Obituary: Francis James
Friday 28 August 1992
FRANCIS JAMES was among other things publisher, businessman, journalist, airman, churchman and prisoner. A trail of legends followed him from one adventure or misadventure to the next, He was man of panache and mystery. A wide-brimmed black felt hat and dark glasses conveyed both, while actually protecting eyes so badly damaged when his Spitfire was shot down in 1942 that he was declared totally and permanently incapacitated. (More than 40 years later he piloted a light plane for delivery from Dijon to Sydney.)
James had sailed from Australia for England in September 1939, at the age of 21, to join the RAF, and became a sergeant pilot in Fighter Command. Did he really tell the Germans who took him prisoner, and could not know his rank because his uniform was burnt off, that he was Gp Capt Turtle Dove? Back in Australia after the war, working as educational and religious correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald after being sent down from Balliol College, Oxford,, and having a spell in charge of a fishing business in Western Australia, did he really stop one day at a school, persuade the headmaster to assemble the pupils, and proclaim a half-holiday? Can he really have made his Sydney office in the back of an old Rolls-Royce alongside the Herald building, on the grounds that the space allocated to him inside admitted sunlight painful to his eyes? Was he truly the intimate of all those greats in church and state, at both ends of the empire, whose names he dropped in his RAF drawl? Well, the sergeant pilot was given officer's privileges, a Herald driver was a witness to the half-holiday, old colleagues recall him at work in the Rolls, and many a sceptic found that the archbishop or air marshal was indeed a friend.
The largest mystery is why the Chinese imprisoned him at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1969. Was he, as they said, engaged in espionage? If so, for whom; and if not, what was he doing in China? When he was released more than three years later, after the intervention of his good friend Gough Whitlam, then the prime minister of Australia, he promised to reveal all in a book; but in the event he published only articles which recreated vividly the horrors and comedies of his imprisonment but stopped short of revelation. Much later the Chinese gave him a formal apology.
Crossing the border into Hong Kong after his release in 1972, James's first request was for holy communion. His father had been an Anglican clergyman, and the son found his most fulfilling vocation as a stirrer in that church. From 1952 to 1969 he published weekly in Sydney the Anglican, which observed ecclesiastical and other matters in the tone of the Times and in a spirit of High Church Tory radicalism. He had a way with bishops, saying 'Your grace' with un-Australian ease, and, though the Anglican was an unofficial publication, all but the most evangelical senior clergy backed both the paper and the printing works, owned by James, which produced it.
James's machinations in and out of synods against the Low Church hegemony of the diocese of Sydney would have earned him a sympathetic portrait in the pages of Trollope. The Anglican depended on the printing works, and when that reached its terminal bankruptcy, James blamed the Sydney diocese for withholding business. During one spell in receivership in 1960 - when the young Rupert Murdoch was competing with the Packer family to take over the works - James himself led a group of bruisers to victory in a fight for occupation of the works with another gang led by the young Kerry Packer and his brother Clyde.
The paper and its publisher were a nuisance over the Vietnam War to the conservative Australian government led by Sir Robert Menzies. Three times the Anglican scooped 'the secular press', as James liked to call newspapers, by reporting unacknowledged preparations to send Australian battalions to the war; and in 1965 James got his bishops to write an open letter to Menzies urging 'an honourable and peaceful settlement'. He made a friendly visit to Hanoi, at a time when Australian passports were not good for North Vietnam. In 1966 he stood for parliament in the name of Liberal Reform, a party he had helped create to oppose Australian involvement in the war. He did not win a seat but he made clever use of the platform, and he had fun.
Some found Francis James snobbish, but that was fun too. 'What was your university?' the man sent down from Balliol would ask a new acquaintance. He was brave, generous, affectionate and loyal to friends, and he richly enlivened any company.
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