James Burke

 Johnston on James' accidental death:
'It was the right ending for Jim. And a damn sight better than dying in the squalor and cold and
rat-stench and misery and pain eighteen years earlier. ' (in Tibet)'

George Johnston
Madhubala Glamour photographs 1951

             War Correspondents George Johnston & James Burke 
to Tibet in June 1945

From left: George Johnston - James Burke in Tibet

From left: George Johnston - James Burke at a Tibetan Temple

Photos taken by James  Burke for LIFE Magazine

L-R:  Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their return from Mt. Everest -1953

L-R: John Hunt, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay at celebrations in India - 1953

In 1951 James shot a great many glamour photos of Madhubala - she was a popular Hindi Actress of the 1950s-60s.

By mid-1945 the war in China was no longer headline news in Australia , this gave George  Johnston, (Australian War Correspondent in Asia ) an excuse to take a break. In what sounds like a plot for a comic movie, a group of US Cavalry people were taking a plane-load of Australian slouch hats (hats worn by Australian soldiers) into the high country of Tibet in order to trade them for hardy Tibetan mountain ponies. The Tibetan nomads were apparently very partial to digger (slang for Australian soldier) hats. The colonel in charge of the operation invited Johnston and Liberty magazine photographer James Burke, who spoke fluent Chinese, along for the ride, though it turned out to be somewhat more testing than they expected.  

The party flew from Kunming to an airstrip near the town of Yung Kwan Chai, which was some 3600 metres (12,000 feet) above sea level, 'the highest airfield in the world', wrote Johnston. As he stepped from the plane he was breathless, and not just from the lack of oxygen: Johnston wrote…Here was a valley of breathtaking colour and beauty ... a valley of a million flowers glittering in bright warm sunshine ... And dominating the far end of the valley, in peerless, shimmering majesty, stood the white, 25,000 ft. peak of Minya Konka, appearing to cover half the sky ...  

It was the beauty of this valley, and others like it that inspired the setting for the novel High Valley (Johnston/Clift 1948); Johnston never tired of enthusing lyrically about the valleys of Tibet .

Together with Burke, Johnston went with a pack train into the higher peaks around Minya Konka, where blizzards, freezing temperatures and precipitous ledges made progress extremely hazardous. They camped with Tibetan nomads, sleeping in their yurts (tents), eating tsamba (a heavy barley-meal bread) and drinking Tibetan tea with lumps of yak butter floating in it. One nomad, an extraordinary cowboy (or yakboy) called T'se Ch'i, accommodated them, along with his family, for three days and nights. T'se Ch'i had introduced himself in an auspicious way when Johnston was instructing some lama priests in the use of a rifle: Johnston wrote… I looked up and saw a tall, slim man watching us, a pic­turesquely handsome man with the face and bearing and dignity of a red Indian chieftain. I handed him the rifle. He took a quick aim - there was almost no difference in his movement to accept the weapon and his actual firing - and he plugged the tobacco tin clean in the centre.

Here, enjoying a strange hospitality, Johnston had his thirty-third birthday. He was one of the very few Australians, perhaps even the first, to have visited the high regions of Tibet up to that time. He reflected with a hint of nostalgia on how, beneath the unfamiliar exterior, life in the Tibetan com­munity was not unlike life on an Australian farm.

'There were the children', he wrote, playing at evening, throwing stones at the sheep. There was the constant stream of neighbours and visitors dropping in for afternoon tea, or to borrow a cylinder of yak cheese, or to compare jewellery and babies - I doubt if any people in all the world are more affectionate towards children than the Tibetans - or just to gossip as women do at afternoon tea gatherings the world over ... There was T'se Ch'i striding along with us in the afternoons when we went to shoot rabbits and pheasants ... There was an old man and his two sons returning with his yak train to the little nomads' camp, and being welcomed by shouting children and barking, tail-wagging dogs, and the old man lifting the smallest boy to the back of his horse for the ride into the horse lines. There was so much of warm living and kindness and humanity . . .  

It was during this time that Johnston and Burke had an unforgettable meeting with the leader of the white sect of lamas known to his followers as the Living Buddha. It was known that the great man's proudest possession was an old phonograph, so Johnston and Burke had gone prepared with a gift recording. It happened that the only one they could lay hands on was of a popular song called 'It Must Be Jelly 'Cause Jam Don't Shake Like That', so it was with some anxiety that they awaited the Living Buddha's reaction. They need not have feared: 'The tune was received with tremendous approval, the Living Buddha nodding his head rhythmically to the beat of the hot jazz, his eyes closed, and a beatific expression on his face. Then he played for us his two records. One was Mei Lan Fan singing a Chinese operatic piece. The other was Noel Co­ward's   'Don't put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington'!

After the entertainment, Johnston and the Living Buddha settled down to a serious debate on reincarnation and the comparative merits of Christian and Buddhist beliefs. 'Christ­ianity has a childish logic that appeals to large groups of simple people', asserted the sage, 'but to an intelligent man it is unsatisfactory. Logic in religion should not be easy to find. Ours is a religion for the individual scholar or thinker, yours is a good enough religion for the masses.' There could hardly have been an Australian precedent for such a lofty conference, nor hardly an Australian less qualified to partici­pate. Johnston had no religious faith at all, and no professed

respect for Christianity. On the other hand, he had acquired some appreciation of Eastern philosophical views. He did not, however, record his own responses to the Living Bud­dha's opinions. Johnston 's time in Tibet did nothing for his respect for the general Lama population.  

With Burke he spent some time in a lamasery called Konka Gomba, reputedly the setting of Shangri-La, the retreat in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizons. Johnston found the reality to be far from the ideal refuge of the fiction, for within the lamasery walls the Lamas showed all the jealousy and avarice that characterised the war-torn world outside.  

The final days of the Tibetan interlude came close to being tragic. As they descended from the higher regions, Burke developed a severe kidney infection. The pain was such that he grew delirious, and one night attempted his own life with the colt .45 they were carrying. Johnston injected him with morphine and nursed him back to a state fit for travel, although, with Burke continually falling off his horse, prog­ress was slow and painful.  

They arrived back at base camp later than had been arranged, only to find everything cleared away and the DC3 that was to fly them home standing at the end of the runway revving for take-off. As it made its run, Johnston 's heart sank: they would never get out of such a remote place, he thought, and would die before anyone found them. Miraculously, at that moment the aeroplane's starboard engine cut out, and the pilot was unable to complete the take-off. Johnston fired his revolver, and they were rescued.  

James Burke recovered and stayed on in Asia for many years after the war, and he and Johnston managed to maintain their friendship, although their lives went in widely different directions.

There is a brief but affectionate sketch of him under his own name in the Johnston book A Cartload of Clay, where the rescue incident is described, and is concluded by a reference to Burke's fatal fall in the Himalayas in the early 1964.

'It was the right ending for Jim. And a damn sight better than dying in the squalor and cold and rat-stench and misery and pain eighteen years earlier.'  

It was lucky for the Leonard Cohen fans as well as fans of George Johnston and Charmian Clift that this friendship endured and James Burke visited Hydra. Nowhere else exists such a collection of high quality photographs of the Bohemian artist colony of the 50s & 60s on Hydra.  

James Burke 1915-1964 
Obituary by George P. Hunt
Managing Editor LIFE magazine - October 16, 1964

"Jim was buried under a spreading tree in a quiet, beautiful little cemetery in New Delhi, following a brief, moving and entirely ap­propriate Methodist service - appropriate became Jim would have approved, and he was a hard man to please in matters such as this," So began a sadly eloquent cable from Robert Morse, our Far Eastern Bureau Chief, describing the funeral of our colleague and friend. LIFE Photographer James Burke.  

Jim was a fine photographer, who enriched with his own warmth and perception the world of people and places he explored. He was so quiet and self-effacing that it was hard to believe the dangers he had seen. He was born 49 years ago in Shang­hai , where his father was a missionary, and he spoke both Shanghai and Mandarin Chinese. He worked as a correspondent, shot hit first pic­tures for us in 1948, became New Delhi Bureau Chief and switched to the photographic staff in 1957. Through the years Jim had roamed bleak deserts in Afghanistan and followed in Alexan­der's ancient footsteps across the Hindu Kush . He was in Peking when the Chinese Reds moved in. He pursued snow leopards, covered cholera epidemics, earthquakes and monsoons. Late­ly he had been working on a story he called "Great Sights by Moonlight." and when he died he was completing a major color essay on the Himalayas - he was perched on a ledge, his foot slipped and he fell 800 feet.  

In his cable, the day of Jim's funeral. Bob Morse went on in words that speak for all of us at LIFE. 'Only once or twice in our association did I ever hear Jim raise his voice. With his incredible background be was at ease in some of the most difficult parts or the world. He was accustomed to red tape and un­raveled it with patience. Wherever he was, be it Greece , the African bush, Laos or the Himalayas . Jim ate the local food and drank the local water. He never became ill. I remember in Luang Prahang Jim scorned the hotel eggs and bacon, preferring to roam the teem­ing, fly-infested market, buying a bowl of noodles at one stall, a local delicacy at another.  

"Large numbers of the foreign community attended the funeral, but more important were the large number of Indian friends from the government, the armed services and just plain people from all walks of life who had known and appreciated him. Probably no foreigner in New Delhi had so many devoted Indian friends as Jim. On Sunday night one of them said something very pertinent 'Jim.' he said, 'had no feeling of racial difference. This was foreign lo him. But more important. Jim had no sense of cultural barrier. He was one with the people he was with, no matter who they were. He was unique."  


© - Text G. Kinnane & LIFE. - J. Burke photos TIME-LIFE, Other photos H.F. - Reference: G. Kinnane, George Johnston: A Biography
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