The Silk Road

My road to taking Silk begins not with watching Crown Court as a schoolboy with my leg in plaster and unable to go to school. It starts not with my first lecture at University with my new friend (now my old friend) Richard. It did not commence with my pupillage in Rumpole’s chambers or my first day in my one and only set in Manchester. And it did not get underway with a lengthy application form and an £1,800 wager on myself.

It starts in 1870.

1870 is a very long time ago. In fact, it is 149 years ago. 1870 saw the 20th Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland (the current jamboree of confusion and indecision is the 57th). In 1870 Queen Victoria had 31 years of her reign still to go. She was only about half way through an era which shapes much of Britain today and to which she gave her name. It was the year in which Charles Dickens breathed his last breath and Lenin his first. And so did my grandfather.

My father’s father, born in 1870, may seem like an odd place to begin. Why not with my maternal grandfather, the only one of my grandparents that was still alive when I came along, known to me and my siblings as “Pop”? Why not either of my grandmothers? The possessors of such grandmotherly names, Edith and Annie?

I have started it in 1870 because I bet there are not many of you out there that have a grandfather who wasn’t just a Victorian by dint of a birth at the turn of the century but who was 31 years of age when Victoria died. Being the youngest son of the youngest son of a man who fathered a son at 64 means that I leap in just two generations from a man writing a blog on his MacBook air to a man who was born at a time before universal education. He lived in a time that was not WiFi enabled wireless….it was sewerless.

My paternal grandfather made a physical move from Cumberland to Levenshulme which was the move that eventually led to all of my grandparents being present in Manchester. In a very real sense his journey was the start of a road that led to me being born in 1971.

But as any devotee of reality television talent contests will know, journeys are not just geographical. My grandfather was described in the census as a labourer. In 1915, when he joined the Flying Corps (lying about his age in order to do so), he was described as a Carpet Warehouseman. Would the 48 year old version of my grandfather have ever envisaged that the 48 year old version of his grandson would be described, somewhat pompously, as one of Her Majesty’s counsel, learned in the law?

Reintroducing the other grandparents, what would my other grandfather, a roofer, have made of me being a barrister? Would my grandmothers have ever looked at their own children and thought that one day Annie’s daughter and Edith’s son would be in a hall at Westminster watching their own child being sworn in as a QC?

I do not claim for myself any triumph of a working class hero. My own parents were established in the middle classes by the time I came along. Neither of them had themselves been to university, or even had that as an opportunity open to them, but the battles had been fought and won long before I came along. All of which meant I could go to do my degree, not as a groundbreaker, but as an opportunity that the circumstances of my birth, my gender, my race or my sex was not going to deny me.

From a labourer to a QC in three generations, albeit over 149 years. That is social mobility. And is the challenge that still faces the Bar today. Not only that anyone with the talent to succeed should have the opportunity to do so; not only that discrimination on grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation should be anathema to anyone involved in the profession; not only that it should not matter whether your father was a High Court Judge or a purchasing manager; not only that it does not matter which school or university you went to; it has to be that we all take responsibility in doing something which makes this an accessible profession. Something which tells a schoolgirl in Rochdale, either by deed or by words, that this is a career to which she can aspire without fear.

The honour and role that I receive today was simply impossible for my grandfather. It was so impossible that Dickens himself would not have imagined it. Lenin would have scorned at the idea of it. It would have been almost as impossible for my mother or father to have gone to university and then be called to the Bar.

I am not going to lie. Today I burst with pride. This would not have been possible without a man making the journey to Levenshulme and then parents who supported a boy who turned round one day and announced he wanted to be a barrister. Being called to the Bar and being an advocate in court was a dream come true. Acquiring two letters after my name is incredible, but not, it turns out, impossible. What would George, Edith, Annie and Pop have made of that?

6 thoughts on “The Silk Road

  1. Odette Lis

    The point is that England adapt very slow to culture changes , the issue of classes are not existing in other countries . It’s 2019 and but justice system is like 1950 compare to others society .the good side is that there are changes and it tastes good because you and others fight and won on your own 😉

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  2. David Brynmor Thomas

    I was also there, taking Silk, yesterday.

    Like you, I thought about my Paternal Grandfather, born slightly later, in 1895. He joined up as a 19 year old in August 1914 and then spent 5 years in Belgium and France before being demobilised from the Army of occupation in Germany, as a Driver in the Royal Field Artillery. He couldn’t sleep in a bed when he got home and his Father’s joinery and cabinetmaking business had collapsed in his absence. I also thought about my Maternal Grandmother, the first person I ever encountered with an (entirely uncompensated) industrial disease – tinnitus from working in a tin-can making plant, whose brothers were all miners.

    I was born into a comfortably middle class environment because of the educational opportunities my Father had (at a school tragically closed as failing a few years ago), which took him to University and a career in academia – I was glad he was there yesterday. I agree with you that social mobility is essential, with educational opportunity and the message that any child can aspire to any role the only way it can be delivered.

    David Brynmor Thomas

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      1. David Brynmor Thomas

        We’re a bit ponderous at the Commercial Bar! I enjoyed your post as much as I enjoyed meeting you yesterday.

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