Time to say farewell to the last of the troika
WE WERE YOUNG, then, in what was for many of us the formative decade of the 1960s, and the fate for those of us who walked eagerly or tentatively across the threshold of 35 Goulburn Street to enter the Third World Bookshop was to come under the influence of the Percy brothers — John and Jim. And although we have all gone our own ways over the decades since, some setting new directions, others holding firmly or roughly to the political values and the course set back in those times, I think that for many of us the image of John Percy remains vivid.
I sit here writing this after reading the news of John’s passing and I realise that — had it not been for John and his brother, Jim — and Bob Gould, of course — the people who passed news of John on to me would have been people I would never have met. What would our fates have been? Who would we have become if it was not for the influence of the Percy brothers?
But this isn’t about me or those people, some of whom I am still in contact with. It’s about John Percy.
It was Yvonne Gluyas and Stephen Lomas who yesterday afternoon sent news of John’s passing. Both were people around the bookshop scene at the time and both are people with whom I am still in contact. That’s something for which I feel thankful as their presence has given me a sense of continuity in life spanning the decades back to the time we congregated there in the bookshop where we encountered John’s intellectual and physical presence. I wanted to write something on hearing the news but I was lost for words. How do I say something precise about somebody whose presence permeated what was only a few years of my life but somehow seems so much longer?
Encounter on Goulburn Street
I first met John when my school friend from Brisbane State High, Keith James, invited me to a strange but intriguing bookshop on grey and grotty Goulburn Street. I had been walking around the city that Saturday, taking photographs, when I encountered Keith with a small group bearing placards and odd, red and black flags — it was something about some place called Vietnam. With the coming of the bookshop began the part of my life that led me down a road of a different kind.
John, with his brother and Bob Gould were the establishing presence at the Third World Bookshop. They were the self-admitted troika who more or less ran the New Left of the late 1960s as it existed in Sydney, its epicentre the bookshop on Goulburn Street. The New Left — the Percy’s and Bob Gould created it though the term they borrowed from their US counterparts. In the old, dusty and dingy premises that housed the bookshop the two brothers and, often, girlfriends Nita and Sue would seclude themselves from we, the less-politically advanced, to plot and plan in the rear upstairs bedroom that was John’s.
The dynamics of what later becomes history calls forth particular individuals to take action, some as leaders, some as followers. John was a leader, and, somehow, he and his brother coalesced around them a malange of counterculture types, refugees from the old Left and the politically restless known as Resistance, the primary manifestation of the New Left in Australia.
John was the quieter of the troika and his was a considered though for many of us a somewhat elevated presence. Elevated, that is, in the sense that his political know-how and knowledge was just so much further ahead than the rest of us who spent those precious few years of our formative youth hanging around that dusty and dingy bookshop and the rooms out back and up above. It was this that lent John a natural leadership.
Life as persistence
The war in Vietnam ended. The social/political milieu around the bookshop dissipated. Years passed. Well after those years in which the late-sixties segued into the following decade and then slid into history, and after I returned to the city, I would occasionally encounter John selling the Green Left newspaper on Sydney streets. We would say hello as do people who haven’t seen each other for a long time and whose chance encounters were years apart. He was the same in apparance as he was then, other than looking a little older, but still with that trimmed beard and mop of dark hair.
After each encounter I recall thinking about how John continued to follow that same direction he had set back in the bookshop days. He had set a course along which he took us, some for only a short journey, others on a journey still underway. John was a stayer. John was persistence personified.
Farewell and thanks
So, John is no longer with us and all I can do is write a few scattered and possibly incoherent paragraphs… an attempt to summarise my feelings and to recognise what it is that are John’s lessons for us. I reacted this way when Bob Gould left us too, posting my impressions on my blog then. Now I find myself repeating that same thing for John.
With John’s passing goes the last of the troika that created that demimonde — that politico-social milieu on the fringes of respectable society that once coalesced down there on Goulburn Street. John, Jim, Bob — the troika has gone. A time has passed. All we have are their lessons and our memories of them.
Those lessons… I must reiterate what I have already said about persistence… persistence over a lifetime… 50 years, someone wrote on the Facebook page, In Memory of John Percy. That’s a lesson worth imbibing… persistence in seeking a better way to conduct our human affairs. Another lesson: that no matter where you live you can work in the interests of people imprisoned by contaminated political ideologies and malfunctioning economic systems. And another: the value of rationality, for if anything, the John Percy I recall was the rational man. I would also call him authentic, for he was a man who lived his beliefs and who worked towards their realisation as the years, the decades passed.
So, thank you John Percy for your contribution of your time, your ideas, your imagination, your energy, and thank you for being a presence in my life and those of the people I shared it with during those formative years now so long ago — and those people I’m talking about — they’re you, Yvonne Gluyas, Stephen Lomas, Lin Stanton, Belinda Kennedy, Bron Spencer, Charmaine Gibson, Fred Davis.
In Sydney yesterday, as the sun went down and I sat watching the long skies over the coast as they darkened to night, all that raw memory rolled in one huge deluge from decades gone, and I thought of the person that was John Percy.
Obituary in Red Flag: https://redflag.org.au/article/john-percy-revolutionary-party-builder
Farewell, Bob, and thanks for a life that touched so many: http://pacific-edge.info/2011/06/gould/
Feature image: John Percy is seen at left outside the Third World Bookshop in Goulburn Street, Sydney, preparing to lead a demonstration in 1968. His brother, Jim, appears fourth from left.