Eulogy for John Elliott
“How much more easily is the leave-taker loved. For the flame burns more purely for those vanishing in the distance. Separation penetrates the departing one like a pigment and steeps him in gentle radiance.”
I wish to thank Cait and the family for asking me to speak today as we gather here to pay tribute and farewell our dear friend John.
I first met John Elliott when came to interview me for Ponsonby News when I was still the chairman of the Auckland Regional Council. I knew of John of course as the inspirational figure who had founded Ponsonby News back in 1989. John was by then a quite towering local personality who in his writings and activism was the leading guardian and interlocutor of Ponsonby community values.
The eminent Auckland historian Professor Russell Stone, himself born In Grey Lynn, once described ‘Auckland as a place of second chances’. I was born in grew up in Wellington and came to Auckland when I was 21. John was a Northlander from rural pioneering stock -Albertlanders – and came to live here at the end of his parliamentary career in the 1980s.
John loved Auckland – most especially Ponsonby and with a passion. It was a place steeped in history where he felt he really belonged. Ponsonby provided a second life for him (or perhaps a third) and he lived it in full – to the end. As Cait said to me, John never had an old age.
From his writings in Ponsonby News I assumed John to be a man of the liberal left. It was only later I realised it was the same John Elliott who was a National MP for Whangarei back in the 1970s. This surprised me somewhat but as I grew to know him I realised that John had not fundamentally changed. Of course living in the most avant garde quarter of the biggest city in the country no doubt smoothed off some Northland rural edges – It was really the political world that had changed – especially with the advent of rogernomics and neoliberalism – which frankly John detested. The ground underneath him, everything, had shifted to the right. But John basically was still the same man. A man of the political centre. Moderate, independent in his inclinations, staunchly democratic, outspoken against injustice and bureaucratic arrogance, willing to interject loudly at public meetings when the bull dust he was hearing became intolerable – and always sympathetic to the underdog. A New Zealander of the old sort and just like the area he loved so much. I think of Wanganui Avenue where he lived – a man of special character.
Local culture tends to stay around places and communities even while people come and go. The Ponsonby Grey Lynn he came to in the 1980s, was easy-going, creative, tolerant, and while it was in the process of gentrification there was still a large Pacific Island community, progressive, working class and traditionally left wing. John as a local historian and former parliamentarian was well aware that Ponsonby had been long represented (the electorate was called West Auckland) by the first Labour prime minister, the much revered Michael Joseph Savage. And of course Grey Lynn was for many years represented by the dynamic John A Lee. Another leading member of that first Labour government who can be rightly credited for the building of thousands of state houses, almost completely using New Zealand building material. A somewhat different situation to nowadays where the amount of politicians’ stated good intentions and hyperbole considerably exceeds the amount of actual houses built.
And there is an interesting political connection here. John had many friends in parliament. He was elected with a talented group of young National MPs, his good friend Marilyn Waring and people like Jim McClay, Aussie Malcolm and outspoken intellectuals like Dr Ian Shearer and Michael Minogue. John and his friends soon found their overbearing leader Robert Muldoon intolerable. But the most senior member of the parliament of the day was former prime minister Keith Holyoake, later Sir Keith, Governor-General of NZ. Holyoake took a particular shine to the young man he called ‘Johnny boy’. Not only willingly giving John fatherly advice and political counsel but in turn seeking John’s advice on horse form for his bets at the TAB. John of course was an outstanding horseman in his younger days and presumably knew a bit about race horse form. (In fact I have now learned John was an avid follower of the horses himself).
Interestingly, there is a political link between John Elliott and Michael Savage. John’s friend and mentor Keith Holyoake in his younger days was one opposition MP well regarded by Savage who according to Barry Gustafson’s biography ‘Cradle to the Grave’ detected great promise in the young man who sat on the back-benches opposite. Savage referred to Holyoake as a ‘good lad’ and sent Holyoake a commiseration telegram when he lost his seat in 1938 in the sweeping Labour victory that year.
So I’m thinking if Mickey Savage had a high regard for Keith Holyoake and Holyoake had high regard for John Elliott, then…it’s more than likely that Mickey Savage would have like John too.
So all this helps explain why it was that John Elliott found it easy to reach across political lines, to bring people together. To work with and like politicians from across the political spectrum. Politicians like long-standing former local MP Judith Tizard and the Tizard family, Hon Bob Tizard and Dame Cath Tizard, former local MP Nikki Kaye and Green MP Nandor Tánczos, all whom John held in warm esteem.
John was great champion of causes – from championing the community attempt to save the Gluepot Hotel back in the early 90s, trying to save the Grey Lynn Post Office, to his ongoing battle against the council use of Glysophate sprays in public areas.
As we have heard John was a keen conservationist and with his son Finn was a guide at Tirtiri Matangi Open Sanctuary. And anyone who talked to John was soon aware of how much he admired his four handsome sons.
I will close with a memory of John willingly giving up his own time and bringing his skills to bear to help the community. About seven years ago Auckland Transport announced they were moving the Great North Road bus stops down the hill from the Surrey Hotel to right outside the shops turning this area into a large bus interchange, thereby taking away a whole bunch of angle parking the shop keepers believed vital for their businesses. A community meeting was called one Monday evening in the Surrey Hotel to try and sort it out, John Elliott was asked to chair it. There was the usual patronising spin from AT bureaucrats and heartfelt remonstrations from dismayed shop keepers. I was fascinated with the way John chaired the meeting. Here on display was his parliamentary training. John was a seriously good chairman, stern but fair, keeping the proceedings, which were at times emotional in order. No agreement was reached that evening and another long meeting was called two weeks later with John again in the chair. But in the end to a large part thanks to the involvement of John and his mana, AT moved the bus stops but the big interchange was sited at New Lynn. John did that, put in all those hours purely out of his sense of community.
I will always be grateful for the advice John gave me which I always took and I will always value his friendship. His passing is not only a huge personal loss for Cait and his family but the many, many people who knew him and relied on him as a tower of strength. They, we are also bereaved.
His great legacy is the Ponsonby News lives on a talisman of community pride and solidarity. This thanks to the great partnership and friendship, between John and the wonderful Martin Leach Ponsonby News will go on. Whenever I see a copy of the Ponsonby News I will think of John.
I am sure I am not the only one. I extend my condolences to Cait and Jill, Troy and Matthew, Finn and Theo, and their families; and to all those John loved and who loved him.
In tribute to my friend John Elliott (1938-2022). Rest in Peace.