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The Coombs

The Coombs: A House of Memories OPEN ACCESS

Brij V. Lal
Allison Ley
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: ANU Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13wwvxv
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  • Book Info
    The Coombs
    Book Description:

    The Coombs Building at The Australian National University is a Canberra icon. Named after one of Australia’s greatest administrators and public intellectuals—‘Nugget’ Herbert Cole Coombs—for more than forty years the building has housed two of the University’s four foundational Schools: the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies and the Research School of Social Sciences. This volume of recollections is about the former. It looks at life in the building through the prism of personal experience and happenstance. Part memoir, part biography, and part celebration, this book is about the people of Coombs, past and present. Through evocative and lucid reflections, present and former denizens of the building share their passions and predilections, quietly savour their accomplishments and recall the failings and foibles of the past with a kindly tolerance.

    eISBN: 978-1-921934-18-6
    Subjects: History, Education
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Table of Contents

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  1. Part I The Coombs:: A Portrait
    • Brij V. Lal

      The Coombs Building is a Canberra icon. Ask any taxi driver at the airport. They are not likely to know the location of Fellows Road or Liversidge and East Streets which frame the building, but they will all know where the Coombs is. On the campus itself, the Coombs stands out for its distinctive hexagonal shape, so unlike the bland concrete multi-story structures that began to dot the Australian university landscape from the 1960s. Visitors comment wryly on its seemingly disorientating sets of spiralling staircases on three levels—split levels at that—making seminar rooms difficult to find, and offices...

  2. Part II A Room at the Top
    • Oskar Spate

      Old Men Forget, the title of Duff Cooper’s autobiography, is a plain blunt lie. It is the last thing they do. This paper is really oral history, a contribution to folklore, and suffers from the usual failing of that genre, notably a marked haziness as to dates and a propensity to heighten the role of the narrator, who is likely to appear as a bishop, or at least a rook, when in fact he was at best a knight, or perhaps more often a pawn. In the circumstances, it is futile to apologise for egoism. I will do my best...

    • Anthony Low

      I belong to the OHB generation—those of us who go back to the Old Hospital Building where the Research School of Social Science (RSSS) and the Research School of Pacific Studies (RSPacS) as it then was, and the University Library all began. OHB’s remnants have long since been taken over by the Research School of Earth Sciences, but its porticoed entrance still stands at right angles to Mills Road overlooking the patch of grass above the Vice-Chancellor’s residence, and for its ageing denizens it remainsterra sacra.

      Its hub was a down-at-heel canteen fronting on an enclosed rectangle of...

    • Wang Gungwu

      Now that I have long gone from the Coombs (since 1986) and unlikely ever to work inside it again, I refuse to hear one word against its greatest claim to fame, and will not accept any doubts about the charms of finding one’s way inside the magnificent building. Instead of that perennial subject, I shall talk about the people I found there, people I located in their various corner rooms only after I had been there seven years and only after I became Director of the Pacific Studies half of the building in 1975. My most important discovery as Director...

    • R. Gerard Ward

      If you raise your eyes when walking towards the main entrance to the Coombs Building, perhaps to admire the wrought-iron frieze designed by Matcham Skipper, you will notice two white walls on the front of two outward extensions in the middle of the platform behind the frieze. It looks as if they have been designed as stages from whence to address a multitude—it seems ideal for a dictator, or two.

      Fortunately, none of the Directors of either School has ever attempted to harangue their fellow Coombs residents from their respective stage. I doubt if any of them ever thought...

    • Merle Ricklefs

      I look back on my time as Director of the School (1993–98) as the culmination of my career in Australian academic life. The position brought me many things, of which the most notable were probably: opportunities to come to know and to support some of the finest scholars of Asia and the Pacific in the world; chances to visit places where my own research would never have taken me, notably Papua New Guinea and other Pacific nations, China and Korea; the heavy responsibility of maintaining the excellence of the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (RSPAS) in challenging...

    • James J. Fox

      For newcomers to the Coombs Building, I have often offered the advice to ‘turn right at the Buddha’ if they are looking for the Director’s office. Poised at the top of the flight of stairs leading up from the entrance, the large wooded statute of the Buddha is a defining feature of the Coombs vestibule. This statue, ‘Meditating Buddha sheltered by the Naga King’ is the joint creation of a visiting Cambodian artist, Nath Chun Pok, and an Australian student, Matthew Harding. It was purchased from a fund established by the Research School’s long serving Business Manager, Peter Grimshaw, and...

  3. Part III Coombs Journeys
    • Niel Gunson

      When the Coombs Building was first occupied in 1964, the two Schools and their member Departments already had a life of their own and those who moved into the new rooms brought their group memories and personal histories with them. To appreciate both the continuity and the new developments it is necessary to begin the story before the union of the Institute of Advanced Studies with the old Canberra University College, now The Faculties, in 1962.

      In May 1955 I arrived in Canberra as one of Jim Davidson’s ‘lambs’. Dale Trendall, Master of University House, welcomed me to that august...

    • Bryant Allen

      I have absolutely no recollection of my first entry into the Coombs Building, despite retaining a reasonably clear memory of what happened after I had entered. Pavlov’s dogs are said to have lost their memories after the Moscow River flooded their accommodation and left them swimming with their heads bumping against the roofs of their cages. My situation was not as dire as theirs. I was merely trying not to appear stupid in front of what I assumed were some of the best minds in the business. But it seems to have had a similar effect on me as the...

    • Darrell Tryon

      When I entered the portals of the Coombs Building for the first time on 1 February 1965 as a research scholar in linguistics, I was mightily impressed by the newness and style of the double hexagon with its stylized Melanesian art facade.

      I was more impressed, however, when I entered the office of Professor Stephen Wurm, who was soon to become the foundation professor of linguistics. For at that time linguistics and prehistory were still part of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, headed by Professor John Barnes. [Linguistics and Prehistory became separate departments only in 1967].

      Stephen Wurm’s office,...

    • R.J. May

      Some time in late 1971, after a frustrating day at the Reserve Bank (where I was then senior economist in the Papua New Guinea Department), I came across an advertisement for the position of field director with the ANU’s New Guinea Research Unit (NGRU) in Port Moresby, and decided to apply. I wrote to my former Nuffield College supervisor in Oxford, Sir Norman Chester, asking if he would act as a referee. He promptly wrote back asking why on earth someone with a promising career in the Reserve Bank would think of giving it up to go to Papua New...

    • John Ravenhill

      My introduction to the International Relations department in the Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies came on my very first day at work in Australia. I had just arrived from the United States to take up a lectureship at the University of Sydney and was sitting in a grimy empty office overlooking Redfern station (a long way removed from the pictures of the harbour in the University’s publicity). Having been interviewed over the phone for the Sydney post and not having set foot in the country previously, my only other exposure to university life in Australia had come courtesy...

    • Jack Golson

      At the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s archaeology, or prehistory as it was officially called, was one of a number of new disciplines to make a modest appearance in RSPacS, others being linguistics and biogeography. They were established as single appointments in existing departments, linguistics and prehistory in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, biogeography in the Department of Geography, where there was already a physical geographer in the redoubtable person of Joe Jennings. They all found a supportive environment, to the extent that by the end of the 1960s they had become large enough...

    • Kathryn Robinson

      The corridors of the Department of Anthropology in the Coombs Building are hung with large black and white photographs that celebrate well-loved anthropological images: Rotinese chanters in their dramatic hats, Trobriand Kula canoes with decorated prows; pigs awaiting slaughter in the New Guinea Highlands. For me, these images are a bit like family photos: mementos of a happily remembered past and a group of anthropologists senior to me with whom I share a collective identity and from whom I learned about the extended fieldwork that is the ‘craft’ of anthropology. Today’s students don’t have such a fond relationship to these...

    • Ross Garnaut

      Tuesday afternoon, 1966, Seminar Room B in the Coombs Building was a welcoming place for a third year undergraduate with interests in development. I would slip in now and again to hear Max Corden discussing the new idea of ‘effective protection’; Heinz Arndt on the Indonesian economy spinning out of control and now having a chance to spin back, and David Penny on whether this mattered in a Javanese village; Fred Fisk on primitive affluence in the Pacific; Scarlett Epstein on the village economy in New Britain; or, once, Bruce MacFarlane on the economics of the Yugoslav experiment in ‘workers’...

    • Desmond Ball

      Intellectuals, as Karl Mannheim explained, tend to have special difficulties separating their work and domestic domains. Thinking does not stop at home in the evenings or at weekends; many of the Coombs Building’s researchers do most of their writing in their studies at home. Conversely, the university provides a social and cultural environment for personal activities. Over time, the ‘office’ becomes as much a part of life as the residential address; together they shape the intellectual product.

      I have worked and lived in the Coombs Building in a series of capacities, from PhD student to Professor and Head of Centre....

    • R.J. May

      Rspas, as I once had to explain to an overseas colleague, is not an acronym for Research School of Politics and Sociology. In fact, until 1978 Rspas, surprisingly, undertook no systematic, ongoing research into the contemporary politics of the region. The Department of International Relations occasionally produced work on domestic politics of regional countries, but its focus was global. Some historians wrote about contemporary history, but without a specifically political viewpoint. But there was no part of the School working comparatively on domestic politics. In 1973, it was decided that the time had come to rectify this, and in a...

  4. Part IV Running the Coombs
    • Sue Lawrence

      I started work in the H.C. Coombs Building on Monday 17 December 1973. I clearly remember my interview for the position. A friend and I were just graduating from the Metropolitan Business College in Civic and were told there were positions available at the ANU. We were told to walk over and see the ANU Staff Office and fill out a form. I knew the general direction of the campus but really had no idea where to go. The ANU didn’t have a very public face in Canberra then and I knew very little about its activities.

      Together, my friend...

    • Ewan Maidment

      Before you come in the front door of the Coombs Building have a look to your right at the Kiribati canoe hidden in the scrub under the eve. Go past Seminar Room A along the administration corridor, its walls lined with Roger Keesing’s and Ian Frazer’s photographs of comfortable-looking Solomon Islanders. Before you climb the staircase roping around the lift have a glance at the Melanesian artefacts on display in the glass case opposite the Coombs Lecture Theatre foyer. Meander along the Coombs corridors past Melanesian artefacts once lent from the now-vanished Institute of Anatomy. Find your way, if you...

    • Claire Smith

      In 1980 I applied for a job as part-time stenographer in the Research School of Pacific Studies and to my surprise I was appointed. Perhaps two years living in Singapore got me the job, but I had no previous experience working in Academe and the Pacific was no more than a large ocean dotted with various islands. I had brushed up my German-based Stolze-Schrey shorthand, phonetically adapted to English, which had the advantage that nobody else could read it, often including myself. I was convinced that working in the rarefied atmosphere of great intellects would inevitably rub off on me...

    • Maxine McArthur

      I liked the Coombs Building the first time I saw it, in 1996. In the courtyard parrots chattered, magpies warbled, and huge trees shed welcome shade. It seemed an oasis of sanity after busy Civic, and I found myself quite desperate to get the job for which I had come to be interviewed.

      The job was a research assistant’s position, to work with Morris Low, then a research fellow in the Division of Pacific and Asian History, on the production of a Historical Dictionary of Japanese Science and Technology. I had just returned to Australia from a long residence in...

    • Allison Ley

      My first glimpse of the Coombs Building filled me with apprehension. Even the familiar scent of eucalyptus on the pure Canberra air did nothing to relax me. After the Jakarta heat, the chill on my hands should have reminded me I was home in Australia, but all it did was make me feel more nervous. It was August 1988, and after more than seven years in Indonesia, I was about to be interviewed for a position as a research assistant in the Department of International Relations.

      Entering the building brought no relief. Its separate hexagonal structures and labyrinthine corridors with...

    • Jude Shanahan and Julie Gordon

      From 1989–2000, Julie and Jude sat at their desks with their backs to each other on opposite sides of room 4225 on the top floor of the Coombs Building, in the corridor that belonged to the Division of Pacific and Asian History (PAH). Their desks faced opposite walls and they each had a window to one side—Julie’s left; Jude’s right. Between them were two small filing cabinets, a telephone, telephone books and a noticeboard. They were like bookends in the room.

      From their bookend positions they could simultaneously word process; answer the phone; converse; order stationery; monitor corridor...

    • Gillian Atkin

      The lab wing is a mystery to many working in the Coombs. It is made up of offices, archives and about a dozen laboratories. What happens therein? In brief, we analyse material collected on fieldwork. How do we go about fieldwork? Crudely put, we travel to remote parts of Australia and overseas, set up camp and collect sediment, soil and bones.

      In this short essay, I will tell some fieldwork stories, in which my technical colleagues wrecked a brand new car; drove the wrong direction in the Strzelecki Desert for a day and a half; lost a trailer load of...

    • Ann Buller

      I entered the Coombs Building back in the 1970s, direct from the Canberra Technical College (CTC) as it was then called. I was one of about six young people the University offered positions as we were completing our courses at CTC. No hunting for a job in the Classifieds for me. No written application. No interview. Just a direction to turn up at 9.00am on my first day and start work. What a lark this job-hunting process was I thought. Little did I realise that in 2005 I would still be in the Coombs. Perhaps it is just a case...

    • Allison Ley

      Sean Batt has always had a vivid imagination. Even as a two year old, visiting the Coombs Building with his student father in 1967, he would stand at the top of the open circular staircase, hold onto the metal railings, and place his feet close to the edge, just to experience the thrill of being an inch away from falling three stories. So imagine his reaction when, as a thirteen year old with a fascination for science, he returned to Coombs to discover the Mainframe Digitial Equipment Corporation (DEC) 10 supercomputer.

      By today’s standards, the DEC 10 was a digital...

  5. Part V Across Coombs
    • Hank Nelson

      When I arrived at the Coombs Building at the end of 1972, I reported to my new head of department, John La Nauze, in the Research School of Social Sciences. An Australian who had been at Balliol College, Oxford, in the 1930s, La Nauze seemed reserved and English. ‘And, what are you going to do, Nelson?’ he asked. I told him that I was going to write a book. I was just about to launch into a summary of the astounding soon-to-be book, when he said, ‘That’s good, Nelson. Some people come here and they just go to seminars or...

    • Colin Filer

      Dear lords and masters of the Martian Embassy,

      You have asked me to submit a report on the ‘social relations’ prevailing amongst the crew of the Coombs spaceship. Alas, my researches indicate that these things ceased to exist before I came on board. There are still some elements of ‘social structure’ that might be read as the residue of past social relations, for it is hard to understand them otherwise, but legendary sites of social interaction, such as the infamous ‘Snake Pit’, have long since been converted into silent ‘reading’ spaces where nothing can be read at all, except in...

    • Grant Rebbeck, Peter Adams, Andrew Muirden and Allison Ley

      Just after two o’clock in the morning. Coombs professors safely tucked up in bed, dreaming of standing ovations at book launches. But outside the Coombs building it’s dark and cold. The voices of Grant Rebbeck, Coombs nightwatchman, and his early morning visitor drift over the frosty lawns.

      ‘Where’ve you been?’ ‘Dunno.’ ‘Do you know the Coombs building?’ ‘Where’s that?’ ‘How did you get here?’ ‘Dunno.’ ‘Where are you staying?’ ‘Dunno.’ ‘Where have you been?’ ‘Out drinkin’ with me mates.’ ‘How did you get here?’ ‘Dunno.’

      After persistent questioning, Grant determined that ‘Dunno’, in Canberra for a sporting event, was supposed...

    • Sophie (Vilaythong) and Lisa (Alicia Dal Molin)

      If the heart of the research schools are the scholars and the brains are the administrators, then surely the belly—and therefore the seat of the soul—of the Coombs Building is the tea room. The tea room is physically situated as close to a centre as is possible for three linked hexagons, and it is one of the easiest places to find in Coombs. Wherever you start, you are most likely to finish up there. If you arrange to meet someone in Coombs, usually it is ‘in the tea room’, for the simple reason that you will probably both...

  6. Part VI Coombs Memories
    • Peter Corris

      I spent approximately five years in the Coombs Building—three as a PhD student with about nine months out for fieldwork in the Pacific, and another eighteen months or so as a Research Fellow in Pacific History after returning from an ANU post-doctoral fellowship. Without doubt these years were my high point in a brief academic career, not only in terms of achievement, but in fun!

      Arriving at the ANU in January 1967 after a stint as a tutor at Monash, I was astonished to find that a doctoral student had considerable status—a shared room in the Coombs Building,...

    • Kerry Howe

      A lovely wrought iron entrance way, but rapid disorientation in the honeycomb maze. After weeks of conscious and unsuccessful navigating I gave up and resorted, successfully, to intuitive direction finding.

      In 1970 you could usually park outside the main entrance. But Noel Butlin’s massive yank tank always had the prime spot—on the red line directly in front of the door.

      The Coombs Building is somewhat elemental—in Canberra’s vicious summer, the brickwork glows with heat, water coolers gurgle, and closed wooden shutters vibrate to the hum of insects. In winter the sun sets over Black Mountain early, plunging the...

    • Grant McCall

      What is it that produces great, even good scholarship?

      Anybody in the academic game must ask themselves that question from time to time, whether they are just beginning, as a student intending a professional vocation, or a scholar with experience and observation.

      I arrived at the Coombs on 23 December 1971, having just come from the United Kingdom by ship, with my wife and seven month-old boy. I had done undergraduate study working part-time to finance it and the same was true for my time as a postgraduate, both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. I assumed...

    • Michael R. Godley

      TheOxford English Dictionarydefines a ‘catacomb’ as a subterranean place for the burial of the dead, consisting of galleries or passages with recesses excavated in their sides for tombs but does include, among subsidiary meanings: ‘a catacomb of books with lettered avenues’ or ‘a compartment in a cellar for storing wine’. Somewhat less-authoritative works even allow ‘labyrithine passageway’. All of the above definitions will evoke fond memories for the readers of this volume. When I paid my first visit to Department of Far Eastern History, the Coombs Building, in the winter of 1979, Bob Hawke, who then headed the...

    • Anton Ploeg

      In September 1959 I arrived in Canberra, by train, to take up my Research Scholarship in anthropology. Professor John Barnes met me at the railway station, then a very elementary affair, and drove me to University House. The trip went through quite a bit of bushland. Drawing my attention to various points of interest John told me that the hill to our left, in a savannah landscape, was ‘the heart of Canberra’. Later I understood that it was Capitol Hill, destined to become the site of the National Parliament Building. University House, with its courtyard, the common room with its...

  7. Part VII Corridors of Coombs