‘No Ordinary Man; the life of Carman’ a review.



The biography of George Carman QC by his son is perhaps the most unfilial such book around. Dominic Carman has taken is upon himself to compose the book on George Carman that Carman talked about writing but never did. The book that Dominic wrote is surely very different to the one that George would have written. Frank, droll, laudatory and condemnatory this is a shocking account of the life of one of England’s most famous barristers.

Dominic Carman chose to compose this life of his father in two sections. Most of it is roughly chronological. Some of it is thematic. The price to pay for this is that this diminishes the coherence of the book.

Dominic calls his father George throughout. The biography is as intimate as one would expect for a book written by a son on his father. Yet this is no hagiography. There is a distinct absence of piety about it/ Nor indeed is it a hatchet job. This book comes across as being entirely fair. It shows the alluring side of Carman with his intelligence, his ready witticisms, his unparalleled oratory and his joie de vivre. George Carman also had his demons ; indeed he was a demon at times. Tobacco addiction was the least of his vices. He seldom ended an evening sober. Inebriation did not improve his humour. He had a ferocious temper. All three of his wives were beaten up by him. He could be verbally just as brutal. For all his courtroom success in his personal life he was an utter shit.

Dominic limns George’s life growing up in Blackpool. He was born into a family with a middle class income but working class mores. George was Irish on his mother’s side and brought up a Catholic. George’s English father had been in the Royal Irish Constabulary just after the First World War. Englishmen who joined the RIC at this time were unpopularly known as the Black and Tans. It showed much broadmindedness and courage on Evelyn’s part to wed such a man.

George visited Ireland several times as a child but developed no especial attachment to Eire. After the 50s he seems not to have returned. Irishness was hardly part of his identity though Catholicism was.

George was intellecutally precocious/ He attended Catholic schools. He was an uppity sort and often got himself belted for defying his masters. Nonetheless he was by far the youngest boy in a trip to Rome in 1938.

George was put into a Catholic seminary as a teenager. The atmosphere was extremely oppressive. The priests tried to cut the boys off from all female contact. The effect on an adolescent’s sexuality may be imagined. George soon asked to leave.

George had toyed with the priesthood . The opportunity to address a congregation appealed to him. Then he decided that the Bar was the best outlet for his prodigous talents. George went up to Balliol College, Oxford. Balliol was then perhaps at the peak of its reputation. Oxford too was the undoubtedly the best university in the Commonwealth. Armed with an Oxford law degree George would be destined for great things.

At his Oxford interview George was asked what he planned to do with a law degree. He declared his ambition to be called to the Bar. The dons asked if he had familial connections or affluence. He acknowledged that he did not. A don advised him that he would be best off becoming a solicitor.  George found this degrading but there was no doubt that the don had George’s best interests at heart. It was very difficult to make it at the Bar without knowing the right people and without financial support.

At Oxford George was a diligent undergraduate. He debated at the Union a little. He was not a natural and had to put effort into it. He formed a duo with an Old Etonian named Joh n Jeremy Thorpe. Thorpe was reading law at Trinity. George wrote essays for J J Thorpe while Thorpe coached him in debating. It was a fruitful partnership. Thorpe did not put much time into jurisprudence since he was so busy politicking. He duly became President of the Oxford Union and revived the Liberal Party in the university. He also took a third in Finals.

George was awarded a First class degree. This was a tremendous feat. Up to 30 per cent of Oxford degrees are not firsts. Back then it was fewer than 10 per cent. Mostly those who were down for a first were called in for a viva (interview) to determine if they really deserved a first class degree. George’s exam papers were so fantastic that he was not vivaed.

George went to London and had no trouble passing the Bar exams. He was also found pupillage. In those days a pupil was not paid a penny and indeed had to pay his pupil master to take him on.

George then found tenancy in Manchester. It was too expensive for him to try to make it at the London Bar.

In those days barristers were generalists. George did criminal and civil work. He carved out a niche in personal injury. He was a Catholic but not very religious. He used his contacts with other Catholics to get more briefs.

George’s relationship with his father was volatile. George had an unsuccessful early marriage.

George was drawn to the Labour Party and had read Marx as a teenager. In his mid 20s he became a Tory. He even flirted with a parliamentary career.

It was only in the 60s that his career began to take off. After five years in practice his income was that of a bus driver.

George was a bon vivant. He liked carousing late at night/ Heavy drinking and gambling were his mainstays. No wonder he was not a family man. He also indulged in gay liaisons well into his 30s. Despite this he always hunted  women/ He paid women to accompany him to social functions but he did not have sex with them. Were these lavender relationships even? Why did he want a beard? It was more than masking his homosexual inclinations. It was also that he hankered after status. Desirable females were  mark of success.

In the 70s he became a QC: Queen’s Counsel. This is a mark of distinction for barrister’s with a superb reputation.

Only in the 70s did George become a renowned barrister. He moved to London and won some very lucrative briefs. He came to national prominence in defending Jeremy Thorpe.

George has Thorpe acquitted against all expectations. The jury took days to reach a decision; a measure of how close it was. George’s forte was advocacy. He ground down Thorpe’s accusers. He very effectually trashed their credibility. He knew how to goad witnesses into emotional outbursts sure to alienate the jury.

George won many more highly remunerative briefs. Soon he was sought after in Hong Kong and Singapore. He almost moved his practice to Hong Kong.

George was made a recorder; that is a barrister who sometimes sits as a judge. Later he became a master of the bench at his inn. He was even head of chambers.

George liked the idea of being a judge. He later decided against it as it would involve a huge cut in income. Those polled say he would have been a dreadful judge as he was too caustic, impatient and combative.

In the 80s George made libel his own. He was perhaps the most formidable libel barrister in the world. He fought many well known cases/

His last great criminal case was that of Ken Dodd. Dodd was accused of tax evasion. He faced up to three years in the slammer. George’s best line in this one has been abbreviated to “Some accountants are comedian but not comedian is an accountant.” This contrapuntalism won the jury around and Dodd was acquitted on all eleven charges.

George was a man addicted to drink, cigarettes, gambling and the company of glamorous women. He was a paragon of vice.

In 1996 he was diagnosed with cancer. He did not wish to retire as his work was his life. He had few hobbies. Although he socialised a lot in some respects he was very private and even reticent.

In 2000 he had to give up work as his illness was so advanced. He died in January 2001. A victory from beyond the grave came when the House of Lords overruled a case that George had lost ; that of Grobelaar.

Carman comes across as a cantankerous and dislikable character. His son could not measure up to his exacting standards.

This is a page turner. It is eloquent and never verbose. The man is laid bare. His qualities and his cruelties are exhibited. It features quotations from all who knew him. His courtroom opponents and victims remember him warmly. He was perhaps most famous as the most terrific cross examiner in the world/ He even had a verb invented for him. Former Tory Cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken said “I have been Carmanised by you”.





About Calers

Born Belfast 1971. I read history at Edinburgh. I did a Master's at UCL. I have semi-libertarian right wing opinions. I am married with a daughter and a son. I am allergic to cats. I am the falling hope of the not so stern and somewhat bending Tories. I am a legal beagle rather than and eagle. Big up the Commonwealth of Nations.

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