John and I were friends since 1955 until his death. Apart from the early and final years, we lived in distant places but maintained close personal and professional ties through letters, phone, email and an erratic stream of face to face meetings. We grew up and old together, with a mutual understanding that far transcended our sometimes differences of focus and strategy. We “got” each other and our histories, and for me he’s irreplaceable.
The substantial body of his writing in its variegated tones and held on this site reflects a lifelong commitment to civil rights, social equity and basic human decency, along with unwavering contempt for malevolent or ill-founded authority. This is most passionately expressed in his championship of Aboriginal people throughout half a century.
His deep personal empathy for the underdog was matched by the ferocity of his disgust with oppressors. He brought many qualities to the challenge besides his intellect – bravery, persistence, ingenuity, forthrightness, irony and defiant yet self-deprecating humour.
This brief tribute is in memory of, and with gratitude to, John’s contribution to the principles and practice of The Australian Assistance Plan. John viewed the AAP through the lens of equality of inspiration as much as of perspiration and aspiration. He helped to define the targets on which the Plan should set its sights. And long after so many then proponents of the AAP had ‘moved on’, John sustained a belief in and action for decision-making based in local engagement and empowerment. His was a consistent commitment to ‘a social justice democracy’, borne out in passionate and purposeful advocacy.
Our world, for all its problems, is a better place than it would otherwise be thanks to people like John Tomlinson who lived useful lives of service to humanity.
John’s knowledge, understanding, commitment, compassion and personal courage have been an inspiration (even if he wasn’t the world’s greatest poet).
In the 56 years I knew him, John impressed me with his political acuity, his unrelenting contempt for Tory selfishness, and his capacity to actually get out and do things.
Throughout his life he worked to bring about change and make life better for the battlers. He never wavered.
See you at the demo, John.
John and I were walking along a wide suburban street in Brisbane in the early sixties when we were students at Queensland University. It was a lovely spring day with the hot Queensland sun beating down. As we strolled along the street lined with high set Queenslanders set on tiny bright green lawns, John was expounding with great emotion on the latest atrocities of the Queensland Government – the administration of Aboriginal Missions, the treatment of children in care, human rights abuses…the list was a long one. He was so angry, he was proposing that we line the politicians up against a wall and machine-gun them all for their crimes against humanity.
As we approached a little corner store there was a small child sitting on the curb crying. John stopped his tirade in mid sentence and sat on the curb next to the child. The little boy had dropped his sixpence down the drain and could not get it back. He’d had his heart set on buying an ice cream but now all he could do was to stare mournfully at the sixpence – in sight but out of reach in the drain. John and I tried unsuccessfully to get the sixpence out of the drain and then John took the child into the shop and bought him an ice cream.
The child sauntered off happily licking his ice cream. John continued his ferocious tirade against oppression as we walked on down the road.
Ian Hills 26/5/19
The first verse of Ian’s poem merits an explanation. Shortly after John’s death, his wife, Penny, went to stay with a friend for a few days and had taken John’s laptop to use while away. Inadvertently, she used John’s email account to write to Ian Hills – and of course it appeared to have come from John… now read on:
My good friend John
I received an email from my good friend John
Inviting me to celebrate his life – now that he’s gone.
I laughed: it was the sort of joke he would have perpetrated.
His sense of humour is a thing that should be celebrated.
John set out to change the world when barely through his teens.
With a wispy beard and earnest voice he stood in faded jeans
And declaimed his vision for everyone to hear:
That all should have the means to be content and free from fear.
He went to work among the poor, defended human rights.
The indifference of the powerful kept him awake at nights.
He carried out the research and worked into the night
To sway decision makers to go and do what’s right.
He taught at university and wrote important books.
His many students weren’t the only ones who took
His message to the workplace, and to the world indeed:
We must fix the global problems that cause poverty and need.
I told myself I mustn’t weep or grieve for his sake,
He wouldn’t like to think that he left sadness in his wake.
But I do weep in private, as I say goodbye
To that fiery intellect and heart as big as the sky.
We are surely going to miss him, and his unique style.
But he would say look forward. Go the extra mile.
Implement the vision. There is much to do I fear.
And don’t weep that he has gone. Smile that he was here.
© Ian Hills 2019
Life Of John
[written after visiting John Tomlinson, in Concord Hospital, April 4. 2019. He died on April 6.]
On hospice bed I find him tired
yet human rights still deeply wired
to find the air to recall stress
when championing the powerless
with courage always did persist
inspired by one-time Communist
his grandfather, entirely true
his parents too more red than blue.
He’d witnessed so much poverty
plus a cyclone and brutality,
he was once sacked for speaking out,
he knew which verbs spoke justice clout,
used crushing satire as his tools
saw pollies as a ship of fools
the rhyming humour was his touch
for fragile kids he loved so much.
His selflessness was there to see
opposing welfare tyranny
he did not mix with up class snobs
or search for non-existent jobs
which he resisted on and on
and saw as timeless, stigma con,
taught students of poor people’s fate
plus remedies to imitate.
Then came the end with open palms
reminder of ‘Farewell to Alms’
the justice still his major theme
the lifeblood slipping from his dream
yet no self-pity facing death
only the struggle to find breath
to tell why he did not comply
with bureaucratic hierarchy
Reminder of unending fights
for dignity and human rights
and from his bed to just gasp ‘please
respect for Aborigines’
because he knew the end to strife
was to demand a right to life
great irony with hours to die
the handshake, wink, his last goodbye.
© Stuart Rees 2019