So dry a homeland

A thirst for life quenched, a new thirst for answers

THERE ARE STILL some hot summer nights when I can tool around Adelaide with the windows down and feel like a teenager on the hunt. It’s 30 degrees at eight in the evening, and down at the beach people are queuing for ice-cream. Henley Square’s pumpin’ and hoons are chuggin’ the strip.

In from the beach, away from the respite of a sea breeze, the western suburbs are on heat. The suburban dreariness gets sexy again, as it was before the word bogan had currency and we didn’t know that’s how we’d be described half a century later. My brain takes a sharp fork in the memory road. One way leads back to the music and the dances, the microclimate of slow dancing and drive-ins; the other pushes forward to tourism ads touting beautiful South Australia, with green and hills, vines and heritage.

My South Australia was dry and flat. Our weekend trips were never south. Whatever clapped-out second-hand car Dad was running at the time, it always headed north – to places even drier than the northern suburbs where we lived. We’d do a day trip either to his stamping ground around Mundoora-Fisherman Bay, or to Mum’s at Morgan-Cadell, that bone-dry Mallee route. Dry and hot. When I first drove out of Adelaide, to make my fortune in Sydney – heartlessly just a few days after my mother had a hysterectomy – I know my body was craving the subtropical soft I had already felt four fabulous times, on those trips to sing on Channel Nine’s Bandstand while I was still at high school.

And yet, the teenage years in ’60s Adelaide were deliciously fertile. The barren dry of a Housing Trust enclave in Enfield – then the end of the line, marked by the Northern Hotel – was counterpointed with the unbridled excitement of music, ear pressed to the portable record player as Phil Spector commanded the Ronettes to speak for us: ‘Be my, be my baby.’ Music whetted the sharp thrust of our teenage crushes. Dancing every week with Ray, as we chased the Twilights in the hope of hearing yet another Beatles cover before it was released in Australia, was as desperately anticipated as was catching a glimpse of Kathleen in the baking concrete yard of Enfield High, where seventeen hundred students toiled under the command of Head-master McCarthy, whom I later discovered was hunting for communists among the staff as vigorously as his American namesake had done not so many years before.

I learnt decades later that McCarthy (the South Australian) was gathering evidence on dangerous subversives like my science teacher and a couple of others who, in his eyes, were pinkos through and through. His was not the spirit of reform that saw this place become the first Australian colony to allow religious freedom outside the Catholic and Anglican faiths (hence the Adelaide moniker, City of Churches), first to give women the vote, and the first state to decriminalise homosexuality. Such contraries still exist in parliament, and are typified by, for instance, Nick Xenophon v Cory Bernardi – though Nick’s anti-euthanasia stance puts him too in the same flock as those politicians and church leaders who make nonsense of the claim that Australia is a secular society.

I knew the science teacher McCarthy had targeted as the one who’d taken a gang of us to that long-demolished jewel, the Theatre Royal in Hindley Street, to see Vivien Leigh play Portia in The Merchant of Venice. Shylock was played alternatively by John Alden or John Laurie. It didn’t occur to us at the time to ask why a science teacher would take us to the theatre, and we certainly had no concept of political affiliation. Miss Scriven was just plain cool. The school was straight.

OUT IN THE barren wilds of Gepps Cross there was no music on the curriculum; it was up to me to start the lunchtime music club – me and a guitar. And those of us streamed into top science were not allowed to do home economics or art or woodwork. Options away from double maths, physics, chem, Latin, geography, English and French were strictly limited. But the suburbs we inhabited were alive and ripe for fun. Imaginations were rioting, oblivious of a wild decade emerging around them. For us, the ’60s were not the cliché they subsequently became – their glamour appropriated into the formative years of so-called selfish baby boomers, and a source of resentment. These were years of adventures and experiment for anyone who dared.

But even during the ’50s, mistakenly maligned for a cultural dryness akin to the unmade roads we manoeuvred our bikes along, a local attraction like the Enfield Pool presented itself in anticipation as liquid luxury. You wouldn’t call it romantic, but it overflowed with teenage longing and looking forward. Diving and swimming underwater, you’d stand in the pool with your legs apart and the boys would dive between them. Skin to skin was not overt, but sparking energy was everywhere, and so eagerly awaited. Then another bike ride home in the dry heat of an Adelaide summer dusk and a plate of cold Fritz and cucumber, with tomato-and-onion salad smothered in vinegar.

Was it the same in every city in every state in Australia at the time? Trying not to romanticise, attempting generously to afford all Australians the luscious recollection of puberty and the wet dreams of our teenage years, I still keep thinking it was different in Adelaide. Perhaps the difference was in a higher contrast between pool and pavement, between softness in friendship and hardness in the unmade streets we ran through. And the unrelenting dry of the background to our adventures.

The founding fathers thought the River Torrens would support a city – they were wrong. Soldier of fortune Colonel William Light thought he could contain a city inside four garden parks – he was wrong. The water dried up and the city sprawled. Outside Adelaide, the pastoralists mercilessly denuded their fields in an attempt to make crops yield while the Murray’s seemingly infinite powers of irrigation eventually produced a glut of fruit. To get to my mum’s birthplace now requires a drive through bare, brown, dry, stubbly country to a place where the vines and the groves are ragged and abandoned. What other hopefulness was also abandoned?

WHEN HE MADE his break from ‘the old man’ – the fake grandfather for whom he had toiled in various inner city pubs – Dad worked for a time at Kelvinators. He cycled there, and took a tough, brown leather kitbag with his lunch in it. One of his brothers-in-law worked there too, and another worked at the British Tube Mills. South Australia was a model of CSIRO doctrine, which at the outset, one hundred years ago, had its sights on an international reputation for Australian agricultural supremacy. The images of fields and wheat and noble sheep are ingrained in the visual memory of the ’50s at primary school. But it became obvious that wheat and sheep would not be the only answer to the country’s global ambitions. Postwar strategy determined that Australia would lead the world in manufacturing; in South Australia we drove the Holdens that were made here, and later we drove the Mitsubishis that were made here. Creature of habit, I still drive one – and we are only just at the grievous end of that abandoned phase.

Dad lost his job as a mechanic at a second-hand car dealership that went bust during the credit squeeze in the ’60s, and drove trucks to Mt Isa for a while. When Mum and I cried too much, he was helped by one of his brothers-in-law to get a clerk’s job at a subsidiary of the British Tube Mills, and saw out his working days there – a salary man with no super.

Meanwhile, I was blessed with a Commonwealth scholarship – which was, despite its egalitarian justifications, still a rare thing in boganland – and found myself in an era of hope and apparent progress. It felt as if the dryness of the ’50s, which I never hated and never resented, started magically to produce lush stuff in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. Don Dunstan poured refreshing waters on eager imaginations as he preached avocadoes on the Murray and a love of the arts. The state began to flower, and in that garden, time and again, I got my chances.

FAST FORWARD SOME forty, mostly successful South Australian years, to September 2016. It is the night before my mother’s funeral and the next day my family will agree with a smile that ‘the old girl’s not going quietly’. The weather is apocalyptic. The power is out and we scramble to Ikea for more candles. The sky is low and dark and there are no streetlights to comfort the gridlocked roads. There’s something distinctly exciting about it; I want to ring interstate, but I have to use the mobile sparingly in case charging is a long time off. I learn from the car radio that the entire state has lost power, and compliment the kids at Ikea for the Swedish engineering that allows them to stay open. They tell me it’s a German building, and I feel foolishly proud of my German heritage and cultural affinities. There are fewer people than I’ve ever seen in what’s become a family-outing destination, but the candle section is lively with an excited, hurried air.

Back at the flat, my tiny space now looks like a set for Liberace. My neighbours have a battery-powered radio and I get bulletins on the half hour, the first being that the premier is saying power may not be restored until tomorrow afternoon. Interesting funeral, I think, and haul out the ukulele to see if I can remember the chords to ‘Abide With Me’, the beautiful hymn I last sang in Lucknow’s Christian burial ground at the first-ever memorial service there for Walter Burley Griffin.

I don’t enjoy the suffering and loss of life they usually entail, but I do enjoy catastrophic moments for the reminder they give us: that as much as we take it for granted, we do not control nature. I have enjoyed disaster movies since the 1950s in Hoyts Ozone Enfield, especially the classics I was weaned on – The Rains of Ranchipur, The Naked Jungle, Elephant Walk and, more recently, The Perfect Storm, Twister, Outbreak. Big storms (getting bigger all the time), high heat, fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami and plague: all of them tell us we are still not in control, and that in cruel and brutal ways the earth demands respect. People living closer to the land understand this better, often on a daily basis, but we in cities frequently forget. Here at the beach, when the king tides rise and wipe out sand dunes, and the winds gust across the gulf from the west and blow out windows along the Esplanade, we have a chance to be more regularly reminded.

The power is restored much more quickly than expected, and the next day – the morning of Mum’s service – we learn that a massive storm simply knocked down the huge power-line-bearing structures. The sense of danger kicks in way too late, as we hear stories of a hospital where backup generators failed to kick in, of embryos unfreezing. It’s only now I wonder how all those old people my mother so recently slept near got on in the dark, despite the sad little torches on their bedside tables, and reflect on my carelessness in enjoying the moment and my forgetfulness of anyone on life support.

But mainly what I’m thinking, as I put on a raincoat to go and harvest lavender and rosemary – things which grow well in the sand and salty air – for family and friends to place on Mary’s coffin, is the arrogance with which any human here thinks they can predict what nature will do even tomorrow, let alone in ten, one hundred, one thousand or one hundred thousand years. Because a Royal Commission has now declared nuclear storage safe to consider, and we South Australians are being asked to share the commission’s confidence. But in the wake of the storm, and the observation that, while such storms have always been around, their effects are more dramatic in the higher temperatures that climate change is producing, we must be sceptical about arguments that rely on the premise of geographic and geological stability.

It’s not as if South Australia hasn’t had volcanic activity: Mount Gambier’s major tourist attraction, the Blue Lake, bears tantalising witness. And it’s not as if the state hasn’t had earthquakes: a fond memory from the northern ’burbs is of Dad scooping me up in his arms and running into his meticulously designed sunken garden at the front of the house as it shook to its flimsy grey concrete-brick foundations in the middle of the night. And, yes, I should do more research on the vast difference between the lands on which Mount Gambier and Adelaide sit, and those proposed for the facility in the north. But I, like hundreds of thousands of others, won’t have the time or skills to do that research and will just have to trust what others say.

Many of us trusted the Don, who was already ill when he went through the world investigating the safety of nuclear power and its storage. It felt to me as if the disappointment killed him. He hoped for new energy and economic alternatives for South Australia, but his hopes were dashed when he couldn’t be convinced that nuclear waste could be safely stored – couldn’t countenance the damage that would be caused, for both the land, in this state and beyond, and for the state’s reputation, if some unforeseen act of nature occurred, such as we have since observed in Fukushima.

For those of us who love the place, some of the damage is already done. Many who have worked hard at building South Australia’s cultural reputation see that reputation being eaten away by the prospect of the state being labelled a dump. It risks becoming a laughing stock, even if the pursuit for much-needed alternative streams of income come from a genuine place. It might make more sense if the state could profit from its own nuclear energy and store its own waste; but not to have energy and yet to take the world’s waste feels, some say, absurd. Others will say dangerous.

Yet even if a seismic event never shifts the ground so dramatically that the waste spills or leaks and makes the land toxic, there’s the risk that the state’s reputation is suffering simply in considering this move. Is something like the achievement of Adelaide’s new status as a UNESCO City of Music enough to counterbalance such fears? We relish the tourist tout of splendid vineyards; I am a Coonawarra snob out of Southwark heritage. I also cleave to the dry red landscape of the Flinders. The gulf waters I hear each night I get to sleep in my own bed host not only sharks but King George whiting too. I’m not oblivious to the natural beauty and riches of this dry place. I miss it when I’m away a long time, and cherish the return.

SHOULD WE BE PROUD of this proposal, and think of it as consistent with the spirit of bold reform and hopefulness that has characterised South Australia since its beginnings? One young relative of mine observed that we could be doing the world a favour by storing safely what other nations are storing haphazardly, without the kind of advanced technology South Australia can contribute to the project. It’s a subject we were discussing in a ward of the Royal Adelaide Hospital where my mother was in what turned out to be her fatal decline.

This clever young woman reminded me of the amount of nuclear waste already being stored underneath us. Like the light rail in Canberra, is this a project that the young can support, despite the cost, while older citizens quiver? Or are the grounds for scepticism well-founded? Is this dream of a clean green state in line with the surprising humanity that grew from its aridity?

It is unfair that the recent massive power failure was exploited by opponents to criticise the state’s reliance on renewable energy targets, but it is unwise to ignore the many questions, both scientific and spiritual, that a nuclear proposal invites. The First Peoples of this land gave clear warnings about disturbing the deep heart of Maralinga. They said a huge bad force would rise up, and more recently apologised to the people of Fukushima because they believed it was likely that Australian uranium had ended up there. Is the proposal for a nuclear waste facility in South Australia a dream, or a nightmare?

At the same time, there is triumph over the submarine-building contract. ‘Jobs and growth’, the cry goes up, recalling Brecht’s ironic poem ‘Freedom and Democracy’. And yes, South Australia needs jobs. But does Australia need submarines? Aren’t those in the know reckoning drones the better investment? And is this contract resigning South Australia back to that 1950s manufacturing ethos, to which the men of my family once adhered? Places that don’t get these kinds of major project bailouts have no choice but to get creative and invent new jobs for the twenty-first century: new smart projects and occupations, facilities and services. More suspicion: in this case, that the smarts will be happening in France, and in South Australia only blue-collar jobs – genuinely great for the short-term fix for those out-of-workers, but if it really means harking back to a manufacturing past in lieu of getting smarter post-manufacture, what is the promise for the state’s future?

South Australia has a noble history of risk-taking. I, and so many others, have benefitted from those risks and that spirit of reform. We love the state, its natural beauty, splendid produce, and all the relative calm of Adelaide in comparison with bigger, busier cities. Mostly, our hope is that decisions made now will ensure that generations to come, from this country and others, still feel the same way.

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