A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot
Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn
The dreadful time I had with a cab on arriving at Prague led me to a much better moment on leaving it. I wanted to go to Lidice. This was the site of a Czech town that Hitler had ordered to be liquidated as a reprisal for the assassination of Heydrich. I ascertained that it was about twenty minutes on the other side of the airport and I ordered a car to take me there and then drop me at the airport. This was shortly after the liberation following the fall of the wall, and I was given a guide as well as a driver. The guide was a youngish woman schoolteacher. She was just right. I now regret not having turned to guides more often. As we moved through the traffic outside the city centre, I said that Prague was gorgeous – ‘a chocolate box city, as it appeared in the film Amadeus.’ ‘Perhaps – but you have not been to the industrial estates where the skinheads are killing the gypsies.’
Blake & Riggall, where I did my articles in 1969 before going back as a partner in 1986, was a very old and Establishment law firm, almost as old as the colony that started in Port Philip. It was of course exclusively male and Protestant, and I would have been the first partner who had even thought of voting for the party of the workers. It was in many ways Dickensian. During the year of our articles, Bob Paterson and I shared a room in the basement beyond the area allocated to the Titles Office clerks. They took on a very old man from the T O, Mr Adams. I think Mr Adams wore wing collars, but he unsettled some staff by retiring to his cubicle at lunchtime and going to sleep at the top of his desk in a foetal position. One crusty old partner was Hubert Black. He upbraided an articled clerk in the lift one day. ‘Are you a Catholic?’ ‘Good God, no. Why do you ask?’ ‘Then what are you doing with a brief addressed to F X Costigan?’ Well, we never though those days would never end and they did. And thank Heaven for that.
Once in my life, I think, I had cross examined to effect and I was about to apply the death blow. It was a difficult case of a lady who had her problems trying to set aside transactions in favour of her accountant that we said he had obtained through undue influence. The defendant had just contradicted himself on a statutory declaration about the ownership of a motor vehicle. Then from nowhere, the judge stopped the cross-examination and said that he wanted to warn the witness – who was represented by counsel who had just about tossed the towel in – about self-incrimination. I could not believe it. This was a quirk of a judge – ‘Ginger’ Southwell – who was known to advance something like the ‘sporting theory’ of justice. The cross-examination was stopped and we lost the case. It still riles me. I have never forgiven the judge for doing something for no other apparent reason than that he could. The relevant words are ‘arbitrary’ and ‘capricious’. They are a denial of fairness or justice. The client was very shaky – that was, after all, part of her case. I had asked her what she might do if she lost. ‘I will kill myself.’ I was instructed by a law clerk from England, Jim Saunders, who was straight out of Rumpole, and who had a wonderful old world charm. He said, under his clear bright eyes: ‘I shouldn’t say that if I were you – it puts an unfair onus on counsel.’ Jim used to say that in London counsel would offer him sherry or tea. I said he could forget sherry, but I invested in a tea-set of Wedgwood English Country Roses from which I still take my tea. Only God knows if the poor lady carried out her threat, but I know that I had lost whatever innocence I still had about our justice system. You can hardly tell what may happen of any case. It is put up by real people and it will be resolved by real people. And no real person is infallible.
Black Americans have produced jazz pianists that are out of this world. Like Art Tatum or Erroll Garner. Whitney Bailliett said: ‘Tatum told me that he adored Erroll, and that was strange because they were so different. Tatum was something of a stuffed shirt, while Erroll was so articulate in his street-smart way. Erroll loved chubby ladies….He was a very generous man. I remember walking to Jilly’s with him in the sixties and I don’t know how many times he stopped to say, ‘Hey, baby’, and reach into his pocket and lay something on whoever it was.’ Bailliett said that recording tends to ‘stymie’ jazz musicians, but Garner loved them – in a 1953 session, Erroll ‘rattled off thirteen numbers, averaging over six minutes each with no rehearsals and no retakes.’ Erroll liked ‘to have his base player sit on his left, so that the bass player could see his left hand.’ Another pianist said that ‘when Erroll walked into a room, a light went on. He was an imp. He could make poor bass players and poor drummers play like champions. When he played, he’d sit down and drop his hands on the keyboard and start. He didn’t care what key he was in or anything. He was a full orchestra, and I used to call him ‘Ork’. Another pianist said that what distinguished him ‘was his rich and profound quality of time…He was his magnificent pianistic engine.’ Bailliett ended the piece by recording the reaction of Garner when someone mentioned that he could not read music. ‘Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.’
Mac, my dad, was a judge’s associate. Norma, my mum, was a court reporter. I was therefore brought up with stories about law and the courts. I thought Mac and Norma wanted me to go into the law. I resisted until my first year of arts at Melbourne University suggested that there was no assured career outside of the law. I therefore changed to do arts and law. After about a year or so, it looked to me that the law course was not all that demanding and that could seek to improve my education by reading legal biographies and legal history while coming to grips with the great novelists of France and Russia – while continuing to learn in both history and philosophy. I think the first biography in the law I read was of Haldane. It was most instructive. I have just read a new one, and it is still full of interest for me. The way to get into a new area is to read about those who made it.
I found it unsettling to appear before a judge whom my father was assisting. It was even harder to appear in a court where my mother was the short-hand writer. It happened a couple of times in bankruptcy in the old High Court. In my first five years at the Bar, I had quite a practice in bankruptcy. Mr Justice Sweeney was a model of courtesy, but he was also a master of controlling his work flow. I cannot recall any savage contest before him. And the most technical points could be taken. One such occasion arose when a creditor understated the debt – understated – by one dollar. I went armed with all the case law about inconsequential errors. The debtor turned up expressing the wish to go bankrupt. I still lost. As I retreated through a packed court, I wondered whether those faces all turned on me were hiding humour or disdain. What I do know is that most would of them have thought that this apparent silliness showed that the sooner they got out law courts in general, the better. Happily, I don’t think that happened on a day when my mother was rostered on to that court. It was beyond me to know why a transcript was necessary for this court. I did not ask his Honour why while enjoying morning tea with him in his chambers on another day when the list was completed a comfortable time before lunch.