By Edward Simpson, nephew, delivered at a Public Memorial Service, St Judes Church, Bowral on Wednesday 8th February, 2017.
My uncle, James Fairfax, lead a life that was so vast that it is impossible to do him justice in the few brief moments here today – not many people get 6 eulogists! Mainly because not many require them – but I think James does, so please bear with us!
James was a constant in my life, in our lives, an intelligent, and gentle man who touched so many, and the void left will be deep and keenly felt.
As CS Lewis said: The pain of grief is the cost of the joy of love.
We had a marvellous man in our midst, but what is greatly satisfying at this sad moment is that we all knew that fact, while he was alive – we didn’t have to lose him to know what we had – and I think we showed him that we knew it too, during his life.
And what a life !
Fundamentally, James was a conservative – and by that I mean, if there were good reasons to change something, then he’d change it. And if there weren’t good reasons to change, then that itself was a very good reason NOT to change. True conservatism is a culture of affirmation – it is an understanding that civilisation is a thin veneer, and it behoves us to both value and defend it, and to pass it on.
To have a positive effect on society, as James desired, and I think, achieved, it is essential to rely on one’s own Wisdom in reading the world, and one’s own Courage to stand firm for one’s convictions. James was indeed a wise and courageous man; and I think his various achievements throughout his life were all illustrative of this.
As was his profound sense of Duty. We don’t value duty much now – we live in a disposable age where duty is like any old can of coke – you can accept your duty, or you can ignore it, it’s disposable, it doesn’t matter, it’s optional, a lifestyle choice. This was not the case for James, and he always approached and acted on his sense of Duty with both wisdom and courage, and not inconsiderable strength – a quality that would be easy to underestimate in him, on first meeting: his Fairfaxian reticence, his aristocratic demeanour, his unbelievably soft, moisturised face, his quiet speech, his natural shyness – all belied a rock-solid force underneath.
Such qualities would necessarily attract conflict from various and formidable sources he was to encounter in his life; often, and famously, he needed to stand firm – yet James also showed remarkable courage when he sought and achieved reconciliation with numerous antagonists, most notably his own father Sir Warwick. It’s easy to justify estrangements, to hold grudges – much harder to dissolve them, after many years. James dissolved them often, insurmountably difficult as that appeared, and I know he spoke proudly and openly of this fact of reconciliation with his father, right up until the very end.
Resentment is the poison we drink hoping that others get sick. Well, James realised, early on I think, that he preferred Champagne.
James always had a great humanity and humility about him – he met everyone with both respect and curiosity: he had an insatiable curiosity for people. It didn’t mean he necessarily liked them – after all, the mark of a civilised man is holding a thought in his head with which he disagrees.
And so many amazing people crossed his path … the photo montage which will follow my speech is just the tip of the iceberg. The witty conversations, the amazing stories, the characters, the endless adventures, lunches and cocktail parties.
The Parties. Recently James was stuck overnight in St Vincent’s Private and on realising his great friend Susie Atwill was in a neighbouring room, he announced to her “Susie, don’t move – I’ll bring the Party to you!” And he did. The Doctors walked in on it a bit later, muttered something about an alcohol ban, and left shaking their heads. Illness is no excuse not to have fun.
The Parties. In every corner of the globe. James was, after all, ‘The Inveterate Traveller’. I remember years ago, when I was living in a Paddington terrace, I would hear an enormously loud thump on the doorstep and I knew it could only be one of 2 things – either the Yellow Pages were being delivered, or it was the couriered arrival of James’ latest travel itinerary. Travel was a literal and metaphorical release for James. I loved meeting him overseas – he always seemed at his most expansive and free.
But James wasn’t only interested in ‘famous’ people: he was a gentleman, and treated everyone with respect, but it didn’t end there – He saw his life, his wealth, his cultural inheritance, his very being, partly at least, as a force to enable other people. His family, his friends, his lovers, his employees, his company, his acquaintances, and even complete strangers, on request – he actively set out to find out what you were passionate about, and to see if he could help. And unsurprisingly, he could. He was the Grand Enabler.
Amusingly, despite circumventing the digital age entirely, James was trending on Twitter after his death. 2 tweets stand out:
One woman stated simply: James Fairfax paid for my PHD in 1989 and changed my life forever. Another tweet was from an ex-Fairfax employee who said: James knew every single one of the thousands of employees at Fairfax by name – I was proud to have shaken his hand.
James had a clear perspective of the world, and perhaps an even clearer perspective of himself. At the launch of the James Fairfax Galleries at the AGNSW, James said of his
donations of Old European Masters worth many millions “I am only in a position to do this because the people of NSW have purchased the SMH for over 170 years.” Completely free from hubris as usual, James understood that the only true purpose of wealth is in the service of well-being.
The person who understood this best in him was his sister, my Mother, Caroline Simpson, who died in 2003. They shared a quiet, unsentimental, and often unspoken bond: Brother and Sister vs the World. They knew each other, like no other. In fact, Mum was I believe, the only person who could get James to do anything he truly didn’t want to do (stubbornness being a strong family trait …)
In 1986, Mum twisted James’ arm to force him to congratulate me on my ascension to University – she wanted an avuncular word in my ear, possibly an exhortation to the Protestant work ethic – she dragged him over to me, and James, who’d had a drink by that stage, put his hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and said:
“Eddy … University is there to be missed.” Mum was aghast, James giggled, as did I.
But I interpreted it then, as now, to mean – “Eddy, Don’t forget to live your life.” And James certainly did not forget to live his.
In the final months of his life, James wistfully told Sharon at Retford, that he missed his sister. And he missed his mother. And he wanted to be with them again.
The act of dying is one of the acts of life (Marcus Aurelius).
James had a terrific life, and a good death. Truly, it was almost like he willed it. Goodbye James, and Thank You for being a shining example to us all.