Jock Marshall - One Armed Warrior A Bright Sparcs Exhibitions

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The Midnight Sun

Jock was packing to leave for Spitzbergen in the morning - June 26th. He dressed up a skull and put it on Michael McCreadey's bed - with a pipe in its teeth and a bottle of gin beside it. Michael, being a medical student, had a plentiful supply of bones, and Jock did not expect his humorous salute goodbye to his friend would elicit the dramatic reaction the smoking skull had received at Hog Harbour.


'It is usually difficult to say when a journey begins - but in my case there was no doubt whatever. It began, after a torrid time in a traffic jam, when a kindly guard thrust me into the luggage van of the train.' The train was leaving St Pancreas Station to connect with the ship which was to take him to Goteborg in Sweden. In one of the great cities of the world he had almost repeated the travel disasters of New Guinea - missing the boat. Once in the train he settled down among the skis and trunks, and all the way to Tilbury corrected the final proofs of his book on the New Hebrides.

They crossed the North Sea, Sweden and Norway and took off to roll north from Narvick in Fiord-land in a little broad-nosed ice-breaker. The archipelago of Spitzbergen lies deep within the Artic Circle with a chequered history of exploration, whaling, hunting, fishing, mining - all the European countries and Britain having taken intermittent interest. The largest island, known simply as Spitzbergen, was visited by many European scientists seeking out Arctic secrets. They landed at a place with the incongruous name of Bruce City where coal was mined, and found themselves on a shingle beach surrounded by snow banks and up flung ranges. Only half a mile away was a large crumbling glacier. The expedition was small. It was led by an Austrian, Professor Dr. Hans Tollner; there was another Austrian glaciologist and a South African botanist. Both Austrians had Arctic experience, but Jock and the South African were new to the treacheries and beauties of this landscape, sunlit even at midnight, except when a summer blizzard swept everything into freezing grey.

Most of the time Jock found himself entranced and frustrated by turns. Tollner was nearly twice Jock's age, and cautious - possibly born of bitter Arctic experience. He had been the leader of a notable Austrian expedition to Jan Mayen in 1932-3, doing magnetic meteorological research for fourteen months, right through the Arctic winter. The other Austrian, Frantz, was obstructive for other reasons - 'a complete old woman' said Jock, who was aching to get away and do something significantly different. He was finding it hard to keep within the constraints put upon him by his leader. But after considerably more experience and during a difficult trip when one of the others showed himself lazy, he appreciated Tollner's quality - 'the Dr. on the other hand, despite his primitive sleeping arrangements, is ready for anything. What a grand man Tollner is. We cook him a stew fit for the gods, fairly bubbling with the pig fat that he loves.' Jock mentions cooking quite often. He was interested in it although it was not an easy exercise for him. He had amusing and ingenious ways of dealing with vegetables, and a good deal of health-giving peel found its way into his stews.

'I should like to make an expedition here under the midday moon & dancing northern lights. Too, too much talk about the midnight sun; not enough work done when it would take a lot of guts to do it.' He mused on the mostly neglected 'dark' end of the work which he thought really worth while. 'What a study a person could make in a place like this were he to stay the whole year round ... glacial movement, migration, actually in relation to light or other factors; a dozen other problems leap readily to mind.' Impatiently he scribbled: 'I really must do something worthwhile. Activity?'


There was some activity when they went inland and onto the glacier, though it was not what Jock had in mind. He was helping the Austrians with their work pegging wires across crevasses for measurements. Finished and travelling down the glacier on the more treacherous lower face they plunged up to their thighs in slush, often crawling, and in drier areas, went ultra-cautiously for fear of the crevasses hidden under snow bridges. 'The learned Herr Dr. Prof. bellowed like a wounded calf when he slipped into a shallow crevasse & skinned his knee through his trousers getting out. I felt so light-hearted at this that I sang a bit & was giving a false-spirited rendering of the flower aria of Carmen when my vigilance relaxed': he suddenly found himself hanging by his hand and his ice-axe with his legs swinging over a gaping deep blue hole - 'I hauled myself out - thoughtful.'

He wrote of day-to-day fun, arguments, frustrations, discussions, good and bad jokes, the weather, birds, his work on the ultra-violet instruments, "watch" to be kept from their base-camp hut for the steamer which was to take them north to the wilder untracked country, occasional interesting diversions such as meeting on the steamer ' the great Prof. Wegener, geophysicist, brother of the "drift" man - a weird beetled old bloke, cordial & a German gentleman ... told me of expeditions to Samoa, Spitzbergen & the fatal Greenland trip [when] he lost his famous brother.'

He got away by himself on several occasions when the steamer dropped them to establish their camp on the North West Peninsula. He took the launch and saw many glaciers creeping down the huge plateau of the inland area and dogs-teeth nunataks rising everywhere. He also got away looking for nests on the mountain which loomed over their camp. His description of the climb, its difficulties and his thoughts as he went up, and even more dangerously came down, alone with only an ice-axe and one arm is worth repeating in full because it is so indicative of his attitude to life, work, aesthetics and danger. It was written as he rested afterwards on the lowest slopes, on a mossy bank where he sat several hundred metres up. The cliffs faced the midnight sun, glowing red through the mists of the Northern Passage:

'The slopes! Terrace upon terrace of mossy verdure ... a magical world of mosses. Richer & deeper, softer & more luxurious than the most priceless Persian carpet, ones feet sink to the ankles in a spreading flora of soft greys & greens, silver-blue, pink, yellow ... Unearthly fairy region, with the incessant whirr of wings, & babble of Auk voices. Puffins, grotesque, quaint, peer at me ... I was soon wet through; for the going was rough & I soon had to put all I knew into getting safely further. Never before did I realise how valuable an ice-axe could be; it was a friend if ever there was one, keeping me steady on slopes of rubble, only lightly moss-grown (new!) & treacherously incapable of holding alone my weight. Here and there was a frosty grey boulder - fallen off from above, & a dozen times bounding rocks, accidentally dislodged, went crashing downwards - thundering down the slope, leaping into space, hitting a snow-drift with a mighty spume of flying snow-ice, & out again & out of sight - That would happen to me too, I grimly reflected if I made a single bad mistake. I came to feathers & egg shells, white & pale blue. Previously Glaucus gulls had swept "anxiously" around, occasionally standing on the lichen-clad rocks regarding me; flying once more with a swish of wings, wondering what I was doing. And little Auks in ones & twos; once half a dozen. White breasts prominent against the rocks, but black head I could scarcely see at all - snow-buntings frequently flapped away over the dark rocks. But not a single nest.

'Up higher I began to look carefully, & found that the Little Auks lived in the frost-cracked chinks always too far to be safely reached. I heard the cries of baby birds & the swish of tiny wings as the auks left the crevices in swift surprise ... I felt the need of a rope & and a companion on half a dozen dangerous bits - but the ice-axe really was invaluable ... From gorge to ridge, around many shoulders, up snow-drift, with the gurgle of water running under, up another ridge, into another gorge - so it went on - searching the whole time for an accessible nest & getting closer & closer to the top. I knew that the mountain itself is easily climbed from the E., but birds were my quarry & if I could climb to the peak from the west it would be all to the good. With about 40 feet to go I was confronted by a pile of loose, ready to roll rubble - a path to the top - yet below a sheer drop of a couple of hundred feet to another spur, then a bounce to the gorge & away out of sight into nothingness. I sat down & considered the question calmly.

'It would be good to climb the mountain from the W. - probably nobody ever has. A satisfactory ending to an enjoyably exciting trip. Against this I considered that there was no scientific value in it; that I was risking not only my own life, but the enjoyment of the whole personnel of the camp. I might not be back for days or weeks or ever if I "slipped" - & further it would be tough on the mater. So I decided not to do it - I wasn't scared, but just decided that it wasn't worth the risk - & started to climb back again feeling very smug & righteous (& self-satisfied because 90% of my friends - & myself - would think me incapable of making such a decision)!!

'But guess what I found up there? - buttercups! ... I collected some ... & decided to go back. Much worse than the ascent - here I really found the ice-axe of value - doubt if I could have made it without it. My admiration for the Austrian mountaineering johnnies went up a 1000% when I experienced what they are always at - for fun! - & of course (as always!) my admiration for myself went up a million % ! for I did it one hand, alone & without a rope. God how wonderful I am.'

He was feeling ecstatic. His judgement had been true. Or more likely his instinct - developed through years of moving about in environments which give man, along with other animals, challenges to the awareness of every sense. Even in cities he had lightning reaction to impending trouble. But this was high exhilaration. Here he was sitting on the side of a high mountain, his loved place in the world - he had climbed and come down challenging himself all the way, grappling with perhaps more than the mountain, though he will not say so, pleased with the freedom to choose his dangerou path. But in the final decision up there with the scree of rubble he showed his hand - he thought of other humans. I am convinced it was not a decision out of fear but out of that other side of himself that acknowledged love.

Back in their camp he noted the terns became fearless and so aggressive that the men had to wear protective head gear - The Red Terror and The Little Woman Jock called the nearest pair who produced an ugly, wet, pale grey offspring. 'Should we kill it? - & save future people trouble? Born in an atmosphere of strife & uncertainty young James, if there is anything in what the psychologists say, will be a holy winged terror by the time the next expedition visits Bruce City.' They did not kill him; James survived to die "naturally" of starvation. Jock's diary is full of asides about animal behaviour. There was a baby seal called Tommy - 'his slate grey hide fairly glistened in the sunshine & the wash of our paddles danced his little ice-berg in the sun. He was a pretty youngster with lots of grey whiskers, black eyes & ears that were slits in his gleaming head fur'; and a female Sandpiper running and flying across the dry tundra ahead of her chick which tore after her 'like an animated cotton reel.'

One day he woke to hear Acock muttering about ice on the porridge water, his boots frozen and the kettle deep in ice. Jock crawled out into the sparkling morning and realised it was about seven p.m. on a Friday evening. 'Bloody wonderful. The sun goes around in a great circle: & I defy anybody, unfamiliar with the sun's direction in the locality, to tell whether it is midnight or midday.' He made many notes comparing his situation now with the tropics a year ago when the night came down like a shutter on days that steamed in the high sun.

Unlike working in the tropics where it took a hurricane or an earthquake to disrupt activity, here the weather dictated their every move; they were often confined to the hut or a tent while the wind howled and rain turned snow to treacherous slush - dangerous and unpleasant for work with the sledge, which was necessary on any long trip. However, with only seven days left before the ship arrived to take them back they were finally able to attempt to cross the base of the North West Peninsula - an exercise not done before and which Jock had persuaded Tollner they should attempt.

They landed all the gear from the launch in the south corner of Smeerenburg Bay on August 11th. Then they set out and around a spur to the Smeerenburg Glacier, then east as far as they could go. They did a ten-hour sledge pull - easy over the frozen slush, but on a very bad slope it took an hour to go half a mile; crevasses and snow bridges were everywhere, 'luckily frozen, but an eerie feeling to push ones ice-axe right through where a sledge & two men were on it!!' Then came frost and low visibility. Tollner went ahead roped, testing the ground at every step. There were no birds, only silent mist, everything frozen and sunless among black snow-powdered peaks. They moved on eastwards, working their way laboriously over the crevasses of glaciers and occasionally racing gleefully down a frozen ridge. The whole trip from which they eventually returned safely was magnificent experience for the two Arctic "rookies".

On their way back, plugging slowly through a snow storm along broad roads of packed ice dangerously crevassed at the edges, Jock pondered Arctic exploration. He thought it was 'just great caution & dam hard work. Caution as to compass, provisions & crevasses & hard work pulling a sledge which carries the necessities of life.' He wondered what the others were thinking as they plodded along in silence. Good bodies were not enough if the minds 'could not stand the racket - the hourly, daily plod across white, wasted land with nothing to do except pull and think.' He nibbled on his chocolate ration and thought about the working of the human machine which slowly hauled the sledge - 'The awful fatty substances that we had last night were already doing their work.' He thought about writing to his friend Austen, telling him of plans for the future: 'good plans, & I think, a pretty good future - of Mary.' He considered breeding seasons and ultra-violet light which, according to Baker, had an important bearing on the animals they studied in the New Hebrides. 'Yet what about here? No radiation worth speaking of. Yet sharply different seasons in everything ... there must be considerable radiation on the glaciers & perhaps on the sea. Erect the apparatus on the ice; & again on one of the small islands near the camp. And what of an expedition to Jan Mayen or like place (tho' I believe it to be unique) to study breeding seasons in the Arctic. Must talk to John Baker about it!'

They worked their way down the glacier which would land them on the coast within striking distance of their rendezvous with the launch. But this turned out to be a crevassed and risky route. Roped together they crawled across ice bridges, jumped exposed crevasses hauling the heavy sledge across after them, runners at right-angles to the fissures, ropes and ice-axes at the ready in case of the sudden downward plunge they feared. And suddenly it happened: the sledge collapsed on a crevasse - irreparably smashed. So with two rucksacks each they set out on a 90 mile tramp. They travelled the glacier to the southern seaward side - precariously jumping fissures with a double load. It was tough going. Jock arrived first and, after dropping his load, ran back a long way over ice to help Tollner who had not weathered the hellish march so well.

Back at base there were only three days left before the ship came. There was work to do, final collecting of birds - and cooking some of them after the vital gonads had been removed, 'Glaucus breast fried (or broiled?) in butter is great! Surprising?' And on the last day, August 17th, he retrieved his ultra-violet equipment from the glacier. It was a fine day. He cooked, washed socks, aired the camp gear and in twelve hours the ship would arrive bringing letters - 'but 5 days on the Lyngen, sleeping in the saloon, carries no appeal. Bad food, smells, a rough Arctic ocean, foreign passengers (insularity!) - only the kindliness of the officers makes the tub bearable at all.'

But with the smelly little tub came two vital letters; 'one from Dakin one from Briggs to change the whole course of my life? I walked up & down the deck, nailed boots crunching.'


The two letters did change the course of his life. The Dean of the Faculty of Science at Sydney University had agreed to let him read for the degree without matriculation. He was elated. He might have had an interesting and adventurous life as an explorer of the few pockets in the world where that word had any relevance and as a collector for museums but, having tasted the challenge of research, it is unlikely he would have been satisfied. The intellectual input was all the more important to him because he had been so far behind in appreciating it. He was also drawn to the tradition of university life; had alluded to it even back in the 'rattler' days. It was no wonder he was crunching up and down seething with excitement knowing he could become a true university man.

So, on the uncomfortable voyage back through Arctic seas he made up his mind that the New Guinea expedition was less important than his academic future. As it turned out it was probably not a decision that made a lot of difference to the fate of the expedition, because he discovered back in England that another member had withdrawn owing to a heart condition. The Grand Scheme quietly faded away.


He arrived back in Oxford on August 30th.. 'John at the station beaming.' Dr John Baker, with whom he was staying, had been a helpful friend and would have a degree of influence on Jock's career, both good and bad. After dinner that night, having discussed the Arctic and an impending Conference at Nottingham, they launched upon an extraordinary conversation concerning the installation of a telephone in John's house. He had never possessed one. Chuckling like a schoolboy he announced he now had one and 'he fairly danced' as he declared nobody knew his number. Jock called him a mad hatter in his desire for privacy but John was adamant: 'Here I am with my books and someone rings up to ask me to go and drink sherry - my God!! ... I, as an individual can enjoy myself with practically any one person in the world, black or white. With two people, much less so, with 3 or more, I loathe it & can extract no pleasure whatever".' Jock was playing Devil's advocate because he appreciated the desire for privacy but thought 'a sort of extroversion' might keep him communal for some years. The discussion with John, however, interested him very much - especially the passion exhibited. He mentioned it occasionally as a pointer to some of John's less explicable behaviour.

In mid September he and Baker went together to a Nottingham Science Congress. Baker believed Jock should have the experience of reading a small paper on the work he had done in the Arctic; Baker was contributing a paper himself. 'Interesting time - Crew on sex ratios - & later met the great man. Inspiring bloke. My part of the lecture went off O.K. but it was rather a shattering experience to contemplate.' It was the first time he had taken part in a scientific congress.

After this he went on a lecture tour which took in Ireland, Scotland and northern England. He visited Tom Harrisson in Bolton; 'Old Tom just the same, but we only had one scrap in a week which literally flew. Got a lot done.' One scrap in a week - probably because they were no longer competing over anything. They were working on a joint paper on the New Hebridean bird work with John Baker, to be communicated to the journal of The Linnean Society, and on their own comparative study of closely related birds in the New Hebrides and Australia (the latter was not completed for publication). They were also watching other birds - 'the young folk of Bolton do their courting huddled up against walls in the lanes; figures dim, clasped together in the shadows, cold but not miserable. Tom: "Come right in!" to astonished couple, "& do it inside: there's a kitchen fire!".' They declined.

When he got back Jock was excited to find he had some support from Julian Huxley and James Fisher, well-known ornithologist, to do some field work in England. But now sadly he must decline. Huxley told him he could possibly get Institute of Animal Behaviour support to do his 'own heart's project - complete investigation of the bower-bird - up to 50 pounds?' So his heart and his mind were now turned to Australia. He had previously more than toyed with staying on in England - both for the expedition and possibly for Mary. He appeared ambivalent about marriage, though a letter he wrote to his friend Ernie Austen as he neared Norway suggests he had a wish for it. It was a pencil-scrawled excited six pages of plans for the following year: "I will compose my wanderer's soul for five years ... I am determined to some day return to Oxford: the thing it most taught me was how ignorant I personally am, & how little we Australians in general know ... I shall have the bloody Chair of Sydney some day: you'll see!' So he grandly planned. Certainly he would not do any more exploration for several years. 'It's not worth the risk & wear & tear ... But seriously, I've come to believe that you can do pretty near anything in this world with a moderate amount of brain, gut & personality - & Christ knows how I've tried to develop all three. Does this all strike you as egotistical bullshit?'

He presumed he would have a difficult time financially - but 'lechery had lost a lot of its former savour.' He followed up this statement by giving Austen instructions concerning which women were to be kept in ignorance of his homecoming. 'I think pleasant dalliance with guaranteed virgins will be more in my line in future.' He thought he and Austen should do a lot of wandering in the mountains 'My chief difficulty, perhaps, will be keeping clear of matrimony - tho' having little money is certainly a help!'

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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