GEOFFREY ROBERTSON Rather His Own Man: Reliable memoirs. Reviewed by Peter Corris
Robertson is on the right side of history and morality. Surely he can’t be that good, that funny?
The title of Geoffrey Robertson’s memoir was inspired by the comment of a senior British public servant when a Blair-government minister intended to appoint him to a European judicial position: ‘What a brilliant idea, Minister … But … he is … rather his own man, isn’t he?’
I’ve been an admirer or Geoffrey Robertson’s writing ever since his book about the aftermath of the 17th-century English revolution, The Tyrannicide Brief (2005). Robertson brought all the actors — monarchists, Roundheads, lawyers — to life in an engrossing account of the ferocious revenge taken after the Restoration for the execution of one of the stupidest men to occupy the English throne — Charles I.
Here Robertson is, at times, in lighter mode recounting his journey from suburban Sydney and Epping High School to London’s Inns of Court and the Old Bailey. He makes no excuse for dropping famous names — Michael Kirby, Bob Ellis, Malcolm Turnbull, Diana Spencer, Princess Margaret, Michael X, even George Harrison. He always makes a point in so doing. These people have been part of the texture and fabric of his remarkable life, which he has been lucky to lead. His father could have been killed in a plane crash over New Guinea as a bomber pilot or in the projected invasion of Japan at the end of the war, a plan averted by the dropping of the atom bomb.
Robertson is on the right side of history and morality — for gay marriage, against capital punishment, for euthanasia, against corporate greed, for republicanism and the sanctioning of countries’ leaders for war crimes. I felt myself nodding throughout the reading and then checking myself; surely he can’t be that good, that funny?
But good and funny he is. One of his best in-court jokes concerns a client who was being prosecuted for selling a T-shirt with an obscene message: ‘Fuck art, let’s dance’:
There was a shocked silence in court. The judge’s eyebrows narrowed with irritation. ‘Fuck art, let’s what, Mr Robertson?’
‘Let’s dance, Your Honour.’
‘Oh, you’re an Australian,’ he muttered. ‘What you meant to say is fuck art, let’s darnce.’
The judge got a great laugh and Robertson says he was so pleased with himself he acquitted his client.
There are good throwaway lines, as when he describes himself, in his first invitation to a box at Lords, sitting between ‘Jeffrey Archer with his bad breath on one side and George Pell with his bad conscience … on the other’. He says he would appear for Saddam Hussein if the fee was a box at centre court for the Wimbledon men’s final. Robertson was a capable tennis player, which helped him achieve his Rhodes Scholarship. He claims to have steered Malcolm Turnbull towards his.
When he becomes serious in discussing the death penalty and crimes against humanity, Robertson is pithy and hard-edged appropriately. That’s one of the hallmarks of a good writer — adapting the tone to the material.
This book should be required reading for all lawyers and law students. It contains much wisdom from a man who, despite his worldly success and his plummy accent — evident on the Audible version, which he reads himself, and about which he is often amusing — has known troubles and overcome them.
If I had to nominate a president for an Australian republic I’d nominate Robertson, but with his drive to do useful things and not deck himself with honours, he would almost certainly knock it back. Or maybe not …
Geoffrey Robertson Rather His Own Man: Reliable memoirs Knopf 2018 HB 528pp $45.00
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