True Blue, a faithful friend through the good and bad
Blue Butterworth. Photo: Stuart Davidson
TOM Uren came down to Melbourne a fortnight ago to address an anti-uranium meeting. He's 91 now, walking with the aid of a stick, a magnificent old snowy-haired warrior for peace. I won't pretend to be objective about him. Tommy was on the Burma Railway with my father.
Tommy's great mate from the railway, Blue Butterworth, died last December. Blue, usually described as Weary Dunlop's batman, was a champion in his own right. If you went to him for advice, he could give it to you in a word or two and I had the impression nothing I told him ever surprised him. Blue and I had a bet each year on the Melbourne Cup.
Blue lived in Sydney after arriving here as a young red-haired bricklayer escaping the Depression, which he had experienced to the full growing up in working-class Yorkshire, sleeping four to a bed. Australia appealed to Blue, Blue appealed to Australians. He had depth and fire but in a quiet way there was also something sunny about him, some deep good spirit that was remarkably buoyant.
Like Weary, Blue was smart in the ways of the world. They got on from the get-go, one a colonel, the other a private. One became famous, the other was so little-known that when he asked a woman to photograph him beside the statue of Weary in St Kilda Road and told her he'd been with him in the war, the woman smiled and said, ''That's what they all say.''
Blue wasn't irked by his lot. He was grateful to have been where he had, to have done what he did, to have adventured with Weary.
Blue said Weary gave him courage. You needed courage to do a lot of what Blue did. Used as slave labour by the Imperial Japanese Army, 100,000 men died laying 400 kilometres of track. One of the biggest killers, cholera, was highly contagious. Blue volunteered to act as a nurse in the cholera tent because Weary stuck to his rounds, the cholera tent among them. One day Dunlop was examining a dying man from behind when the man's wrecked body shot fluid through his rear end into Dunlop's face and eyes. Blue told me that was the only time he saw Dunlop panic, crashing about for water. Blue watched him and thought, ''So you are human.''
Tommy's politics came from the Burma Railway. A British detachment camped across the river from the Australians near Hellfire Pass. In Tom's view, the English troops lacked what Dunlop engendered among the Australians, what Tom calls ''the collective spirit''. (People say there is, or has been, no such thing as Australian culture. I say here it is!) Tom has never forgotten trudging through the mud past dead English bodies each morning on his way to the line. He was a prisoner in Japan when the war ended and saw the angry orange sky after the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki. Tom, a former boxer, became a fighter for peace.
Tom's an old leftie. Blue was more traditional Labor but their relationship went way beyond politics. Each time Blue was hospitalised I'd get a call from Tom. ''You'd better ring Blue,'' he'd say. To my great regret, I missed his funeral because of family commitments but I wrote words that got read at the funeral and the obituary I wrote also appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald, which Tom wanted for Blue's family. But I won't be betting on the Cup this year.
These old blokes are like my elders. When Tom came to Melbourne, we talked about Blue, and Tom said, ''I still see him every day.'' I told my father. ''Oh yes,'' he said. ''He would, he would.''