Ripping yarns from a socialist silk

Legal thrillers being all the rage among the book-reading public you would think the life of John Platts-Mills QC would be ripe for plundering.

You can almost hear the publishers pitching the book now: "This chap from the colonies comes to Britain to study amid dreaming spires of Oxford, becomes a barrister in an elite Establishment world, then, inexplicably, he becomes one of those socialist radical types. He is almost killed on the orders of a cabinet minister in World War II until Winston Churchill calls on his services for a secret propaganda mission before firing him. He's elected to parliament as a Labour MP only to have his own party kick him out, he gets no legal work for two years but rises again in the profession and represents some of the most notorious gangsters in London. To top it off he's 90 and still practising. Interested?"

But then truth seldom sells as well as fiction and though Platts-Mills has written the autobiographical manuscript he has yet to have it accepted by a publisher.

In the flesh at least Platts-Mills is the consummate story-teller. Only his face is lit by a small lamp in an otherwise winter-darkened sitting room as for two hours he recalls his career with barely a pause.

His home atop 5 Paper Buildings overlooks ant-like, black-gowned legal figures below. It's a suitable residence for the Grandfather of Chambers. He had his name on a waiting list for 30 years before he got the apartment, where he has lived for the last 30 years, most of it with his wife, who died recently. Six sons have also spent various times sheltering there.

"It's obviously the best flat in the Temple, in the world in fact," he says. "Our village clock is Big Ben, our village church is Westminster Abbey, our pond is the Thames."

Platts-Mills's beginnings were somewhat less grand. He grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, studied law and was admitted to the New Zealand bar in 1928. He did not practise in New Zealand, having won a Rhodes scholarship a year earlier to Oxford, though Platts-Mills suspects the University was more interested in his rugby skills than his academic prowess.

In 1932 he was called to the British Bar and, aside from World War II and a brief parliamentary career, he's been there ever since.

When war broke out in 1939, Platts-Mills, who had learned to fly at Oxford, joined the RAF but never saw active service.

He claims Liberal politician Archibald Sinclair, who was in the War Cabinet, had a grudge against the young New Zealander who had joined the British Labour Party in 1936.

Pinpointing him as a dangerous leftie in the revered RAF, Sinclair ordered Platts-Mills to the British colony of Aden, where other politician friends informed him he was to meet an "unfortunate accident".

Platts-Mills refused to go and the issue was resolved when Churchill called on him in 1941 to run a secret propaganda campaign enhancing the Russians' image among the public.

This he did a little too well and when British tanks came off the production line in 1994 with "Tanks for Joe" (as in Joe Stalin) painted on the side a furious Churchill fired him and Platts-Mills spent the rest of the war working in the bowels of Yorkshire's coal mines.

Taking two weeks off from the pits to electioneer in the London seat of Finsbury, he was swept into the corridors of Westminster with the new Labour Government in 1945.

Platts-Mills though, who had built up a great respect for the Russians and travelled the country after the war, was soon in trouble after becoming convinced the British were planning to rearm Germany in the hope they and Russia would "bleed each other white".

The Labour leadership expelled him from the party and upon returning to the Bar in 1950 – Cold War and all – he found socialists weren't welcome. "The solicitors said: 'If his own Party don't trust him how can the judge we have trust him?'"

For two years he received no briefs and survived by selling properties he had acquired having done, by his own admission, rather nicely in the legal profession before the war.

Platts-Mills the socialist saw nothing wrong with living off the wealth of his previous success as a barrister or indeed of the success that was to follow.

"I think every socialist should aim to carry out his own job the very best he can. Nothing is too good for a socialist so why shouldn't a socialist have a Rolls-Royce? Socialism is a practical business."

He joined Cloisters, a chambers noted for challenging the Establishment, in 1953 and gained silk in 1964.

The 1960s saw him embroiled in some of Britain's most famous cases. He defended all three of the notorious gangster Kray brothers on charges of murder and also one of the Great Train Robbers in an appeal against his conviction.

But it is the lower-profile cases he enjoyed most, such as the mad German who left his entire fortune to Platts-Mills's client – and 18 other friends and relatives.

Now aged 90, Platts-Mills is still working. But he does not restrict himself to signing the odd form. Last week this incredibly fit, sharp-eyed man, who can easily pull a heavy wooden table towards him with one hand (I know – he showed me), worked through the night on a brief. Why does he do it?

"I need the money – I've got so many [12] grandchildren!"

Along with his work ethic, age has also not mellowed his political views.

The Labour Party may have forgiven its errant son in 1969, (the then Labour chair and miner Joe Gormley told Platt-Mills; "Jack lad, thar's a pit lad, can't have a pit lad not in t' party") but when asked about leader Tony Blair he risks being thrown out again.

Describing him as another Clement Attlee, he says that Blair is "conscientious but willing to forget the basis of his conscience for the sake of getting in [to power]".

As to the politics of law and life in chambers, high from his vantage point overlooking the heart of England's barrister community, Platts-Mills says little has changed in 64 years.

"The chaps have changed but the kind of chap hasn't; neither have the goings-on or the buildings they work in.

"You have curious old men doddering around like me like you used to in 1932, busy chaps making a fortune and not-so-busy chaps not doing so well and wondering if they should try something else."

When it comes to proposed justice reforms such as more arbitration he is enthusiastic for change.

"People can very easily be brought to discussion if a sensible chap talks to them and says: 'Look at the money. You're putting at peril the whole existence of the family, the business or whatever it is if you take this litigation and fight it out in the courtroom.'"

Arbitration instead of courtroom battles? It is enough to make a barrister's wig curl, but then even at 90 John Platts-Mills is fighting convention while living so comfortably amongst it.

Perhaps if he had fought a propaganda war against the Soviet Union instead of for it, if he had toed the party line instead of kicking it in the shins, there would now be a "Sir" in front of his name.

Maybe even his memoirs would have been long since published. But maybe then the story they told would not have been half as interesting as it is.