a speech he made in 1999 as a serving judge to what he was told would be a private dinner for criminal lawyers. Although it was an attempt to satirise political correctness, it crossed the boundaries of what was, even then, considered acceptable.
As Boal explains,
by the time I made my speech at the Criminal Bar Association dinner I had detected what I thought were definite signs that appointments to silk and to the bench were being influenced by politically correct considerations. I decided to give voice to these concerns but made the terrible mistake of doing so by including what I intended to be an amusing parody.
To say it backfired would be a huge understatement. When my words were reported in the Guardian and on the BBC I was branded a sexist, racist, homophobic bigot. To make matters worse, the Daily Mail contained a sympathetic article headed “The jocular judge who blundered into a quip too far”, and included this description: “Graham Boal’s ready wit, clubbable nature and sense of the absurd have long made him a popular figure on the legal party circuit.”
The next few days were extremely uncomfortable, with criticism pouring in from many quarters, and including a serious written reprimand from the lord chancellor. I have no doubt that, had I made that speech twenty years later, I would have been dismissed. I suspect that even at this distance of time, were I to be invited to address an audience at most universities, I would be no-platformed or “cancelled”.
I very much regret the whole incident, and recognise that my attempt at combining humour with a serious point was totally misguided. As I did at the time, I apologise again here to those to whom I caused offence. But I do not resile from the serious point I was trying so clumsily to make.
Life at the bar
Well aware that, as he puts it, “there are few more boring experiences than ploughing through the reminiscences of retired barristers and judges”, Boal takes us through his early life and career at a reasonably brisk pace. But we notice some pointers to the future: Roaccutane, prescribed for his teenage acne, was later linked to depressive illness. His pupil-master became an alcoholic. At weekday dinner parties with friends, Boal “consumed more than my fair share of wine”. He was convicted of drink-driving.
As the BBC’s legal correspondent from 1985 to 2000, I often encountered Boal prosecuting or defending in the biggest criminal cases of the time. He was straight, fair and utterly charming. In the trial of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal Party leader acquitted in 1979 of conspiracy to murder, Boal was junior counsel for the defence. Ironically, he was led by George Carman, a QC whose capacity for drink and self-destruction was legendary.
Boal’s account of Carman is perhaps the most fascinating part of his book. This is how it concludes:
Nothing I have written in this chapter should be read as detracting from my description of George as a flawed forensic genius. His work-life balance was skewed to an extent rarely equalled by others. He is quoted as having said “the law is addictive”, and I have no doubt that he was an addict.
As I now appreciate, he exhibited all the characteristics of an alcoholic: not just his drinking, but his recklessness, and his driven determination to succeed, despite any self-doubt that lay well hidden below the surface. However many forensic victories he chalked up, however much money he made, however much he was fêted and admired, it was never enough. But as an advocate he was, at his best, peerless, and it was a privilege to watch him in action at such close quarters on so many occasions.
The IRA bombings
The mid-1970s saw a series of Irish republican attacks in England. Boal recalls an IRA car bomb that exploded outside the Old Bailey in 1973:
Photographs in the press the next morning showed the dishevelled, twenty-one-stone figure of my great friend, James Crespi, who announced that he had “saved the fabric of the Central Criminal Court by inserting my body between the bomb and the building”. As he later regaled his friends and acquaintances in El Vino’s and the Garrick Club with the story, he always added that he would carry “bits of Michael Mansfield’s bicycle” in his torso for the rest of his life.
In 1990, Boal was told that that the case of the Birmingham Six was to be referred to the Court of Appeal for the second time. The six had been convicted of 21 murders arising from the bombing of two Birmingham pubs in 1974. Boal was to advise the DPP, Sir Allan Green QC, whether the men’s appeal should be opposed. First though, in an unprecedented departure from normal practice, he was to help supervise an inquiry by Devon and Cornwall police into the original, deeply flawed, investigation by West Midlands detectives.
Some months later, it was Boal who told the Court of Appeal that, in the prosecution’s view, “these convictions are no longer both safe and satisfactory”. After considering the new evidence, a court headed by Lord Justice Lloyd quashed their convictions.
“As for myself,” writes Boal, “I had managed to prepare for and conduct the case of the Birmingham Six by abstaining from alcohol for a period of weeks or months, but once it was over I found sustaining that abstinence increasingly difficult.”
Soon afterwards, he and his wife flew off to a luxury island resort in the West Indies.
There I found the temptation of rum and Coke in the sunshine on a boat on clear blue water irresistible, and the red flag which we had to hoist outside our chalet by the seashore to summon service should have been taken as a red card against consumption of alcohol. I failed to heed yet another warning sign. During the following months I was a fully functioning alcoholic depressive who did not know that that was what he was.
Rising from the depths
Later chapters of Boal’s book make for painful reading. His marriage broke down. He was treated for reactive depression in hospital. He attempted suicide. After 18 months’ sick-leave, he realised he could not return to his position as an Old Bailey judge.
But this is a story with a happy ending. Boal recovered. He overcame his dependence on alcohol and nicotine. He and his wife were able to put their lives back together. They now live in what sounds like a delightful village on the north coast of Norfolk, playing a full part in local life. They are rightly proud of their son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.
Despite everything, then, Graham Boal considers himself to be a very lucky man indeed.
Having met Mr Boal, yet not been aware of his demons, I look forward to reading his book, even more so now I know of the happy ending to his book.