Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz
Barry Jones & Arthur Koestler
Among the handful of authors who shaped his young mind, Barry Jones told his television audience in September 1968, Arthur Koestler ranked high on the list.
In Darkness at Noon and other books, Koestler had borne witness to the maelstrom of European history, not merely as a commentator but as a participant. The very model of the rootless cosmopolitan, he’d written himself into the story of the twentieth century, first as a follower of absolutist ideologies, then as their most trenchant critic.
Imprisoned and condemned to death by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War, he spent 101 days in constant expectation of summary execution, his ears ringing with the sounds of men being dragged from their cells to be shot.
Postwar, Koestler’s interest turned from politics to “the invisible writing” of the universe but he remained an active opponent of capital punishment.
Barry Jones, too, was exercised by the issue. As a small boy, the National Brain was terrified by newspaper accounts of hangings, his imagination furnishing the awful detail. It was “an extraordinary and emotional preoccupation for a child” and when the Victoria premier, Henry Bolte, decided in 1967 that judicial murder was a sure-fire vote-winner, Jones was prominent among those calling for the abolition of the death penalty. The cynical, cold-blooded execution of Ronald Ryan affected him deeply.
By then, the high school teacher turned quiz champion was hosting his own high-end television chat show, Encounter. He thought Arthur Koestler would make an ideal guest. An invitation was issued and the wandering mind, now a British citizen, agreed to a first-class trip. Jones met his plane in Sydney and escorted him to Melbourne.
Almost from the outset, Koestler made a prick of himself. The past was behind him, he declared. He was now a man of science, a student of levitation, psychokinesis, hallucination and rapture. The human brain, he’d concluded, had “a screw loose”. Petulant and arrogant, he spent his Encounter interview dodging and deriding the questions. At one point, Jones was moved to ask if he wasn’t talking nonsense. Koestler then tried to renege on his agreement to give a lecture on capital punishment. The public meeting was a disaster and much of the audience walked out. The press depicted the visiting intellectual as “a pint-sized martinet”.
Arthur Koestler committed suicide in 1983, bequeathing his estate to the study of parapsychology. Barry Jones became Minister for Science. Ronald Ryan is still dead.