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Barrister’s tales of booze, books, blood and feet off the ground

13 September 2018 - By Jock Anderson

With booze wars in his blood and his own take on the infamous case of Dunedin’s Bombed Barrister, Garth Cameron was too far off the ground to attend his graduation ceremony.

He was flying a load of newspapers from Christchurch to Dunedin.

“I graduated BA in absentia because at the time I was still flying two days a week and they needed a pilot to fly the newspapers.

Name

Garth James (Garth) Cameron

Born

Dunedin

Age

68

Entry to law

Graduated BA (in absentia) and later LLB from Otago University in 1980. Admitted in 1980.

WorkplaceGarth Cameron Law, Dunedin.
Speciality areaCrime and aviation law.

“I’d rather be doing that than going up on stage. When I was due to go on stage I was about halfway between Christchurch and Dunedin at 7,500 feet.”

Garth Cameron
Garth Cameron with his certificate of membership
of the Royal Aeronautical Society

Garth was flying at the time for Rex Air, based at Dunedin airport. “Over the years I’ve been based at Taieri, Dunedin, Middlemarch, Alexandra, Timaru, Christchurch, Wellington, Whakatane and Kerikeri.”

Now a published author and in his 38th year of legal practice, with an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 criminal cases behind him, Garth had a gap year after completing his BA.

“I went to teachers’ college and did a course for high school but within a week I realised the only teaching I was interested in was in aeroplanes or related to planes.

“As it happens I went to work for the Canterbury Aero Club for a couple of years then came back to Dunedin and started law for something to do but never intended to practice.

“I thought I would get admitted to the bar and that would be that. A year later I was poor and 30 so figured that perhaps I needed to take up a job with a bit of potential.

“I did and found out I liked it. I picked common law to get myself out of the office.

“The profession has probably tripled in size since I started 38 years ago and there’s more competition, but it was not uncommon for me to go to court with six or seven files. And a couple of weeks to do two or three jury trials.

“One of the things I like about the law is it is a licence to ask the interesting questions and to insist on answers. Lawyers are part of a very small group, including journalists and policemen, that doesn’t take what people say at face value.”

Up in the air

Garth flew solo at 16, got his private pilot’s licence at 17 – the minimum ages - and had commercial and instructor ratings by the time he was 22. “I think I was the only guy at Otago Boys’ High School with a pilot’s licence. I was there 1966, 67, 68.”

He did his first glider solo in “a very primitive one called a Slingsby T31”. He got his Tiger Moth rating at 19 and has flown many vintage and home-built planes.

“One of the things I did at the end of each year when I was at law school was get a job for the summer and that was a way to explore New Zealand.

“Aviation did, and still does I think, pay very poorly, but it paid for the day-to-day things and I would come back refreshed. So I would fly into every airstrip, airfield and airport within reach each time. I’ve covered a lot of New Zealand.”

He has clocked up more than 3,000 hours flight time as pilot in command. He was recently accepted as a member of the Royal Aeronautical Society (MRAeS) in recognition of his aviation law practice and writing, aviation history writing and work as a commercial pilot and flying instructor.

He has been a committee member of the Otago Aero Club, a gliding club and a ballooning club. “I flew in a balloon a couple of times.”

In a lifetime of flying, Garth has never had to bail out. “But I did a solo parachute jump. Eight hours training and roughly two or three minutes in the air. The few seconds between jumping and the parachute opening seem longer.”

His mother Judith was a librarian then a full-time mother and keeper of the household. “She really looked after things behind the scenes. In retrospect I don’t think she’s got enough credit for turning out five children who have done reasonably well.”

Father Ian left school at 15, finished his apprenticeship as an electrician in 1939, joined the army and entered the air force in 1940 until the age of 46.

“Dad learnt another skilled trade and became a Fitter 2E - expert in aero engines. He took those skills to civilian life, set himself up as a car dealer and did well enough to have a new Aston Martin – in British racing green with red leather - and two aeroplanes, but never drove an expensive car to work.

“My brother, who retired a few years ago, went into business with Dad as a car dealer, and he was a third generation dealer. Our grandfather ran a motorcycle shop in downtown Dunedin to 1917. Then he joined up with the army aged 40 and went overseas with the Auckland regiment.

“My grandfather, father and uncles all served overseas and took pride in being members of the RSA. My father wore the RSA badge on his jacket every day.”

The alcohol price wars  

Garth’s uncle Bill Cameron set up a car parts business in Dunedin but is better known as one of the courageous instigators – along with the Gresham Hotel’s legendary publican Ian Bright - of the 1970s Dunedin booze price wars.

“They were all sitting around one night and decided to start a price war for booze. And they did very well out of it. Ian Bright was an ex RAF and RNZAF pilot, who owned aircraft ZKBPT.”

The interviewer remembers well the Dunedin booze wars. For several months at its height he air-freighted around half a dozen 12-bottle cases of spirits - mainly whisky and brandy – from Dunedin to Wellington every week, picking them up at the airport in a Truth car and delivering bottles to grateful customers. Dozens of cases made their way from Dunedin to undercut rocketing Wellington prices, with only one bottle broken in transit. Later, big tins containing many dozens of fresh Skeggs oysters joined the mercy flights.

“When I was finishing off law, I worked for a year or two in the bottle store, and here’s a story about the difference between Kiwis and Brits.

“I met an English couple who had recently come to New Zealand. In 1981 they came into the University Book Shop, where I was working behind the counter and sold them a couple of books.

“A couple of days later they came into the Robbie Burns bottle store and I was behind the counter there and sold them some booze.

“A year after that they bought a house and my firm did the conveyancing and I ran into them again.

“I was still instructing then and they came out to the Otago Aero Club because they wanted to learn to fly and I took them for a couple of lessons. It shows Kiwis are much more likely to have varied careers and varied jobs.”

An author

Garth also did a stint as a copyholder at the Otago Daily Times for a couple of years.

His other hobby is writing books.

He has written two full length books – From Pole to Pole: Roald Amundsen’s Journey in Flight, and Umberto Nobile and the Arctic Search for the Airship Italia.  

Five shorter books include Solving Relationship Property Problems in New Zealand and How to be a Lawyer – Things they don’t teach you at Law School.

“I’m getting the hang of writing books and am working on my first novel, set in Paraguay in the 1930s.

“I have a whole lot of reference material which will be charts up on the wall. It is absolutely essential to get orientated in place and time before you start writing about it. With each book I do more research before I start to write. One of my research books for the novel is At The Tomb of the Inflatable Pig, by John Gimlette.

“Two of my books have a lot to do with airships. And don’t believe what you see in the media about airships. There is no chance of big airships doing anything significant in the immediate future. They are going to have to revise the laws of physics.

“For example: A small containership takes 5,000 containers, and if you wanted to lift the same amount of containers the airship would have to be about four miles long. Which presents some problems.

“I’m not into sports because I’m not a team player - one of the reasons I’ve always been a sole practitioner. I have always done my own administration, learned to touch type and got a word processor. I have a legal typist in the North Island - Megan Wilmshurst – who I have never met, and does a wonderful job. Her standards are very high and she has been 100% reliable.

“Technology has enabled me to have a decent work/life balance.

“I worked for other people for three and a half years and was a bit cheeky going out on my own but I knew I would enjoy it more working for myself and I was right.

“I’ve travelled a bit and the best trip I ever had was after my previous partner after she attended a conference in Japan. We went to Europe for seven weeks, had rail passes and went everywhere on trains every day. I loved it. I went from aviation museum to aviation museum. And trains are such a fascinating way to get around.

“I didn’t get married until 63 - my wife Susan Cheer is a medical writer with a PhD in anthropology and she works from home. She learned how to be a medical writer and set up her own practice in the UK before coming back to New Zealand.

“Both of us like being sole practitioners and picking our hours. And we always remember, of course - no work no pay.”

And an avid reader

“I read all the time, a lot of history and aviation and military history. I’m reading Hugh Thomas’s World Without End, about the global empire of Phillip the Second of Spain.

“I live five minutes from my office and less than five minutes from half a dozen extremely good cafés. One of my pleasures is drinking good coffee and reading a book I’m interested in.

“I’m interested in all sorts of technology. I like cameras, steam trains and steam ships. I have often wondered if I could monetise my general knowledge and so far the answer is no.”

With a recent film festival doing the rounds Garth has been to see two, and Susan to 14.

“I saw Arctic, an aviation story, and Roman Polanski’s The Ghost [also known as The Ghost Writer].

“I read a few lawyer books – Scott Turow and John Grisham in particular. My absolute favourite book is one of Turow’s called Presumed Innocent – part of the promotion was if you don’t like the book we’ll give you a refund. It’s a best seller, and was also a pretty good film, starring Harrison Ford.

“Scott Turow continues to practise as a partner in one of the prestigious US law firms Dentons. Grisham is a bit like eating candy floss, it’s fun at the time but an hour later you can’t remember what you were doing.

“I drive a 2013 Subaru XL and will have it for at least another 10 years.

“We have no pets because we live in an upstairs flat in Moray Place. I’ve never had a pet, but fancy having a dog or a couple of cats. I have lived in the central city for many years. Sue is trying to persuade me we should buy and accept a place that isn’t in the centre of town so I have agreed to make the move.

“Dinner guests would include British military historian Sir Anthony Beevor, journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings, Roald Amundsen and Umberto Nobile. The last two are chalk and cheese but interesting guys. People say I have bland tastes in food, but I eat lean meat, apples and bananas and French bread so they might like that.

“If I could make a living out of writing I would be totally happy to do that. You learn stuff.

“At the moment I’m becoming an expert on the Chaco War [1930s conflict between Bolivia and Paraguay] and I’ve got a sketch map I drew and it’s got all the main railways and rivers and notes of places of every battle in that war. And learning about Alfredo Stroessner, the former dictator of Paraguay for 34 years.”

The main character in Garth’s novel is Richard Haley, who was born in Dunedin. “He’s a 40-year-old mechanical engineer in the middle of the Depression so he goes out to Paraguay to work on their railways. But in a way I haven’t worked out yet how he ends up flying for them.

“I listen to but don’t play music - mid 60s to late 80s … Dire Straits, Talking Heads, The Police, Fat Boy Slim, Joy Division, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells – his Five Miles Out album has a classic airplane from the 30s on the cover - a Lockheed 12 Electra Junior."

Blood-stained books

“Here’s a story. I share offices with Dave Brett, who took over the practice from Mike Guest.”

“Dave’s office is lined with law books and I was glancing at the back of the law books one day and I noticed some volumes of the New Zealand law reports from the 1950s were stained. They had been splashed with something.”

“I looked a bit closer and saw they were pockmarked. I got a letter opener and dug some stuff out and realised the stain was blood. They were parts of the bomb from the James Ward murder.”

“Not one of my cases have been famous, but all of them were important to the clients. Trumpism reminds us that liberal democracies die when the judges, lawyers and journalists fail to do their duty.

“I have been in a cold aeroplane in the middle of winter wishing I was in a warm court, but I have also been in a warm court wishing I was in a cold aeroplane.

“Sometimes when I was taking parachutists up the pilot has to wear a parachute, so I’ve worn a parachute to work and there have been times I wished I had one in court.”

Last updated on the 13th September 2018