John Anderson and the bomb squad

The day the Quad went kaboom.

In the Quadrangle’s southeastern corner, there once grew a large jacaranda tree — a glory to behold when in full bloom and covered with its sky-blue flowers. It has since been replaced by a sapling of the same species. Jacarandas, though native to Central America and not Australia, are widely grown as an ornamental tree the world over. 

The University’s philosophy department and its lecture theatre used to be located in that same corner. Also close by was the office of the legendary Professor John Anderson between 1927 and the early 1960s. Central to Anderson’s philosophy was emphasis on unceasing enquiry and criticism. Anderson’s introductory text to freshers in Philosophy was Plato’s Apology, which related the trial and death of Socrates, and was expounded upon and discussed at length by Anderson for a full term. Robert Hughes, in his role as resident cartoonist of Honi Soit, once did a cartoon of Anderson contemplating a chalice labelled Hemlock: the poisonous draught forced upon Socrates by the Athenian authorities.  

Shortly after his arrival at the University in 1927, Anderson had begun playing his Socratic role of ‘corrupting the youth,’ mainly by advancing arguments directed against Christianity and religion generally. He had a good half of Sydney totally outraged, but no Christian cleric was anywhere near to being his intellectual equal. The University Senate sounded the alarm bells and set about finding a way to counter Anderson’s influence.

One morning in 1960, Milo Roxon, a lecturer in philosophy, told me how this was done. According to Milo, the Senate had appointed John Anderson to the Challis Chair of Philosophy because he came highly recommended as a leading light in both mathematics and philosophy at Edinburgh.  But it was not long before he came to be seen by the worthy senators as an enfant terrible and a bete noir.  So, what to do? The Senate hit on the brilliant idea of creating a second chair in philosophy, for which there was ample precedent: there were already multiple chairs in mathematics and engineering for starters.

So, they created a chair in Moral and Political Philosophy. Their next problem was the selection of its first professor. The Senate understandably wanted to avoid another Anderson. The answer came in a blinding syllogistic flash, and it was quickly accepted by all the rest of the senators. Anderson had once criticised a paper given by the Australian philosopher Samuel Alexander. At around the same time, George Stout, another prominent philosopher, had supported Alexander, and George Stout’s son Alan was an applicant for the job!

They had reasoned thus:

a.     Anderson is anti-Alexander;

b.     Stout Sr. is pro-Alexander;

c.     Therefore Stout Jr. will be pro-Alexander,

d.     And therefore… Stout Jr. will be anti-Anderson!

As it turned out, Alan Stout would as readily disagree with Anderson as fly to the moon. His forte was drawing everyone’s attention to the fact that his first deed after his arrival in Sydney had been to purchase a prime bit of Northern Beaches real estate, and apart from some very ordinary contributions to the literature of philosophy, Stout became Patron of the Sydney University Wine and Cheese Society. The Senate thought it was buying a torpedo with which it would sink the pirate vessel SS Anderson, but got a gruyere-nibbling mouse instead.

In keeping with his times, Anderson had at first flirted with Marxism and then its Trotskyist variant, but as he opposed all forms of authoritarianism, he later abandoned socialist ideology completely. When he started to resile from positions he had previously taken, many of his disciples deserted his Free Thought Society. Led by philosophy lecturer Jim Baker, they formed in 1951 the University’s Libertarian Society. It promoted not only critical thought but a more anarchist and permanent protest attitude to life generally. Anderson would have nothing to do with any of that, but even so, Andersonian philosophy of relentless critique was still the dominant influence amidst the Libertarians.

At the end of World War II, the University was swamped by a deluge of ex-servicemen on repatriation scholarships, and Anderson denounced the whole business. As far as he was concerned, Sydney University was being turned into a degree factory bent on churning out technicians. He believed the University should concentrate on teaching the skills of critical thinking, and that a second institution should be set up to cater for those inclined to engineering, the sciences, medicine and other such specialties 

But the ex-servicemen were not going to take Anderson’s attacks without some sort of response. Moreover, among them, they had men with every military capability. So, their reply to Anderson took the form of a bomb made from an empty treacle tin, filled with some suitable explosive and fitted with an electric detonator. This they fastened to the top of the handy little newly-planted jacaranda sapling happily located just outside Anderson’s office, and waited for Anderson to appear; which as he kept a timetable and routine as regular and predictable as that of the British Railways and its iconic Flying Scotsman, he soon enough did.

And so the sappers’ bomb went off, the blast shattering no windows but every bit of the silence around the normally serene Quad. Both the top of the tree and the tin were blown to pieces; the tin to two and the tree to many, many more. It all gave Anderson one hell of a fright, and he reportedly took off like a rabbit down to the Nicholson Museum directly beneath the glorious neo-Gothic MacLaurin Hall. Anderson locked himself in and remained there amid the relics of ancient civilisations until eventually persuaded that all danger was gone. Then he came out again, no doubt somewhat sadder, and definitely a whole lot wiser.

The tree subsequently developed a fork in its stem at around knee height which can be seen in splendid photos of it in full bloom and which we might call the historic Anderson Bomb Fork. 

The ex-servicemen all thought it was a great stunt and joke, including my then neighbour Len Schroeder (ex-AIF) who told me the story and may have been an insider. History is there for all of us to see, as long as we know what to look for.