Obituary: Francis James

Francis James, businessman and journalist, born Queenstown Tasmania 21 April 1918, married 1945 Joyce Staff (two sons, two daughters), died Sydney 24 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.

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam