A shilling life will give you all the facts

It’s now a fortnight since Michael Kirby retired from the High Court of Australia.

How shall we manage without him?

In the burst of publicity which surrounded his last circuit of the showground (at least as a judge) we have had teasers from a forthcoming biography. A Festschrift of sorts has also been published. RRP (so far as there can lawfully be one these days) about $59.

Kirby has a large and quite devoted following and it is hardly surprising if publishers want to cash in on it.

The prospect of a biography by A.J. Brown of Griffith University is the more intriguing.

The teaser publicity has concentrated on who said what to whom at the time Keating approved Kirby’s appointment. Lavarch, Attorney-General at the time, has (broadly speaking) confirmed that certain things were said. Keating has denied the account.

Kirby, as is well known, is perhaps Australia’s, and certainly also the judiciary’s (possibly worldwide) most prolific speech maker (vice-royalty and elected politicians aside). Inevitably he has let drop little snippets of reminiscence.

Kirby has recounted that at Summer Hill Opportunity School in 1949 he told two grey-coated career advisers that he wanted to be either a bishop or a judge. “The Church missed out, which was probably a wise career move in all the circumstances.”

Kirby claims that at law school it was Murray Gleeson who, by nominating him for some position in his absence, started him off on his student political career. He seems to have protracted his time at university by undertaking an Economics degree during his early years as a solicitor in order to prolong this. Student politics brought him in contact with top people at the top table early in life. Politics is the other career he obviously might have had, and some of his detractors would probably say it is a career he has never really abandoned.

Everyone has their reasons, but objectively speaking it seems fair to surmise that Kirby’s sexuality was an obstacle to his path either to a bishopric or as a professional elected politician. Apart from that, his Ulster protestant background probably precluded a path in Labor politics, assuming that to be the direction he might have taken.

In Australia we generally do not think highly of politicians, but they must nevertheless possess some distinctive talents in what they do. Kirby has traits common to those “political” people I have known, including an energy to maintain and cultivate a wide circle of acquaintance. You can call that networking if you like but that doesn’t really capture the whole thing. He often talks of those who have been his mentors. He is great at buttering up his audiences -he will be asked back. He keeps in touch with people: he writes them little notes in a truly elegant hand; in the days when he was President of the NSW Court of Appeal he was reputed to mark any kind of visit (obviously not actual official business) with a photo of himself with the visitor which he subsequently sent to them; I am sure he is an indefatigable attender of funerals. Another way of putting that is that Kirby is a great promoter of brand Kirby. I’m not criticising him for that, though I expect it is something which annoys some, especially those who have known him since their youth.

I first met Kirby at a memorial service at S James King Street for Peter Dennison, professor of music at Melbourne University (but originally, I think, from Wollongong and Sydney) after his untimely death, aged 47, in 1989.   We weren’t introduced though we conversed briefly at some point.  Along the pew I could tell he was an old hand at such occasions. I wandered into the service because I was at law school across the road at the time. I won’t say I knew Dennison well – I only met him twice – but I had known SK, Dennison’s partner in his final years, since first year at Sydney Uni. They both died of AIDS. 

By then Kirby’s sexuality, though not officially acknowledged, was no secret at least to law students or to anyone at all well educated about such matters. I don’t think it is entirely a coincidence that around about this time Kirby started popping up as rather a kind of secular bishop of AIDS causes. In retrospect that was a very long dry run for his ultimate official coming out in 1999. In case you might think that is rather late in life, the subsequent (and since discredited) Heffernan accusations of use of Commonwealth cars to ferry rent boys show why Kirby might well have delayed it further. An outed public figure is always at risk of such retribution in a way that a straight person or an “everybody knows but no one says” gay figure is not.

Judging from the teasers, I doubt if I am going to find the things which are really of interest to me in A J Brown’s biography. A biography by David Marr might be more to my taste, but Marr has probably been at the high table with Kirby too many times to write one. Some of the things or people I would like to read more about include:

  • Tony Larkins QC, who moved Kirby’s admission, seemingly always mentioned by Kirby in connexion with his monocle (though to be fair that is in a chunk of a speech which appears to have been delivered more than once) and described by Sir Anthony Mason in his reminiscences of the NSW Supreme Court as “flamboyant;”
  • the occasions when Kirby and his partner, Johan, “danced the night away” at the Purple Onion in 1969 (I hard it hard to believe this happened often: I just don’t believe Kirby had many nights free for this sort of thing); and
  • the parallel but (judging from little hints which are too subtle to enumerate here) also divergent lives of Kirby and the late Justice Graham Hill of the Federal Court, whom Kirby first met at Summer Hill Opportunity School way back in 1949, and who, like Kirby, then went to Fort Street, Sydney University Law School and, eventually, the bench.

Biographies of living people are problematic. It’s not simply a matter of defamation risks (though that is a factor) but also a question of privacy, not just of the subject of the biography, but of others. Kirby hasn’t finished his active or even his public life yet so I very much doubt if Kirby would be prepared to co-operate with the preparation of a full kiss and tell biography – even using that phrase only metaphorically.  Nevertheless, I hope such material is preserved for a later date when more can be told, and particularly for the benefit of gay people who could learn from the links that Kirby has to life before the great change in gay people’s lives which has occurred in Western societies since his youth.

5 Responses to “A shilling life will give you all the facts”

  1. Anthony Says:

    Nice to be reminded of SK. I was in an English Lit seminar with him in the mid-1980s, enthralled by his erudition.

  2. Tony Souter Says:

    Nice to be reminded of Peter Dennison; the wake was at my place. I had no idea Stephen had died of AIDS as well.

    I do wish I could locate someone who knows where Peter’s archives are held, since I’d like to write an Internet article on him.

    • marcellous Says:

      Tony, now I wonder if I am wrong about Stephen. Did you think he had died of something else, or did you not know he died?

  3. Tony Souter Says:

    I didn’t know he’d died. I live in Sydney; he in Melbourne, I’d presumed. I’d not seen him since the wake.

  4. Ian Grant Says:

    To my mind, Michael Kirby’s contribution to the law is as significant as Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s contribution to early settlement in Australia. It is regrettable that the statutory retirement age of Justices of the High Court is a youthful 70 years of age. If, as in many countries, judicial tenure was until death or retirement, Kirby may have out lived Lord Justice Denning MR as a judge.

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