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Bernard Newsome, University of Melbourne

Menu: Remembering Rhys


Rhys Isaac was always forming partnerships, with family, friends, students both undergraduate and postgraduate, and colleagues. Also, for the record, in his historiography, he was always shaking hands with his subjects, either of the culture or of the persons he thought and wrote about. He was adept at getting inside, of interpreting from the other point of view.

In this note, I want to remember him as a friend, briefly sketching a partnership which started in 1961 and ended in the day after the family wake.

In 1961 I met Rhys in Oxford, and joined him and an Australian, Felix Raab, in a journey round Spain, and when Rhys’s twin brother Glynn joined the party, a walk in the Pyrenees. I had done much bushwalking in Australia, where none of the mountains reached 10,000 ft, and therefore no permanent snow coverings, so these mountains were new and exciting to me. More than that though, the company of three clever, insightful and sharing personages reproduced around the cooking fire at night a recreation by Glynn of the evolution of man, by Felix of the influence of Machiavelli on English political thought, by Rhys on the French Revolution, and me on the logic of scientific judgements.

The partnerships Rhys had with each of us was individual and communal, and the trip was a bonding which was severed only by death.

Now all three are dead. Felix fell into a ravine off an Italian mountain in 1962, Glynn died when he went to Japan for a series of lectures in 1985, and Rhys died in 2010.

Rhys’s partnership with Felix was instrumental in Rhys coming to Australia as an Historian to Melbourne University in 1963, and with no Felix to accompany him he formed a partnership with Felix’s parents.

Of course, partnership is not the right word for relationships between twins, for that intimacy is a bond stronger than any friendship. So when Felix died Rhys mourned, but when his brother died he was devastated.

I wrote this poem in 1985 about that separation.

To Rhys

He, my friend, lies on his back,
in bed.
He has a cold of the body and soul.
He has flu.
He has just been,
quickly, in the last three weeks,
From Virginia,
To Australia,
To Tokio,
To bury his twin brother,

Who died,
Through an unexplained,
Anthropological disease.
He is 48.
So was he.
When I knew he was ill, he said,
I left immediately,
Even although I had to ditch my students,
And my professorial paper.
I had a triumph over there in Virgin Country,
And was looking to preferment here,
Sort of,
Who is as much a part of me,
As is the innerinnermost part of my eyeball pierced with a pin,
Is ill,
And died before I could meet him,
In the flesh.
His parting comment,
As he left his wife aground,
As he took off in the helicopter,
For Hawaieeeeee,
Under an oxygen mask,
Our next communication will be by,
Thought transference.
(He was not religious).

I buried us,
(Although he was cremated,)
With a strelitzia,
And in full anthropological uniform.

His death is a part of me.
I shall live with him,

October 85

And so to Rhys and our partnership. Much of it was spent in discussion and argument about language and the social context, about the nature of narrative and its exemplification in autobiography, biography, fiction and history, play-acting and speech giving at anthropological gatherings, many sailing trips on Port Philip Bay, and then much celebration in the mountains of Victoria, especially round the cooking and drinking at our campsite on Mt. St. Gwynear, situated on the BawBaw plateau in Gippsland. That site was in amongst the snow gum trees, which is part of my note.

In June of 2010, Rhys had just begun treatment for his cancer, and then I was away from Melbourne; we shared an email conversation. It began like this.

R to B
BawBaw endures all storms. This ol’ snowgum gleams with roots in the rock.
R to B
O’ l Snowgum standing strong on Day 3—only small snow damage so far.
B to R
Not an ice storm then, no broken branches, the path still clear?
R to B
O’ l Snowgum feelin battered by chemo storm today but enduring—that’s sngms rooted in rock!
R to B
Just got out of covering snow at 10oc. Coffee and barley and I am a goer.
B to R
That chemo is horrible stuff. Watch the swelling. Tree hugs.
R to B
Chem works well for Gawlerites who embrace it. Blissful new day begins new Time for ole Snowgum. Willed for you too. Rhysbach:
B to R
Get those roots out of water! . . . . . . . . . . .
R to B
Ol’ snowgum says: The way up Mt BawBaw—ANY mt—is steep and hard( esp for him today)—but rewards ALL the effort.

The conversation continues between Ol’ Snowgum and Young Snowgum.

Ol’ Snowgum: has more vigour today. P’ raps he revels in the blanket of snow laid on him last night.
Young Snowgum: Thank Jehovah for the snow.
Ol’ Snowgum: Thank Jehovah for the snow. Sun shines on all old gumtrees. Makes them flourish.
Young Snowgum: Hope you enjoyed today.
Ol’ Snowgum: Euphoria persists . . . . . . . . . .
Ol’ Snowgum: Ol’ Snowgum’s system is, alas, going down—until tree suckering chemo plus the strength in the rocks of Bawbaw turn it back up.
Young Snowgum: Am with my brother, who has bowel cancer. I am thinking of the rocks and hope it makes the strength improve.

And then the Emails morph into e(agle) mail.

Ol’ Snowgum: OS’s news p’ raps tomorrow—by e(agle)
Young Snowgum: No news is good news sed Father of young ysg. Off now to view the landscape. Keep well.
Ol’ Snowgum: Eagle has taken flight.
Young Snowgum: Eagle has landed and we are digesting you news.

The news was:

Rhys’s September update—a report for all those loving supporters here and everywhere.

Say not the struggle naught availeth! But the terms of it are changed for me. It is now not so much a double one—medical therapy from the best of sources, along with a spirit- mind-over-body, self-healing therapy. The deterioration of the liver (though suddenly a little slowed) has reached the point where even the perhaps-fast-acting chemo that was the last shot, is abandoned. (This was reluctant on the part of the mighty Professor Grant MacArthur; but rather with relief on my part.)

Now I know it’s up to me—and Colleen, with the close family that support me. I must build my body weight & strength up, so my “spirit-mind-over-body, self-healing” can do what it will then be capable of. The two “legs” upon which I now walk are: Faith & Will—faith in the powers of the spirit within us and above us to empower self-healing, and, above all, the will to live—the passion, as Ian Gawler emphasizes.

So—that’s the update. You can see that I need more than ever your prayers and positive thoughts to help me strengthen that faith, and reinforce that will-to-live and remain among you.

But now, excuse me: I have urgent work to do to put finishing touches to—a spy story that is also a dozen-or-so-page stick of dynamite to throw into a long-complacent historiography of the crucial episode in the starting of the American Revolution!

Rhys (6 September, 2010)

Rhys signals his optimism, his faith in the human spirit, and is determined to be with us.

Postscript note

The day after Rhys’s family and friends’ wake for him, I was in the high mountains on a road called Alpine Ridge. I looked up in the sky and saw an eagle circling. As I watched closely, there were two eagles together circling higher and higher, until they were out of sight. The Twins had departed this earth, and I have remained ground bound.

Bernard Newsome, University of Melbourne