MR JUSTICE

Lord Bingham, who died in 2010, was a colossus of the law. In this memoir, his son-in-law, the MP and writer Jesse Norman, recalls a man who had no airs or graces—and plenty of quirks ...

Back in 1990 Sir Thomas Bingham had barely started to accumulate his dazzling array of gongs and titles, which would one day include Master of the Rolls, Lord Chief Justice, Senior Law Lord and Knight of the Garter. But I had done enough homework on my potential father-in-law to know that our first meeting would be no pushover.

Matters were not helped by friends who gleefully pointed out that Sir Thomas was known to have “an alpha-plus mind”. Supposedly the cleverest boy in a hundred years at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, a scholar at Balliol, Oxford, a first in history, top in finals at the Bar, a QC at the appallingly young age of 38: it was all rather unnerving. I had visions of his great brain throbbing away while he rangily cross-examined his daughter Kate’s latest unworthy suitor. That would be me.

These fears were soon proved quite wrong. Tom was never anything but Tom, and he and his wife Elizabeth were so welcoming that I was quickly put at ease. As I got to know them, and Kate’s brothers Harry and Kit, I realised that this combination of brains, charm and straightforwardness ran through the entire family. I had dimly expected the usual careful negotiations and hidden neuroses, the mine-sweeping of familial acceptance or rejection. But this family seemed to have no hang-ups at all.

Not that everything was straightforward. From the outset Tom showed an encyclopaedic knowledge of my family and its history, including some of its more outré members. I doubted they would enhance his confidence in me. And then there was the matter of language. The Binghams talked to each other in a barely intelligible linguistic home brew featuring The Hun (Attila, aka the garden rotavator), Tippecanoe and Tyler Too (kayaks, cf. the 1840 American  presidential election), and Hokkaido (the strimmer). The suffixes “-ulator” and “-yman” (pl. “-ymen”) were applied wherever possible, so that at Christmas you might be asked to put the chestymen in the stuffing for the turkulator. Names were shortened to Perky Perkins, say, or Wiggy Wigington. Cowpats, horse manure and the like were known as douvers. A call of nature was, equally but inevitably, a Harry Slashers. To this strange idiolect was added an array of formulas for specific occasions. On arriving at a restaurant, Tom would invariably lean back and say “We can be happy here.” Or at a pub, without looking at a menu, and to general confusion, “We’ll all have the sausages.”

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