Robert A. Swan, F.R.G.S. 1917-1999
Bob Swan, who died last October, had been a member of the Book Collectors‘ Society since 1982. He moved to New South Wales after the death of his wife several years ago, but maintained his membership of the Victorian Branch.
He will be best known publicly for his standard history, Australia in the Antarctic, published by Melbourne University Press in 1961. When still at school he had been inspired by a prize book containing accounts of Mawson and Wilkins; realizing in later years there was no comprehensive treatment of Australian Antarctic endeavours, he acquired a notable collection of books on the subject, primary sources from which he drew his history. Bob never actually visited the Antarctic; it is a coincidence that a namesake, a much younger Robert Swan has won acclaim in recent years for Polar adventures: the two are not related.
Bob was born at Broken Hill in 1917. His book-collecting started before the Second World War with a visit to Mrs. Bird‘s shop at the top of Bourke Street, when he bought a three-volume first edition of Isaac D‘Israeli‘s Curiosities of Literature. Most of his wartime was spent in the tropics; he was a staff-sergeant in the 2/3 Independent Company, in New Guinea and Indonesia, in M Special Unit, Allied Intelligence Bureau (Coastwatching) and Z Special Unit.
From the 1940s onwards, Bob‘s feeling for the companionship of fellow book-enthusiasts drew him into Melbourne‘s literary and artistic world. The Bread and Cheese Club published his first book of poems, Argonauts Returned, in 1946. Other books by him include the historical works, To Botany Bay (Roebuck Society, 1973) and Of Myths and Mariners: a study of doubtful islands in the South Ocean (self-published, 1998 in an edition of 21 copies). His favourite subjects were the sea and philosophy, and poetry was his favourite form of expression. Of his sixteen books of poems, the last, Shadows on the Wind, was completed only weeks before he died. Earlier in 1999 he had published a philosophical work, The Moving Finger: an essay on objectivity in the writing of history, which he had been working on for some years. In the circumstances its completion seems a miracle of concentration, as he had long been battling painful arthritis, followed by the swift onset of liver cancer, to which he succumbed.
All who knew Bob Swan will remember him with affection, and mourn the passing of a true friend – of books and of people.
(I am indebted to Bob‘s daughter Caroline for details of Bob‘s life and career.)