A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot
Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn
So much in all our lives depends on chance. You might stumble over something that leads you to see the world through different eyes. In about, I suppose, 1960, I watched an interview on the ABC with Professor Andrew Boyce Gibson. Gibson was the Dean of the Arts Faculty at Melbourne University. He would lecture me in philosophy at Melbourne University in 1964. He just looked to me to be wise and kind. . He said he had learned to speak French so that he could read Descartes in its original form. He said that this had given him a new window on the world. That made me wonder how much our view of the world is shaped by our language. Later, I would ask if that was not the main question facing philosophy. Gibson was a Christian apologist. (As were my other philosophy lecturers in each of the next two years.) A rather preppy young interviewer got into high flown language about the role of the Church in modern industrial society. With great calm, this very wise man said: ‘The problem is that the whole thing began in a carpenter’s shop and has just got a bit out of hand since.’ That seemed to me then, and it still does now, to sound like true wisdom. Kant said that some things had a ‘fancy price,’ but that each of us has a worth or dignity above price merely because we are human. Wittgenstein said that about some things we must be silent. He also said that during the war, trains carried a sign: ‘Is this journey really necessary?’ A Greek philosopher said that we do not live to see our own death. For some reason, that struck a very comforting note for me. (I am not sure whether it was he who said that you never step into the same river twice.) In War and Peace, Prince Bolkonsky said that when we die, we either get all the answers or we stop asking the questions. Sir Lewis Namier referred to a need of plain human kindness, and ‘restraint and the tolerance that it implies.’ Hannah Arendt said ‘Every government assumes political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessor…every generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors.’ Finally, in burying his grandmother, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her. This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’ If I was asked what proposition in our past best expresses my hope for the world, that one would take a lot of beating. There is about it an aura of nobility.
Books can furnish the house as well as furnish the mind. I collected fifty of what for me were the great books or writers either in literature or affairs that were either part at least bound in leather or fitted with a slip case. About half of them have been rebound by Helen Williams, a local bookbinder. ( Well, that is at least some contribution to the economy.) There are books published by the Folio Society or those sumptuous American products from people like the Franklin Library or Easton Press. I have added three more volumes about great books, so that there are now two hundred books that stand for something that counts in my life – apart from the novels, histories, plays and poems, there are books about fly fishing, wine, Barassi, cooking, Jussi Bjorling or Maria Callas, cricket, Ferrari or golf – and so on. They are gorgeous to look at and they almost demand to be taken out and fondled. For better or worse, they are the evidence of my journey here, and a source of real comfort – especially since we put the Wolf to sleep.
It is curious that Benjamin Britten and Tim Storrier had a fascination about water. Britten brought it to life musically in two of his operas, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd. You can just about taste the salt water in each. A dealer at Australian Galleries told me that Storrier dealt with the fundamental. He did a series of paintings of the sea with ladies’ hats. He was also fascinated with fire. I have one of his that is a blazing pyramid. Would that I could afford one with a television box standing before a blaze in the bush – with a picture of the sea on the screen. I have one of his firelines and a drawing of a saddle. He could obviously draw –as could Jeffrey Smart and Fred Williams and others whose works I have – just works on paper, but theirs. Storrier looks to me to have a patrician streak. I went to hear him speak at the opening of a swish new gallery in High Street, Armadale. He said that asking an artist to open a gallery was a bit like asking a cow to open an abattoir. The owners did their best to put on masks of affability. I was the art partner at Blakes, and I enjoyed it immensely. It allowed me buy stuff I could never afford – and defend the acquisition for the occasional Presbyterian Philistine. It also gave me the chance to have some fun. I could go into a gallery on my way to or from gym looking like a bum. And being looked down upon. Until I responded to their query ‘Can we help?’ ‘Perhaps. I am the art partner of an international law firm that is leasing six floors of a landmark building in Collins Street, and I have been instructed to acquire appropriate works of Australian art.’ The response was like that described by Banjo Paterson. ‘There was movement at the station for the word had got around…..’(Did you know that Banjo was a lawyer? And a good looking one, to boot.)
When I started at the Bar in 1971, I was almost completely dependent on my clerk, Ken Spurr, for briefs. Most of them were in the Magistrates’ Courts. There were three main categories of briefs – crash and bash (civil claims for motor car accidents); police prosecutions – mainly traffic; and maintenance cases between husband and wife. We are speaking of a time about half a century ago – and I suspect that nearly all of that kind of brief has now gone by the wayside. Most magistrates then had been clerks of courts, and were firmly on the side of the police – some of whom congregated in the clerk’s office before court. It was almost impossible to get a magistrate to make a finding against a copper. Some of them liked to have a drink with counsel over lunch at a bar. One of them was addicted to Autumn Brown. The grog did not soften them up after lunch. It made sense to me to start at the bottom, and over time I noticed a kind of aloof distraction in those barristers who had the connections or front to avoid that kind of stuff. Those briefs were marked at about $20 each. And I thought that if I could get, say, three of those in a week, I could keep my head above water. You used to drive out to a suburban court, and meet the punter there at about 9.30 am. And then you would spend your time praying that you would get on. There was nothing worse than waiting round all day at, say, Ferntree Gully and not getting on. There was then the dispiriting drive back to the city – without a cracker to show for all that time out of your life. You were not helped by bromides about cab ranks or swings and roundabouts, but this was a priceless way to learn about both the lottery and the pain of litigation. You may not have wanted to say this to the punter, but the best way to learn was to lose – and lose both hard and often. No sane person wants to embark on this kind of public raffle, and you realise that that your real role is to get the punter out of the clutches of the process as quickly and decently as possible. As time goes on, you could get consulted before the proceeding was issued – and you could help deal with the hurt by pointing out that the cure was likely to be a lot worse than the disease. It appals me now to go to mediations where counsel has been involved from the beginning – and you and they are seeing the punter for the first time. I cannot understand how counsel can say that the course the client is pursuing was only embarked on after counsel took into account all relevant considerations. What do you do if when you meet the punter, you think either that they will not be able to bear the stress of litigation – or be believed? Perhaps that is why I wonder why of all the libel actions I have mediated over say the last five tears, I can hardly recall one that I would have recommended – but I can recall a lot that were obviously too dicey to chance your arm in what Sir Owen Dixon called the temple of justice.