This is to mark the desperately sad news that our friend and former colleague in chambers Matthew Seligman has died.
Matthew caught the Covid-19 virus in early March, probably while visiting his brother Simon on his own deathbed in hospital. (Sadly, Simon himself died, later in March.) As a result Matthew had then been admitted to St George’s in Tooting about 3 weeks ago. He had been in an induced coma for about 10 days, when he succumbed to a massive stroke – a known risk with the treatment he was having – three days ago, on Friday 17th April. He died later that night.
Lawyers who are also proficient musicians are not uncommon. A lot less common are successful professional musicians who then develop separate parallel careers as lawyers. Much has been stated already online and in the press about Matthew’s musical career, all of it full of unalloyed praise, and all of it absolutely correct. He started off playing bass in The Soft Boys, having met his fellow band mates while he was at Cambridge University (where he got a double first in History). They were one of the great British cult bands of the ‘80s; a band in some ways joyously out of time, with its mix of pop hooks and wry English psychedelia. At the time they did not achieve obvious commercial success, but have since become revered in serious and celebrated pop circles all around the world. They are stated as seminal influences by much more famous artists such as REM and The Replacements. The band’s now renowned and charismatic leader, Robyn Hitchcock, has already paid tribute to Matthew and his contribution to The Soft Boys, and in particular to their key album, Underwater Moonlight. He sums Matthew up with this: “I’m profoundly grateful to have played music with him – you could really see his face light up like a full moon when he listened back to a take he enjoyed.” See Robyn’s full tribute here.
Matthew then collaborated with a number of celebrated artists such as David Bowie, Thomas Dolby, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, The Thompson Twins and Transvision Vamp. Bowie is on record as crediting the importance of Matthew’s bass hook on Absolute Beginners. The most publicly known of these collaborations was Matthew’s performance as Bowie’s bassist at Live Aid, during which his Thompson Twins haircut and electric blue suit can be seen bouncing around behind Bowie on stage. As the introduction to “Heroes” starts, Bowie thanks Matthew and the rest of his band in turn. At the time, because of its context and its sentiments, that particular performance of that particular song immediately acquired the status of cultural milestone. It has even greater significance to us now. Watch here.
For a more detailed summary of Matthew’s achievements as a musician, see the tribute to him posted on Saturday by the NME on its website .
Less well known, but closer to home for us as lawyers, was Matthew’s quite remarkable legal career, first as a barrister here in chambers, and since then, as a lawyer working for disadvantaged individuals. He joined us as a pupil in around 1995, alongside (among others) Shami Chakrabarti. He was taken on and developed his practice with skill, industry and real dedication to his clients. He wore his very great intelligence lightly, and deployed it in his legal work alongside his equally obvious skilled imagination – a resource which, it is worth remembering, is not invariably something which makes life easier for the legal practitioner. Indeed Matthew felt all his cases deeply; he worried assiduously about them. He developed a strong practice in personal injury litigation, and early on in his career he accepted an exceptionally challenging brief to represent the Captain of the Marchioness in the Public Inquiry into its sinking. And he would be pleased to know that he is remembered still as one of the prime movers in instituting our mentoring scheme for young practitioners – which we still run to this day.
He and his family moved to Sendai in Japan around 2003 and thereafter Matthew moved between Sendai and the UK. Having left chambers, he went on to develop an expertise and skill in the demanding fields of mental health and Court of Protection work, for which his sense of compassion so suited him; working for a few years for Steel and Shamash solicitors in Waterloo. When he returned to the UK full-time a few years ago, he resumed his legal career, taking up a position with Campbell-Taylor solicitors; a niche firm with expertise in capacity, health and social care law. He acted brilliantly, tirelessly, and with enormous generosity of spirit, for many of the most vulnerable. Rod Campbell-Taylor has written the following telling description of Matthew’s last contact to the firm, sent from his hospital bed: “Matthew’s last message to colleagues was about a case he had been working up for the previous six months on behalf of a severely disabled client, who like all his clients was bereft to learn he was in intensive care.”
One of the great ironies of untimely death is that one finds out much more about someone than one knew before. We have been inundated with messages of admiration and love for Matthew, whether about his time in chambers or about his time since, recalling his generosity of spirit, his nearly ever-present smile, which seemed to have a life and an advocate’s ability all of its own; and his patience with others. Tor Butler-Cole QC describes a recent experience of being instructed by him in a long-running and difficult CoP case: “Matthew was amazing with the client, and I’m sure did 10 times the work he was ever paid for by the legal aid agency.” She speaks, I am sure, on behalf of all of us when she concludes “it is just unbearable that someone so lovely should die, especially in these awful circumstances.”
While he was in Sendai, Matt had continued his musical career, often keeping in contact online. There is a YouTube clip which perfectly demonstrates not only his musical abilities but his remarkable personality, good humour, and patience, as he shows a young fan in Brazil how he played that bass run on Absolute Beginners – see here.
When he returned to England he resumed playing live. I was lucky enough to play a gig with Matthew a couple of months ago in North London. It was the first time I had actually played with him; and rehearsing, and then playing live, it suddenly became obvious that his musical career was his natural habitat. The music came to him easily and freely, without effort or anguish, his natural imagination had free rein, and he was utterly relaxed – something that, for all his legal abilities, the law did not allow him fully to do. I felt a real sense of privilege to be playing with him, and obviously that feeling is even greater, as well as more poignant, now. One of our bandmates, who was slightly in awe of him, asked him what it was like to play with Bowie, and his predictably Delphic response, delivered with that utterly devastating smile, was “Just like you would imagine”.
Matthew was unique. The range and the variety of his abilities were rare enough. But his uniqueness really consisted in his disposition. He was, quite simply, one of the most kind, positive, life-affirming and genuinely lovely men one could ever hope to meet.
He will be desperately missed by all his friends, in the law, in music, and beyond.
Charlie Cory-Wright QC
Joint Head of Chambers