John Gardner at Home

Memories from Alison Young

I first met John in October 1993. I turned up for a BCL seminar on Comparative Human Rights. A hush descended on the Law Board Room as John walked in, side by side with Stephen Shute. Being from ‘the provinces’ I was probably one of the few in the room that did not know who he was. Despite being only a few years older than his poor unsuspecting BCL students, John was already a legend. It was not hard to see why. We might not have known what was expected of us; what we should have read; what we were meant to get from this odd mixture of cases, articles and books - but it was clear that John was in command. Not only did he know the material, but more importantly he knew how to make it come to life. His enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity were infectious. Even naïve postgraduates, fresh out of their undergraduate degrees, knew they were in the presence of genius, even if they were not quite sure how to respond. Much as John may have encouraged us to speak, most of us were too in awe to react other than through stunned silence, or hastily scribbling down words of wisdom in the hope that, one day, we might properly understand them.

The other memories I have of John from that year come from BCL tutorials in Jurisprudence. Until the tutorials, Jurisprudence was really a spectator sport for me. I’d watch great minds pontificate, hoping to catch an argument, but mostly trying to keep up. I’d wait on the steps outside John’s room in Brasenose, not quite knowing what to expect from a tutorial. John would open the door, and nervous students would be met by a beaming smile and an air of enthusiasm. I cannot remember any of the things John taught me. But I can remember the way John would help me understand complex ideas, would encourage me to contribute, and would make me realise that what may have seemed like incomprehensible arguments could be understood and even criticised. His room may have had wooden panels, odd mixtures of old furniture and far too many erudite books. But it also had a guitar in the corner, and was home to someone who probably had no idea how much his students were in awe of his intellect.

I was lucky enough to have John supervise me for the first couple of years of my thesis. Oddly, what I seem to remember the most is waiting on the staircase, normally wearing the usual scruffy student uniform of jeans, or baggy tracksuit bottoms having a vague plan of ‘going for a run’ afterwards to recover from what I suspected would be a mauling of my argument. I was always too early. Too scared of John and what he would think of my strange ramblings to be late, or even on time. So I have many memories of John walking up the spiral staircase, a marks and spencer carrier bag in each hand, having popped out to do his shopping. He’d greet you with a cheery ‘hello’, explain he’d just been out for his groceries, often informing you of his shopping choices and where the bargains could be found, and then proceed to make me a cup of tea whilst unpacking his shopping. John taught me how to write. I might not have understood what he was trying to tell me at first – and probably still don’t really get it. But those lessons are ingrained in my memory. I can now hear me trying to pass on that wisdom to my poor unsuspecting graduate students. Have you thought about ‘signposting’? What is the bottom line of what you’re trying to say here? You can’t just put across ideas, or information, you need to explain why it is there, how it fits with the rest of your argument, linking bits of information together. It took me a long time – but hopefully I got better.

The most enduring memory involved a mug. John was diligently trying to explain to me how writing a thesis worked. He would look at me earnestly and explain that it was not about describing the mug. But about understanding all of the minute details about the mug. The curve of its handle. Its specific colour. The small chips. The cracks in the paint on the mug’s design. Unpacking each of its component parts. How a thesis can never really be about ‘a mug’. But would focus on one tiny element – perhaps that tiny crack in the paint. Eventually, you’d be able to talk about the mug. But describing the mug might take up your whole academic career. For John, there are many, many mugs. Each mug fully understood, explained, evaluated and critiqued. All set beautifully on a shelf for us all to admire. There are also other, smaller mugs crafted by his apprentices. They may not be as beautifully made, but they would not even be mugs if their creator had not been apprenticed to John.

John then left Oxford to take up a readership at King’s College, London. Oxford became a bit more dull without him. John’s influence became through his writing, rather than through his presence. Many a poor unsuspecting student of mine got asked whether they had read John’s work. The good students always had. The weaker students would be admonished for not having done so. Then John returned to what seemed like his natural home – predictably occupying one of the most prestigious chairs in Jurisprudence at what might have seemed a ridiculously young age to others, but almost coming too late for those who knew him. This meant I had the privilege of knowing John as a colleague and friend, not just as a tutor or supervisor. I saw the way in which the ideas of fairness, equality and justice that he taught ran through who John is and how he acted. One time, John had invited me into the law faculty SCR – when that odd common room/teaching room still existed – for tea after a seminar. John had just popped out for a moment – I can’t remember why – and Francis Reynolds walked in to the room to find a young female member of the faculty sitting in the common room. Francis was clearly concerned that a student may have inadvertently wandered in to the faculty SCR by mistake, but rather than asking who I was, he proceeded to tell me in no uncertain terms that the SCR was for members of the law faculty staff, not for graduate students, who should use the adjacent JCR. My stammering explanation that I *was* a member of the faculty almost seemed to fall on deaf ears, until John returned, realised the situation, and gently explained that, I was indeed a member of the faculty. When other faculty members would try to silence opinion, or deliberately misconstrue an argument in order to criticise it, John would gently, but firmly, put them right. John may have robust arguments. But they were always fair, respectful of others, and encouraging of critical engagement. And who can forget that ‘even fruit flies have a constitution’!

There is nothing more amazing than seeing John in his element. Sitting in a seminar, surrounded by attentive students and academics, combining education with entertainment. He was always in command. Always adored by his students and those privileged to hear him. But, I also know that, for John, there was probably nothing more amazing than being with his family, taking on his new self-defined role of ‘domestic goddess’. My recent meetings with John often took the form of bumping into him in coffee shops in Oxford. The topic of conversation was never really about what we were working on, or academic seminars, but always really about his family, and especially his children. So for me that is my lasting memory, chatting to John and comparing notes about how children grow up way too fast and how to best to cope when your children are doing exams. I’m not sure even John has the answer to that one!