With Banner Unfurled: For Issy Wyner, 1916-2008

Alan Rosen and Johnny Hawkins

Eulogy by Alan Rosen, Chair, Clontarf Cottage Management Committee, revised for spreading of Issy’s ashes by Larry Wyner and family at Clontarf Cottage Community Centre, Balmain, 30.11.08, with additional comments by Johnny Hawkins, retired waterfront worker and longstanding local resident. (Amended June 2009)

We the members of Clontarf Cottage Management Committee will sorely miss our much loved chairman, Issy Wyner, who led us since the inception of this lively community centre in 1986, fashioned from a formerly burnt out and vandalised 1840’s stone cottage. It has been said by Hall Greenland that Issy was the most elected man in Australia, at 44 times, 36x to the executive of the Painters’ & Dockers union and 8x to Leichardt Council, to which we reckon should be added 20 annual elections to the chairmanship of Clontarf, a total of 64 elections. He was also, with his close ally Nick Origlass, one of the most formidable and larrikin figures in political life in Australia. To our knowledge, he only missed 4 Clontarf meetings over all those years, once during his treatment for a brain tumour, and 3 times before his death, when he took issue with the discomfort of his final illness, just as he often took issue with us. Issy ran the Clontarf Committee much the same as he had championed Open Council. Everyone was welcome to have a say, but if you didn’t keep it short, you would be lashed with the sharp end of his wit.

Issy never lost his intellectual curiosity or wicked sense of humour. A few months ago we took him to Keating, the musical. He savoured every delicious line, and he wanted to be sure that he hadn’t missed a word of it, so Fergus then bought him the CD.

Issy’s inspirational off-the-cuff oratorial skills and compassion never deserted him, and he was always prepared to offer special words of welcome and comfort to all who came to our annual Clontarf street parties, and our memorial gatherings for those locals we had lost. 2 years ago, our neighbourhood celebrated the 25th Anniversary of the campaign to save Clontarf, and 20 years since the opening of Clontarf as a community centre, which coincided with us all celebrating Issy’s 90th birthday.

We celebrated Issy being so instrumental for so many years now, in helping us keep knitted together until now as a local community that had been galvanised in the battle to save Clontarf in the early 80’s, when the then mayor, Bill Brady, had offered the stones of the ruin of the cottage to anyone who would take them away. We celebrated the knitting circle of pregnant, ill and dying women, who guarded the site day in and day out, and the kids who, totally unbidden, took the long way to school every day to take on the task of being lookouts. We also celebrated the huge demountable site office, which was plonked on the site to get the development under way, and was somehow picked up by a massive mobile crane late on a Sunday night. It mysteriously re-appeared on an early Monday morning on the footpath in Macquarie St, blocking the gates to Parliament House, daubed in cinemascope with 10 foot high letters reading “Hands Off Clontarf”. It took them about a day to work out how to get rid of it, and in the meantime it made a great picture in the SMH.

As he did elsewhere, during the campaign to save Clontarf, Issy spoke up for the ordinary people and local residents, and against the power elites. He was always willing and ready to stand up, be counted, be sacked, be expelled, be arrested and even be incarcerated for a good cause. In 1986, at the height of the ( so-called) “Battle for Balmain”, he was thrown roughly into a paddy wagon, as was an already ailing Nick Origlass, and 5 others of us. Some of them are here today. We were trying to deny access to a truck bearing a huge bulldozer onto the site. All we had to do was to encourage the locals to park legally on the street, rather than with 2 wheels on the footpaths, and no truck or bulldozer could get through. Once forced to move the vehicles, we linked arms and were variously charged with obstructing police in carrying out their duty, or obstructing traffic. We were left to cool our heels in the cells for two hours before being charged, fingerprinted and released to turn up for our day in court. Appearing before Magistrate Kevin Waller, we decided to conduct our own defence, when a substitute for our Civil Liberties lawyer turned up hopelessly briefed. Jane Ward, babe in arms, swept in to the courtroom, and presented each of us with a long stemmed flower. Issy placed his flower behind his ear. He was such a picture. Waller threatened to charge us all with contempt, and made it clear that he didn’t appreciate this case wasting the time of his court. The sergeant who had tripped us up as we were thrown into the paddy wagon falsely claimed that I had been kneeling and waving my arms about in front of the dozer. Cross examining, Issy innocently inquired: “and did he say Allah be praised?” We finally had no conviction recorded, and Issy and Nick both went on to become mayors of Leichhardt, Nick for the second time. We sensed that we had all been in good company in that paddy wagon.

Issy’s last weeks in palliative care at Montefiore Nursing Home posed him a question of faith of another flavour. Before he went there, he was worried that the Rabbi would come by every day and take him to task for living such a secular life, and force religion down his throat. None of his fears were realized, but his critical faculties remained intact and in gear. He never needed Dylan Thomas to exhort him not to go quietly into that good night. He certainly raged, raged against the dying of the light. But, he seemed to find some peace and pleasure in the accounts of the launch of his 3rd book, on his collaborative initiative of ‘open councils’, as by then he was too ill to attend, and of the mass good wishes for his 92nd birthday, only 2 and a half weeks before his death, both video’d for him by his grandson James and my older son Zacha. Moreover, he was thrilled that this occasion had alerted so many of his old friends and colleagues to his advancing illness and his location, and that many good people he had missed, some he hadn’t seen for years, phoned him or called in to see him.

Even in his last few weeks while Issy was getting very frail physically, he would still perk up to tell a good yarn. Having come to see him after a trip to Cockatoo Island, to view the Biennale, Issy told us about when he worked as a dogman on a mobile crane in the Cockatoo Island dry docks. One day he fell off the hook he was riding, and was dropped into 4 feet of water, which broke his fall, but was of unknown but undoubted toxicity. So they took him to hospital to check him over just in case, but he was eventually released unhurt. He also told us about how he was sacked in 1947, for being quoted in the press, saying that the regime and work at Cockatoo Island was like Alcatraz, which Issy meant to be a minor throw away line, but which the union movement newspaper magnified into a headline. He said he was betrayed by the then Secretary-General of the Painters & Dockers, who as Patricia Wyner reminded me was Terry Gordon, Issy’s ideological adversary, who told all the workers at the island to stop striking in protest at his dismissal, and to go back to work, as he would personally defend Issy in the industrial court. So they did return to work. But then, the Secretary-General didn’t turn up at the court, on some flimsy pretext, which was no surprise to Issy. Issy then had to go on the rotary, and wait his turn for some months for some casual work on the docks to turn up.

He stayed alert and vitally interested in all our lives til very near the end, but he was more than ready to go, and to rejoin his Ruby, the love of his life. In his latter years, many Balmain locals will fondly remember him patrolling Darling Street every day, right up to the Victoria Road lights. It was slow progress because so many people would stop him to pass the time of day. But we will always remember Issy sitting on the verandah of Clontarf, in the afternoon sun, together with his beloved Ruby, who as lady mayoress, opened the restored cottage in 1988, both presiding over some neighbourhood event, and welcoming all comers, forever.

Issy meant a lot to me and Viv and our boys, and Viv’s mum Ann, one year his junior. He always took time to be kind to Ann and chat with her, even in his last weeks, as naturally as he used to when she still her memory intact. Our Zacha put Issy’s beloved Jack London’s political essays and stories on a large format i-pod so Issy could be reminded of an inspiration from his youth. We loved the man. Our love goes out to Larry and Trish, James, Melissa & Johnno, Nina, Astrid, Marie and Denise and all your families.

Johnny Hawkins’ fond memory of Issy’s influence on the Waterfront:

The Greek ship Cygnus had berthed in the early 1950’s, and the owners representatives wanted it cleaned out. As an oil tanker it’s holds were divided into many watertight compartments or bays. The local delegate, a bloke named Gallagher, told us the owners wanted the cleaning of 3 bays per man per day. Thinking this was unreasonable, we phoned Issy, as Painters’ & Dockers union secretary. Issy told them firmly no, it would be “1 bay, per man, per day, per-haps.”