There were two stories in recent weeks linked to people from my past.
The Sydney Morning Herald carried the obituary of Brian Birchall (1941-2010). Born in Newcastle, Brian worked first as a PMG technician before studying at Newcastle University College and then going to Sydney University to complete his PhD, the first awarded in Philosophy. In 1971, he accepted a position as lecturer in Philosophy at the University of New England; he was to spend the rest of his life in Armidale.
Brian was something of an eccentric who, as the obituary notes, became "a vibrant figure in the UNE landscape. Rather than being aloof, he cultivated friendships with students and contributed both an intellectual vigour and an informed sense of mischief to the university." I think that's pretty right from my own experience.
In 1981 I went back to UNE to work full time on my PhD. With fond, somewhat nostalgic, memories of student life, I found a much shrunken campus. Somehow during the growth and social change of the 1970s, the dynamism had been lost. Looking around, I found that the Philosophy Society was one of the few remaining student societies, so started attending meetings. This brought me into contact with Brian. Like me, he felt that student life had contracted compared to that he found in 1971. I think that he consciously used his personality and reputation for eccentricity as a tool to try to stimulate thought and activism among students.
In Alex Buzo on George Crosslé, Paul Barratt reprints Alex Buzo's 2000 obituary of Robert (George) Crosslé. I am glad that he did, for George was a remarkable figure. Proudly Irish, he was also an anglophile and a political conservative who wrote regular letters to the Armidale Express in support of causes including the Country Party and New England New State Movement. Yet, when it came to teaching, he was remarkably balanced, concerned to present various views and encourage discussion.
Part of George's impact came from his physical presence. Blind in one eye, he varied a glass eye with an eye patch, something that was fascinating to the young. Part of George's impact also came from his enthusiasm. Concerned, for example, about poor general knowledge in the school, he handed out a voluntary general knowledge quiz requiring a fair bit of work to answer, offering prizes for the best results.
I absorbed my love of history from George, but it was more than that. He also taught me to look at alternative viewpoints. One that stands out in my mind, one that I have mentioned before, is when he set an essay topic on the White Australia policy. I suppose I wrote a fairly safe and conventional response. I still remember George praising one class member who had taken a strong stand against the then policy for his ability to take an alternative view. I learned, then, that it was okay to challenge.