In an English court of law 21 years ago, I had the opportunity to discover firsthand how touchy judges can be when challenged from the dock. It was a case of libel that caught both the tabloid and broadsheet imagination, not to mention the BBC’s. I had referred to a very rich old woman as an adventuress, basically a high-class tart, and she had sued the Spectator and yours truly. We had a lot of fun in court, but, as it turned out, it was very expensive fun. I had decided to go half and half with the then-proprietor of the most elegantly written and oldest weekly of the English-speaking world.
When I stood to be cross-examined by a barrister who must have been a student of the great Stalin purges of the 30’s, there was a hush in the court. I had been warned beforehand not to take the mickey, as they say in Blighty. In other words, play dumb, and no wise cracks. To make his point stick, my own barrister reminded me of the great Lord Birkenhead’s case, who was giving evidence in a libel trial and had said that the plaintiff was as drunk as a judge. “You mean drunk as a lord,” spluttered the judge.
“Yes, my lord,” answered Birkenhead. His side lost.
My counsel also warned me about the infamous Oscar Wilde case. “Do you deny having champagne with so and so on the tenth of June, Mr. Wilde?”
“No, I do not deny it, despite my doctor’s orders,” answered Oscar.
“Never mind your doctor’s orders,” cried the bench.
“I never do . . . ” We all know how that one turned out.
Two weeks before my case, a friend of mine had been through yet another libel case, and the presiding judge decided he would announce the result after the lunch break. High-court judges in Britain are known for their dislike of the Fourth Estate, in general, and gossipy hacks, in particular. My friend went to lunch at the George, an old-fashioned inn where hundreds of plaintiffs and defendants have congregated throughout the centuries. Like the journalist that he is, he got thoroughly sloshed and returned to Court 13 feeling no pain. “Innocent,” pronounced his lordship, obviously not best pleased with the jury’s decision.
“Hooray!” cried my friend.
“One day in the cells for contempt of court,” replied the judge.
“Why don’t you give me two, you bewigged buffoon!” said the hack.
“Have it as you wish,” came the judge. “Two weeks for further contempt.” The defendant then was escorted out of the court and taken to the cells below to begin his sentence. Mind you, cooler heads prevailed, and after a groveling apology, the hack was let out after 48 hours.
Lord Justice Otton—no longer with us, thank God, as is the case for the plaintiff also—had a fearsome reputation and was known to pride himself on his command of the English language. “What does Taki stand for?” was his first question as I was sworn in.
“Little virgin Mary,” said poor little me to loud guffaws from the peanut gallery. (Taki is a diminutive for Panagiotaki, as in Panagia, the Holy Virgin.)
His lordship perked up. “I will remind the defendant that this is a court of law, open to all, be he or she ne’er so humble nor high.” Although a non-sequitur, I let it slide. “And what does Theodoracopulos stand for?”
“Gift from God, your lordship.” (Which it does.) More guffaws. If Otton was mildly against me at the start, he became virulently anti-Taki after that.
The whole case hung on the word catamite. Catamite is a bastardization of the name Ganymede, the most beautiful young man in Greek mythology, whom Zeus would impersonate when he ventured down from Olympus looking for action with the fairer sex. Hera, Zeus’s wife, caught on, came down, and plucked Ganymede up Mount Olympus, making him a servant of the gods. Catamite, however, also means a bugger’s minion. I had described the woman’s husband as a catamite, because the man was a homosexual. When the plaintiff’s barrister asked which of the two I had meant, I answered that I meant the former—a man serving drinks. “I suggest to you that you are a liar,” said the plaintiff’s mouthpiece.
“I suggest to you that you are a theomicrist,” came back poor little Taki.
“What is a theomicrist?” demanded Judge Otton.
“A person who mocks God,” said I. Even louder laughter in court.
It was all downhill after that. Later on, when I described the dumb but extremely rich woman who had sued as an aristophren, someone of superior intelligence—I was obviously taking the mickey—Lord Justice Otton fairly exploded. He threatened me with contempt of court, until I informed him what the word meant. “Surely you knew that, my Lord.” Well, vengeance was his at the end. The way the judge summed up the case to a working-class jury surely must go down in the history of kangaroo courts. For a moment, I feared for my eleutheromanic nature. The jury took over a whole day to reach a verdict and, by a majority of 11 to 1, awarded the plaintiff a large amount, and we also got to pay for the court costs—$400,000 of the time. When the press asked for a statement, I had this to say: “Could you find out the name of the German pilot who bombed the Temple [where all the lawyers are housed] in 1942? I would like to call my next son after him.”