2016: not such a good year (part 2: deaths)

The Hon. Alan Goldberg AO, QC, portrait by Jacqueline Mitelman

Lots of unfamous people died horrible deaths last year: see part 1, and more to come. But more than the average number of famous pulses seemed to flatline in 2016. The grim reaper took a few big scalps prematurely: Max Walker at 68, David Bowie at 69, Prince at 47, the Beastie Boys’ John Berry at 52, and George Michael at 53. You could say that Brangelina karked it too.

Then there were the other cultural icons who shuffled off: Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) who died on the eve of the passing of her mother Debbie Reynolds — a star of David Stratton’s favourite movie. R2D2 died too (Kenny Baker), as did Willie Wonka (Gene Wilder), Faulty Towers’ Manuel (Andrew Sachs), Ronnie Corbett, Mohammed Ali, and Fidel Castro.

Also King Bhumibol, whose successor will put those lèse-majesté laws through their paces by the sounds of things. Remember this poor woman who was publicly shamed and forced by police to kneel in front of the royal portrait while good Thais heckled? His Majesty was a real-deal royal who composed jazz. Once when I was strolling through Bangkok I witnessed his Maj taking a drive in his yellow Rolls Royce. One policeman would blow his policeman’s whistle down the road to the next that the King was coming and they would clear the crowded thoroughfares entirely of cars while the Rolls sped by in splendid isolation.

There was also Zsa Zsa Gabor who expired just short of Donald Bradman’s batting average. She is probably a little lightweight for this list, but I like her name, and I like that she said ‘I am a marvellous housekeeper: Every time I leave a man I keep his house.’ and, I like that when asked ‘How many husbands have you had?’ she answered ‘You mean other than my own?’ And she was Paris Hilton’s great-grandfather’s wife, and a kind of proto-Kim Kardashian.  Richard Nixon once tried to set her up with Henry Kissinger. And – I bet you didn’t know this – her son Oliver Leopold Prinz of Anhalt had a fatal motor cycle accident the same day she died.

And the artists and intellectuals: Bob Ellis, Inga Clendinnen, Shirley Hazzard, Umberto Eco, the authors of Watership Down and Kes (Richard Adams and Barry Hines), Leonard Cohen, Prince Buster, the ‘fifth Beatle’ George Martin, Pierre Boulez, Peter Maxwell-Davies, Neville Marriner, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Zaha Hadid, and Elie Wiesel. (How weird was it that Bob Dylan got the Nobel Prize for Literature?)

Note that David Goodall, Australia’s oldest working scientist, did not die despite being aged 102, but did kick up a fuss about being told to move campuses for ‘safety reasons’.

Harper Lee died, certainly the modern novelist whose fame owed least to a publicity department, and possibly the most famous one-book author, since there is a question whether Go Set a Watchman, published in 2015, was an unpublished novel or the first draft of Mockingbird. It may be that Watchman is in fact an artifact which demonstrates how good Lee’s editor was. Atticus (who must be the most famous lawyer known principally for losing a case) was transformed in the process from a racist to an anti-racist, although not a champion of integration.

That other fantastic recluse, nom de plume Elena Ferrante, may well be alive, but her anonymity was actively undermined with the publication of an article suggesting that she was as German as she is Italian which seemed to distress her readers greatly.

The long-time editor of the Commonwealth Law Reports and one of the most senior members of the Victorian Bar, Jim Merralls QC, moved on. Ross Ray QC was tragically killed in a quad bike accident near Mansfield. The Hon John Hedigan QC died after a career at the Victorian Bar of 34 years and as a judge of the Supreme Court for 10 years.

The great judge Alan Goldberg died. As a silk, Goldberg used to have chambers in the building I did articles in when Middletons, the Victorian Attorney-General, the High Court, and the Commonwealth DPP were also tenants. So I would regularly share the lift with Jan Wade, Sir Darryl Dawson (with whom Goldberg had read), and luminous silks who my commercial litigation team was lucky, by virtue of its wealthy corporate clients, to work with: if my memory serves me right, Ray Finkelstein, Ron Merkel, Ross Sundberg, John Middleton, Ron Castan, Cliff Pannam. Memory has a special place for worlds when first entered so these guys shine in my memory like Greg Chappel, Kim Hughes, David Boon, Dennis Lillie, Rod Marsh, Jeff Thomson and Merv Hughes, the stars of the game when I began to follow it.

Goldberg led these chambers and apparently they were the first to pool resources and share common space, now a commonplace in Melbourne. Goldberg was the first person I ever saw to have a tiny mobile phone. So tiny they don’t even bother to make them that tiny any more.  Indeed, according to this obituary by Merkel and Finkelstein, he was the first barrister to have a fax machine, and the first barrister to have a mobile phone. He was also the first person I ever heard of who charged $13,500 a day.  Twenty years ago…

But along with Bond and Holmes a Court, he also acted for Rodney Croom in the challenge to Tasmania’s anti-homosexuality laws which led to their repeal, a very different proposition back then from today.

As a judge, Goldberg wrote one of the ballsiest judgments I could think of, finding that a sitting High Court judge, Ian Callinan, had engaged, as a QC, in an abuse of process by making serious allegations without an adequate factual foundation, for the abusive purpose of buying forensically useful delay: White Industries (Qld) Pty Ltd v Flower & Hart (1998) 156 ALR 169. I wrote about it here.

Alan Goldberg was a Liberal with a passionate commitment to the rule of law and the conventions of the common law.  He and Ron Castan QC were heavily involved in charting the course for a modernised Council for Civil Liberties (now Liberty Victoria) and he worked away quietly at the rule of law in Australia and overseas within the International Commission of Jurists. Whether such a figure would be tolerated within today’s Liberal Party is an interesting question, because he would harp on about refugees.  And he was a short man and a quiet advocate whom one would not describe as charismatic in the bombastic tradition of Anglo silks.  There are many ways to be a good advocate, I learnt from Goldberg, in those formative years at the beginning of my career.

Conservative US Supreme Court Reagan appointment, justice Antonin Scalia, passed away unexpectedly after a quail shoot in Texas. The Federal Court is far more restrained in its mourning than was the US Supreme Court over Scalia. SCOTUS draped his empty chair on the bench, and the Court’s entrance, in black wool crepe for 30 days, for some of which time the corpse lay in repose in the Court’s Great Hall.

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