A Book of Doors

Review by Raymond Evans

Anne Richards, A Book of Doors (AndAlso Books, 2020).

These were better days. Definitely: perhaps so much better because we were young back then. And those who were there naturally see them through that rosy-golden glow. But more likely better because it was us – the young ones ourselves – who had made them better. That is what is often missed: we were actually the vectors of historical advance. We took hold of the times and wrestled them to our novel requirements. We rode them with exhilaration for a while to the forefront of surging change.

That small segment of our generation, that is, who were prepared to stand up and stand out – to do and dare and do again … Seems rather Herculean now somehow; though no more than necessary back then. To think differently from the mob in repressive times and to court such risk. To enter struggles gamely with incendiary hearts. To savour all the private rewards of that and to chance all the probable pains.

For to stand out against the military conscription of male youth and an immoral war convulsing South-East Asia in Brisbane, Queensland in the 1960s and ‘70s was definitely to risk some pain. To feel, as well, that there was something radically wrong with the ingrained, habitual treatment of ‘minorities’ – Aborigines, gays, Asians and virtually all women – and to try to do something about it was also certainly to encounter backlash and trouble.

It meant confronting the militant conformity of a hostile public and a nasty-mouthed media. It meant risking acute and heart-rending family breakages and tangling with some frantic policing. But it was also an invitation to field such blows in indisputably righteous causes, to taste the sweet vindication of all that and to find one’s own embattled tribe.

That is what Anne Richards did. In roughly the same place and time, I was acting similarly – but certainly not in the same circumstances as her. Whereas I had a radical Welsh working class tradition at my back and thus the cautious blessing of my parents, Richards faced intimate draconic opposition. It is no small sacrifice to let go of your big, encompassing Catholic family – the wrath of your outraged, reactionary father ringing in your ears – and to step out into the street with pounding heart, following the call of a simple ideal: the belief – so often vindicated since – that the Vietnam debacle was utterly wrong and that each one’s puny weight – however inconsequential – had to be thrown onto the grinding wheels of war in order to stop them.

And in our own small way we did that; or at least we lined gamely up, again and again, on the right side of that equation. Conscription ended; the war ended; the troops came home. Mere handfuls of young idealists had begun that fight in city streets years before – 1964 in Brisbane – and that fight was stoutly maintained into the following decade. In the most ‘hawkish’ nation in the world in terms of war support, those initial bleats of protest had turned by 1970 into a mighty roar.

Then, as Richards dramatically shows, the following year that fight was extended against South African apartheid – the most intense system of institutional racist oppression on the planet. Once again, this re-engagement was fought out in a country still maintaining the last vestiges of the White Australia Policy and incarcerating Aboriginal peoples on reserves, in gaols and sundry other hell-holes. Her account relives the fear experienced in the face of rabidly inflamed police with their horses and batons and that lunatic State of Emergency, called by a clearly lunatic Premier, to defend a tainted football fixture from moral censure.

The demonstrators did not manage, of course, to stop apartheid. That was left to South African school children years later. But what we did do was to halt the sporting tours – Don Bradman being symbolically the one to sign off on the decision. And, as well, the White Australia Policy was terminated soon after, as gradually indigenous racial segregation was painfully dismantled.

It clearly seemed then that out of protest came progress. Such victories in Australian terms were epochal. And all around were the seismic cultural changes rolling inexorably along in their indelible beauty: the swirling, pounding, mesmeric music carrying spirit forward into life-altering action; the new cinema; the revolution in drama and theatre; the new poetics; all the new treatises – In Fear of Freedom, Catch-22, Future Shock, Ramparts, Rolling Stone, Oz, The Whole Earth Catalogue, Up the Right Channels and so on – the flowerings of communalism, sexual and drug experimentations – all shredding the tired old canvas of conventional class, racial, moral and gendered certainties.

Down all of these rabbit-holes, to a remarkable degree, Richards’ life enthusiastically plunges. A review of that journey should not presume to give the detailed game away. Read it for yourself and discover the surprises; or, if you once passed this way too, be revitalized by such encounters from long ago.

In The Book of Doors, as one door closes another opens – rather like, as the old joke goes, in the $100.00 white 1953 FJ Holden, ‘Shadowfax’ that carries the Highgate Hill household into brimming adventures – Byron, Stradbroke, the Sunshine Coast, Canberra, Nimbin and so on. This was an era of movement and joy when the young, radical Left embraced freedom. In these darkening days, it was such a personal invigoration to be returned there by this book. ‘Liberty is terrifying but it is also exhilarating,’ as Germaine Greer would write. If you are old enough and intrepid enough, you may thoroughly understand what that means. ‘Ok, Boomer!’ indeed.

As this uplifting account shows, in the most diehard reactionary capital city of ultra-conservative Australia at that time, activist youth did its level best to raise a rebel chorus, defiantly sung, long and hard. Thus, in absorbing Richards’ memoir, I sometimes found myself revisiting in my head another old song, hearing Bill Medley’s voice, relaying over and over the single line: ‘I’ve had the time of my life …’

I wonder what song it will sing to you.

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