Jock Marshall - One Armed Warrior A Bright Sparcs Exhibitions

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Dreaming Spires Revisited

It was early September 1946 when he landed in England - the end of summer. He was installed at 128 Observatory Road, Oxford, in typical undergraduate digs, run by a kind motherly woman and her half-blind cobbler husband. He had spent the first week after arrival with John Baker in Oxford and travelling to London to see old journalist friends who were working there - Len Richards, Clarrie McNulty, Eric Baume, the Lady Margaret Vane-Tempest Stewart (whom Jock addressed lovingly as Lady Flushbucket; she was partial to champagne) - and people at the Royal Geographical Society. Strangely - 'I see no great change in London & none at all in Oxford. Lots of people are dead - Hinks, Goodenough, Balfour, Gander, Moy-Thomas, Haddon, etc., etc. & my mistresses are all married (nearly) with babies. A lot can happen in eight years. A good thing. I've not looked at another woman since I left Sydney. I am today recovering from a bad attack of malaria. I am sick as hell.'

Malaria had been shadowing him since the New Hebrides and New Guinea. It was a depressing fevered state. A few days later the depression persisted. 'The investigation will be The seasonal variation in the gonads and genital tracts of vertebrates, with special reference to chemical changes ... I am now working in a desultory sort of way. It will be a sweat getting up my biochemistry, but it is both essential and worthwhile. I don't feel that there is anything in the thesis title, or in my present mood, which will lead to any outstanding discovery.' As a person giving the impression of constant energy and confidence he could surprise occasionally with a black mood; not often, but more than he ever showed superficially. This time he was drawn out of it by some good news from the Linacre Professor of Zoology at Oxford, Alister Hardy. Jock had met him several times, and liked him more and more; especially his insistence on keeping research always in touch with the actual field. 'He, like Baker, is not an out and out mechanist.' Professor Hardy had succeeded in getting him into Merton College as a senior student: the Linacre Chair of Zoology is tied to Merton as well as two of the English professorships (the combination interested Jock and continued to do so throughout his career). He had hoped against all comment and advice from friends and officials that he might get into one of the old colleges in spite of post-war crowds. To get into one of the very oldest and most charming was extraordinary good fortune.

Then there was bad news. John Baker, himself divorced, while joking with Jock about it nevertheless solemnly warned him of College "stickiness" in the matter. If newspaper clippings of divorce proceedings were sent to the proctors and it were found he was living with another woman he would assuredly be 'sent down'. This coincided with a piece of journalistic ill-fortune. The divorce hearing in Sydney was widely publicised and along with some damaging misinformation concerning money was picked up (an unlikely chance one would have thought) and published in the Oxford Mail.

Jock was infuriated. He considered the whole thing ridiculous in 1946 after four years of war, but knew he had to take it seriously. He had visions of his D. Phil. slipping away, the years of work withering and a journalistic jungle looming, simply to live: 'Sometimes I don't feel that Jane is worth risking the jungle of journalism for - but I know she is & inevitably I'll risk anything to give US a chance of success.' In one respect he was worrying unnecessarily. However painful it may have been there were other alternatives to living together in Oxford. The divorce news, however, was a worry. He decided to go and see the Warden of Merton College himself with the information about divorce, believing as usual that trouble would most likely be deflected by personal communication. The Warden, a charming and civilised man saw no problem.

Then there was a brighter snippet - he was being paid in sterling to write for The Mirror. And 'I am fit again, though very thin & haggard.' While in London one day he heard a Rolls Royce come to a purring halt beside him and from the back emerged the vast bulk of Dr. Norman Haire, a medical practitioner and journalist who was flourishing in London as he had flourished in Sydney. He was beaming complacently at his cleverness at having picked Jock out of the crowd, but immediately pitched into him for not looking after his health; was he feeding himself, was he worried, was his sex life normal? 'He says I look ten years older than when he saw me in Sydney. I told him I'd drink lots of milk, and go to bed a little earlier and take regular meals.'

In October a chill autumn was taking hold of war-weary England. Yet he was content to be there. Australia was not high in his estimation and went down even further. He got a letter from the Department of Post War Reconstruction saying that his application for Post Graduate training overseas had been unsuccessful because they were not prepared to fund such training. 'Of this I have one comment only: that at least I am independent, as usual. My country has never done a damned thing for me in the past and in a way I'm glad that this occurred: I shall have no feelings of "loyalty" to ever go back unless I want to - which I think is doubtful, except to see Nin and Neri.' Here was a hint of real bitterness which perhaps reflected the years of fighting Army bureaucracy - very different from the criticism and comment out of love which had spawned Australia Limited.

On October 22nd he became a member of the University. He enjoyed the ceremony in the Clarendon building. He was matriculated in the traditional white bow tie, sub-fusc suit, dark socks and shoes, the half length gown of advanced students and "square" pressed to his chest. They were each presented with a Memorandum on the Conduct and Discipline of Junior Members of the University. 'I note that I am not allowed any longer to have a drink in any pub or other place unless I am having a meal ... I am not allowed to keep an aeroplane within 20 miles of Oxford (this maddens me). I'm not allowed to have a woman in my digs after 10 p.m. (fornication O.K. before 10?) & so on & so on.' He loved it; and more still the fact that he had been given a room of his own in the Department of Zoology.

The Department of Zoology was in the sprawling Victorian neo-Gothic building that housed the University Museum and the great hall where Charles Darwin's Origin of Species was attacked with crusading fervour by Bishop Wilberforce. Jock's room was one of the many brown caves filled with the paraphernalia of scientific work and an aroma of old wood, preserving fluids and tobacco. One night he sat alone in the deserted Department waiting for a phone call. It was a windless night, but inside he thought he understood the English preoccupation with ghosts, poltergeists and 'haunts' in old houses. 'The Department is a dusty old rambling atticy, creaky place, full of odd stairways & unexpected nooks. As I sat near the telephone, in a dim circle of light, reading J.R.B. on argenine & thinking - creakings, soft paddings, bumpings & sometimes violent door-bangings intermittently arose. Quite involuntarily (of course) I got a prickly feeling behind my ears: & I was interested in this, because I felt no fear, only acute interest. The breeze had either risen outside, or the doors left open (Sander's in particular I found on the way out) responded to the least amount of air pressure.'

He saw no evidence in favour of ghosts. However, as he waited - about eighty yards from the Hall where Huxley and Hooker smote the anti-Darwinians in 1860, he built up a fantasy of a return of that long dead crowd, to the historic hall to renew the encounter which was surely the highlight of most of their Victorian lives. 'I thought of the shrieking females, tittering at the snarling Wilberforce's unctuous sallies, the stern side-whiskered Huxley, the volatile Robert Fitzroy stamping & waving his bible, the gentle, rational Kingsley; Brodie, Lady Brewster & the others. Do they ever come back to stamp and roar & titter & wave ghostly bits of lace as they did 86 years ago? And what of the other people who have lived & worked in the department? As I sat outside the door of the Linacre Professor of Zoology, I thought of the long line of illustrious Linacre Professors who had walked or shambled or strode or crept, each according to his fashion, past the telephone, long before telephones were invented. Do the giants of past biology ever come back?'


In October he met Dr Oleg Polunin, the botanist again. It transpired Polunin had built a shack in the woods at the very back of a sizeable estate abutting Shotover Common. He was not going to be in Oxford for two or three years so he offered it to Jock. Though five miles out of Oxford, this was ideal. It was a place where my presence, when I finally arrived, would not be advertised. He moved into it on October 28th. There was an indescribable amount of mess to clean up. Ivan had a notable aversion to cleaning anything and over a considerable period a rubbish haul of almost explosive artistry had accumulated. Jock decided to keep one souvenir of the haul - two bottles in which were preserved human foetuses three or four months old - 'A deterrent to boring guests' he said, arranging them strategically on a shelf near the door.

Meantime he was working hard in the laboratory and at other things. On November 14th he accepted the leadership of the Oxford University Exploration Club's forthcoming summer vacation expedition to Jan Mayen the following year. He had been interested in the wild, lonely island with its volcanic crater poking out of the Arctic Sea ever since he was on Spitzbergen in 1937 and Tollner told him of his adventures there during the Polar year of 1932. For three weeks he had refused to go, knowing it would interfere with work on his Doctorate, but they had no one with Arctic experience, so finally he agreed if he could find a physiological investigation or two which could be included under his thesis title. The problem of 'non-breeding' in the Arctic was one, and possibly Arctic migration. 'I hesitated because of Janey too - it is hardly fair to her ... I would take her with me as artist if we were legally married & if it weren't such a bloody place for storms: it is notorious - quite unlike the inner fjord zone of Spitsbergen. But Janey won't mind because she's reconciled to our separation later in the Antarctic & she'll understand that if I want to go its best that I do in the long run.' Yes, I understood, but when it came to the time my decision was not entirely selfless - having by then enjoyed and suffered the worst winter England had experienced for more than a hundred years, I decided I would cause Jock no trouble in wanting to accompany him to either polar region - ever. He still had a huge interest in exploration, or at least in doing his scientific work in the most inaccessible and uncomfortable places in the world. He calculated that this expedition, small as it was, with Spitzbergen, his war service and doctorate, would put him in line for the post of chief scientist or perhaps leader on the next Antarctic expedition. Mawson was interested in it but probably too old: the Australian Government was asking the Royal Geographical Society what personnel were available in England because they had no adequate men at home. 'Good.' said Jock.

November was setting the scene for that winter. It was wild and wet. Perhaps as an antidote he decided to write an article on Africa for the Sydney Daily Mirror. He remembered an early film which triggered his ambition to explore wild places - 'I will write the story of David Livingstone, mentioning Stanley. The film "With Stanley in Africa" which Don [his brother] paid for me to go to Kogarah to see when I was very little, no doubt influenced my later career. I still remember vividly individual scenes - & I was not more than 11 or 12?' To 'explore' was the operative verb for Jock. Simply to travel without a specific purpose, no matter how arduously, did not interest him. There was an element of personal challenge in all his exploits but even this was not enough. He needed another element - geographical or scientific discovery. He had soaked himself, since those early days, in accounts of the great European explorers and scientists who trod new ground, actually and metaphorically, with a mixture of crusading courage and excitement in discovery.

On one windy, wet Saturday night he wrote: 'I feel (unlike me) subdued & (!) rather lonely. I listen to Paris, drink saccharined tea & try to read Ford on butterfly genetics & Goodrich on comparative anatomy of the vascular system & finally Dufferin's Letters from High Altitudes'. But he could not concentrate and wrote letters. He had decided not only to climb the Beerenberg, the brooding extinct volcano central to Jan Mayen Island - which had been done several times before - but to cross the crater and come down the other side somewhere. 'As this decision doesn't cheer me up as much as it did when I made it last night I feel I must have some malaria near.'

The malaria did not eventuate but he was feeling depressed about his baby daughter: 'I miss Neri terribly.' He was worried about her health: she appeared to have chronic bronchitis. 'We'll have to get her away from Mosman inland this winter. Poor little kid - I'll radio tonight ... she doesn't deserve this: & neither incidentally, does her mother.' A small amount of financial relief was on the way for problems like this. In mid November he was to wear academic dress and appear before the Carnegie Committee. He was asking for a research grant. The Committee gave him 200 pounds.

He had an ambivalent attitude towards the Arctic. Although he found the prospect exciting he was worried about his research. One man shocked him by saying that an expedition put him off for so long that he took four years to get his doctorate. Jock planned to get his in two. Nevertheless he had agreed to read a paper at the Grey Institute Ornithological Conference, and to do the next term's lecture to the Exploration Club; also to lecture on Northern Australia to the Royal Geographical Society and do extra seminars and tutorials in nutrition with agricultural students. It hardly seemed a likely proposition - his doctorate in two years.

Jock Marshall: One Armed Warrior by Jane Marshall
Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 25 February 1998
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (
Prepared by: Elissa Tenkate

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