Although living on the edge of the city as he was growing up,
Jock hardly knew the confinement of a suburban garden. He could
gallop his horse over grass, wander along the creek, shoot rabbits
- in fact, until he went to high-school his experiences would
not have been very different had he lived at Wondalga.
Even after he went to school at Kogarah High, which he detested,
he could escape at week-ends into an area he always loved - the
National Park stretching along the coast to the south of Sydney.
Honeycombed sandstone headlands with a tumble of rocks at their
feet occasionally give way to a beach and an oasis of palms.
Climbing up to the top of this coastal rampart you come on miles
of windswept scrub spiked with grass trees. Suddenly it will
drop into a valley full of secretive birds and animals; perhaps
wide where a stream runs clear over rocks and pink-trunked angophoras
spread twisting limbs; or deep and full of turpentine trees and
pale eucalypts reaching straight for the sun. An azure kingfisher
might flash over dark water. It was here, in forest undergrowth
umbrellared by tree ferns, that Jock saw for the first time the
handsome blue satin bower bird which later became an important
subject of his work.
At home there was talk of laziness and careers.
In Oxford in 1949, just after taking his Doctorate of Philosophy,
he wrote - 'I'm really working moderately consistently because
I like doing that. What a difference from school days! I wouldn't
work because I didn't like it. I can still recall Dad's 'He's
lazy,' and later, when I wasn't lazy, 'You're on the wrong track
- you should decide to go into politics!' and when I told them
of some small achievement 'But is there any money in it?' - humorously
and kindly. How lucky for me that neither Pop nor Nin really
cared that there was no financial gain from any of my early, utterly
unimportant (except as character forming) achievements.'
The allusion to politics is strange. No doubt it was made light-heartedly
at the time. There was no tradition of any such activity in the
family and one can only suppose Robert was trying to harness his
son's great talent for argument and talk into something useful.
Robert was also interested in engineering for his son (as a pipe-dream
presumably in view of Jock's overwhelming academic laziness).
His son was totally uninterested and the only engineering he
did was in the local garage. One of his friends of later years,
himself an engineer, looked on a small stone-paved drive which
Jock had devised - 'That's a zoologists drive!' he said with amused
Jock arrived at Kogarah High School with a well-developed ability
to avoid learning anything that bored him. It seemed most of
the school curriculum bored him, and he set about amusing himself.
He did not amuse the teachers. At home he read omnivorously.
This further irritated his sister, who had been sent to a girls'
boarding school and forced to work. Later, his brother-in-law
added unequivocally 'he was a "bum" at that time.'
Jock would have acknowledged the sentiment. He was always astounded
at his parents' tolerance - 'I was a monumentally lazy little
bastard, did almost nothing but lie around reading and couldn't
have got a job on the Water Board.'
Certainly the Water Board would have rejected him, not only on
his lack of academic achievement, but on the likely report from
the school. There is an undated manuscript (which probably belongs
to a period around 1929-1930) in which he wrote up some of the
experiences of the Depression. He disguised his name - for his
parents' sake, he said later - taking on his paternal grandmother's
maiden name. He became John Duncan. He stated boastfully that
if he had been even moderately well-behaved at High School he
would, at the beginning of the Depression, 'have been an undergraduate
at Sydney University. But John, though undoubtedly possessed
of brains far above the average, had no desire to enter Varsity
and take a degree.' He declared a longing to be a 'motor-mechanic.'
Therefore he applied himself to stunts such as 'the manufacture
and explosion of stink-bombs, the total collapse of the headmaster's
chair when he seated himself and the presence of a very live eel
in the algebra master's desk' (this no doubt dredged from a stream
in the National Park). The exasperated headmaster demanded his
removal before he had sat for any public examination. He was
apprenticed to a local garage proprietor. "He was a dreadful
handful" said his mother "we were probably too soft
on him." But it is almost certain she would have been secretly
afraid that he might follow his sister into oblivion if he was
pushed too far.
Miles down a long beach away from the war-importance of Townsville,
we were sitting on the warm sand. We had just come back from
a swim; Jock was a good swimmer in a lop-sided way. But out
of the water I watched him arrange a towel over his left shoulder;
unhurriedly, but with a certain self-conscious care, drape it
across the stump of his arm. I asked him if it felt a bit like
nudity to have it bare. He thought for a while, then: 'I don't
really think so any more. I thought it was hellishly ugly at
first. I got into the habit of covering it. That's what it is
now probably - habit.' Having spent a good deal of time in art
school drawing from plaster casts of Greek and Roman heroes, gods
and heroines, often missing a limb, I found the image more romantic
So we began to talk about the accident. I suspected he didn't
talk about it much. Probably he mostly threw a quip such as I
later heard on several occasions, 'it isn't necessary to have
two arms - the weight and space would be far better taken up by
an extra penis!'
The accident - it happened just before his sixteenth birthday.
And it put a stop to all talk of careers for a very long time.
It nearly ended his life, although he said it was really the
beginning of it.
One of his jobs was to take the sulky and pony to collect firewood.
It was his habit to take along an old hammer operated shotgun
in case he saw a rabbit - to relieve the tedious chore by capturing
something for the pot. On this day there were no rabbits. He
collected the firewood, loaded it on the jinker and, ready to
go home, flicked the safety catch on the gun and poked it in amongst
the logs - carelessly and against all training - stock first.
The safety catch was defective. One of the hammers caught in
the wood. The roar of the explosion, numbing impact of lead,
smashed flesh and bone - all were instantaneous. He reeled back
and the horse bolted.
His laziness, fortunately, was never associated in any way with
lethargy. In his dazed state he knew immediately it was useless
to go after the horse which had vanished from sight. He knew
it was a mile over rough ground to the nearest house and that
he must get there quickly; so he needed to cross the creek rather
than take the long road - down a steep bank, through the water
and slippery rocks, and up the other side. Soaked in blood, and
supporting the useless, mangled left arm, he set off with that
nearest house filling his mind. He said pictures of his grandfather
had also flickered in his brain. As we talked, so many years
later, he could still feel the weight of the nearly severed arm
in his right hand - feel it as it was when he slipped and struggled
up the creek bank and staggered over the interminable distance
to the house of Mrs. Twist; the last house on the long road.
There were several miracles of chance that day. The first - although
almost every inch of bone and muscle in the arm was smashed, the
brachial artery remained intact. The second - Mrs. Twist was
at home because Jock fainted on her doorstep and a third, not
so obvious - Mrs. Twist had a telephone, which in 1927 was not
necessarily to be expected. And she was a brave woman. She did
not faint herself at the bloodied, sprawled figure she found at
the door, but went straight into action to get medical help.
Jock never forgot her courage and kept in touch with her until
On the beach he leaned back. 'I certainly could have died. I
nearly did. My grandfather did - perhaps doing the same thing.'
That puritanical disciplined man, Thomas Crowe, his mother's father,
had enacted a drama of which this seemed almost a mirror image.
Men were doubtless casual with firearms at a time when half the
countryside carried a gun or kept it in the corner of the room
against a chance visit from bushrangers: Jock's mother said she
remembered, when only about seven, being confronted by Captain
Moonlight on just such a raid in search of arms - well, she always
declared it was Captain Moonlight, and the timing fits with his
activities in the area, around the 1880s. There is, however,
a certain mystery concerning the details of Thomas's accident,
for like Jock he was alone. He had been in Gundagai with the
heavy cart and team of strong horses which was the backbone of
his business, carrying goods to and from the paddle-steamers of
the Murrumbidgee River. It seemed he had just finished unloading
the cart, for when he was found shot through the heart his gun
was on the empty dray, the barrels pointing outward, having been
discharged into his chest. Lightning reflexes and great courage
caused him to pull the leading horse to a halt, but he died dragging
on the reins. There was a suggestion he may have been robbed
and murdered with his own gun because no money was found on him
and none of the family could believe he would have thrown the
gun down, cocked and stock first, under any normal circumstances.
But, whatever the true facts, this tragedy was used as a cautionary
tale in the use of guns. Jock remembered the cautions very well
- but he never knew why he ignored them that day.
Now there was the reality - not death, but the agony, physical
and mental, of a severed arm. It was amputated immediately just
below the shoulder. This was followed by months of torturing
treatment in hospital . Antibiotic drugs now seem so magical
that it is hard to imagine the agonies of uncertainty endured
by everyone in such situations then. Dangers of all sorts lurked;
the worst were gangrene and general toxaemia. There was a fight
to stay alive. Jock remembered it - the thought of death; the
real thought, not a joust or Russian roulette, but more like a
trap out of which one must fight. He fought - and was dragged
into dreary months of nursing and an infinite number of excruciatingly
painful operations to try and remove all the dozens of pieces
of shot. Several had to be left; some were removed as late as
1948 in Oxford.
But at the time keeping him in hospital was like trying to keep
a lion behind a wooden fence. After weeks of operations he was
desperate to get away. He was a scourge of the nursing staff.
There is a fragment of a letter which refers to the period.
It was scrawled in pencil by a friend from school who had evidently
crossed paths with a mutual contemporary from Dumbleton and the
hospital scene: ' ... Mercury St Dumbo [Dumbleton]. Do you remember
him? He said you were a real bastard of a kid and when he was
in hospital with appendicitis you were sharing his ward with your
arm injury. They had to lock the door of the ward to keep you
in but you got through the fanlight. What a bloody brat you must
have been - and still are.' The 'brat' remembered well - he moved
a locker to the door, climbed through the narrow gap, dropping
on the other side, and crept out onto the road with blood spreading
through his dressings. He 'just had to do it' - no sense of caution
for the state of the wound. It was his first challenge to the
one-armed body (a vision that horrified him). His mother remembered
him turning up in his pyjamas, deathly pale and rigid with defiance.
They took him back to hospital. He alternated then between causing
havoc in the ward, as a release for pent-up emotion, and feelings
of dark depression.
He always acknowledged a considerable debt to his parents. They
gave him all the understanding they could muster but refused to
pamper him. His mother, acutely reminded of her father's accident
and the recent searing experience of her eldest son's death (he
was her favourite, Jock said) only three years before, could have
been forgiven if she had dissolved into vapours at the very thought
of the long, difficult task of rehabilitation. However, she was
not the vaporous type. She went out to buy an artificial limb,
but no matter how she coaxed, Jock found the thing painful, clumsy,
heavy and made little progress in adjusting to it. She then showed
her true metal. One particularly bad day she decided to help
him learn to control his horse again, artificial aid or not.
Jock remembered the feeling of recoil at the thought: Billy was
a spirited animal and he felt unbalanced in every way. But, his
mother had a way with horses, and with her son. He rode again.
In fact, at fifty four he could still control a reefing, bucking
thoroughbred. It was the necessary medicine. From that moment
he realised he could teach himself to do anything and discarded
all idea of ever using the expensive artificial arm. His mother
finally vented her feelings on the object. Although the opposite
of a wasteful woman she took it from the house in a rage and threw
it in the creek. Jock often wondered wryly where it ended up.
Of course, there were endless exasperating and prolonged battles
with little niggling things: shoe-laces, ties, cuff-links, buttons,
meat on a plate - hundreds of delicate manoeuvres which had been
unconscious reflexes - but every time he won, it tempered his
determination to become completely independent. He succeeded
so well eventually that most people who knew him ignored, or even
forgot, the missing arm. He seemed to be only incensed if a thoughtful
waiter offered to cut up his meat, but beneath the physical successes
there was, for years, a lingering anger at this tearing away of
a part of himself. It had little connection with any inability
to do what he wanted to do; it was far more the perception of
society towards it which infuriated him - 'the poor young man'
attitude that in his eyes fitted 'old' men from the first World
War driving lifts. It shows in a diary entry in 1939 when he
returned to Sydney from Europe and a young man offered him his
seat in a tram. 'As an ex-Univ. champion walker and an explorer
etc., etc. I felt like telling him his need was greater than mine
- but in order to escape embarrassment in his eyes - I took the
bloody seat and sat. He no doubt got a self-righteous glow.'
But back at the beginning, no matter how well he handled the physical
hurdles, there was another side: what to do with his life? It
was the old problem deferred and considerably compounded by the
accident. His parents were aware there was a huge fund of untapped
talent and resource in their energetic, unhappy, unmotivated boy.
They were baffled. Nothing pleased him. He only seemed content
when he was out in the bush by himself, exercising his acute powers
of observation. At last his mother's own powers of observation
came to the rescue. She was reading the Sydney Mail (at
5.30 in the morning as was her habit - before the business of
the day began) and noticed an article by the ornithologist, Neville
Cayley. She sat down immediately to write to him, saying her
son was deeply interested in natural history and could he make
Cayley showed the letter to his friend Alec Chisholm, then editor
of the Daily Telegraph, because Alex was a naturalist as
well as being a Fellow of the Australian Zoological Society.
So Jock was summoned to the editorial office. He entered the
strange place with a mixture of excitement and resistance. Chisholm,
Jock said, was kind to him. 'He was serious but his eyes twinkled
- even though he always had an air of rather critical pedantry.'
They later became good friends. Alec found him 'a raw young
lad but obviously very intelligent.' Years afterwards he said
to me 'you know, he wasn't always the urbane, cultivated talker
you've known!' No - but soon he began to see the power in language.
He had an acute ear and developed his love affair with words
- all the better to be imaginative and irreverent. Chisholm was
surprised at the way he soaked up his (Chisholm's) critical pruning
of his early writing. Like most people, Jock did not enjoy criticism
- he could strike like a disturbed snake if hit on a sensitive
spot - but whether characteristically or through determination
he showed then that he could take it without rancour. Anyway,
at that first meeting he made sufficient impression for Chisholm
to introduce him to a few of his friends in the Zoological Society
who were also on the staff of the Australian Museum. Those introductions
gave Jock a goal and motivation for the first time in his life.
In the high book-lined rooms of the Museum people worked among
their specialised collections - fossils, skeletons, shells, skins
of fur, feather or scale. The boy introduced to them must often
have seemed, at the very least, an interruptive nuisance - but
Jock found them more than generous with their time. Gilbert Whitley
declared that as an icthyologist he had not so much to do with
Jock but he remembered clearly the curly-headed figure striding
through dark, formalin-scented passages or leaping up the wide
stairs, 'entirely unselfconscious - he was usually in shorts,
often without shoes, and always in a hurry to ask questions or
impart some new-found piece of knowledge.'
The two men in the Museum with whom Jock spent most of his time
were Ellis Le Gay Troughton ("Troughtie" to his friends),
the mammologist, and Tom Iredale, the ornithologist. They were
able to give him clues for solving problems or techniques for
practical work and later, in the case of Iredale, argue (with
energy matching Jock's own) subjects on which they disagreed.
Alec Chisholm commented: 'the rugged young Marshall progressed
at more than average pace. Such progress, acting upon something
of a headstrong nature, with, perhaps, a psychological reaction
against his one-armed condition, caused the youth to be, at times,
rather too assured, and so somewhat "difficult".' Jock's
comment on the period was much more succinct: 'I must have been
an appalling little bastard.'
Chisholm, however, added 'But on such occasions, he always took
restraint in good part', and years later, in his last address
in Sydney to an annual meeting of the Australian Zoological Society,
'he went out of his way to acknowledge what he owed to the senior
ornithologists of his native city for instruction and advice in
his youthful days.'
Because his parents did not need him to have a regular job - 'allowed
me to parasitise them' - he was able to give all his energies
to the new work. He learnt to use a camera skilfully. He taught
himself a system for noting observations in the bush and began
filling a series of notebooks. He also went often with Alec Chisholm
and the ornithologists to a place called "the bird cabin"
in the National Park.
There were other expansive experiences too. Ellis Troughton,
who loved opera almost as much as he loved his work, decided he
might introduce young Jock to this, for him, delicious pleasure.
On the appointed night they arrived for the performance. The
curtain rose. The conductor flourished his baton and there was
fluttering in the prompter's box while a swelling fanfare from
the orchestra began dramatic movement among the singers as they
each became involved. Suddenly Troughton became aware of a hiss
at his side.
'Troughtie' - he ignored it.
There was flourishing from the conductor and more discreet fluttering
from the prompter as the song soared upward.
Again - 'Troughtie'
'Well, what is it Jock?', in good humoured exasperation.
'Wouldn't they get along much better without that parasite in
Much to Troughtie's retrospective amusement opera was a lost cause
with Jock - though he enjoyed much of the music.
In the next few years he canalised his interest in zoology as
he went on a series of expeditions with members of the Museum
staff or on lone journeys he organised himself. After the accident
he did not give up shooting; he learnt new techniques for accuracy
and became a very good shot. But he had much to learn in collecting
for the Museum. The skin of a tiny bird or a large goanna must
be equally as little damaged as possible. During this time he
met a small party of American zoologists from Harvard University
who were at the Museum planning an expedition into northern New
South Wales and south west Queensland. He persuaded them to take
him along - although in the most minor role. It proved to be
an invaluable experience. He learnt a great deal about perfecting
techniques and collecting specimens and became fired with enthusiasm
for other journeys. From then on he saw a path he could take,
though it looked rough at the time.
In 1929, when he was eighteen, there was a series of journeys
which were highly unconventional. The great economic depression
of the thirties was just beginning to bite. His parents were
in mature middle age and he was their only dependant, so their
situation was easy enough. But he became guilty about accepting
money from them and felt he should find some permanent work.
Work - it was a rare find for anyone, and, as he discovered, almost
impossible for a boy with only one arm and no obvious qualifications.
So he conceived a plan with an old school mate which made allowance
for carrying on with his ornithological observations, involved
almost endless travel and needed no income at all. He proposed,
in short, that they go on the dole and 'jump the rattlers.' The
"rattlers" were freight trains. They were used as a
form of free transport by all sorts of characters in uncomfortable
journeys across many continents from the time the first one hit
Jock's mother was almost speechless with horror at this proposal.
She saw in the scheme a threat to all the rigid standards she
had set for her family. Visions of the strap behind the kitchen
door had always kept Jock from trying to cheat by not paying his
fare on the trains - although his mother was forced to admit that
riding with the freight was hardly doing a paying passenger out
of a seat. Of course, she also saw in the scheme a huge threat
to her son's safety and certainly would have fought it bitterly
had she not been so worried about his future. She knew how much
the field work meant to him. His father, as usual, took a more
tolerant attitude and considered it not a bad idea in view of
the current alternatives - although he would certainly have been
more aware than his wife of the dangers. This interchange is
a fair commentary on Jock's relationship with his parents. He
could easily have lied or simply disappeared.
In the end Nin gave in. 'She made her decision and then spoke
no more about dangers or her other objections - but she must have
gone through a hell of worry waiting for every letter.' Jock
made a decision never to talk about the episode openly while his
mother lived. He never did. His oldest friends had no knowledge
of it - with the exception of Tom Harrisson - although it would
not have surprised any of them.
The spiking of the enterprise with a bit of danger was all the
more alluring. The great iron boxes of the freight trains, standing
like sleeping caterpillars in the sidings or the yards, presented
no special problem for a fit person when viewed from the rails.
But those hoping to hitch a ride and not wanting to be ignominiously
pitched out, could not simply scramble aboard under the noses
of the guards. They had to 'fly' onto the trucks on the off side,
just as the train began to gather speed outside the station.
This meant judging a run between trucks, reaching a hand-hold,
hanging on, reaching a foothold, then scrambling over the top
with your heavy roll of meagre necessities. Unlike some of the
"bagmen", Jock had the advantage of being athletic and
young; but imagine the iron strength of muscle and delicate balance
needed, with only one arm, to take the weight of body swinging
up and over.
It was a tough means of transport, and the men who carried their
swag on the rails were a mixed lot in those days of mass deprivation.
But there was a camaraderie in the minor excitements and dangers
of their travel which was denied those standing in queues in the
cities. The rattlers took you on a time-warp - no tyrannous clocks,
no cheating competition; journeys had no beginning and no end,
only a change in pace and landscape, a switch from one destination
to another as whim or chance, or the next dole ration, dictated.
There was no control over a changing environment. You had to
adjust to life in the box as it sped clanking over dusty plains
or groaned up a mountain side. The sun might be deliciously warm
or glaringly hot, the rain mist on you like a balm or drive down
in blinding sheets. You had to adjust to curious cargoes or cold
steel; to strange travelling companions - 'they might give you
a cut of their ration if you'd missed out, but they might just
as easily steal your shoes if you shut your eyes.' There were
long yarns, tales of woe and boasting. You had to be quick and
cunning getting on and off - seven days in the local lock-up was
the price of being caught, although in some far out-back places
there was tolerance. Jock wrote quite a number of vignettes of
this time - as fiction. They were never shaped up for publication
but one excerpt encapsulates the atmosphere of a stop-off on these
strange journeys. There was drought on the black soil plains.
It was four years since the few scattered residents between Hughenden
and Marathon had seen rain and there was no trace of grass on
the parched gaping earth.
'The sun, a large red ball, rose slowly over the undulations towards
the east. It's searching beams flashed along the twin rails,
which as far as the eye could perceive, stretched towards the
west. A head appeared at the window of the tiny length man's
humpy which did duty as railway station, post and telegraph office,
store and ambulance station for many miles around - "The
sun's risin', Ma, train'll be just about leavin' Hughenden."
- the child's head was withdrawn, and the sound of great activity
arose within the "station".
Far out on the cracked plain a half-starved kangaroo twitches
its long sensitive ears nervously. Its "joey" hops
obediently towards it, and both leave the immediate vicinity of
the railway line...Ten minutes later the faint rumble of the approaching
locomotive is heard by the eager fettler's children, and a moment
later a puff of smoke appears in the distance. The faint though
shrill note of the engine whistle cuts through the clear plain-country
air and the kiddies run to their vantage points to witness the
one important event in their otherwise uneventful lives. "Bet
I count more bagmen than you" says little Mary to young Jim.
"Righto" replies James, "an' see that ya don't
cheat. Last week ya said you saw a swaggy in the guard's van
and it turned out later that he wus a passenger"..."Look
here she comes!"
"She", a rattling string of empty bullion trucks, headed
by a free-running engine, and followed by a small red guard's
van and carriages combined, came swiftly down the last gradual
slope and pulled up with a jerk. The guard stepped down to have
a yarn to the lengthsman, and two or three unofficial passengers
got off the blind side of the train and hurried along to the engine
with billies to get hot water to make tea. A few more leisurely
alighted and walked a short distance across the plain to stretch
This tolerance was rarely evident in the towns, although, according
to Jock, who wrote a long account of conditions in the big Queensland
towns such as Townsville, it depended entirely on which government
was in power - the Labor Government was infinitely more lenient
towards this really harmless form of illegality. The only losers
were the State Railways and it was an entirely phantom loss since
none of the 'bagmen' could have afforded the fare anyway. But
an unpleasant magistrate could gaol boys under twenty for a month
(and did on one occasion - five of them), incarcerating them with
hardened criminals who could teach them tricks to ruin their lives.
'Yes, the North is an extraordinary place.'
But he found Queensland an extraordinary place in other ways.
He was not travelling just to exist; there were notes to write
up on all the enormous variety of wildlife he saw. He travelled
a good deal on foot as well, some of western Queensland with 'the
man from the Gulf' as he called him - a character who was a bottomless
well of information about the bush and tricks for finding water
and tucker. He returned home after more than four thousand miles
of roaming and two short spells in local lock-ups, but finding
nothing changed he took off again for another few thousand miles.
We often talked of this period. Jock always looked back on it
with secret warmth and satisfaction. He felt free, unfettered
by responsibilities (except to let his parents know he was safe),
time was meaningless, and he could enjoy a game of exciting chance
or solitary aesthetic pleasure - two strands of his character
always intertwined. Years later, any time we lay comfortably
encamped in sleeping bag or bed in any country in the world, and
heard a freight train labouring through the night, he would say
with warm nostalgia - 'there goes a rattler.'
There were other journeys - most of them more conventional - although
on one of them he was again locked into a country gaol. On the
outskirts of a town in northern Queensland a woman saw what she
took to be a desperado of the bush - a figure with untidy curls,
scruffily dressed (he travelled pared down to the merest essentials),
striding by with a sawn-off shotgun clasped casually in his one
hand. If he looked at her with the paralysing blue gaze that
pinned people down when he was not quite sure of their reactions,
she would have been certain of criminal intent. She reported
him to the local police and the door of 'the cooler' slammed behind
him. This was disconcerting - even a bit worrying. The gun was
a problem. But character and experience told him he would get
out of it. He set about reasoning with the policeman who listened
to his explanation that the shotgun was shortened to facilitate
collecting - and since he was collecting specimens of birds and
mammals for the Australian Museum perhaps he would be allowed
to send a telegram. It was agreed. In due course the Museum
authorities claimed him as their own and he was released into
the hot sun.
Those years were barren financially. Yet they were intellectually
fruitful and even bore some academic seeds in the form of papers
read to the Australian Zoological Society and various ornithological
societies. They were studded with diverse experiences. The 'rattler
jumper' became, in 1931, an occasional visitor to Government House
in Sydney. At the time Sir Phillip Game was Governor of New South
Wales. In Jock's diary for 1930, sandwiched between notes on
the feeding habits of a currawong and the finding of a golden
whistler's nest, there is mention of a vice-regal visit to the
cabin in the National Park. In a later entry in 1931 he remarked
'Lady and Sir Phillip Game are quite good botanists. They know
more about our flowers than most Australians do.' The Governor
and his wife were also very interested in birds, and Alec Chisholm
engaged Jock's help when arranging occasional programs of escape
for them from the formalities of the old stone house on the edge
of the harbour.
In the course of so much collecting and observing in the bush
Jock often met up with members of bush-walking clubs. One of
these was Ernest Austen who had represented Australia in the cross
country walk in the Olympic Games held in Amsterdam in 1928.
'Jock was quite unimpressed with my prowess' said Austen, 'he
was organising a collecting trip by himself into the McPherson
Ranges and refused my suggestion to join forces - said he was
a "loner". Mind you, he came around later.' After
another bush experience, Jock discovered the Olympic walker had
more than speed; the nuggetty, humorous man was extremely resourceful
in a tight corner and cunning with things like green (i.e. raw)
leather. Ernie Austen generously ignored his arrogance and they
arranged to meet at a camp under the ranges on the Tweed River
in October 1933.
The New South Wales-Queensland border runs along the edge of the
Lamington Plateau at the point where Jock and Ernie chose to climb
into the ranges. From the border track there is an almost sheer
drop into New South Wales, down to Hopping Dick Creek and the
beautiful valley of the Tweed. This was the country of the hoop
and bunya pine, and the red cedar, the rich dark wood which furnished
thousands of 19th Century Australian drawing rooms. These magnificent
timbers, especially the giant red cedars, have been sliced away
from the sides of the valley - shorn green and smooth with only
the occasional tracery of a bunya pine or a sapling cedar to show
where they had been. But there is still big timber in the inaccessible
ranges, and Lamington Plateau is topped by thick rain forest where
huge moss-draped Antarctic beeches - quite different from the
deciduous English beech - and twisting vines shadow the sun.
Jock wanted to study the birds of the rain forest. He also had
relatives at a farm at the foot of the ranges, and this was one
reason for choosing an extremely difficult route into the forest.
The other was that he and Austen found the challenge of that
soaring cliff-face irresistible. Their camp under the plateau
at the edge of the forest was drenched. It rained 'like the devil,
and I noted artemus clinging to a Silky Oak trunk, apparently
to escape the wet. Remember Tambo track - Central West - when
another specimen clung to poles to escape the sun.' He kept his
notes in all conditions; often putting up with extraordinary
physical discomfort while observing animals.
In spite of the rain, on the steep face there was hardly a drop
of water. It was a hard climb with heavy packs and he admitted
'Austen and I were tired - more so than we'd ever been.' After
a month collecting and observing in the mountains and the Tweed
Valley, he returned to Brisbane, then went north to the islands
of the Barrier Reef with an Embury expedition. These were primitive
tourist excursions sailing to islands then virtually untrampled
by people, and naturalists were paid to inform and guide the clientele.
It was five years since he had lost his arm. It had been a fermenting,
transformative period, and he decided, the accident was one of
the best things that ever happened to him. 'He could have become
a juvenile delinquent' said his nephew Bruce Malcolm. He might
have. He seems to have been a rebel from earliest years and such
people are dangerous if they have no focus for good. But he had
an underlying love and respect for both his parents, no matter
how he kicked, so it was unlikely. The accident gave his rebellious
nature a force to bite into - he would beat this thing. His energy
and curiosity had found a target. He sharpened up his powers
of observation from the wedge-tailed eagle country of the Southern
Highlands near the Murray River to the wild contrasts of coast
and inland on Cape York Peninsula. He tested his patience waiting
for birds in dripping rain forests and swamps, or in dry creek
beds. He brought a new parrot back to the Museum from northern
Queensland. And all the time he was learning - on one extreme
from sharing camp fires with lonely men in lonely places such
as the flat wilderness of the Gulf country, on the other from
learned people of Museums and Societies, journalists and others.
He was still the essential larrikin, bucking systems and playing
tricks on the unwary but he was becoming serious about learning.
The 'raw young lad' - outspoken, self-questioning, aggressive,
a bit shy, funny - was being gradually drawn into a more elastic
whole. He had always been ambitious - to be the most daring,
the naughtiest, the cleverest deviator - but now more positive
ambitions were appearing. Sometimes his imagination and aesthetic
awareness sat incongruously with aggression. On Tumut holidays
his great uncle, the Deputy Mayor, used to say 'Bring your camera
and leave that damned gun at home.'
In the five years he discovered he had a spontaneous talent with
words, although he guessed it even at school; English was the
only subject he worked at - formally, and with zest colloquially.
Now he was forming it into a professional tool: ornithological
papers, small articles and lectures, as well as privately writing
his semi-fictional versions of travel.
In those years he worked assiduously to do everything "normally".
It was a toughening experience, physically and psychologically.
What of romance or his sex life? At first he had been devastatingly
aware of his impaired body. It was a haunting inhibition, at
the age of seventeen, not having two arms to embrace a girl.
But gradually he discovered it was not uppermost in the minds
of the females who gazed at him intently. Of course, there was
a tendency to use this as another challenge - quantity before
discrimination. His sister said there were plenty of girls about
but she did not know much of what went on - from the difference
of seven years she was not interested.
At twenty two he was tall with the physique and reflexes of a
natural athlete. Not classically good looking, but gave many
people the impression of being so - 'Greek athlete type to go
places and do things.' His face was chiselled in clear lines
with wide straight brow and wide cheekbones. His lips were generous
and broke easily into a wicked grin or a belly-laugh but could
equally settle into the straight line of passionate determination
or occasional depression. But his eyes were dominating: their
blue had a hint of sea-green and like the sea could flash steely
or cloud to something else in moments of imagination or pleasure.
The photograph taken in 1932 at a Sydney Congress shows him looking
He had now been made an Honorary Fellow of the Australian Museum. He was gathering intellectual heroes and fuelling ambition. He was still a scientific fringe-dweller but determined to get to the centre.