Friday, April 15, 2016

Honouring John Ellis

Honouring John Ellis

By Peter Love

On Sunday 3 April the Campaign for International Co-operation and Disarmament (CICD) arranged a special occasion where it paid tribute to the work of John Ellis as campaign activist and photographer in the cause of peace. CICD expressed that special regard by conferring Life Membership on him.

When guests entered the Unitarian Peace Memorial Church in Grey Street, East Melbourne they noted that three walls were covered with photographs that John had taken since the early 1970s. Many were of prominent or simple rank-and-file activists in numerous progressive causes over the years. One of the most remarkable things about the faces of those who are still alive was how young they looked when John captured them! The themes that link them are for us and future generations to contemplate.
John Speight, Executive Chair of CICD welcomed guests and introduced the speakers, beginning with Romina Beitseen, Secretary of CICD, who thanked John for his stalwart work for peace since the 1970s. She had both enjoyed working with him and been very impressed with his capacity to be effectively active in the cause. Peter Love reminded people that John’s photography was not only a window onto the past but one that served the same fundamental purpose as more famous photographers such as those in the Magnum agency. He has provided links of visual continuity that invite us to contemplate enduring questions about peace and justice.
The Victorian Trade Union Choir, of which John was a long-term member, sang two brackets of three songs; Banks of Marble, Bring Out the Banners, I Have a Million Nightingales, Power in a Union, Solidarity Forever, and, as everybody stood up in the customary manner, the Internationale.
Sarah Brown, librarian, fellow activist and long-term friend of John spoke very fondly of his qualities as a campaigner, organiser, photographer and utterly engaging comrade. Sue Fairbanks, Deputy Archivist at the University of Melbourne Archives, spoke about the huge collection of John’s photographs located in the Archives. She acknowledged his prodigious labours in cataloguing them all and the constructively congenial spirit he brought to the daunting task. Sue had arranged the impressive display of photos that lined three sides of the Church hall.
To honour John’s work Lila Heimann, a member of the Melbourne Ukulele Kollective and longstanding friend, sang a song for John that she had composed about refugees. Shane Houstein, John’s stepson, launched the website that displays several of John’s photography and links visitors to the University of Melbourne Archives page where so many of his photos are accessible. It is at:
Unlike some honoured guests, John did not speak at length when he was given the ‘right of reply’ to the tributes. He skipped lightly over many of the significant times in his long life a deeply engaged activism and paid generous tribute to those who were his comrades and especially to Dianne. His partner.
The event ended with the Choir singing the second bracket of songs, concluding with the Internationale. In the usual way, comrades and friends then set about the drinks and snacks in the side room to round off a thoroughly satisfactory day with congenial chatting and friendly catching-up.
See more photos, and read more at: 
[Photos by Peter Love]

A message from Barbara Dane:

“There is no way to build a sustaining and successful road to the future without the paving stones of the past….” 

This message from Barbara Dane, an American folk, blues, and jazz singer, was read out at the John Ellis Tribute.

“For John Ellis on the occasion of the celebration of his life at the Unitarian Peace Memorial Church in Melbourne, April 3, 2016.

I live in Oakland, California and have reached the age where travel is very restricted (88 years old). If not for that, I would find a way to be with you to honor John Ellis. The best I can do now is send my greetings. Thank you very much for organizing this event for a very special person. Please accept my regrets.

There is no way to build a sustaining and successful road to the future without the paving stones of the past. Those who document our valiant history of resistance to war, who by their words and pictures remind us of our concern for the pain and joy of others and inspire us to dream a better world, occupy a special place in our lives.

This is why you have gathered in Melbourne to honour and celebrate John Brant Ellis today, and why we can hear a ripple of applause circling the globe, lifted by many who are celebrating with you from afar. Hats off and a sweeping bow to this man who can best be described in these words of Bertolt Brecht:

"There are those who fight one day and are good.There are others who fight one year and are better.There are some who fight many years and they are better still.But there are some who fight their whole lives. These are the ones who are indispensable."

With warmest regards,
Barbara Dane 
(88 year old singer and long-time activist for peace and justice)”.


Unitarian Peace Memorial Church 
3 April 2016.   By John Ellis

          Frankly, I think we have heard enough about Ellis, so this will be short...

        Despite what some people might think, moving to Pt. Lonsdale was a blessing in more ways than one. I started life by living by the sea in Port Melbourne, and with a bit of luck I will end up with the sound of the waves in my ears from across the sand dunes.

          What I do know is that I wouldn't have reached my present age if I had kept up the pace I was going at in Melbourne. On further reflection, I have to admit that I do miss certain things, like being with this magnificent choir. For me there was nothing quite like singing at the top of my voice about issues I feel strongly about, and surrounded by like-minded people. That feeling takes some beating. Although playing classical guitar and recorders came close.   But wait . . . How could I forget the years spent at Camp Eureka, at Yarra Junction – where it whispers thanks to you people from the ravages of over-development as you stroll through its many paths.

          However, there was one event when I thought my resignation from the choir might be expected, for my unusual behaviour at a concert in Trades Hall. We were singing 'We Shall Overcome' when John was so overcome that he fainted, falling through the ranks of the women in front of me. Needless to say our performance was cut short.

          Another wonderful pastime for me was, as you have heard, was archiving the history of left-wing movements at the University of Melbourne Archives.

          This was followed by another pleasantry in archiving CICD's collections. To speak of CICD can't be done without mentioning Pauline Mitchell. Apart from being a stalwart of CICD she was secretary of Moorabbin Peace Action in the early 70s.  As was Les Dalton who is here today.

          This is not to say that some of these issues haven't been raised in Queenscliff and Geelong. The issues of refugees, the environment, industrial relations and consumerism are rarely off the local activists' agenda. The Melbourne group, Peace Convergence, has recently carried on the spirit of anti-war direct action. They have dared to block the entrance to Swan Island in Queenscliff. For your information Swan Island houses the SAS, a division of Australia's secret services. In doing this they have on one occasion been brutally handled.

          Of course many thanks go to Romina and Andrew and the CICD committee for this very pleasant event. To think that this organisation still keeps abreast of the issues of peace and anti-war, does say a lot.

          I know that I wouldn't have kept up the pace to this old age without the loving care of Dianne, also known as my PA.                                                                                                                             

          Oh yes, one item I'd like to correct concerns the mistake about me being the oldest living member in CICD. Apparently that's not correct and I would like any one here today who was at that momentous meeting in 1959 to stand up and take a bow.

          One thing I am sorry about is that I should have made a concerted effort to produce a pictorial book outlining our struggles for a peaceful world.

          My thanks go to our speakers which certainly includes Dianne's son Shane Houstein for preparing the website –  and to all of you for your friendship and attendance here today.

        I would like to conclude with a piece from Fred Hollows:

I am a humanist. I don't believe in any higher power than the best expressions of the human spirit, and those are to be found in personal and social relationships.

Evaluating my life in those terms, I've had some mixed results. I've hurt some people and disappointed others, but I hope that on balance, I've given more than I've taken.

Check out John's website that displays some of his story and photography and links to the University of Melbourne Archives page where so many of his photos are accessible: 

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