Barrington Black and I did our square bashing in the army together. Perhaps not the most scintillating reminiscence — especially since he went on to become a Royal Army Service Corps lieutenant and I got invalided out for flat feet.
But then, you might like to think of what happened since — not to me, but to Mr Black, who, if I were strictly following protocol, I should have to call Mr Justice Black. Or My Lord.
They are titles he enjoys, especially since he has had them for just a few months. And also because he had to wait for them until he was 80. Yes, at the age of 80, Barrington Black, formerly best known to the Jewish community outside of Marble Arch, as a writer of letters to the JC, has been appointed a justice of the Supreme Court. Of Gibraltar.
In every respect that is unusual. Gibraltar is unusual. But as the lawyers facing him in court, might say, let us consider the facts. He was once a solicitor with so big a criminal practice — among his clients was the serial killer Donald Neilson, aka “The Black Panther” — that he could have kept Rumpole of the Bailey in business for a whole career.
Then, the poacher turned gamekeeper and he became a stipendiary magistrate at Bow Street court. From there he was appointed a Crown Court judge — and retired when he was a mere 75 to do the hardest job of all — as president of the Western Marble Arch Synagogue.
“After all those years as a solicitor with people taking my advice on how to avoid going to jail and on other matters, suddenly there was a whole table of people who told me they knew more than I did. I made a whole lot of new friends, and they made a new enemy,” he says.
Now the criminal fraternity in the British administrative territory of Gibraltar are the ones who are making a new enemy.
“I am known as a pretty fast worker,” he continues. “The government of Gibraltar approached me to see if I could deal with the huge backlog of cases that they had. They had a new court building and a new prison and needed to get rid of this backlog.
“I said I would be interested in the job, but did they know I was going to be 80. They said they did and age didn’t matter. Three of them came to see me in London. They came at 4.30 and at 6.30 they rang me to say I had got it. I am the oldest judge since Lord Denning.” The post is scheduled to last for two years.
If the truth be told, Black, who was born in Leeds, is enjoying every minute of it, wearing what Rumpole’s creator, John Mortimer, called “the red dressing gown” and being called “my Lord”.
A lord who has now cracked that backlog of cases — one man had been in prison awaiting trial for a year and a half. Another had been three years expecting to be called to face a court hearing. “Now I have time to deal with cases as they arise, mostly criminal, but a flow of drugs cases, too, and an occasional fraud,” says Barrington (Barry to his friends).
His caseload has presented him with a few problems with the Jewish community on the Rock. “I can’t go to dinner parties or meet people in the community socially as much as I should like — in case any of them have to see me on a professional basis.”
On the whole, though, he loves the place — and is very impressed with the community, with its four crowded synagogues, its school and, perhaps above all, its participation in national affairs. There are 800 Jews in Gibraltar, out of a population of just 30,000, which makes it per capita the biggest Jewish community in the world outside of Israel.
(The Jewish participation in national affairs dates back to when Sir Joshua Hassan was appointed the first First Minister. Four years ago, his nephew Solomon Levy became the first civic mayor and the first Jew in the Gibraltar Regiment; Solomon’s brother, James Levy, head of the community, has turned Sir Joshua’s old law firm into the biggest in the former colony. Another brother is Rabbi Abraham Levy, the recently retired spiritual head of the Spanish and Portuguese congregation in Britain.)
“Gibraltar,” says His Lordship, “is a “lovely place. Where else would you find 800 people successfully running four shuls? The people, a little frummer than I am used to, are delightful, and they are not worried about their future in the country.”
If he admires the attendance at the synagogues, he does not do so from afar — he himself goes to one of the four shuls most Shabbats.
All rather different from the Western Marble Arch where he made numerous changes — such as appointing the popular Lionel Rosenfeld as rabbi and putting the Chief Rabbi’s frequent visits to the shul on a regular basis with his appointment as quasi spiritual leader of the congregation.
In truth, the judge would never have expected the good fortune of getting such a rewarding job in what most people would consider old age. After all, when he retired from sitting at Harrow Crown Court — he had also sat at other London courts — he said it was a case of being regarded as “statutorily senile”.
One of the huge advantage of being in Gibraltar is the opportunity to travel. “It is so near other places,” he says. “Most weeks I go into Spain — and Morocco is just half an hour away.”
His wife Diana joins him for 10 days every month and once every six weeks or so he is back in London, with his four children and eight grandchildren. “They all come to tea every Shabbat.”
Certainly, his parents — mother in the civil defence in World War Two, father in the Army — would have been proud of their son, the Justice.
His father, a businessman, was at Dunkirk (missing for six weeks) after volunteering when war broke out. “He loved his time in the army and I think his proudest moment was when he attended the passing-out parade when I got my commission.”
So what next for the judge? “When I came to Gibraltar, I brought with me a whole lot of files dealing with my cases as a solicitor. Now I am going to write a book.”
Well, who would be surprised? Rumpole wouldn’t.