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Giraffes and hyenas… A personal perspective (Theo Huckle QC)

Giraffes and hyenas… A personal perspective

Don’t get me wrong. I am no David Attenborough. But when you’re invited to the Kruger Park in South Africa, it’s a bit hard to turn down. So, there I was a couple of weeks ago, driving from Johannesburg for 6 hours to get to the Phalaborwa Gate and thence to Letaba. And for 3 days our group drove around for 6 or 7 hours per day in 2 trucks seeking views of creatures. Lions and tigers and bears. OK, not tigers (India) or bears (all other continents).

[See, there’s that over-fussiness of detail which, I hope, makes me a good analyst and advocate, but can tend to irritate… ]

We saw them. Lions and cheetahs at a distance (mostly sleeping under trees, sensible things ) and elephants, giraffes, “buck” (antelope, many, including kuddu, steenbok and impala), zebra, hippos, and crocodiles, really quite close up. Briefly, before they – or we – moved on.

On the last day I’d had enough. Stir crazy in the group (such a barrister!) and, sadly perhaps, I was beginning to think if I saw another lumbering elephant I’d go mad. So I explained to the group (and it was partly true) that I had some work I needed to do, and I stayed back for the final day of 4. I got my laptop out, and I went to the hide we were lucky enough to have at the lodge, overlooking what should be a river but was a couple of trickles after a vicious dry spell this year.

And I did work. Quite successfully, actually. (Though the only time in 2½ weeks I should say.)

But I also looked. And watched. And instead of going searching, the animals came to me. Sort of. At a distance again, but I could see them clearly and watch what they did. Mostly they just ate, but after a while I began to get it, to realise the joy of wildlife study and appreciation. (Why those crews wait for weeks with their telephoto lenses to get a single good shot/clip of a leopard.)

It is simply fascinating to watch a giraffe and her baby feeding on the bushes (one rather higher than the other!). For quite a long time. Calm. Stillness. Observing properly. Thinking. You know, those things you used to do once. And then back to the laptop to that index for Vol 29 of Halsburys. And then back to the giraffes for 10 or 20 mins more. Where are they? Oh yes, I see them again…

Then a couple of young hyenas appearing… siblings I think, playful in the water pools, chasing each other around the plain; then seeing the water buffalo🐃 who was approaching further over for a drink, and playing at hunting him till he trotted off, perturbed enough – but not really; hyenas are just scavengers after all – they can’t really expect to take on a full grown buffalo even in pairs!

And curiously, perhaps, all of this reminded me of my introduction to canal boating in 2006. I was a junior then. After a long trial leading counsel invited us to his beautifully restored French Freycinet standard canal boat, and we drove over via the Chunnel to its mooring in Holland. Initially I found chugging along at 4-5 knots really difficult, but over time I was able to calm down, relax and just enjoy the slowness of it.

I’ve been thinking about Wellbeing issues for a long time, concerned about the increasing disparateness of a profession already pretty disparate – “independent!”, we proudly cry, of course – when I started in it in 1987. Also, concerned about the lifestyles of people generally. All that rushing about, as my mum would have said. People not taking enough time to gain the benefits of being truly part of their community (within or without their workplace/profession), helping each other out, talking to each other, playing music and games, learning from people doing other interesting stuff: the things that make you feel good about yourself and your place in the world. And now we can spend more time with (“communicating via”) our computers/smartphones than talking to each other.

Finally, though, we have all begun to think about these things, and our Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group is working hard to help, prompted by an increase in, or at least increased awareness about, the many casualties. Being prepared to reveal your problems is not the end of your career, it will make you stronger, better able to understand yourself and others, and thus better able to cross examine them! In my time in Welsh Government in 2011-6 there was a wonderful debate on mental health issues in which, incredibly bravely I think, an Assembly Member from each of the 4 political parties volunteered to, and spoke, describing their own struggles with depression and other psychiatric affect. It felt like a watershed and it was. One of them is now a senior minister. He only went up in the estimation of colleagues and opponents. A true leader and rôle model.

Returning to my S African adventure, you may have noticed that for the first time in 30 years’ practice at the Bar I was away from my wig/desk in the middle of term time and outside school holidays. (Late teens kids do have their advantages, though you have to teach them a lot about how the house works!) So perhaps even I am slowly becoming more able to prioritise life and work properly, though I was back working till late in the days following our return.

By the way, I don’t think it’s wrong to be driven and work – very – hard at the bar. That’s our obligation, and what our clients are entitled to expect; I try to think “what if it was my mum” every time it occurs to me not to turn that final stone. It’s just that Superman/woman are fictional characters, and humans need to recognise pressures in themselves and their friends, family and colleagues, and be ready to do something to manage them, prevent catastrophe and promote success, bearing in mind that we all have to deal with our pressures in the best way for us, not under instruction from someone else.  But help is good.

So where do these musings leave me/us? It’s a plea for time, stillness and thought, really. Take it. Watch a giraffe eat.

Oh, and do some yoga. Preferably Iyengar yoga (ideal for the analytical and pedantic barrister in my view!). It’s tough – just try a really prolonged adho mukha svanasna (downward dog). And, for the more macho: if it’s good enough for the Aus rugby team, eh…? Stillness again. With control of mind and body. What could be better?

Let’s talk about this.

 Theo Huckle QC (1985 call, 2011 silk) is a barrister at Doughty Street Chambers. He is the Personal Injuries Bar Association representative on the Wellbeing at the Bar Working Group.