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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Alfred Francis James (1918–1992)

Francis James, who died of cancer yesterday aged 74, was one of Australia's most brilliant and eccentric polymaths and ratbags. He left his mark in theology, aviation, fishing, journalism and publishing, was imprisoned for three years by the Chinese for alleged spying, but later exonerated by them, and was the publisher of The Anglican who could get fined £50 for obscenity in publishing Oz magazine.

Entirely unaffected, immensely charming, but one who never hesitated, in any company, either to air his opinions or his wide knowledge of just about everything, and who could never surrender on any issue of principle, his eccentricities and occasional pranks brought him wide publicity over the years. But although there was more than a little of the Walter Mitty in his character, he was neither a self-publicist nor one who had any need to invent anything romantic about his history or background.

Francis James was the son of an Anglican clergyman who had been a Methodist minister but who had lost his living upon marrying a Catholic. James, an early prodigy and brat, attended and was expelled from an array of schools, including Fort Street and Canberra Grammar, mostly for correcting teachers.

A senior schoolmate at Canberra Grammar was Gough Whitlam, with whom he was involved in a number of pranks (including being marooned up a tree) and who was to secure his release from a Chinese prison 36 years later. A member of a family with a strong military tradition, he became a cadet officer in the Royal Australian Air Force, but resigned after being reprimanded for chatting to an airman. He was told that officers should only speak to other ranks for the purpose of issuing commands; he disagreed vehemently saying that it was a mark of a lack of self-confidence to be unable to mix with people. Nonetheless, he pursued his flying as a civilian, and, at the beginning of World War II, got a job on a freighter travelling to Britain, where he joined the Royal Air Force.

In early 1943, his Spitfire was shot down over France. His face and eyes were terribly burnt as he escaped from the aircraft. Partly because he lied to the Germans about his rank, he received considerable specialist care before being repatriated back to Britain in 1943.

The accident left him severely photophobic; for many years he had to wear an exceptionally broad brimmed hat to avoid direct sunlight. Most people wrongly thought this a pure affectation and while it was not, the cloak which often accompanied it certainly was.

A short spell at Oxford, the editorship of a journal, the World Review, and some advisory work for the British Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries preceded his return to Australia, where he began, and soon sold profitably out of a trawling operation off Western Australia. He then joined the Sydney Morning Herald, at which he was chiefly famous for using a desk set up in the back of his Rolls Royce, parked in the street below the Fairfax offices in Hunter Street, as his office. The desk allocated to him upstairs was in direct sunlight, he would explain. His superiors would get his attention by dropping paper clips on to the car roof.

He left the Herald to launch the Anglican in 1952, which swallowed a failing Church Standard whose circulation had fallen below 2000, and which became an independent and lively forum, outside the control of the hierarchy, it reached a peak circulation of 90,000. Informed but often highly critical of what was happening in church affairs, it also broke major news stories, including the first details of Australia's decision to get involved in the war in Vietnam. The printery also published other magazines, which saw James in the dock alongside Richard Walsh, Richard Neville and Martin Sharp for the publication of Oz. His co-defendants were sent to jail, he was fined; the verdicts were later quashed.

James was arrested in China in 1969 and accused of spying. The Chinese at first denied, even to inquiries from the British Prime Minister, Alex Douglas Home, that they were holding him. Just what provoked the arrest was never clear; even some of James's friends believe that he was probably baiting officials in a country then in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. It was not until 1971, when Gough Whitlam, in a visit as Leader of the Opposition, made persistent inquiries that China acknowledged that they held him. However, he was not released until soon after Australia recognised China 18 months later.

"On the one hand, I was subjected to gross insult and abuse, deprivation and starvation, to mental and physical torture", he wrote later. "I was kicked and beaten, spat upon, threatened with death and made to undergo personal humiliations and indignities of the most odious kind, usually for no apparent reason. "

"On the other hand, I was shown at some times the most loving care and attention — real kindness and consideration".

His descriptions of his debates with his interrogators suggest that he drove them mad. Asked to confess, he responded, "I have no crimes to confess. Not I. You have made a mistake. You must follow Chairman Mao's great thought and have the courage to acknowledge and confess your errors".

He remained enormously fond of China and in 1984 was formally told by its Government that a re-examination of the case had shown his detention to have been unjustified. He continued in journalism, writing regular reviews for British and Australian magazines.

ABC general manager David Hill said Francis James was "an elegant, colourful, witty, courageous, mis chievous, irreverent and rebellious character with a wonderfully ad venturous spirit and huge sense of humour".

"Francis James was one of the giant Australian characters of the 20th century who packed so much into a fascinating life. He enriched the experience of anyone who had the privilege to have met him."

He is expected to be buried at St James Church in Turramurra on Sydney's north shore on Thursday.

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'James, Alfred Francis (1918–1992)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 June 2024.

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