“They’re selling postcards of the hanging, they’re painting the passports brown .The beauty parlour is filled with sailors, the circus is in town.”
Bob Dylan, Desolation Row.
Today, a bit like Rumpole with the Timsons, I was in Court 10 at the Crown Court in Southwark, south east London with an old client, who is doing his very best to keep food on my table. With the barrister’s no return policy in full swing (no return work from other chambers can be accepted), he had my full, undivided attention.
As I took a gentle stroll from Waterloo station to Southwark via Calder books and the oddly placed designer bookstore just outside the court, where I purchased Hurricane Season (in the very pretty and designed chic Fitzcarraldo editions), I turned the corner to see a different form of hurricane, the paparazzi.
Now the paparazzi are not uncommon outside Southwark and occasionally my photograph has been taken. But this was like the scene of the miracle or fake miracle in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, this was a rugby scrum awaiting the arrival of, well, a fallen angel.
For Mr Boris Becker was in court 1 at Midday and they were waiting from early in the morning for High Noon.
Court 1 is right beside the robing room and outside it was another scrum. There was much sympathy among the legal hacks. me included. in Southwark. Blackstone’s and Archibald were consulted and the net question in terms of the sentencing guidelines was 5-7 years, given the amount of money dodged and parked away.
He should have been less of an anglophone, said one. The amounts were too significant, the consensus was. The thought occurred; had he come to live in Ireland, given that many of our bankers, politicians and indeed barristers have never been sanctioned for their obvious criminality, one of our corporate law firms could have advised him to store away the assets more efficiently. Such a missed opportunity.
A consensus was given to the amount he has done for Britain, and it is true, he has done enough for a ‘bender’ (suspended sentence) or even a conditional discharge, but the sentencing judges’ hands are tied somewhat. Others for equivalent fences would complain.
In an odd sort of way, one remarked, he should be made Commander of the Empire. One said very kindly and true that he is the only German in 30 years who has done anything for Britain, and he is a cherished but fallen idol. No one is above the law. Still, I would if if could have given him a ‘bender’.
Now, Mr. Becker is 54 and looked every bit of it outside Court 1, not that distant in age terms from me and I remember the dashing 17-year-old’s first Wimbledon victory, the other victories and, perhaps even more memorably, the marathon defeats.
He was one of the great grass court players, though not I think as great an all-rounder as others of that era or close to it. Mr. McEnroe comes to mind and the legendary superhuman endurance of Mr. Connors who shared Mr. Becker’s never say die spirit.
After the sport is over the question is what to do. Relive past glories? Many do. Well, he did become a superb commentator and an anti-racists spokesperson of sorts but a failed marriage, a string of relationships and excessive living brought him Court 1. Where did all go wrong, as the waiter asked of George Best.
The cult of desecrating celebrities is an awful feature of our age, and all the hacks were disapproving. The level of hatred the assembled barrister’s multitude had for the actions of the paparazzi was noticeable. Privately some of them intimated huge sympathy. But the pictures have been taken of the hanging and Mr Becker is going to Desolation Row.
My client had to phone a friend to tell them who Boris Becker was, a very significant generational observation and indirect reflection on the transience of fame and indeed life. I had hoped the sentence would not be too severe.
But Southwark was not close of business, another old client was due to be sentenced in Kent.
I walked out the door of the court to the station and past the clink museum once a prison where Mr. Becker is probably now heading. Thus, I left the circus just before high noon and Mr Becker to his fate.
Update: I have just heard he has been jailed for two and a half years.
In a charity shop in Maidstone, I spot a history of Wimbledon.
David Langwallner is a barrister, specialising in public law, immigration, housing and criminal defence including miscarriages of justice. He is emeritus director of the Irish Innocence project and was Irish lawyer of the year at the 2015 Irish law awards. Follow David on Twitter @DLangwallner