They Die Namelessly, Without Public Comment

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I was fortunate to attend a wake at the Ivy Ballroom this afternoon to celebrate the life of John Hemmes. “Mr John” as he was, and still is, affectionately known was a leader in making things happen. He had style, he did it his way, he took people with him. He inspired many people, not the least of whom is Justin Hemmes.

This post frames a story that takes place across Three Acts.

Act One, Scene One:

I didn’t stay long, and just wanted to pay my respects. He had done a lot for Sydney through his influence, perhaps more than most people will know.

It was a fitting tribute. The venue was looking wonderful as usual, and staff lined the entrance along the length of the stairway to greet people as they arrived. It really was a celebration. And it is appropriate that the lives of such people are celebrated.

Act Two, Scene One:

Earlier in the day, I attended the interring of ashes for a Korean War veteran who I had come to know very well. He was originally from New Zealand, and served with the New Zealand gun battery as an artillery observer supporting the Australian battalions. Since my roles in the army and what he actually did at war were closely aligned, there was a lot to learn from him.

He was a colourful character in life, and after migrating to Australia became a private investigator, standover man in Kings Cross night clubs, along with a string of other experiences which beggared belief. During this life of his, he went bankrupt a couple of times and laughed that off when he told his stories in his true idiosyncratic manner with his huge Cheshire grin, and in doing so shared the highs and lows of what life was like as an entrepreneur, albeit if his journey was unconventional.

For the last 10 or 15 years of his life, he had ‘found religion’ as his family would describe. They didn’t approve of his new-found Christian faith, and perhaps preferred him when he was not spending so much time on the straight and narrow. In his last few years, despite accumulating many years, he found romance with a lovely lady who was close to his age. Together they were a great couple and brought each other much happiness. Unfortunately, the family neither accepted this relationship with this woman any more than they accepted his choice to follow a Christian lifestyle because of his beliefs.

He died exactly a year ago, and it wasn’t until now that his ashes were to be interred. I wasn’t able to attend his funeral because I was overseas at the time, but was pleased to attend the placing of his ashes.

I felt sick to my guts when his daughter pulled me aside at the end of the service that was attend by only a handful of people in contrast to the vibrancy of Ivy that was to come later. Included in the small throng was the lady with whom he had struck up the relationship. His daughter whispered that everyone would all pretend that we would be going home so that the girlfriend would bugger off and not join a casual lunch at the pub afterwards ‘because she was difficult’. I felt embarrassed for the girlfriend, and made a point of asking her to phone my anytime soon and that I hoped she would continue to attend the functions where the Korean War veterans would assemble. Needless to say, I left soon after that and thought nothing of attending the lunch. It was good to honour my friend that day.

This gathering couldn’t have been a greater contrast to the open expression of hospitality and celebration found at the wake for Mr John later in the afternoon.

Act Three, Scene One:

Returning home by train after the wake, I again fingered through the book “The End of Poverty” by Jeffrey Sachs. I had only just re-read it earlier that afternoon on another train ride between appointments. Flicking to the Introduction, the sentences seemed to have been written for this unremarkable train ride returning from the grandeur of Mr John’s celebration of life. Nothing in this post is to take away anything from John Hemmes, and I pay tribute to the man as he deserves my respect. But this is what I read in the opening words of Sachs (2005):

Currently, more than eight million people around the world die each year because they are too poor to stay alive….They die namelessly, without public comment. Sadly, such stories rarely get written.

Could there have been another day with three more contrasting events about death? This final scene speaks largely of course about the blight of child mortality, a moral obscenity as Tony Lake the Executive Director of UNICEF likes to characterise it.

Act Three, Scene Two:

He closes the book, and flicks over the postcard which was handed to him as he climbed the stairway when arriving at the Ivy Ballroom about an hour before. On one side, the postcard shows a flamboyant photo of a younger John Hemmes celebrating life. The other side has a simple quote from the man himself, speaking beyond the grave:

Whatever you do, do it well.


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