A Rae of Hope for a Damaged World: John Jenkins launches ‘The End of the Line’ by Rae Desmond Jones

The End of the Line by Rae Desmond Jones, Rochford Press 2019,  was launched by John Jenkins at the Dan O’Connell Hotel, Melbourne, on Saturday April 27.

John Jenkins launching The End of the Line in Melbourne. Photo Joseph Chetcuti.

I first met Rae Desmond Jones (or ‘RDJ’ if you like, for short) in the mid 1970s, just after I had taken up with my new partner, the former New York poet Carol Novack. Soon after meeting Carol, I moved to Sydney, to live with her.

The mid to late Seventies were a great time to be in The Harbour City, and to be alive generally. At that time, Sydney’s artistic and literary world was very dynamic: a bohemian Eden; one continuous party, fizzing up like champagne. It was all very exciting, and very social.

I soon met Carol’s friends, including RDJ. Revolving in the same social circle were Ken Bolton, Anna Couani, Joanne Burns, and many others.

Rae and I soon became friends, and we enjoyed our deadly serious, and very silly, and witty exchanges – with the wit mainly from Rae’s side – talking about poetry and politics, and the fast-shifting landscape of Australian culture, and the rapid social change of that era.

Here’s an anecdote. Rae had an abiding interest in numerology, which is a belief in the supposed connection between the unfolding fate of your life and crucial numbers derived from your name, birth date, etc. This, I think, was connected with Rae’s deep and creative love of language, and its hidden possibilities.

As a very odd hobby, Rae would sometimes set up a little busker’s stall in King’s Cross, to read, for free, the numerology of passer’s by. I would sometimes meet him there, for a coffee and a chat.

I don’t know how it happened, but on a whim, probably after something stronger than coffee, we decided one day to do a long ‘ponce walk’ right around Kings Cross.

Now, this was a very dangerous thing to do.

By doing our silly stroll, we meant – very pointedly – to send up the spivs, thugs and creeps who daily hung around Kings Cross, and who Rae regarded as, quote, “ponces” (that is, as silly, self-regarding, would-be-posh touts). Luckily, the spivs and crims thought we were just being eccentric that day, and not actually having a go at them, and so we survived to tell the tale. Phew!

Rae and I often laughed about it later.

This is how you do a ‘ponce walk’, just as Rae instructed me that day…

John quickly demonstrates a ‘ponce walk’; walking in an absurdly exaggerated and superior and dismissive manner, down from speaker’s podium, then in front of the podium, into audience area, and back.

So… a ‘ponce walk’… right around Kings Cross, where Rae also lived for a while… You get the picture.

Rae was not naïve about the ways of the world: but was very hard-nosed, astute, wickedly satirical; but also gentle, warm, insightful, kindly, and very funny. Crucially, Rae had a backbone almost literally made of steel. He was born in Broken Hill in 1941, the son of a miner. There were limited opportunities in that tough town, close to nil, even for a clever kid like Rae, so he left school at 14 and took up some manual, mostly ‘slag-and-slog’ jobs, until – sick of the never-ending dead-end of it all – he entered Sydney University, in 1974, with help from the International Workers’ Educational Association.

The disturbing fire and flux of Rae’s early working life is underlined in his poem ‘Blast furnace’ (from one of his earlier books), which tells of how he witnessed a fellow worker’s death in a steel foundry in Whyalla: It was, quote:

a man in khaki overalls slipped & fell in a slow arc,
left hand grabbing air.

nothing –
a scream & a smear of opaque oil –
nobody knew him so nothing happened
because there wasn’t anything to bury or remember.

After graduating from Uni., Rae worked in the then Commonwealth Employment Service, where his insightful industry experience was highly valued. He eventually became a history teacher, in the public education system.

At around this same period, Rae also became a devoted family man. One of his most tender and moving poems is dedicated to his daughter, titled ‘Dear Alyse’ (also from one of his earlier books). And I remember, just a few years ago, or so it seems, meeting Rae with his wife Helen, his son Bevan, and Alyse in a restaurant overlooking Bondi Beach. It was a lovely sunny spring day, with a touch brine in the air, and very jolly.

Finally, in 2004, Rae became mayor of Ashfield, which is west of Newtown in Inner Sydney, where he and his political allies fought numerous political campaigns against so-called ‘developers’, who Rae thought were destroying the neighbourhood for the sake of few grubby dollars – perhaps more than a little reminiscent of the denizens of his Kings Cross days.

Rae once said, that for him, quote, “…poetry and politics are mutually contradictory, and I find consolation from each in the arms of the other.”

Amusingly, Rae was always an unabashed, out-there, very stylish ‘dresser-upper’, and his huge black, wide-brimmed hat remains an icon of Oz Lit. He loved his flamboyant mayoral robes, too, particularly, as photos show.

Rae hung up his mayoral chains in 2007, aged 66, but didn’t slow down a bit. He went on to publish further excellent work, right until the very end, and with absolutely no loss of creative vitality.

We last met for lunch – along with my partner, Shan – in a restaurant in The Rocks, overlooking the Harbour.

There, Rae told me about his eventual fatal illness. Apparently, it was a melanoma, which went dangerously undetected, because it was out of sight, on the bottom of his foot. It was not surgically removed in time, and metastasized, spreading fatally to other parts of his body. Maybe Sydney sun-seekers are more prone to skin cancer than the rest of us, but wherever you live, when having a skin check, please – also look at your feet.

As a writer, Rae was highly versatile. He penned a collection of short stories in the Seventies; then two novels in the Nineties. And, as a leading Australian poet, he took Oz poetry, heh! ‘all the way with RDJ!’

Rae’s first poetry collection was published in 1973. Another 13 collections followed, culminating this very year in The End of the Line, from Rochford Press, a volume so aptly and poignantly named.

For more than 46 years, Rae Desmond Jones has remained one of Australia’s most challenging and rewarding writers; putting his indelible thumb-print on Australian poetry. And such a pity that RDJ can’t be here today, to celebrate his swansong book with us.

But perhaps he can part a storm-cloud – we certainly need rain in this present drought year! – and send down a thunder-jolt or two.

Thank you RDJ!

– John Jenkins

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John Jenkins is a widely published writer, working across poetry, short fiction and non-fiction. He resided in Sydney in the mid-to-late 1970s, and now in Melbourne’s semi-rural, Yarra-side fringe. His new collection, Poems Far and Wide, is due from Puncher & Wattmann this June. Meanwhile, John is working on a quadrella of novellas, plus collection of short stories. Last year he was Open Winner of the Elyne Mitchell Writing Awards, and placed 2nd in the C. J. Dennis Society inaugural short story prize. Website: www.johnjenkins.com.au 

Carol Novack – A Life Remembered. Tributes From John Jenkins & Rae Desmond Jones

The End of the Line is available from https://rochfordpress.com/rochford-press-bookshop/the-end-of-the-line-by-rae-desmond-jones/