Jock sailed out of Sydney Harbour once again in early January
1937. He was bursting with matriculation. In the six months
they spent together on Espiritu Santo Tom had been giving him
a spicy taste of a culture totally different from his own; and
the more Tom deprecated it or made fun of its foibles, the more
intrigued Jock became. Without giving up any of his own bravado
he had been quietly absorbing a lot about the desirability of
work, language, experience, form that would impress intellectual
selectors. The larrikin was learning to be quieter - though never
silenced. He had a long way to go academically, but he did not
know it then. He was simply fired up with thoughts of becoming
a scientist explorer; thinking of Charles Darwin, his extraordinary
travels and the extraordinary results; and the great scientific
names that surrounded Darwin and followed on seemed, through his
reading, to be an almost familiar family.
On the other hand, Australians viewed the English to be, with
notable exceptions, totally uninterested in Australia except as
a source of soldiers prepared to fight for what was then their
empire, and cricketers who could raise their interest and partisan
hackles. He was aware it would be hard work to further his own
academic interests as well as those of the expedition. It was
going to be a whole new and quite different adventure. He was
excited by it.
From the moment the ship berthed in Colombo he was in a strange
environment - tropical but a world apart from Melanesia and northern
Australia. The sounds and sights of Asia pressed around him in
a whirl of markets, rick-shaw boys 'appealing with dark soft eyes,
so courteously persistent', bullock carts, cobras in the streets
and carved above temple doorways, yellow-draped priests and galleries
of art leading to the colossal statue of the reposing Buddha.
He was fascinated. Then as they sailed on 'the Southern Cross
slid below the horizon & the Northern constellations slid
up.' They passed Cape Guardafui, Somaliland and around the point
into the Gulf of Aden, and the dusty old Arab city in the bowl
of hills behind a wild inhospitable coastline. They sailed through
the Suez Canal to Port Said then along the flank of Crete with
its brown coast and winter snow-capped peaks to Naples and Mussolini's
Italy where he noted 'sad-eyed black gowned women who all seemed
to be mourning someone from the Abyssinian wars.' Bored by ship-board
life he and a companion from Melbourne threw themselves into an
energetic exploration of the city's crumbling, neglected beauties
and the odorous poverty spread beneath Vesuvius's smoking bulk.
They wandered into a morgue by mistake to be confronted by a
very fresh corpse, and with visions of Mafia knives hovering over
their backs raced off to find solace in spaghetti and wine.
Then on to Ville France, the French Riviera - Monte Carlo and
Nice. Such leisurely squandering of time to get from Sydney to
London must be almost unimaginable to anyone who knows only the
experience of being catapulted into the air, marking the journey
by airports. There was then no alternative for anyone but the
richest, although the journey could give excitement and a compulsory
education if you were open to it. The diversity of the great
seaports - Oriental, Arabian, warm-water European, cold-water
European - was strung out along the route for the delectation
of anyone who stepped ashore. It was almost like a poor man's
18th Century Grand Tour.
Jock revelled in the character of the ports - but the time between
was to be endured. 'The whole atmosphere of this boat is one
of dingy respectability - tourist class at least - but Ron and
I do our poor best to help matters.' To 'help matters' meant
such activities as finding a few lines of womens' underwear hanging
out discreetly and being inspired to transfer them to the flag
pole, which caused a satisfactory flurry of horror.
The ship berthed in the Port of London in a cold February. Jock
was scooped up by Tom, and almost immediately they were in Cambridge.
This was part of his dream - to reach the intellectual hub of
the nation. Physically he found it surpassingly beautiful, but
the undergraduates seemed a weird mob compared with his experiences
in Sydney. Most people were perhaps 'fairly normal', but Tom's
friends belonged to a group of young intellectuals who had 'a
curious indescribable (at the moment) exaggerated conversation
of inconsequentialities - none of which has any real logic (oh
hateful word for them).' He had encountered the English in one
of their most bizarre enclaves: the ancient universities. To
be normal was to be lost in the background; to be different with
style was an art form. Those busy with the art were not necessarily
busy with learned achievement but, whatever their aims, they were
a form of academic theatre - especially for an outsider.
Then there was Harrow with Tom giving a lecture. This was almost
as bizarre - possibly more so. Jock was wide-eyed at the idiosyncrasies,
beauties, anomalies, the sheer mad difference from everything
he'd known a school to be. He bubbled with laughter at the thought
of Dumbleton under the gum trees as he eyed the top hats and tail
coats. Harrow was a symbol of the power and influence of the
English upper class. Tom's lecture, "The Anthropology of
Ourselves", set out to compare the school with the slums
of Bolton (where he was working) and life in the New Hebrides.
It was an attack on the isolation of Harrow from the realities
of scratching a living. Jock was disappointed. Nobody really
argued with Tom, though 'there were plenty of grounds - his false
analogies, his bastard logic.' One master politely disagreed
with certain points but 'finality was not reached and in each
case the starting point was lost, obscured in a welter, a chaos,
of words, words, words; but always beautiful well-spoken words!;'
Words - he was always noting them.
He had been in England just two weeks - plenty more would puzzle,
dazzle and amuse him in the next months. In London he stayed
with Kenneth Gander Dower who was to become a member of the New
Guinea expedition and was keeping cheetahs in the city - tame
he said. Cheetahs are one of the fastest mammals on earth and
Raymond Hook, a friend of Gander Dower's, whose farm straddles
the equator in Kenya, was behind an idea to race the cheetahs
in England. In their native habitat they stream over the grass
of the plains after a meal of small deer, and then lie golden,
spotted and satisfied in the shade. Jock met them in the incongruity
of winter in a quarantine station where they awaited release
after travelling from Africa. 'Pong, the tame cheetah greeted
us at the gate: a lovely animal who quickly made friends, obligingly
licked my neck and purred into my ear in a most friendly fashion.
Gander says 3 parts cat, one part dog ... they were timed over
44 yds of a 100 yd. course & did thirty seven & a half
m.p.h. against the watch ... everybody seems to know about Gander's
cheetahs - Julian Huxley & [Tom] Dunbabin both interested.'
Gander Dower, the financial partner behind this extraordinary
venture, had profited from gifts bestowed on him since birth.
'A few times millionaire' according to Tom Harrisson. He was
a historian. He flew his own plane solo over long distances,
to such places as Madras - not a normal safe occupation in the
1930s; he had spent much time in Africa searching for a spotted
lion and written a book about his quest. He represented Cambridge
in six games and had an international reputation as an athlete.
He would be a valuable member of the expedition.
Jock had been working on the expedition between these activities.
He had seen Admiral Sir William Goodenough, Lord Moyne and other
people who had New Guinea experience and interest. Lord Moyne
had been travelling around New Guinea in his yacht in 1935, and
up some of the rivers of the Dutch New Guinea west coast, collecting
specimens for various museums and live animals and birds for the
Before he got to England Jock had prepared a lengthy and detailed
report on his New Guinea reconnaissance. He had also lectured
to the Oxford Exploration Club at Magdalen College. So when it
came to the date (March 22nd) for his lecture to the Royal Geographical
Society he was well prepared, though admitting to nerves in a
letter to his old friend Austen: 'wear tails, am fed and wined
(as much as is considered good for me) by the Geog. Club; and
then adjourn to the most sumptuous theatre (in R.G.S. House) that
I've ever seen. About five hundred attend; of course I'll have
the wind up. It'll be the biggest thing I've ever done.'
Ten years later in the same theatre, when Jock gave a talk on
Jan Mayen in the Arctic, it was easy to appreciate that nerves
might grip any of the speakers there. It was elegant. But there
was an inescapable atmosphere of important, even world-shaking
discoveries having been unfolded in that place, as though the
panelling might release the ghosts of Burton and Speke to spar
over the source of the Nile or Scott to bemoan the fate of his
tragically bungled expedition to the South Pole. On that first
occasion Jock overcame his nerves. In a 'good crowd, the "gods"
full of people' he saw many of his friends - John Baker, Tom Dunbabin,
Evelyn Cheeseman, Tom Harrisson and many others. 'It was all
so impressive yet terribly friendly.' The lecture was a success.
He was well treated by Admiral Goodenough, Lord Moyne and Evelyn
Cheeseman in their closing speeches. There were many references
to "modest young man". Jock was astounded feeling,
he heard distant guffaws from Sydney.
The lecture generated a lot of interest in New Guinea and the
Royal Geographical Society opened its doors and a room for the
work of Jock and the Committee (Sir William Goodenough, Julian
Huxley, H.G. Wells, Dr A.C. Haddon and A. Guthmann). The day
afterwards he was celebrating Heinemann's offer of 100 pounds
advance royalties on his book The Black Musketeers. The
following day was the Oxford-Cambridge boat race which he viewed
in style with Tom from the roof of a house on the Thames belonging
to Dick Mitchison, a Labour Member of Parliament, and his wife
Naomi, the novelist.
This was a heady introduction to England; as he wrote to Austen
'I haven't had a chance to look at a bird or a star or a female
even, since I arrived ... Oxford and Cambridge are magnificent;
have worked at both for short spells and will be working all
the summer term at Oxford University Museum [the Department of
Zoology] with John Baker. Am also being allowed do a special
course on the Physiology of Reproduction.' When in London he
ate in Soho, stayed with Gander Dower or with Michael McCready,
a medical student who lived in Little St Bedlam Street (a piece
of historic nomenclature that suited well the pile up of events
which crowded his first two months in England). Tom had generously
introduced him to his own friends and Jock was being whirled around
by an almost centrifugal force of English social and academic
life. He was different, sometimes shocking, with a quick wit
and sense of fun which assured him very many acquaintances and
a few good friendships which lasted years. It was all an extraordinary
kaleidoscope of impressions; more confusing than the first impact
of Melanesia. He watched Cockneys in London eating jellied eels
with greasy gusto and spitting the unwanted bits onto the pavement
- 'rather dirtier than Melanesia.' Yet in other places one's
suitability for a position in the hierarchy could be judged by
whether the pips in the cherry pie were dissected out or spat
into the spoon.
He walked many miles over the soft, misty contours of the country
around Dorking with John Baker; spent several days canoeing with
Gander Dower on the Arrun River, exploring the country from another
angle and gaining an appreciation of English inns. He did not
show the same appreciation for "The Cavendish", a hotel
owned by Rosa Lewis, whose intimacy with Edward V11 had made it
socially notorious and fashionable. By 1937, however, it was
a thin shadow of its old glory. 'The whole place resembles a
mausoleum; the ancient maid spoke regretfully of 1914 - the days
when the place was really popular. A few old clients still come.'
Jock's companion dared him to go and ask Rosa Lewis to drink
with them. She did. They had Belgian Lager and Rosa had another
champagne cocktail, which did nothing to improve the quality of
her conversation. They became very bored and manufactured a mock
fight between themselves; some of the old clients lifted an eyelid,
the maid's eyes brightened with nostalgia and Rosa had yet another
After the 'pathetic, half blotto' mistress of royalty he found
himself meeting a member of the royal family. He rushed from
running the cheetahs with Gander and Raymond Hook to a reception
he was expected to attend at the Forum Club - to meet the geographical
section president and Princess Marie Louise, 'a tough old girl
of about 60 summers, with a grip like that of a coal-heaver.
I fancied she recoiled a pace when she saw my navy shirt and sports
coat, flannel slacks - most of the men in morning coats.' He
had a cavalier attitude towards the expectations of respectable
society in the matter of dress. If he decided to dress up he
did it with expensive style - later he had a dashing black cloak,
lined with scarlet silk, to throw over his evening dress, and
the aesthetics of ties for even an old tweed jacket were considered
with utmost seriousness. Only in an emergency would he countenance
wearing a ready-made bow-tie on elastic, which a one-armed man
could be expected to do. But, without any self-consciousness,
he would be likely to turn up to give a lecture in a boiler-suit
if, as happened on one occasion, we both forgot the engagement
and he happened to be in the middle of planting a tree at the
time; just as he used to stalk the Sydney Museum in shorts and
But the serious business was in Oxford. He was instantly entranced.
Spires and domes rose above huge trees greening with Spring leaf.
There was the artistry of stone, warmed by sun or cool under
cloisters, emerald grass in quads, the quiet intoxication of old
books chained in their places in beamed libraries; bicycle riders
belled round tiny lanes, gowns streaming behind, or rode in convoys
up the laced stone vista of The High and spread out down The Broad.
He was interested in the international students - Indians, Africans,
Chinese, Americans, a large selection of Europeans, many others,
'and only 600 women.'
Work in the Zoology Department with John Baker was a world reduced
to the lens of a microscope. He found it fascinating and hard
work - particularly with such a demanding and perfectionist teacher.
It was the other, exacting side of the dissections in the jungle
- the wafer-thin sections of gonads hopefully giving, along with
temperature and light, more knowledge for the puzzle. What was
the secret trigger that set the hormonal cycle in action? They
were not coming up with any answers, but learning these techniques
was essential. At first he had bad days - 'I made a complete
mess of every preparation. I even broke slides - not slips
- between my fingers. I messed preparation after preparation;
my triple stains were atrocious.' But this apprenticeship was,
like all the other delicate things he attempted, a challenge -
new techniques with only five fingers. He persevered.
He was also absorbing the unique atmosphere of a town tightly
woven in among the colleges, the intellectual building stones
of the university. He marvelled at the extraordinary array of
traditions, some of which stretched back into medieval times.
One, not so old, entertained him with its strange rules and colourful
staging. It was the extraordinary sport of the Oxford Bumping
Races. Every Spring decorated house-boats of the various colleges,
emblems flying and packed with relatives and friends of the crews,
lined the River Isis. The starting gun hidden among the buttercups
on the bank began a race with a difference for the college rowing
eights. They streaked along fighting seriously and skilfully
to bump the stern of the boat in front of them which then dropped
out. It seemed like a race that might have been invented by Lewis
Another tradition more splendid and ancient than any other was
about to be enacted in London. Jock thought he should not miss
the opportunity to watch a King progress to the Abbey to be crowned.
After the turmoil of scandal and political debate surrounding
the abdication of his brother, George V1 was about to climb reluctantly
onto the throne. So Jock went to London. With a girl from Oxford
he acquired seats in one of the stands lining the Mall. He was
unimpressed by the royal personages in their gold carriages but
thought the horses magnificent. He saw his old acquaintance Sir
Phillip Game among the followers, paid tribute to two young men
who tied themselves to the top of a lamppost, noted hundreds of
periscopes and millions of macerated newspapers and 'one of the
most remarkable things of the procession was when no music or
any diversion was provided for hours - the crowd kept in perfect
temper even tho' they'd stood there since dawn or dozed on the
kerb all night.'
Back in the laboratory he worked on steadily, but took time out
to listen enraptured to nightingales singing and to explore villages,
old churches and their graveyards. In one Saxon church he noted
especially its air of peace, its 'leisurely erudition, a timeless
serenity which mocks the hurry and bustle & futility of the
Futility was darkening the thoughts of many perceptive people.
'John tells me that Oxford is on the main route from Germany
to Birmingham and wonders if it will be blasted by bombs -?'
There was a backdrop of disquiet hanging behind everything in
1937 - royal celebrations and everyday events, the intellectual
glitter of Oxford and Cambridge, the triumph of new technology
such as television; theatre, art, horse-racing, football, Wimbledon,
cricket, deck-chairs in Kensington Gardens, jollity on Brighton
Pier, all the traditional play of the nation. Those who knew
Europe, or had fought in the war only eighteen years behind them,
were appalled at the events in Germany and Spain. But the play
For Jock the play went on. He was eager to observe and absorb.
He could see a mountain of learning ahead. But he relished meeting
intellectual heroes; in Cambridge he spoke briefly with Bertrand
Russell, and in London saw a lot more of H.G. Wells and Julian
Huxley who were on the committee for New Guinea, the latter becoming
later a valued colleague, mentor and friend. He contemplated
the danger of becoming an intellectual snob: 'the "upper-class"
Englishman really doesn't consider the less educated as English.
'"Oh Cockney" or "Oh that's Yorkshire" - but
never seem to realise that that is the heart of England.'
But he had doubts about himself: He had seen Manchester and
Bolton gloomy grey in the rain; 'squalid & bloody - dialect
takes a spot of understanding & I don't like the place, but
I saw it under worst possible conditions. Am I a bloody snob
at heart after all? I find I don't like the British underdogs
... I wonder.'
He had more mixed feelings later when he went north to lecture
on the work done in the Arctic. This was on the occasion of the
Jubilee meeting of the Tyneside Geographical Society in Newcastle.
The Chairman, Sir Thomas Oliver - 'a grand old boy, short white
beard, measured & courtly of speech' - invited Jock to his
house for supper after the lecture. The "supper", Jock
noted, was 'a dinner magically cooked.' Afterwards they talked
of many things in a library-study - 'packed with books'.
Sir Thomas prophesied a great future for him. 'So did Reverend
David McCready: I wonder how much these old boys know?'
But he was immediately afterwards thrown into a totally different
world. He was taken around the clubs for unemployed and shown
a landscape of slums: 'awful conditions prevail in the houses
- whole families in a room - dirt, bugs, no sanitation, often
no water laid on.' In one part of the Tyneside he saw a colliery
within the town itself and enormous slag heaps, walled to contain
them. Above 'this gloomy, wretched refuse of dead industries,
rickety grey houses perch, forlorn, in a gruesome loneliness.
From here I go to the spacious, sumptuous home of Sir Thomas
Oliver; he praised the lord in Grace for his blessings; &
drinks expensive wine & eats good food. It is all too sad
& silly for my words.' But this time he found the people
blunt and cheery. They did not hesitate to speak to him in the
street. 'How they scorn the suggestion that London is the heart
of England (which I didn't make anyway!).'
The thing which bothered him about English snobbery as opposed
to Australian was its immutable character. If you knew your place,
as did most of the population, the struggle to move from it needed
to be Herculean, and then sometimes ended in despair. In Australia
at this time very few people were prepared to view their social
'place' as other than negotiable according to their effort, talent
or desire to make money and change habitat.
But in Oxford he enjoyed the madness of certain traditions and
the superior assurance with which they were upheld, especially
the nurturing of eccentrics. Apart from what was perceived to
be moral turpitude, almost anything could be done, if it were
done with style. True the undergraduates were more proscribed
by medieval customs and the proctorial system: a method of policing,
within the university, executed by two dons called Proctors and
their bowler-hatted "Bulldogs", who sniffed out undergraduates
indulging in such dreadful improprieties as drinking in a Public
House or seen with a girl at an inappropriate time or place.
Of course, they failed to catch many of the more creative sinners.
Jock and Gander Dower pushed young ladies (still undergraduates)
up the ivy-clad walls of the womens' college, Somerville, and
into windows, long past the required hour of return, on more than
Jock fell in love with a girl called Mary with whom he explored
the summer land around Oxford. They went to "the Trout",
the lovely old inn on the Isis where Alice in Wonderland is
alleged to have been written; to Boars Hill where Matthew Arnold
wrote Scholar Gypsy; to the Chilterns and beech woods
and to old churches and villages. She took him to a tiny house
in Magpie Lane, Oxford, where he met two old ladies, one of whom
was 'strongly psychic' and believed without question in ghosts.
Jock did not. But he was fascinated and wrote their stories
in detail. He was interested like a detective in tales of ghosts.
He dined in several of the great colleges noting idiosyncrasies
but feeling serenity. At Magdalen he met Oleg Polunin, a young
botanist whose brother had been working in the Arctic. Oleg was
'dead keen on New Guinea' and became a probability for the expedition.
The expedition, however, was running into something of a storm.
Despite his own academic concerns Jock believed it would still
go out even if he himself went for a shorter time. In March he
wrote that it was 'well on the way'. In June, however, Tom Harrisson
suddenly withdrew from the enterprise. There was no simple explanation.
It seemed to be a compound of difficulties. It was a very big
enterprise which Tom appeared to think he could not control to
his own satisfaction. He and Jock were not working on it closely.
Jock was working with the Committee (for which he was being paid
a small fee) and lecturing; Tom was working in Bolton on Mass
Observation and finding he could not raise large sums of money
for the expedition with any ease in the unsettled atmosphere of
that year. The cracks in the joint leadership were widening;
their ambitions and drive were too close for comfort; very possibly
Tom perceived Jock to be hogging the limelight with his lecturing
and broadcasting. Although this was part of the contract there
may well have been some truth in it. Jock was striding about
the country enjoying himself - learning, expanding intellectual
skills, certainly displaying the element of showmanship that was
in tandem with his wit whenever he faced an audience.
He gave a lot of broadcast talks and mentioned 'the nice atmosphere
of the B.B.C.; how helpful; yet [I'm] always criticised - but
perhaps this a compliment? Everybody hears, is interested; everybody
wants their ten bob's worth.' On June 14th, he gave a talk on
B.B.C. television called "Into the Stone Age of 1937".
It was an outline of his reconnaissance in New Guinea and the
aims of the expedition. Television was very new; the first B.B.C.
pictures for general viewing had been sent out from Alexandra
Palace, London only seven months before, in November, 1936. The
Corporation was obviously concerned to preserve a tone of the
highest moral rectitude, because the invitation to broadcast sent
to Jock had appended to it a note - 'All artists appearing in
Television Programs are particularly asked to cooperate with the
Corporation in avoiding any reference to: Physical deformities
or diseases, Religious subjects or quotations, Drunkenness or
immorality of any kind.' Jock commented to the producer that
it was a pity he would not be able to mention his syphilitic Uncle
Mary wrote to him - 'I heard from my brother that he saw your
television show in a restaurant & thoroughly enjoyed it.
He was very amused at the comments of the other people watching.
A deb.: "Isn't he too divine. I didn't know explorers
looked like that!" Best of all was the elderly retired Colonel
(pukka sahib of course) "Poor young fella, his arm was taken
off by a shark you know. Very dangerous things sharks, in Australian
waters" !! '
These things fed Jock's ego but no doubt upset Tom. In a letter
to Jock he drew attention to their leadership difficulties. After
congratulating him on his synopsis of the work in New Guinea,
he said 'You have inserted the word "decisions" into
your responsibility at N.G. end. It is childish of you to do
this without consulting me. Sometimes when I speak out about
something which is critical of you, but I believe to be in your
interest you react as if you alone were responsible for everything
& as if I were trying to crab your style.' This may have
been true; but Tom was forgetting his disastrous interference
with the administrations in New Guinea. They had problems. Neither
was going to take dictation. Familiarity made it easy to slip
into verbal fights. On a one to one basis they worked well together;
sparks were often snapping near the surface but they were wary
of pushing each other into a blaze of anger and their common interests
- especially those causing a stir in elite places - fascinated
and amused them. But as a pair of leaders they could have been
a disaster. Had they gone on this expedition together, any cannibals
in New Guinea might have had thin pickings after they had dealt
with each other.
Whatever the reasons for Tom Harrisson's withdrawal, it caused
an instant string of problems and Jock had to apply himself to
solving them if at all possible. He sent a report to the Committee
setting out the organisational plans for taking the expedition
out in 1938, including the possibility of an anonymous donor supplying
them with a 'plane, but there was not much time to pick up the
complex threads of money-raising which had been in Tom's hands.
He was committed to joining an expedition to Spitzbergen in the
Artic Circle, during the summer vacation; to carry out (in a
totally opposite environment) more of the research which had been
done in the New Hebrides, for which he had a grant from the Royal
Society. His intention to carry on and lead the expedition himself
seemed firm at that time; but beneath all the activity there
simmered considerations of how to achieve his serious academic
aims. He had become increasingly involved with the work in the
laboratory with John Baker and was being made more and more aware
that he could not continue it in any effective way without a science
degree. Oxford University could not accept him except as a post-graduate
student, so he wrote to Professor Dakin to explore the possibility
of doing a full degree course for Bachelor of Science at Sydney
University. Sydney had a little known statute on its books which
allowed an unmatriculated student to enter on the strength of
a thesis. Had they refused him he intended taking the expedition
out. His future was going to be interesting - but in what direction?