Perhaps everyone has stories to tell of their 20s: the dangerous years, the careless years, when you knew everything, alert to neither Scylla nor Charybdis, scarcely aware of their existence so immersed are you in your own immediate framework of concerns — relationships, friends, trying to find a job, brooding about who you are and what you should be doing. John Fowles wrote The Collector, The Magus and six other never to be published novels in his 20s. We built a house. (And we did NOT plant the bella donnas.)
Gough Whitlam was elected as Prime Minister in 1972. A commentator of the time claims that he ‘installed major changes across the fields of health, education, immigration, Indigenous rights, foreign affairs and industrial relations. He withdrew all Australian troops from Vietnam, abolished the White Australia Policy and increased funding for the arts, introduced free university education and lowered the national voting age from 21 to 18, giving Australia’s youth a greater influence on the way their country was governed.’
And so he did. All those things and much much more. I remember the federal election of 1972 as a blast of fresh air after 23 years of torpor and stagnation, nation as suet pudding flavoured with an abundant sauce of colonial mean-spiritedness. But it had ‘been time’ for years beforehand. ‘Don’s Party’ is about the one they lost, not the one they won. The Whitlam government was a product of the zeitgeist rather than a dominant ingredient in its construction. But its haphazardness, its wildness, its colour and its fine intentions were also a reflection of the times.
It was an interesting time to grow up. My brother is six and a half years older than I am and Myrna’s youngest sister six and half years younger. While the edges get knocked off over time, it is still apparent that neither of them belong to our generation, just one small envelope with an entry slot considerably shorter than those 13 years. And even then you had to choose to participate.
For baby boomers like me the Vietnam war provided a focus for resentment and anger and a training in disobedience and ready distrust of nominal authority. Two of my brothers-in-law were conscripted. At great cost to his parents if not himself, my friend John Muir (son of Sir Laurence and Lady Ruth) decided to be a conscientious objector. The marble with my birthday on it never rolled out.
But it wasn’t just the Vietnam war. (‘What are you rebelling against?’ ‘Whaddya got?’ That was 1953 and youth rebellion had probably run contiguously for several millennia previously.) Like culture in this sense always is, it was the whole thing. It was the way you lived your life. It was what you took for granted. It was the compound of sources of influence.
Did I want to be Hunter S. Thompson? I think the answer is no, but I gobbled up every word of his despatches from the front that Jann Wenner cared to print in Rolling Stone.
And the music. It was only ten years after ‘Please Please Me’ after all, and when that arrived it changed everything. White people all over the shop performing black music. For a teen audience with money. I don’t think it is too extravagant to say that the influence of pop music on youth culture in the late ‘60s and ‘70s was equivalent to the influence of social media today and certainly caused as much adult consternation. It was the social medium, and a medium for construction of your identity.
Stones ahead of the Beatles. Not everybody’s choice but that’s the point. Wasn’t it? Steely Dan not Led Zeppelin, Eagles not Simon and Garfunkel, Pink Floyd not the Jacksons, Neil Young sure but Crosby Stills Nash and Young only sometimes. Linda Ronstadt not Donna Summer, not ever Olivia Newton-John maybe Carly Simon, Fleetwood Mack not Elton John, Van Morrison but ‘Moondance’ not ‘Astral Weeks’, Little Feat not Bob Seger, Grateful Dead not Jefferson Airplane and never Starship, Bob Dylan, both Acoustic Bob AND Electric Bob.
Hair. What a simple way to say I’ve joined the other party. ‘Let your freak flag fly.’ I certainly never said that and was hardly even conscious of doing so but my hair grew. It became a delicious point of confrontation, an all-in wrestle to the death over something of nil significance in absolute terms but overwhelmingly plangent with cultural symbolism.
Students were expelled from school for refusing to cut their hair. Fabian Douglas, Hurstbridge High, 1967 — fancy remembering that. In 1975 his father Neil, an artist, attended one of the biennial ceremonies to receive a national gong. ‘He wore a hessian suit he had woven, dyed, and tailored himself. To add insult to injury he was shoeless. His hair (which, he claimed, had not been cut for 20 years) and his beard almost obscured his quizzical, rosy, bony face. “He might have got away with it had he been an Abo,” hissed one Toorak matron.’ Those were the days.
And then there was drugs/ were drugs — singular notion, plural manifestations — new drugs, different drugs and a considerable literature about them. (See eg HS Thompson above.) There have always been drugs and always drugs at least like the drugs in circulation at the time. But the idea, elevated to high seriousness and so vigorously promoted, that they should be treated as a way of deliberately altering and thereby improving consciousness was probably a bit novel. (‘Psychedelic’ = ‘mind manifesting’: that’s a big call.) Jack Kerouac, Al Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, even Coleridge, de Quincey and Huxley, A. were rolled out to become partners with ‘Carlos Castenada’ (or, as it turns out, Carlos Castenada, a real person with a PhD from UCLA) in suggesting you hadn’t lived until you had had an out-of-body experience and leapt from a mountain peak. This is what your mother was right to worry about.
Someone I knew then did leap from what he thought was a mountain peak which was in fact the roof of a stall he was running at a music festival. He broke one leg and injured his spine. Sometime before his accident he came, I took him bloody hell, to a meeting of the staff and friends (an ‘open’ administrative meeting) of the community school where I was teaching and, at this most earnest and sober meeting of (largely) ex-Methodist communards, he produced some makings and asked if it was cool to roll a joint.
It was most assuredly not, but in the most tolerant empathic way imaginable. He could perhaps have rolled it but not smoked it; or not smoked it inside; or smoked it outside with other members of the meeting standing next to him to indicate mutuality but not participation. Pretty hard to say. On the basis of being the first man to have sailed a balloon over Everest (true), Chris Dewhirst may have claimed moral right to just to yell at him and tell him to have some manners. That in itself may have turned into an encounter group session in which case I probably would have felt it time to mosey along home. Chris himself when asked at one of these meetings what he felt about an issue memorably responded that just at that time he had a train of camels going through his head. As it was I just shook my head rather urgently.
This is a schism, one which is to recur in this story, that was present more widely: hippies and homesteaders.
Maybe one of the things it signalled was the rift between people who like meetings and people who don’t. Although it’s not very hip to say so I don’t mind meetings; and the meetings I went to at the time were not small beer. They were designed to change the world. Despite, with hindsight, the plans having the hallmarks of youth and inexperience tattooed into their entrails and some of them being abjectly dopey, they were nothing if not ambitious, and serious, and deeply felt, and passionately expressed, and bitterly fought over. Meetings were for the collective, built the collective, were the exchange of the collective, and the collective was at the heart of the revolution. (I note at this point that people who have lived through genuine revolutions and years of near intolerable political oppression will, with my respect and apologies, be turning away.)
The Australian Performing Group who sometimes performed in but weren’t The Pram Factory provided an outstanding case in point. It’s worth watching this clip just to be reminded of what they were about, and there’s quite a lot to be reminded of because of the concern of its members to record what happened. (Its members went on: Max Gillies, Graeme Blundell, Kerry Dwyer, Jack Hibberd, Evelyn Krape, John Romeril, Ponch Hawkes, Jon Hawkes, Bill Garner, Peter Cummins, Rod Moore, John Duigan, Barry Oakley, Wilf Last, Jo Bolza, Jane Clifton, Bill and Lorna Hannan, Greig Pickhaver (or ‘HG Nelson’; I’d forgotten he was right in the middle of all this), Bruce Spence and Sue Ingleton.)
Sue Ingleton has nearly finished a website about the APG bubbling over with stories and memorabilia which has the following epigraph:
The Australian Performing Group was an agent of change and, some thirty years after its demise, its seminal influence on the cultural life of Australia is at last recognised. It stimulated a whole generation to see themselves in a new light, to see their culture emerge as truly Australian and to claim it thus. From the creative community that was the Pram Factory came many gifted writers and actors, directors of film, theatre and TV, artists, musicians and singers, circus performers, arts administrators and community artists. It is unique in the history of the arts in Australia, maybe in the world. It was very much of its time, and was at the cutting edge of theatre, new left politics, comedy, popular theatre, new Australian writing, puppetry and of course, circus. Circus Oz remains the last, great living branch of the Pram Factory tree.
I wasn’t in the APG but I went to the shows. ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, ‘The Feet of Daniel Mannix’, ‘A Stretch of the Imagination’, ’The ‘Hills Family Show’, ‘Betty Can Jump’, ‘The Floating World’, ‘Dimboola’, ‘A Toast to Melba’ — vivid vivid vivid if not masterpieces.
And I had friends both in the heart of things and loosely connected. Myrna was in the premiere season of Jack Hibberd’s ‘Klag’, and I laugh when I read the eternally young Rod Moore’s stories of his thespian adventures, driving up from Colac with Peter Cummins to get pissed, perform and then drive home again. And yes, he probably was the first man to appear naked on stage in Australia and yes he was on roller skates (A Night in Rio & Other Bummers, 1972). But what makes me laugh even more are the stories of the meetings and the machinations and the takeover bids and the yelling and the equal pay struggles — all normal when you’re in the middle of it, but from one step back pretty exotic.
Here you’ve got the times: feeling that you’re on the cutting edge, an exuberant explosion that is both artistic and political and, as required at the time, personal, encompassing whole of life issues, everything, and importantly, taking yourself and your concerns very seriously — almost as though a stage of history was being governed or strongly flavoured at least by a stage of life.
The APG is a good example because it is an example, one example. The school where I was working at the time, Sydney Road Community School, was the APG of school education. You could come and visit, as many hundreds did; but if you weren’t part of it, you weren’t part of it. (Pursuing Sydney Road and what it meant would take another 500 pages. Not here.) When I watch the films I made at the time, especially ‘A Nice Place to Be’ which was about Sydney Road, the arrogance of those involved, and particularly mine, sets my teeth on edge.
Maybe taking yourself and your enterprise very very seriously is a necessary flipside of adventurous public endeavor, because this fairly sober seriousness and intentness of purpose lived alongside what was often untrammelled recklessness. It was just NOT a time for occupational (or personal) health and safety. This is caught wonderfully in the recent film ‘Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation!’ about Australian film in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Category headings: Action, Horror, Sex Romp, Aussie New Wave. My favourite bit is the revelation that live ammunition was used in one filmed gun fight to spice things up a bit.
The other night I watched the first film mentioned on the ‘Aussie New Wave’ list, ‘Age of Consent’ (1969), Helen Mirren’s breakout film as it happens (included in the end titles: ‘Miss Mirren is a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company’, never seen that before). Made by Michael Powell, an Englishman, with English actors in the leads, it’s a deadset 100% turkey, a shocker, but there is something about it that makes you want to cuddle and console it, something open, cheerful and naked (and that is not just Dame Helen, although she does seem to spend much of the film either disrobed or dripping wet — the times). But open, cheerful and naked are three adjectives that might work for the times more generally, some particular innocence. While someone might put sand in your sump, you were not in any danger from a carelessly deployed bomb.
This is somewhat ironic given the list of musicians above, but another theme which emerged at the time was an assertive nationalism, especially rejection of the idea that anything that came from overseas was ipso facto better than the equivalent produced here. Robert Hughes, Germaine Greer, Richard Neville and Clive James didn’t fight the good fight at home. They went elsewhere to sate their appetite for fame and, from time to time, to write about a country which was not as they left it and never would be again, vitiating the quality of their insights.
But other people stayed home and fought their own fights to develop an authentic voice which didn’t look elsewhere but was resolutely and firmly local. (And so of course republican.) In my professional world this produced wonderfully interesting thinking and practice very firmly rooted in the reality of experience which for two decades probably didn’t have a clear parallel elsewhere in the world. It was evident that people grew up, became adult and mature, by thinking and doing things for themselves. A dose of autonomy was good medicine. I am distressed that controlling the teaching profession and infantilizing its members has become a standard current preoccupation. But to the point …
A nationalist cultural hero of the time? My nomination is one of Kyabram’s favourite sons, Ian ‘Molly’ Meldrum. Was there ever a nationalist with such a powerful practical platform to influence the musical and cultural tastes of a nation’s youth. (Rob, his brother who was just as nice, was mixed up with the APG and other theatrical adventures. Small world this one.) Was there ever such a widely-loved public figure with such an unwavering commitment, just so solidly in his bones, to his country’s cultural development? When INXS didn’t tour enough at home he applied the garotte and chopped them off Countdown’s playlist. Molly, mate, hats off to you. (OK, you can leave yours on.)
The renewed interest in the Country was allied with a new interest in country, an interest both romantic and ecological. It was the time of ‘Grass Roots’ and big gardens (big gardening efforts anyway) and ‘The Whole Earth Catalogue’ and yoghurt makers and debate about the comparative merits of Jack Smith’s duck poo versus the sheep shit from under the historical shearing shed. ‘Live simply’ was the byword, in order to ‘get back to the earth’. These are not uncomplicated notions but they were firm, direct and ubiquitous. Shelter, food and clothing were the elements of the base level in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs that you could do something about. Respiration and sex were about equally beyond control.
It was also the time of the first big wave of environmental concern. Pollution was an issue. Rachel Carson’s disturbing book about DDT Silent Spring came out in 1962. The impact of exponential population growth was an issue (The Population Bomb, Erlich, 1968). But the public focal point was the sustainability of resources and that thinking was led by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth published in 1972. This had an enormous impact on the people I was surrounded by, formalizing and justifying what they were thinking and discussing anyway. It certainly had an impact on me.
From my journal in November, 1973:
Life is best lived at a very simple level. Things that one has made or helped produce are always better than things that are bought. Work should be immediate, be related as closely as possible to survival and be fitted into the web of the world at the simplest level. I don’t want to have anything I can’t fix. … I am a happier and more purposeful person when I am working. It is just good for me. I sleep better, worry less, am more creative and enthusiastic. …
Decisions should be made by the people they affect. One should always be able to justify the work one is doing and be inventive and creative in its application. Work done for others is the most easily justified type of work. There is no room anywhere for the bureaucratization of living.
The more I know about the environment the more I become a part of it. I am constantly annoyed by the little I know about things that are fundamental to an understanding of it. …I need to try out my own self, strength and abilities in ways that I haven’t.
In aggregate, tossed as we are by the currents of the times, how could we not have ended up deciding to go and live in the bush in a house we’d built ourselves? But as hippies or homesteaders? And who were we anyway?