2020xii31, Thursday: Some things don’t add up.

Counting things is important. But not everything that matters can be counted…

Short thought: Back to the Brexit deal, and what is – I admit – probably a wholly specious comparison.

I’ve been puzzled for months, if not years, by the narrow focus among Brexiteers on zeroing out tariffs, and the complete lack of attention to the far greater, and far harder, problem of non-tariff barriers. It’s as though we were marooned in mercantilist times, decades or even centuries ago. I’m no expert on international trade or the law underpinning it, but even I recognise that tariffs are, frankly, the easy bit (indeed, the bit that was solved with the customs union we entered when we joined the EEC, and the common market, 47 years ago). It could be simply that any non-tariff agreement involves giving up some mythical sovereignty (defined, it seems, by the standards of an unusually grabby two-year-old or an elderly orange-faced narcissist: “No-one gets to tell me what to do, and I don’t have to bear the consequences of my decisions”). It could be that many of them, including sadly our leaders, simply don’t understand – although I doubt that. I don’t know – although I know we’ll all be paying for it.

Now for the specious comparison. Tariffs are easy to count and thus to shout about; non-tariff barriers are by their very nature more nebulous and qualitative. Similarly, in competition, we’ve been dealing for years with the fall-out from the narrow US anti-trust focus on consumer prices (measurable) while ignoring the less measurable questions of monopsony-driven market dominance. I’m not saying there’s a connection, of course. Nor am I saying there’s anything genuinely comparable. But I do find it interesting that in both cases looking at stuff that’s easy to count, to the exclusion of other stuff that in the long run probably matters more, has led to significantly harmful outcomes.

Anyone reading this who’s had experience of KPIs or KRIs (whether in terms of personal or institutional performance) can probably think of examples where “if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t matter”, applied thoughtlessly or reductively, has gone horribly, horribly wrong. I know I can. Let me know your thoughts.

Someone is right in the internet: Well. Two someones. First Bruce Schneier, who combines smarts and thoughtfulness like few others on security matters, with the best take on the Solar Winds fiasco that I’ve seen, noting that this should – but tragically won’t – put the final nail in the foolish argument for software backdoors. Second an old friend, Sean Maher, who’s looking at it in the context of government capacity and the decades-long ideological assault on it in the US/UK. Sean’s focus is on the investment implications – but his points are of much broader relevance.

Things I wrote: A while ago, I wobbled. In fact, like so many others in this hellswamp of a year, for a few hours or a day I broke. So many people I know and respect, and several hearts of gold that I didn’t, chipped in with support or shared burdens. So I wrote a follow-up.

(Don’t forget – if visiting a site doesn’t float your boat, you can get this stuff in your inbox. Subscribe at https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com/.)

Unbroken. At least for the moment.

I cannot, possibly, thank you enough.

Everyone who wrote to me, commented, or otherwise made contact following that thing I wrote a while ago. You are blessings, every single one.

Some said it helped them think about what they did, and how. Some, bravely, shared their own travails. Some simply offered a hand. A shoulder. A (digital) nod. Every little bit was wonderful, and generous, and human.

(Particular thanks to Max, who reminded me of a truism that we all should be saying to ourselves and those we care about, on a far more regular basis: that it’s ok not to be ok. It really is.)

It’s even possible I may have helped a person or two myself. If I have, then Lord knows every word was worth it.

And I’m OK. Even amid Tier 4 (let’s call it what it is – a renewed lockdown – even if our government remains too cowardly to do so) – late, again; inefficient, again; incompetent, again: why don’t they learn? – I feel surprisingly together. I’m sleeping more. I’m reading more. I’m running more. (Including, sometimes, in the rain and before sunup. The calm of being out running as dawn starts to break – wow.) I’m walking more. I’m playing the piano more. I’m spending more time with my wife and daughter.

More simply, I’m trying to make time just to breathe, and to see the small things that make life worth living. A cobweb with dewdrops. A bright green caterpillar on the front step. A huge full moon with an aurora of cloud around it. A street I’ve never walked down before. The always-renewed pattern of light on the estuary waves.

And we’ve got a cat. Ostensibly it’s for daughter. Honestly? It’s as much for me. The idea of reading papers while enveloped in an industrial-strength purr was enticing beyond belief, and has proved to be even better. I’m sure more experienced cat-owning barristers will attest to the benefits of that.

So things are better. There’s a vaccine. Early signs are good. Trump is on the way out, even if his party has descended into something genuinely alarming, full of believers in what amounts to a one-party theocracy. (As a person of faith, theocracies terrify me. Because people who are certain they’re right, and who have power, are even scarier if they’re convinced God agrees with them.) There’s a Brexit deal; it’s rubbish, and has gaping holes that’ll take years or decades to fill, and we’ll suffer for it. But not as badly as we would on a no-deal finish.

So I’m grateful. Because perhaps, having recognised and accepted my weakness, and having had people I respect say good and kind and thoughtful things about it, I can be stronger. As, God willing, can we all.


Something new.

I need to write more regularly. So I’m going to try to do something – however tiny – every day. And Substack might encourage me. I’ll give it a whirl.

Oh dear.

It’s been almost two months since my last post. I’m sorry.

It’s been busy, but that’s no excuse. I need this to be more of a habit. And my posts have been getting longer; perhaps that’s part of the problem.

So: change of plan. Much shorter posts. Sometimes splitting a single topic over several posts (I can always combine them later, for ease of reading). Trying to post every day. Nearly. Well, mostly.

And I’ll try out Substack as well (https://remoteaccessbar.substack.com for signups). So whatever I write here – and it’ll almost never be more than once a day – will appear in anyone’s inbox who wants it. It may be that over time I end up switching to Substack altogether and away from this WordPress setup; it depends how much faff I have to undergo in working on two platforms at once. To be clear: I have no intention of asking anyone to pay for these ramblings. Not unless they ever get a lot more focused and a lot more useful. The Substack idea is just to make it more accessible and easier for anyone who wants to read.

Anyhow, enough. Do sign up for the emails. Or don’t; your call. I’ll still cross-post on LinkedIn and Twitter, because why not? – but over time we’ll see if Substack turns out to be a better option.

Happy 2021, everyone. This clown car of a year is nearly over. May the coming one be sweeter, saner, and kinder.


Yesterday, just for a while, I broke.

Without going into detail (others deserve their privacy), personal stuff has been unremitting and draining the past month and more. A bunch of work deadlines collided in September. The outcome: a relentless grind of sleeplessness and toil that never seemed to diminish, or leave space for thought or rest or peace.

And yesterday… well, for a while I just stopped being able to handle it. For several chunks of the day – even while trying to write a skeleton for a case later this week – the tears kept flowing. And the anger; at myself and at others who, wholly unfairly, I felt were leaving me to carry burdens alone. And the frustration. And a sense of hopelessness, that nothing would or could change.

Now, before I go further, a caveat or two. I’m OK, fundamentally. I know depression; I know too many people who have to live with it, and this isn’t it. I’m no danger to anyone, least of all myself. And it’s possible that yesterday was a particularly bad day to finish Jim Butcher’s latest, which was an emotional minefield and roller-coaster combined. (And no, Jim: you’re not forgiven yet. Not for that. Can’t say anything more – spoilers! – but you know what I’m talking about.)

And most importantly: I know a good chunk of this isn’t about me, but about these strange days we’re living through.

Because I think, like many people – including vast numbers who are hurting far more than I am, financially, physically or spiritually – I’ve found the past months and years have delivered some wounds that just can’t, for the moment, heal.

I’m not just talking about the pain of living through the time of Covid, watching people suffer and die as those whose responsibility it is to step up fail, dismally, over and over again, as others pay for their arrogance and incompetence and obsession with a Kulturkampf that, right now, should be relegated to irrelevance. Watching chickens from a decade or more of grasping short-termism come home to roost.

But about the change of the past four years, as many of the things I hold dear about how human beings can, at their best, relate to one another – summed up, perhaps, in the ability to say “I could be wrong” and mean it – are trampled underfoot in a wave of straw-man attacks and visceral ugliness.

At the enabling of our darker sides, the ones we all have, to speak out as though they’re the sole truth, as opposed to just being one element in the mixture of soul and sin that’s woven into all our psyches.

At the refusal to remember we’re all frail, all failing, and all – therefore – desperately in need of generosity, understanding and acceptance, of ourselves and of others.

We try to keep going. To ride through the chunks taken out of our well-being, of our yearning for this not to be all there is.

It’s hard. It’s sometimes too much. And yesterday, it was too much for me.

Again: I’m here. I’m OK. Today’s been far better. And I know my trials are but pinpricks compared with those of others.

But it’s a lesson. I mustn’t – we mustn’t – ignore that underlying pain. I don’t know quite how I’ll deal with it, except I know I need more exercise. More quiet. More solitude, but also more time with those I care about. More natural beauty. More things, like playing the piano, that salve and save my soul.

A better control on the work I take on, managing better that fear which all self-employed people know, of how to keep the cash flowing. (The Bar can be a terrible place for this, hardly helped by how its lingering machismo about stupid hours combines with the constant thud – literal or PDF-metaphorical – of bundles landing on one’s desk at the last minute.)

And I need to keep giving love, because that will feed me as it feeds those who receive it.

That way, I can preserve the things that, in my core, will keep me going. Love, certainly. Hope, that our better angels (call them what you will; I continue to believe we all have them) will one day prevail and that we’ll see the best, as well as the worst, in those around us. And also faith: that this chaos and disorder isn’t all we have, that this darkest timeline can change, that whatever our deserts we can rise to the challenge and remake this world so all can flourish.

Faith manages. Hope, somehow, survives. And most of all, love endures. As long as those three things are true – and thus far, God willing, they always have been – I’ll be OK.

Lies and freedom. They don’t mix.

“All politicians lie,” so they say. No; all human beings lie. What matters is what lie, when – and what it does to your ability to choose.

I’m a sucker for a series.

By which I mean a sequence of books (for preference) or a good serialised TV show. Genre, of course – you can critique me all you like, but good fantasy/scifi/etc, written with love and care, can’t be beat.

Pratchett’s Discworld*. DS9 – particularly later seasons as the story gained pace. The Broken Earth. B5, of course, and Farscape. Aubrey/Maturin. Rivers of London. And Dresden.

A long-running tale is part of it, to be sure. But the key is writers and creators who let their characters grow and change over time, rather than remain stable as the world shifts around them. It’s a privilege to be part of that.

My problem, particularly with books where there’s been a long gap between instalments – and I recognise this may just be me – is a tendency to want to re-read the whole series before diving into a new one. Which, with the Dresden Files, is taking a while.

Sometimes, though, doing this unearths gems you may have missed the first time round. There’s a couple buried in Ghost Story which hit me squarely between the eyes – and made me think about what I respect, what I despise, and why I make the distinction.

Late in the book – and I won’t spoil it with too much context for the uninitiated – the main character, Harry Dresden, is talking to someone far mightier, but also far gentler, than he. That person’s mission in life is to preserve people’s right to choose, because good and evil mean nothing unless that fundamental human right is preserved. He notes that a particularly vicious misfortune which befell Harry was born of a particularly well-crafted and well-timed lie: convincing him that what was, wasn’t, and making him think he had no choice but to walk down a bad road.

And the character says this: “When a lie is believed, it compromises the freedom of your will.”

That sticks with me. We all lie. Yes, we whinge about politicians doing it – but we all do. Mostly for self-protection. But there are big lies and little lies. And the difference is found not in the extent of the untruth, but in the anticipated consequence.

So a lie designed and intended to sway the world, to destroy the chance to make an honest decision: that’s the lie that’s unforgivable.

Perhaps this is why our profession’s greatest sin is to mislead the court. Sure, represent your client. Highlight the truths that help. Play down those that don’t. Tell the story in the best way for your side – the most believable way. But to mislead the court – even by hiding a relevant authority that doesn’t help – is to rob the tribunal of its chance to make its mind up. It’s not persuasion. It’s a con.

It’s also why I reserve a special hatred for con artists. Sure, I can admire the artistry bit – sort of. But the most successful cons which turn their marks into their best salespeople. Whose self-esteem has been warped by the lies, such that it can scarcely survive if the lies are challenged.

And that inevitably leads me back to politics. As I said, all politicians lie. They’re human. Sometimes to make life easier. Sometimes to protect secrets – whether for fair reasons or foul will depend on the circumstances. Sometimes to protect a confidence.

But outright lies, told to sway and shape opinion, when it’s clear on close inspection that the teller knows perfectly well what they’re doing? That’s treating people as pawns. Playthings.

As marks.

Some thinkers take this further. Harry Frankfurt’s famous essay (and later book), “On Bullshit“, made a distinction between lies on the one hand – where the liar at least placed some value on the truth, prizing it in the act of obscuring it – and bullshit, where the teller simply didn’t care what was true and what wasn’t as long as it served their purpose. It’s a distinction that has been often criticised.

I’m not sure where I stand. I see the distinction, and we do seem to be swimming nostril-deep in particularly noxious and damaging political bullshit in recent years. (Brexit, Johnson, Corbyn, Trump, so many others. Lord, the list goes on. And a special mention for Michael Gove, whose Ditchley speech was an example of extreme – and, I can only conclude, calculated – intellectual dishonesty.)

But I think I care less about the lie-vs-bullshit axis than I do about this question of choice. Whether in politics or people’s personal lives – think of abusers warping the world to rob their victims of a vision of anything different, for instance – robbing people of the freedom to choose feels like the big differentiator.

Dan Davies, author of a wonderful book called “Lying for Money”, put it particularly well, in something he wrote getting on for a couple of decades ago entitled “Avoiding projects pursued by morons 101“. Seriously, read it – it’s not long. But it boils down to three rules, all of which focus on lies and testing them:

  • Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. (If people won’t buy into them without being lied to, that tells you everything you need to know.)
  • Fibbers’ forecasts are worthless. (You can’t mark a liar to market. You can’t hope to fudge their numbers towards reality. If a liar says “this is what will happen”, the only safe thing is to assume the opposite.)
  • The vital importance of audit. (Any time someone won’t let their predictions or their advice get tested against reality, or moves the goalposts mid-game, run. Immediately.)

Put differently: If you catch someone deliberately lying to you, so as to change your mind about something important: that’s it. They’re done. Stop listening to them. Now.

You can accept lies as a fair form of discourse. Or you can – while accepting that we’re human, and so we fail – focus on the right to choose with your eyes open.

You can’t have both. And anyone who favours option one? Don’t trust them. Ever. About anything.

* I’m gradually re-reading the whole Discworld saga. Taking it very, very slow. Essentially to leave till the last possible moment the time when I pick up the Shepherd’s Crown – because it will be the last new Pratchett I ever read. And that hurts.

Being a father without a father: the pleasure and pain of Father’s Day.

Sussex, late May, 2014.

Father’s Day is bittersweet.

Sweet, because my wife and daughter are blessings past compare, proof if any were needed that God, fate or the universe can forgive our failings and give us a life far better than we deserve.

And bitter because I no longer have a father to celebrate.

I lost him on 27 September 2014. I remember our last day together just the two of us, in late May that year: as we trod the West Sussex countryside, the limp from his 2012 stroke present but no longer dominant, talking and walking as we had so many times, ending on a bench outside his village’s church as we watched the birds swoop overhead. I remember our last phone call a few days before it happened, his voice a whisper, drained as he was by six weeks of radiotherapy. I remember his funeral in the cathedral in Winchester, whose bishop he’d been for 15 years, struggling to keep my voice clear and level as I read from the book of Ephesians (the end of Chapter 3 and the start of Chapter 4).

Almost six years on, the loss has long passed into normality. And aside from an ache that he never got to see his grand-daughter grow into the amazing person she’s becoming, mostly it doesn’t hurt too bad.

But one thing still stabs home. His death came just as I was considering – very late in life – becoming a lawyer. It was four months later that I started studying law. Two years later I started bar school. Four years later I became a pupil at Outer Temple. And five years later that I became a tenant.

And it hurts that he wasn’t a part of that decision. Because before every one of my significant, life-changing career calls till then, I’d always sought him out. And we’d walked. And talked. And asked and answered questions. And pondered in silence, the only sound our footfalls and nature around us. It was a part of my process. And it was gone.

He’d have loved the vicarious thrill of me becoming a barrister. Every millimetre of it, through GDL, BPTC, pupillage and tenancy. He’d have found it fascinating. Asked thoughtful questions. Wanted genuinely to understand the how and the why. And, I can’t but think, that having him do so would probably would have made me a better lawyer.

Perhaps that’s why, in fact, I didn’t really talk about the experience with my family (other than my wife and daughter, of course), until the BPTC results came through and I knew pupillage lay ahead. The thought of doing so without my dad being there was just – wrong, somehow.

So here I am. I made it. I love it. But every so often, as I encounter some abstruse but fascinating legal point and my face breaks into a smile as I ponder the sheer beauty of the reasoning around it, just for a split second, I think: you know who’d have loved to talk this one through? And the smile flickers.

Still, in some ways he’s at my shoulder. If I consider an argument that isn’t properly grounded, or a tactic that isn’t honourable, I can almost hear him gently asking me why I’m going that way. Not always, but sometimes. And that voice is usually right. And takes me back to that bit of Ephesians, which tells us to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received”. Yes, I know it’s talking about another kind of calling altogether. But still, it rings true.

So here’s to you, my father. Rest in peace. Rise in glory. Be blessed. I know I am.

Sorry about that…

I do apologise for the hiatus. Real life, in the shape of work (thank goodness, I have some – and feel very lucky, but I now have a book deadline in 10 days and still have 60 pages to write), family (helping 13yo daughter plan her days – it’s incredibly tough having to switch to self-directed study, while losing both structure and society, when only just a teenager), and general Stuff, has got in the way of writing.

In a nutshell: because Reasons.

Proper writing will start again tomorrow. But in the meantime, I’m treasuring the best kind of news, of Good Things happening to Good People. My excellent friend Amy Woolfson has just joined 5 St Andrews Hill, a lovely set full to bursting with talent and niceness, as a third six pupil. In the best possible way, they deserve one another.

As Star Fleet’s greatest captain once said (yeah, I know. Sue me): “Even in the darkest moments, you can always find something that will make you smile.”

(The hug at the end of that clip… as a parent, it gets me every time. Speck of dust in the eye. Honest.)

This. Bug. Sucks.

Forgive me for going personal for a minute…

A quick one. I don’t know if I’ve got you-know-what. Symptoms don’t entirely match – only a very mild tightness in the chest and a very occasional cough. But my temperature is north of 38 most of the time, my heart rate (normally resting at about 60) is hovering between 80 and 90. And weirdest of all, I periodically start shivering so hard my teeth actually chatter and I can’t hold a mug without spilling. A genuinely new experience. Fascinating.

Other family members have it, or have had it, too. Although sometimes with less shivering and more coughing. (One is coughing a bit more today. Trying not to let myself get too worried.)

I guess we won’t know for ages (given the truly outrageous failure of our government to test – oh, to be in Taiwan right now, like a good friend of mine…) whether we’ve actually got CV or not. But all I can say is: if I have got it, then given what a royal pain in the backside even this stupefyingly mild dose is proving to be, I’m actually stunningly fortunate. At least I can still work, if for shorter stretches than usual and with longer breaks.

This thing isn’t messing.

The funniest thing of all: the only paracetamol left in the house is multiple bottles of Calpol. And I’d had NO idea just how gross it tastes…