A long time ago, a really long time ago, back when George Michael was straight and Jimmy Saville was still a much loved family entertainer, I studied for a law degree. I know this seems unlikely but nevertheless it is undoubtedly true. Not only do I remember it, really pretty clearly, I also have clear documentary proof in a drawer somewhere, filed between some old receipts for a nice pastel batwing sweater from Richard Shops and a signed photo of Marc Bolan saying ‘Keep a little Marc in your heart!”.
Now the reasons why I decided to study for a law degree are a little lost in the mists of time, but I am guessing they were something to with something I’d seen on the telly. It must have been really, because when I made that choice I had been nowhere and seen nothing of the world.
In fact I had only the vaguest idea of what a lawyer did except what I had seen on Rumpole of the Bailey. But it did look quite cool, and I liked the look of the wig, and also women seemed to do it. Women with nice cars and FLATS in LONDON. And although I had only ever been to London twice (once to Harrods, once to the Natural History Museum) I was pretty sure it wasn’t all fancy hats and dinosaur bones. It was where I wanted to be.
(Also, there was a 1970s programme I loved from the US called Paper Chase about law students at Harvard Law School, lolling about in the sunshine and chatting about precedent, with their long flicky hair and extra wide flares flapping lightly in the breeze. And that was just the men – well this was the 1970s after all. In fact, on reflection I was mainly just interested in being a law STUDENT and having a flat. I hadn’t got much further than that. Still a girl has to dream.)
The story of my escapades as law student, frolicking gaily through the stacks of heavy bound law reports clutching my fluffy Baby Lawyer Wig – that is for another time. But I warn you there are many hilarious anecdotes about that time we got confused between consensus ad idem and consensus facit legem – you’d better hold onto your sides!
But I even though I haven’t practised law for ten years or so, I still use my legal training every day. My law degree, and the practice of law that came after it, tidied up my mind and straightened out my synapses in ways I didn’t recognise at the time but for which I am hugely grateful. The ability to see situations in a logical way, to see patterns between the ways people behave, to always take a rational perspective while never losing sight of the human, emotional side of every situation – these are things that I see, more and more as the years go by – are incredibly useful skills and surprisingly rare.
So this week when I read about the death of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse at the Duchess of Cambridge’s hospital who was tricked by the Australian radio DJ pranksters, I thought of a legal principle I had not brought to mind for many years. I first heard of her death – as I hear about almost everything these days – on Facebook and Twitter, and almost immediately there followed the justification and defence of those responsible for the ‘prank’ – that the nurse must already have been unhappy, that there must have been underlying issues there.
Well, I thought, so what? In the criminal and civil law, I was taught the eggshell skull principle. You take your victim as you find them. If you donk someone on the head and their skull shatters, because it’s unusually fragile, well don’t come whining to me about how you couldn’t have foreseen it. That’ll teach you to not go around donking people on the head.
Life is, says the law, a game of consequences. If you behave like a dick, whether it’s donking people on the head, or bullying some weaker kid at school, or ringing up people just trying to do their job on the other side of the world to lie to them for a ‘joke’ knowing that your actions will get them into deep trouble – well, if the victim of your dickishness gets very upset, and does something that YOU wouldn’t have done, something YOU consider extreme, well you had better just suck up the fact that you are responsible. Morally responsible. Because you can’t go around expecting everyone you meet to be in robust mental health. Life isn’t like that. Come now, everyone knows this. The world is in fact full of miserable, lonely people, some of whom are feeling very very low indeed at any given moment, and you never know what’s behind the façade that many of us wear to get through the day.
This was hugely relevant as a lawyer, and it’s every bit as relevant in the classroom. You just never know who is sitting in front of you. What they saw before they left home this morning, what their girlfriend has just told them, what they woke up crying about in the middle of the night.
It might seem a little daunting, to think of the misery that might be lurking behind the smiling faces. To imagine what people are really thinking, really feeling. But actually the solution is in fact quite simple. In the words of Plato (back to the Latin again) – be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.
Be gentle, life is hard. Don’t donk anyone on the head, even if you’re having a very bad day.
And cheap pranks at the expense of other people, even in Australia, are never never funny.