ON WEDNESDAY I went trawling around Nottingham and its environs in the company of Gary Bell QC, author of our forthcoming and nearly eponymous ANIMAL QC.
It wasn’t a hardship – Gary’s a very funny man indeed, and I spent most of the day laughing.
When I wasn’t laughing, I was fascinated to see where he’d come from.
Through family and social connections I know quite a few barristers, from members of the junior bar to Queen’s Counsel and even a judge or two. I think I’m right in saying that they were all privately educated, and – to one degree or another – fairly privileged*.
Apart from Gary.
Gary was born in 1959 in the tiny box bedroom in this council house in Radford, a suburb of the city:
Gary Bell QC in the garden of the house in which he was born.
The lady who lives there now – who remembered Gary’s granny, having taken the house over from her several decades ago – kindly allowed us into her front garden to take the above photo. (The picture makes the house look quite a bit bigger than it is. Ironically, it has the opposite effect on Gary.)
It was Gary’s mother’s family home (she had herself been unofficially adopted by her aunt and uncle), and it was where Gary spent the first few months of his life (along with his parents, his mother’s adoptive siblings, and his maternal grandparents).
Here he is on pretty much the same spot, some time in 1960:
In a paddling pool on the same spot, some fifty-five years ago.
Gary’s mother, Maureen, worked on the John Player cigarette factory in Nottingham. His father, Terry, was a coalminer at Radford Pit.
They were both nineteen years old, and theirs was a shotgun wedding – Terry’s father Ernie, incensed at the shame his son was bringing on the family, threatened to thrash Terry to within an inch of his life if he didn’t make an honest woman of his pregnant girlfriend.
Terry and Maureen managed to scrape together enough money to rent a terraced two-up two-down in St Ann’s, but we couldn’t visit that house because it was demolished in the slum clearances of the 1960s and 1970s.
By then, the Bells had moved to Cotgrave, a mining village on the outskirts of Nottingham (actually, a lovely old village which had had a giant housing estate built onto it to provide homes for the miners who worked the new Cotgrave Colliery).
The Animal in his work attire: he doesn’t actually have a double chin, it’s that damned wing collar.
Gary and I did make our way to Cotgrave – travelling en route over a traffic island on which he died many times in a recurring childhood nightmare – and there I saw the house that Gary lived in as a youngster. (Actually, he lived in two houses in the village; after his father abandoned the family for another woman, Gary, his mother and three siblings were turfed out of their NCB home and into a council house in the village.)
We also went to the Miner’s Welfare Club to see where he’d spent many a session with his friends; it was almost empty, which made it a far cry from his day, when shift-working miners were jammed into the bar through every opening hour.
He pointed out the houses of a dozen of so mates (whom he still sees regularly, thirty-five years after he left the village); money had been tight, he said, but he had enjoyed an utterly idyllic childhood in Cotgrave.
Then we visited two of his sisters, who live nearby.
They share Gary’s sense of humour.
One has just waved her daughter off on a year-long visit to the States, and had bought the daughter a new watch as a going-away present. She’d had it engraved with a line from her favourite poem, e e cummings’ i carry your heart.
‘[My daughter and I are] both real grammar Nazis,’ she said, cackling, ‘so I made sure the chap wrote “I carry you’re heart”.’
We also had lunch.
One thing you can always say about barristers is that they dine like lords: accordingly, Gary treated me to a 99p pepper steak slice from the Co-op, while he ate a pastie, a cheese-and-pickle ‘cob’, and half a carrot cake.
Watch this space for more adventures in the preposterous life of G Bell, Queen’s Counsel.
*I’m sure there are more than a few barristers who didn’t go to private schools, and that the number is increasing; other than Gary, I just don’t know any. One thing I am sure of is that there are very few who have led lives like his!
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