Erudite centenarian touched by history




20-9-1906 24-4-2012


ARTHUR John, whose remarkable life included writing a dozen books 11 of them when he was in his 90s has died of pneumonia at Caulfield Hospital, aged 105.

John, who rose through the ranks to be director of the Royal Australian Army Educational Corps in Melbourne, also had a unique link with history: he was believed to have been the last remaining first-generation descendant of an American Civil War veteran.

His father, Joseph, who had run away from home and gone to sea, jumped ship when it docked at a Confederate port and joined one of the militias to fight for the South. He was wounded in the knee and returned to England, walking with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.

John, the third of four children of Joseph's second marriage, was born in London when his father was 64. His father died in 1916, leaving the family in difficult circumstances.

Learning of a scheme promoted by the Boy Scouts for the resettlement of young men on the land in Australia, John applied, was accepted and migrated to Queensland in 1923, aged 16. Initially apprenticed as a dairy farmer on the Darling Downs, he soon moved to work on a sheep station at Forbes in New South Wales, and then a property in the Riverina, where he worked as a jackaroo while developing bookkeeping skills.

By 1927, he was in Sydney working for an engineering firm, an enthusiastic if not overly proficient member of the Eastern Suburbs Amateur Athletics Club. His love of outdoor exercise stayed with him for the rest of his life.

By 1931, New Guinea was calling, and he accepted a position as private secretary to the general manager of Bulolo Gold Dredging, which was setting up a major new gold mining operation at Bulolo. At age 93, John was to write about his experiences in Fortune Favoured Me.

For a young man, the New Guinea years were exhilarating. Two large dredges were being constructed, with all parts flown in on large, German-built Junkers G31 tri-motor aircraft. White men came from all over the world and indentured labourers from all over New Guinea. It was a melting pot of life and experience.

By late 1934, John was back in Sydney working as private secretary to Bulolo Gold Dredging's director where, with the exception of a year in London in 1936, he remained until he was mobilised in 1941.

In Sydney in 1927, the polite and punctual John, who loved Shakespeare and classical music, met a talented young actress and dancer, Neva Carr-Glyn. Nine years later, the friendship turned serious in London, where Neva was performing, and they were married in August 1936. The marriage only lasted 18 months, but was the subject of his eighth book decades later, Aren't Men Beasts a cryptic take on a 1936 stage production of the same name featuring Carr-Glynn.

The military provided new opportunities for John. Appointed in 1942 as a private in the army's education service, he rose quickly through the ranks and in 1943 became an officer (lieutenant), then won further promotions.

While in Queensland with the army, John met Elsma Matthews, a well-known and accomplished dancer with the Tivoli Ballet. They married in Melbourne in 1945.

In 1946, he was appointed head of the Australian Army Education Service with the British Commonwealth Occupation Force in Japan. His appointment as deputy assistant director, education, with the rank of major, was notified in a cryptic message: "Congratulations see Henry IV Part II Act III Scene 1" (wherein King Henry IV opines "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown". [The insignia of a major is a crown.])

John was stationed in Kure, 20 kilometres from Hiroshima. He was responsible for the education of Australian troops, including their children, but also made many lifelong friends among the Japanese. On his return to Australia in 1952, he was appointed director of the army's educational corps in Melbourne a remarkable achievement for someone with limited formal education.

After he retired from the army in 1961, John taught English and history at high school level, as well as drama and debating, until increasing deafness led to his retirement.

John had always enjoyed writing articles, and retirement provided the opportunity to move up a gear. His first book, Uneasy Lies the Head, about his experiences in Japan, was published in 1987, while he was studying for a bachelor of arts degree with Queensland University.

But it was in his 90s that he really let loose, writing and publishing 11 books on a range of subjects, including his New Guinea years, his cycling experiences and reflections on retirement.

While never intended for a wide audience, his books display a crisp command of English and a remarkable memory for facts.

Age barely wearied him. He cycled into his 90s, before switching to an exercise bike, and he was a member of the Melbourne Bush Walking Club, regularly walking several kilometres a day.

John's second wife Elsma died in 2008, after 63 years of marriage. He is survived by children Tony and Judy, and grandchildren Tim, Heidi and Bec.

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