On Greg King

I met Greg King when he was the guest speaker at a Wintec lunch, a grand occasion held in a room overlooking the beautiful, broad, slow Waikato River. King spoke at length and without notes. He had a way of pausing and peering at the audience, no doubt gauging, with minute and professional sensitivity, the effect of his words. He was a mass of contrasts; he managed to look melancholy and at the same time amused; he was jovial, funny, wry, serious.
His use of language was eerily familiar to me. Once, long ago, I lived with a criminal lawyer whose verbalising was strikingly like Greg King's: quaint, Dickensian, articulate and persuasive yet studded with grammatical inaccuracies and malapropisms. I remember a postcard from my lawyer that announced, "I am here in Venice, amidst the pageantry." My favourite Greg King line was his similarly dramatic cri de coeur on behalf of Ewan McDonald, "Why? Why, in the realms of Christendon (sic) would my client do that?"

If you were quoting King you'd be using sic quite a lot; language was his tool and he used it with exuberance and gusto. He didn't let rules of grammar get in his way but rode over them in his enthusiasm and passion for the cause. You can see why everyone ended up liking him, or most people did – those who weren't the anonymous messengers who sent him late-night abuse, people who emailed to say, "You defend the scumbags. You are scum." He described these critics, miming the tipping up of a glass, "I picture them late at night hunched over their screens, drinking, drinking." He wasn't troubled by them, he was amused. If he could be bothered, he said, he had humorous exchanges with them, poking wry fun.
After the lunch I said, "Listening to him you think he's a tough guy: solid, funny, hard as nails, but then you look at his eyes." Intense, melancholy, acute, they were the eyes of a very sensitive person indeed.
I sought him out after his speech. I wanted to ask him about the Sensible Sentencing Trust. He had described his relationship with the Trust's leader, Garth McVicar, a man I've always regarded as little more than an unqualified (in both senses of the word) social menace. Greg King had taken an interesting tack with the populist agitator: he had befriended him. He'd also befriended other members of the Trust, and was "working with them to find common ground." This seemed to me, possibly, a piece of genius. He had, he said, managed to move the Trust from some of its more extreme views. (Garth McVicar was once a fan of chain gangs.)
Out on the balcony looking over the Waikato I asked him, "Do you think Garth might wake up one day and wonder where the old Garth has gone?" King laughed. I said, "Is that the aim?" He laughed again and made a face, and a hundred thoughts came into my head about him: He knows exactly what I'm saying, he's a politician through and through, he's psychologically acute, he's devilishly clever, he's supping with the Sensible Sentencing devil and is going to need a very long spoon. In one glance he conveyed complexity, humour and power of personality – and his heart was in the right place. He was humane about his clients, was willing to use all his energy to help them. He was too classy to complain about the late night hate emails, too intellectual to do anything but smile at those who said he was "defending scumbags and was therefore scum." He had a keen sense of a joke and an original imagination too. I felt very pleased to have met him.
The following week I thought of sending him an email referring to our conversation and suggesting he needed a long spoon, but hesitated at the idea it might seem a bit suggestive. I could imagine the reply: "Actually, I have an enormously long spoon." I wish I'd sent the email. (I seem to regret not sending emails just marginally more often than I regret having sent them.) How grotesque it was that a few weeks later, he was dead. The first thing I did was go to Google images and look at pictures of his face. It was all in the eyes: high intelligence, depth and vulnerability too. They could have been the eyes of a very shy person, yet he didn't seem shy at all. You could see the intensity – he must have felt intensely, he must have suffered intensely, and what you wish is that he could have held on, survived whatever it was that had laid him low, and carried on, for his sake and for the sake of us all.
First Published in Metro Magazine