Australian Biography

Phillip Law - full interview transcript

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So the experiences you had, did they make you feel religious?

No. I went through a religious experience in my teens and shortly after, I embraced a more agnostic sort of view. So I've ... Not since I was twenty have I been religious in any sense, except that I have a vague awe of some immense all-embracing power through the universe. But it's just a vague sort of cloud of impressive power which is behind everything, but whether you call it God or something else, I don't know. But I certainly don't believe in any standardised religious ideas.

It must be extraordinary when you are out in the Antarctica by yourself though, an experience that most of us don't have?

That's this huge impression of grandeur and organisation and system of nature. And of course the more you look at the environment, the more you see and the ecology of different areas and so on. It all adds to the feeling of awe and admiration. It's a form of religion, I suppose.

Were there people along the way with whom you didn't get on?

Very few. There were a couple of blokes in External Affairs with whom I used to have problems because they were fuddy-duddy, stuck-in-the-mud obstructionist sort of people. No desire to achieve anything, only to block people off from doing things. But they are about the only people I will say that I really objected to. Most of the External Affairs people were very supportive and very helpful and very fine. I admired them tremendously.

You speak like a very happy man.

I think I am a very happy person. I very seldom have fits of depression, apart from that Nella Dan thing.

So looking back, you have had a happy life?

Oh, extremely, yes. I've been lucky in love and lucky in everything. Not lucky with money, but that doesn't matter much. [INTERRUPTION]

How much did it change your life, having had such a long marriage when Nell died? How much did it change you?

The shock of her death was not as great as if there had been a traumatic accident or something. In a way I'd been preparing for her death since we'd been engaged, because when we were engaged she said, 'I'm not going to live past thirty years of age. If you want to marry me you've got to face up to that'. Well seeing she lived on till she was in her seventies, she did very well. And over many of those years I recognised her frailty and when she had to have open heart surgery to stitch up the hole in her heart and to give her an artificial mitral valve, there was a period of great apprehension then. She could have died on the operating table. We ... she had a vicious accident in Norway where she was smashed up in a car. All sorts of things happened to poor Nell, where she didn't have the Law luck. And as a result she was living on borrowed time just for so long, that when the end came it was not a shock to me. It was anticipated. It was terribly devastating, of course, to lose your loved one at the end of a life-long partnership where everything had gone so well. As I said, it leaves a vacuum that will never be filled. But I've conditioned myself all my life to look at death rather objectively. I've never been frightened of death myself because I faced it so many times in Antarctica that I am just resigned to death when it happens. And in a sense I play that to other people too. One might grieve but it's a way of life and it's a part of your existence and you have to put up with it. All I can say is that my whole life has been tremendously enriched by having a wife like Nell. She just extended my horizons in every direction, so much I'd be a pretty prosaic sort of person if I'd never met her.

So would you like to tell me a little bit about the VIC and what your main achievement was when you went there?

People were surprised when I went into the VIC from the Antarctic Division but those people didn't understand that I'd had so many years in education beforehand: ten years in the Education Department and a number of years in the Physics Department, so education was part of my being and I'd been on the council of Melbourne and La Trobe University and I'd been involved in that sort of education with administration, even when I was in the Antarctic Division. I remember though, I think the accomplishments of the Victorian Institute are these. First, I had the tremendous feeling of satisfaction creating something because when I was appointed I remember walking into Melbourne, standing on the corner of Collins and Swanston Street, and saying to myself, 'I'm the vice-president of the VIC, what do I do?' There wasn't an office, there was nothing. I had to go down to the Antarctic Division and look up some real estate agents and try and find some accommodation and ring up the Commonwealth Employment Agency and get them to send some girls down. So I chose a typist and I told the typist to go and buy herself a typewriter. And I bought some chairs and tables. And I walked down to the GPO and ordered a telephone. And it started from that. And our accomplishments were first, to set up an office and the whole administrative structure for running these colleges. And at one stage we had sixteen colleges under the umbrella that I formed. Secondly, I had to argue politically to change the VIC act, which had all sorts of deficiencies in it and would never have worked if we hadn't changed it. Then, we had to separate these colleges from being parts of the Education Department, against the opposition of the Director of Education. So that was a struggle. We had to then change these colleges from being colleges administered by department into self-administering, autonomous university-type institutions standing alone, apart from certain impositions that the VIC made to make sure they ran in the right direction. We then had to raise their academic standards from diploma level up to degree level and postgraduate level. We had to institute ... we had about fifty committees and we had to institute committees of all sorts to govern the creation of new courses and to assess courses up to degree status, and so on. We had fights to create salary structures that were equivalent to university studies, otherwise we would never be effective. We had to lift up the whole administrative structures by introducing all sorts of machinery and cultures they'd never had before in terms of administration. We built seven new campuses and we created two new colleges: the Lincoln Institute - the Health institute, and the Victorian College of the Arts. And so altogether it was highly rewarding. The other point is, that through the VIC spearheading the whole advanced colleges system in Australia I got involved in Commonwealth affairs and in affairs in other states and was a partner in the whole nation-wide evolution of colleges of advanced education. And then overseas interests and collaboration with other typical ... typically similar groups in South Africa, Britain, USA, Japan and so on. It was wonderful stuff. [INTERRUPTION] In April 1966, I resigned from the Antarctic Division and took up the post of vice-president of the Victoria Institute of Colleges, that had just been created by an act of parliament. That arose out of what was called the Martin Report on Tertiary Education in Australia and it proposed an alternative structure of Tertiary education to that of the universities, an alternative that was more oriented towards industry and practical affairs, rather than the pure research and interest in universities. And there's a framework for that. We took over the existing technical colleges in Victoria. And it was my job to create the umbrella organisation that would produce the motivation and the direction and the controls that I've just mentioned, that would lead this whole thing on the path that I've mentioned. [INTERRUPTION]

Do you think in any way that you lived out a fantasy, like a boy's own adventure fantasy in your life?

I doubt it. I read an immense amount of Boys' Own Annuals and Chums, the Australian Pals and all these books as a kid. I read, omnivorously until the age of about fifteen and I have no doubt that this vast amount of adventure reading had some impact, but I don't think I ever lived out any pre-thought fantasy of any sorts. As I said, most of my life was opportunistic. I just like to make sure I didn't waste time, but I never quite knew where I was going except that I was determined not to let a year go past without moving forward in some sort of way. [INTERRUPTION]

Oh, one other thing, I think I'm a romantic. I always look for adventurous things. I always look for exciting things. I've always been interested in women and adventure and romance. I've been lucky enough to have those sorts of things come good. It hasn't been an arid desert in any sense, anywhere.

Do you feel guilty about anything in particular?

No, I think the only regrets I have are the things I haven't done. Temptations at various times that I was too prudish to take advantage of and I look back and think, well, how stupid you were. [Laughs]

So it's a life without guilt?

I think so. I don't feel guilty about anything. I can't remember having felt guilty about anything really.

And if people ... people look back on you in a 100 years, how would you like them to describe you, if you had your way?

As a creative person. I think particularly in relation to stimulating youth. I've always felt that my adventures and my life should provide a role model for young people and I've always been interested in selling adventure to young people. I've been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh Scheme. I've been the president of the Geelong Area Scouts for twenty-five odd years. I've helped set up the Exploring Society of Australia and New Zealand. I've been a strong advocate of Outward Bound, and all these things are part of the whole idea of selling adventure to young people and trying to enthuse them. [INTERRUPTION]

Do you think young people still need that?

I once said in a lecture that eighty per cent of Australians are unadventurous and I think that still applies. And I've been interested in trying to make people take that step out into a sort of semi known area to take the plunge, to jump now and again, rather than just look at all the lot of dangers and then retreat. If I looked at the dangers of Antarctica and tried to analysis the probability of things, I would never get on a ship and sail from the wharf. You have to say, 'Look, sure something might happen while I'm down there'. You take calculated risks, you prepare as carefully as possible to try and provide in case something happens, but from there on you jump. You go forward and take the risk. [INTERRUPTION]

How did you feel when you'd been honoured with medals and an honorary doctorate and so on by your peers ... peer group?

Oh, I think they're all tremendously exciting personally. It's a tremendous thrill to be given the Founders Gold Medal of the Royal Geographic Society. It was a most exciting moment to be given an Honorary Doctorate. In a way it made me an honest man because I didn't have my PhD. You see everybody has always called me 'Dr. Law' and I had to keep contradicting them. It was a great relief finally to be able to be called Dr. Law by everyone, without having to contradict someone.

It must be tremendous though, when your own colleagues honour you like that?

I think that one of the greatest satisfactions in my life has been the recognition of my peers. I don't really care whether the politicians recognise me, or whether the general public recognises me. I've had the wonderful feeling of having my peers, the people who understand what I've done in science and education and adventure in Antarctica and the recognition they gave me on my eightieth birthday on the symposium was out of this world. It was absolutely wonderful. After that, it doesn't matter what anyone thinks. [INTERRUPTION]

Do you have one word that you think most accurately describes you as a person?

Nell used to call me the modern Drake. [Laughs]

That sounds like a mixed message. Do you think so?

I think in a sense I'm an Elizabethan character. I'd like to think of myself as that. [INTERRUPTION]


A bit flamboyant, reaching out into the unknown, adventuring, taking risks, leading other on to similar footsteps. A bit of exhibitionism. I've got enough extrovert in me to have been a reasonably good public relations man. I was very successful in selling Antarctica in my period in Antarctica. The reason I resent the fact that they've given that all away and they don't really tell anyone what they're doing anymore. I think they are really abdicating a position, in which they could be really influencing the youth of Australia and they're just not bothering. They don't issue press releases. A couple of years ago there was a woman ... a few years ago, a woman was made the first leader of an ANARE station. That should have been really high class press news. But even more so, a couple of years ago, we had a woman who was officer-in-charge at Mawson and she was nominated to the be the leader of a party that went inland with fifteen scientist to do a two months job, 400 miles and back. And that's the first woman in Antarctic history who's ever led an inland Antarctic expedition. And she wasn't mentioned by the Division itself. It wasn't as if they issued a press release and it wasn't picked up. There was no press release. I think there's a feeling there that individuals shouldn't be honoured. This is a Department, so you don't let any individual get mentioned. It's a very nasty attitude on the part of bureaucrats because if you don't mention people, and you don't hold up role models for young people to emulate, we'll never be a great nation. And we're very bad at that in Australia. We don't produce role models in any field and hold them up to the youth and say, 'This is the sort of person you should aim to become'. [INTERRUPTION]

Your own heroes? Your own role models?

I was of course tremendous impressed by the heroic adventurers in Antarctica and even more, I think, by the mountaineering heroes. I've read a tremendous amount about mountaineering. And the 1930s, the British crop of people were absolutely wonderful and some of them are still alive and one I know personally today. And I still get a kick out of knowing those sorts of people. The Hilarys of this world.

Are you surprised now at the accolades that are pouring upon you at your great age?

I'm sorry. What was that?

Are you surprised at the increasing interest in you at your age now?

I'm not surprised because I've always felt that these sorts of things come with survival. But most people are not recognised 'til fifty years after what they did. Most of them unfortunately die before they're recognised. If you're lucky enough to live to eighty you collect a bit of it. If I live 'til ninety I'll probably collect a bit more. If I'd died at sixty, I'd be nothing.

[end of interview]