Reportage

The Olden Days - Toowoomba

The huge cop – they all seemed to be huge in Queensland in 1976 – rustled through my desk drawer as if I wasn't standing right beside him.

‘What exactly are you looking for?' I asked. He ignored me. After some more rustling, he pulled out a pipe. My mum had given it to me to encourage me to give up smoking cigarettes.

‘What do you smoke in this?' he asked as if he already knew the answer.

‘Amphora,' I said. He didn't look happy.

He and another detective had arrived unannounced at our dilapidated share-house in James Street, Toowoomba, walked in and started ransacking the place. After the larger of the pair had finished in my room, I followed him down the hall to the kitchen where his colleague was busy going through the pantry.

‘Well, well, well, what have we here?' his mate said, sounding rather pleased with himself. He extracted a bag of green leaves, put it down on the table and looked at it, standing arms akimbo. Both cops nodded knowingly.

‘It's peppermint tea,' said Kerry, one of my housemates.

‘Is it indeed?' The cop who found the bag picked it up, opened it and took a whiff.

‘What der yer reckon?' the other one asked.

‘Fucken peppermint,' he spat. We followed them around the rest of the house but they'd lost heart. Presumably they had better things to do than waste time and energy on a bunch of drug-crazed students. Nonetheless, we were suspect and it wasn't just the cops who thought so. Toowoomba obviously wasn't quite prepared for the hordes of students who'd invaded the town since the local technical college had morphed into the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education (DDIAE) in 1971. It had been all business, engineering, science or education students until 1974 when an arts faculty was added to the institute.

 

THAT REALLY ATTRACTED THE WEIRDOS.

We came from near and far. I moved to Toowoomba from the Gold Coast where my friends and I had majored in surfing and dope smoking at school. Others came from Brisbane and cities further afield, some from interstate, others from overseas. Many of us didn't make the cut for the major metropolitan universities but managed to scrape into the ungainly titled DDIAE, on the perimeter of this provincial city, like some soulless new outpost.

Toowoomba was Queensland's garden city, the capital of the rich agricultural region of the Darling Downs. Perched on the edge of the Great Dividing Range, it's a relatively temperate, picturesque city with a conservative reputation, gracious, historic mansions, manicured parks and quaint antique stores. The local citizenry had become accustomed to calm and respectability that was interrupted by our unseemly arrival. This influx of outsiders rankled. It was all a bit much for this conservative town in a conservative state.

I had enrolled to study journalism; my pals mostly studied performing or visual arts. There were more long-haired young men in clay-spattered overalls wandering round, and girls in cheesecloth smelling of patchouli oil than Toowoomba had ever seen. I was constantly decked out in a t-shirt emblazoned with Michael Leunig's ferret, badly needed a haircut and sported John Lennon glasses – I was almost certainly a card-carrying communist.

At the time of our police raid in 1976, I lived with my fellow suspects at 128 James Street, a grand old house that was falling down. It was owned by a local slum landlord and five of us lived there – or at least five of us paid rent. The residence was something of a moveable feast with people coming, going and staying all hours of the night and day. And yes, I confess there was sometimes a bit of weed on the premises, but luckily we were out of supplies the night the cops came calling.

The best place to live if you were a pothead in Toowoomba was the surrounding countryside, and student-rented farmhouses peppered the red-soil hinterland, smoke rising from them like distant campfires. A friend of mine lived at one such house at Mt Kynoch, overlooking the wide vistas of the Lockyer Valley. There was limited electricity and a thunderbox toilet. On fog-laden nights we would huddle around the fireplace smoking dope by candlelight to the accompaniment of acoustic guitars. Other entertainment included local folk clubs, where we drank stout and listened to bush bands and bad poetry. There was an endless round of student parties. Sometimes people even went to lectures.

The campus itself was a mixture of the conservative and the radical. This was the era of protest, and we were inspired to question the prevailing fascism by inspirational lecturers like the poet Bruce Dawe, a Catholic with a keen social conscience. Another renegade was our history lecturer, Ron Frazer. I have an enduring memory of him shaking his fist in defiance as he was hauled away by police during a demonstration in downtown Toowoomba.

As far as many locals were concerned, the reds weren't under the beds, they were on the campus and they had to be stopped! Anarchy was just around the corner.

The underground Bohemian foment of campus life was stirred by various activists and bands that visited. I remember one rather political concert by the zany Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band, which mixed political commentary with retro jazz. The concert was interrupted while the lead singer, stoned out of his mind, threw up in a bucket by the side of the stage. Dissent was also fanned and promulgated by student newspapers where we called for the right to march, an end to French nuclear testing in the Pacific, legalisation of marijuana and other causes célèbres of the day.

These were not the sort of issues the citizenry of Toowoomba were too concerned about. In his poem ‘Provincial City', Bruce Dawe described Toowoomba as a city that moves ‘oh so slowly / you would have to sleep years. / waking suddenly once in a decade / to surprise it in the act of change.'

When we arrived in the mid-1970s, it was still coming to grips with the new phenomenon. This fine Christian city on the Downs where, according to Bruce Dawe, you could ‘smell the peace ... The proportion, the narrowness' wasn't quite ready for us and we were not quite ready for it, but somehow we coexisted.

That was then and this is now.

The house we lived in has been refurbished and heritage listed. DDIAE, which eventually became the University of Southern Queensland, has achieved respectability. Bruce Dawe has retired to the Sunshine Coast, Ron Frazer went to Canberra and never returned, and those of us who partied and protested are now busy with mortgages and families. The 1970s are a distant memory but I still cherish that brief flowering of Bohemian madness which blossomed in the most unlikely of places ... Toowoomba, Queensland.  ♦

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