Not all heroes are humble!


Sunday 3 March 1957.

A lot has happened in between blogs so I’ll briefly fill you all in: the blizzard passed; the crew worked like dogs and the ship was unpacked; Phil got in everyone’s way with his ubiquitous movie camera, and the Kista will leave tomorrow.

More about the 1956-57 winterers in a minute: right now I want to tell you a bit more about Phil Law, the long term Director of Australia’s Antarctic Research Division.

Phillip Law was a University of Melbourne physics graduate who was appointed as the chief scientist, then as director of science division of the expedition and then as Director of Antarctic Division. The Division was established inside the Department of External Affairs in May 1948. The director was a senior public servant and his budget was controlled by the DEA.

Instantly there was tension with the arrangement because Phil didn’t like to back down and the bureaucrats in External Affairs made it a personal mission to cripple his budget and curtain his expeditions. Even after the Menzies government signed on as one of the eleven original participants of the IGY, Canberra’s commitment was never accompanied by generous funds.

So Phil became quite a talented rag and bone man. Let’s take the example of the dogs:

Ever wondered how Australia came by a team of healthy breeding huskies?

In 1948 a ship bringing twenty-one Greenland dogs to the new French base in Adelie Land was forced to turn around due to heavy pack ice and the captain returned to Tasmania. It was illegal to import huskies into Australia so the dogs were scheduled for destruction.  Phil stepped in with a solution: put the dogs in the Melbourne Zoo under quarantine until a new French station was constructed. Then he told the media what he’d done and of course letters poured in to save the poor dogs. From March to December 1949 the huskies waited and some beautiful puppies were born and it was the pups who were sent off to the Australian research station on Heard Island to breed or, as Phil put it, until such time as we got an Antarctic expedition together.”

He did that sort of thing over and over. That’s how ANARE came by Norwegian huts; the aircraft, and the weasels. But even so, with all his talents, he still had a terrible time doing his job with the ‘bean counters’ as he called the public servants who strangled his budget.

Early in the summer of ’54, Phil dropped off ten men, thirty-one dogs, three weasels, one tractor, and two caravans to establish Mawson Station and spend the winter. By the time he got back to Australia early in 1955, the accountants of the DEA had stepped in and frozen his budget for the following year. Phil’s last visit with Syd was in October 2005. He was small and frail by then (and as deaf as a post), but he still burned with the ornery passion and intense intelligence that had driven him all his life. He still wore that sharp Lenin goatee. He told me about this particularly difficult year with the bean counters:

A lot of the equipment I had to purchase was from overseas. I had to lodge orders before August, before I had the budget. So I was taking a risk of spending government money that I didn’t have to lodge orders in London for equipment to be brought out to Australia for the following year. And when you think how stupid it was; they should have given me authority for the following year’s budget in April. Think of this: if I hadn’t got the money we’d have had ten men down in Antarctica who couldn’t be brought back to Australia. It was obvious they had to be brought back, so we had to have a budget. But the Commonwealth Public Service procedures were so slow. It took all that time to confirm anything.

The tussle was carried out in private, while publicly, the government claimed to be totally supportive of Australia’s commitment to the International Geophysical Year research project and to our ongoing presence in Antarctica.

"Old blokes remembering" is what Syd called this lovely study of the two of them at a mid-winter dinner. Phil was in his nineties by then and they'd been friends for half a century.

“Old blokes remembering” is what Syd called this lovely study of the two of them at a mid-winter dinner. Phil was in his nineties by then and they’d been friends for half a century.

Now to get you back to Mawson station in March 1956. I told a little fib.

The Kista has actually left already, on 1 March, 1956.

By then the winterers were well and truly exhausted and very happy to see the ship steaming off through the crunchy sea water of the almost frozen harbour. Syd Kirkby recorded his feelings in his diary that first night after the Kista disappeared over the horizon:

 Thurs 1st March 1956.

 Well, here we are in our own station, it is our show now. She’s a cold old night. I am lying here in my new bunk, looking through my window and the moon and the shadow of the plateau, blue and clear. For the first time since we arrived the wind died down below 20 knots, just as well, I was beginning to doubt if the wind would ever stopped blowing.


About lynettefinch

Dr Lynette Finch. Once I was a poster designer and illustrator. I ran a small poster business called Mantis Prints, specializing in political posters during the odd days of the Bjelke-Petersen Government in Queensland. I’m told my posters hung on the walls of Rizhsky railway station in Moscow, although I’m not sure about that. They are in the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, on several on-line websites, and in the following book: Lynne Seear and Julie Ewington, eds. Light II, Contemporary Australian Art 1966-2006, Queensland Art Gallery Publishing, 2007, pp. 110-117. In my next incarnation I was a senior lecturer in history. I published books and articles on urban health and feeding people in modern industrial cities, on the Queensland home front in the second world war and the role and history of war propaganda. Sometimes I wrote about Marxism and its impact around the world as well as intimate oral histories of communists in Australia, their experiences in conservative society, their role as social and political radicals in small towns and cities. Once I went through a death phase and wrote about the role of the Coroners Court in colonial society, about abortion and infanticide in nineteenth century cities, and about the role of gossip in policing. My research took a decidedly happier direction when I was granted an Arts Fellowship to Antarctica in the 2007/08 season, as research for a biography about Antarctic surveyor and explorer Syd Kirkby. I bunkered down in a blizzard in Brooke's hut near Davis station and imagined what it was like for Syd, caught for twelve days in a 150-knot blizzard, high in the plateau beyond Mawson in 1960. Some of my books: Australia’s Frontline: Remembering the 1939-45 War. With the rapid escalation of the Pacific War in 1942, Queenslanders suddenly found themselves perilously close to the frontline, especially those in the far north. The book is based on interviews of men and women who worked their farms in the north, some of them Italians and Germans who were interned as enemy aliens. Nevertheless, the book is essentially a story of courage, of community spirit and neighbourliness, and of the public and private war effort of a community facing crisis and loss. Dark Angel: Propaganda in Modern Warfare. This book traces the origins and development of propaganda and media manipulation from the 1800s to today’s ‘spin’ and ‘false news’. Why have governments at war allocated resources to propaganda leaflets, broadcasts, movies and art during major military conflicts? Read the book. You’ll find the answer. The Classing Gaze: Sexuality, Class and Surveillance. Concepts like sexuality and class share the same moment of birth during the nineteenth century as social inquiry turned to analysis of the workings, population growth, thought patterns, economic systems and internal bodily workings of humans (or Man, to be historically accurate). How did these ideological concepts impact in the real world? A great deal, is the short answer, outlined in this book. Young in a Warm Climate: a history of childhood in Queensland is an edited volume about childhood on the Queensland frontiers, at school, at home, in hospitals and other institutions. Fixing Antarctica: Mapping the Frozen South. In 1956, in the height of the cold war, the biggest wintering expedition that Australia had ever sent to Antarctica set out to map the great frozen landmass of Antarctica, driven by official fears that the Soviet Union meant to take the continent for themselves. The fourteen scientists were chosen from a field of hundreds of applicants. The surveyor, the central character in Fixing Antarctica, was Sydney Kirkby. Over the next twenty years, Syd Kirkby explored and map more unknown regions in the world than any other person in history. Earth, Wind and Fire is essentially twelve generations of my father’s mother’s family but it’s much more than that. It’s kind of Game of Thrones without the dragons. It starts with a kidnapped girl in Shelford, Nottinghamshire in the east midlands of England in 1618 and follows an unbroken chain of recorded births, deaths and marriages which spans four centuries until, six generations later, her descendants flee their farms in Ireland and join the diaspora to Australia. Using family stories, family photographs, published diaries and official documents, it’s the interwoven stories of five families struggling to survive amidst the most tumultuous times in European history. What’s next? I’m wandering into the boggy territory of creative fiction, writing a series of crime stories set on King Island, a beautiful windy island in the Bass Strait between Victoria and Tasmania. I’ve finished the first draft of Book One, The Rock. There will be seven, I think. I’m also writing a stand along novel, called The Key Collector. It’s about a World traveller, Angela who settles in a Tasmanian village near her daughter and grandson where she witnesses a car crash that kills three women. Convinced the collision was an act of murder, she digs into the tragic lives of the victims and is mired in a mystery stretching across three continents and reaching into the second world war.

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