- by Peter Mac
- The Guardian
- Issue #2067
John Berwick was born in 1951 in Sydney, His family was working class, and his Aboriginal father was a professional boxer. The eldest of six children, John excelled at sport and was an outstanding natural scholar and a voracious reader. When he was ten years old John told his father he was depressed because in his Marist Brothers primary school exams he scored 100 percent in all subjects except one, and he could not work out how he had lost one mark in that subject.
As a teenager John was an eager surfer and played a formidable game of rugby league. After finishing school, he enrolled in the University of Sydney Arts faculty, graduating with an honours degree in modern history. He was highly popular and remained in contact with many of his fellow students throughout his life. He became very interested in politics. Beginning a lifetime of activity in support of left-wing and progressive causes, he became involved in the Vietnam moratorium demonstrations and the anti-apartheid and Aboriginal rights campaigns. Arrested and tried for assaulting a police officer at an anti-apartheid demonstration, he fortunately was found not guilty.
In 1979 John travelled to India, and the next year he met and married Devleena Ghosh. John had a fascination with India and learned to speak, read and write the Bengali language. He subsequently gained a PhD. His thesis, Students in Bengal As a Social Constituency in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century, examined the social history of Bengali students, including their political activity, during Britain’s colonial rule of the sub-continent.
John joined the NSW State public service in 1985, taking a position at what was then the Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs. He rose through the ranks, working in special fields of interest. He was very concerned with the development and promotion of Australian culture and organised funding for the famous film Strictly Ballroom.
John subsequently studied law and after graduation in 1991 became a barrister. True to his beliefs, he often defended ordinary people who found themselves the victim of oppressive government policies or corporate greed, or who had simply fallen foul of the law. His sister, Jane Bridges once caught a taxi and told the driver she had to attend a court hearing. The driver asked which barrister was representing her. When she told him it was John, the driver said John had acted in court for his son, who had got into trouble with the law, and that John’s successful defence during the hearing led to a complete turn-around in the boy’s behaviour and was an event of major significance in his life.
In 2014 John ceased acting as a barrister, and the next year he joined the Communist Party of Australia. John had been very interested in the Party but joining it had not been possible previously because of his very demanding career.
In 2017 John travelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia with Devleena and others who were or had been party members. It was a very important trip for John, because of his lifelong interest in the Russian Revolution and its aftermath. However, his subsequent involvement in Party life was limited because of chronic illness which would ultimately prove fatal. He was unable to participate in demonstrations, but his wide reading and incisive knowledge of history, law and politics were particularly valuable during Party meetings and classes.
John had an encyclopaedic knowledge of Sydney’s criminal history. He pointed out that Australia benefited from the criminal tendencies of some of its citizens, as in the case of Bill Devine, who was honoured by the state for having killed with great enthusiasm many of his fellow human beings in the WW1 trench warfare. (Devine fell out of official favour when he continued to satisfy his lust for violence as a Sydney gangster in the 1920s.)
John was interested in the political aspect of great literary works, for example Bleak House by Charles Dickens. In this novel, members of the Jarndyce family fight each other in court over an inheritance, but the only ones to benefit are the lawyers, whose fees eventually claim all the inheritance. John pointed out that Jarndyce vs Jarndyce is one of the world’s most famous legal cases, even though it’s a work of fiction. He argued that the family’s financial ruin did not just result from their avaricious lawyers taking full advantage of the contorted procedures of England’s ancient Court of Chancery; rather, it stemmed from the profit-fixation of nascent nineteenth-century capitalism, a political-economic system based (then as now) on incessant greed and exploitation.
John was deeply concerned about the duplicity of the news media, which for example blamed Russia for food shortages that occurred in developing countries after Ukrainian wheat production because of Russia’s devastating invasion. As John pointed out, Russia supplied many developing countries with wheat, and the food shortages stemmed largely from the US embargo on trade with Russia, not just from the shortfall in Ukraine’s wheat production. Nevertheless. John agreed that the embargo would not have been imposed if Russia had not carried out the invasion in the first place.
John died on 1st July. At his funeral his coffin was covered with red roses, and one of his favourite Bengali songs, People Ask Me About My Beliefs, was played. The song poses the question:
“Some tell rosaries, some count the tasbih beads,
But when you arrive or depart this world
What mark of difference remains?”
In John’s case the answer is that he was a loyal friend and comrade to many people, and that he will always be remembered by his family, comrades and friends (including those he assisted in court) for his generosity, his great sense of humour, his breadth of knowledge and his commitment to the interests of ordinary working people.
John is survived by Dr Devleena Ghosh, his wife of forty-three years, his 99 year-old mother Mrs Beryl Berwick, his sister Jane Bridges (OAM), his brothers Paul, Peter, and Mark, his daughter Rochéle and his grandchildren Zachary, John, and Sébastien.