Dunstan, Christies and me

Growing up in the 'Athens of the South'

ADELAIDE’S GOLDEN AGE began when the Beatles flew into town on 12 June 1964, electrifying the citizenry out of their country--town torpor into a screaming mass on the streets. It ended when a dressing-gowned Don Dunstan resigned office on 15 February 1979, the last day of the most exciting state government Australia has ever seen. I spent most of that period in South Australia’s excellent state education system, basking in the glow of a premier who seemingly made the earth move and stars pan gloriously across the heavens in a small city that, for once in its life, felt like the very centre of the universe. No joke.

In the ‘infant industry’ era of the 1950s and 1960s, South Australia had its economic development policy down pat: subsidise big manufacturers to set up shop, and support them with state-funded infrastructure. A continuous flow of ‘ten-pound Poms’ arrived to fill the production lines. Cherry farmer and conservative Premier Tom Playford brought – and sometimes outright bought – industrial development that otherwise had no business being in a place as beautiful and isolated, and economically irrelevant to the rest of Australia, as Adelaide.

Thus Chrysler and General Motors were there (forever after on the public teat). Chrysler nestled alongside Port Stanvac in the south, while General Motors-Holden set up plant to Adelaide’s north. Holden’s workers lived in Elizabeth: hot, flat and poor. Chrysler (subsequently Mitsubishi) workers lived in seaside Christies Beach, working-class winners in the geographic lottery of immigrant blue-collar work.

In March 1965, Frank Walsh beat Tom Playford despite the latter’s gerrymandering – or ‘playmandering’, as it was dubbed – and became premier. Walsh may have led Labor to victory for the first time in thirty-two years, but industry policy continued the Playford way. Two years after Walsh’s victory, Don Dunstan, his attorney-general, succeeded him. For twelve years under Dunstan – briefly punctuated by two years of conservative government under Steele Hall early on – Adelaide was the ‘Athens of the South’ and Don its philosopher-king.

PORT STANVAC OIL Refinery brought my family from Cronulla to Christies Beach, newly designated by town planners to become a working--class enclave in the midst of the beautiful Fleurieu Peninsula. My parents were match-made by workmates at Kurnell Oil Refinery in Sydney. Arch worked in the field, Bobbie in the mailroom; Arch was divorced, Bobbie widowed with two sons and a house in Cronulla. Arch disliked his Kurnell boss, a bad-tempered Welshman who borrowed £20 and never repaid it. It wasn’t the £20 but the principle, Arch would say. So when in 1962 the chance to work on the new refinery start-up of Standard Vacuum Oil Company – the Far East joint venture of Standard Oil of New Jersey and Mobil – he grabbed it. Arch fell in love with the Fleurieu’s stony coastline, wild St Vincent Gulf waters, stunning vineyards and almond groves, and pure Mediterranean-like climate.

At Port Stanvac, Standard Vacuum Oil not only got naming rights to a bit of the South Australian coast but an adjacent public housing estate as well. When we arrived in Christies Beach, forerunners of the tens of thousands of families who would move there in ensuing decades, it was golden paddocks as far as the eye could see, all the way down to the sea – part of Lambert and Rosa Christie’s 1895 farm established on the traditional lands of the Indigenous Kaurna people. The first six Housing Trust homes had been built, and we moved into one. A supermarket and doctor’s surgery went in soon after, as hundreds of other Housing Trust homes sprang up around us. The speed was astonishing. Opposite the shops is a little park with a bronze sculpture by John Dowie from 1965 of two seated Aboriginal warriors, called ‘The Rainmakers’, donated by immigrant German businessman Eugen Lohmann – the only pointer to the producer of the near instant and, for the time, highly liveable mass housing all around it.

Lohmann’s company, Wender and Duerholt, made prefabricated camp accommodation (Baracken) during World War II, and afterwards switched to making pre-cut timber-framed houses at high speed to replace houses razed in the war. Lohmann, watching Berlin being divvied up and wanting a safe haven, moved his business to South Australia in the 1950s, winning contracts to build five hundred houses at a time in the rapidly expanding city – including, in the early 1960s, Christies Beach. As a small child, that Dowie bronze seemed to me like a miracle from the outside world, the only original artwork for miles and seemingly the only visible Aboriginal reference on land on which, until relatively recently, the Kaurna people had still lived.

In fact, the schoolteacher next door and her family had Aboriginal heritage. Across the road was a German engineer, his Austrian ex-opera singer wife and their children. Arch had been in the RAAF in World War II, Rudy a pilot in the Luftwaffe; now they were workmates at the refinery and the sons of both families were in the RAAF air cadets together. There was a cop and his family, and an old petrol tanker driver and his wife. There was a secretary from the refinery and her husband. Everyone had kids, sprinklers and front porches. On summer nights – stinking hot in a way only Adelaide can be – people would sit in the dark on their front steps and have street-wide conversations, yelling from front step to front step, quaffing local d’Arenberg and Pirramimma wines poured from glass flagons while their kids frolicked. Andy from up the road and I would tear along the pavement on our trikes and, when one of us yelled ‘bomb!’, stack them sideways onto the grass, enacting obliteration in a Cold War nuclear strike. We were five years old.

Arch collected the flagons, acid-etched circles around them and popped the bottoms off to make individual glasshouses for seedlings. Our backyard became an Eden of homegrown vegetables, bountiful fruit trees and well-loved pets. Nature was everywhere in that patch of suburbia rapidly assembled in the service of industry, surrounded by the Fleurieu’s stunning beauty. When the next-door cat broke into the hutch housing our baby rabbits, my brother stuck his air rifle out the kitchen window and shot it. Every so often, a refinery workmate would drop off snapper in a bucket of seawater just caught from his boat in St Vincent Gulf. Come winter, there was mushrooming – strolling through green, wet Willunga paddocks with eyes peeled, knife in hand. In summer it was off to the farm of Dutch friends, the Boerema family, on the Onkaparinga River in Old Noarlunga to pick the warm, sweet strawberries thriving on the river flats. And there was swimming and burning and peeling at the beach, home to Grey Nurses and White Pointers that had food enough to leave us alone. And always, trips to McLaren Vale cellar doors, yarns with the winemakers, discussions about the last vintage and the next.

All year round, lanky lads came round to work with my two teenage brothers on their hotted-up bombs. Arch put in a garage with a pit so the boys could work standing up under their engines. Bobbie made sandwiches, a whole sliced loaf at a time, and ferried them out to the amateur mechanics. The local police knew my brothers. After all, they lived among us. Their knocks on our front door were mostly to complain about, and sometimes to issue a summons over, noisy exhausts or drag-racing – and once because one knocked over a power pole, taking the Christies Beach electricity supply with him.

THERE WAS SUBMERGED racism too – but only against the English. The ‘ten-pound Poms’ quickly swamped our half-dozen houses on all sides as Wender and Duerholt popped up houses quicker than our Sunbeams popped up toast. ‘Whinging Poms’ was heard muttered under the occasional breath, but not too loudly because they were everywhere and, in any case, many became our mates.

Politics was a rolling discussion. Arch had been a shop steward in his youth, talent-spotted but not tempted by an invitation to join the Communist Party while a twenty-something shale miner in the Capertee Valley – now a World Heritage site, and the second-largest canyon in the world.

Bobbie’s mother, whom we visited annually on our trip ‘home’ to Sydney, was a Tory with a vicious set against Gough Whitlam. She was convinced he dyed his eyebrows (very black, while his hair was very white – possible in nature but impossible in Grandma’s eyes). On the 1,395 kilometre drive from Christies Beach to Cronulla in the unairconditioned, seatbeltless Holden, with Arch chain-smoking Kool cigarettes and Bobbie wrangling damp flannels for our necks, I anticipated the political discussions to come. Grandma got some push back, not least because Gough and Margaret Whitlam were shire residents too when we lived in Cronulla and gave Arch and Bobbie their own children’s no-longer-needed bassinet for me.

I learnt that politics could be complicated. Arch leaned left, yet argued swing voters were the only smart ones since they make and break governments. Grandma may have been a Whitlam-hating Tory by temperament, but at the same time was a fierce Australian nationalist of the England-hating kind. Over slices of passionfruit sponge and hands of euchre – she was a terrific card player – Grandma recounted bitter stories from her Lancashire childhood, before her father moved the family to New South Wales. Her own grandfather had been killed down the mines, a hundredweight of coal the compensation; her father was a coalminer too, risking the same fate, or at least ‘black lung’. As a child, half her day was spent in school, the other half working in a Wigan cotton mill – this in the early twentieth century. Walking home from church on Sunday mornings, the whole town reeked of boiled cabbage, she said with vaudevillian disgust. England is a terrible place, she would say – a terrible, terrible place. The briny air and blue skies of Cronulla were tonic indeed. But New South Wales had Bob Askin as premier, simultaneously a dull and shifty man. I knew that when we got back to Adelaide – though it would never truly be home since it seemingly took five generations to become a local – exciting Don Dunstan would be there.

Arch taught me to read from newspaper headlines starting with those in the biggest, simplest font. Unsurprising, then, at eight years old for me to argue the case for Dunstan and Labor in the run-up to the 1968 election at a neighbour’s barbeque. Don was the one. He cared about, and spent money on, health, education and the arts. He was a moderniser, a thespian, a poet, cook, fashion plate, policy wonk, tastemaker and defender of rights for women, Aboriginals and people from other cultures. He recognised – he embodied – difference. He was smooth. He was from ‘now’. He made Adelaide exciting. He made us exciting by association. Exciting people moved to Adelaide because of him and what he did to the place. They all came at once and gave exciting locals context. (We didn’t realise they would all leave at once after the Dunstan party was over, and that many of us would leave too – though to be truthful, I started planning my getaway at four years old.) After decades of South Australian slumber, he stirred hope. Our futures seemed limitless. Today we would say he was cool, a rock star. Too good to be true? Too good to last? We didn’t ask. But having succeeded Frank Walsh during the previous term of government, in 1968 Don had to be elected premier in his own right to continue leading Adelaide out of the musty, late nineteenth-century cupboard it had been locked in, further into the contemporary world.

ALL GOOD DRAMA requires reversals, however, and at the 1968 election the gerrymander delivered Don’s, despite my backyard advocacy. Votes in country seats were worth multiples of those in the city. Dunstan Labor’s comfortably superior vote translated into a hung parliament, which the Steele Hall-led Liberal and Country League controlled with support from a lone conservative independent promised the speakership. Dunstan railed publicly, rallying huge crowds against the gerrymander. Steele Hall – himself a small ‘l’ liberal – was sufficiently embarrassed to make electoral reforms presaging Dunstan’s election in 1970. At which point the Dunstan decade proper began.

It is difficult to convey how conventionally narrow and ‘white bread’ mainstream life was in Adelaide. There was an Italian restaurant in Hindley Street with red-and-white check tablecloths where you could get good spaghetti, considered the height of cosmopolitanism. Eventually, a Chinese restaurant opened on the esplanade at Christies Beach. Revolutionary. The parochialism of most locals was something of a wonder to we blow-ins. Not that we were sophisticated cosmopolitans – far from it. But we had tuned into South Australia’s powerful sensory pleasures. The salt, the sea, the maritime air, the lush green grass burnt to pale straw under the bluest skies and brightest sun in the Southern Hemisphere; fresh fish from seas bordering the whitest sand, like something from Homer. (Eat at the Star of Greece in Port Willunga today and look out at that ocean: Odysseus would recognise it, you will agree.)

Meanwhile the world, in the form of the pragmatic multinational meritocracy of the refinery, sat around our dining table. A Texan executive, a Jewish chemist, an African-American engineer, the Native American wife of the refinery co-worker who brought us snapper, a young Australian engineer just ‘finished off’ at Mobil’s expense at Princeton. Then there were the two Malaysian-Chinese women, Hoe Yee and Hoi Mee, who lived with us for a while, sponsored by a local service organisation to fortify their nursing education for use back home. Hoi Mee brought a suitcase stuffed with rice and matches with her, fearing shortages in little-known Australia. With my parents, two brothers and me, Hoe Yee and Hoi Mee made seven people in a 100-square-metre house with three bedrooms and one bathroom. No one thought twice, the density of living not a matter for remark. The then exotic aromas of Malaysian cooking wafted from our kitchen and up the street to the fascination of neighbours.

In 1970, the same year Dunstan’s continuous nine-year run in power began, we moved from Christies Beach to Old Noarlunga – from Housing Trust territory to the bucolic beauty of the southern vales proper. Arch and Bobbie bought three blocks of land on the banks of the Onkaparinga, and produced endless bounty: organically grown fruit and vegetables from the chocolately, sun-blasted loam built up over millennia as the Onkaparinga flowed, flooded and subsided again and again. Indigenous Kaurna women had legendarily hid in the riverbank to avoid the raiding parties of neighbouring tribes. By 1970, the only Indigenous residents in Old Noarlunga were a family who lived in the one public house inside the Onkaparinga’s horseshoe-shaped riverbend. I didn’t understand why, when I tried to talk to their daughter at school, I got short shrift. My paternal grandmother told me tales of riding horses through swollen creeks and otherwise playing in the bush with the Aboriginal kids she had grown up with in Far North Queensland. Why not us? I get it now. Wish I had then.

Our Christies Beach neighbours bought the adjacent block. Each family built new homes – ours 120 square metres, theirs 130 square metres – fantastically large compared to the old ones. It was still the era of one bathroom per house, but the creep had begun: instead of lounge-dining rooms, each house had a separate lounge and a kitchen dinette. The neighbours put in a ten-metre in-ground pool, an unheard of luxury – even above-ground pools were rare. The two families wore a path dubbed the ‘Birdsville Track’ across the vacant block between them, going back and forth to poolside barbeques at their place, barbeques under the cotoneaster tree at ours – bottles now, not flagons, of wine from Coriole and Seaview just over the hill tucked under the adults’ arms. The sentimental favourite at ours was when Arch picked the summer’s first corn cobs. Bobbie stripped off their papery sheaths and silky hair and served them hot, smothered in wedges of melting butter and grainy salt – a peasant ritual of the deepest satisfaction. Similarly basic, and sometimes more exotic, pleasures were to be had at the homes of new best friends ‘Vicky’ and ‘Old Pred’, charming and cultivated eastern Europeans – Russian and Hungarian respectively and, in retrospect, possibly living under assumed names. If you wanted to get lost in the world, becoming organic fruit and vegetable farmers on a few acres of river loam in the crook of the Onkaparinga River was and remains hard to beat. The juxtaposition of Vicky and Pred’s sophistication with the old stone house and beat-up peasant farming clothes they wore was stark, Pred’s beret the only gesture to the old life, whatever that old life might have been. The political chat, domestic and international, was always good.

Dunstan measured up well. Reform after reform rolled through, anticipating the Whitlam government’s social democratic push. Don cut a dash, up the front steps of Parliament House on North Terrace in pink shorts, reciting poetry atop an elephant at the zoo, pioneering ‘living apart together’ when he and his second wife married but chose to live in separate, nearby houses. Adelaide during the golden years gave one license to be different. Don was different, different from any premier before or since. I was always going to be different but if he could be different, that made it so much more okay for the rest of us to be different too.

I SKIPPED class too at Christies Beach Primary School, doing Year 3 and 4 in the one year: 1968, the year of my first Dunstan advocacy. The teachers were good, the school well led, the classes orderly and standard of education decent. Nearly everyone’s father, and some of their mothers, worked at the refinery or Chrysler. There were few obvious social problems, though I did wonder why April, who sat in front of me in Year 5, shaved her legs. There was bullying but it was survivable. The school inspector was diligent and liked to even things up in class. Once he posed me a spelling question I would likely fail – a lesson in humility – then posed an easy one to a struggling classmate, to build his confidence. In a working-class school, this boy was from one of the poorest families. Awed at being singled out by the school inspector, he sat stunned, red-faced, and wet his pants. The sight and sound of that trickle of urine falling from his shabby grey school trousers to the shiny lino floor beneath his bench seat still tugs at my heart. I hope things turned out well for him. We all had to learn how to survive somehow.

I survived through truancy. I was a regular truant from Year 5 on. I had bad hay fever, or bad whatever-it-took, and would stay home and listen to my brothers’ LPs on the stereogram. The Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band were favourites. It wasn’t the school’s fault. It was the days before stretch tasks or opportunity classes. They did their best to make school lessons less boring, jumping me ahead to later-year English classes, but it wasn’t enough. Home was more interesting. The music. The political chat. Older brothers to roughhouse with when they came home from their apprenticeships in the afternoon. Monday Conference, Four Corners and This Day Tonight on black-and-white ABC Television. The world came into our living room. Change was afoot.

High school loomed. I won a half-scholarship to an establishment grammar school in Adelaide: motto, Virtute et Veritate. The local doctor sent a short typed note of congratulations to my parents – to me an astonishing act of personal recognition. (Our school did not have prizes so this was an unusual event.) The grammar school posted the uniform list. I read it with anthropological fascination: gloves, hat, prescribed shoes and socks, prescribed underwear even. Another world. But there was a rock musical coming up at Christies Beach High School. I went. It was fantastic – long hair, loud music, kids hanging from the rafters, making it all happen. Goodbye grammar school scholarship, hello Christies Beach High: motto, ‘Work, Life, Play’.

I BEGAN AT Christies Beach High in February 1972. That month I saw Led Zeppelin play at Memorial Drive Tennis Club, accompanied by one of my brothers. Led Zeppelin IV was so new that when the band played ‘Stairway to Heaven’, hardly anyone knew it. At the other end of the year, in November, Dunstan danced onstage in the finale of Hair. In between, his government passed legislation establishing the South Australian Theatre Company and the South Australian Film Commission, passed the Age of Majority (Reduction) Act, the Corporal Punishment Abolition Act, the Ombudsman Act, the Daylight Saving Act, the Community Welfare Act and the Coast Protection Act, as well as consumer protection laws, and occupational health and safety laws, among a raft of other initiatives.

That same month, Opposition leader Gough Whitlam delivered his 1972 federal election campaign speech at Blacktown Town Hall in Sydney. Arch brought home a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder and I taped the great man’s words: ‘Men and women of Australia…’ It was electrifying. Even the promise to install sewers in Sydney’s western suburbs seemed visionary when the words fell from Whitlam’s lips. When we took the tape recorder back to the refinery, not even the pervasive sickly sweet smell of hydrocarbons could dampen my mood. The world was a huge and beneficent place of endless hope and opportunity, where the state was a force for good, if only conservatives would get out of the way. Or so it seemed.

Christies had nearly two thousand students on two campuses with a huge, treeless oval in between. (Memo, South Australian Department of Education: Would it have hurt to plant some trees?) Christies had a rough reputation. Years later, when I was a young journalist working in (Old) Parliament House, the local MP would point across King’s Hall and proclaim, ‘Her! See her? She went to Christies High and survived!’ But really it was just working class, with all the attendant difficulties: principally, homes with few or no books and little tradition of reading. Teenage pregnancies, drugs – but remarkably few given the size of the school. The outstanding things about Christies were the incredible teachers and systematic encouragement to get you to make the most of what you had – when you weren’t surfing, that is.

Sometimes that encouragement simply came through trust and decent resources. The art teachers, whom we loved, for example, trusted us to hang out in the art rooms at lunchtime. One break I was flicking through HH Arnason’s History of Modern Art – I’m not sure whether it was a school resource or belonged to the teacher, but it was out in the open where, had we really been delinquents, it would have been nicked. I came across Paul Klee’s Sinbad the Sailor (1928): it flicked a switch in my head. Art was it. The following year I began painting large, hard-edge abstract minimalist works. Teachers bought them. At the end of Year 11, I decided to drop out of school to go to Paris and be a painter. Arch refused to sign my passport application. Reluctantly, I returned to school for Year 12. That’s when Christies Beach High came into its own.

You can cage a questing student and create trouble for everyone, or you can give them their head and see where it leads.

Each morning in Year 12, I would go to school and get my name ticked off the roll. Then often, upon the bell for first period, I would walk out the gate and grab a train at the station across the road into the city. First stop: State Library of South Australia, to read. Second stop: Art Gallery of South-Australia, to look at art. Third stop: Adelaide University Bookshop, or perhaps the Mary Martin Bookshop in Gawler Place – then still owned by Mary Martin and Max Harris – to read books for free, careful not to bend the spines; then the train back to Christies Beach. There was a lot of thinking time each way. How civilised having the train station right next to the high school. How civilised of the school to let me regularly walk out that gate when the mores of the day said I should be locked up. How kind the teachers were who let me sit, after a few weeks’ diligent swatting, the exams at the end of the year anyway – except perhaps the art teacher who asked archly, when I came to deliver my portfolio of works for Year 12 art, ‘Are you still enrolled?’

The world had changed by then. The Whitlam government had been dismissed; constitutional coup author, Malcolm Fraser, was prime minister instead of electrifying Gough. The state had ceased being an unequivocal force for good. I was shocked – but then, I was young and naive. Finding out life was not entirely just, like discovering that life is not entirely meritocratic, was essential learning. And by now a strange animus had begun to swirl around Dunstan. The conservatives got him in the end, a miasma of rumour undermining a good man and excellent premier, destabilising and corroding his government. The dressing-gowned resignation was still some way ahead, but you could sense it coming. I had left town by then. At sixteen years and fifty-one weeks old, I got on a bus to the Australian National University in Canberra and too rarely returned. Adelaide’s golden age had left an enduring imprint.

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