The Power of Serendipity

In my previous life as a holiday rep in Spain and Turkey, aged just 22 and fresh from university, part of my job remit was entertaining guests with an elegantly entitled game of ‘Blind Man’s Muff’. (Look away now if you are easily offended/you are my parent!) It went as follows: remove the top half of your clothing, put on a zip-up top (thoughtfully provided by the holiday company and sporting their logo) and then, whilst transporting guests by coach for the bar crawl, run down the coach aisle while the male guests tried to pull the zip down. (Note: this was during the very unpolitically correct 1990s) As a result of this (a) I still have lightning quick reactions; (b) I hate zip-up tops; (c) nothing I have since been asked to do for work has seemed as unreasonable.  Did we have to do it? Yes, and the company’s stance was if we didn’t like it, there were hundreds of people wanting our jobs — which, amazingly, there were. (The so-called ‘glamorous’ jobs never are, particularly those involving the holidaying public.)  Additionally, we had to control drunken crowds of guests  (I once threw an entire rugby club off a coach single-handedly) and spend hours at the hospital and police station translating from Spanish or Turkish.  Then there was the singing and dancing to entertain the guests during cabaret as well as dealing with numerous complaints and endless tedious hours spent in hotels and doing paperwork.  The tourism industry is tough.  I will take the most difficult of judges or barristers and the trickiest of court cases in my now job over dealing with British and Scandinavian tourists any day.

It was a big leap from holiday rep for a large tour operator to the legal profession: as jobs, they are polar opposites. As is the way in life, it is often the things we fall into by mistake that turn out to be the most significant and my job is a good example.  This November it will be 21 years since I first began my day job as a court transcript editor after answering an ad in a copy of The Times left on the train and the five of us who trained together are planning a big celebration.  I had never planned to work in the law and it didn’t interest me one bit but given I am entering my third decade, it must have some kind of pull.  My degrees are in journalism and sociology and my work experience before that was as a medical secretary so nothing relevant.   However, working in the legal profession is just as tough but for totally different reasons but the end result is scarily similar: keeping the clients happy and delivering a good end product.  Just not with zippers …..

I rarely talk about my job to my non-work friends for two reasons: firstly, I like to keep the two halves of my life completely separate and leave my work behind in London; and secondly, confidentiality.   “That must be fascinating” is the first reaction when I meet new people.  No, is the short answer.  I challenge anybody to sit through an eight hour day of shipping reinsurance arbitration with its associated technical terminology and remain fascinated.  Our work is mainly commercial: banking, VAT, breach of contract, big companies, trust funds.  Still awake?

Of course there are the high profile cases.  The celebrities, the oligarchs, the captains of industry, the trophy wives, the super fraudsters.  If you’ve seen a big court hearing on the news, one of the very small number of us stenographers will have transcribed it. There is a lot of travel too: Caribbean tax havens, Bermuda, the Far and Middle East and pretty much all over Europe.  But if you have ever travelled  on business you will understand just how soul-destroying living in a hotel room for weeks on end can be.

The physical side of the job is very challenging: years of wear and tear from sitting  in unergonomic court rooms for hours at a time has brought back and joint problems for many of us.  Keeping a poker face is hard too, even for me as a poker player.   I sometimes find not laughing very difficult: you know when you have to keep a straight face in a serious environment and you really struggle to keep control?  Court is one of those.  And sometimes not crying: inquests, divorce cases, child abuse inquiries.  I really feel people’s pain.  I cry at animal rescue ads on the telly, for God’s sake.   We have to stay completely neutral in court at all times.  How do I get through it?  Caffeine, chocolate and painkillers combined with physiotherapy.   And that most vital of things, a sense of humour.  So perhaps not so different from being a holiday rep.

So what’s the best thing?   My colleagues.  I am lucky to work with some of my very best friends and over 21 years, we have shared a lot together and if I gave it all up tomorrow I would take away some incredible memories. And a lot of very interesting stories too, most of which I am unable to talk about.   The best stories come from the courtroom and not the tourism industry!

I fell into this job by accident and as the saying goes, life is what happens when you make other plans.  Serendipity is a strange concept but I am a great believer in its existence.  As a Type A Capricorn  control freak, letting go and trusting God/the universe is difficult for me, as is the idea that all things happen for a reason and as part of some great divine plan.   After a very stressful day in court I try to remain grateful that I don’t have to herd drunk people around and sing Big Spender in a showgirl outfit.  Or run down the aisle of a coach full of drunken lads trying to get my top off.  So to celebrate my 21st birthday (again!) I am raising a glass to serendipity.  And the fact that I was never once caught out when running down a coach aisle.  The safety pin is a wonderful invention.






Is Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

For my day job, I work in the legal profession.  Court rooms and private arbitration hearings are my office.  And before you say “Oh, that must be interesting”, for the most part I have to admit that no, it is very dry and can be deathly dull.  Like many jobs, it is full of routine and is often tedious.  And sometimes I have to check for a pulse at the end of particularly long-winded and technical court days.  Private business to business disputes, insurance cases, shipping hearings, VAT … are you still awake?

So why, when I’m watching TV or a film involving a court case, is it full of high drama and suspense?  And for those of you who are fans of Silk, let me also point out that in my 18 year career I have never come across a barrister resembling Rupert Penry-Jones.  Neither have I seen anyone leap the dock to freedom after being acquitted, but I guess the hour or so of release paperwork isn’t thrilling television.

Much as my colleagues and I enjoy howling at the inaccuracies of the TV court room, the truth remains that watching six hours of legal argument about a clause in an insurance contract does not great TV make. So much artistic licence is employed.   Most people are amazed to learn that in commercial cases, my bread and butter work, wigs and gowns are usually ditched in favour of formal business attire.  And on the whole, High Court judges no longer don wigs.

What about the written word?  My Work In Progress is set in the legal profession, but I am fortunate enough to be able to distil the highlights of 18 years into a single novel.  Yes, there have been a few instances of jaw dropping drama, but far more interesting are the characters I have met: not just barristers and judges but witnesses, oligarchs, court staff, solicitors, celebrities, politicians, captains of industry; the list goes on.  The large libel or fraud cases you see on the news, big public inquiries – I’ve sat through many.

There is definitely a book in there, but obviously all names and dates will have to be changed.  And I’ve also been involved in many cases where I’ve had to sign a confidentiality agreement so I can’t breathe a word to anyone.

But here’s the strange thing.  The truth can often be implausible too.  Several years ago, whilst doing a writing course to brush up on my dusty journalism skills, I submitted a rough draft of the first three chapters of my novel to my tutor as part of an assignment. Although he enjoyed it very much, it was returned with ‘highly improbable’ and ‘not believable’ scrawled across it.  But every single word was true. Everything I wrote about I had observed first hand, just altered situations and people to protect the guilty.

So perhaps the truth really is stranger than fiction!  Watch this space …..