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Book Review: Fortunate Voyager Print E-mail

book_fortunate.jpg- The Worlds of Ninian Stephen

Author: Philip Ayres

Published by Random House

Reviewed by Dominic Katter

In the book store, by chance, this biography by Philip Ayres as to The Right Honourable Sir Ninian Stephen, KG, AK, GCMG, GCVO, KBE, QC, was for sale next to "QF32" by Captain Richard de Crespigny. At page 110 of Fortunate Voyager, the author refers to the ADC on duty at Government House on 3 February 1983, the then Flight Lieutenant Richard de Crespigny, who "intercepted [Prime Minister] Fraser and practically forced him to take a seat in the morning room [at Government House] while he was announced. Thirty seconds later, Fraser was putting his request “for a double-dissolution” to the Governor General, as it turned out, on the afternoon when Bob Hawke replaced Bill Hayden as opposition leader.  This was the same de Crespigny, who as Captain of the Qantas A380, QF32, dealt effectively with an uncontained engine failure on 4 November 2010. 

This is an example of an underlying theme of Fortunate Voyager: that one of the great contributions to society made by Sir Ninian has been his influence and mentoring of others.   

This biography is complementary to Philip Ayres’ earlier biography of The Right Honourable Sir Owen Dixon, OM, GCMG, KC. The earlier work left a lasting impression in the mind of the reader of the long and arduous hours that Dixon J spent in his study, writing judgments.

In contrast, Fortunate Voyager, generally, articulates an overarching sense of calm about the legal work of Sir Ninian:  "his typical demeanour in chambers was leaning back in his swivel chair, feet up on his desk, shoes off, holding his pipe ... with his left hand while with his right hand he flicked the pages of a law report resting on his lap, calmly looking for whatever it was" (page 66).

However, there is some recognition that the surface impression was not always accurate: "'I have been under a lot of pressure recently', Stephen told him, 'and I'm going across the road.' By that he meant 'I have been offered a position on the Supreme Court and I'm leaving you in the lurch'" (page 55).   

The first chapter, Blood of Scotland, is both introductory and substantive, in that it identifies much about the makeup of the individual, more so than just an enunciation of facts. This chapter identifies the way in which the education of Sir Ninian was unlikely “to produce anyone attracted by regimentation and propaganda” (page 15). The final sentence of that chapter is instructive in that it states “… Ninian Stephen found himself in a city where he knew no one, although he had had a taste of the culture along the road to Suez and instinctively liked it.” By the end of that chapter the reader clearly understands the title of the book.

This biography is very interesting, due particularly to the writing style and depth of research. The reader can traverse the book in totality or by the reading of specific chapters, without compromising the narrative. The book has benefitted from the co-operation of the Stephen family and from the assistance of many others. As Ayres states: "The narrative endeavours to integrate the personal and the professional, and continual momentum is the stylistic aim from beginning to end, within a view of the biographical inquiry that is essentialist, beyond the sphere of morality, and non-didactic." 

What is extraordinary about Sir Ninian, as one of the most honoured Australians in history, is his varied and extraordinary life: Europe, the War, the Bar, Supreme Court Judge, High Court Judge, Governor-General and diplomat. This is an important biography about a great Australian.


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