20 September 2022

When an elder passes

Posted by Terry Glover

Whenever an elder dies, there comes a moment of collective reflection. We consider what the connection we felt with this person meant; the values they embodied. We consider the way that their long lifespan straddled our own; the moment in history they represent, and the things that have changed during that time.

I’m saying this with Aboriginal Australian elder Uncle Jack Charles in mind. Uncle Jack was many, many things during his life: an actor and an activist, a mentor and a mischief maker, a gay icon and a survivor of horrific institutional abuse. He was one of the founders of the first Indigenous theatre in Australia, and appeared in various iconic films including The Chant of Jimmie BlacksmithBedevilMystery Road and Bastardy, a documentary that followed him for seven years of his life. He was warm and generous, and moved through the world with an infallible kindness and dignity. He died on 13 September in Melbourne, aged 79.

I knew Uncle Jack, a little. Everybody did: Melbourne is a small city, and the 80s was a particularly rich time in its creative history. In Fitzroy on any given night you could rub shoulders with film directors, actors, thieves, poets and junkies – none of these categories mutually exclusive. Uncle Jack was held in high respect by all. He was also friends with my next-door neighbour, and would often drop round after the theatre had closed to drink a cup of tea and talk until the early hours.

Uncle Jack was one of the Stolen Generations – Aboriginal children who were removed from their families and placed in federal care. He was always very honest about his story, and spoke openly about how the trauma from this experience contributed to his battles with addiction and his time spent in and out of jail. Later in life he spent many years working as a mentor to Aboriginal youth in prison with Archie Roach – another trailblazing Aboriginal elder, a child of the Stolen Generations who spent his life making music with his wife Ruby Hunter, and singing alongside artists including Joan Armatrading, Bob Dylan, Tracy Chapman and Patti Smith. Uncle Archie died earlier this year.

In January, I wrote about my desire to reconnect to the country I’m from; to find my way to reconcile a love of the land with the tragedy of our history. The bravery and resilience of these elders inspires me. They spent their lives fighting for a culture that the state had done its best to forcibly separate them from – enriching it, expanding it, and bringing it into new spaces. I can connect to that culture here in the UK through their music, through their movies, and through books. There is so much wonderful Aboriginal literature being published in Australia right now; my reading list has grown considerably since the last time I wrote about this. Savouring these words and works is my way of paying my respects to the traditional custodians of land, to Aboriginal elders past, present and emerging.

To Uncle Jack and Uncle Archie: may they be greeted by their Ancestors on their return home.


Photo of Uncle Jack Charles © Nichollas Harrison

Books mentioned in this blog post