From the back: Dan, me, Diane (dee-arn), Johnny boy, Mernz and Alice the German short-haired pointer.
The first time we went to have a look at the land. We had walked through the boundary of melaleuca, banksia and leptospermum which I think at the time we would have called ti-tree or just scrub, into Joan’s paddock where, as usual, there were scores of emus grazing and a few clutches of kangaroos. There may have been wedge-tailed eagles spinning lazily on the currents and certainly our place to be would have been full of sulphur-crested cockatoos and Major Mitchells squawking before the stillness at night fall. The Mount Difficult Range at the rear is probably turning pink, mauve and golden in the late light on this gorgeous still night and there is nothing in front of us but prospects.
A five-part relationship, a quintuple perhaps, close but with very specific affinities, was always going to propose difficulties. Although, until it wasn’t, it was elastic enough to accommodate a good deal. I think it might have been the wedding and certainly its upshot that did us in.
John and Dan had led the way really. They had ‘dropped out’ for a year (although the chronology isn’t important, most of 1973) and found a farm house at the end of a blind valley near Molyullah (on the alpine side of Benalla) in which to explore their existential states. Myrna and I had our five-person honeymoon there. From time to time John and Diane were a couple. We visited regularly. It was a very easy place to like. The soil was magnificent, rich and black, and we refurbished the garden. Chooks, cows, goats from time to time, old fruit trees decorative with lichen but salvageable, shed and a garage.
But like most farm houses of its day the house was a simple creature, well-sited mid slope with an amazing view down the valley, but cold and damp in winter, hot as blazes in summer, oriented the wrong way and with no insulation. I became itchy to fix it.
I drew up plans and wrote lists which had practical as well as cosmic elements. However Zade and Bob Willett, the farmer owners who lived a bit further down the valley, weren’t keen for anything major to occur, nor at the time did they have any interest in selling it. (Four years later the perfect package, that house and 40 hectares appeared in the for sale ads.) [This photo is really only here because I like it. John and Dan did too. Dark menace threatening happy families. In the foreground my father and brother John holding John’s twins. Our bucolic adventures were always strongly supported by our families.]
Myrna’s brother, Robert, was a real estate agent in Horsham and Joan, a delightful ageing and single member of the pioneer Carter family, crossed his path wanting to trim down her holdings — specifically 33 hectares of scrubby dry sclerophyll forest with a Crown Reserve with a grazing licence between it and the McKenzie Creek, taking water west and north from Lake Wartook in a no more than amiable but permanent trickle. Myrna had always loved the Grampians, and it looked like the formal part of purchase was going to be easy.
The stories of communes always seem to contain a very bossy-boots figure who is placed somewhere on the benign-malign spectrum and I think that was probably me. I had no doubt that it was the right thing to do because I think at the time it would not have occurred to me to wonder. Great idea, it’s what we want, let’s get on with it. Now. I spent a certain amount of time trying to convince the others of the delights that loomed ahead. When communication was mediated by a stoned haze I was quite successful, but when breakfast was finished and there was work to be done, I had less impact. Different speeds: that was certainly one issue. And it was more real for us because Myrna and I both had jobs in prospect at Horsham High so our source of income was local. No one else had a job or any money.
We had some spare money because a film I had made won an AFI award in 1973 which included a $1000 prize. I had sweated blood over its production — script, direction, star, editing, production supervision, host to production team, etc etc — so, in what at the time would have been very uncool, I was pleased to have a pay-off.
During the summer we spent a week building a shed ($893) on the property which Joan still owned — several bouts of illegality right there. Second-hand everything, murder to work with and rubbish building — but an epiphanic experience, such a good time and a result we later lived in for four months with great pleasure and in considerable comfort.
I’ve said it was the wedding that began the slide, and that was early in 1974. John decided he wanted to get married and that Dianne was a suitable candidate for the other side of the equation. It was one of those courtships, not entirely uncommon, which divagate, one partner and then the other being interested but not necessarily at the same time. I’ve always thought of this process as akin to stretcher bearing. It’s a matter of great and unusual good fortune if you’re both carrying a relationship at the same time; it’s when you both put it down that it’s all over.
During the ceremony John described how this step ‘shook his cosmos and rocked his world …’, and then promptly had a dry. You shouldn’t laugh, you should only tell these sorts of jokes against yourself, and it wasn’t so funny at the time, but truly … Dianne on the other hand foreshadowed how hard she thought it was going to be and how much she felt she would need support from those present.
It was in Laurie and Ruth’s Canterbury backyard. There were balloons in the pool and midges in the lawn which found a congenial home in the layers of chiffon being worn by Dianne’s relations and parents’ friends, the aristocracy of the Western District. On seeing the groom, Zetty, the bride’s mother exclaimed, and not in a good way, ‘Oh John. I knew you’d try to outdo Diane.’ She then turned to her friend and said with a shrug of earnest distaste, ‘But what can you expect when the bride and groom are hippies.’ Zetty, in the pink at left here, was a piece of work.
The reception was at Leonda on the banks of the Yarra in Hawthorn and probably cost the equivalent of the annual GDP of a small west African country. After an hour or so of copious amounts of drinking by one section of the throng and a good deal of cannabinoid ingestion by another, something like a fight broke out. This began with an assault by a female member of the WD squattocracy (I remember her as old, she was probably 40) on one of the hippies, trying to pinch his hat and scarf. She was joined in this assault by crack troops from the pastures of Australia Felix using food as the primary weapon. The hippies responded in kind. Like the Tatar raids on eastern Europe, there continued sporadic short but fierce outbursts unpredictably timed until the whole thing just crumbled into low grade uproar.
Rather betraying my petit bourgeois roots, I stood guard over the presents thinking they were next in line — I mean if there are toasters to throw, let’s throw ‘em — shaking my head in incomprehension and thoroughly embarrassed. John’s father came up and we agreed it was a lively show. ‘Good luck Dave,’ he said as only he could.
After, John wanted to host a party at the house they were living in at the time. He got there and realized in a state a long way from straight he had no idea where the keys were, so he got Weirdo (yep Dave Weir, but never did a nickname suit better) to climb over the back fence and unlock the door. During this adventure Weirdo fell through a fibre glass roof cutting himself quite badly and otherwise injuring his leg. He managed to drag himself to open the front door so he could be taken to hospital. (The dangerous years, the careless years.)
The honeymoon was in New Zealand, but after a few days (Myrna and I disagree about how many; somewhere between five and ten) we got a call from Diane asking us to pick her up at the airport; she was coming back alone. It fell to us to tell John’s parents. Laurie inhaled deeply and then pressed a $50 note into my hand, about a week and half’s wages, and said, ‘Thanks for telling us Dave. Why don’t you go and get something to eat.’ (The Viking, Burke Rd Camberwell. I had Odin’s Delight medium rare. What sort of junk heap is your memory?) As befits a man knighted for services to the Liberal Party as its Treasurer, Laurie had a gift for monetizing experience.
John stayed in New Zealand coming back some four months later. On June 11th in ‘The Book of the Land’ where all this information is stored he provided the heading ‘Sho’ bin some changes goin’ down’. (One of the difficulties in returning to this literature is the funky mock heroic form, just a little bit like smallish boys showing you their muscles).
He wrote in part: I suppose you could say that the land came between my good wife and myself. The part of my nature that insists on following through on my own trip (ie build the best environment to accommodate the needs of one’s self and one’s mates — the broadest, the least finite, the richest, the deepest, the most challenging) has emerged rampant, with boots on. To her the land is a settling down, constrictive thing, to me it’s putting down roots so the ol’ trunk can go straight up. To quote the old adage … weddings come and go but land deals go on forever.
So here I am with a real big future but a fairly pedestrian now. And to think that it was only a month ago that Alan Watts was strongly with me, Marlborough was showing its full autumnal splendour, Gabi’s heart was softly pounding next to mine — and I was the raft farer on the edge, and the man from Vibrapac to boot. For the first time in my rather spotty life I had a need — or I respected a need — to fill up the future, a purpose, a focus, a direction.
I need Melbourne like a moose needs a hat stand. My finances are tidied up — no more embarrassing shares in Australian monopolies — all assets have now been poured into the land account. My soul is hangin’ on the line, and I am a happy and committed man.
Well they hadn’t been, and he wasn’t. The call of the softly pounding heart was, as proper, inescapable.
Diane stayed friends, not least with several of our close male acquaintances; but John was in New Zealand. He came back but it was mainly spent avoiding telling us that Gabi wasn’t going to have a bar of an enterprise in which she had no real part. Dan popped in and out from time to time and it was always lovely to see him, but he bought a house in Koroit and became a rural lawyer.
• Gabi and John the day they left to go back to New Zealand. It almost certainly wouldn’t have worked regardless.
At the time I read Robert Houriet’s book Getting back together — I think I made an unsuccessful effort to make it compulsory reading for further group discussion; okay, well what would you have done? — a very forthright and insightful study of communes by someone who quite recently was still living in one. It’s probably still a very good book about people trying to live together.
Among the dozens of communes he visited, Houriet hadn’t found one that had achieved anything like self-sufficiency (startling news), many of the longer term ones were run with exceedingly strict discipline, and the initial political, religious and lifestyle motivations were as likely as not to have become somewhat twisted. Charles Manson of course was a communard. Houriet concluded that there was no such a thing as perfect commune but you could find one where the vibrations were right, where they coincided with those you were giving off.
And, I’ve forgotten just what actually happened — I think John and Dan had the job of digging a dozen holes to fill with compost and sheep shit for fruit trees and we got back after a weekend away and one and half had been dug, yes I’ve just found it in the book. In the space of some 20 minutes a hole of some enormous dimensions was dug and two tired but happy kids dragged selves off to the shed for refreshments. Dan you bastard.
Shortly after I have noted: Mad Dan and his car Harold again distinguished themselves by getting a flat tyre descending the Wallaby Rocks Road with no wheel brace or spare to hand. That was a three hour walk to sort out.
I’ve given myself away — these were my vibrations. While we’re on norms here are few more to chew on. 1) ‘Trippin’ where your head feels good’ doesn’t get you very far. 2) Cruisin’ is romantic indulgence, failure to consider the needs of others, failure to be straight about things, failure to initiate and failure to finish what one has initiated. 3) No cruisin’. (Among other things it gives rise to meditations of this sort, in third person absentia. And just makes me cross.)
It is easy to abstain from the reality of your situation and difficult to be frank, forthright and analytical about your failings. (Thank you Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale.) ‘Let burst forth what will’, said Oedipus and he had quite a bit of news coming. ‘Man must suffer. Through suffering man learns.’ Agamemnon. Can’t argue with the classics. Cassandra, cursed with foresight but fated never to be believed. I feel a bit like Cassandra at present, but then I would. It’s not going to work. I can feel it in my bones.
We had talks with someone else who would have been, and was, a very willing worker and a great guy — Steve Hicks of Steve and Mary’s catering some will know. But in the end, there were two. With quite a lot of work to do.
Too entertaining but also very reminiscent of own lived experiences; too often I failed to see the funny side. Thank god we can all laugh now. Offer both pieces to the Monthly; they are a great read.
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