Reflections on the law and other things by a lawyer in autumn
When I read with Daryl Dawson, he was a subscriber to the Mary Martin Book Club. It was a good source of books based in Adelaide. This would become part of a kind of disease, from which I still suffer, of becoming an insatiable book buyer. I would go on to amass a huge law library in the faith that it might be a good basis of investment. I had a collection that was marvelled at and which gave me great assurance and pleasure. But the computers would end all that – and create endless hazards of minefields of precedents and inducements to very average lawyers to lay out their ambitions on the World Wide Web – just one of many ill effects of that revolution. About the first book I got from Mary Martin was one by Somerset Maugham, Ten Famous Novels and their Authors – big hitters like Tolstoy, Balzac, Dickens and Melville. I was horrified to see that I had not read one of the ten novels. I used to collect the great classics to read on vacations. I was usually working at least six and a half days a week and most nights, so the great novels and histories were laid up for vacation. I insisted on five weeks in summer and two in winter – at a time when I could and did put all work out of my reach. I made it my business to read the great novels – the big ones at least two or three times. The big three are Don Quixote, War and Peace, and Ulysses. I have read those three times – as with the big ones of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Dickens and Flaubert. They all become old friends – like favourite movies or operas. I also tried to stay in touch with our writers – I have a hard-back of each novel of Patrick White, and I have read Riders in the Chariot three times. The great novels for me are like the theatre, opera, philosophy and history – utterly indispensable. I do not entirely jest when I say that I read history for entertainment and the great novels to see what makes the world tick. It saddens me greatly that so many go through life without sharing treasure that is way beyond measure and without which I would be so much worse off.
We may try to steer clear of Australians when abroad, but now and then the sound of home may come as a comfort. When we got to Moscow from Athens – the sloppiest airport via the sloppiest airline – we were held up for three hours in customs. Then I was told that our night at the Bolshoi had been cancelled. That was a major reason for our being there. I was very dirty on the world. When we got to our hotel, a faded and drab monolith, there was another queue and another delay. I heard some Australian accents behind me. Two guys from the back blocks of New South Wales. ‘I just got in from Athens.’ ‘So did we.’ ‘I was at a law conference.’ ‘So were we.’ ‘I did not see you there.’ ‘We were not big attenders.’ (I am prepared to swear to the accuracy of this report.) ‘I hear they have cancelled the Bolshoi.’ ‘Yeah. We thought we would go to the trots instead.’ Bliss. The day after we got to Rio, I was standing under the famous statue of Christ on a glorious spring morning in the sun with that familiar haze of jet lag when I heard this unmistakeable accent. ‘I don’t know how many hundred thousand cruzeroes this bloody beer cost, but it is worth every bloody one of them.’ More bliss. The conference in Moscow was on international trade – which I did not think would loom large on the other side of Dubbo. But who was I to talk? The conference in Athens was on medicine in the law.
Doubtless I am not alone, but I have long had a love – hate relationship with Wagner and the Ring Cycle. I went to both Adelaide versions and had booked the one scheduled for Brisbane 2020 – before the virus hit. By chance one day another boxed set of the Ring (about my fifth)n – one of the Furtwangler versions –arrived at the Post Office at the same time as a book containing the full text as written by Wagner – including all the narrative and stage directions. I played the short first of the four operas, Das Rheingold – just over two hours – with the text in front of me – not just the liner notes. It put the whole show in a very different light for me. This is real musical theatre – as if the stage was right there in front of me. Only a fanatic would say that the poetry has unique value as such, but listening to the music – especially in the dialogues – with the text really gives you very high theatre. I shall repeat the dose on the other three operas – on which my views are evolving, and will then watch the full set as done by Chéreau at Bayreuth – that is in my view the best available on DVD. But no power on earth will get me to front up for Tristan or Parsifal again. Simone Young gave a talk about Tristan and said we might get the long version. We evidently did, and it could have killed me. Two of the three acts of Parsifal take place on Good Friday, and if you still have any appetite for it, look up what Mark Twain said about it at Bayreuth. As balloon punctures go, he is one of the best.
Going back to my visit to Moscow, I met my partner John Beaven at the airport. This was about 1988 – glasnost, but we still had a guide with us on the bus into the city from the airport. John and I were swapping stories about the dead hand of communism – I wore red pants for the occasion – when we got to a point at about the distance of Moonee Ponds from the city centre (the Kremlin) when we came upon one of those vast heroic military monuments that such régimes long for. We shut right up when the guide said ‘This is where we stopped the fascists in the Great Patriotic War.’ We really have had a cosseted life down here. John was English and a banking lawyer, a very proper man and lawyer with a deep sense of humour. But I was aware that he was fighting demons within and that he had become fascinated by Russia. The therapy of this visit did not work for him. His condition got steadily worse, until one day when he was missing, another partner, Gavin Forrest, and I drove down to his holiday house at Rye and found him dead in the car with the engine still running. It was a fearful shock, but I was very taken with the warm way people across the whole office, including Sydney, responded. I can recall that in his eulogy, Gavin Forrest said that ‘I am immensely proud that I was a friend of John Beaven.’ That may, I suppose, be one difference between life at the bar and as a partner in a law firm. The word ‘partner’ has a resonance that you do not find at the bar. Many years later, a barrister with whom I shared chambers took his own life. I had known John was in danger, but the dead barrister had not given any indication of that level of risk. Younger barristers around us were very upset. I wrote a note for them about stress at the bar in which I mentioned John’s fate. Some time later, the Bar News asked if they could publish it and I agreed. A lot of people told me how glad they were that I had uttered some truths that had been hidden, but I had referred to the problems with alcohol of two heroes of the bar, and I was sent to Coventry by people I had been close to. Truth, evidently, was not a defence. I was very hurt, and I can still feel the wound. Collegiate life may be fraught if you agitate the prima donnas that inevitably strut up.