Tuesday, 27 May 2008

days of 1973

It’s my birthday later this week. And here’s a photograph taken at a birthday dinner an alarming thirty-five years ago in May 1973. I’m second from the left with my friends Michael Darley, Terry Larsen and Greg McManus. The restaurant is probably Chez Marius in Sydney though it could easily have been Tony’s Bon Goût (named, as one partner Gay Bilson says in her memoir Plenty: Digressions on Food, in ‘a serious lapse of taste and respect for language’). The food at both restaurants was memorable (as memorable as food can be) but it was the atmosphere and the conviviality that seemed at that time and in Australia something different. There were older restaurants with fine chefs but these were not places that my friends and I would ever frequent. In this photograph our mismatched garments signal that dressing for dinner was not a serious matter, though we had nonetheless treated this particular evening as an ‘occasion’. What we didn’t realise at the time was that behind the scenes the restauranteurs were also flying blind (Tony Bilson had not at that stage been out of Australia though he had certainly read his Escoffier). The clientele in these Sydney institutions were often enough drawn from the tail end of a socio-political group known as the Push. These people were libertarians (of both the right and the left wing variety) mostly influenced by a now forgotten Scots-Australian philosopher John Anderson. By profession they were academics, journalists, racing enthusiasts and film world figures. My friends and I were too young for the Push (its most well-known figure outside Australia would probably be Germaine Greer) but we participated in a culture where the epicurean and the politically progressive were no longer seen as mutually exclusive interests. The Labor Party had assumed government the year before (they had been out of it since 1949, the year of my birth) and after years of backward-looking conservatism the possibilities of change had become real again. All of this was before so-called economic rationalism began to infect the parties on both sides of the spectrum (and the spectrum itself became a joke). The restaurants reflected this. As Gay Bilson says, it was a time ‘when the exhilaration of a fresh, different and confident informality was allowed to get into its stride without too much attention being paid to the accoutrements of the dining-room . . .The cutlery was nasty, the glasses even cheaper than the plates’. It was a moment that didn’t last. As Bilson herself says, ‘by the early eighties “good living” had become an aspiration on parade’.

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