Rather His Own Man: Reliable Memoirs
Geoffrey Robertson, Knopf, 2018, ISBN 978-0-14-378407-4, 463pp
Geoffrey Robertson is well-known enough as an international jurist to need no introduction. His talents are extensive; as well as being a more than competent human rights lawyer he is also an author and a broadcaster. I had not seen any of his Hypothetical series possibly because these were aired before I arrived in Australia though I do not understand why they were not broadcast in the UK. You can see them on YouTube and very thought-provoking they are. His other significant claim to fame, which I did not know (or if I did know then I had forgotten) was that he dated Nigella Lawson. So serious was this dating that the popular press of the day had them married off. But then he met Kathy Lette. He met Kathy while filming an episode of Hypothetical and it was off with Nigella and on with Kathy.
I had read but one of his books before this one. That book was The Case of the Pope: Vatican Accountability for Human Rights and I was struck by the clarity of his writing and the tightness of his argument. The first book about matters legal that I read was Lord Denning’s A Family Story (1982). Lord Denning signed the articles of my late sister; as a lawyer, she was very much in awe of him. I was struck by Denning’s writing which consisted of very short sentences that were each completely clear in their intent and expression. Now Geoffrey Robertson does not hold Lord Denning in high regard. He says of the former UK Master of the Rolls that Denning’s “after dinner credo ‘I must do justice whatever the law may be’ was irresponsible enough … but he had started to twist it to suit his own prejudices, which turned out to be extremely reactionary.” Now I cannot arbitrate between the jurisprudential philosophies of a pair of great lawyers, but I can say that both Robertson and Denning write with clarity.
Robertson has a story to tell. The early pages of this book deal with where he came from. He was born in Sydney, but his roots are European and possibly aristocratic. He may be decided from Kaiser Wilhelm. Of course, he may not be. He was lucky, perhaps, to be born. His father, Frank, was a pilot and was once forced to land on the flat roof of a house in Victoria. Having dealt with his antecedents, Robertson describes his time at Epping Boys’ High School though I wonder to what extent some of stories benefit from another half-century in their maturation. He comments that, as he grew up in the 1960s, “Australia was the most censorious society in the world … Lady Chatterley’s Lover was acquitted at the Old Bailey … but not even Robert Menzies’ Anglophilia would allow him to permit it into Australia.” He talks of the “pompous killjoy” Arthur Rylah (a former attorney-general of Victoria) who “would prosecute any book that was not fit for his fourteen-year-old daughter.” One suspects that these reminiscences are somewhat honed by experience, though perhaps I am being uncharitable. His indignation at this erstwhile stupidity of our politicians is nonetheless warranted. Nothing changes, I suppose.
Once his school days and University are out of the way, we are entertained with a veritable romp through a life that is as rich in experience as it is successful. It would be easy to criticise the book as being littered with name-dropping and perhaps it is. It might be easier to say who he does not know rather than who he does. After setting up Doughty Chambers (described on its website as “a buoyant and cutting-edge set, renowned for and committed to defending freedom and civil liberties”), he recalls “a visitor who came to talk to us about her work at the Lebanon Tribunal … whose clever analysis and powerful presentation – quite apart from her fashion sense – made a big enough impression … for me to suggest … that she join Doughty Chambers.” This was Amal Alamuddin, now better known, perhaps, as Mrs Clooney. He is amusing on his relationship with Malcom Turnbull. One chapter begins “Like all good spy stories, this one begins with a beautiful woman. MI5 attempted to recruit Jane Turnbull at Oxford, with the fabled ‘tap on the shoulder’.” I will not spoil the story for you here; you will need to read it yourself.
He is not too important to take himself altogether seriously which makes me think that I should like the man were I too meet him. He recounts some of the cases that he has worked on with an amazing cast of characters from General Pinochet to Julian Assange (though I do not pretend that these two men are opposite ends of any spectrum). He has been a war crimes judge and he tells of his defending men facing death sentences in the Caribbean. I have no doubt that the detail in the cases he talks about was formidable and while I am sure that he had an army of juniors to help him with that, I am equally sure that he has a mighty mind. This book, however, doesn’t tell you about the law in the way that Denning’s A Family Story or Landmarks in the Law do. Rather it tells one about the way that a libertarian mind works when faced with things that he (and almost certainly I) would regard as being wrong and about how he uses the law to ensure that people’s rights are respected and protected.
The only trouble with reading it, as is the case with books about many great people, is that you feel somewhat inadequate. But you get over it. Read this if you can.