Book review: The Supreme Court — A Guide for Bears, by Isobel Williams

Posted on 14th Jul 2017 in Reviews

The UK Supreme Court welcomes visitors from all over the world. But, says the blurb on the back of this delightful book by artist and blogger Isobel Williams, one important audience has been overlooked: bears. So they have produced their own guide, which is reviewed here by Paul Magrath.

When newly appointed Lord Chancellors, stepping gingerly into a role unsuited to lay politicians, mouth platitudes about the UK Justice System being “open for business”, they are probably thinking about wooing foreign litigants to the Rolls Building and pocketing the exorbitant court fees, rather than welcoming foreign tourists to our highest appellate court. Little do they know.

Lord Neuberger revealed in a speech not long ago that the UK Supreme Court, of which he is President, not only warranted an entry in Trip Advisor but had scored very highly as a tourist attraction. With its Certificate of Excellence and a 4.5 stars rating, his court also ranked ahead of such established visitor landmarks as the Royal Artillery Museum, The Shard and Harvey Nichols.

Those who rate their visit to the Supreme Court so highly will surely have done so in part because of something else which has proved deservedly popular: the bears who, in Isobel William’s delightful new book, guide the visitor round the court. Thousands of these “very charming creatures”, adopted from the cafe shop, “have left the Court for new loving homes around the UK and beyond”, according to Lord Neuberger in his foreword.

On her blog, Isobel says:

Some people are a bit snooty about the fact that the Supreme Court stocks bears, along with Christmas tree baubles, baseball hats, bone china mugs and other goods. As a tax-payer I’m happy if they can make a few bob and, more importantly, good-quality souvenirs help to spread information and goodwill.

In this book the bears come across as a bit cheeky and mischievous, as they give us a behind-the-scenes tour after the court has closed for the day. They explain, in easy language, what the court does, and what some of the signs and artwork in the building mean. 

One of the bears asks a bust of King Edward VII “can I call you Teddy?” Another cheekily modifies the vow sworn by judges to read: 

I will well and truly serve and I will do right to all manner of people after the laws and usages of this realm without Bear or favour, affection or ill will.”

I was interested to learn that Sir John Fielding, the famous and innovative 18th century magistrate whose portrait hangs in Court 1, had “controversially” allowed court cases to be reported in the press. He’s an early transparency hero, properly memorialised in our most open and accessible modern court.

 

My favourite of Isobel’s illustrations is the one of the Statue of Liberty, clutching a teddy bear in one hand, and her flaming beacon in the other, whose caption contains another little curiosity of legal history:

There are Supreme Courts in many other countries, including the USA. ‘The Constitution would not have been noticeably affected if Sherman Minton’s chair had been occupied by a stuffed teddy bear from 1949 to 1953.’—The History of the Supreme Court of the United States, vol 12, William M Wiecek, CUP, 2006|”

The word “teddy bear” comes from Theodore Roosevelt, President of the USA from 1901 to 1909, whose niece Eleanor Roosevelt provides a quotation etched into the glass screen of Court 2: 

Justice cannot be for one side alone but must be for both.”

It would be a shame if these entertaining and slightly roguish bears were to be confined to the Supreme Court. I very much hope that a follow-up volume will take them into a No 11 bus and along the Strand to the Royal Courts of Justice, where there is actually a place officially known as the Bear Garden.

It is a sort of waiting area or lobby, where I feel sure the Supreme Court bears will find some cousins, who can help explain the interesting features and art works in the Victorian gothic court complex that houses the High Court and Court of Appeal of England and Wales.

After that, another ride on the No 11 will take them along Fleet Street to Ludgate Hill and Old Bailey, where the Central Criminal Court has heard some of the most notable and notorious trials of the last hundred years. I feel sure the bears will have lots to say about it, too.

 

The Supreme Court: a guide for bears is available to visitors in the Supreme Court gift shop and from Wildy & Sons at £6.95, and from http://isobelwilliams.org.uk at £8.79 inc. UK p&p (overseas postage by arrangement).