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A Voice For Justice

The Kray twins loved Nemone Lethbridge: not only was the young lawyer beautiful, she was also good at getting them off their charges. Ronnie Kray once told her he would like to take her to the moon; another time, the brothers tried to give her a wad of cash as a thank you for all she’d done for them (she refused, of course).

Today those times, when she brushed shoulders with Britain’s most notorious gangsters, are long over: but Nemone, now 91, is still the beautiful, sparky, thoughtful woman they held in such high esteem.

She lives not far from the Blind Beggar pub in east London, where Ronnie once shot and killed one of his rivals: her home is the house in which she raised her two sons, and which she now shares with her son Milo and his wife and their four children. Two of her grandchildren, she tells me, will soon be confirmed at their parish church, Our Lady of Good Counsel. ‘That’s a good name for it,’ she says. ‘Because we’ve run a legal centre from there for many years.’ Even now, in her tenth decade, Nemone is involved in working for justice for people in desperate need – victims of human trafficking, asylum seekers, others in challenged situations. ‘When you hear the stories, you can’t not get involved,’ she says.
Nemone, who describes herself as ‘a big fan’ of Pope Francis, wasn’t born a Catholic. ‘But I was educated at a convent for a while, and one day I went into the chapel and I fell in love with it,’ she says. ‘I must have been about eight years old. And on that day, I resolved to become a Catholic. My parents were agnostic: my mother was appalled.’ She had been born in India during the days of the Raj: her father was an army officer there, later a key figure in the Nuremberg trials. During that period Nemone spent time with her family in Germany, and remembers being taken to see the bunker where Hitler and Eva Braun died.

Having studied law at Oxford University in the 1950s – among her many contemporaries were the Catholic historian Antonia Fraser, Ned Sherrin of That Was The Week That Was, and Jeremy Isaacs who became the first head of Channel 4 – she was received into the Church after graduation. She was then called to the Bar, and soon afterwards met the Krays, and successfully defended them from a robbery charge. She remembers being impressed with how dapper they were. ‘Even after a night in the cells, they were Brylcreamed to perfection,’ she remembers.

But it was another meeting the same year, 1958, that would have an even more far-reaching impact on Nemone’s life. ‘I was at the pub with some friends, and I noticed a man at the bar surrounded by a crowd of people. He was telling a story and they were all laughing and enjoying it. My friends said he was the most fascinating man in London, and I had to meet him – so we went over, and I did.’

The man’s name was Jimmy O’Connor: he was an Irishman, and 16 years earlier he’d been convicted of murder, for which he’d been given the death sentence. He always maintained his innocence. ‘He got involved in a burglary where someone died, but it was nothing to do with him,’ says Nemone. ‘The evidence against him was incredibly thin. The Irish were very unpopular at the time, and I don’t think he stood a chance.’

Jimmy was held in a condemned cell, and was due to hang on his birthday: but with just two days to go, he was given a reprieve. His sentence instead was life in prison, and he served ten years. Prison could have been the end of him – literally – but, says Nemone, it was the making of him. ‘He only had basic literacy skills – he’d left school at 14 and had had virtually no education. But in prison he enrolled on a course at Ruskin College, and it changed everything,’ she says. ‘Can you imagine that today?’

By the time Nemone met him, he’d become a playwright, and would go on to pen several major TV dramas including Tap on the Shoulder, The Profile of a Gentleman and Three Clear Sundays, drawing on his prison experiences and helping to turn the tide of public opinion against the death sentence; he worked and became friends with Ken Loach, a friendship Nemone keeps up to this day. Jimmy and Nemone fell in love, but knowing their marriage would become a big news story they were wed in secret in Ireland. A few years later, though, the story came out in the press, ending Nemone’s career as a criminal lawyer: she was removed from her chambers, and no other chambers would take her on. ‘There was a furore in the press, and then all doors closed against me,’ she remembers.

Jimmy loved Greece, and Nemone discovered she loved it too: they bought a home in Mykonos, and raised their two sons between there and London. Nemone became, like Jimmy, a TV playwright; these were the golden days of TV drama. Her 1966 play The Portsmouth Defence was the first of a trilogy, and she also penned the 1967 version of the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen, as well as a play called Baby Blues, in 1973; like Cathy Come Home, it had a huge impact on the viewing public, and led to changes in the way postnatal depression was treated.

In 1969 Nemone and Jimmy were together commissioned to write a book about the Krays’ murder trial at the Old Bailey. But it was a book that never happened, because the couple fell out over Jimmy’s drinking – though they were later reconciled. He died in 2001, at the age of 83. After the Krays’ conviction for murder in the 1969 trial, Nemone kept in touch with Ronnie, visiting him in Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospital after he was certified insane.

Through her long years away from legal work, Nemone continued to hanker after a return to the Bar; and in 1981, it became possible. ‘The whole climate had changed, and I found a new chambers.’ In 1995, after legal aid had been scaled back, she founded her law centre at the parish church. Today, she says, it’s needed more than ever. ‘We live in such terrible times, and there are so many people who need our help.’

Being in her nineties hasn’t slowed Nemone down much: with her son Milo she’s written one volume of an autobiography, Nemone: A Young Woman Barrister’s Battle Against Prejudice, Class and Misogyny, and is currently working on the second volume. She’s also written a book of poems, Postcards from Greece. ■

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