Enabler Publications

Books to feed the Mind and Spirit

Alternative Australia: celebrating cultural diversity

Alternative Australia

Sample from this book:

Bill had exchanged e-mail correspondence with me about this book for about six months, and I had already read his books, Social characteristics of alternative lifestyle participants in Australia (with Frank Vanclay) and From Utopian dreaming to Communal reality. Bill is a nice mix of human warmth and intellectual monolith. Some of our e-mail exchanges had been a shade tetchy. Bill expected me to have a stronger set of expectations of what I wanted as contributions for the book. "What will make it into saleable book, rather than a string of interesting stories?" he politely enquired. I was busy describing myself in terms of helms-person, rather than editor. Neither did I want to write an Alan's adventures in alternative Australia. Though, as you can see,Aquarius Festival there is a bit of that!

Alternative and Communal Australia?
The Education of Young Bill

Dr Bill Metcalf

Is there an alternative Australia?

That was the burning question for me when I arrived in Australia as an immigrant from Canada in late 1970. I had completed an Honours Degree in Agricultural Economics at University of Guelph, Canada, and worked unhappily for a financial firm, then spent a couple of years as a 'hippie' roaming North America and Europe. I experienced much of the communal, countercultural fervour of the late sixties - and I then saw the rot of hard drugs, sexism and violence set in and subsequently destroy the so-called 'Summer of Peace and Flowers'.

Australia in 1970 seemed to me like North America of five or ten years earlier. I soon became re-enthused about the possibility of developing a radically different society, of avoiding the moral abyss of serial monogamy, of overcoming loneliness and selfishness, of living within loving, communal families rather than as isolated nuclear families or singles, and of moving past rampant consumerism through learning to share.

In the lead-up to the general election of late 1972, Australia was still a profoundly conservative place; still with military conscription, still involved in the Vietnam War, and still acting politically like a poor cousin to USA, following an earlier Prime Minister's sycophantic promise to go 'All the Way with LBJ'. The Australian Labor Party, under the simple slogan 'It's Time', won that election with an overwhelming mandate for radical change, and Gough Whitlam became our Prime Minister.

Like most of my friends, I worked hard for the '72 Labor victory. That night, December 2, 1972, it really seemed as if Australia was fundamentally changing. I recorded in my diary simply, "Exhausted but very happy and content". A new and brighter day appeared to be dawning, and the dreams to which so many of 'my sort of people' clung, seemed to be about to be realised. John F. Kennedy's election as US President in 1960, and Pierre Trudeau's election as Canadian Prime Minister in 1967, both had the same impact on me and on others of my generation. We naively thought that dramatic social change could and would come from the top down. It did not because it can not!

As an intellectual, I have always operated first and foremost through my head. I therefore enrolled in a Master's Degree in sociology at University of Queensland, in order to study the social change movements of environmentalism and communalism, of which I was, of course, already very involved. I slowly started to uncover my naive, blinkered eyes, and to see countercultural social change, and my own and my friends' communal experimentation, within a far wider historical and theoretical context. On the personal front, I had developed an urban commune here in Brisbane in which I lived with a number of other brave social experimenters. I fully appreciated and implemented the idea that social thinkers must live their altered reality - not just theorise about it. Like most communards, however, I soon found that day-to-day communal practice was much harder than the theorising. In spite of our purest intentions, jealousy, possessiveness and pettiness crept into our naively idealistic communal hearts and hearth.

In May 1973, I temporarily left the secure academic world to become part of the famous Aquarius Festival, at Nimbin in northern New South Wales. Here is part of what I wrote about this experience in my subsequent PhD Thesis (yes, Virginia, one can write about these things in academic works!).

My first view of the 1973 Aquarius Festival was when I arrived late on the afternoon of the first day. Car parks were organised on each side of Nimbin, and a regular shuttle bus service provided surprisingly efficient transport. The main (and almost only) street of Nimbin was packed with colourful people, dancing, singing and playing. The paddocks to the north and east were filled with tents, domes and assorted experimental housing forms. The whole area was covered by a haze of smoke from hundreds of small cooking fires. Music from exotic, unknown instruments wafted over the hills, and as I walked to our pre-arranged 'tribal site', the acrid odour of marijuana was frequently encountered. For ten days, we participants (estimated from 5,000 to 10,000) took part in serious workshops and discussions, swam and paraded in the nude (much to the consternation of townsfolk), smoked dope, listened to music, and talked incessantly of new social experiments.

By the end of the Aquarius Festival, we participants had learned that we were not alone in our dreams and faltering social experimentations. Far from being alone, participants began to recognise that we were part of a new, utopian social movement. A 'Full Moon Celebration' was held. This semi-structured event saw perhaps 1,000 people on a barren knob of a hill, and as the sun went down we took part in a pageant or dance. With hands linked, we chanted and sang as the moon suddenly appeared over the Nightcap Range. A sense of social solidarity seemed to develop within the crowd who had taken part. This intense feeling of one-ness, … [or] 'we consciousness', seemed all-pervasive. Because of the affective nature of this event it was only interpretable to a full participant like myself, with no ulterior motives, who became fully involved, then later in reflecting on the experience analysed its social significance.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the 1973 Aquarius Festival was its symbolism. It came to symbolise the alternative lifestyle movement, to provide a geographical focus, and, over time, it became an important aspect of the collective mythology of that movement. To have been at Nimbin in '73 came to be a source of pride for participants. Even today, I am frequently asked to describe the sensation of the Aquarius Festival by new participants who appear to regard it with a degree of awe.

Before the Aquarius Festival finished, posters appeared, asking, 'After Nimbin: What?'. A meeting to answer this question was convened on the final Sunday of the festival, and several hundred people (including myself) attended. There was a strong sentiment that the spirit of the festival must live on, and find expression in a continuing, living alternative lifestyle community. Several people volunteered to seek suitable land which would provide a permanent home base in the area, for participants in the alternative lifestyle movement. As we retreated from Nimbin in late May 1973, many participants must have felt (as I did) that it was only a temporary retreat, and that we were now part of a 'new' alternative lifestyle movement - with a utopian vision of the world in which we wished to live.

Other samples from Alternative Australia:

Alternative Australia: celebrating cultural diversityAlternative Australia

Alan Dearling with Brendan Hanley (Mook Bahloo)

ISBN 09523316 4 0.

256 pps, 220 x 200 mm, paperback (landscape)

Full colour cover, with over 200 black and white photos and line drawings

£13.99 + £2.50 p&p.

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