Last night, at a farewell function, I met a colleague I hadn’t seen for some years, and we chatted not only about the man we were farewelling, but also about the time of our youth, for we were PhD students at the same time in the same place. It was easy to recall that time with pleasure — the early 1960s. We were young, enjoying the incredible pleasure of being paid for doing what we loved doing, and knowing that we had a bright future doing much the same either there or somewhere else.
The university was different, too. It was smaller, much smaller, less competitive internally, less frantic. People were generous with their time, helpful to one another, especially the young. I remembered knocking on the doors of the famous and great, and being invited in, and assisted. It seemed natural. And in time, some of the great and famous became my friends. It was a wonderful time in our lives.
I made some critical comment about the great changes that have taken place in the university world and in our society generally. He agreed, but said, ‘We shouldn’t regret the changes. They’re inevitable. We should just accept that we were privileged, and that life goes on. Others can’t have what we had, but things have to change.’
I thought about that little exchange later , and thought how wise he was. Would I still want the university of 1961? No, what we have today is much more useful to the whole society. Does it have problems? Yes, but today’s people are dealing with them. And no doubt there are young people there today who can’t believe their luck in being given a scholarship to do what they love doing, and are good at.
‘Change’ is a problem for all of us. On the whole it is something that others should engage in, while we hang on to what we like about the present, and resist efforts to change that. And then I began to think about the disadvantages of being back in 1961, in Canberra. It wasn’t hard to summon them up. In no particular order, here are a few of them. I’ll bypass computers, the Internet, the mobile phone and the rest of the gadgets we can’t live without today.
Two things come to mind at once. Flies were a constant problem. Canberra was small in area, and sheep were still pastured on the flats of the Molonglo River, now submerged beneath Lake Burley Griffin. Some houses had flyscreens, but that was not common. Blowies and sweat flies were a constant menace in the warmer weather. I won’t say they’re gone, but they are no longer a problem.
Problem number two was ‘cold’. Central heating was yet to appear in houses, and Canberra’s winters were a time of rugging up, shivering and icicles. Your car’s windscreen was likely to be covered with hard frost when you came out of the cinema. Yes, we had electric radiators, but electricity was expensive, and we were all poor. Canberra is now largely centrally heated in winter, and that makes a huge difference. Sydney in winter seems much colder.
The ‘tyranny of distance’, Geoff Blainey’s wonderful title for his book, can stand for a third disadvantage of that time. Most of us in Canberra had come from somewhere else, and somewhere else was a long way away. Much of the NSW road system was still gravel. And though the road to Sydney, where my own parents lived, was tarred, it was a long drive. I’d heard of people doing it in four hours! They must have been crazy. When I left for England, it was by ship, and took six weeks. Our correspondence with people overseas was by aerogramme, and a brisk exchange took about two weeks.
Oh, and for people like us, who wanted to subscribe to magazines and journals from overseas, money could be a problem. I had to make out a long application at the bank to subscribe to an American academic journal, because US dollars were scarce. Books were expensive, and we simply could not buy some books which were widely available abroad, for six months or so.
I could go on. Would I trade all the disadvantages of the early 1960s for the pleasures of my working life then? It’s a silly question, but exploring the answer gives some balance to the cries we do hear from time to time about ‘what we have lost’.