4 February 2015, Sydney Town Hall, Sydney, New South Wales
Tom Uren was a mountain of a man. I first met him in 1987 when I rang and asked if I could do a story on him. I’m interested in boxing, I said. He said, I don’t talk about boxing. I said my father was on the Burma railway with you. He immediately invited me into his home.
The article meant a lot to me but the Sydney magazine for which I wrote chose to take my portrait of this big, complex man and make him smaller and simpler to fit their pre-conceptions. I rang Tom and told him I was resigning. His voice thundered down the phone: “Don’t you ever resign!!! You stay in and maintain the struggle!!” That was when our relationship started in earnest.
Tom was a magnificent mixture of a man. The fact he had been a boxer was used by his political opponents to denigrate him, but the aesthetic side of his nature was unusually strong. He loved beauty and saw it in both his wives, Patricia and Christine. More than once, in his later years, I saw him call Christine Patricia and, being the remarkable woman that she is, Christine received it as a compliment. Tom was so proud of his friendship with the painter Lloyd Rees. He often related how Whitlam said he made Tom spokesman for the environment because Whitlam admired the home environments Tom created. Tom could laugh, he could cry. He had wisdom; he had ego. Tom Uren was more than happy being Tom Uren.
I told Tom a couple of months before he died that I thought he had a great life. He saw two Australian legends up close, Weary Dunlop and Gough Whitlam. If he was smeared and attacked for his political beliefs in the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, he lived to see himself become someone regarded with sufficient affection by the general public to have him declared a national treasure.
The way Tom told me his story, the major influence on his early life was his mother Agnes. He had an older brother who’d been given to a grieving relative to bring up so that Agnes had twice the love to shower upon Tom. “She taught me to love myself,” he told me. And he did. Tom was the also big kid who has the supreme confidence that comes with being good at most sport. He was a junior champion with the Freshwater Surf Club, he was a good rugby league player. He left school at the age of 13 because he could get a job and his father couldn’t. He took up boxing and aimed to become a champion. At 20, he fought for the Australian heavyweight title and lost. Tom told me the flu beat him, not the other fighter.
One of the things that sustained him on the Burma Railway was the desire to become a champion boxer. Another was the beauty of the jungle - each evening, he made a point of taking in the trees, the flowers, the birds. At the time, he was still a Christian who kneeled to say his prayers each night. Presumably, none of his army mates said too much because Tom had, after all, fought for the Australian heavyweight title. My father once told me that as a young man Tom Uren had a magnificent physique.
The five men I have known well who were on the Burma Railway have not been not like other men I’ve met, except maybe some Aboriginal elders. They saw a lot, suffered a lot and each of them had a deep well of compassion. They went to Hell but weren’t defeated spiritually. Up close, 21-year-old Tom saw a true leader, Weary Dunlop, save lives by taxing his officers to buy medicines and extra food for the seriously ill. An English group of 400 prisoners camped nearby. In four weeks, only 50 were left alive. Tom never forgot stepping over dead bodies going to work each morning.
What kept the Australians alive in greater numbers? Tom’s answer was their “spirit of collectivism”. Tom’s creed became that the strongest man takes the heaviest end of the log. Tom was the strongest man. He stepped between guards and prisoners being beaten. When Tommy got hit, he told his mates it was okay - he could take a punch. He was going to London after the war to be a champion.
He spent the last year of the war in a prison camp in Japan. He saw the discoloured sky above Hiroshima after the atomic bomb. That last year, working in a mine with Japanese civilians, changed him. He realised he didn’t hate the Japanese people. He hated what he called militarism. And that may have been Yom Uren’s biggest achievement - he grew beyond hate.
The war ended and he worked a passage on a steamer to England. He took a job stoking the furnaces but the heat re-activated the malaria in his system. A British sportswriter wrote upon his arrival, “He dresses like Anthony Eden, has tons of personality and his name is Tommy Uren”. Another sportswriter wrote that he’d never seen a fighter get up off the canvas as m any times as Tom did in his first fight. One hundred bouts of malaria had taken something from his physical vitality that could never be restored. In the dark of a cinema trying to straighten his broken nose, he was overcome with loneliness. He returned to Australia and Patricia.
If you can judge a man by his friends, you can surely judge him by his great enduring mate from the Burma Railway. For Tom, that was Blue Butterworth. Blue was Weary’s batman and if Weary Dunlop’s is a legend then Blue is a necessary part of that legend also because most of the risks that Weary took Blue did too. As brave as Weary and as quick-witted, Blue was a bricklayer after the war. He died in 2011; Tom told me he missed Blue every day thereafter.
In 1960, Tom returned to Japan and attended a conference on banning atomic and nuclear weapons. He delivered a speech, giving the Japanese a forthright view of Japanese politics at the time and ended by saying the dropping of atomic bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima was a crime against humanity. And this was just the start of his political career. One day, I asked him, “When did you become an environmentalist?”. He replied, “When I went back to Thailand and found the jungle cut down”.
Tom could drive you mad. How well I remember the day we went to see Gough Whitlam in his offices in central Sydney. Tom was responsible for the building as Minister for Administrative Services in the Hawke government. The man behind the front desk didn’t know who Tom was. Didn’t know! He was the Minister for Administrative Services in the Hawke government! There was a minor scene. Then we met Whitlam, which was like looking Australian history in the face. Afterwards we caught a train down to Woy Woy to see Blue and Tom used my left ear to broadcast a speech to the people of western Sydney urging them to rise up against the state government. In the end, I got up and went to another carriage. When Christine told me it was Tom’s wish that today’s service only go for one hour, I did say to her, “I take it he won’t be speaking then”.
But I also know I’m not the only person here today who can say that Tom Uren was like a godfather to them. Tom believed humans could grow. He had grown - during his early years in the Labor Party, he had been, in his words, a bigoted anti-Catholic; as an old man, he would list Pope John XXIII as one of his principal influences. If Tom was a person who thought highly of himself, he never stopped thinking of others. When he poured his belief into you, it was like standing beneath a waterfall from which you emerged larger. Tom lived a public life that ran in a straight line from first to last. He shrugged off going to prison for his political beliefs and, ultimately, he never despaired, because Tom Uren believed that, regardless of race or colour or creed, there are always in the world what he called “people of goodwill” to whom we can appeal. You were a champion, Tom. You’re in the company of legends now.