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Radicals: Remembering the Sixties is a kaleidoscopic look at a formative decade

Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley show us that we must learn about the past in order to change the world today.

“We find it a cause for optimism that our generation of Sixties radicals is not irreplaceable.”

From the very first page of Radicals: Remembering the Sixties — which situates readers in an atmospheric description of the Black Lives Matter protest held at Town Hall in June last year — Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley underpin their kaleidoscopic vision of the Sixties with a continual awareness of how the struggles of the past are both connected to, and vastly different from, the present.

The book immerses readers in the radical political and counter-cultural spirit of the Sixties, pulling together Meredith and Nadia’s own stories with interviews of 18 figures, each with their own chapter, many of whom encountered radical ideas at the University of Sydney and its surroundings. While the stories have common anchor-points — notably, opposition to Australia’s military involvement in Vietnam, the Redfern Black Power movement, the Women’s Liberation movement, and opposition to the apartheid South African Springboks rugby tour — Radicals differs from factual historical accounts of the time by seeking out disparate, personal trajectories of radicalisation. It is also pervaded by a sense of dissident, youthful fun.

Unsurprisingly, many of the book’s characters recount feelings of outrage, spurred by experiencing violence at the hands of police, as the defining point of their political awakening. In a particularly memorable chapter on Gumbaynggirr activist Gary Foley, the book describes how, after an unprovoked police bashing, Gary joined a ‘crew’ of Aboriginal activists in Redfern who modelled themselves on the American Black Panther Party. “So between the cop-bashing and reading Malcolm X pretty much straight after, that’s what politicised me,” he tells Nadia.

Gary recounts how the group went “armed with notebooks and pencils” to record evidence of persecution in Redfern pubs frequently raided by police, leading to the establishment of the Aboriginal Legal Service in 1970. Gary Williams, who was also involved in the Redfern Black Power movement and was one of the University of Sydney students who participated in the 1965 Freedom Rides, reflects in his chapter that: “It is so often the case that when people are in the thick of something momentous and historically significant they don’t know it at the time.” This feeling of the Sixties as a unique rupture in consciousness recurs throughout the book as a whole.

In the chapter on Brian Laver, Radicals brings to the fore another American influence on Sixties radicalism: the emergence of anti-authoritarian New Left ideology. This chapter showcases an anarchist perspective in a book with voices that span the left-wing political spectrum — from Maosim and Trotskyism to the Labor Party. In one paragraph, Brian recalls racing to an impromptu protest upon hearing news that Soviet tanks had rolled into Czechoslovakia, on the same day he and Meredith were in court facing charges from a demonstration against the Vietnam War.

When discussing the Vietnam War, Radicals highlights the influence of the American New Left group Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) on campus radicalism in Australia. In Queensland, where repressive laws existed to prevent street marches, the campaign against the Vietnam War first had to fight for the right to protest. “People who were radicalised at Queensland University were more radicalised about the right to march than about Vietnam,” Brian says, which is comparable to the effect the brutal suppression of education protests had on students at USyd last year.

One tactic that Nadia writes about which I had not expected, is that of student leaders at USyd “blooding newcomers,” particularly young women, by pushing them into their first arrest in order to provoke further radicalisation. In her chapter, Nadia recounts going to the Forest Lodge Hotel (it’s amusing to find similarities in student life from over 50 years ago) and buying half a kilo of tomatoes with her drinking companions to throw at the Great Hall, where the Sydney University Regiment was present for a ceremony. I was surprised to learn that Nadia later went on to write childhood favourite, My Place, which was turned into an ABC3 television series many of us will have fond memories of.

Fitting for a book about the Sixties, Radicals is about political anger and the fervent quest for a better world, but it is also about having “fun along the way.” In her interview with Geoffrey Robertson, Meredith recalls an escapade where they stole the Rawson cup, a hundred-year-old sporting prize, from its glass case in St. Paul’s College, and reminds Geoffrey that he contemplated throwing it in the Parramatta River. She reflects that it was more than just a “student prank,” motivated by a more serious anti-college sentiment, and informs Geoffrey that the colleges are “still appalling” today.

Radicals profiles not only activists, but the artists and eccentrics who embodied the counter-cultural zeitgeist of the Sixties. The chapter on Bronwyn Penrith, who was involved in the Redfern Black Power movement, provides an oft-forgotten angle on how activists used the arts to give voice to political struggle through street theatre, where Aboriginal performers gave absurd impersonations of the police. The chapter on Bronwyn is an important counterpoint to accounts of the Women’s Liberation movement in Radicals, as it highlights how Aboriginal women developed a distinct type of feminism, frequently struggling alongside, rather than against, Aboriginal men.

In artist Vivienne Binns’ chapter, she reflects on how she was influenced by the concept of Free Love and the sexual revolution to disobey the male art establishment and create provocative, psychedelic images of sexuality. Speaking on her process in a way that embodies the spirit of the times, Vivienne says “I cracked through and came to this other place — the basic, intuitive sort of place, where you didn’t have the strictures of overlaying rules — there was something else that was going on. And that was really revelatory.” 

Many of the figures in Radicals had their moments of revelation as they rebelled against repressive familial authority in the Menzies era; some were radicalised by taking hallucinogenic drugs, and others through their involvement in newspapers such as Honi Soit and On Dit.

By and large, it was the experience of growing up in the Sixties, at the crux of mass political and cultural change, that shaped the characters in this inspiring epic. There is much readers today can learn from this wonderful book.