A Life is Too Short by Nicholas Fairbairn - review by Patrick Taylor-Martin

Patrick Taylor-Martin

Nothing but the Trews

A Life is Too Short


Quartet 229pp £11.95 order from our bookshop

A life may well be too short; the same cannot always be said of a book. This is the first volume of Nicholas Fairbairn’s autobiography. The front cover shows a shock haired figure with wild eyes wearing an opera cloak and a wing collar. It might be a mad nineteenth century composer, or a magician. In fact, it is a portrait of the young Fairbairn by Alan Sutherland. It hangs in the drawing room at Fordell Castle where the present day Fairbairn, now bald as an egg, is shown, on the back cover, clutching a Siamese cat and wearing tartan trews. For all the baronial accoutrements of stone walls and coats of arms, the room somehow suggests, with its low slung modern sofas and dubious looking Louis Quinze furniture, a place in Surrey or even Texas rather than a castle in Fife.

Nicholas Fairbairn is one of the more flamboyant members of the Houses of Parliament. In Who’s Who, he describes himself as ‘Author, farmer, painter, poet, TV and radio broadcaster, journalist, dress designer, landscape gardener, bon-viveur and wit’. This book substantiates some of these claims. It also provides many boasting accounts of his dazzling forensic skills as a defence advocate at the Scottish Bar. This, undoubtedly, is the most glorious and interesting aspect of his career. He is a sort of Caledonian John Mortimer, though he lacks Mortimer’s languid charm or his gift of style. Fairbairn’s prose recalls the hectoring tones of a lawyer addressing a jury, tricked out with a few strange words he has either culled from Call My Bluff or made up himself – ‘tormentuous’, ‘baculine’, ‘hirpling’, ‘adiaphoristic’, ‘perissologies’, ‘kakistoracy’, ‘incicicurablc’, ‘apolaustic’. He seems unduly proud of this sesquipedalian verbosity.

Fairbairn has successfully defended many men accused of murder. It is not altogether clear whether he would favour a return of the death penalty, though he does seem to express regret for the days when ‘the authority of the law in every court was tinged by its mystical power of

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

East of the Wardrobe

Follow Literary Review on Twitter