Wednesday, December 20, 2006

A Thinking Reed, by Barry Jones

At the age of seventy-four, Barry Jones has decided to write his autobiography. It’s not that much of an autobiography really. Jones doesn’t give away much personal detail at all, which is a shame.

The parts of the book which are more genuinely autobiographical describe his family and early years, growing up in Melbourne. There were odds and ends of information that fascinated me as a Melbourne reader. For example, his discussion of the Dudley flats, a slum area during the depression, which is just a few blocks from where I live. He describes it as being the worst and most depressing place in the world.

I wish Barry Jones had written more about his growing up in Melbourne, and more about his personal life. For example, his wife is barely mentioned half a dozen times, and we only learn that he was married to her in the first place at book’s end, when we learn she has suddenly died! (This is terrible of me, but I forget her name, as I have sent the book back to the library and don’t have it here with me. That’s the last time I do that on a blog entry.)

For the most part, the book is divided up into Jones’ favourite passions: art, politics, religious beliefs, intellectual obsessions and human rights issues. From a very early age, Jones was a campaigner against the death sentence.

This eclectic mix of interests Jones brought to Parliament. Irritatingly, lots of people liked to describe Jones as an eccentric, but from the tone of this book, I think to call him a loner is more apt. He wrote a famous book called Sleepers, Wake!, predicting the coming boom in information technology. In 1984, a young Bill Gates visited Jones in Australia, impressed by his book. Jones tried to get then PM Bob Hawke to meet Gates. Hawkie was too busy.

In politics, he did not go very far as a Minister because he lacked the ‘killer instinct’. This points to the great problem of politics. It’s all about power. Good intentions will perhaps always come second. For Jones it seems his aims were the other way around. He entered politics with the genuine wish to help people and improve Australia as a country.

Looking at politics now, it seems impossible that we’ll see another Jones in our lifetime. Reading his book, he seemed like an Anthony Trollope type figure, the famous 19th century novelist who tried to get into parliament but failed. Well, at least Trollope succeeded as an artist.
Jones says he would like to write a novel, but at 74, I think he might be leaving it a bit late to start out as a fiction writer.

Read this book and lament how far politics and public life in general have taken a nose dive.

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