Obituary: David A Johnstone WS, lawyer

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Born: 23 January, 1938, in Penrith. Died: 8 May, 2014, in North Berwick, aged 76

David Johnstone WS, who died last month at the age of 76, was someone of whom it could well be said:

“The Times would never have the space

For his discreet achievements.”

But exactly illustrated John Betjeman’s point that such men may be more truly emblematic and much more truly missed than those who live in the public prints.

David was himself emblematic, in his chosen profession of law, of an age when craftsmanship was valued above commodity and its practitioners were more widely educated than they could expect to be today.

He will be truly missed, however, as one of those happy few who somehow in their generation acquire the status of a humorist, a keeper of the tribal lore, a storyteller who becomes the subject of his stories.

This originated, I believe, in his roots and in his education. He spoke of his pride in “the mixture of artisans, small holders and carriers in Cumbria” who were his forebears.

Such roots meant that when he came to Edinburgh from Castle Douglas, it was with an outsider’s sharpened observation and, no doubt, with that natural Chaucerian earthiness which was to add savour to his humour.

As to his education, he liked to dismiss it as “an old-fashioned Ordinary MA” before the pass LLB. But there was nothing ordinary in its effect on him; on the contrary, it stuck with him all his life and its variety was the foundation of his curiosity and associativeness of mind.

There was always a certain picaresque air about David Johnstone (he claimed to have lodged at 36 addresses in his university years) and he had a variety in his career.

It was spent chiefly in the eminent Charlotte Square firm of Shepherd & Wedderburn both as apprentice and as partner, but he had previously been a partner in GW Tait in Leith and in retirement he gave his services to Barlas & Sharpe in his home town of North Berwick (his enjoyment of the latter mirrored a similar liking for the mores of rural Ireland and small-town Texas).

His alertness of mind ensured that he never took refuge in “the incantations of conveyances”; indeed, in his practice, he anticipated the developments in legal teaching which displaced conveyancing with property law.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders was lucky to have him as its Scottish adviser.

And all the while the future humourist was being formed by observing that extraordinary Dickensian demi-monde of clerks and camp followers which exists no longer but which then surrounded a legal firm, competing in eccentricity with some of the clients.

The scope of his humour went well beyond the legal world and it took on a particular tinge from his taste for mischief and risk. He sidestepped correctness, like Groucho Marx, by deft insinuations and had, like Lucky Jim, a penchant for involvement in piquant situations.

He could rely here upon a great stabilising influence in his life, his family and his wife of many years, Christine, who subtly knew how to edit his performances.

He had no illusions about his arts and cheerfully conceded that “he had told the same things so many times that he began to think they were true”.

It is probably impossible to communicate what he was like to those who never heard him – it depended so much on spontaneity and uniqueness of voice.

But in one of his metiers, as secretary of his dining club, his “minutes” showed that he could adorn a tale in writing as well as in speech. Those for whom he entertained a mislike (and there were such) must hope that the Johnstone Diaries will not turn up.

Earlier this year this man of jest had to confront the knowledge that he was mortally ill. He wrote of this towards the end: “The only pain has been the thought of leaving present love and warmth for the unknown.”

It was the leave taking of a memorably knowledgeable, sociable and considerate man.