This weekend, I’ve been celebrating the 90th birthday of Keith McEwan, father of my dear friend Dawn. We gathered in the community hall at his retirement village in Canberra to toast the life of this veteran campaigner for social justice. Keith grew up in the shadow of Pentridge Prison in Melbourne. He loved reading and thinking and in other circumstances might have had a career in any number of fields. But his family was dirt-poor – his childhood coincided with the Great Depression, and his father was unemployed from 1930 to 1941.
Keith had to give up school early to help contribute to household income. From the age of 14 he worked in a sheet metal factory and a series of other unskilled jobs. He gravitated to left wing politics and joined the Communist Party at the age of 21.
His work in the party took him into the heart of union and cold war political struggles of the 1950s. He was a committed comrade for many years, before his sincerity and desire for genuine democracy within the party saw him leave in disillusionment.
Afterwards, eventually, he became a real estate agent and settled into life as father, grandfather and, more recently, great-grandfather. While he left party politics behind, he never stopped supporting progressive causes or quietly supporting those about him who were struggling. He visited prisoners, supported land rights, campaigned for the rights of the Stolen Generation, civil liberties, marriage equality and voluntary euthanasia. He is well-known in Canberra for his letters to the editor of the Canberra Times on all of these issues and many others.
So, on Saturday, family and friends from all over the country gathered in the hall and toasted Keith. Keith mostly sat in his motorised wheelchair, but stood up from time to time, very tall, and received all his well-wishers with his customary wit and warmth. Afterwards, we went back to Dawn’s place to continue the celebrations without Keith, because by now he was pretty tired and needed an early night. The evening turned into a good old fashioned soiree, with banjo playing, magic tricks and people reading from a giant book of the poetry and short stories of Henry Lawson. As I listened to a reading of The Loaded Dog, I felt a direct connection to an all-but-vanished Australia, the Australia of mateship, solidarity and tall-tales hilarity that really did exist before it was refashioned to fit the empty, ignorant jingoism of more recent years.
But it hasn’t entirely vanished. Keith is still with us, and there are still people working towards the sort of world that Keith was thinking about all those years ago in the sheet metal factory before the second world war: a world of equality and respect for all.
In October 2012, I recorded a long interview with Keith at his home in Castlemaine, Victoria. His life is quite well documented, both through his own writing (including the book, Once a Jolly Comrade) and through other projects, such as an oral history kept by the National Library but I had always wanted to get some of the stories down on video. We got Keith talking for about three hours, almost non-stop, and even then we were just scratching the surface of the stories of this long and interesting life. After that, editing the footage properly became and outstanding item on my To Do list. Now that Keith has turned 90, I’ve decided to simply upload a chunk of the interview to YouTube as is, without any editing, because it’s material that is better going out into the world than sitting in a drawer in my study waiting for me to get a moment. It’s a big file (it’s only 6% loaded at this point) but eventually it should be available for viewing at this link: