Steve Brook passed away on Wednesday, 13 August 2014, less than fortnight after his 80th birthday. Steve was one of the founding members of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) in 1984. He served for many years on its committee and then on its executive until his semi-retirement in 2011 (Steve never retired fully from anything).
But it was writing which was his call and he made an enormous contribution as a member of Editorial Committee of the AJDS newsletter, chief proofreader, stylist, and regular contributor. Editors from The Age to The Australian and of course the Australian Jewish News also appreciated his writing skills and wit, frequently publishing his letters. He was a comrade in the best sense of the word and wonderful friend to many.
Steve was born in the East End of London and came to Australia as a 10 pound Pom where he trained as a compositor. He ended up working for Rupert Murdoch’s Australian Newspaper; even had his hand shaken by the big boss himself.
Steve was able to talk about the Black Shirts in the East End of London based on his own childhood experiences, life in Poland in the 1960s and a million other things, including the early years and conflicts of 3CR radio, printing, Indonesian politics, and bad taste movies.
Owing to his literary and historical talents, his writing, journalism, and biographical reflection was a significant source of documentation of the Jewish left in Australia and its international connections from outside academia and from the point of view of a non-ideological, humanist insider. He gained a Master of Arts in Indonesian studies from Monash University in Melbourne and also worked as a public servant for many years surrounded by internecine Trotskyist warfare. He also possessed a vast and unparalleled collection of kitsch and political propaganda.
To quote an article about him in the London Jewish Chronicle, he said that “other Jewish kids of my age in London wanted to be engine drivers or Israeli military heroes. As a young fan of H G Well’s science fiction, I thought it would be nice to be a writer and have all those girls running after me.”
His account of time spent with the English language service of Polish Radio (1966-1974) (in Strawberries with Everything) was a sympathetic, but not uncritical look at Poland under Soviet hegemony where ‘socialism with a human face’ was attempted. It also included the Polish cultural scene in the 1960s and 1970s and the political use of antisemitism in Poland. It is worth quoting Steve’s own blurb for the book because it was so well-written and self-deprecating:
“Strawberries with Everything brings a new tone to political memoirs. How did a nice Jewish boy finish up in a place like Poland? In sometimes hilarious detail, Steve Brook describes his early years in prewar London, the emigration of his family to Australia, and his eventual Aussification. While still in his teens, he gets a heavy dose of Left politics. After a holiday in Poland, via London, he is offered a job at the Polish Radio in Warsaw. He spends eight years on the wrong side in the Cold War, with a ringside seat at some of the most significant events in European history including the Warsaw Dog Show, the ‘anti-Zionist’ uproar of 1968 and the Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia the same year. He returns to Australia in 1974 and after numerous Candide-like adventures, he finds himself wondering if it was all worthwhile. Of course it was.”
He also established the Yarra Bank Show on 3CR Community Radio, under the banner of Paths to Peace, an organisation/publication started by Norman & Evelyn Rothfield which preceded the AJDS. This was a significant achievement at a time when there was substantial opposition to reasoned discussion on the Israel/Palestine issue on both the left and the right. 3CR politics were robust, and in his own style Steve conducted a battle against the forces of unreason at the station, with brilliant spoof leaflets of Maoist propaganda. A high point for him was the graffiti on the wall:
LEAVE 3CR ALONE
SEND SOVIET AGENT BROOKES
from which he also absorbed a valuable lesson about the importance of diligent proofreading.
Later his talent diversified even more. He was a prolific member of the AJDS committee coming up with enough ideas to fill not one newsletter each month but two or three. Often these ideas related to his own experiences. He hated anything that reminded him of the subtle and not so subtle antisemitism he experienced in Poland. So anything from the Hamas Charter to mad right-wing Christians was subjected to his ire. Sol Salbe who edited the AJDS Newsletter for most of the previous decade says that the newsletter was impossible to put together without Steve. “One time Steve was in Bali on holidays and it took three people to carry on his work. He knew how to explain things; how to improve a rough translation. On more than one occasion he tried to improve on translating a passage in the Bible.”
And then there were his books. Steve’s fiction and nonfiction publishing was prolific. His books included:
McQuail: A Likely Story (2003)
Bali Sugar: A Tale of Tropical Love, God and Politicking (2004)
Strawberries with Everything: a Polish Odyssey 1967-1974 (2005)
Now Hit Enter! (2009)
For Sam. A Fantasy in Three or So Acts (2009)
Death by Teatowel (2011)
Smash the White Eagle (2013)
You can read more about Steve on his own blog: http://www.brooksbooks.blogspot.com/.
Steve’s sister Rena died last year. He is survived by his wife, friend and political partner Meni Christofakis, a niece and her two children, Steve’s Odd Daughter & tornado boy, and two cousins.
Written by Sol Salbe and Larry Stillman