Matriculating at Essendon High School dux, I entered the Royal Military College, Duntroon in 1961. It was to be a major shaping of my life, both in action and reaction.
Duntroon was then a four year induction that culminated with a commission as a first lieutenant in Her Majesty's Australian Army. The training was intense and rigorous and involved lots of initiatory bastardization for first year cadets who were called 'Fourth Class'.
Looking back I can see that I joined the Army to win the love of my mother whose father had been killed in France in 1916 when she as only two years old. As a result she and her four siblings were raised in rural poverty and she had always grieved the father who never returned.
For five years at Essendon High I had been a cadet and for the last two years I had more or less run the small unit (60 cadets). So Duntroon was an easy leap for me.
What's more Duntroon offered pay, lodgings, university degree and a career path which seemed like a good option for this working class boy. Besides I wanted to get out of home and away from my father as soon and as far as possible. My father and I never did get on.
My parents were raised in the Victorian goldfields towns of Stawell and Ararat and had settled in Melbourne as a young matrried couple, rural refugees from the Great Depression. My father, as a matter of pride the sole breadwinner, got WW2 work carting explosives as a driver with the Commonwealth Department of Defence Heavy Transport Division in Maribrynong.
For 35 years and through changing generations of truck technology and roads, he held the same job and accomplished things like carrying the Blue Streak rocket to Woomera and the first bulldozers into Maralinga.
Born and bred in Essendon, I attended Essendon State School for six years, followed by Essendon High school for six years, martriculating as dux in 1960. I was first of my clan to attend a tertiary educational institution of any kind. Selection for Duntroon was considered by many including my family a great honour.
The Duntroon experience was challenging and mostly exhilarating. In the first year i excelled getting top scores in academic subjects and many military subjects too (but not drill!). But then disillusion set in and by the end of second year I had become the most punished cadet in my Class. This story of my fall from grace is told here.
In the winters of my discontent i imagined university life as a rich green pasture, a meritocracy, a place of free speech and open inquiry, everything I discovered that Royal Military College was not. So when I left Duntroon at the end of my third year, I began university life with a passion and also deep anger for the persecution I had know at Duntroon
First I enrolled at Melbourne University in 1964 and with relcutantly granted credits for my Duntroon engineering studies, was accepted into second year Industrial Engineering. Melbourne had a fine engineering school but i was unusual amongst my fellow engineering students in that I sought out and enjoyed the extracurricular life of the Melbourne University Union as well, regularly attending lunch time meetings.
But I had another motivation: in the beginning the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) was paying me to be there.
During Orientation Week of 1964 a part of me was missing the military camaraderie and so I applied to join the Melbourne RAAF Squadron. I thought there must be something i could do with 3 years of military training and I might get to learn to fly.
I went through the selection procedure but was knocked back. The Squadron Leader called me aside to tell me personally that he been told to tell me another offer was coming. Very mysterious.
A couple of nights later a couple of guys in suits knocked on the door of my parents' Essendon house and asked to see me. They introduced themselves to me and my parents as ASIO agents and gave me business cards. They say they knew I was a Duntroon drop out who had applied to join the University Squadron. Very commendable, they said, but would i like to help the Government in another area, student surveillance?
The job they said was minor: to attend campus meetings and write reports. I was told it was the patriotic thing to do because foreign influences were infiltrating these campus groups.
What was I to know? I was just a Baptist boy who wanted to do good. My mother forbade discussion of poltitics at the dinner table and my father was a loner who hated his union. Moreover I had come from three years of saluting the Australian flag and toasting the British Queen.
Political ignorance was my lot. Suck it and see was my new attitude. Highly regrettable the outcome. I get karmic flak from it to this day.
But so began a curious and increasingly strained relationship. I regularly attended lunch hour meetings of all kinds. I was motivated to pay attention, because I expected to write a summary. I listened well and took notes. For example I can remember enjoying the philosophical expositions of Lachlan Chipman (later Professor Lachlan Chipman, vice Chancellor of Central Queensland University), an Essendon High old boy, a leading light of the Melbourne University Rationalist Club. "Is God dead?" sort of stuff.
My ASIO contact would meet me in a parked car near the Parkville campus. I would hand over my hand written, single page report and he would give me 30 shillings, thank me, praise my concise writing, question me and make conversation. At most this happened 5 times in 1964.
But I was soon disaffected. The speakers at the lunch hour meetings made more sense to me. I liked and agreed with what the speakers were saying and the more I learned of student activism (Senator Gareth Evans was cutting his teeth in the Students Representative Council at this time), the more i liked it and the less I liked the covert stuff. After a time I neither made contact nor returned calls.
Meanwhile I was poverty bound, living with a father who was to maintain to his death that i had wasted a golden opportunity by resigning from Duntroon.
Furthermore the year ended with the suicide of my lover. With the help of her mother who gave me refuge and cooked me meals, I swallowed little pills of Ritalin, swatted long hours, one days' preparation per subject and passed the annual exams with distinctions. But there after I collapsed in grief and depression and fled Melbourne intending suicide on some remote coral beach.
My life force proved stronger and after weeks of sweating in purgatory as a laborer in a North Queensland sugar mill, i returned south to Sydney and enrolled in Industrial Engineering at the University of NSW in 1965. I was able to transfer my Commonwealth Scholarship and gain a living away from home allowance.
Then with support of the father of my dead lover (he a Brigadier), I was awarded a cadetship with the Weapons Design Establishment of the Department of Defence. Which meant I was paid to attend University and I had salary of sorts.
The transfer of course credits from Melbourne University to UNSW was not easy and though accepted into third year Industrial Engineering I had to repeat some subjects and so ended up with a 35 hour a week load of lectures, tutorials and laboratory sessions.
But Duntroon had taught me how to organize my time and pass exams and I was soon engaged in extracurricular student activities with ten times more energy and commitment than my engineering student peers.
The University of NSW was a relatively new campus then and student services and traditions were few. But those that existed were radically different from Melbourne University. For example the student paper, Tharunka, had already established a tradition of challenging censorship laws under the editorship of Richard Neville (later editor Oz and London magazines both) and Martin Sharp (the Gas Lash cartoon).
I missed the lunch time meetings and debates of Melbourne University and what I noticed was absent from UNSW student life I saw as an opportunity to create. I joined the UNSW Labor Club, the most radical political club on campus, and soon started organising lunch hour meetings on its behalf. The best attended I remember was a presentation about the Spanish Civil War which packed the meeting room with Sydney's anarchists.
In 1965 the Liberal Government under the aging Robert Gordon Menzies had committed Australian armed services to the US War on Vietnam (also known to Vietnamese as the Second Indo-China War) and introduced conscription. I was appalled by this because I realized that what I had been taught about SE Asia and that the focus on the First (French) Indo-China War at Duntroon was preparation of us staff cadets for war there, that it had been in the planning pipeline for years.
The War legitimized the venting of my Duntroon anger and soon I became a major organiser of anti war, anti conscription protests on the UNSW campus. For example in 1966 I was responsible for setting in motion the protest reception for the visit to Australia of US President Lyndon Baines Johnson and was first under his car when his motorcade was stopped by protesters in Liverpool Street, Sydney.
Mid way through 1965, as I recall, ASIO found me in Sydney and made contact. At first I was kind of embarrassed for leaving them in the lurch and picked up the thread and wrote a couple more reports of UNSW campus meetings. But with Australia dragged into the Vietnam War by the US, it was starkly clear to me where the evil foreign influence was coming from. I soon quit and heard no more from them.
But my brief interlude with ASIO was not uproductive. By attending and paying attention at lunch hour meetings, I learned a lot about the politics of the world and was radicalized. I also got to understand that there were a lot spooks out there; ASIO and by inference other security agencies such as the CIA and the FBI. Surveillance I now knew to be a fact of university student life.
In 1966 (fourth and final year Industrial Engineering) I was elected president of the UNSW Labor Club, and also as an engineering faculty representative on the UNSW Student Union.
Later in the year I was elected Honorary Secretary of the UNSW Student Union and in this role, not only was I responsible for documentation of the Council meetings, I was also its social secretary organising events on behalf of the Student Union. I used the position to develop lunch hour concerts and by this means rock and roll arrived on campus and I learned how to add art to the didacticism of protest.
The anti war movement had begun with teach-ins. These I found boring and leading only to contention amongst the converted. Information, I realized, was not enough to create social movement against the War. What I noticed was working was the buzz of participating in protest. Being visible, making art and dancing in the streets with friends seemed to me to be the counter culture building phenomena.
In 1967, my graduation year - BE (Indust.) Hons - I was appointed editor of Tharunka and elected president of the UNSW Students' Union. Never before and never since had the two positions been held by one person. It meant a crash course in journalism for me and also my first insight into building a cult of personality for I wrote and published news stories about myself. I also learned editing and lay out skills and became a skilled pamphleteer.
Cannabis, LSD and the Beatles were big that year and a major influence in taking my head beyond the logical linear thought modes with which I had inculcated by my science training. Cannabis and LSD opened me to a more intuitive and spontaneous responses to the here and now and so my journalism developed a first person weave and bite. New or "Gonzo" journalism, it was called at the time.
My campus activism soon introduced me to the National Union of Australian University Students, later to become the Australian Union of Students (AUS). I attended the national conferences and in 1967 I was leader of the UNSW delegation, Susie Lunzer, my NUAUS Liaison officer.
At the end of 1967 I had had enough of student politics and threw in the towel to take up my first job as a graduate - computer programing with ICIANZ at their headquarters in Melbourne (punch cards, an IBM 360/50 main frame and PL/1 code).
I never did complete the obligations of my cadetship and go work for the Weapons Design Establishment because I figured the Army owed me. Because I never did sign a contract it was hushed up and forgotten.
During my time in Melbourne in 198-9 I was in constant contact with AUS politics because I shared
accommodation with first Tony McMichael (now Professor Tony McMichael
Director of the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health) and later John Bannon, consecutive presidents of the Australian Union of Students, both from Adelaide. Bannon was a chosen one by the ALP and later became SA Premier. I also smoked a lot of cannabis and had sex with a lot of young women including secretarial staff and officers of AUS.
Corporate computer programming went badly for me. Turns out I was good with the overall design but bad with punctuation; just one missing or misplaced comma or slash would cause the whole stack of cards to abort. I can remember getting news of the 1968 student uprisings in Paris while holed up in the ICIANZ glass tower and wanting to be back amongst it.
But I hung in till the end of 1969 before I threw in another towel and joined my UNSW friends in a tropical holiday in and around Cairns, swearing never to punch another card.
It was there that I took up again with Annabelle Sinclair, she a social work undergraduate and my lover of former student days. I resolved to return to UNSW and do an arts degree majoring in sociology.
Returning to the UNSW campus as an arts student in 1970 my Students Union friends welcomed me back and appointed me Chair of the Students Union Council of which John Geake was President. This meant I got to chair the Council meetings (they were wild!) and participate in Executive meetings (radical!). John Geake (now the late Professor John Geake) was a wiz of a President who in my absence had been an organiser behind the Ian "The Wizard" Channel and the UNSW Play Power phenomenon.
In 1970 was also appointed Director of Student Publications (DSP), the officer responsible for Student Union publications including Tharunka. Wendy Bacon (now Associate Professor Wendy Bacon), Val Morgan et al, a bunch of Sydney Libertarian anarchists, had been appointed editors and embarked on a campaign to challenge the NSW censorship laws. Mine was a passive role supporting them and fending off the outrage of conservative student politicians and the university admin.
During my time as DSP I never wrote, proof-read or censored a word in any of the editions of Tharunka which they produced. I was not even allowed in the Tharunka office during production time lest my presence be construed as cenorship. But because I was the official publisher, I was none the less charged and later indicted along with all of the editorial crew for obscenity.
We decided to make the first indictment hearing at the old Magistrates Court in Liverpool Street a protest and wear costumes. Wendy et al dressed in nuns' habits with Wendy's habit emblazoned with "I have been fucked by God's steely prick". I, the bunny in all this, chose, appropriately enough, a Bugs Bunny costume.
Wendy so frustrated court process that eventually she was arrested, remanded in custody and served time in Silverwater before the case was brought to court and quashed. Changes against me were dropped. The censorship laws of NSW were changed.
It was during this year that i first became aware of Johnny Allen (now Honorary Associate School of Leisure, Sport & Tourism) and the theatre and music activity emanating from the UNSW Drama School. He was also running a music venue (home grown rock) in Surry Hills called the Arts Factory.
My final job as DSP in 1970 was to advertise, interview and appoint the editors of Tharunka for the following year. During the Christmas break the appointed editor was killed in a car smash and I put an emergency team of editors together including myself to fill the vacancy.
We used the Tharunka's of that year (1971) to explore and expound on themes of the counter culture. Richard Carlton (then a rookie ABC TV current affairs man then posted to Canberra) and his then wife Susie Lunzer. Both had been active in the Student Union and Tharunka in the 60s.
The first Aquarius Festival was basically a coordinated program of intervarsity music, choral, drama, debating and so on but it amazed and delighted me for its student activism. There was a free food soup kitchen courtesy of the Monash Maoists and every day a political meeting which would lead to a protest (days of Rage) at the South African Embassy one day, the US Embassy the next and so on. Lots of unprogrammed direct action, daily spontaneity, participants making up the festival program day by day.
Either I met Johnny Allen there or soon after and we agreed to meet for dinner at his rented digs at Dee Why and debrief on the ANU Aquarius Festival expereince. Johnny, ever the cultural organiser, I learned had been organising hippie 'green field' festivals at Ourimbah and elsewhere.
We shared food and cannabis and went walking on the beach in the night talking about our Aquarius experiences and wondering what it would be like if it had been conducted away from a university campus and the symbols of oppression to which we were reacting in Canberra. Johnny urged me to write a critique which I duly did and had published it in the AUS journal, National U, a 12 to 16 page tabloid published about 6 times a year and distributed free on all national campuses.
I reckoned the 1971 Tharunkas co-edited by me were evidence enough of my sociological studies. The point, said Marx, is not to understand the world but to change it. But the UNSW Sociology School thought otherwise: they wanted assignments on research methods and so on and failed me in second year.
It was the end of my arts degree and my undergraduate days. In truth the university administration and many academics were weary of my protest antics, occupations and disruptions and they wanted me gone.
What is more Annabelle had born us a son (Silas Ho), I was 30 years old and it was time for me to get a job and earn some income. I did teacher training, a crash course for graduates and ended up teaching math at Blacktown High School in 1972, commuting daily from Balmain.
As a math teacher I taught all levels and all years from the smartest to the dumbest, and although I was an innovative and capable teacher in front of a class, my outspoken radicalism clashed from day one with the principal who was a border line paranoid. In my first week he had me carpeted before District Inspector.
In truth I was no more cut out for teaching than I was for soldiering or computer programming. Soon most of the staff of 60 refused to talk to me and the Deputy Headmaster was on my tail compiling a file of breaches and complaints to have me dismissed. I got on well with the Year 10 students however and met the McMahon family, and in particular the older brother of one of my students, Charlie "Hook" McMahon, now famous as a didge player, who as a lad had blow his hand off making bombs in his mother's garage.
In my second term, with my encouragement, financial support and publishing skills, the Year 10 dissidents produced an underground student newspaper which blew the whistle on the Principal's madness and the meanness and treachery of the Deputy. It led to a storm which was reported in the Sydney Daily Telegraph, their worst fear, but by that time I had resigned and was packing up to move to Melbourne.
The critique of the 1971 Aquarius Festival in National U had been noticed and borne fruit. In the turmoil of conflict at Blacktown, I received a call from Melbourne AUS HQ recommending I apply for the job of Director of the 1973 Aquarius Festival which they had advertised. I did and was duly flown to Melbourne and interviewed.
Heady days in Melbourne. AUS was at the peak of its influence with Ken Newcombe, a energy ecology student from Hobart U and more recently Senior Manager, World BankÕs Carbon Finance Business, as President. While waiting for the interview I met Austrian philosopher and anarchist social critic Ivan Illich, the author of De-Schooling Society, who was in Melbourne giving public lectures as part of a national tour organised by the education division of AUS.
The interview went well and when I was informed that I had the job I was also informed that they had interviewed for another full time position, Director of the Aquarius Festival. "We have selected Johnny Allen, also from UNSW. Do you know him?" The news delighted me: an off campus Aquarius Festival was fated to be.
When we had got ourselves to Melbourne, first day in the office, we sat down and talked about what we wanted. Out of this conversation came the Aquarius Festival Manifesto (litho printed on A4 and later published in the The Way Out) most of which I drafted inspired by Johnny's visions. I also did the graphics, an embarrassment to me now but funky hippy, home grown and appropriate the funky art and improvisations of our counter cultural movement of the times.
Johnny was then, and he is now, wonderfully insightful networker. He could see what people had to offer, see the possibilities of their talent, and he mixed together seeking unpredictable and creative outcomes. When it came to producing events he was a like a cook choosing, preparing and mixing ingredients. Synergy was a buzz word at the time and Johnny a master of it.
Ideas excited me and in that time of quickening social movement (the Whitlam government was elected while we were employees of AUS) and there were lots ideas about to get excited about, Whole Earth Catalogues of them in fact. Lots of alternatives to the old ways were being advocated and explored. I was also skilled with words, publishing and meetings. Long experienced in the ins and outs of student politics, I could both articulate the new vision and get student organisations inspired around it.
My sociology theory, political organising and Tharunka editing had given me some insights into the counter cultural movement of the times but it was Johnny who had the hands on experience in new arts, music, theatre and hippy festival organising. So when we came to divide up responsibilities, I dubbed us Kaptain Kultur (Johnny) and Superfest (me).
Later this changed because I took on a lot of the overt leadership stuff, defending and promoting the Festival, being its point man, its spokesman, and its charismatic hero and protector, and although I always deferred to Johnny's insights, he came to call me "Captain" and still does to this day with the same love and affection.
Johnny's mastery has been recognised by many since. He is now the Director of Events Management at UTS Sydney and is considered a world's best teacher in the field. For example the Chinese government flew him to Peking to teach events management in the lead up to their Olympics.
Good on him. His enduring friendship, his kindness and his praise of the events work I do at the margins of things, fall on me to this day like blessed rain.
16 December 2005