On July 7th he was in Oslo on the way to Jan Mayen. Incorrigible
- he sat in the beer-garden conjecturing about another Arctic
expedition that year: leading an Australian wintering party as
a forerunner to a British, Norwegian, Swedish expedition to Queen
Maude Land, which had been discussed at Australia House in London.
He radioed from Oslo that he would not be available, as it would
interfere with his D. Phil. - but it was obvious he could not
be pinned to any domestic hearth.
They boarded the Polarbjorn and sailed on July 15th. There
were twelve of them: two ornithologists, a marine biologist,
an entomologist, a botanist, two petrologists and a geology student,
Ian Hume as medical officer and three Gaumont British film people
who were making a documentary of the men at work as part of a
contract to support the expedition. Jock was astounded that absolutely
nothing had gone wrong - 'unheard of at the beginning of any show.
That the organisation has been so good is largely attributable
to Avrion Mitchison, over months, & the last minute drive
& initiative of Spanky [Ian Hume].'
Two days later they were able to see the great, snowy peak of
the Beerenberg looming out of the sea mist. At 9 p.m. Jock was
scribbling: 'I lie in my warm bag planning, reading verse &
Janey's letters, & try to read C.S. Lewis. God, what
a bore. Yet he lectures well, & Geoffrey Dutton says his
tutorials are first-rate.' At midnight they were three miles
out but the austere island seemed only six or seven hundred yards
away. They sailed around Southeast Cape to run due north 'with
the midnatsol spilling red across the flattest sea I ever saw
in the Arctic. Birds feeding to the right of us, to the left
of us, ahead, & astern; flying in the air above us, &
wheeling white dots against the honey-combed cliffs away through
the glasses.' There was no possible doubt - the birds were there.
They were put ashore with all their stores and equipment, which
then had to be dragged, pushed and ferried across a lagoon to
the huts which would be their camp. The weather was good. It
did not rain, though Jock thought the environment looked as though
it had earned the Norwegian seamens' name "The Devil's Island".
He immediately went off on a preliminary exploration over ridges,
across a river, into mist shrouded valleys filled with dandelions:
'I never liked dandelions before - & I didn't know they had
a delicate perfume, quite apart from their characteristic stink.'
He enjoyed himself, indulged in 'my old vice (a childish one)
of rock rolling', and saw clearly the way they could take to climb
the Beerenberg. But twenty four hours later he realised he had
made a mistake in going off on his own without informing anyone:
'The expedition seems to be capable of more or less running itself
- but I've issued two instructions (a) that the launch shall always
have one week's iron rations & water; & (b) that each
man should leave written notification of his destination when
going out; & that he shall build a cairn & place in it
a note if he is alone & wants to radically change direction.
If I had fallen yesterday I may not have been found for days
- or weeks, for nobody had a clue where I was. Such an accident
would seriously disrupt the work of the expedition.'
On an absolutely clear crisp day, July 21st, work began seriously.
Francis Huxley, Ian Hume and Jock travelled twenty five difficult
miles in search of birds, climbing riskily up cliffs covered in
moss and loose rubble. Jock even stripped and waded into the
icy sea after a prized specimen - 'I have never been colder or
more uncomfortable' - and then back to the work of dissection.
At midnight Jock was in his sleeping bag making notes and writing
up his dairy in a pleasant haze of satisfaction with his own and
his trusty gun's condition: 'at 36 I am almost as good as ever'
and his rifle had been good enough to collect a fulmar 70 yards
up a cliff face. The rifle had been carried through rivers and
jungle, carried south under odd conditions, packed by odd people,
brought to England in hessian 'by an old woman I've never met
(bless her) & then hastily repacked for the Arctic, unlimbered
here - & she's as good as ever.'
The next day he and Francis Huxley looked for a lake that had
been reported but was not on the map. Climbing a high pillar
of rock they saw it and named it "Oxford Lake". But
the day's work was disappointing, unable to get any of the birds
they needed. In late afternoon, however, the film people wanted
more shots and Jock attempted what had seemed almost impossible
- the collection of the snowy glaucus gulls which might be non-breeders
sunning themselves, perched right on top of the high Pillar.
He got 'a huge white stinking beast' and Huxley got one later.
They took them back in triumph - badly needed prizes. The dissection
of these birds was an experience Jock remembered for years. 'Stomachs
stinking fish (Oh, how stinking!! - almost vomited as the cameras
turned recording the dissection).' But the gonads were telling
a story: 'So far we seem to be getting places, but slowly. We
see two common birds - Little Auk & Glaucus Gull - non-breeding
& breeding within a few miles of each other ... Perhaps there
are NOT so many suitable sites on a given cliff ... perhaps everything
must be just right - end - desiderata such as nesting sites,
etc., before they copulate with the general overall influences
of light, climate food ... I am working with Van Oordt's technique
on the mechanics of the thing - intensive observation & specimens
may give us the clue.' The last statement summed up his approach
to the work. 'The fusion of data derived from field-work and
laboratory investigations was the hallmark of his research' wrote
Professor Brian Lofts - 'He was one of the first people to use
frozen sectioning and sudanophilic dyeing to study the seasonal
secretory activity of the avian testes, and to postulate an endocrinological
role for lipids in the post-nuptial semeniferous tubules.' In
those Arctic birds Jock eventually found that 'Both male &
female non-breeders arrive at a histochemical condition indistinguishable
from the breeding birds of the same species except that, in the
female, oocytes do not develop beyond a certain optimum. The
males undergo spermatogenesis, but because various exteroceptive
stimuli are lacking in the environment the females do not ovulate.'
The work went on - everyone busy with their own specialities.
'There is a good deal of sex talk & song on this expedition
- exactly proportional to the unusual comfort that we're enjoying.'
The weather was kind by Arctic standards, the island not yet
living up to its evil reputation. It was often foggy, the hills
black, filmed with yellow-green mosses, lichens and prone vascular
plants eking a precarious existence from barren soil. 'Only under
the bird-cliffs, soaked with phosphates & nitrates, do you
find lush vegetation, & here the Whopper Swan feeds &
the foxes make their earths & slink silently, hopefully around
in search of fallen nestlings.' Jock mused on how the various
personalities were developing under harsh conditions: 'They are
a good bunch - & we are particularly lucky in the scratch
team of "film folk". The show, after a week runs smoothly.
The secret of successful leadership of a non-military enterprise
is to arrange matters so that it appears to run smoothly without
One thing was worrying him - why no radio about the Beit Fellowship?
I was staying in London and he was expecting me to cable as soon
as the result of his application was known. After a fortnight
he had a cable of another sort from the Captain of the Polarbjorn
saying the worst weather in many years further north may cause
him to turn around early, and therefore pick up the Oxford team
somewhat ahead of time. And the weather on Jan Mayen suddenly
turned sour and slowed work. Icy wind and rain off the Beerenberg
drove birds out of reach and men to shelter: Jock was nearly
blown off a ridge though carrying nothing but a rifle, the film
crew had bravely got some good footage of the hardy men freezing
on the cliff-face. The waves were shooting up forty feet along
the coast. 'I spend the afternoon listening to the French radio
& reading Steinbeck's silliest novel - Cup of Gold ... Now
one understands why the huts are all anchored down with cables.'
In spite of the storm they later went out to try to get food
to the geologists who were miserably short of it in their camp
down the coast.
But on the afternoon of August 3rd Jock was in the hut relishing
good news. The storm still raged outside, the white husky, Jan,
lolled on the floor, 'grinning, actually grinning & closing
his eyes in contentment (he looks like a great contented polar
bear) when we rub his neck or tickle his ribs.' Jock echoed the
contentment. The radio had come from London - 'Beit is yours.
Wonderful. News went to Shack ... '. So he was a Beit Medical
Research Fellow at 600 pounds a year '& Janey is OK &
all is well. The Beit! - open to Great Britain & the Empire
& (I think) Americans as well. It is ironic to think that
in the "competitive" scramble for Australian Ex-servicemens'
benefits overseas I was a failure.' The Beit fellowships, in fact,
were not open to Americans - but to 'any man or woman of European
descent, graduate of any approved University within the British
Empire.' It was, however, a most important grant 'devoted entirely
to the furthering of medical research work in all its branches'
as its founder, the gold-rich and extraordinary philanthropist,
Otto Beit wrote in London in 1909 at its foundation. Becoming
a fellow was certainly an important endorsement of Jock's research
on the physiology of reproduction.
After getting slightly drunk on celebratory rum punch that night
he returned to his love-hate relationship with his country: 'There's
little you can do with Australia - its a dry, dull, barren land,
but no more dry, barren & dull than the people. The people
choose the government. (And it's a labour Government, & god
help me, I voted labour last time, & always I hope will!)
And so to bed.' Then he scrawled a rider - 'It's pleasant also,
to see the pleasure of the others.' Drunk as he may have been
the views of these diary entries are unlikely to have been aired
among the young Englishmen. Later - he confessed to feeling far
less pleased by the prospect of the complete financial independence
for three years than by the fact that he got the thing purely
on merit in an open and distinguished field - 'It gives me a
tremendous kick when I get time to think of it; & I can hardly
wait to thank Hardy, Marshall & J.R.B. for the recommendations
they gave me.'
Once the storm passed there was one other thing for them to do,
if at all possible, before they were picked up. Some years before
this, Scott Russell, a New Zealander with mountaineering experience,
had climbed the Beerenberg and placed some cosmic ray plates on
top. He had asked Jock if they could be retrieved on this trip.
On a clear day several of them set out to climb the mountain
but were thwarted by bad weather when they hit the snow-line.
It was treacherous and Jock decided to go back. Five days later,
when it was dry and the mountain clear, they climbed again but
within striking distance of the top the inexperienced mountaineers,
with the exception of Huxley, felt unable to face the difficulties
of the high icy slopes. Because of their inexperience Jock knew
he must have two men besides himself to go roped the final distance.
They returned once more.
There were no more chances. Jock and Francis were disappointed
for themselves and for Scott Russell, but got on with work. Jock
nearly killed himself on a much less formidable slope - the cliffs
where they sought specimens. A huge boulder rumbled away beneath
him as he climbed around a loose face, leaving him hanging by
his one hand and one foot. Francis, whom he'd warned to keep
out of the way while he was climbing, remarked when he got down:
'I knew you were a maniac but not quite such a one!'
They raced to finish work before the "Polarbjon"
called in for them. On board as they approached the coast of
Europe Jock summed up: 'And so - the show ends. It's been a
good one, especially as far as work was concerned ... During the
next few days in Norway & before we meet Jania, I'll finish
these rough notes. This place with its abominable reeling &
creaking, the stench of musk-ox & the hoarse roaring of bear,
the whine of huskeys & the foul stink of piles of fox skins
- is not conducive to thoughtful record; & anyway outside
is the reddest moon I ever saw & the first stars I've seen
in six weeks - & a lighthouse gleams in welcome over the Norwegian
It was September - the first month of autumn - and Scandinavia
was still blue and gold with lingering warmth. I met Jock and
Ian Hume in Oslo. They felt liberated; no responsibilities,
no hard work, no diaries to keep daily. We had a loose plan to
walk and camp across Norway and Sweden, take a boat for Finland,
try hard to get to Leningrad (though all informants became pale
and rigidly negative at this proposition) and then sail to Copenhagen
where we would part - they to Germany and myself back to England.
This vagabonding was one of only three interludes which could
properly be called holidays in the twenty years Jock and I lived
together. Like most people whose work totally involves them,
he felt no need to get away from it; in fact he was uncomfortable
and itchy-minded when it was not the reason for, or a considerable
part of, any travels he was making. 'They lie like lizards in
the sun frying their brains' he said of holiday crowds. He could
enjoy total relaxation over food and drink and talk - especially
talk. He loved it. He loved camping. He loved searching for
antiques in any place we happened to find ourselves. Fortunately
for me he loved art galleries. But he did not love the idea of
a 'holiday'. However, roaming Scandinavia seemed, when we were
sitting in the Shack, an interesting and even exciting thing to
do. Following strenuous weeks in the Arctic, it was just that.
The weather was idyllic. We walked a great deal; at first I
was dawdling like a reluctant toddler while these super-fit adults
forged ahead. We picked up odd lifts in anything from car to
fish truck, caught the occasional train, met farmers, talked to
students and camped in pine or fir woods. On the outskirts of
the charming city of Upsala, home of the Nobel Prize, we found
ourselves in a psychiatric hospital owing to our addiction to
camping in fir woods. We had a sound and comfortable night's
sleep in a fine thick wood in what we thought, in the dusk of
evening, was a park. The morning light, however, revealed barred
buildings through the trees and an enormous barbed-wire topped
iron fence, just behind our 'camp', through which a figure in
grey uniform stared at the two bearded figures (no one wore beards
in Sweden at this time) and lone female with terrified disbelief.
He mounted his bicycle and pedalled off as though followed by
demons; whether to have a stiff schnapps or report us to the
authorities in the barred buildings we were not sure. We decided
to exit as fast and as nonchalantly as possible, clutching our
passports. We passed several figures standing about in catatonic
poses who caused our air of nonchalance to waver, but no one took
the slightest notice of us. The great gates were open as they
had been the evening before. We moved fast into the city for
more conventional exploration. 'Upsala was fun' said
In Helsinki we were again the centre of attention because of those
beards. We were mistaken for two artist yachtsmen and a girl
who had been held by the Russians for some time in the port of
Porkkala, and recently released with much publicity. Finland
was in a state of near chaos. Russia had annexed a huge area
of the country and dispossessed Finnish citizens flooded into
what remained of their homeland. There were shortages of almost
everything (except meat and eggs strangely); all sorts of improbable
things were made of paper, including bed sheets - it was like
slipping into an oversized toilet roll. Helsinki was crowded
beyond belief. We were extremely lucky to have the British Consul
find us beds with the Salvation Army. Our plans to find a comfortable
forest had been met with horrified rebuttal: 'you'll be murdered
for your boots' cried concerned Finns.
Jock was mad keen to go to Leningrad - and so was I for the art
collection. We spent an inordinate amount of time with the Russian
Consul and an interpreter, being mutually charming to no avail.
Jock contented himself with a visit to the zoologist Professor
Palmgren of the University of Helsinki and his father who was
Professor of Botany, which resulted in interesting talk and two
valuable references on the subject of breeding.
The holiday, with its revealing glimpse of Northern Europe in
the wake of war, then progressed across Finland to the northern
shore and a ship through the lovely archipelago back to Sweden
and across to Copenhagen. Jock and Ian then went through Germany
learning a great deal about the devastation of cities and the
human spirit, the humour and goodwill of some people and the arrogance
and greed of others. They bought things with cigarettes; 'perhaps
the people are not weak with hunger but they do have a
drawn look.' At the railway station in Hanover they found people
in rags sprawled in the subway on bags and blankets, waiting in
the mild autumn night to travel somewhere. They caught the diesel
for Berlin - 'sleepers, thank heaven, but one feels almost ashamed
to use them, seeing these wretched people the way they are - the
common people, who are the mugs, the sufferers, yet who would
never start wars themselves.' In Berlin they discovered the existence
of night clubs where they saw dazzlingly dressed women (they did
not admit to entering these) and the grim performance of war crime
trials. Jock saw Professor Stieve and they then made their way
back to England through Belgium.