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6 July 2022

Wendy Joseph Q&A: “My hero was Sherlock Holmes – I prayed for a mind like his”

By New Statesman

Wendy Joseph was born in Cardiff in 1952 and began her career as a criminal barrister in 1975. From 2007 until March 2022 she sat as a full-time judge at the Old Bailey, where she was the only woman among 16 judges.

What’s your earliest memory?

At two and a half I was sent to nursery school. I have an abiding memory of mashed potato on pink plastic plates. If I close my eyes, I can smell it now – the smell of desolation.

Who are your heroes?

My childhood hero was Sherlock Holmes. I prayed for a mind that worked like his. These days I admire David Attenborough – to maintain such grace and passion into old age is quite an achievement.

What book last changed your thinking?

Richard Powers’ The Overstory made me see differently the way all living things interconnect.

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Which political figure do you look up to?

Is Joan of Arc a political figure? If politics is “the debate between parties having power”, she certainly weighed in on the side of her God. And who wouldn’t be inspired by that slight figure standing up to the world?

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

London in the 1920s – and not (or not just) for the clothes and the gaiety. By the early years of that decade women had proved themselves the equals of men. It was no coincidence that it was then that the first woman was called to the Bar.

What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Embarrassingly, I find I have none – though I suppose I might be pretty good on “sentencing murder”. But I’d love the excuse to mug up on Mozart and Austen.

What TV show could you not live without?

I love Mark Kermode’s The Film Review. It’s short but I always learn so much.

Who would paint your portrait?

Not sure I’m keen on the idea. I once had it done and found looking at myself “framed up” horribly embarrassing. Still, it would be fun to sit for Caravaggio… draped in fruit and hearing about his disgraceful doings the night before.

What’s your theme tune?

I’m thinking “The Magic Roundabout”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

On first sitting as a judge I found an overwhelming temptation to interfere. Confessing this to superiors, I was advised to put in front of me a sheet of paper with the words “SHUT UP” on it. I did.

[See also: Howardena Pindell Q&A: “A white parent tried to get me expelled from university”]

What’s currently bugging you?

Cars driving with loud music blaring through their open windows. Bikes speeding on pavements. People barging ahead in queues.

What single thing would make your life better?

If I could stop forgetting where I put my phone, glasses, travel pass and keys.

When were you happiest?

Things that give me joy and security – my family, my home – are part of me and can’t be tied to a “when”. But for moments when I was truly thrilled, it would be hard to beat opening the letter that offered me the job at the Old Bailey, or hearing that publishers wanted to buy the book I’d written.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

An architect. How wonderful to spend your life building things.

Are we all doomed?

If “doomed” means facing an inescapably bad outcome, then my answer is no. We all face death in the end – but we all have the chance for some incredible experiences on the way. And that’s worth living for.

“Unlawful Killings” by Wendy Joseph is published by Doubleday

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This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson