Monday, November 19, 2012

The birth of Queen's Counsel, plus a very nasty letter



In 1993 I was a law student in London, working occasionally at Disney during my summer vacations to pay my way through school. I also had a part-time job working for a Member of Parliament, a kind man called Peter Thurnham, who let me run loose in the Palace of Westminster pretending to be on important business.


The finest club in London
My old university friend Graham Defries was also working there (Graham had also wangled himself a job with an MP) and, while we amused ourselves at public expense in the corridors of power, he and I hatched a plan for a cartoon strip about politicians, which we would sell to the newspapers. It was a brave effort and we got some nice rejection letters, but no takers.

Afterwards, back at law school, Graham and I quickly realised that we could take our politician characters, stick wigs on them, and turn them into lawyers. It was an era of lawyer jokes, mostly hate jokes really, but during the summer of the OJ Simpson trial it all seemed very much a part of the zeitgeist. So we tried again, sending the new strip, now titled "Queen's Counsel" (the term used to describe especially venerable and distinguished barristers) back to the same publications, plus a couple more. Once again we got rejection letters, amongst them this one from Ian Hislop at Private Eye:

Hislop politely declined the strip, saying it was "a bit too much like Alex with wigs on" - this was a reference to the hugely successful cartoon strip "Alex", a satire on bankers and finance, which ran in the Daily Telegraph, and is still going strong today. People still sometimes ask me - are you Alex from the Telegraph? - obviously getting confused between my name and that of the cartoon strip.

We also sent the strip in to The Spectator, and this time we got a call back from their cartoon editor, the brilliant Michael Heath. "Come in and see the editor, Dominic Lawson" (son of Margaret Thatcher's Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson), said Heath. "He wants to meet you". Graham and I duly attended their Doughty Street premises, and were ushered in to meet the great man. 

Lawson liked the strip and wanted to run it. But our troubles began when we asked, rather delicately, what we could expect to be paid. This was an important issue for us since at the time neither of us had any visible means of support. "Ah well", they laughed, "we don't really pay anyone anything. At least, nothing to speak of". "But seriously, how much?" we pressed. "Nothing really, hardly anything", they said. As if the subject were beneath them. And, by implication, beneath us.

That evening, the phone rang. It was David Driver, the Art Editor of The Times. Would we consider doing the strip for The Times law pages? They would pay us a handsome sum, enough for us both to pay our rent, plus money to spare. The next day I rang Michael Heath at The Spectator and told him about The Times' offer. "Well, we can't match that", said Heath, "so you'd better take it. But you'll never work here again".

A few days later I received this letter:

It's been hanging in my downstairs loo ever since. The best part is "perhaps I can put it down to your inexperience, that you simply do not know how to behave".

It's been almost 20 years since that letter and, regrettably, I fear that I still don't know how to behave. But, on the bright side, Queen's Counsel is still going strong; you can see it in The Times on Thursdays, and pretty much the whole archive of law cartoons (now almost 1,000 drawings) can be viewed online.

And you can buy our latest book, the Queen's Counsel Official lawyer's Handbook, at amazon.co.uk. It's the perfect gift for the lawyer in your life.

---- Alex

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