Books

Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley (eds)
Radicals: Remembering the Sixties

“I’m not your fucking Uncle and I’m not a fucking Elder.”

Aboriginal activist and historian Gary Foley doesn’t take kindly to being pigeonholed because of his seniority.

A similar sentiment informs Radicals: Remembering the Sixties, which opens with an account of a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest in which editors Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley celebrate the young demonstrators with whom they’re marching.

The book provides a welcome alternative to the generationalism that dismisses those of a certain age through associations with franking credits and Bill Leak cartoons. One might invoke the keyword phrase #notallboomers, except that these narratives make the interesting point that individual states radicalised very differently, precisely because activists lacked modern communications.

“[W]e could go onto the streets and seize front-page headlines by getting bashed and arrested by police,” Burgmann and Wheatley write. “That was social media, in the Sixties.”

If the era was violent, it was also boring, a time in which the Melbourne Herald baulked at advertising the George Whaley-directed play You’ll Come to Love Your Sperm Test (leading the cast to rewrite the advertisement as You’ll Come to Love Your Whale Test, directed by George Spermly).

As David Marr puts it, life under the reign of Bob Menzies and his successors was “unbelievably tedious. And there was a sense always that the possibilities of change, of openness, were being shut down”.

Geoffrey Robertson pinpoints the difference between the bohemians of the ’50s (Clive James, Barry Humphries, Robert Hughes and so on) and those who came later. “They had no anger. Australia for them was just a BORING place. For us, Australia was a BAD place.”

Much of that badness related to race. Besides the expected discussion of Vietnam, participants stress the significance of protests against South African racism, particularly the brutally repressed campaign against the Springbok tour in 1971. During that struggle, Indigenous activists pointed out that apartheid had been modelled on laws in Queensland, and urged the left to take up the fight against segregation at home.

While some interviewees (inevitably) lapse into nostalgia, the most interesting chapters in Radicals draw connections between the struggles then and issues today. Helen Voysey’s account of organising against the war in Vietnam as a high-school student parallels the recent protests against climate change. Gary Foley expresses his admiration for young Indigenous rebels but laments that “the emergence of a black middle class has really fucked the political movement as we knew it back then”. He then adds, in another passage that typifies the book as a whole: “Fight on regardless! Don’t compromise!” 

Jeff Sparrow

New South, 432pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 16, 2021 as "Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley (eds) Radicals: Remembering the Sixties".

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Reviewer: Jeff Sparrow