OLD FOURLEGS: THE STORY OF THE COELACANTH – JLB Smith (1956)

One of my most constant and peculiar obsessions had always been a conviction that I was destined to discover some quite outrageous creature – JLB Smith.

And he did, too. The discovery of the coelacanth in 1938 is well known in thumbnail-version – supposedly long-extinct fish turns up in fishing net – but the full story of the one that got away for 65 million years is quite a fisherman’s tale.

It involves a sharp-eyed museum curator named Miss Latimer and JLB Smith, South Africa’s foremost ichthyologist. Much of the drama comes from Smith’s 14-year quest to find a second specimen, which finally turned up off the Comoros Islands in 1952.

Ironically after 65 million years time was short. Battles against red tape, suspicious officials, South African politicians, Christmas holiday ennui and the tyranny of distance make this book quite a cliffhanger, with the careworn Smith forever racing to reach specimens before they putrify beyond usefulness.

At the time of publication, Smith thought he had found two species, but later it became apparent they were the same. Of course they were nothing new to Comoro fishermen, who knew them as the very oily and far from tasty gombessa. A second species finally showed up in 1998 off Indonesia.

JLB Smith and long-lost friend

Googling for more info, I was shocked to find the curmudgeonly but likeable JLB Smith killed himself with cyanide barely a decade later, beset by terminal illness. And the intrepid Captain Hunt died in a shipwreck almost as soon as the book came out.

Meanwhile, we’re still pulling those weird blue fish out of the deeps and wondering what other surprises the sea has in store.

PS: FISH & CHIPS
A sadly true news story from 2012, underlining the disturbingly far reach of ocean pollution, reported a coelacanth found with plastic garbage in its stomach. A packet of chips, apparently. This is a poor reflection on the human race any way you look at it.

“Currawongs appearing at the Manor in vast numbers had come to portend one thing… death was on its way.”

CMsmall Join award-winning author Josephine Pennicott in conversation with Newtown Library’s very own Gayle Donaldson on June 24, when Josephine will talk about her latest crime novel Currawong Manor (Pan Macmillan), a mystery of art, truth and the ripple effects of death and deception, set in the spectacular Blue Mountains.

Intrigued? Free admission. Reserve your seat here

Event details: Tuesday, 24th June 2014,  6:30pm at Newtown Library, 8-10 Brown Street, Newtown (Sydney).

Read more about Currawong Manor and Josephine’s other novels such as Poet’s Cottage here.

William Buckley was a famous runaway convict in Australia’s colonial days. He fled the first settlement in Victoria in 1803, believing he could walk to China. Given up for dead, he lived with Aborigines for 32 years before re-entering colonial society.

He’s still hiding out in Tour To Hell, my book about convict ‘escape mythology’ (bush Chinas, mystery white societies, etc). In fact I give him a whole chapter to roam unfettered while I discuss his case.

His unlikely survival allegedly gave rise to the famous Australian expression Buckley’s Chance (i.e. next to no chance). But many dispute this, and the saying’s origin remains mysterious. Recently, however, increasing digitisation of historical newspapers on the Trove website reveals earlier and earlier printed mentions.

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Last time I checked, about a year ago, the earliest mention was 1892. Now it’s June 21st, 1888, in the Sydney sporting paper The Referee.  

It appears as a familiar cliche needing no explanation. Commenting on the first entry on the Victoria Racing Club’s list, ‘Miss Carrie Swain, by the mare Tomboy’, the paper reckoned this wasn’t a real horse, but a sneaky ad for a play called The Tomboy,  starring Carrie Swain. The journalist suggested ‘there will be ‘Buckley’s chance’ of the handicapper’s giving the entry the same pride of place’ (i.e first listing).

This demolishes two explanations of ‘Buckley’s chance’ which depend on events later than 1888. One concerns an over-optimistic legal action against the Crown in 1890 by a Mr Buckley over land in Bombala, NSW. The other cites the Melbourne retail magnate Mars Buckley withdrawing 10,000 gold sovereigns from the Bank of Australasia during a financial crisis in 1893, leaving the bank with ‘no chance’ to lose his fortune.

The most popular non-convict theory is that ‘Buckley’s chance’ grew from a pun on the Melbourne department story Buckley & Nunn (i.e. ‘two chances:  Buckley’s and none’). But the reverse may be true, as the first known mention of the store pun (Melbourne Argus, 23 November 1901) comes 13 years after ‘Buckley’s chance’ was demonstrably extant – and the writer seems to make the point that ‘Buckley’s chance’ was the original. The subject was the new federal parliament: ‘there is only one chance of getting through the tariff before Christmas, and that is Buckley’s – or, according to the local [Melbourne] adaptation of the phrase, it is Buckley and none’.

The First Settlers Discover Buckley (1861) by FW Woodhouse

Then there’s the pre-WW1 columnist in the Perth Sunday Times, who calls it ‘Bill Buckley’s chance’, a direct link with the Wild White Man. The first instance, on January 31, 1909, ventures that an American swindler, Mr Leach, ‘has Bill Buckley’s chance’ of over-reaching’ when targeting certain victims in Australia.

But another early mention (The Referee, April 29th, 1891) is quite odd and might send us all back to the drawing board. Unless it’s a joke, it opens a whole new can of etymological worms. The lightweight boxer Jim Ryan, says The Referee, ‘had the very reverend Mr Buckley’s chance’ of beating his opponent Harry Mace. Reverend?

Illustration: The First Settlers Discover Buckley (1861) by FW Woodhouse

THE SEA AROUND US – Rachel Carson

I’d never heard of this famous classic of natural history when I found a copy washed up on the footpath several years ago. As literary flotsam of the street it proved a real find, a magnificently written ‘biography’ of three-quarters of the planet.

SeaaroundusSome outdated science is immediately obvious – it was published in 1951, before plate tectonics confirmed continental drift – but this diminishes the authority and poetry not a drop. The prehistoric ocean-forming rain that lasted millions of years is wonderfully described, as are tides and currents. In sediments, Carson sees “a sort of epic poem of the earth. When we are wise enough, perhaps we can read in them all of past history”. The book overflows with this sort of visionary power, strengthening and sweetening the purely informative aspects.

In recent years, Miss Carson’s words about the possibility of submarine tidal activity causing global warming has kept The Sea Around Us surfacing in climate-change debates.  She is also among the most maligned authors of the last 50 years due to her Silent Spring, a famously powerful and influential polemic against the overuse of DDT and other pesticides.

 Some people blame her for every malaria death in the world since she wrote it. But she didn’t call for an outright ban on DDT, much less enforce one herself, and DDT was never banned in countries where malaria is most prevalent. If she had such global power, we should have asked her to rid us of landmines and jet-skis.
Australia Day (January 26): The day of national celebration now goes way beyond commemorating the beginnings of the penal colony that became modern Australia, but what actually happened when the First Fleet finished anchoring in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788?
From the First Fleet journals of Governor Phillip and Judge Advocate David Collins:
By John Allcot (nla.pic-an7891482)

By John Allcot (nla.pic-an7891482)

PHILLIP: In the evening of the 26th the colours were displayed on shore, and the Governor, with several of his principal officers and others, assembled round the flagstaff, drank the king’s health, and success to the settlement.

COLLINS: In the evening of this day [i.e January 26] the whole of the party that came round in the Supply [i.e the governor] were assembled at the point where they had first landed in the morning, and on which a flagstaff had been purposely erected and a union jack displayed, when the marines fired several vollies; between which the governor and the officers who accompanied him drank the healths of his Majesty and the Royal Family, and success to the new colony. The day, which had been uncommonly fine, concluded with the safe arrival of the Sirius and the convoy from Botany Bay.
******
The convicts began to be landed over the next few days. Few wanted to be there, and some were so desperate to escape that they took to the bush, fleeing several miles south hoping to get aboard the French ships commanded by La Perouse, then at anchor at Botany Bay. And so began the history of escape in colonial Australia, leading to the strange myths of bush sanctuaries described in Tour To Hell. Read all about it!
tourhellbookcover
I wish to correct a false impression I mistakenly gave in Tour To Hell about the death of William Buckley, the famous convict runaway feted as the ‘Wild White Man’ after three decades in the bush with indigenous people. On p245 I wrote: ‘On 30 January 1856… Buckley died after falling under a cart at Arthur Circus, in Hobart’s Battery Point’.
Convict runaway William Buckley
Buckley did indeed die at Arthur Circus that day, but the cart accident happened about six weeks’ beforehand on Constitution Hill, between Kempton and Bagdad on the Midlands Highway north of Hobart. Arthur Circus was Buckley’s street address – he died at home.
Arthur Circus, Hobart

Arthur Circus, Hobart

Here’s the full story from a contemporary news report (Hobart’s Courier, 31 January, 1856):
Buckley was thrown out of a gig at Constitution Hill about a week before Christmas-day last.
He remained insensible about two minutes after the fall, and upon recovering his senses found he had lost the use of his limbs.
He was received into St Mary’s Hospital on the 9th January, having been under medical treatment for a fortnight without experiencing any relief.
Upon admission he was unable to move any of his limbs, complained of a cutting pain across the loins, and could not lie long in one position.
He was discharged on the 18th, after undergoing medical treatment, upon the request of himself and wife, and died last night.

Some more dwarf minke clips from my recent expedition to the Great Barrier Reef with Eye to Eye - because too much minke business is never enough! The story can be viewed online at Travel Insider

A minke makes a fairly close approach under the trailing snorkellers’ line, though this isn’t a ‘close approach’ as defined by the scientific surveyors – they come much nearer than this.

Whale takes a breather – listen for their peculiar metallic vocalisations at the beginning and end of the video.

Two minkes swimming together. Scientists speculate that these Reef gatherings, which usually consist of adolescent whales, may have a courtship purpose. As onboard marine biologist Dean Miller said, ‘It’s their blue-light disco’.

The dwarf minke is the most patterned baleen whale. Patterns are unique to each individual, and always assymetrical.

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