No Ordinary Man by Dominic Carman

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No Ordinary Man by Dominic Carman

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Category: Biography
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Sue Magee
Reviewed by Sue Magee
Summary: The life of George Carman QC as told by his son is an entertaining read if you're looking for celebrity gossip and information about Carman the man. The book would probably have had more balance if it had not been written so soon after his death. If you want an appreciation of his cases and his techniques in the courtroom this isn't the book for you.
Buy? No Borrow? Yes
Pages: 342 Date: October 2002
Publisher: Coronet Books
ISBN: 0340820993

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I am fascinated by people who get to the top of their chosen profession. It isn't the success which interests me, but the scale of the sacrifices that they're prepared to make in their personal lives just so that they can get to the top and stay there. So, I was rather pleased when my husband handed me a copy of "No Ordinary Man" as I thought this would be the sort of biography that I enjoy.

Asked to name a star of the legal world most of us would struggle. There's Cherie Booth of course, but she's probably better known for being the wife of the ex-Prime Minister than she is for her work as a barrister. Over the last decade the only other name familiar to most people would probably be George Carman.

George was born in Blackpool in 1929. Alf, his father, was an auctioneer and his mother ran a dress shop, so his background was more comfortable than most at a time of economic slump. He was educated at a Catholic school and for a while seemed set to become a priest, but instead became a barrister. Life was not to be easy though. Hopelessly addicted to gambling throughout his life and with a severe drink problem it was not unusual for his home to be sold to pay his debts.

His life was centred on his current case, the local casino and the bars of Manchester or London. He often returned home drunk and kicked and beat his current wife. It was not unusual for him to be drunk when he arrived at court the following day. It didn't seem to affect his performance though and he was involved in a string of celebrity cases. Jeremy Thorpe, the leader of the Liberal Party, was charged with attempted murder. Peter Adamson (Len Fairclough of Coronation Street) was charged with indecently assaulting two eight-year old girls. Adamson was acquitted, but later admitted to a newspaper that he was guilty of the charge, causing Carman some embarrassment.

He successfully defended Ken Dodd when he was charged with Tax offences. It was a masterstroke to produce a video of the comedian's home, which proved to be a ramshackle and sad place. The sympathies of the jury were with Carman and Dodd rather than the Revenue's rather dry prosecution team. Carman was exceptional in criminal cases, but his greatest strength and the source of his most famous cases was libel.

Jonathan Aitken, a Cabinet Minister, sued The Guardian and Granada Television over accusations that his hotel bill had been paid by an arms dealer. Do you remember his "simple sword of truth and trusty shield of fair play?" Carman acted for The Guardian and masterminded a defence which established that Aitken had lied. Eventually he was convicted of perjury and his political career crumbled.

It was the same hotel, the Ritz in Paris, which was to prove part of the undoing of Neil and Christine Hamilton in their case against Mohamed Al Fayed. At the time I hoped that there was some way that both Hamilton and Fayed could lose, but Carman was once again on the winning side. Perhaps most famously of all though, it was he who was responsible for ensuring that Gillian Taylforth (of Eastenders) will probably always be known as the lady who "gives good head".

Cancer forced him to retire earlier than he had planned, but he still needed money. He thought that writing his autobiography would solve the problem. It probably would have done as there was considerable interest in what he would say about his celebrity clients. In the event it quickly became obvious that the negotiations over the fee he would receive were more important to George than writing the book and he died before a single word was written. Writing the biography fell to his son Dominic.

For me this book was a good, light read, but essentially a disappointment. Children cannot usually be objective about a parent. Their opinion is usually too glowing or too punishing and in avoiding these extremes this book lacks passion. In trying not to place too great an emphasis on Carman's violence to his wives it is mentioned, almost as an after-thought, at the end of the book. There would appear, though, to be independent evidence from the three women concerned to suggest that this was a regular occurrence and not just an isolated incident. I would have thought that it merited more consideration.

On the other hand Carman's attitude to his grandchildren receives more attention. He was not unkind to them and settled some money on each of them, but he had little interest and lacked patience with the inevitable mess that young children create. This is not a sin and as Carman was already suffering from cancer at the time it seems to be understandable. There's a lack of objectivity on this point

Dominic Carman admits to being selective too. In his preface he says that "Some things are not included because of the sensitivities of others" and that other matters have been excluded because "available information is incomplete or inconclusive". Unfortunately he gives no hint as to the nature of these exclusions, despite a promise that the book is to be "warts and all". It's well-researched, with the acknowledgements reading like a Who's Who of the legal and political world, but I did wonder if more would have emerged about George Carman if the book had not been written so swiftly after his death.

There is, though, an interesting omission from the acknowledgements. Karen Phillipps was George Carmen's companion for the last years of his life. It seems likely that she was with him when he died, yet she seems to have contributed nothing to the book and there is a sense of animosity between her and the author. As she was a barrister I think her views on George Carman as a man and as an advocate would have been enlightening.

I like my biographies to start at birth and finish with death. I prefer to see the life and the career developing, but in this book each chapter deals with a "theme". There's a chapter for sporting heroes and another for tycoons. As a result I read about Robert Maxwell after Jonathon Aitken's troubles, despite the fact that Cap'n Bob had died many years before Aitken came to court. This is simply a personal preference though as I confuse easily!

I feel the book lacks depth. George Carman fascinated me. He was a diminutive man who could command a courtroom and I was looking for an analysis of his cases, but that was not forthcoming. Indeed the author admits that he is not qualified to give this and leaves it to others. The result is that comment is superficial and concentrates on Carman's use of words rather than his legal abilities. I was left with a feeling of smoke rather than substance in the courtroom.

So, why three stars? Well, it's a good story and it's well-written. If you're looking for a pleasant read with some celebrity gossip thrown in then it's worth picking it up if you see it on the library shelf, but if you're looking for the definite biography of a legal giant, all 5'3" of him, then I'm afraid it's not worth the cover price.

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annewallace7 said:

an excellent review and i must say that it covers my sentiments precisely but much more eloquently