John Dyson: “I sang ‘Hey Jude’ at karaoke for the Sultan of Perak”

The former judge talks Nelson Mandela, University Challenge, and family holidays in Switzerland.

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John Dyson was born in Yorkshire in 1943. He took silk in 1982 and in 2010 became a Justice of the Supreme Court, gaining the courtesy title Lord Dyson. He served as Master of the Rolls before retiring in 2016.

What’s your earliest memory?

Being frogmarched by a teacher to the nearby school and being locked up. I had thrown snowballs at schoolchildren as they passed our house. I never did it again.

Who are your heroes?

As a child, I idolised Len Hutton, the great Yorkshire and England cricketer. As an adult, Alfred Brendel, who is a sublime pianist, and talks and writes about classical music with great insight.

What book last changed your thinking?

Art and Illusion by Ernst Gombrich. It has had a lasting influence on the way I look at and think about representational art.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Nelson Mandela. His vision and magnanimity towards those who had oppressed him after more than 20 years’ incarceration was remarkable. By comparison, most political figures seem pedestrian, if not small-minded. 

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The heights and shapes of the Swiss Alps. I owe my love of mountains to early family holidays in Switzerland.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Athens in the fifth century BC. To have lived at a time of such creativity would have been immensely exhilarating.

What TV show could you not live without?

University Challenge. My delight in watching the young show off their knowledge trumps my frustration at knowing so few of the answers.

Who would paint your portrait?

Titian. He would invest in me a flattering nobility of appearance.

What’s your theme tune?

The Beatles’ “Hey Jude” still evokes nostalgia for student parties in the 1960s. I survived a karaoke performance of it for the Sultan of Perak in Kuala Lumpur in 2015.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

As a pupil barrister, I was advised always to have a pee just before going into court (“the last opportunity rule”). I failed to follow this advice once when, to my great embarrassment, I had to ask the judge to be excused during a court hearing.

What’s currently bugging you?

The endless discussion about Brexit. Although my obsession with it is pointless, I cannot help following its twists and turns.

What single thing would make your life better?

To have a more musical wife. It would be wonderful to play the piano with her and to sing in a choir together. Playing the piano with a grandson is a good consolation prize.

When were you happiest?

In my forties and fifties, when my physical and mental faculties were still strong, my children were becoming established as successful adults, and I had more self-confidence than I had as a young man.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

Professional cricketer, in my fantasy. If only I had not stopped playing when I was 14, who knows what I would have achieved?

Are we all doomed?

Yes, but not for a very long time yet. Meanwhile, there is so much to enjoy on this amazing planet. 

“A Judge’s Journey” by John Dyson is published by Hart

This article appears in the 11 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos