John Gardner at Home

Memories from Martin Chamberlain

I first met John when I returned to Oxford to study for the BCL in 1995. I was 21 years old. He taught me for three of my four subjects. There is no point in my saying what a brilliant lawyer and legal philosopher he was: everyone said it at the time and everyone has been saying it since. I remember very little of the content of John’s seminars (I thought about becoming a legal philosopher, but end up as a barrister instead), but I remember vividly how it felt to be, with a small group of fellow students, in his room in Brasenose with Tony Honoré or in the seminar room in the St Cross Building with Chris McCrudden. At first, my friends and I saw these sessions as a challenge: here was the man of the moment, already then seen as the likely successor to Hart and Dworkin, so we plotted in advance how we would identify hitherto unidentified flaws in his arguments. John’s response was to address every challenge head-on, with logic and humour and an unrivalled ability to turn a phrase. As the year went on, we stopped seeing it as our job to catch him out (it was impossible anyway) and started to enjoy the sessions more. I can still recall the thrill that came from those discussions – the way he made us feel equal participants, the belief that the concepts we were discussing (generally far removed from the nitty gritty of case law) were fundamental and essential. We felt like sub-atomic physicists, going deeper and closer to the reality of how things really were: how an excuse differed from a justification, what it meant to say that A causes B. The excitement we felt – and the sense of being involved in the endeavour – was all down to John, who was unfailingly kind without ever talking down to us.

Over the years since I left Oxford and came to the Bar, our paths crossed only occasionally. But over the years I have often sat down to read one of John’s papers on his website or in a journal. Whenever I do, his taut, conversational, playfully provocative prose (which always evokes his voice) produces a frisson that takes me back to the way I felt at the age of 21, inducted by John into the world of ideas.

None of this will matter now, but I hope that it might form a small part of the record of John’s extraordinary life – and that the record will ultimately provide some comfort to you and your family.

All my best wishes,