I took part in a little-known, rather extraordinary daily ritual yesterday. Every day when the Old Bailey is in session, the judges arrive at the chambers of the Sheriff of London for lunch. Assembled to meet them, rather charmingly, are a selection of guests chosen, presumably, for their potential to make diverting, non-judicial conversation.
The current Sheriff, Peter Cook, is an old friend of the family, which is how I found myself sipping champagne with men dressed in ermine robes, on the hottest day of the year. One of my fellow-guests was the actor John Hurt. The previous day had featured stars of the Royal Opera. I hope my lunch companions weren’t disappointed with a mere medical writer – they were certainly too charming to say so.
The whole thing is extraordinarily well-choreographed. At 12:30pm, guests arrive for drinks. The judges arrive about 12.45pm, and we sit down to dinner at 1pm sharp. Somehow, three courses including cheese and coffee are consumed before everyone gets up at 2pm to return to work.
The judges wear their wigs and gowns, and conversation stays mainly away from shop (although I heard one or two snippets about a most notorious current case). I learned exactly who can afford to live in the glorious big houses opposite the Dulwich Picture Gallery (Old Bailey judges) and why its a good idea for a judge to become a season-ticket holder for their local football club.
I may be giving away too many legal secrets already, so I’d better stop before I end up on the wrong side of the Old Bailey’s hospitality. It was a fascinating glimpse into a side of London life that I never knew existed. Many thanks to Peter Cook for letting me in (and out again).