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Book Review: A Private Life by Michael Kirby

Michael Kirby

Michael Kirby’s memoir, A Private Life: Fragments, memories, friends, has been on my reading list since it came out last year. A few weeks ago, I finally cracked the cover and ended up devouring it in less than a day. What can I say? I loved this book.

At a surprisingly short 192 pages, this memoir isn’t the complete life story; rather, it’s a collection of reminisces about experiences and influences that have shaped who Michael Kirby is and what he believes. Selected stories cover his childhood teachers, travels and public appearances, and his relationship with partner Johan van Vloten.

The book is packed full of anecdotes: I learnt that Kirby once played the Emperor of Japan in a school production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado, and that he saw the James Dean film East of Eden at the cinema 24 times.

A Private Life is a sincere and very personal book. Throughout the memoir Kirby’s unwavering commitment to social justice is palpable, and you can’t help but feel inspired. Here are a few of my favourite quotes:

“Whether one is gay or straight, discovering a life’s companion is something most hearts yearn for. It is good for one’s mental and spiritual health. Other citizens who would deny full equality in legal rights (including on relationship recognition) need to examine the question: by what rational entitlement do they presume to do so?”

Truth is the great flame that lights the way.”

“Life has a charming unpredictability.”

“Some things are indeed ‘not the law’s business’. Those who cherish liberty and human progress must be bold and insistent in saying so. Not just in Australia. Everywhere. It’s a basic question of justice. And of decency to one another.”

“Growing old is not something one plans. It just happens, if you are lucky enough to hang on. For most of my life, I was the youngest this and the youngest that. But now there is no getting away from it. I am ancient. Still, I don’t plan to go down without a fight.”

I cannot recommend this book enough. I know ‘inspirational’ is an adjective all too readily applied these days, but this is a genuinely inspirational book. Law students and legal professionals will enjoy it, but its message and its appeal is hardly restricted to the legal fraternity.

Michael Kirby’s A Private Life: Fragments, memories, friends is published by Allen and Unwin.

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