A bushwalker found his body at the bottom of Govett’s Leap in the Blue Mountains in early August. The previous day he’d caught the train from Summer Hill where he lived and travelled to Blackheath. CCTV camera footage showed him with the bicycle and backpack that the police later found locked up at the top of the valley. John Dalton – the ‘unknown scholar’ – philosopher, contrarian, a member of the academic precariat had taken his own life.
It was a solitary death: no living relatives, no partner, no will or suicide note. The legal process was complicated and a small group of friends dealt with police, coroner and funeral arrangements. It seems that few people were very close to him in the last months and that he confided little to anyone about his state of mind.
But we know enough to tell his story – and that unemployment was part of it. In his mid forties, John had worked as a casual university tutor since finishing his PhD in philosophy fifteen years ago. Passed over a few times for tenured jobs, he was a long-term member of the academic reserve army, the members of which perform around half of the undergraduate teaching in Australia’s universities.