The author wrote a definitive account of the trials of Lindy Chamberlain

Bryson didn’t come from old money. His father, Jack Bryson, a New Zealander of modest origin, managed to become the sole agent for Jaguar cars when the market had turned away from the great German firm Daimler-Benz and had made a fortune. John was educated at Melbourne Grammar, although he abhors any trappings of class and privilege. He rowed, he debated, he was in the cadets, and after studying law at the University of Melbourne, he became a barrister at Galbally and O’Brien when Frank Galbally ran the show.

The Chamberlains left Alice Springs Coroner’s Court in 1982.Credit:Michael Rayner

When his father died suddenly, he put the law behind him – or imagined he did – in order to run the family business while tinkering with his literary ambitions, which were encouraged by writer Morris Lurie and donated books such as prostitution (1981), full of bite and talent.

Financial fortune led him to give money to people who needed it. John Timlin, the former entrepreneur and agent who ran The Australian Performing Group and then the agency Almost Managing, recounts how Bryson became the Pram Factory’s honorary secretary because she needed legal advice. Timlin says that when he wanted to do Max Gillies concerts in 1981, Bryson gave him $50,000. “I paid it back but The Gillies Report on television would never have happened without him.

Bryson once told me, “Sometimes people have to be kind of leaders. I guess I’m some kind of chef. There was the suggestion of Maori blood from the Kiwi past.

“On his mother’s side,” recalls Fran Bryson. “The name I remember is Huia Mahitena. I remember being told she was a Maori princess. Many people called him “chief”. He was a patriarch and it was inevitable. He was a patriarchal figure to many people.

This impulse could lead him to buy a crawfish boat. This could lead him, after winning a literary prize in London, to order “your best port” and end up lavishing his guests with a port old enough and big enough to have graced the table of Napoleon or Talleyrand.

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Although his brother Hugh died, John Bryson race cars competed in the sport recklessly. He had escalating state titles, and God knows what. He used his wealth to give and enjoy. I saw him once fish the Grange Hermitage to pay tribute to the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski. I saw him sitting kinda like a duke and kinda like a priest through all the long, booze-laden nights at Percy Jones’ hotel on the corner of Lygon and Elgin streets with jocks to his right and hacks literature to his left. When he had to have surgery at one point, he insisted it was from his pokie-loving hotel mate John Goldberg.

Chaucer’s epithet “A perfect gentle knyghte” – a perfect gentle knight – applies to John Bryson. He was a chivalrous man, both of aristocratic instinct and of disarming modesty. His novel To Death, Friend (1994) pays tribute to two Catalan brothers who defied Franco and were able to murder for their cause. In Behind the scenes of the Revolution (1986) there is a gripping essay in which he finds himself in a fratricidal and troubled world and, with an introduction by Dinny O’Hearn, he first meets Seamus Dean, the partisan critic and then, wreathed in drama, a great IRA warlord.

He didn’t perform hakas, but in his self-effacing way, John Bryson went into battle. evil angels is Australia’s ultimate atonement for the injustice suffered by Lindy Chamberlain. John had two clues that put him on the right track. He knew that the chief magistrate and coroner who said a dingo had taken Azaria was a good lawyer, and he also knew, having vacationed with them as a rich little boy, that Seventh-day Adventists were also good, kind and human than anyone else.

No one has ever captured the drama, and the heartache and pity of the jury system going mad, better than John Bryson. In evil angels he is a master of point of view, of dramatic tension, of convincing clarity. Who could forget his account of Justice Muirhead’s fairness summarizing in favor of Lindy Chamberlain which seemed so clearly to presage acquittal that his barrister, John Harber Phillips (later Chief Justice of Victoria), had just ordered a case of champagne to celebrate.

I asked Helen Garner, who has written about drama and doubt near courtrooms, what she thought of John Bryson.

evil angels, with its brilliant, fearless and compassionate knowledge of the world, was the first Australian book that showed me the literary power of non-fiction. I didn’t really know Bryson personally, but one night, 30 years ago, I bumped into him in a Carlton pub. The question of writing about the living arose. He listened to my fears and quietly offered two pieces of advice. I forgot one. The other was so psychologically sophisticated and yet so humbly obvious that I’ve kept it in my pocket ever since. I will always think of him with gratitude and immense respect.

Peter Craven

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