Graduation address

Graduation address given by Professor Iain McCalman

Professor Iain McCalman gave the following occasional address at the Faculty of Arts graduation ceremony held at 4.00pm on 5 June 2009.

Professor McCalman is a Professorial Research Fellow and ARC Federation Fellow in the Department of History, Faculty of Arts, University of Sydney. His research areasa are: eighteenth-century and early-nineteenth British and European history; popular culture and low life; and uses of media for history.

The photo of Professor McCalman is copyright, Memento Photography.

Professor Iain McCalman

Graduation address


Seeing you gathered here on this crisp winter afternoon, looking so sharp in your caps and gowns, receiving your hard-earned degrees, and being photographed to mark the occasion makes me feel proud to belong to the University of Sydney, but it also makes me feel nostalgic. It’s forty years since I went through the same ceremony to receive my undergraduate degree and that’s about the span of time needed, I’m told, for a bout of nostalgia to kick in. So forty years from now, if not before, you’ll probably all be feeling the bitter-sweet waves of memory that are washing over my sensorium at this moment.

I hope you do, because, to be honest, I think this type of nostalgia can be a positive and educative experience. In fact, it’s an experience I want to talk about in my brief address to you this afternoon. Nostalgia tends to get a bad press: at best it’s regarded as a trivial and self-indulgent trait, at worst a pernicious form of escapism that detracts from the hard realities of existence. It is often treated as the opiate of the psyche that accompanies aging and the tendency to anecdotage, a condition I’m certainly not immune from. But what is nostalgia exactly? The OED gives the word a Greek derivation, a compound of algos and nostos, meaning literally the pain of longing or simple home-sickness. On this last definition, it’s a type of pain we’ve all felt at different times of our lives. For centuries nostalgia in this sense was thought to be an actual disease that afflicted your body and mind when you were away from home for too long. Black humour or melancholia, was thought to ooze through your body, bringing floods of despair and an accompanying danger of madness. Bleeding with leeches was said to be the best cure. Captain Cook in his voyages to the Southern Oceans wrote that it usually gripped his crew after being at sea around three years, and he tried to ward it off by making them drink plenty of rum and dance on deck to the tunes of a blind fiddler.

I had occasion to experience this form of nostalgia five or six years ago when I was recruited by the BBC to be a historical adviser and participant on a TV re-enactment of Captain Cook’s first voyage up the east coast of Australia to Indonesia. It was to be done as nearly as possible under eighteenth-century conditions. Our bare-torsoed Director called it ‘extreme history’ and he believed it was going to become the rage. Twenty-first century innocents would simulate the ordeals of heroes of the past, like a sort of Big Brother at Sea. If this Director comes around recruiting for a Burke and Wills series I’d advise you to give it a miss. It was bad enough on the Ship. There were around fifty volunteer crew, mostly young, fit and glamorous’; you know the sort that look good on television. The handful of invited experts - historians, navigators and botanists - tended, like me, to be rather longer in the tooth. And we historians were made to work as able seamen, a sign perhaps of our status as humanists.

What was it like? In a word, horrible. We worked like dogs, slept like fruit bats in hammocks fourteen-inches wide and climbed like monkeys 150 feet up the rigging to hoist and lower heavy canvas sails. At meals we ate ship’s biscuits so hard they even defeated the reef sharks when we tossed them overboard. We ate tinned sauerkraut to prevent scurvy and pickled pork so salty that it made us retch. It’s true that nobody got scurvy but nostalgia hit most of us like a freight train after only three or four days. We were gripped by longing for the comforts of home. Some missed their lovers, spouses or children; some their parents, friends and pets; some the consolations of daily existence like tobacco, wine, coffee and tea. And everyone pined for a proper bed and decent food. On watches at night we tormented each other with descriptions of meals in settings so sumptuous that they would make us weep. Home was the perfect place: here was horrible even though we were sailing over a paradise of corals and iridescent seas.

I’ve just published a book about Charles Darwin called Darwin’s Armada and in it I describe his similar experience. On Darwin’s five year Beagle voyage he had very little positive to say about ships. The relentless misery of seasickness made him curse both the sailor’s vehicle and its element: ‘I loathe, I abhor the sea and all ships which are on it’, he confessed to his family. When he first hit the endless Pacific with its stomach-churning rollers, he grumbled that it loomed like ‘a tedious waste, a desert of water’. After having already been four years at sea he felt irritated by ‘the want of room, of seclusion, of rest - the jading feeling of constant hurry - the privation of small luxuries, the comforts of civilization, [and] domestic society…’.

Yet twenty years after he returned from his voyage, he began to long for the intense period of intellectual discovery, adventure and friendships he’d experienced on that cramped and uncomfortable ship. So strong was this feeling that he decided in the 1850s to recreate these conditions on dry land. He bought a country house set ‘on the extreme verge of the world’, and he called it ‘my ship on the downs’. His study replicated the Beagle’s cosy book-lined chart-room; his wife Emma tended to his chronic stomach problems like the Beagle’s officers had fussed over their sea-sick companion. The butler took notes and helped with experiments like his ship steward, Syms Covington; and Darwin’s five children played the part of the Beagle’s boisterous young midshipmen providing him with occasional distraction and delight.
Looking back, Darwin remembered how shipboard life had trained his mind, teaching him the discipline to observe, record and catalogue all his findings. Having as a young man been described by his father as ‘idle’ and sport-obsessed, Darwin gained, he said, ‘a habit of energetic industry and of concentrated attention to whatever I was engaged in’. In a way the Beagle was a floating university with a variety of interdisciplinary expertise always close at hand. So Darwin was moved to recreate his voyage experience when, thirty years later, he faced his toughest ever intellectual task - writing the Origin of Species.

Nostalgia, it seems, needs a degree of hardship and pain to feed off. Like some symbiotic plant it must suck the sap of despair before it throws out blooms. In the midst of ordeals we dream about how life will be when the pain stops, and years later we long to recapture that unique intensity of lived experience. This blend of pain and pleasure has probably ambushed you all at the University of Sydney during exam time. Leisure beckons but first there is the slog. In Canberra, the exam period was always ushered in by clouds of fluffy white blossom falling from the smoke trees and covering the ground like snow. Because of this I still always feel anxious when I see white blossom. But then the same blossoms promise me that after the exams will come the reward: a golden summer, the buzzing of blowflies on balmy evenings, the scent of sun-tan oil, the inane chatter of cricket commentators, the exhilarating feel of a cold can in the hand.
Even we sailors on the Endeavour went through this same cycle. For the first few weeks after the voyage we indulged every missed pleasure; silk sheets, hot showers, Belgian chocolates, ruby Cabernet. But then, would you believe, people began emailing each other saying that they missed being at sea. They pined for the confines of a stuffy focsle, the toughness of shipboard routines and the comradeship of others who have shared the same hardships. The French dramatist Guilliame Victor Emile Augier was the first to notice this characteristic of nostalgia. He called it la nostalgie de la boue, a old duck living on a warm limpid pool, he said, always longs to return to the icy mud of its youth.

I’ve often been accused by my children of being stuck in a sixties time-warp, and I think its true because those were my university years. There is no time like university really. I suppose it's because we are in a liminal space, free from the powerlessness of childhood but not yet burdened with mortgages. It’s the time when, like Darwin, we learn skills and values that we’ll carry for the rest of our lives. You all have many new challenges and achievements in front of you now that you’ve graduated, but there will be things about your time here at the University of Sydney that you’ll miss. You may never again read so passionately or so widely; you may never again argue so freely about politics, religion and films, be so cynical yet so idealistic, so frenziedly hardworking or so torpidly idle; you will never again be able, as TS Eliot put it, to count out your life in coffee spoons.
Above all you may never again make friends quite like those of university. There will be reunions, weekends like those in ‘The Big Chill’, punctuated my music you haven’t heard for years and gossip about people who have aged far less well than you have. There will be gales of helpless laughter about the old days, and tearful farewells when you part. And your uni friends will always look after you when you are in need. Old shipmates do that, as Darwin discovered.

So what’s my concluding message to you all? I suppose I’m urging you to let a little nostalgia into your life. Savour the pleasure of this moment and of the Uni times past. You have earned it, and so have your families, teachers and friends. Snap freeze your university memories of the last three or four years and if you don’t need them now put them on the shelf until twenty years time when nostalgia comes crashing in. And when it does, I urge you to cherish the institution that so nurtured your hearts and minds. When you feel those bitter-sweet tears pricking at the back of your eyes and an inclination to leave some money to the university, don’t hold back. Remember that universities like this have a soul, too, and they, too, look back with sweet sad longings to the days when money was abundant, workloads modest, and hope sprang eternal.

Thank you,

Iain McCalman