Melbourne Writers Festival - Philippe Sands

Life is a privilege many take for granted.  Experiences shape, inspire,  emotionally move and motivate and this was what happened when we attended the Alan Missen Oration delivered by Philippe Sands, Professor of Law, QC, author and intellectual, at the Melbourne Writers Festival.


The stage, set for an account of an interesting piece of International Law precedence is potentially boring.  Yet when Sands takes the podium, within seconds it is obvious we are in for anything other than boring.  His oration on the origins of the legal terms “Genocide” and “Crimes against Humanity” is riveting. 


 An overly active mind like mine, challenges the topic with “why is he so interested in this?” He delivered his oration as a lawyer in front of a jury.  Factual, chronological, at a certain level unemotional, but Sands covertly presented the story in an emotionally connecting way. 


Based around two lawyers, American and British working at the Nuremburg Trials in 1946, the story and his telling of it had the audience spell bound, gripping the edges of their seats. The other main personality, Hans Frank, is Hitler’s personal lawyer.  The story weaves between the three.  This is more than the retelling of a piece of history – there is a sense that Sands is personally involved, intriguing the mind.  He is giving more of himself than just the legal description of careers.


Sands is about five foot seven in height, of medium build, and wearing a white shirt. Although he wears all the clothes of a lawyer, his appearance contradicts his professional status. A belt that is too big, suggesting he recently lost a lot of weight, holds up his navy suit trousers. The fact that his buckle did not line up with the buttons on his shirt, a feature most well dressed men would regard as very important suggested to me a mind on the big issues of the world, issues such as human rights.  While his shoes are spit and polished, there is an air of intellectual depth, which is evidenced by the way he reaches for his notes, quickly glances,  then continues speaking. His enthusiastic activism in human/civil rights shows that there is a deeper dimension to him than found in most lawyers.  This man cares more than the average lawyer does; there is compassion, depth and soul.  In the end of his oration, he declares his personal interest in the story (you need to read his book East West Street so I do not undermine his clever writing). 


As you read the book, you sense a change happening to Sands.  There is an emotional shift within him as he learns more about his Grandfather and those who lives intersected with each other.  His language makes subtle shifts, as he traverses through the narrative.  Encountering a new Sand occurs in each chapter.  This is a poignant writer, letting us see the inner person.  Superficiality is not in Sands gene pool, but he exposes more depth, allowing greater understanding of him as a person. 


His exceptionally high quality writing wins the audience in a unique way.


At the end, several people stand to applaud him. This seems to embarrass him.