This week, we bring you another in our occasional series of introductions to members of Chudleigh Writers’ Circle. Former barrister Margaret Barnes has published two novels, a book of short pieces about life at the Bar, and a volume of poetry. Here, she tells us a bit about her fascinating life and the route that led her to writing a series of legal thrillers featuring barrister Cassie Hardman.
“When I am asked where I am from, I say I am a Lancastrian Londoner currently in exile in Devon. I was born in the cotton town of Haslingden, eighteen miles north east of Manchester. I went to school there and then crossed the Pennines to go to University in Sheffield. By the time I got my law degree my parents had moved to Blackpool and I went back home to obtain articles in a firm of solicitors. It was in Blackpool Magistrates Court that I began my career as an advocate. I was told I was the first woman to appear in the Court in that capacity. I have always been proud of being a Lancastrian, which is why my main character, Cassie Hardman was born in Lancaster, but like many before me the desire to enhance my career led me to London.
I loved being an advocate but longed to appear in the Crown Court and address a jury, so I transferred to the Bar. I worked as a barrister for about thirty years mainly defending in the Crown Courts in the south east of England. I have represented defendants accused of a wide range of offences, petty assaults, theft, rape and murder. Amongst my more significant cases was representing the man who killed the fashion designer Ossie Clark. There was also the case of the woman who stole a baby from St Thomas’s Hospital, which had kept the Nation glued to their television sets for six weeks until the baby was found alive and well.
I have always had a great belief in the power of narrative. I composed jury speeches with great care so that they told what I hoped would be a compelling story. After I retired I wanted to write a novel based on my grandfather’s life, but I needed to improve my skills so went back to university, Exeter this time, to read for an MA in Creative Writing. It was there that I was encouraged to write crime novels rather than a family saga. I wanted to do something different from the usual ‘who done it.’ The advice to writers is to write about something you know and what I know about is how the criminal justice system works and what it’s like to defend those accused of crime. I want the reader to feel they are sat in the courtroom watching a trial and hopefully to provide some understanding of how the criminal justice system both succeeds and fails in obtaining justice.
I have always loved reading, Beatrix Potter as a small child, then Angela Brazil school stories. I was off school for about three months and it was then I was introduced to the stories of H.G. Wells. His story The Time Traveller put me off the idea of travelling back in time – it’s too easy to destroy the present. The first book on the reading list for the Law Faculty was Bleak House. I’ve always enjoyed Dickens and the wonderful if weird characters he creates. He also described the devastating effect lawyers can have on their clients. Scott Turrow is another author I admire who writes novel about the American legal system. I wish I wrote that well.
If I could invite three people to dinner I’d love to hear more from Bob Marley. His music figured a lot in my life when I represented other musicians who had played with him. Then I’d invite Dickens for his observations on lawyers and finally Martha Gelhorn, the writer and war correspondent. I think it would be a lively evening.
My main character, Cassie Hardman, is a skilled cook, although she’s always in a hurry and usually eating alone, so her meals are easy to prepare. I don’t think she’d do a crab soufflé which is my current favourite meal.
We moved to Devon because my husband Alan and I enjoy walking. (We met on a walking holiday in France.) We have a very affectionate but rather dotty Springer Spaniel called Lily who forces us to go out on the wettest and windiest days. I love the theatre and we spend quite a lot of time in London going to the theatre and the arts exhibitions. I would have liked to be an actor but it never seemed possible and was too risky a profession for me to follow. Perhaps that’s why I became a barrister — the drama of the courtroom rather than the stage.”