Can’t you just see Bob walking towards you, in your mind’s eye?
Usually in shorts and t-shirt, whatever the weather. Sometimes in well-worn suit and tie, when occasion requested it.
If you were a woman who he knew and liked, you can just see the greeting, can’t you? – “hello gorgeous”, the huge smile, the large laughing comment, the great big warm bear hug.
If you were a bloke the greeting was no less exuberant – the outstretched hand, the clap on the shoulder, the generous wide voice, the generous active presence.It’s still a bear hug.
That behaviour in itself is unforgettable about Bob. What it says about him, about who he was, is something else again.
Susie, I hope that it can be of some solace to you and to Andy and Iseult, and to your lovely grandchildren,Bob’s brothers,and the extended family, that the sheer presence of Bob in that very individualistic, idiosyncraticway of his in meeting with us, with so many of us, of being like that for so many years, gave us all something of him so warm and whole, something which we all shall always have and feel, and we shall always cherish and value.
When I first met Bob, more than 28 years ago now, he was a well-known teacher of art and all things to do with outdoor education at Alanvale College.
Bob has always contained those two things intertwined with each other, hasn’t he? – the strongly artistic and the equally strongly physical worlds that he loved. I reckon they were two sides of the one coin, the one coin of passion for engagement with the world of the mind and people and community, and the other an equally full-throttle engagement with the world of hey, my goodness – the limits of physical challenge to blood and bone and flesh of rock, of cold, of heat, of mad heights, sheer cliffs and just about everything else the uncompromising natural world could chuck at him.
His welcome to me when I arrived at Alanvale is as fresh in my memory today as when it took place back in 1985 – especially the effervescence, the massively friendly eyes, and that first introduction to the irrepressible and bone-threatening handshake.
If there was one thing that we could say was the essence of Bob, it was this unstinting full-throttle engagement and openness – part of which was this kind of gregariousness that was so complete and so straight forward.
Quite simply, Bob loved people. He loved mingling with people, especially being in touch, direct and open contact, living life by contact with others. In all sorts of settings.
There are other parts of this openness that Bob shared so physically with us, and that we can all see – and see so clearly.
There are other parts of this openness of his which are more subtle and complex, which were very significant in terms of who he was, what he believed, what he articulated, how he lived, his family life, his community involvement, his political and social values.
Bob was open in so many ways. Boy, was he ever!
It was an openness grounded in strong views - his views about equality, equity, fairness, real justice, rigour. He more than disliked anything which compromised those values, because anything that did was not open. He hated secret deals, meetings behind closed doors, confidentiality, anything which indicated exclusion, manipulation, anything that smacked of imposition, of mindless rigidity.
As an art teacher, for example, this meant that Bob ran into bureaucratic walls. Walls which he challenged – by walking through them. He encouraged his students in grades 11 &12 to express themselves openly in their prac work. Sometimes this led to fond discussions – shall we say – with those at high levels in the system, who would say that can’t be submitted, let alone assessed. To which Bob would say, oh yes it can, and it will, and it’s getting an internal mark of 20 out of 20 because it’s a brilliant and imaginative and an honest and mature piece of work, and it actually deals with some worthwhile issues.
Because he was open, he was open to the new, which meant that throughout his life he was very much an autodidact. If you look at Bob’s overflowing library you see a man interested in exploring ideas. He read heaps of history, not only art history, but literary history, and the history of political ideas. His bookshelves are crammed with American history, 19th and 20th history of Europe, philosophy and poetry. He had a profound knowledge of the American Civil War, the Russian Revolution, Europe in the 1930s, Nazi Germany.
Our discussions into a third or fourth or even fifth bottle of red wine would lead to books being exchanged for months on end. Sometime last yearwe got to discuss Vasily Grossman for some reason, and Bob couldn’t find his copy of Grossman’s Life and Fate, so I had to go and buy my own copy, for goodness sake.
At the time of his death he’d just finished reading Christopher Koch’s Highways to a War, and loved it, so much so that he wanted to borrow my copy of The Year of Living Dangerously.
The Year of Living Dangerously. There’s a title. For Bob. Let’s change it a bit though. The Years is more appropriate. The Years of Living Dangerously and Passionately and … Well, we all have other things, each of us, which we would choose individually to add to that. You only have to read a few of the many, many tributes to him on Tas Times to see that is the case.
Which brings me to another aspect of Bob’s characteristic sense of openness. He did have an abiding intuitive and intellectual empathy with the democratic underpinnings of anarchist political ideas, and he understood its practical possibilities at a community grass roots level.
Many of us here today have a deep respect for Bob’s leadership in the anti-pulp mill movement, especially when the fight against the pulp mill was at its most intense, at its most demanding, at its most difficult and stressful.
One of the things that was so interesting about that period of time of huge conflict when Bob was the public voice of TAP, the go-to man for the media, for organising mass rallies, marches, public meetings by the dozen, was the flat organisational structure of the community-based organisation – a flat structure that he and others encouraged, not without many difficulties.
Bob wasmost important in promoting this, a time intensive, often stressful and conflicting thing to do in itself.
Let’s call a spade a spade in relation to this. Bob wasn’t interested in various party agendas. He wasn’t interested in external impositions. He wasn’t interested is any kind of caucus conformity. He was interested in the opposite. That’s what he consistently fought for, and he let everyone know it, whether they liked it or not.
This wasn’t political in a superficial party political sense. It was deeply political in a much more important way. For Bob this was values-based. It was an essential. It was fundamental. It was not about political wishy-washy vacillation. It was all about inclusion.
Bob was an inclusive leader.
He was inclusive as part and parcel of the value system he had, the fundamental beliefs he had. He tried to empower people to use their own strengths to do what they wanted to do. To be independent.
What he tried to do as a teacher, whether in the classroom or in the wilderness, he tried to do as an active participant and leader in the community. He was always incredibly enthusiastic about people doing what they had chosen to do, rather than what others told them to do, and really doing what they had chosen to do as well as they could.
That’s exactly what he did himself. Once he took on that spokesman role, that’s what he did as he did everything else. Open, honest, transparent, whole-hearted, total commitment. No holding back. No hidden agendas. No artifice. It’s like the bear hug. It is the bear hug.
When people did the same, in their many different ways, can’t you just hear him say – “that’s marvellous, that’s bloody marvellous”. Sometimes, often times actually, marvellous would be articulated in much stronger language.
So would its opposite of course, especially when it involved the shredding of those values of inclusion, and of equity.
Here’s some bits of what Bob said in a speech at a public rally outside Gunns’ headquarters in Stanley Street, Launceston, in March 2008:
“It is in that building over yonder that the real power in Tasmania resides – policy, decisions, even legislation is formulated over there.
It is then faxed to the branch office in Hobart where the most miserable collection of lickspittles in the 204 year history of government in Tasmania rubber stamps whatever Gunns sends them.
Lickspittle – abject parasite, toady…
What did we lose? We lost a democracy. It was sick but this finished it off. Due process was debauched. Proper planning procedures and public participation were out the window…
What did we gain? We gained an undying resolve to resist, confront, confound, impede and defeat the thieves who would plunder our island and shut us up. We gained an understanding of who, in parliament, took seriously the notion of doing the job they were being paid to do, that is, represent the people.”
I call that the defence of the bear hug. That’s what the bear hug was about. That’s what it meant. There are so many examples of Bob’s consistency in this.
That’s how he lived his life. His bear hug was holistic.
Bob McMahon as many remember him: Taking the fight against the pulp mill to the steps of Parliament
He has often been described by one word in the media, an environmentalist. This has always been extremely misleading. This is what he said to the Fairfax media just last year:
“Our campaign is often misunderstood. Everyone thinks it was purely environmental. It was actually a community campaign, a socio-economic campaign that began because of a great sense of injustice, because the costs and risks were going to be borne by the community and the benefits were going to be gained by private enterprise with massive government support”.
Bob’s environmental consciousness merged with his social consciousness, his political, economic and philosophical and intellectual consciousness. It was all part of the one. Bob can’t be pigeon-holed as a silo thinker because he wasn’t a silo thinker. His perception and intellect was much more sophisticated and integrated than that.
Talking about inclusion, if you ever went to a social occasion with Bob, to a party or a dinner – especially a restaurant – after the first bottle of wine, or even before, he shared what was happening at his table with everyone else, especially his laughter and his irreverence for all things artificial.
I’m sure that many people who had gone out to a restaurant where Bob was enthusing about the wonderful food and wine – which he did so often – left the place much wiser about a whole range of issues, and how the English language can be used to talk about those issues, irrespective of where they were sitting in the restaurant.
Bob included good food and wine and discussions about people, places, books, ideas, politics, history, education, football, in his categorisations of “bloody marvellous”.
He was more than bloody marvellous. There is nobody I have ever met who had the depth of moral and physical courage that he had. Very fittingly, Bob has a framed certificate hanging in his home saying Tasmanian Times Tasmanian of the Year 2012.
The one occasion that Bob attended an event where he had no hand in organising it, that many of us will always remember, was when Dr Alison Bleaney, the first recipient of the Tas Times Tasmanian of the Year award, presented last year’s award to Bob.
This is what is written on Bob’s award:
“For his strong and consistent leadership in adversity, his courage and his care for the truth in the interests of the people of Tasmania”.
Bob was always there for others. He would notice that someone would be alone at Christmas and they would be included in the McMahon’s Christmas Day family dinner. He would learn that someone was ill and drop everything to help them out. That was Bob’s sense of inclusion, present in so many ways.
Last Thursday, one thing that Bob’s beloved grand-daughter Leila said – and Leila, I hope you don’t mind me saying this, but I think it should be said because so many of us feel the same way – Leila said: “It’s just not fair. He was much too young”.
He had everything to live for, for years to come. At the time that Bob died he had become really enthusiastic about writing a book about an amazing Tasmanian connection with German mountaineering expeditions in the Himalayas in the 1930s. One of the tables in his study is currently covered with material relating to this.
You can see all the connections in this, can’t you? The history, the politics, the attraction of the limits of physical endeavour, the world of extreme danger and breath-taking beauty, the intellectual challenge, the nature and character of people who do these things.
It is perhaps apt that the leader of a people well versed in understanding the nature of life in such an extreme physical environment as the Himalayas, and with huge political challenges and threats as well, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, had this to say in one of his books:
“There is a saying in Tibetan, ‘Tragedy should be utilized as a source of strength.’
No matter what sort of difficulties, how painful experience is, if we lose our hope, that’s our real disaster.”
Bob died much too young. He had so much more to do. But that would always be the case with Bob, however old he lived. There is a poem by Dylan Thomas that Bob liked, “Do not go Gentle into that Good Night. “
We discussed it once, a few years ago, and we decided it was about fighting for what you believe in, while you have life. I’m not sure that Dylan Thomas would be completely captivated by that interpretation, but I reckon it sums up Bob’s attitude to pretty much everything he thought was worthwhile:
“Do not go gentle into that good night…Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right… Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by… Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight… Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight… Rage, rage against the dying of the light”.
Bob would never go gentle into any night where the light might be going out, no matter how old he was. We know he was outraged at any sign of the dying of the light.
Those who might try to turn down the lights, whoever they were, got the full bore of the rage of Bob McMahon.
The least we can do is to try and have some of his strength and courage. I often asked his opinion about various matters. I shall continue to do that, for I shall need to do that.
Bob, I could talk for the rest of the day into night – about Tierra del Fuego and your crazy trip there a few years ago, about getting Professor Eduado Jaramillo to come here from Chile to talk about the disaster of the Valdivia mill to Tasmanians who refused to listen, about your huge practical skills, your brilliant photography, and above all, your pride in your close family and friends.
Thanks Bob, for being who you were.
Thanks for never going gently into anything.
I hope you thought that was okay, my old mate. — Peter Henning
• John Hawkins:
The gathering of probably close to a thousand people at the Tailrace Centre to farewell Bob McMahon was a rare testimony by the community to the love, regard and respect inspired by this man of the people.
In a moving yet simple service, Tasmanians from all walks of life paid tribute to this extraordinary man.
We heard of his exploits as a rock climber of international repute, as an inspirational art teacher, “a bloody marvellous” activist, and as a widely read savant.
In all these somewhat diverse fields his skills and insights will be sorely missed.
Very few of us will be given the singular honour by those attending our funeral, of the congregation rising as one to clap as a final salute to a great man on his departure from their midst.
Bob was that inspirational.
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