Almanac Books and Lunches: The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent by Gideon Haigh


Gideon Haigh is a long-time friend and patron of the Almanac. We have enjoyed many a lunch with him. He is a freak! A Test-level researcher who has the capacity to recall everything that’s ever entered his mind. This makes him a great conversationalist and superb lunch guest.  (And one of Australia’s finest writer-journalists) He will at the mic for the Almanac Odd Friday Lunch at the North Fitzroy Arms on Friday July 23. (You can rsvp by phoning the pub on 03 94864501) He will be talking about his latest book the subject of which is Doc Evatt – a fascinating character of Australian life during a fascinating time of Australian life.


I suggested to Gideon that he write a little something about the gestation of the book. An email arrived before I could knock the top off my next Cooper’s Stout. That email is published here.


If you would like a signed copy of the book (now) please let me know. Otherwise, books will be available at the lunch of course.


You will also find below a link to the chat Gideon and Phillip Adams had on Late Night Live.







Saturday 14 August 1937 in Sydney dawned clear but damp, it having rained heavily the two preceding days. People emerged from their homes; kids returned to the streets. Among them were the Chester children, fifteen-year-old Benny, twelve-year-old Rose and seven-year-old Maxie, who had resided in Waverley’s Allens Parade for a fortnight – they were Polish Jews, fresh off the boat, who had anglicised their name from Socachewski. Later that afternoon, only the older two came back.  Although we don’t know exactly how they separated, it is hardly difficult to imagine.  Benny and Rose wanted to go to the pictures rather than look after their kid brother.  But by the time the Star Theatre emptied, Maxie’s mother Golda was anxious, an anxiety that worsened when a neighbourhood search proved fruitless.


Most law students know what happened next.  As darkness closed in, the searchers concentrated their efforts on a ditch abandoned by council workers during the week’s rain, now brimming with water.  Children had been observed jumping from side to side during the day.  So it was that the limp, muddy figure of Maxie was brought to the surface.  Resuscitation efforts failed.  The boy had drowned. The mother suffered a nervous collapse.  Not long after, the law moved in.  A solicitor, Abe Landa, mounted a novel case that Golda should be compensated for her ‘nervous shock’ – the first attempt in Australia to grapple with the slippery idea of trauma.  Eighty years later, in The Brilliant Boy, along I came to try and make sense of their efforts – in particular those of H. V. Evatt.


I can trace the genealogy of The Brilliant Boy quite precisely.  For the last fifteen years, I’ve been involved in judgement writing seminars, one or two a year, mingling professional writers with judges and other judicial officers.  The idea is that judgements are literary as well as legal exercises, and that those who craft them benefit from reminding of the tenets of lucid English expression.


At one of these a few years ago, during a discussion of the intersection of the law and literature, mention was made of Evatt’s pioneering dissent in Chester v the Council of the Municipality of Waverley (1939) HCA 25; 62 CLR 1.  Among the judges, everyone knew it; mere journalist, I did not. But I had an abiding interest in Evatt, while remaining unsatisfied by the biographies of him I had read: they’d not told me much more than that Evatt had been a judge before he was a politician, his failures at which were obviously the main game to boomer historians.


On reading Evatt’s dissent in Chester, that mystery was suddenly dispelled.  It was a fascinating piece of writing and reasoning, clearly way ahead of the dismissive judgments of his colleagues.  I understood why Geoffrey Robertson had described it as ‘a masterly piece of jurisprudence, infused with humanity’, and ‘an example of Evatt’s profound belief that humanitarian principles could be deployed by judges to develop a common law that would meet the needs and challenges of a changing world.’  It contained a flavour of the man, or, at least, the man Evatt wished to be, striving, in the face of his countrymen’s conservatism and indifference, to nurture a bigger, fairer culture, out of a mixture of high ideals and immense personal ambition. At the time, Evatt was not only the youngest appointee in the High Court’s history, but a liberal lion, a prominent public intellectual, successful popular historian, outspoken champion of modern art, defender of civil liberties. Chester was an opportunity to look afresh at a remarkable, accomplished and mercurial Australian.



Listen to Gideon and Phillip Adams chatting HERE


RSVP to the Almanac’s lunch with Gideon on July 23 by ringing the North Fitzroy Arms on (03) 9486 4501 (preferred) or contacting John Harms [email protected]





About John Harms

JTH is a writer, publisher, speaker, historian. He is publisher and contributing editor of The Footy Almanac and He has written columns and features for numerous publications. His books include Confessions of a Thirteenth Man, Memoirs of a Mug Punter, Loose Men Everywhere, Play On, The Pearl: Steve Renouf's Story and Life As I Know It (with Michelle Payne). He appears on ABCTV's Offsiders. He can be contacted [email protected] He is married to The Handicapper and has three kids - Theo13, Anna11, Evie10. He might not be the worst putter in the world but he's in the worst three. His ambition is to lunch for Australia.


  1. Fascinating. As a baby boomer I know a bit about Evatt’s failed political career – his naivety and manipulation by the crafty Menzies via the Petrov affair. I know nothing of the legal career that preceded it.
    The ruthless political pecking order on all sides ruthlessly smacks down talent with time serving. The latest example is Julia Banks. I remember watching the restless energy and intellect of Ric Charlesworth chafing below factional overlords in ALP Health Committee meetings in the 80’s.
    Medical degree; Olympian – no matter – serve your time son.
    There’d be a book in the failed political career of otherwise high achievers. Gideon?

  2. Peter Flynn says

    Could play a bit and also solve equations.
    Disappointed in not being able to attend.

  3. Kieran Dempsey says

    Evatt has always interested me and enjoyed listeneining to Gideon being interviewed the other night on LNL. Looking forward to attending Lunch – (hoping no leakage of Delta from Sydney).

  4. Colin Ritchie says

    This should be a cracker! I’ve just booked my place.

  5. Kevin Densley says

    Fascinating material from a fine writer about a fascinating Australian figure.

Leave a Comment