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July 16, 2024

Vale author, lawyer John Bailey

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John Bailey. Photo supplied

John Bailey was born in Sydney, worked as a teacher in England and as a public servant in New Guinea, and eventually practised as a barrister in Melbourne. 

When he shifted to representing the health department and the ABC, he focused on industrial relations. For ten years, he supervised students at Springvale Legal Service and was awarded a centenary medal in 2001 for ‘contributions to Australian society’. 

John also did four years phone support for Lifeline. 

Encouraged by the success of his third book, The White Divers of Broome (it won two Premier’s Awards in NSW and WA), John gave up law and moved to Mullumbimby in 1999 in order to write full time. 

In that time he produced two novels: The Wire Classroom (an account of colonial life in New Guinea), and Moon Babies (a science fiction novel). 

He has also written five biographies, including Into the Unknown (the tormented life and expeditions of Ludwig Leichardt), Mr Stuart’s Track (the forgotten life of Australia’s greatest explorer), and Jefferson’s Second Father (an account of George Whythe, a prominent opponent of slavery). 

Two biographies that have received much acclaim are The White Divers of Broome and The Lost German Slave Girl (Macmillan). 

The latter work, a reflection of his great interest in American law and history, is an extraordinary, true account of a pale African American woman who, claiming to be a German immigrant, is illegally taken into bondage as a child in Louisiana. 

Slavery in the US commenced in 1619 and ended in theory in 1865, producing several hundred thousand case law precedents. 

The book has excited much interest in the United States, and is currently optioned to be produced as a feature film. Three of the books are in our local libraries and the The White Divers of Broome is available at Byron’s Book Room. 

Purpose of writing 

John’s approach to writing was to create a strong narrative against the background of exotic or remote locations. In his own words, he declared that his ‘purpose in writing is to get people interested in what I am interested in’. 

He regarded being an ex-lawyer as both an advantage and a hindrance to his creative work. ‘An advantage, because the courtroom experience encourages one to question the obvious and doubt the glib. A hindrance, because lawyers are often the most tedious of writers… All this had to be unlearnt.’

After arriving in Mullum John became passionately committed to his local community. He was an active member of the Greens party, and stood for election in the seat of Richmond in 2007. 

John also participated in a number of regular, local gatherings, including the Cafe Philo meetups, where he helped stage monthly talks and discussions among visiting philosophers, academics, journalists and fellow authors. 

A staunch vegetarian, he always kept discussion on the current state of the world (culture, politics, the environment) under strict control – with an impish gleam in his eye. John had a limited tolerance for bullshit.  

Vigorously analytical 

Friends variously described him as ‘wise’, ‘brotherly’, ‘down to earth’, ‘erudite’, ‘a rod of irony’, who was ‘vigorously analytical’. John also loved to dance and, in his early years, to play rugby union – which he continued to follow keenly throughout his life, sometimes as a referee. 

Not to mention as a passionate barracker for the Wallabies.  

John passed away early last Tuesday morning in Tweed Hospital, battling complications from an infection. 

He is survived by his wife, Annie Mullin, and his much-loved daughter, Kylie and son, Ben. He will live on through his published work and the memories he has left us.

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  1. Thanks for this piece. I had the pleasure of getting to know John through his work with the Greens in the early 2000’s. My condolences to Annie. What a great man and life, one of the best.


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