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‘The Political is Personal: A 20th Century Memoir’ by Judith Buckrich

Judith Buckrich was born in Hungary in 1950 of a communist father and Jewish mother. Her book The Political is Personal: A 20th Century Memoir started life as a testament to her father, Antal Bukrics, known as Anti, but ended up as a personal memoir. The book recounts growing in Melbourne, the cauldron of politics at Monash University in the late 1960s and a life led where the personal and political have always been intertwined.

As Arnold Zable writes in his introduction to the book: “Buckrich is typically direct and frank in writing of her own adventurous life. The women’s movement and sexual politics take centre stage—alongside sharp observations of the challenges of the writing life. The achievement of this book is a promise fulfilled—the personal is indeed viewed against a far bigger canvas, yet throughout, the political is always reflected in the life-story—and always achingly human”.

The Political is Personal: A 20th Century Memoir by Judith Buckrich is published by Lauranton Books.

The image above is of Judith Buckrich and her father in 1967.

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Like a Fish in Water

 

My adult life began in 1969. By a fluke, considering my poor matriculation results, I managed to be accepted into a new ‘experimental’ law course at Monash University in Clayton; the Law School was accepting students without the usual high marks needed to study law subjects. Really I had wanted to enrol in an arts degree, but my results were insufficient. Still, all that really mattered was that I would be studying at Monash, which was a centre of radical student activity.

Summer had included camping for a week in January at a caravan park at Rye beach on the Mornington Peninsula with Lyn and a few other school friends. I broke up with John Jobling during that week. For quite a while, I had been leading a double life: one ‘me’ fitted in with my predictably unpredictable family; the other, different ‘me’ was growing into itself, and away from my parents and conventional ideas. I would have to wait to feel free to behave unconventionally, but not to think whatever thoughts I wished. Because of Dad I was allowed to be publicly passionate at home about politics and ideas. Occasionally my conversation with Dad moved into the topic of the metaphysical. On some evenings we sat looking at the stars, and talked about what might be ‘out there’. We visited the National Museum of Victoria and the National Gallery of Victoria now and again, and I had always been able to talk about history and literature with him.

Sometimes my behaviour did go too far, as exemplified during summer camp of 1969. My downfall was the non-stop talking with Lyn. We were inside that institution ubiquitous in Australian camping sites, the ladies’ ablution block. There were six shower cubicles in a row, and Lyn and I had been lucky to arrive in a rare moment when the block was empty. We took adjacent cubicles, and talked about boys. I washed my long hair. After a while I forgot where I was, and began to discuss some of my sexual experiences, including a very pleasurable encounter I had had with a boy who made incredible efforts to prepare me to fuck—which I had refused. I also described what I did to him, all at the top of my voice. Lyn and I emerged from the showers startled to find a queue of women waiting. We were visited an hour later by the camp caretaker, and asked to leave. I begged and pleaded and apologised, and after many promises he permitted us to stay.

Back in Melbourne the newspapers were full of claims concerning a student plot to take over several universities. There were also articles about The Beatles’ last public appearance on the roof of the Apple Records building at Savile Row in London. Thousands of fans gathered in the street to hear the unpublicised concert, which became part of Let it Be, the band’s last album. The performance was forcibly stopped because neighbours complained about the noise.

I was able to pay my university fees from scholarship money that my parents had put away for me in 1967. There was, however, no chance of moving out of home. A little dream had died when I was not able to audition for the National Institute of Dramatic Arts in Sydney because my parents could not financially support me to live in another city. At Monash University there were so many students, and from so many varied backgrounds; no longer did most university students come from a recognisable and cohesive socio-economic milieu. During the 1960s for the first time in history vast numbers of young people from all walks of life entered university. The so-called ‘baby boomer’ population explosion combined with economic expansion and a large postwar migrant intake to create very different life expectations in Australia from those of the previous generation. Moreover, many students were able to obtain scholarships or studentships to cover the cost of fees. Not only were there more students, but they behaved much more independently. Monash itself was a young university, established in 1961. (Melbourne’s newest university, La Trobe, had opened in 1964.)

From my first day at Monash I was involved in student politics; it was hard not to be, considering the velocity of events and the barrage of propaganda.

I began the academic year at Monash with a giddy sense of excitement and happiness. I purchased the big, thick, expensive law books required. Mum gave me a couple of dollars each day for food, bus fares, and cigarettes (although she was unaware of this last item). I lived in jeans and T-shirts, and in colder weather, jeans and jumpers and a black leather coat I’d had made for me the year before. These clothes were a kind of uniform, and my long blonde hair and dark eye make-up placed me firmly as an ‘alternative’ kind of student, but not a hippie. From my first day at Monash I was involved in student politics; it was hard not to be, considering the velocity of events and the barrage of propaganda. This climate of seething activity suited me perfectly. I felt like a fish that had finally been thrown into water.

The Monash Labor Club was issuing its broadsheet Print on a daily basis in 1969, and on 4 March the first copy of the year contained a terrific mixture of tongue-in-cheek humour, political invective, and call to revolution. It declared that Print had become a daily to ‘enable us to comment on national and international events as they occur (or in the case of Monash news, as we create it!) and to reply to enemy slanders even before they are published’. A paragraph titled ‘Introducing […] The Red Peril’ stated that ‘normally Print would consist largely of brief items reporting the latest gossip, exposing fascist reaction in the Admin building and illustrating the lighter side of US imperialism, together with occasional theoretical polemics against modern revisionist elements within the University’. During Orientation Week, so the writers of 4 March continued, Print would need to devote some space to explaining basic policies and so forth to new students, especially as the Labor Club’s submission to the Official Orientation Handbook had been ‘of course, rejected’. Activities organised for 4 March 1969 were Labor Club working bees; a bookstall offering membership cards, pamphlets, posters, and books; in the evening, a screening of the Marx Brothers film Off to the Circus. Print also suggested that people attend the ‘Vice-Chancellor’s patronising homily to Freshers, 11 am, cafeteria’—not a Labor Club activity, but useful, Print declared, in that it brought the Labor Club many supporters. In the preceding year Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Kevin Charles Westfold had officially banned the Labor Club, and was forced to withdraw the ban within 24 hours as a result of student pressure.

judithweb-buckrich-and-father-anti-c-1967-lr
Judith Buckrich and her father, Anti, in 1967

Considered the largest and most radical student organisation of any university in Australia at the time, the Monash Labor Club was much more radical than the Australian Labor Party (ALP), with which it wanted no association; neither did the ALP welcome an association with the Monash Labor Club. The latter supported the National Liberation Front (NLF), North Vietnam’s arm in South Vietnam, for which it was deemed treasonable by the Australian Government. It cost just fifty cents to join the Monash Labor Club. The Monash Association of Students (MAS) and Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) were also extremely active. The first general meeting I attended was called by the MAS on 13 March, to consider the three month prison sentence handed down to Robert Tillett, a nineteen-year-old who had spray-painted the last two letters of the phrase ‘FREE ZARB’ on a bridge in the Melbourne suburb of Northcote. John Zarb had been imprisoned for refusing to be conscripted for Vietnam. Those attending the general meeting were urged to collect money for legal aid, and enlist the support of the Monash community. We students were always marching for something, often in support of initiatives that are now taken for granted. On 1 March many students from Monash, Melbourne, and La Trobe universities had been booked in the city by police for distributing fifteen thousand leaflets protesting against the National Service Act. The Monash student newspaper Lot’s Wife asserted that this brought the number of such leaflets distributed in Australia to eighty thousand. By 1969 opinion was turning against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and a Gallup poll showed that 55 percent of those surveyed wanted to bring Australian troops home, while only 40 percent wanted them to stay.

In mid-March the Labor Club called a meeting to declare opposition to the Monash University Administration’s attempted introduction of a discipline statute that covered the behaviour of students both inside and outside the university. Essentially the Administration was seeking to curb the power of student revolt, but with every attempt it became easier for the Labor Club to build a following, and to forge radicalism throughout the campus. General Meetings were usually held on the first floor of the Union building, a large, open space where people sat on the floor. Smoking indoors was acceptable in those days, so the carpet took a beating. With the occasional exception, the speakers at these gatherings were male.

There were fewer women than men in my social group, and this was partly because of left-wing politics and the social organisation of the left.

I quickly found myself with a group of first year students who mixed talk about ‘the war’, student activism, and civil rights with conversation about friends, music, parties, sex, ideas, and, in this historic year, the space programme, all of which I loved to discuss. The first space walk between spacecraft had occurred in January, when two Russian cosmonauts transferred from Soyuz 5 to Soyuz 4. In March the USA’s National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched a moon module as part of Project Apollo; it was well known that in 1969 NASA would send men to the moon for the first time.

There were fewer women than men in my social group, and this was partly because of left-wing politics and the social organisation of the left. Women in the Monash Labor Club were often relegated to the typing of news sheets, and to duplicating them on the Roneograph (roneoing), but not to writing content; unsurprisingly women also had roles in the kitchen and in bed. If anyone brought up the issue of women’s rights—a few women were beginning to—they heard the old Marxist guff about ‘those issues being dealt with once the revolution was won’. Despite appearing otherwise, the Monash Labor Club was a bastion of conventional revolutionary struggle. Print acknowledged that it ‘would certainly return to weekly or bi-weekly production […] if [daily publication] begins to interfere with our main work of agitation and organisation’. For the uninitiated, ‘agitation and organisation’, were the cornerstones of communist activism from the time of the Russian Revolution.

All this left-wing idealism and action aside, I was thrilled by the excitement of being among so many beautiful and intelligent young men. After all, I had just spent four years in a girls’ high school, with much of my social life forced into a tiny corridor populated by friends from the Jewish youth group SKIF, and school. So in 1969 I was open to any kind of adventure. I felt that I could be anything, and go anywhere, and I was no hurry to map a direction. The sense of freedom was so profound that neither the presence of my parents nor my unease about not really studying could mar my happiness. The fact that I was unsuited and unready to become a lawyer did not dawn on me. I was then, and remain, bored by the idea of battling my way through situations where too many rules need to be learned. Besides, law classes proved to be a real disappointment.

We talked about existentialism and Jean Paul Sartre, who was still very much alive. We also discussed Allen Ginsberg, whom I loved, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso whom I did not love because they hated women.

It troubled me that there were only four female students in my class, and that I was the only one from a government school. There were interesting male students, one of whom, David Allen, became a good friend. I remember writing to my cousin Lynn in Chicago at the time that David considered himself ‘a cross between Che Guevara and Oscar Wilde’. At Monash I began to spend most of my time with a group of friends (including David) in the little café in the Union building. Albert Langer, President of the Labor Club, held court there. My social group often merged across several tables with his. During the early autumn days we socialised at the Notting Hill Hotel in Ferntree Gully Road, drinking beer and enjoying the sunshine. We talked about music and politics, and it was at this pub that I first heard my friend Paul Adler speak about the American writer and activist Susan Sontag. Paul ended up doing something important at Berkeley in California. Other new friends included David Uren who became a well-known journalist, David Odell who eventually completed a PhD in Pure Mathematics, and the brilliant Ros who looked like Janis Joplin.

We talked about existentialism and Jean Paul Sartre, who was still very much alive. We also discussed Allen Ginsberg, whom I loved, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso whom I did not love because they hated women. At the ‘Nott’ I first heard about Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. Sadly it was not until much later that I discovered two women, Diane di Prima and Anne Waldman among the Beat Poets; the only women writers we discussed were Susan Sontag and Simone de Beauvoir. This highbrow talk was mixed with silly chatter about The Goon Show which we all listened to on ABC radio. We were huge fans of Bob Dylan, and had seen the documentary film Don’t Look Back about his 1965 concert tour to the UK, and his visit with Scottish musician Donovan. The rock bands Iron Butterfly and Led Zeppelin were just rising to fame, and of course we still talked about The Beatles, especially their visit to India and meeting with sitarist Ravi Shankar.

My chief problem was that I was still living with my parents. Dad and Mum disapproved if I stayed at a friend’s place overnight. Often I had no money left, or missed the last bus home from Monash, so I began to hitch-hike home, even at night. Sometimes I had no bus fare because I bought Gitanes and Gauloises, French cigarettes; usually filterless, they were terrible for my lungs, but definitely ‘very cool’. I was always lucky with the hitch-hiking, although men who gave me a lift often lectured me about the dangers. Life at home was mostly drudgery. I was still chained to the vacuum cleaner on Saturday mornings, therefore I could not join my friends earlier than lunchtime.

In mid-April I met Nick Hargreaves, who looked like a figure from a painting by Caravaggio, with dark hair and dark eyes. Like me he was intense. We found ourselves dancing together at a party I had gone to with my ‘sort of boyfriend’ Morry Fraid, one Saturday night. I had been sleeping with Morry for a few weeks, and thought the relationship might be getting serious. Through SKIF friends we had known one another for years, and he was a lot of fun, but my feeling for Nick was entirely different. By eleven o’clock the party had become rather quiet; Morry had fallen asleep, and people had receded away from Nick and me. We were dancing very close, Nick was looking at my face and said I had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen—the next moment we kissed. Morry woke up, and then all three of us took a ride home with someone heading towards Caulfield where we all lived. I thought about Nick all through Sunday, hoping that all the kissing meant something to him too. It was wonderful when he arrived at the Union building café on the Monday and sat down beside me as though we had been together forever. On Tuesday he came home with me and we made love all day in my single bed while my parents were at work. I was now taking the contraceptive pill.

I was so much in love with Nick. Everything was lit up like a flame. I still attended law lectures and tutorials, but I was just going through the motions. My poor tutor—a woman who liked me and wanted so much for me to do well—kept trying to help, but I was not interested, even though occasionally it occurred to me that I was going to fail, and my stomach would turn. My friend David, who turned out to be a friend of Nick’s, was much more studious.

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