2021vii25, Sunday: Take me home.

I spent my Saturday lost in music. Oh sweet Jesus. It was… wonderful.

I’ll make this brief.

Go to the cinema. Watch Summer of Soul. Soon as you can.


For those without the privilege to have encountered this superlative movie, the short version: in the summer of 1969, as hippies and drop-outs were converging on Woodstock in upstate New York, tens of thousands of New York’s Black folk were gathering in Mount Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park) for the Harlem Cultural Festival. Six days, over six weekends, of the best of soul, jazz and gospel music. It was filmed. No-one wanted to use the footage. And it languished in a basement for half a century – until Questlove, from The Roots, rescued it and cut the best bits together into a documentary.

And oh, sweet Lord, it’s stunning. Sure, it was lovely to be back in the Barbican cinema to see it – a favourite place of our family, where we haven’t set foot in the best part of two years. But the true glory was to be lifted up by music that filled us all with joy wholly unconfined.

Now, soul music per se may mean nothing to you. (Although I just can’t imagine how that could be. Lord, what a life…)

But live footage, at the height of their powers, of Sly and the Family Stone? Stevie Wonder? Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln? Mahalia Jackson? Mavis Staples? (Hearing Sister Mahalia take the mic from Mavis and let raw emotion ride in Dr King’s favourite hymn, Precious Lord, Take Me Home… wow.) The Fifth Dimension? Gladys Knight and the Pips? Ray Barretto? Mongo Santamaria? And – with a performance of Backlash Blues that practically raised the roof of the cinema – Miss Nina Simone herself? All of this put in the context of 1969, at the end of the decade which saw so many lives taken, famous (think Dr King, Malcolm, the Kennedy brothers) and unknown alike – and Black Power find its voice?

Come on, people. It’s beyond glorious. If music does anything to you, if it even remotely has that trick of showing you parts of your heart that just don’t come out any other way, be kind to yourself. See this.

We’re already planning to see it again.

(Update: it’s on Disney+. Glory be. The big screen is best, but this is great news too.)

The only thing that hurt was thinking of all the hours of other footage still unseen. Just imagine if it could be digitised, put online. Oh my. What a dream that would be…


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2021v5, Wednesday: Stories.

On learning advocacy from story-telling, across genres and styles. With a plug for Carly Simon, John le Carré, and a recent opponent of mine.

Short thought: I can bore for Britain on the subject of story-telling. Indeed, I already have, several times.

But this is because it’s important. For us all as human beings, for whom stories help us understand who we are and – as critically – who others are. (And sometimes, more malignantly, paint others in ways which traduce them.)

And particularly for us advocates. As I’ve said before, a big part of advocacy is in crafting the narrative that makes the facts sing, which simply makes more sense than the other side. It’s not the only thing. But it’s a big thing.

Most of us advocates, unsurprisingly, therefore love language. And we owe it to ourselves to learn from its usage, not only in our own world, but in others.

Songs, for instance. Sure, a good lyric is a million miles away from what you can put before the High Court. But the greatest song-writing is often a peerless exercise in narrative concision. A few verses to relate a whole tale.

A fabulous, fabulous example of this is an old favourite of mine: You’re So Vain, by Carly Simon. Putting aside the frankly tedious argument about whether it was Warren Beatty or someone else who inspired it, it’s essentially a story told – stripping out repetitions of the chorus – in fewer than 200 words.

And what words! I could choose any line, but this one stands out for packing the maximum meaning into only five words:

“And your horse naturally won.”

That adverb does so much work. In context, it’s practically a story all of its own.

Seriously. Listen to it. See how the story builds. See how every word works. And learn.

Fiction, of course, is the same. This is one reason I love audiobooks. When read by a good narrator, in circumstances where you can pay just enough attention, the words of great writers sing out to you and leave you breathless.

Again, an old favourite. While running recently, I’ve been re-listening to an unabridged reading of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John le Carré’s peerless classic of loss, regret and espionage – although frankly the espionage, as with much of le Carré’s work, was the canvas rather than the paint. The first few chapters kept hitting me with phrase after phrase, each more perfectly formed than the last, each with every word working.

Will I use it directly? Of course not. But will I reflect on the usage, the choices underlying it, and seek to learn? Without a doubt.

The lesson here for me: narrative is everywhere. Much of it is dross. Some of it is breathtaking. The latter is a masterclass for those, like me, who tell stories for a living. And we ignore it at our, and our clients’, peril.

(As a sidenote here: I heard a wonderful piece of narrative advocacy yesterday, from my opponent in an employment tribunal hearing. I’ll say nothing about the content of the hearing, on which judgment has been reserved. But that doesn’t have to stop me from saying that Rad Kohanzad, of 42 Bedford Row, told his client’s story beautifully, simply and effectively, weaving his submissions naturally into the tale as he spun it. Not too effectively, I hope; obviously, I want to win! And, albeit in a different metre, I think my story-telling was pretty sound too. But credit where it’s due.)


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2021iv16, Friday: The king of the Ponzi?

Madoff’s dead, but fraud lives on. A short history of the Real Book. And the importance of prioritising economics over culture wars.

Short thought: Very briefly, because of a hearing earlier today, it’s worth marking the passing of Bernard Madoff, by far the biggest Ponzi schemer ever unearthed.

I say “unearthed” because although all Ponzi schemes have a shelf-life, the numbers in the Madoff scandal were never entirely settled; and the sheer weight of skulduggery around these days, particularly in some corners of the crypto world, does sometimes make me wonder what else is lurking.

As the piece linked to above notes, fraud isn’t a victimless crime. Financial losses are life-changing in themselves, causing despair and sometimes suicide. And the loss of trust is just as damaging. Fraud is corrosive to societies as well as individuals, just as its close relative corruption.

Madoff’s passing is also an excuse, once more, to bewail the UK’s utterly disastrous approach to fraud. We haven’t had a single, big-bang Madoff here. Instead we have huge numbers of victims, losing billions each year to multiple fraudsters via scams which – to be honest – aren’t that sophisticated (often affinity frauds, of the kind Madoff specialised in), and spend (comparatively speaking) next to nothing in investigating and prosecuting them. A disgrace, and one which the Powers That Be remain singularly uninterested in tackling.


Someone is right on the internet: As I’ve mentioned once or twice, I play jazz piano. Note I’m not calling myself a jazz pianist. I’m nowhere near good enough for that. But I try. And I love it.

Anyone who’s ever played and studied jazz will have spent time poring over chord charts of standards old and new. And most of us will have, either on paper or as PDFs, a fakebook or two: a massive tome full of single sheets, with a melody and the chords, for everything from Round Midnight to Chameleon.

I know I do. I’ve even got a couple of fakebooks for specialised areas such as bossa nova. 

But I knew, to my shame, nothing about their background and history. This filled me in. It’s a short read, and points out that fakebooks aren’t without controversy, risking (as some fear they do) the ossification of an in-the-moment art form. But for anyone who’s ever squinted at a chord chart in a dimly-lit club or basement somewhere – trying to keep the line as the atmosphere of the jam fills your soul with a joy and spirit you just can’t get anywhere else and guides your fingers to do things you never knew they could – it’s a good one.


Someone else is right on the internetSimon Kuper, at the FT, is a great writer. Thoughtful, humble, interested and therefore interesting. Even when he writes about football, I’ll read his stuff. And I can’t say that about anyone else.

In today’s FT (paywall – sorry) he makes a point that many have made – but he makes it really well

There are always people who go around missing the main story of their times. No doubt some thought leaders in Paris in 1789 or Petrograd in early 1917 were getting all fired up about sideshows. Something similar is happening now: an obsession with “wokeism” and culture wars at a moment of economic transformation.

By which he means: shouting about culture wars has a huge opportunity cost. The economic damage of Covid, or the benefits of the shift in US economic policy under Biden (which is turning out to be far more progressive than most would have expected), is going to be consequential for everyone.

Meanwhile:

Today’s identity-based point-missing is often deliberate. Every morning, nativist politicians scour the news for a wokeist outrage — in a big world, there’s always one — and then spend the day banging on about it. This is an old phenomenon, explained by the sociologist Stanley Cohen in 1972: a conservative attempt to drum up a moral panic about a group of young people defined as “folk devils”. The “woke brigade” is only the latest in a lineage of folk devils that stretches back through Islamist terrorists, “superpredators” and hippies to early 1960s Mods and Rockers. Rightwingers exaggerated the dangers of all these groups.

Now, Simon is talking about the right-hand side of the aisle. I think the ailment stretches across politics. I imagine he does too, although I agree with his underlying point that the right is generally more effective in using it (perhaps cynically) as a cover for getting on with other priorities while “firing up the base”. 

Me? I’ll continue with my policy of ignoring anyone who decides to push buttons with straw-man terms like “woke” or “gammon” instead of trying to engage.

And keep trying to stop my brain atrophying, by reading people like Simon.


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2020xii30, Wednesday: Soul food.

Without the sustenance of something we do for our souls – even if we’re bad at it – we lose something vital to being human.

Short thought: Everyone needs a hinterland. Something (or indeed somewhere) they can retreat into: as an escape, or for solace, or simply for the sake of sanity. It feeds a soul which can otherwise wither and die.

My soul food? Music. Always has been. I’m a (poor) piano player, helped somewhat over the past year by my 2019 birthday present to myself: a subscription to a wonderful jazz and improvisation teacher called Willie Myette (his site, Jazzedge, has been a haven).

(And I’m getting better. Very slowly. And re-learning the essential lesson: to get good at anything, you have to accept being pretty bad for a while.)

But honestly, I’ve realised it doesn’t matter what you do. Play something. Write. Build. Make. Walk, or run, or ride, whether with music/podcast/audiobook or in blissful silence. Just something that’s not passive consumption or work. Something that can become a habit of self-nurture.

(I’m not including reading in the above. Because – call me an elitist; please, go ahead – I regard reading long-form things, by which I mean anything long enough to have some structure and thought behind it, as something as fundamental as breathing. Not so much soul food as a basic necessity.)

If the past year of strange days that seem to stretch for weeks, and months that have fled by like days, has taught me anything, it’s that without regular intakes of soul food we lose something critical to being human.

So find your sustenance. Treasure it. Be bad at it for as long as it takes. Your soul will thank you.


Nothing wrong with a re-read: I’ve never understood those who say books aren’t worth reading twice. I love a good series, and there’s something special about re-reading the last one (or, for TV, re-watching it) before getting into something new. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Children of Ruin is on my Kindle maybe-next-up list, and I’ve nearly finished a re-run through its predecessor, Children of Time. It’s awe-inspiring; a consideration of genuinely alien thought and culture in the grand tradition of CJ Cherryh’s Chanur and Foreigner books. (Again with the series…) It doesn’t hurt that its non-human species reminds me of my favourite gaming alien race of all time, Traveller’s Hivers. They were always such fun to play…


Someone is right on the internet: With thanks to Anne Helen Peterson, Anne Applebaum writes about collaborators in The Atlantic. A long read, talking about the US GOP and dealing with the use of strategic and voluminous lies. But worthwhile.


Things I wrote: some time ago I looked at bundling apps for barristers. A good one would be the holy grail. So no surprise there isn’t one. Not yet. I’d favoured one; but now I’m reconsidering. And I’ve committed hard cash too.


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