A short biography of Australian anarchist poet, James Herriott Duke, who also lived in the UK.
Remembering Jim Duke
"I started performing poems as a timid person with a stutter but the spirit of the times soon converted me into a bellowing bull." Jim Duke
“The voice played like a human saxophone.” Nicholas Zurbrugg
I first met Jim Duke in the basement flat of the artist John Upton in the narrow canyon of St Michael’s Place, the bohemian slum street that stood in for Greenwich Village or Haight Ashbury in Brighton in the late 60s.
Jim was as bald as a billiard ball as a result of some affliction that had robbed him of his head hair. He was then clean shaven, although on his return to Australia in the early 70s he began to cultivate a luxurious beard that would have made Bakunin or Marx envious.
He dressed like a German Red Front streetfighter from the Weimar period, with a leatherette peaked cap, leatherette jerkin and large work boots. The street fighter look was reinforced by his strong build. It wasn’t just a look, either. Jim knocked a policeman clean off his horse during the Battle of Grosvenor Square in 1968 (pictured above), when mounted police charged the crowd.
Jim had a speech impediment, but it was no obstacle to his dynamic poetry that he bellowed out, especially the sound poems like DADA! and his ode to speedcar racing that consisted of trademark names like Maserati and Ferrari repeated over and over till they reached a crescendo that brought over the flash and excitement of these events.
Jim was to move into one of the basement flats in the Place of the Archangel and to get a job as a laboratory technician at Sussex University. Jeff Keen, the great experimental film maker, lived in the street, and Jim was to appear in many of his films.
James H Duke was born in Ballarat, Australia in 1939. He was the son of two schoolteachers, of Scottish-Irish descent. He moved with his family to Melbourne in the 50s. He worked as a draftsman, laboratory assistant and technical writer. He had a great love for chess and dreamed of being a chess champion.
In the sixties he became an anarchist. He felt confined by the atmosphere in Australia at the time and moved to England via the United States. Here he introduced himself to the anarchists at Freedom Press. He grew close to the class struggle anarchist politics of Albert Meltzer. With another Australian anarchist, Ted Kavanagh, he worked at the Wooden Shoe Bookshop in Coptic Street, until it was forced to close because of bankruptcy. He wrote a pamphlet on Dadaism brought out by Coptic Press. Dadaism influenced him profoundly and he was to be inspired by Kurt Schwitters in his collages and by Raoul Hausmann.
Jim moved down to Brighton alongside Ted and his partner the German Anna Blume. A painful love triangle developed between Jim and Ted and Anna, who in the end returned to Germany.
Jim attended meetings of the Brighton Anarchist Group in the flat of Dave and Jeanne Lepper (Dave later became Labour MP for Kemptown, Brighton). He also performed at the open air Sunday gatherings on the Fishmarket Hard organised by John Upton and Richard Miller (who had helped found the Brighton Anarchist Group). These consisted of poetry readings and action paintings and satirical announcements. He also honed his art at the Brighton Combination arts lab at the bottom of West Street. On the seafront at the Fishmarket Hard he performed DADA! and took Joe Hill's old Wobbly song and satire on Onward Christian Soldier to pieces and put it together again in the most arresting way!
I have vivid memories of Jim holding forth at his flat in St. Michael’s Place or round at Ted Kavanagh’s, where discussions ranged widely over politics, art and culture, and where he revealed the depth and breadth of his knowledge.
Jim returned to Australia in the early 70s , and performed poetry under the name of Jas H. Duke. He was involved in the work of Collective Effort Press including the pioneering 925 – a poetry magazine, for the workers, by the workers about the workers work. He had taken up work as a draughtsman again with the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works, and he wrote about his job in 925. He brought out a surreal novel in 1978 called Destiny Wood, which had poems translated from German, and a section of concrete poetry. He contributed to the first Visual Poetry Anthology of Australia Missing Forms brought out in 1981 by Collective Effort Press.
The last book of his poems that appeared before his death was Poems of War and Peace published in 1989 by Collective Effort Press.
His dynamic and fiercely energetic and physical performances stunned and enthralled audiences. His anarchism, often apparent in his poems, excluded him from looking for fame. He was little known in Australia or elsewhere, despite the dynamism of his work As Karl Young says in his Introduction to Jas H. Duke:” it’s a shame for the rest of us that he remains such a well kept secret.”(http://www.thing.net/~grist/l&d/thalia/au-jd.htm) He got the audience eating out of his hand when he made one memorable appearance at a rock festival, the Livid Festival in Queensland in 1990, capturing the enthusiasm of the young crowd.
He died of a heart attack on the 19th June 1992 brought on by a shattered leg bone as a result of falling over a concrete step.
As he was being wheeled into surgery, Thalia (a Melbourne poet) who went to visit him, told the nurses to take care of him "'cos he was one of Australia’s greatest poets." They laughed, and asked him to recite a poem. Though in a lot of pain, he sat up and recited 'Solidarity Explained':
When the axe first came into the forest
The trees said to each other
The handle is one of us.
By Nick Heath.