Book Review: Kid Gloves, by Adam Mars-Jones
Posted on 28th Jan 2016 in Reviews
In a blend of biography, memoir and a certain amount of amateur legal analysis, Adam Mars-Jones discusses his sometimes difficult relationship with his father, the High Court judge Sir William Mars-Jones, whom he cared for in his declining years and now recalls both as a private man with his family and as a public figure in the law. Paul Magrath reviews Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father.
Sir William Mars-Jones was a High Court judge who presided over some of the key cases of the 1970s and 80s, so any book about his life and character would have been of interest to readers of this blog. What makes Kid Gloves so special is that it is written by his son, Adam Mars-Jones, a writer and journalist with a reputation for quirky short stories and sharply observant novels as well as an impressive reputation as a film critic.
The book’s subtitle, “A Voyage Round My Father”, seems to acknowledge a debt, perhaps of inspiration, to John Mortimer’s play about his own rather dominating barrister father. “Kid Gloves”, on the other hand, suggests some form of careful handling, physical tact, perhaps even protection of the subject matter against unintended harm. But Adam is quite clear-eyed about his father and does not pull his punches, kid-gloved or otherwise, on those occasions where his father seems to deserve it. (Sir William cannot, of course, answer back.)
“Moderation didn’t come naturally to Dad, and self-discipline needed reinforcement from outside,” Adam observes, after anecdotes about his father’s tendency to drink rather too freely at official dinners. “In general Dad imposed himself on company by force of personality rather than brute quickness of wit.”
There is a sense of affectionate exasperation in Adam’s account of occasions when his father, having behaved badly, perhaps by being rude to a guest, somehow manages to make the fault lie with the other party, and accords grudging forgiveness where an apology would have been far more appropriate. This wrongfooting of your opponent seems a classic example of courtroom tradecraft, but the funny thing is that Sir William, or Bill as he’s known at home, does it unthinkingly, or seems to. There are moments when his righteous grumpiness seems reminiscent almost of the anecdotes one reads about Evelyn Waugh. As for Adam’s sexuality, that was always going to be a problem: “He was more than a standard-issue homophone, not far from being a homophobe’s homophobe.”
As a figure, in and about Gray’s Inn, where they lived, he must have been familiar but perhaps not treated with too much familiarity. Yet there was another side to him, as a musical amateur, and he never forgot his Welsh roots. (He was “that rare thing, a judge who could conduct court proceedings in Welsh”, says Adam.) Whilst his position made him a member of the establishment (and the Garrick club), he was no predictable supporter of the status quo.
Kid Gloves is also of particular interest to us because Adam’s mother Sheila, Lady Mars-Jones, who was also a barrister, worked as a law reporter for ICLR (as did her friend and neighbour, often mentioned in this book, Edith Wellwood). Neither Adam nor his two brothers (one older, one younger) became lawyers, though Adam demonstrates both a lawyerly respect for precision in his writing and a keen interest in the legal ideas involved in some of his father’s most famous cases, which he analyses with a layman’s curiosity. Nevertheless, as he readily admits, “I’ve written with more confidence about Japanese cinema than I do about English law.”
Although many of Mars-Jones J’s judgments were reported in The Law Reports, the one which receives particular attention here, O’Sullivan v Management Agency and Music Ltd, was only reported when the case reached the Court of Appeal  QB 428, which “varied” his decision. That might be because the decision, being considered quite a surprising one at the time, was always likely to be appealed, and any point of law would be more authoritatively decided by a three-strong panel of Lords Justices than a single Mr Justice. Such is the order of precedence with precedents. Luckily, transcripts of Mars-Jones J’s two judgments (one on the facts, the other analysing the law) are available on LexisNexis, and I have been able to read them there. (Nowadays, of course, the transcripts would be readily available on BAILII ; and from this year, ICLR is also hosting transcripts of unreported cases, a key component in our expansion of online content and information.)
Gilbert (born Raymond Edward) O’Sullivan was a musician with a penchant for rather sentimental pop songs, which he performed on Top of the Pops in the early 70s dressed in old-fashioned knickerbockers and a flat cap, rather as though he’d wandered through a timewarp from a 1920s music hall. (He came across as a novelty anachronism next to the likes of David Bowie, Slade and Roxy Music.) His talent had been spotted, and he’d been signed up, at a young and impressionable (but nevertheless adult) age by his manager, Gordon Mills, of Management Agency and Music Ltd. Mills persuaded him to enter into management, publishing and recording contracts which O’Sullivan, when older and wiser, felt were basically a bit of a rip-off.
Mars-Jones J declared the agreements to be void and unenforceable, because they were in restraint of trade and had been obtained by undue influence, Mills being in a fiduciary relationship to O’Sullivan. Discussing the case in the book, Adam suggests that his father must have had an instinctive sympathy for the young and impressionable musician, talented but unworldly, and this may have influenced his conclusions. But while the Court of Appeal tinkered with the judge’s ruling, holding the contracts to be merely “voidable” rather than completely “void”, they did not reverse the main thrust of it, stripping the wily manager and his various companies and associates of the fruits of their unequal bargain. And so the case set a precedent, both in a legal and also a factual sense – after this case other musicians, including Sting and Elton John, brought claims over inequitable contracts.
Commenting on his father’s role, Adam adopts a rather curious ornithological metaphor:
“A judge is a sort of weaver bird, picking through the twigs of statute and precedent offered by the advocates for the parties involved, masticating them intellectually, then gluing them together to build the next in which he will lay the egg of his judgment.”
He resorts to another animal metaphor to describe the consequent order:
“The legal term for returning profits after the event is rather lovely. MAM was being required to ‘disgorge’ the money, a word that suggests a snake unhinging its jaws and yielding up some half-digested goat.”
(Incidentally, O’Sullivan himself continued to use the law to protect his rights. In the United States, many years later, he sued the rapper Biz Markie for sampling his 1972 single, “Alone Again (Naturally)”. The US District Court for the Souther District of New York ruled that sampling without permission could qualify as copyright infringement: Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc. (1991) 780 F. Supp. 182.)
The ABC trial
I’ve discussed the prosecution of Aubrey, Berry and Campbell for breaches of the Official Secrets Act 1911 in the review of Jeremy Hutchinson’s Case Histories. But it’s a good example of a case in which Mars-Jones J proved his independence of mind (from the so-called establishment) by refusing to countenance what he regarded as an “oppressive prosecution” of a journalist under a provision aimed squarely at enemy spies. Adam recalls how pleased his father was by remarks made by Geoffrey Robertson, who had been Hutchinson’ junior in that case, in his book The Justice Game, basically using the case as an example to show that civil rights and press freedom were safe in the hands of the judiciary. Mars-Jones was, said Robertson,
“a judge robustly indifferent to the state… It says something for a system when the State, with all its power bent on conviction, cannot intimidate the courts or make prosecutors flinch from the duties of fairness.”
I hope that is still the case in the criminal courts today, as it certainly is in the civil courts which deal with judicial review.
As a barrister, Mars-Jones represented a man named Kevin McClory who claimed that work he’d done on a James Bond screenplay had been plagiarised by Ian Fleming and used in the novel Thunderball. After Mars-Jones’s opening, which lasted 28 hours and eight minutes, Fleming caved in and settled the case on humiliating terms, depriving the world of what Adam thinks would have been devasting cross-examination. (Adam himself is waspish about Fleming, whose “gentlemanliness”, later attested to by fellow spy writer Len Deighton, “has to be assessed as part-time”.) But there is a record of Mars-Jones QC’s examination of a slippery politician in the Vassall Tribunal hearings, which followed the conviction of John Vassall for spying for the Soviets. Adam quotes some of the patient tenacity with which his father worried away at Tam Galbraith MP, demolishing his evasive answers about his apparently inappropriate relationship with Vassall with almost triumphant lack of the then expected deference.
In criminal law Mars-Jones J had his share of horrors, including being junior counsel for the prosecution of the Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and as a judge in the Crown Court in the case of Donald Neilson, the multiple murderer known as the Black Panther, who abducted and hid a 17-year-old girl in a drainage shaft, where she was later found dead after a failed ransom arrangement. (This was the subject of one of the stories, “Bathpool Park”, in Adam’s first book, Lantern Lecture.)
However, Mars-Jones disapproved of the death penalty (then only recently abolished) and would, apparently, have refused to be a judge if it had meant having to impose it.
William Mars-Jones was a musician, playing classical and folk guitar, sometimes in public, more often just with his family. However, he did not read music. On one occasion, after Adam had been practising the piano somewhat strenuously, his father pointed to the letters “pp” on the score and inquired what they meant. When told they indicated “very quiet indeed” he replied “Fancy that”. On another occasion, when Adam and his brothers were listening to Frank Zappa records on the living room stereo, his father (who had earlier succumbed to Beatlemania) seemed to enjoy the energy of the music without, mercifully, noticing the highly scabrous lyrics. I enjoyed the bits about music and other aspects of the judge’s private life. A judge is more than the sum of his cases.
Kid Gloves is written in a continuous stream of prose, broken into paragraphs but not separate chapters, and there is no index. So it is not a conventional biography, and certainly can’t be resorted to as a work of reference or anecdote-spotting. It is, however, a superb book for dipping into at any time and for however long one likes, which is how I read it, in between other, more urgent reading. It’s beautifully written and suffused with a kind of charm, even when being quite stern about its subject’s shortcomings.
Kid Gloves, by Adam Mars-Jones (Particular Books £16.99) is available from Wildy & Sons Ltd.