John Gardner at Home

Memories from Richard Ekins

Dear John,

I’m grieved to hear that your health has taken a bad turn for the worse. It’s been a while since we last we saw each other – I think I last saw you in the distance walking down St Giles, with a guitar strapped to your back – but I’ve been thinking about you of course, not only when mutual friends have said how you’re faring but also when I read your beautiful obituary for Tony Honoré. I thought I’d write to say, for my small part, how much you’re loved.

It is almost sixteen years since I first came to Oxford, for the BCL. Your jurisprudence seminars with Tony in All Souls were a highlight, and while the level of eloquence and erudition in the room was rather intimidating, you and Tony were very good indeed at encouraging students to contribute. In an effort to overcome the natural shyness of the New Zealand male, I volunteered to lead a seminar on Tom Campbell’s work on ethical positivism. You curated it masterfully, keeping on track my attempts to lead the discussion. I particularly recall your response when I expressed surprise at Campbell’s attempt to appropriate Hart’s work for the ethical positivism camp, viz. that there were strands in Hart (the fable of law’s beginnings) which made this much more arguable than one might think. Quite right you were. I have in mind that you were all across the BCL that year, not only in Phil. Foundations of the Common Law (stimulating but very difficult), but also Constitutional Theory, as well as the JDG. Looking back, your presence and energy was a vivid part of the BCL. And the same was true across the years that followed. I must have heard you speak a great many times, across a very wider range of subjects, and I’ve always admired your precision, dexterity, and confidence. One that stands out is the panel discussion in honour of Neil MacCormick – he appeared by video link – where I thought your contribution was outstanding.

You’ve examined so many theses across the years, you may not remember examining mine. But I certainly remember it! In All Souls – you booked a room – with Jeremy Waldron, shortly before he came across to take up the Chichele Chair (I recall you asking where his rooms were to be as we drifted through the college in our academic finery). You and Jeremy were the best of examiners, asking some excellent, and tricky, questions, but not aiming to score points off me or to ensnare. I took a long train trip shortly after the viva, up to Newcastle where my brother was living at that stage, and on Maris’s advice I wrote up my recollections of the exchange in the viva. So the questions and discussion stayed with me for some time, not only in memory but on the page. And your encouragement before, during and after the viva went a long way towards helping me finish and later publish.

Your trip the following year to Auckland as the LRF visiting fellow was great fun. My Auckland colleagues and I enjoyed it immensely, from picking you up at the airport, driving up to the top of one of our many (dormant) volcanoes for a look about town, dinner with Peter Watts and others at his glorious house. And a great succession of lectures, classes and such like. Your public lecture on the nature of policing and the shooting of that poor Brazilian electrician stands out and I’ve often thought about it since, partly in thinking about how differently we in our part of the common law world think about officials so differently to the Americans (they really don’t have a citizens-in-uniform conception I think). You made me very welcome when I came back to Oxford in turn, providing the right level of hands-off mentoring (I found very helpful your remark over lunch about the difficulty of calibrating how much support to give to one’s research students, and the risks of giving too much and then too little).

I’m sorry not to have seen more of you in recent years. The downside of the intellectual richness and relative freedom of Oxford is that it is too easy to let long stretches go by without seeing one’s colleagues.

I have in mind, maybe wrongly, that you’re not a praying man, but I try to be, so have been praying for you, your wife and children. Your good company and scholarship has meant a lot to me across the years, not only in relation to what you’ve taught and revealed, in writing and in person, but also your example. Thank you.

With all best wishes,