He made his appearance in 1931. Let’s see. That’s exactly twenty years before my good self so that’d make him 84. And as far as I know, he’s still on the planet. Born Owen, he obviously preferred his second name of Michael. His first publication was in 1963 – a book on an early governor of colonial Oz, Philip Gidley King. His last recorded, around forty years later, detailed the wreck of a vessel back in early settlement days, the George the Third. He is credited with helping ‘…inspire the revival of scholarly interest in Tasmanian history.’ He departed from academia in 1996 – I’m hoping my retirement years will be as numerous as his. He was a lecturer of mine.
Soaking in fragrant suds this morning I endeavoured to recall the names of all the others who attempted to inspire me from a lectern during my own university days in the fervent early seventies. There were Johnston and Guiler in biology; also Rose in history; Boyce in political science and Cotgrove in geography. I know there are more – some I can picture – but their names are lost to me. The most awesome figure on campus back then was James McAuley – a versifier of exquisite quality and an Angry Penguins survivor. By then he had a reputation as a crabby old bugger but, to my later regret, he never addressed a lecture room I was seated in. But I certainly recollect Professor (gained at Cambridge and the ANU) Michael Roe. Tweedy in dress – as so many were – bespectacled, blonde-ish, upright in stance and invariably dour of expression, he was neither performer nor waffler. But he was thorough. With Roe you were getting value for the money, back then, that taxpayers were sinking into your tertiary education. No, he wasn’t inspirational, but he was well grounded and copiously prepared in his areas of historical expertise. In other words, he knew his stuff and did his level best to ensure that you did too.
Now to the Thirk. I first encountered him, not in real life, as with Professor Roe, but in print. This took the form of a weighty tome entitled ‘The Sex Lives of Australians’. Despite its subject manner and a cover recommendation from no less of a figure than Michael Kirby, I found it a bit of a plod. The author, Frank Bongiorno, has since written a definitive history of our country in the eighties that’s meant to be the last word on the decade, but I won’t be buying into it. ‘TSLOA’ was pretty scholarly – evidenced by a dozen or so footnotes per page. Now and again, though, its dullness was enlivened by tantalising titbits that I felt, with some more filling out, could make for pretty good yarns for blogging purposes. And it was reading the fifth chapter, entitled ‘Tabbies, Amateurs and the Cream of Australian Manhood’ that I was introduced to the Thirk. What immediately attracted me to him was that he was obviously a Tasmanian who went on to have a most interesting life. As was stated in said book, quoting Hobart’s daily newspaper, ‘For a man from a downwardly mobile family living in an untidy suburb (Foster Street, New Town to be exact) where yesterday’s ‘Mercury’ (aforementioned daily) was today’s dunny paper…’ our hero had a very promising coming of age during the Great War years, particularly on the soil of the mother country. During that era he married into fame – but then it all went belly up.
George Lancelot Allnutt Thirkell was born, in 1891, in today’s tourist town of Richmond and was educated at Hutchins, the island’s premier school. This fact would lead one to believe that his family circumstances weren’t totally poverty stricken. On both sides his parents were several generations Tasmanian. His father’s people had been here since the 1820s, building a fine estate in the Midlands, Darlington Park, making him a descendant of local squattocracy. His mother’s forebears ran the coaching service between the colony’s two cities.
Come the conflict our man, with such lineage, was from early on seen as worthy of a commission – a lieutenant in the Engineers no less, based on the slant his education and talents took. A photo of him, published in the Tasmanian Mail, just before embarkation, shows a fellow described as ‘…a youth in chocolate soldier uniform, intent expression, an air of simplicity, even sweetness…rather long and sharp featured with slightly protruding ears, a strong face rather than handsome.’ And it was his very good fortune to be wounded at Gallipoli.
His brief few paragraphs in ‘The Sex Lives of Australians’ also describes him as feckless (def- useless, worthless, incompetent, inept, good-for-nothing, ne’er-do-well), but none-the-less charming. The author was able to deduce this as he had researched the man’s war diaries, held by the War Museum in Canberra.
His wounds in the nation’s revered campaign were serious enough to have him removed to England. There part of his recuperation was spent at Glamis Castle in Scotland, the seat of the Strathmores. Here the Thirk was under the charge of the Earl and his wife. Their daughter, Bongiorno reports, was ‘..a great admirer of men in uniform.’ and she and the Thirk became friends. I was interested to know if there was more to it that just friendship, as around this time this particular man in uniform was starting to garner some sort of reputation with the ladies. This blue-blooded daughter was none other than Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, a comely seventeen year old who would no doubt have attracted other desires in the charismatic Taswegian. As we all know, this lass later went on to marry the future George VI, himself having to be rescued by the Firm from the clutches of an antipodean temptress, causing the necessity to find a sweet diversion of a more suitable nature – Elizabeth. Our future Queen Mum, one would imagine, would have had to have been pure and unsullied to wed a prince – but as, at that stage, he wasn’t the heir to the throne, would that have mattered so much? I resolved to delve into cyberspace to see if there was any evidence of ‘impropriety’ between the two.
What I discovered was that Elizabeth’s family became so enamoured of our Hobart charmer that, once his wounds had sufficiently healed enough for him to depart their care, he was constantly invited back for sleepovers – a break from encampment life on the Salisbury Plain. There was a brief taking of leave back to Australia, but from his base on the Plain the Thirk made many forays to London. His newly acquired connections provided entry into the high society of the capital and there he attracted the eye of many a bejewelled damsel. His eventually fell on one belle, Hinda, who had French royal blood in her veins. There is all sorts of innuendo of what he got up to with Hinda in his diaries – references to dalliances in the back seat of taxis and when she was left in his ‘…tender care…’ by her ever-trusting parents. Why the feckless fellow even described the nature of her knickers, presumably as comfort for what lay ahead in the trenches of the Western Front. All this was occurring whilst he was receiving mail from his sweetheart back in Hobs. Then, towards the last year of the war, the Thirk met Angela McInnes and Borngiorno moved on to other matters. But I needed to know what became of the Tasmanian thereafter.
The ether told me that McInnes was a soon-to-be divorced woman, mother of two sons and it seemed a very rushed business her meeting of, squiring by and marriage to the Thirk. But then it was war-time, one never knew what was around the corner, so time was of the essence. The now Angela Thirkell was soon to become a noted author, far more in the limelight, on-line, than her husband who, after 1918, recedes into the background. He became a mere footnote to her. But we do know that the marriage was a disaster, as so many were, organised in such haste in uncertain times. Angela herself was of prominent stock, being related to Edward Burne-Jones of New Romantics fame, as well as Rudyard Kipling and PM Stanley Baldwin. In 1911 she was wedded to Campbell McInnes, a man with a reputation for promiscuity. She divorced him in 1919, citing his adultery, alcoholism and wife-beating. With the Thirk she was obviously on the rebound.
In 1920 the couple left Old Blighty for the Thirk’s homeland. After a brief stay in Hobs – maybe too provincial for Mrs Thirkell’s tastes – they settled down in Melbourne and proceeded to have a son of their own, Lance. But it all soon soured. The Thirk’s missus was never one to withhold her abhorrence of her new environs and its denizens – uncouth colonial clods. It was only a matter of time. The draw of her own drizzly birth-land was eventually too much and she headed for home with their son. Her husband did not follow. They never saw each other again nor divorced – although she was not adverse to later affairs. With her return came literary fame. She, in thinly veiled form, recorded her time with the Australian in her novel ‘Trooper for the Southern Cross’. Her son, Colin, later added to the descriptions of their years together in his seminal ‘Road to Gundagai’. Neither were entirely unfavourable to the man, but obviously the distance between husband and wife was not aided by his own shortcomings. A noted historian stated, ‘The fevers of sex and war had done their work.’ on the relationship.
And its with their parting that cyberspace ends its recollection of the Thirk. Most of the above was garnered from various biographical articles on Angela. Of course, what I also desired to know, given there was still a long life ahead of the man, was how it all turned out for him. And here Michael Roe, my old lecturer, as well as the ‘noted historian’ from the previous paragraph, rides to the rescue. One of the aforementioned articles came with a reference to an article the good professor had written for the Meanjin Quarterly in December, 1969 – the year before I commenced my university studies at today’s UTAS. The excellent ladies at the State Library delved into their archives for me and produced what I required, for, with ‘Thirk: A Tragic Australian’, Roe takes the tale through to its conclusion.
From his account I discovered the Thirk completed his war as a captain and witnessed the end of Baron von Richthofen – in his diaries recording he believed the great German ace to have been shot down from the ground by a fellow digger. He also enlightens on just how our colonial lad met his future ‘…archetype of the English upper middle class..’ of a wife. He even pinpoints the date of this occurrence – September 9th, 1917. Roe refers to the man’s diaries, stating how the Thirk found his future stepsons to be ‘…two dear little kiddies.’ whilst referring to her ex with the words ‘…it beats me how a fellow can neglect such a lovely little soul (Angela) and such glorious kids.’ One of these kids later wrote of the occasion that his mother was entranced by GAL Thirkell’s looks, he being, in her view, ‘…a handsome captain with dark brown hair and freckles in the irises of his eyes.’ His ‘…strange, twangy lilt.’ helped win her over; not the only time the Aussie accent has worked its magic on hearts from the other hemisphere.
But, as we have seen, the rosiness of the couple’s first meeting was not to last. On the way home Thirkell displayed some gallantry in defusing a mutiny by fellow troopers at the conditions on board their ship. This placed him in an admirable light as far as his wife was concerned. In Melbourne, though, he soon went to seed. Angela herself won few friends with her reported peevishness and putting-down of most souls the couple came in contact with socially. The Thirk sought solace in the whiskey bottle. He spent most of his free time away from his shrewish wife, either at his club or with his nose buried in his stamp collection – a lifelong infatuation. As the bitterness between husband and wife increased, so did the Thirk’s girth. He, for a time, did okay in the workforce, being the managing director of an engineering firm – he is credited with patenting a tennis net stretching mechanism as a claim to fame. But, as with so many, when the Great Depression hit, his business closed. It was at this time Angela signalled she had had enough and deserted him. With these combined failures Roe reports he became ‘…an increasingly pathetic figure.’
Angela’s son Graham continued to remain in contact with him, stating that throughout his troubles his charm won a few favours back from old army mates in the form of some employment. By nature, it seems, he remained extremely generous with what little monies he was still able to accrue. But, eventually, his lack of funds started to show. His suits were shiny with age, his cuffs frayed, his homburg hat ancient and stained. One day stepfather and stepson met for lunch in a Melbourne hostelry. Over plates of oysters the younger informed the elder that he was next off to Canada to search for his real father. On hearing this the Thirk reached over and placed his hand on Colin’s arm and asked of him that, after chasing down his parent in the land of the maple leaf, please could he ‘… go on to see …(his) Mother (in the UK)… and just tell her I want her to come back.’ McInnes left with a vision of ‘…his sad brown face and long bloodhound nose…’ watching him go.
But a tragedy Michael Roe? Had his life continued its downward spiral then, yes, that would have been the case. But sometime during the years of the second worldwide conflict last century the Thirk found a soul-mate. Roe wasn’t forthcoming with many details – perhaps there was simply not any historical record pointing to her identity. But they were together, in one form or another, for nineteen years – up till his death in 1959. The woman inherited his estate of around one thousand pounds – his beloved stamp collection went to Lance. He suffered from diabetes, as well, in his final years. At least he seems he had someone by his side to share his life. So a tragedy? No, I don’t think so.
Still it remains that the days of his pomp came early during those years he helped defend the Empire. The Hobartian had hobnobbed within the top echelons of the English upper classes for a blissful period, although undoubtedly the fighting on the Western Front provided a sobering counter. He married a woman, destined for fame, with top-notch antecedents, if somewhat on the hoity-toity side when it came to her view of her station in life. And as for the initial reason for examining my fellow islander’s life? Well there was no hint of anything improper between a future Queen and the ‘feckless’ Taswegian. But it does seem to me that, as with another lad from Hobart who cut a swathe through the international jet-set a little later in the century just past, the Thirk deserves a bit more exposure. And it’s the type of synchronicity I just love that it was Michael Roe who rounded off his life for me, providing a Tasmanian yarn to savour.
My Old Professor