Saturday, 22 March 2008
For the last week or so BBC Radio 4 and some of the papers have been demythologising and remythologising the year 1968, prompting some reflections. 1968 was my first year of tertiary education and Monash University, in my home city of Melbourne, happened to be one of the hotbeds of Australian student radicalism. Monash was then a new institution (it was founded in the early sixties). Left-wing activities there had begun probably in late 1966 and gradually faded out in the early seventies, peaking in the years 1968 to 1970. The Vietnam War had ensured that in my last years of high-school I had begun to be politically aware. In 1967 I had written an essay on the Watts riots in the USA. So when I arrived at Monash I assumed I would become involved in political activities. I attached myself to the Labor Club as a ‘fellow-traveller’ (I wouldn’t become a member until 1970 and I had ceased to be one by the following year, my last at the institution). The Monash Labor Club tended to align itself with the Maoists though it would be wrong to say that this was a generally agreed upon position. There was much internal debate and members and friends occupied a range of positions from slightly left of the Australian Labor Party through Trotskyism to Maoism. It would also be wrong to suggest that members of the Club took no notice of the events of the Prague Spring. There were very few Russian-liners and although there was also a New Left Club at Monash, many of the Labor Club regulars were equally appalled by the events in Czechoslovakia.
I was the first member of my family to go to university and was, from the beginning bemused by the earnestness of some of these mostly middle-class people. One of the things I found very strange was the way everyone seemed to understand how meetings were to be run. ‘Procedural motions’ and ‘gags’ were ruses that seemed to me to proceed from the same system that ran the state we lived in (they had in fact emanated from the debating clubs at the private schools that some of these people had attended). The mores of the more active members were alien to my other life as a lover of pop music (decidedly not ‘folk’) and a nascent hippy. When I was still at high school, my mother, of all people, brought home from work some issues of the San Francisco Oracle that a young woman had loaned to her. The swirling, almost unreadable texts and the uses of vibrating colour hinted at possibilities that Marxist-Leninist thought had never countenanced. In 1968 at the same time as I was attending meetings and demonstrations and occupying administration buildings, I was visiting the inner city suburb of Carlton to see radical theatre at Melbourne’s La Mama and the Pram Factory. Groups like Tribe, whose work was almost entirely improvised fascinated and, at times, scared the daylights out of me (if you went to see them in the tiny space of La Mama there was every chance in the world that you would become part of the performance). Many of the people in this performance group, including a woman who had been at my high school, lived in a large house in an otherwise staid inner suburb and regularly consumed various substances that I wouldn’t touch for a few more years.
I had begun writing poems in 1966, though I would not write anything that would be published in a book until 1971. My poetry world at university was a different world again: one that would be informed by early twentieth-century European modernism, by notions of collage, and by books like Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets. I travelled to Sydney over the New Year of 1970-71 and, on the advice of one of the members of Tribe, knocked on a door in Darlinghurst and told the women there ‘my friends said it would be ok to crash at your place’. I stayed there, sleeping on the couch, for a month. One of the women was Pam Brown, a friend and an essential poet for these last thirty-something years.