Walden of Bermondsey
The First Collection of Walden of Bermondsey stories
When Charlie Walden took on the job of Resident Judge of the Bermondsey Crown Court, he was hoping for a quiet life. During his short walk from the vicarage to court, there’s a lattè waiting at Elsie and Jeanie’s archway café, and The Times at George’s news stand. After a hard day of trial, he and the Reverend Mrs Walden can enjoy a curry and a couple of Cobras at the Delights of the Raj, or a pasta with a decent Valpolicella at La Bella Napoli. But a quiet life? Well, not exactly…
Charlie soon finds himself struggling to keep the peace between three feisty fellow judges who have different views about how to do their job, and about how Charlie should do his: Judge Rory ‘Legless’ Dunblane, a proud Scotsman and former rugby player who takes what he likes to think of as a no-nonsense approach to judging; Judge Marjorie Jenkins, judge and super-mum, a brilliant lawyer with a whiz-kid husband in the City, the queen of the common sense approach to the job; and Judge Hubert Drake, nearing retirement, with a host of improbable stories about judges and trials past, and representing an approach from a bygone age – namely, that of the Raj.
And as if that’s not enough, there’s the endless battle against the ‘Grey Smoothies’, the humourless grey-suited civil servants who seem determined to drown Charlie in paperwork and strip the court of the last vestiges of civilisation, such as the notorious court canteen. With the connivance of his list officer, Stella, Charlie wages a stealthy rear-guard action against their relentless attacks, but the Grey Smoothies never go away.
No hope of a quiet life for Charlie, and there are times when his real job – trying the challenging criminal cases that come before him – actually seems like light relief.
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Publisher: No Exit Press
Publication Date: 23rd November 2017
PB ISBN: 978-1-085730-122-2
Format: B (198 X 129mm)
Critical Acclaim for Walden of Bermondsey
No one writes with more wit, warmth and insight about the law and its practitioners than Peter Murphy. He has no equal since the great John Mortimer ("Rumpole") or, even earlier, Henry Cecil ("Brothers In Law"). This collection of stories told through the eyes of a seasoned and long-suffering Crown Court judge are an unputdownable delight.
Walden of Bermondsey
By Peter Murphy
Reviewed by Paul Magrath
A ‘TOP JUDGE’ WRITES…
His Honour Judge Walden is the resident judge (RJ) at Bermondsey Crown Court. This means that as well as conducting an unusually interesting variety of cases, he has to manage the court staff and facilities, and juggle the lists to ensure a fair distribution of work to his judicial colleagues – all the while fending off the depredations of the penny-pinching Grey Smoothies from the Ministry of Justice.
Or, as he puts it himself, ‘the RJ’s main role is to be the person to blame whenever something goes wrong.’
Although he benefits from the moral support of his wife, the Reverend Mrs Walden, of whom he is slightly in awe, he is equally concerned not to put a foot wrong in the eyes of the tabloid press: ‘if you do something really stupid,’ he says, ‘you automatically become a “Top Judge”.’
Judge Walden is the comic fictional creation of Peter Murphy, himself a former circuit judge who was once RJ at Peterborough. But I’m willing to bet that none of the cases he tried there in real life was half as interesting or as much fun as the six described in these stories. They deal with a range of crimes, including arson (the burning down of a church), assault (by one election candidate on another), impersonating a solicitor, art fraud, sovereign immunity (by someone claiming to be the king of an uninhabited small island) and the running, above a perfectly respectable restaurant, of a brothel.
Mixed up with each case is another episode in the life of the court staff. This might be the problem of getting the Grey Smoothies to fund a secure dock (to prevent an irate defendant escaping or jumping out and assaulting someone) or persuading them not to shut down the court canteen. Or it might be the entertaining spectacle of a High Court judge, more used to planning or chancery matters, struggling with the evidential complexities of a simple offensive weapon case.
Usually it is these admin matters, rather than the cases themselves, which threaten to spoil the ‘oasis of calm in a world of chaos’ that is the lunch hour in the judicial mess, where Charlie Walden and the other judges sit round an oversized table discussing their cases and picking each other’s brains over sentencing options. They include Judge Rory ‘Legless’ Dunblane, who favours a ‘robust’ approach to sentencing (in spite of whatever the guidelines say); Judge Marjorie Jenkins, a commercial silk ‘supermum’, who has taken up judging by way of a career break; and Judge Hubert Drake, of indeterminate age, who’d rather be dining at the Garrick. As for Walden himself, though he often feels a bit embattled, there are few setbacks that can’t be ameliorated – or triumphs celebrated – by a trip to La Bella Italia for some delicious pasta and a bottle of Chianti shared with his wife.
Through Walden’s eyes, we see the criminal justice system for what it is – a bit of a muddle, and only as good or bad as the humans who do their best to manage it. Yet in spite of all that fate and the Grey Smoothies can throw at him, Judge Walden manages to deliver justice. Though his exasperation is sometimes palpable, what triumphs over everything is his sense of humour. And it is the humour that makes Walden of Bermondsey such a delightful read. Think of him as what Rumpole would be like if he ever became a judge, and you get some idea of his self-deprecating wit and indomitable stoicism. Add a dash of Henry Cecil for his situation and AP Herbert for the fun he has with the law, and you get a sense of his literary precedents. Nevertheless, Walden’s is a unique new voice, which we hope has many more tales to impart, from his busy Bermondsey courtroom.
Each of the six stories in this volume is presented in the form of a diary, written by the judge in the quiet moments of the working day or relaxed evenings at home, over the course of his hearing of a particular case. In one of them he has to direct the jury on whether insults shouted by two parliamentary candidates when resorting to fisticuffs on election night – one calls the other a ‘toffee-nosed, upper class git’, the other retorts with ‘moronic, working class lout’ – mean that their assaults were racially aggravated. Can social class be categorised as membership of a particular racial or religious group? Should he direct the jury on the meaning of the relevant statute? He decides in the end to leave the matter to their common sense.
In another he must consider whether someone who claims to have invaded an unoccupied island in the English Channel, and duly declared himself the king of it, is entitled to plead sovereign immunity against charges of fraud, money laundering and possession of criminal property.
Possibly the most awkward case is the one where Judge Walden is forced into a situation where he must appear to ask an embarrassingly naïve question, purely to ensure that the answer gets on the record. The classic example is the judge who once asked ‘Who are the Beatles?’ and was ‘instantly derided in the press as the typically remote, out of touch and pathetically outdated male all too commonly found on the bench’. Yet he was probably just trying to get the answer on the record.
Fearing that it will lead to a ‘Top Judge’ moment, Walden nevertheless proceeds, as he must, in the interests of justice:
‘Mr Drayford,’ I say, ‘would you care to establish from the Inspector the nature of the item shown in photograph fifteen.’ …
The Inspector makes a pretence of studying it closely.
‘It appears to be a vibrator, your Honour,’ he replies.
He is not going to elaborate without being pushed, so the moment arrives.
‘What is a vibrator?’ I ask.
In September 2013 a judge at Blackfriars Crown Court became internationally famous for his well reasoned and humane judgment on whether or not a defendant wearing the niqaab could give evidence without revealing her face. This was HH Peter Murphy, who shortly afterwards became the resident judge at Peterborough. Already a published thriller writer, his ‘retirement job’ began with a series of atmospheric legal thrillers set in the 1960s. They feature a very sympathetic hero, Ben Schroeder, an east end Jewish boy who makes it at the criminal Bar. Readers have enjoyed following Ben through his career over the following volumes.
With Walden of Bermondsey we are in different territory. Narrated by the resident judge of Bermondsey Crown Court, Charles Walden, it is in effect six short stories about life in a fictional crown court situated in a neighbourhood well known to the author. Charles is able to walk to work as his wife is conveniently the local vicar. Along the way, he buys his latte and sandwiches from a stall run by two salt-of-the-earth women with difficult husbands and grandchildren, and his copy of The Times from a newsagent who monologues about how the Labour Party hasn’t been the same since Hugh Gaitskell.
Charles’s fellow judges are a virile Scot who feels that a punch up followed by a round of pints is all part of a man’s life in rugby; a sensible female commercial Silk and ‘super-mum’ who sits as a crown court judge as a career break; and a Garrick Club bore called Hubert. Lunch with them is ‘an oasis of calm in a desert of chaos.’ The court staff are brilliant. Less agreeable are the ‘Grey Smoothies’ from HMCTS, ie the ghastly young woman and a man who looks 14 years old, who starve the crumbling court of resources.
The stories deal with a range of cases including arson, sovereign immunity and running a brothel upstairs of a posh restaurant. The strength of the book is the picture we get of life in a crown court—not just the trials but the people and the huge amount of legal and personal detail which Peter manages to cram in with great charm. Doing justice has a broad definition. Luckily, information which is not contained in the court papers has a habit of fortuitously coming Charles’s way.
The book cover says: ‘If you enjoyed Rumpole of the Bailey, you’ll love Walden of Bermondsey.’ But there is a difference. Rumpole was a character created by John Mortimer. Charles Walden is a first person narrator resident judge. If he isn’t Peter Murphy, then there is at least no suggestion that we should do anything but approve of everything Charles says and does.
Written robustly but with humanity, we are in no doubt of what Charles thinks of historic sexual offence trials or of parliamentary drafting or of the uselessness of sending former commercial QCs, now High Court trials, to try criminal trials. There is the odd anomaly, when Charles tells his wife: ‘We are not allowed to cross-examine children any more, however many lies they tell.’ Actually, we are.
The language is the language lawyers use between one another (‘Chummy’ for the defendant; ‘Someone may have to stay after school if convicted.’) Characters include a joke Californian and a mad Russian who behave to stereotype. In general the innocent are acquitted and the guilty are convicted. Those who were foolish or who misbehaved do not escape unpunished whether or not they were not the ones in the dock. There is an open attitude to the Bar. One (male) prosecutor wears a suit which is too tight. As an advocate, he ‘may have been around a bit too long’. One robust defender habitually tries to get the witness to usurp the jury’s role and uses cross-examination as another closing speech. She gets away with it, as she knows she will. Generally Charles recognises that counsel have a difficult job to do.
The stories call out for being adapted for TV and with luck that will happen.
David Wurtzel, Counsel
Reader Reviews for Walden of Bermondsey