Meredith Burgmann and Nadia Wheatley, Radicals: Remembering the Sixties

(Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2021)

Reviewed by Danny Blackman

If you lived through the Sixties, and you remember it – as most of us actually do, notwithstanding the few beers we could actually afford and the odd bit of dope-smoking – this book is compelling reading. You are irresistibly drawn to your own ‘aha’ moments, as the authors put it, to your own experiences – you keep wanting to interject with “But for me it was…” or “Ah, but remember what happened just after that …”

This is but one of the many strengths of the book. Not only is it a series of conversations (in the purest dictionary sense, rather than more recent meanings variously closer to either an individual polemic or a negotiation) between the authors and a sample of others of their generation whose lives were totally changed by the times, it also functions generally as a broader interactive conversation with readers who lived through the Sixties. It’s also a powerful potential conversation with today’s younger activists about what it was like then, what it was to be there, and how passionately we, their generation’s parents, even grandparents, the dreaded baby-boomers who hold all the property, felt about the great causes of our day, just as they feel about climate change. And perhaps most importantly, it is a testament to the fact that action inspired by those passions can bring about change.

Here I should declare my personal bias: like Meredith and Nadia, I started at Sydney University in 1966, so some of their experiences are also mine. And for kids from conservative country backgrounds like me, those fresh out of restrictive single-sex boarding schools, Sydney – and Sydney University in particular – in the mid-sixties was another world, almost a foreign country. As irrefutable proof of that, the money was different: Australia switched to decimal currency on 14 February 1966, some ten days before the beginning of Orientation Week.

The ‘conversational’ style of the book works well in drawing out the effects of the Sixties in changing the lives of the participants, including those of Meredith and Nadia themselves. These are lively conversations between equals, old comrades-in-arms or friends, people who knew or knew of each other, not dry interviews by an unrelated and dispassionate journalist or biographer. So both authors intersperse comments from their own experience (I particularly empathised with Nadia’s recollections of distressing early encounters with tennis balls while she is talking to Brian Laver, in whose life tennis has played an integral role); Meredith prompts Geoffrey Robertson to talk about details of their shared past that he is inclined to downplay or conveniently forget, and both Meredith and Nadia discover new perspectives on familiar events and are able to introduce their own reactions without themselves becoming the storytellers.

The scope of the participants might be seen as narrow today, but it is indeed a pretty fair representation of the predominantly Anglo monoculture that was Australia in the sixties. While one might share the authors’ initial expectation that the anti-Vietnam War and anti-conscription struggles would have been the major cause of radicalisation, as it was for Meredith and Nadia as well as for many others on the campuses, it is fascinating to see the diversity of the epiphanies that changed the lives of some of the other participants. For the three indigenous participants, for whom Vietnam could rightly be perceived as a “whitefella’s war”, the fusion of their lifelong experience of racism with what they heard and read about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the civil rights and Black Panthers movements in the US was transformative. For Queensland radicals like Brian Laver (whose personal anti-authoritarianism was triggered much earlier) the struggle was to take to the streets at all, while for Peter Duncan, already engaging in mainstream politics, the South Australian electoral gerrymander was a threshold issue. A number who became significant in the arts were to have their politics and creative and personal practice transformed by the times, as changes in music, dress and sexual mores accompanied the new culture of protest and action.

Some older participants entered that decade already contributing to change: Margaret Reynolds, while asserting radicalisation by Vietnam, had an early understanding of the importance of women’s economic independence and her work as a teacher/advocate for children with disabilities had already empowered her to contend with the racism and sexism of Far North Queensland as a confident activist. The role of schools is significant: Gary Foley’s anger was fuelled by being forced to leave school early by a racist principal and restrictive authoritarian schools taught others to resist; on the other hand, for many, especially the younger ones, progressive or socialist teachers were a strong influence. And of course, radical university teaching – in an era when university education was designed to encourage students to think as well as prepare for a future profession – was integral, as well as the books they read, the new whole worlds of thought from overseas. And often, literally, who they hung out with was the key to their transformation.

The short biographies of the participants included at the end of the book give an insight into the lasting effect of the Sixties, while the detailed index provides evidence of the inter-connections between activists and struggles.

Throughout the book, the clarity and engagingness of Meredith and Nadia’s respective writing styles stands out as a major factor in the book’s success, moving smoothly between the subject’s narrative and their own reflections and, particularly on Meredith’s part, succinct, incisive and often anti-climactic (and hilariously funny) comments.

This is a great book, engaging and highly enjoyable. Some of the participants will doubtless write their own memoirs, or be the subjects of biographies yet to come, but I swear they won’t be like this.

If you’re looking for a history of the Sixties, you won’t find it in this book. But if what you want is to understand the Sixties, Radicals is essential reading.

Danny Blackman is Secretary of Sydney Branch ASSLH and currently Acting Editor of the Hummer. She was there in the Sixties, and remembers most of it.