John Gardner at Home

Memories from Abraham Chan

Dear John,

It’s been a long while since I last wrote.

But in fact I was thinking of you just a few weeks ago. I was reading your review of Sen’s book on justice. From my desk in chambers, I go online from time to time (or when feeling really “old school”, I reach for my bookshelf) to dip into your writing. Occasionally this is a vain attempt to channel some analytical mojo or stylistic stardust from the most brilliant person I know. More often it’s for sheer intellectual and aesthetic pleasure: I’ve always found your writing so illuminating and beautifully formed. Mostly though, I’m simply reminding myself of the privilege of having once been your student; of my wonderful experiences with you, first in London and then at Oxford, as a twenty-something year-old sprat from Hong Kong.

I’m now forty, having reached that milestone in February. I took silk two years ago after a dozen-odd years at the Hong Kong Bar (still enjoying it). About a year before that, aged thirty-seven, my doctors found a golf ball-sized tumour in my brain, pressing on my brainstem. They managed to remove the tumour, and thankfully ruled it benign. In addition to relief, my wife Veronica felt vindicated for all the times she’s declared me “not quite right in the head”(!). My son Noah was then four, and my daughter Sasha just over one (two family pics attached: one from my silk day, the other from a recent holiday in Western Australia). Time seemed suspended when I was ill, but has since flown. And now I’ve been told – by Chris De Souza earlier this week – about your illness. Clumsy platitudes abound in my mind. I’ll try to spare you these. I’ll instead focus, if I may, on telling you how much you’ve blessed my life.

I don’t know if you recall, but you were very much my champion when I applied to do the BCL. My grades at King’s were far from spectacular, but you stuck your neck out for me on the (surely gossamer-thin) basis of my brief time as your tutorial student. I’m certain I would not have gotten into Oxford without your help.

At Oxford I was no academic star. By my own intellectual standards though, I grew and achieved far more than I’d thought possible. You were a constant source of inspiration, guidance and encouragement as I dove into subjects like Human Rights, Phil. Founds. and Juris and subsequently my MPhil studies. I still remember your obvious delight (“very chuffed”) when I told you about the high First I got for my Juris. papers, narrowly missing the Hart Prize. Just as proud a moment for me was during a Phil. Founds. seminar when you declared “Now that’s an argument!”, after my best attempt at one. These and many other kind words and acts from you meant so much to that fledgling lawyer and philosopher.

Looking back, I can’t exactly recall how we started being friends. I’m sure it was partly to do with the wider cohort of KCL folk who went up to Oxford around that time. There was also our shared tastes in films, TV (Buffy?) and music. Do you remember going with me to see Radiohead in concert at South Park? The internet tells me it was 7 July, 2001.

What I clearly recall is my sense of wonder and privilege that someone so dazzling in ability and elevated in station should give me the time of day. Over time, I’ve come to increasingly cherish the unique beauty of grace – in the sense of unmerited favour – between persons. Your generosity, kindness and friendship, at a time when I was still very much finding my way in the world, was for me an experience of great grace. I particularly recall the day of your inaugural lecture. It was me and another student with you at your place on Logic Lane. You were at your desk, seemingly rewriting your entire lecture at the last moment. We were helping to prepare food for the after-party. I recall that at some point (it might have been after the lecture) you starting making risotto. We joked about the menu - how to most pretentiously describe the offerings. For the rocket salad, I suggested “distressed leaves”, which made you laugh. (Remarkably, in later years I think that actual description made its way onto restaurant menus. Very mid-late noughties).

My memories of that day capture much of what I remember about you as a person: blessed with a brilliance lightly worn and generously shared; warm, modest, thoughtful and hospitable (if it were my inaugural day as Jurisprudential King of the Universe, cooking risotto for others would not make my to-do list); funny and full of laughter, never mean-spirited; always mindful of making everyone around you feel welcome and significant.

For all this and more, I will always be so grateful for knowing you. You’re the best teacher I’ve ever had and among the loveliest human beings I’ve ever met. If I’m allowed one tired phrase here, it is that you are in my thoughts and prayers. Behind these banal words is the reality that you and your family are very much on my mind and (quirky as it might seem) in my actual daily prayers.

Sitting across from me as I write is my pupil John Leung (Magdalen BCL c.2016), who was your student. Down the corridor is Eva Sit (Wadham BCL c.2003), who is taking silk next month. Eva was also your student. She and I were not long ago discussing the particular joys of being in a Gardner-Honoré seminar.

John, we’re all rooting for you – along with scores of your students and friends around the world. You are amazing and beloved. You will always be.

Yours ever,