Doing it yourself

The Age today (article over the fold) carries an obituary for Australia’s only professional obituarist, Philip Jones, who died last week. And you guessed it, he wrote his own obituary. Suffice it to say, it is far more personal and introspective than the average. It is also self-critical. I guess this is a task Jones wouldn’t trust to anyone else.

Last word on the last intimate link with Heide

29 August 2006


PHILIP JONES OBITUARIST 14-3-1932 – 24-8-2006

PHILIP Jones, probably Australia’s only professional obituarist, never had time to write his own before he died in his mid-city flat from a heart attack. He was 74.

Although he lived alone, he had an extraordinarily wide circle of friends – a series of circles that would intersect at his notable, crowded gatherings that were too noisy to be called parties. There, one could meet starving mosaicists, bibulous senators (from both ends of the political spectrum) and captains of industry wondering where they were.

Before he moved to the city a few years ago he had lived in flats of invariably unusual design in South Yarra and St Kilda Road. But his seminal home was the original Heide. This was the farmhouse owned by John and Sunday Reed at Bulleen. Now “restored” to within an inch of its life, it is a part of the bizarre architectural theme park known as The Heide Museum of Modern Art.

He and Barrett Reid, his partner for 27 years, were left a life tenancy in the house by the Reeds, who by then were living in the beautiful Heide 2. But when Reid called a halt to the relationship, ordering Jones to leave and later changing the locks, his life entered into a period of depression.

Much later his legal friends secured him some compensation in the form of paintings and this afforded him a degree of security in later years.

Jones, writer, poet, actor, and bookseller was born in Kerang to English migrant parents. He received his basic education there but later came down to Melbourne and boarded at Trinity Grammar, which presented new horizons.

On leaving school he worked in a bank in his home town but soon returned to Melbourne. He obtained a few acting roles, and when he accompanied his parents to England in 1951 he used that experience and a tenuous family connection to land casual jobs backstage, onstage and in radio serials. It was in London that he developed the deep, rich, clear voice that was his most striking physical trait.

Returning to Australia in 1953, he continued his acting career on stage and radio. In 1954 he joined the cast of Ray Lawler’s Ginger Meggs at the National Theatre, and later he was on Dame Sybil Thorndike and Sir Ralph Richardson’s national tour.

On radio’s Peter and Paula he was Peter, and in Esther and I he was I. In the long periods of inactivity, he worked as a proof reader on The Age. The latter part-time career did not leave its mark; in later years when he was a respected contributor, critic, feature writer and author, he never welcomed Monday morning telephone calls from pedantic friends calling attention to syntactic lapses.

He drifted into obituary writing by chance but came to enjoy it. In addition to The Age, he was a regular contributor to The Times and The Guardian in London. In 2003 he attended and addressed the Obituarists’ International Convention at Las Vegas and was looking forward to being represented in a forthcoming international collection of significant obits.

Although in later years Jones liked to describe his life as a series of failures, he was wrong. Certainly Barrett Reid brought him into the overblown Heide world, but John Reed recognised his talents and made him director of his great, unrealised project: a local Museum of Modern Art. Jones did that job well, and when Sunday Reed set up Eastend Booksellers in 1966, he revealed unexpected talents as a merchant. After her death he continued to operate in the book trade as a wholesaler.

His work brought with it the constant need for international travel, which he enjoyed. Over the years, Jones built up a network of friends across the Western world just as he had built up a similar network across Melbourne and Sydney’s better inner suburbs.

He always appeared to have friends in any given city who had a room, an apartment or even a house available at the right time. In return, he was always able to offer accommodation albeit, dimensionally challenged, to visiting friends or friends of friends.

Jones’ middle years were affected by his long-term lover’s unexplained rejection of him, but on his death in 1995, Jones wrote an extraordinarily frank and affectionate obituary of him. In his last two years he experienced a similar alienation, this time of his own making. He had always wanted to write the definitive book on Heide and its people. They had been a pervading influence on most of his life and he believed, probably correctly, that he was the only one left who could tell the true story. He travelled to Britain to interview Lady (Mary Boyd Percival) Nolan, but his old friend upbraided and dismissed him. His recently published memoir Art & Life had contained true but hurtful comments on her late husband.

Jones embodied qualities and talents that one likes to believe are uniquely Australian. They are not, but they do encapsulate perceived national qualities. In his case it was the ability to come down from the dwelling above a Kerang delicatessen – almost certainly called a Ham and Beef Shop there and then – and travel the country and the world at ease with prime ministers (in fact, dismissive of two), book salesmen and international art patrons.

Jones is survived by his sister Nan. A celebration of his life is to be organised by his friends.

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