OZ ODYESSY (March – May 1982) – a memoir

OZ ODYESSY – a brief romp through a dense   and life-changing lecture tour of Australia which cannot do justice to all the wonderful people I met and amazing places I visited.

In 1981 the Australia Council invited me to undertake a two month lecture tour of Australia in the Spring of ‘82. The request was to lecture mainly on the ‘Glenrothes experience’ as well as other topics – public art artist/architect/planner collaborations and community arts in the UK. I visited all the major cities, and much more besides, giving talks to planning department staffs and professional associations, councillors and aldermen, arts bodies and groups, artists, schools of art and architecture and the general public. The organisation and the publicity by the Australia Council for my visit was extremely thorough and audiences were high throughout. I arrived in Darwin and then spent a week or so in each town; Alice Springs, (taking in a visit to Ayer’s Rock as was, Uluru as is now, a present from the Australia Council, coincidentally my birthday the day I climbed the rock) Brisbane, Sydney, (including suburban towns) Canberra, Melbourne, Launceston/Tasmania, Adelaide and Perth. I spent two weeks in Bowral, NSW (birthplace of the great cricketer Don Bradman), as the only non-Australian at a ‘training workshop’ for artists from all disciplines selected for their work in social settings and with community groups. It was without doubt the most expertly organised, staffed and themed workshop I have ever taken part in. My visit began disastrously. I arrived in Darwin at 3-45 am, attended a meeting at 2-00 pm and gave my first lecture at 7-00 pm – a very tall order by any measure. There was a huge turnout but I have no recollection of how it went. A reception followed and then my host, Ken Conway and I drank till the ‘wee small hours’. I had to attend a meeting in the morning at 8-30 am. After it I was taken to see the site of a new town to see if I was able to offer any worthwhile advice. I was in a daze and my hosts must have regarded this as a complete wasre of time. At lunch the hangover and jet lag kicked in and I collapsed. I was taken back to Ken’s house and fell into a deep sleep made uncomfortable by the humidity and heat of this semi-tropical part of Australia. I had to be wakened up in order to get ready to attend another reception for me. Dinner followed! The rest of my days in Darwin were very pleasant. I attended the Grand Northern Footie Final – a thorough introduction to OZ culture in the Northern Territories. Before coming out I had asked if it would be possible to visit Aboriginal communities but permission to do so was denied by the Northern Territories administration. It was therefore interesting to see several ‘star’ Aboriginal players playing for both teams in the final and also the large number in the crowd. In meeting and chatting to different people after my lecture I was invited to visit an Aboriginal housing development by the community architect who designed it with the assistance of the people living there. However Darwin presented all the evidence one needed to be aware of how life was lived by many Aboriginal people having to come to terms with adjustments to western society. While there were many well off Aboriginals to be seen around for the majority this was not the case. This continuing tragedy which I saw everywhere I visited was of course well known but to see it in reality was shocking. Alice Springs was as romantic a joy as it could ever have been – a friendly, generous host, Jonah Jones, Director of the Araluen Arts Centre, trips to amazing landscapes, Simpson’s Gap, abundant and exotic wild life and the visit to Ayer’s Rock. At the end of my talk a beautiful young woman came up to me and said that she was to ‘look after me for the next few days’. Barbara Cameron Smith did just that. She picked me up, drove to the airport and we boarded a small Fokker turbo prop plane. I’m not going to go into many more superlatives after this but the pilot was keen to show us the most stunning views of the Red Centre – the furrowed Macdonnell Ranges, the Olgas and the Rock itself which he flew around so that we could see it in all its magnificence. Barbara worked for the Parks Department and this was her final visit to the Rock before moving to another part of Australia.. We were picked up by a Park Ranger (yet another with a Scottish /British connection) who stopped en route to the motel to catch a Devil Molloch to show me. A quick check-in and Barbara appeared in the briefest of shorts, bare feet and a borrowed beat up car from the Parks Dept. There had been thunderstorms in the area and at one point this visit to the Rock had been in jeopardy. The earth road up to the Rock was full of huge pools of water and Barbara drove into one at speed cutting out the engine. She was desperate to get on and get there and that only made matters worse. I cautioned that we let the engine dry out. We did so and I got the car going again only for it to cut out at another pool of water. Turned out that the accelerator was getting stuck, revving up the engine and hitting the water too fast. At 45 years of age climbing the Rock was very hard for me and the struggle was an early sign of my first heart attack four years later. The first and steepest part had a chain without which I couldn’t have made it and, on getting to the top of that section, I threw myself into one of the cold pools of water that had formed as a result of the storms. What a relief that was. We met a couple coming down and a young American passed us at speed heading for the top. We three were alone on the top of Ayers Rock. It is not possible to climb the Rock anymore. The Australian Government agreed to respect the Aboriginal belief in its sacredness and forbade any further incursions into and on it. It is now protected by the law and by Aboriginal people. As is well known it is now called Uluru. From the top one could only see flat, limitless desert apart from the nearby distinctive lumpy Olgas – a group of huge mountain-size rocks. I say desert but again the rains had turned the desert into meadows of blooming wildflowers. So much of my visit to Australia features moments and experiences of uniqueness. This day my birthday the 30th March was a magical one. I learned later that Neil and Lyndsay Cameron, having got a hold of my itinerary, had set out to drive from Adelaide with the plan of surprising me by being on the Rock on this very day. They didn’t make it because the same thunderstorms had made the road unpassable in places. They did get to the Rock two days later! I was now made aware of Barbara’s anxiousness. The sun was beginning to go down and another ritual had to be observed. We got down to the car as fast as I could make it and drove like mad to a spot to the north of the Rock. A crowd of people had gathered for the event – sunset on the Rock. My slide images show it well. The colour of Uluru goes from a deep red to a cold grey blue and all the shades in between as the sun slowly descends below the horizon. Forgive me I must just once more say – it was stunning and one of the most magical experiences of my life. Pity about the food though. I had already had some awful meals already but this continued throughout much of my visit. Here at the run-down motels near to the Rock the food was the worst of all. Ostensibly Andrea and Deborah had justified my visit to the Rock by scheduling a meeting for me with the planners of a new tourist town, Yulara, situated north of the Rock. It was near enough for visitors to this wonder of the natural world but invisible from the top of the Rock being located in a slight depression in the desert. However they were not too interested in talking much and neither was I. The place was already well-developed and there was nothing useful I could offer. Thus it was that Andrea regarded it as a present to me from the Australia Council. The motel and campsite area where we stayed was the place where the infamous ‘dingo baby death’ took place two years before. All of that has now been swept away. Another gift from Andrea was a couple of hours stopover at Mount Isa en route to Brisbane. It is a mining company town and the lady who met me was determined to take me to the mine whereas I wanted to see the town centre. I had already noticed that every town had a substantial war memorial and I determined to photograph as many as I could. I managed to do both the mine and the war memorial. The former was very impressive producing copper, lead, zinc and silver it was the biggest mining operation in Australia and at the time the company that owned the mines was the country’s largest. I realised why I had been given this opportunity. I’m not intending here to give a blow-by-blow account of every place I visited and lectured in. I still have my diaries and notes and the report I wrote for the Australia Council after I returned to Dartington. I may yet do it but not here. However stand-out moments I hope will give a flavour of the rest after this lengthy introduction. I’ve always regarded my lecture at the Queensland Department of Architecture as one of the most well-received and one of the high points of my tour. One never fully knows the chemistry of how it happens. The evening did not begin well. Not unusually there were technical problems, no carousel the audience was already gathering and people were being introduced to me all the time. Some of my slides were out of order as they had been used for a television interview earlier in the day. However I did have a strategy that worked very well. For my lecture tour in the USA I had brought with me an LP of Irish folk music, ‘Chieftains No. 4’ and had great fun when being asked in advance what equipment I wanted for my lecture and replying, a record player. A shocked – RECORD PLAYER!? would be the response at which I would say, and a slide projector. I took to playing this record before every lecture. So during this delay I managed to put on the Chieftains record to assuage the now full to overflowing lecture theatre (some people were turned away). While all this was going on one of the lecturers came over and literally gave me a ‘telling-off’ for playing Irish music and not Scottish music. I was utterly shocked and stunned by this attack and responded by saying that it was Celtic music and the Scots are Celts. This person had been born and brought up in Fife, Scotland and he had carried, and obviously nurtured, this anti Irish prejudice to Australia. My talk generated so many interesting questions and responses and the applause was so loud and long that I was riding a cloud at the end of it. Andrea met me at Sydney Airport and took me back to her place where I would stay for the two weeks I was to be in Sydney. The house was perched above the landing stage at Cremorne right on Sydney Harbour. Branches of a lemon tree in full fruit thrust their way into my bedroom. A friend had been dispatched to the fish market and came back with king prawns, oysters, lobster, crab all of which was washed down with bottles of champagne accompanied with toast and caviar. What a welcome to Sydney! Hectic days followed of radio and television interviews, lectures, lunchtime seminars to the city’s planners. The Easter weekend was spent at Cassilis a hundred mile drive into the countryside to a retreat owned by a Sydney gallery owner. A ramshackle hut formed the living quarters while a ‘rammed’ mud house was being built to which all visitors were expected to contribute their sweat and toil. Showering was done in the woods with the help of a tiny wood burning stove – amazing. O What should have been a wonderful few days was spoiled by the fact that I had a massive lecture coming up. I regret now accepting the invitation to speak at the ANZAAS – Australia/New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science – conference. I worked too long and too hard on it. I spent the days at Cassilis worrying and working away at the talk. Further, one of the other guests one evening somehow seemed to accuse me of bringing bramble bushes and rabbits to Australia. The former is a huge problem as the bush has grown and spread so much that it covers thousands of square miles of impenetrable land. The rabbits we know about. The two-week stay in Bowral followed. It was truly a wonderful experience; meeting artists of all art forms from all over the country wedded to intense discussions on what I came to describe as ‘social art practices.’ Again I won’t go into any great detail here as I’ve written it up elsewhere. However it was here that some people began to try to persuade me to settle in Australia. One artist wanted me to set up a partnership with him at an arts centre he was planning to open between Melbourne and Geelong. The other was more remarkable. Andrea had just been promoted and people wanted me to apply for her job as head of community arts at the Australia Council. I was encouraged to do so by several other people later as well. Much as I was flattered by the persuasive invitations, I never ever really gave it any serious thought. The next stop was Canberra – a great big new town – the Federal Capital. Deborah came to Bowral to pick me up and drive me there and it was nice to do this part of the journey as a road trip. On one day an ABC TV team took me up a high hill overlooking the city and asked me what I would do with it. I felt like Jesus being taken to the top of the mountain. Of course there was little I could offer and I’m sure what I said were some comfortable platitudes. The media always want something more provocative. I was now well-aware that Andrea and Deborah had, in some respects and in good faith, sold me as some kind of genius of town planning. It was here that another old friend from Edinburgh turned up. Like Neil, Peter Stitt had also got to know of my itinerary and that I would be having lunch in the office of the head of the School of Architecture. In the middle of it he burst into the room, strode up to me and said, ‘David, when you’ve lived in Edinburgh you’re spoiled for the rest of the world!’ Peter and I had been at art school together,worked in London and generally been ‘mates.’ However we had grown apart somewhat so it was a shock to meet him but as always with Peter, great fun. It renewed our friendship which lasted until he died. On to Melbourne and some respite as I stayed with my good friend Nora McGrath.  This was an especial joy for me.  Nora had run the Grail Book and Art Centre in George Street in Edinburgh.  She had helped me through some rough times and was Godmother of my youngest child Benedict.  She was simply one of the world’s good people.  I also had time to meet up with Neil and Lindsay and see the work they were doing. So many people I met on this trip had been to the UK and to Scotland some of whom had worked as architects in Livingston, Cumbernauld and had visited Glenrothes. Others like Neil had decided to settle there. The lecturing and seminars and meetings were relentless. I had got a call from the head of the art school in Launceston, Tasmania asking if I could go there and give a lecture. It wasn’t on the programme but I agreed. I flew over in the morning and flew back in the evening. Then there was a memorable visit and lecture in Knox a town on the outskirts of Melbourne.  The lecture went very well and I met a number of very committed and interesting  people among whom my host, Robert McMurray, stood out.  He came to visit me later in the UK and we corresponded for some time after.

As I’ve said the press coverage of my visit was massive and it threw up some very nice episodes. In Melbourne just as I arrived at the museum to give my talk I was informed that a man wanted to see me since he had known me in Edinburgh. It turned out to be the landlord of a flat in Stockbridge where Frances and I rented a room just prior to setting off for Nigeria twenty years before. In Perth a similar thing happened though this time it was even more remarkable as the person concerned, Sammy Brooksbanks, had been at St Mary’s in Leith with me and we had been in the Scouts together. I hadn’t seen him since the early 50s. I returned to Sydney to give the ANZAAS lecture. It wan’t good but not as bad as I had anticipated. I also managed to get to see Peter’s installation/performance ‘Nurenburg’ at the Sydney Bienale. On then to Adelaide where I stayed with Annie Newmarch who had visited me at Dartington. Annie was a major and hugely respected figure in social art practice in Australia leading later to being awarded the equivalent of an Australian ‘gong.’ We had met at Bowral and we bonded extremely well. A couple of days of lectures and discussions with artists and finally the long flight to Perth. Here I gave two big lectures and during the discussion after one of them a man in the audience said, ‘Everything that David Harding has said about Glenrothes is true. I should know, I used to live there!’ In both Adelaide and Perth people approached me to ask if I would do another talk/seminar/workshop whatever but all of them I had to refuse. I was finished. The programme of the tour was extremely full and by Adelaide and Perth I was beginning to feel the strain. Some days had consisted of lectures in the morning, afternoon and evening and all the time being lavished by Australian hospitality a feature of the visit I have never forgotten. The final count was: thirteen lectures, twelve seminars, six receptions, nine formal meetings, five TV programmes, six radio programmes, eleven newspaper interviews, one recording session and the two-week workshop at Bowral. Some workload by any measure during a two-month period. It was Andrea Hull as Head of the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council ( she went on to become Principal of the Victorian College of the Arts), who extended the invitation to come to Australia and Deborah Mills who organised the details of the visit. Both of them were/are impressive and charismatic people. As an example of the thoroughness with which Andrea approached my visit she came to the UK the year before I went. We met in Edinburgh and I took her to Glenrothes and organised for her to see as much as possible. This included attending one of Neil Cameron’s large scale events at a castle in Fife and a performance at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by the theatre group from Easterhouse. Undeniably I saw Australia through ‘rose-coloured spectacles.’ I never really met that right-wing ‘okker’ Australia that is so much part of the character of the place. I was met and handed on each time to even more wonderfully supportive and sympathetic artists, art officers and art lovers who showed me immense generosity. I was impressed by the active, radical cultural activities of the trade unions and town councils. I subsequently read in some Australian publication a reference to the time before David Harding’s visit and the time after it. The notion of the Town Artist certainly interested a number of town councils resulting in the employment of artists though not, as far as I could gather, on quite the same basis as I had been employed in Glenrothes. It was a fantsatic unforgetable trip and I haven’t done it justice in this ‘romp’. That’s been done elsewhere but I hope it gives enough of the flavour of the odyessy for which I have been undeniably grateful.