Academic journal article Queensland Review

Ross Donald Laurie (1960-2010): An Appreciation

Academic journal article Queensland Review

Ross Donald Laurie (1960-2010): An Appreciation

Article excerpt

I do not approach writing this essay with any relish. In fact, I have consistently and resolutely been putting it off, secretly relieved when the bulk of Ross's own writings took a while to reach me and even when the retina in my left eye came away, obviating any chance of my getting down to work for several more months. The year 2010 has been a painful one. My close colleague, Bill Thorpe, died just before it began and during the year I lost two other long-term female friends. This all comes, they say, with the territory of ageing. Either you go yourself, knocked down somewhere in the valley of your sixties or seventies, or you helplessly watch your peers--your acquaintances and loved ones--being carried off by some rampant malignancy: one figure after another photo-shopped forever out of the group portrait of your life.

Yet the death of my dear friend, Ross Laurie, did not result from natural attrition. I have to sidle cautiously up to it because of the anguish it still carries from those first terrible months of 2010. Other friends died from illness and irreversible decline. Ross died by his own hand. This had nothing to do with ageing, which one has reluctantly to accept. What happened to Ross was not acceptable at all. He had appeared robust and in good health when I saw him and his partner, Joanne Scott, at Christmas 2009. I expected him to come around, as he usually did, to collect the present for his fiftieth birthday in early January. I spoke to him by phone that day and there was just a hint of trouble in his voice. I brushed it off. He would be OK. It was just some work stress. I had been an academic for a long time and knew all about that. It rolled over you at times and then you picked yourself up and rolled right back over it. But things did not turn around the way I had scripted them in my head. The next time we spoke, a couple of weeks later, Ross's life was in chaos, his moorings slipping away from him. He had rung, I thought, for a lifeline and so I kept reeling it out to him for the next hour or so--every silver-lined cliche I could think of--but he wasn't listening anymore. Only afterwards did I realise that he had really rung to say goodbye.

From a respectable distance, it looks as though--paradoxically--Ross had reached a peak in his academic career at this point. In mid-2009, he and Joanne had received a gold medal from the National Trust of Queensland for their popular book, Showtime: A History of the Brisbane Exhibition and its associated, lavish 'Ten Days in August' exhibition at the Museum of Brisbane. (1) Along with Joanne and two other academics, he had also just won a plum contract to research and write the first major academic study of Australia's key central agency, the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, in its first century of operation, titled From Postbox to Powerhouse. This was to be the same team that had produced The Engine Room of Government, a well-balanced, commissioned history of the Queensland Premier's Department in 2002, and Ross was to be a Chief Investigator. (2) But there was a strict timeline to the project imposed by Canberra, and Ross's mounting worries arose out of the dilemma of a clash between his academic teaching and his research obligations. His expectation of study leave to produce a prestigious work of such national importance was countered by stiff institutional demands to create and teach new academic courses. There would be no further leave in 2010, he was informed. Ross believed that he would be unable to deliver new lectures and run courses as well as oversee and contribute to such a large and demanding project. He felt caught and overwhelmed. He felt, he frankly told me, as though he had been 'shafted'. His downward spiral began.

In constructing most obituaries, one begins with the life and then proceeds towards the death. But with a suicide such as this, it seems to me, one deals initially with the death in order then to set it aside, so that its looming, unstated presence does not overhang the story of the life itself. …

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