Last night in the drizzle darkness, Ramona Koval and the crew from Radio National trundled into the Wheeler Centre at Melbourne’s State Library. They came to record an audience session for tomorrow’s Book Show (April 30). Part of the series ‘Reading on Vocation,’ this one interrogated the lawyers.

On the panel was Robert Richter QC, Justice Marcia Neave and Julian Burnside QC. Neave was a very distinguished academic (professor and dean and chair etc) and now a Judge on the Court of Appeals; Burnside a barrister with a famous sideline in human rights activities.

The very sage-looking Richter is a trial lawyer – his high-profile clients have included John Elliot (vs Elders IXL), Ray Williams (HIH Insurance), Julian Knight (that one), Geoff Clark (ex-ATSIC chair) and Mick Gatto (no intro necessary, cymbals please).

Ramona took them through their paces, including what they had for breakfast. That was for the soundcheck – for the record: Neave – muesli (and fruit?); Burnside – nothing; Richter – nothing. In fact Richter says he only has nuts during the day and a meal only at night; explaining that his nervy state all day precluded digestion.

There was nothingof interest in what they recalled reading, and nothing formative. As Ramona remarked, they’re all “accidental lawyers” – Burnside went into law because friends did; Neave had intended to do medicine; Richter blamed Perry Mason which he watched while learning the local language from TV, having arrived here from Israel, thirteen and Englishless. Burnside and Neave are speed readers – a lawyerly knack, but anti-literature. Richter a slow one. Burnside says he forcibly slows down when he reads for pleasure, breaking one of the rules of speed reading by savouring words in his head.

Neave reads  poetry and Ramona asked what sort. She said she was “absolutely eclectic … from Victorian poets to contemporary Australian poetry, like Geoffrey Lehmann and Bruce Dawe.” Ramona had earlier asked the audience to consider books to recommend the panelists – I wondered whether to suggest Best Australian Poems 2009 to Neave. (Her pick of poets belongs to a widespread frame for “contemporary” Australian poetry. Dawe is 80; Lehmann, 70, recently published the wonderful Self-Portrait at 62. Les Murray is only a couple of years older than Lehmann. Perhaps they need some support from younger poets, say, Gig Ryan and Judith Beveridge, both 55, Adam Aitken and Luke Davies at 50 and 52? Never mind the babies, those under fifty.)

So, what the lawyer said to the judge.

It was at the end of the session and a Q from the audience drew this A from Richter, who said, in front of the judge and to the recording mike:

“Juries never make mistakes. The mistakes are made by the judges, I’m sorry to say.”

That was so eyebrow-raising it took me a second to lower them to jotting height – the wording is close to verbatim, but the meaning is exact. Take that, bench!

I did a sketch of Julian Burnside here. I tried but didn’t get a likeness of the very mobile Koval.


Update, kind of: Wheeler Centre is Good.

A lawyer reader ( a loyal reader?) sent me a message that it didn’t sound like a very appealing session. I just want to say that the Wheeler Centre program has delightfully surprised me. The sceptic has been replaced by a fan. It’s a Good Thing, and has splendidly enhanced Melbourne life – most days or evenings there is something tasty on offer at the Centre, conveniently in a CBD sweet spot – in itself quite justifying this town as one of only three Cities of Literature.

This session wasn’t actually uninteresting -– just rather wooly; the panellists didn’t seem to quite say what they read or were reading. Richter did mention that he was slowly enjoying Wolf Hall which I am also loving very slowly – it’s so great there will be a blog on it soon. Hi-five Richter!

Both Richter and Burnside are word-nerds and keen dictionary fans, especially fond of Samuel Johnson’s opus. So much that Richter has in his office a chair once owned by the good Doctor. I sit in it once in a while, says Richter.

Oh, and despite how it sounds above, I am all in favour of senior poets – one of the rare seniorities where elders are admired and can still call the shots.

One more thing: there were two books which all three had read and admired or thought worthwhile in terms of vocational reading. Helen Garner’s The Consolation of Joe Cinque and Malcolm Knox’s Secrets Of The Jury Room: Inside The Black Box Criminal Justice In Australia.

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