2022i2, Sunday: details.

The best and worst things in life. They trip you up, if missed. They redeem your soul, if marked.

The view down my Chambers’ stairs. It caught my eye one morning; a welcome moment of delight.

This isn’t a New Year’s resolution. I don’t do them, as a rule.

Nor is it a review of the year, or an anticipation of the one we’re entering. If the past couple of years have shown us anything, it’s that foresight is, for most of us at least, a mug’s game.

No. It’s a very short musing on the one thing that has both screwed me and saved me over the mad months we’ve gone through. And that’s detail.

From a professional perspective, of course, this isn’t news. Central to the work of the professional advocate is a mastery of detail. We’ve all lost cases because the import of some point, spotted by the other side in hundreds or thousands of pages of evidence, somehow passed us by. And equally, we’ve all come across that one critical item (occasionally in a final read-through on the train to court) which puts everything else into a winning context. Not in every case, of course. But more often than one might think.

But personally too. There have been times amid the madness when I’ve found myself pulling in. Closing down my peripheral vision, my proprioception. Letting my natural introversion (and I wonder – prompted by the comments at least half a dozen people close to me – possibly a smidge of being on the spectrum too) overtake me, blotting out little things that others do, or say, or leave undone or unsaid. Missing those critical little details which if spotted would scream, to an actively-listening mind, that someone else’s inner state needs to be attended to.

That way leads to isolation. Sadness for self and others.

Just as bad: when one walks down the road so absorbed in oneself that one misses the tiny details that feed your soul. Winter morning light on the river. A song drifting from a window that you’ve not heard for a decade or two. An innocent smile from a stranger whom you let pass. The things which may only ease your burden by a few grammes – but they add up.

Particularly when the big picture can be so dark, so unpredictable, so damned foolish and selfish much of the time, it seems to me that the details are still more important. Professional. Personal. Environmental.

OK. So maybe a bit of a resolution. Make time for the details. My soul will be the better for it. Perhaps yours will too.

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2021vii26, Monday: now read this.

Not my stuff, obviously. But the piece I’m linking to – entitled “I just learned I only have months to live. This is what I want to say” – is breathtaking. Do yourself a favour. Please.

Someone is so, so right on the internet: Another short one. I’d say I’m making up for lost time, but that would sound – given the content of this scribble – as though I was trying to be ironic. And I’m really not.

Someone I love has recently had the kind of diagnosis which can fill you with despair. Make you scream at the universe for its uncaring cruelty. Stage 4 cancer. Damnation.

And yet, I won’t scream or gesticulate. I refuse to. Because they’re not. They’re marvelling at the blessing of a life well lived, that they’re still living well, and refusing to take this as anything but a thing that happens.

It helps that they have faith. That they’re sure, quietly but firmly, that it’s not the end of the road. Only the end of this one.

But that aside, the resolute acceptance, and the ongoing love for all those around them, is an example before which I’m humbled. I’ll honour it by reflecting it as best I can.

I mention this not for sympathy (I don’t need it, since this person doesn’t), but as a lead-in to a truly breathtaking piece of journalism to which John Naughton (bless the man) linked in his daily newsletter this morning. (He got it via Helen Lewis, whose newsletter is also a blessing.)

John called it his “Long Read, not just of the Day, or even the Year, but perhaps of a lifetime”.

I might not go that far. But I’m close. It’s stellar.

And it’s strange. I was sure I cleaned my glasses last night. Yet they’re all misty again.

Update: Nigel Morris-Cotterill, one of the foremost experts around on money laundering, shared his experiences with losing his father on LinkedIn after reading this. He wrote a book after his father’s death, entitled “Ten Things You Need to Know about Dealing with Death” (Amazon page hereNigel’s piece on LinkedIn about it here). I’ve only skimmed the list of the ten things, rather than the book itself, but I agree with them all. 

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2021iii5, Friday: look closer.

Why taking the time to let the details sink in is critical to good advocacy. And a confession about football.

Short thought: My love of ukiyo-e (woodblock printing) is no secret. But I never thought it would help me think about my advocacy.

The trigger here is a piece from Craig Mod, about whom I’ve written in the past, entitled “Looking Closely is Everything”. Craig starts by discussing a famous Hiroshige print, comparing his own capsule description of it to a previous writer’s much more detailed one. He describes the thought-paths that spin off the in-depth word picture, and uses them to draw a lesson:

The point being: Looking closely is valuable at every scale. From looking closely at a sentence, a photograph, a building, a government. It scales and it cascades — one cognizant detail begets another and then another. Suddenly you’ve traveled very far from that first little: Huh.

I’d say that that huh is the foundational block of curiosity. To get good at the huh is to get good at both paying attention and nurturing compassion; if you don’t notice, you can’t give a shit. But the huh is only half the equation. You gotta go huh, alright — the “alright,” the follow-up, the openness to what comes next is where the cascade lives. It’s the sometimes-sardonic, sometimes-optimistic engine driving the next huh and so on and so forth.

“Huh”. I agree with this. That moment where the meaning, the import, of something changes. Fundamentally. It can be an almost physical sensation. And you see anew as a result.

This is the advocacy significance, I think. When you’re faced with a bundle – 600 pages for a case tomorrow morning – the temptation to speed-read is overwhelming. And necessary: it just isn’t possible to spend too long with any one page. But you have to spend enough time; enough so that you understand where each page fits into the big picture, and so that – as the narrative evolves through your reading and consideration – your sense of the shape of the documents is sufficient to bring you back to a critical detail on page 332 (or wherever) whose significance will change if you can take the time, in the context of fresh understanding, to look closely at it.

There’s an analogy with one of Edmund King’s rules on how to lose a case (yes, I know – but it really is worth coming back to). Rule 8 tells you not to prepare cross-examination on your own. If you’ve time, and you have a team, read the whole thing individually – then read each page together, and talk about it. Truths and implications will emerge far more clearly.

Similarly, looking closely is akin to enjoying the small things. It’s all about the trees, as well as the wood – each complementing the other, and each deserving attention and care. Even love.

Whenever I lose cases (at least, those which had a decent chance in the first place), often it’s because either I haven’t put myself properly in the shoes of the opposition, or there’s some detail whose significance has escaped me. I’ll be trying to look more closely. Thanks, Craig.

Something beautiful: Cephalopods are cool. They just are. As I’ve written before, there are those who see octopuses in particular as something akin to sentient, and I wouldn’t disagree.

So this picture is both gorgeous and unsurprising. An underwater photographer left his camera in a rock pool – and its resident decided to have a play with it. With fabulous results. Enjoy.

Someone is right on the internet: Anyone who knows me knows that I’m not so much allergic to team sports as largely indifferent. Basketball’s the only one I’ve ever really enjoyed playing (very badly, but there you go); and I’ve occasionally watched live cricket with an appreciation as much of the occasion and the rhythm as of the sporting action itself.

(I’m a twin, and this was a source of unending frustration for my sporting brother when we were kids. The universe had given him a sibling of precisely the right age as a permanent playing partner – and made him a sports-hater. Thanks, universe.)

Football’s different. My feelings go beyond indifference and into active dislike – not so much for the sport itself, which is fine, but for the English expectation that everyone – at least, every male – is going to be into it. I’ve got no problem with those who love and live and breathe football. I have a huge problem when I’m sometimes classed as weird (or even antisocial) because I don’t.

This may of course be my age. I grew up in the days when a good deal of English football was primarily about muscularity rather than grace, or so it seemed to me. And Route One summarised all that was worst about it: the idea that booting the ball up the pitch was the only really English way to play.

I always wondered why (aside from the insane idea that finesse was somehow un-English) Route One came into being. I’ve seen the idea that heavy old-fashioned balls meant passing was too tiring. Well, maybe. But this piece on Fivethirtyeight (via FT Alphaville), about an early sports statistician called Charles Reep, rather appealed as an alternative explanation:

It probably wasn’t entirely Reep’s fault when England flamed out at Euro 1992, or when they failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. But it couldn’t have helped that they were playing a misguided style, informed by well-meaning but faulty statistical principles.

To find out where Reep went wrong – which is a lovely example of getting causation the wrong way round – read the piece. Not at all sure it stands up as an explanation of Route One, but it appeals nonetheless.

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2021ii26, Friday: the small things.

The big things are critical. For sanity’s sake, the small things are still more so.

And… breathe.

Short thought: Following the lifting of our self-isolation on Wednesday, all three of us (self, spouse, daughter) went to get re-tested. We’re lucky enough to live in Southend Borough, which has a no-questions policy re testing; anyone can get it, any time. So we sat in the car, probed nose and mouth, coughed and sneezed as a result, and handed the results out through the window.

This morning: negatives all round. I could have danced.

So again, to the beach. And I was reminded, yet again, of something I learned long ago whose truth has become still more self-evident over the past year. 

The small things matter.

Which isn’t to say the big things don’t. Of course they do. And they can be hell to cope with. But they’re far, far harder if you don’t have a substrate of small joys to see you through the hard times. 

I know I’m lucky. My work is plentiful. My family are wonderful. My friends and colleagues are smart, thoughtful and caring. I have more luxury to look for the small things, perhaps.

But they’re all around us. Like this morning. Barely a breath of wind, the water lapping at the sand. And as I stood still at the littoral, the quiet whisper of the wavelets filled me. 

Small things like that. Priceless.

Someone is right on the internet: On the subject of small things (well, near enough), the Atlantic has something that rings true. I won’t spoil it – it’s a very short piece – but it sings the song of adapting one’s expectations to the circumstances:

Strive for excellence, by all means… But lower the bar, and keep it low, when it comes to your personal attachment to the world. Gratification? Satisfaction? Having your needs met? Fool’s gold. 

Read the rest. Worth it.

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