Grant’s contention that the language and conduct of trial are emblems of societal attitudes could be extended. The end of the period covered in the book saw a decline in the quality of attention given by policymakers to criminal justice. You can see it in the buildings themselves. Court One of the Old Bailey is a template of Edwardian civic grandeur: a solemn, austere place intended to instil a sense of continuity and order, far removed from the stinking disorder of Newgate prison, which stood on the same site. In the last three years more than 150 court buildings, those on profitable sites, have been sold off to fund other parts of the system, in the absence of proper new investment. When the government builds courts now, it builds them cheap and puts them on ring roads. They rapidly fall apart and do not get repaired. In 2017 a prisoner died of heatstroke in the unventilated cells at a Central London magistrates court. The rotten state of the buildings represents a wider neglect.
Does Grant add anything to these familiar tales? I think so: the perspective and sensibility of a 21st-century lawyer. He carefully outlines the tactics and typical questions of prosecution and defence and is not afraid to call out Marshall Hall’s bluster – his reputation as the great defender takes a beating – or the ‘atrocity’ of Ellis’s execution.
For someone whose contribution to literature was until recently circumscribed by such worthy tomes as Lender Claims (2010), Grant writes with the style and fluency of a far more experienced author. He makes judicious use of his rich material. It is doubtful if in future decades Court One will provide as fertile a field for writers. Murder trials which start in a death can no longer end in one. Terrorist trials, of IRA or Islamists, must be played out in premises with more secure facilities. Ferocious judges, such as Mr Justice Lewis, whose summing up all but guaranteed Evans’s wrongful conviction, are all but extinct, their successors house trained at judicial away days. Florid advocates like Marshall Hall are a vanishing breed. Twenty-first-century silks prefer understatement to exaggeration.
Many of the nation’s most notorious trials have taken place at the intimidating Court Number One at the Old Bailey. In his excellent second book, barrister and author Thomas Grant offers detailed accounts of 11 of those cases, with protagonists ranging from the diabolical (Peter Sutcliffe, Ian Huntley) to the pathetic, including the Profumo patsy Stephen Ward and the unjustly executed Timothy Evans, stooge for 10 Rillington Place’s John Christie. There is plenty of humour throughout, not least from out-of-touch judges bewildered by “that Greek chap, clitoris”, but this is ultimately an affecting study of how the law gets it right – and wrong.
This book charts a sorry journey from Great War naivety — Lord Albemarle, hearing of an obscene libel trial in 1918, asked his chums at the Turf Club “Who’s this Greek chap Clitoris they’re all talking about?” — to the slumminess of mid-20th century Britain, riddled with damp and spy rings.
He is a master at conveying the cut-and-thrust of cross-examination, managing to maintain a sense of speed while making sure the reader does not miss the cultural or legal context. His style is drily witty, but just when you start to think he is a bit too detached from what are, after all, matters of life and death, he soars into a rhetorical flight; and although these can sometimes be a little cheesy or metaphor-mangling, they are happy evidence of the humanity behind Grant’s pawky exterior. At times the book is very moving, notably when he describes the trial of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, and seems almost to be willing himself into the body of her barrister in order to offer a more competent defence.
Grant takes 11 of the most celebrated trials from the Old Bailey’s Court Number One, beginning with its opening in 1907, and retells their sensational stories. On the face of it, the book might look lurid... If you are looking for shocking or titillating details, you will find them... Some details are disturbing. Who knew that women were prepared for hanging with special canvas pants, to conceal any bleeding from their suddenly prolapsing wombs? Others are farcical, such as the revelations at the 1963 trial of the supposed spy Giuseppe Martelli... Grant’s humour is never gratuitous because it is deployed to bring the Old Bailey to life, which he does brilliantly... Above all, this book is not lurid because Grant is making a thoughtful point. A criminal trial, he argues, can be an “underground route into an understanding of the past”. By capturing intimate facts and individual voices, a trial can “capsize our sense of a period”. It can also shake up our sense of our own... The Old Bailey might be a Jacobean theatre, at times. But like this deceptively thrilling book, it also stands for something very serious.