Review by Michael Whelan SM
“Pull on your sturdy oars,
Against the spring tide and the neap:
Cherish the living coal of your vision,
If you part with it, you perish.”
This epigraph to Martin Flanagan’s story of Tom Uren – an excerpt from a poem by Irisnman, Martin O’Direain – is a cir de coeur. So is the life and work Tom Uren. He is one to “cherish the living coal of (our) vision.” You will meet him on the pages of this book: tender hearted and tough, compassionate and uncompromising, honest and fearless, a man who is in his words.
This is definately not a hagiography though. it is not even biography in the strict sense of that genre. It is story-telling. And Flanagan’s life credentials for story telling of this story are good. Apart from being a renowned journalist with the Age, his father was a POW and shared some of Tom’s nightmares – the facts and the memories that haunt. he grew up in Tasmania, a place of horror in our own history, where aborigines and convicts alike were treated like brute animals. And somewhere in that Irish lineage of his, Flanagan licked up the story-telling gene that the Irish possess more abundantly than any other culture.
Flanagan could have dwelt on the observable facts of Tom’s life – his childhood in Balmain during the Depression, his leaving school at 13, his tilt at the Australian heavyweight title as a nineteen year old, his time working on the Burma-Thai railway, his outstanding political career, the fact that he has returned to retire at Balmain, within sight of his beloved Sydney Harbour. He touches them all, often with a subtlety and sensitivity that is moving. He does not waste words or sentiment. His style and choice of content – about himself as well as Tom Uren – introduce us to two very human individuals. A surprising and pleasing result is the vulnerability of both men, barely hidden in the raw stuff we find on these pages.
Tom walked away from those terrible years as a POW with (at least) two great insights that permeate this book. The first is that there is no progress in hate, the second is that we must care for one another. Even a cursory reading of this book will evoke memories of the Beatitudes and the Acts of the Apostles’ description of the early Christians – see for example 4:32-35.
In September 2005, Tom Uren was addressing a group of young Japanese. One asked what his “philosophy of life” was. His response is reproduced as Appendix A in this book. In part he said:
“The strong look after the weak. The young should look after the not so young. The fit should look after the sick. We should collectivise a substantial portion of our income to help protect out sick, needy and our people.”
In fact, the great Christian apologist of the second century, St Justin Martyr, describing the customs of the early Christians, speaks in a way that is strikingly similar.
Flanagan begins his story: “I don’t know what the answer to anorexic obsession with self is, but I do know what the answer is not – despair. That’s one reason Ton Uren’s life is worth looking at.” Ina a time when we are more likely to read about celebrities than real heroes, this book is a breath of fresh air, an inspiration.
All praise to Martin Flanagan who took the time and made the sacrifices to give us this story.