It Was a Very Stimulating Period

I started as an Arts/Law student and still had another two years to go, when I found myself in a Land Law lecture reading The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger, failing to take any law notes. A few days later I went to see the Professor and said, “I’ve decided not to go ahead with law.” I finished my English Literature Honours at UQ in 1959.

I won a scholarship to Oxford doing an undergraduate degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. Unfortunately, I developed depression and had to be hospitalised for ten months at the Warneford Hospital, in Oxford. This meant I couldn’t continue the weekly one-on-one tutorials in order to complete the degree. For a time, I didn’t know whether to stay in England or come back to Australia, but I eventually made the decision to stay and complete a Bachelor of Letters.

By late 1964, I still didn’t know what I wanted as a career. I wasn’t even thinking that way – I just kept studying. Study was the point of life. But then a friend sent me a job advertisement for a lecturer in the English Department at UQ. Being successful in my application, I subsequently come back to Australia in 1965. [On my return] there wasn’t a reigning rationale of English studies at UQ in the way that there was at Cambridge or Melbourne. The underlying assumption at UQ was that the study of English was part of literary history.

[The] full story of why I shifted my allegiance [from F.R. Leavis to Raymond Williams], isn’t just about reading, it’s also about what happened at UQ in the late ’60s. It kicked off with the Big March in September 1967. The March began with a large banner printed with – We are not marching with a permit. They’d given us a permit at the last minute, but we tore it up to show that we believed that protesters shouldn’t need a permit. The Big March went from UQ to Roma Street where the police stopped us. Four thousand people participated in the Big March. It was a confrontation in Roma Street involving UQ, as an institution worried about civil liberties, and the State. Protests against conscription, (at the time), were attended by small numbers of people, but this Big March was saying, “Why are the police discriminating against this minority who are protesting about the Vietnam War?”

With the American response to the matrix of the civil liberty issues, a new dialogue arose on campus between people who came from diverse backgrounds and a movement gradually emerged. A radical movement that instigated fresh intellectual liveliness on campus. If you compare the student movement at UQ with student movements in Monash, Sydney, Melbourne, and other universities, I think UQ’s was the most significant.

In those days there was The Forum. People would consecutively get up and talk about political issues, sometimes till late afternoon. I think my involvement in that also interacted dialectically with my weekly teaching. The kind of issues that were coming up in those protracted discussions fed into my preoccupations as a teacher.

You could imagine Williams speaking at The Forum, but you couldn’t imagine Leavis. Williams was a fully-accredited, literary-critical mind, training that mind on the interaction of literary, political, cultural and other values. For me, that was a highly attractive way to understand the world. […]

At the time, I thought, “Here we are at the end of about twenty-three years under the dominance of Robert Gordon Menzies and particularly Brisbane, this exaggerated provincial sleepiness.” I remember writing an editorial in Semper about how UQ should stand for something that was in contradiction to the general spirit of the place. The way I looked on people like Lindsay and Stephensen, wouldn’t have been in terms of their precise political alignments, but in terms of their having a liveliness and intellectual rigour and vigour that countervailed the attitudes of a sleepy, apathetic town. That’s always been part of my attitude to UQ.

[…] In 1970, the radical movement at UQ was well into the process of trying to make UQ more democratic. The vanguard of the student movement produced a manifesto about UQ and we wanted what we called ‘Student/Staff Control’. A comprehensive overhaul of the governing bodies, so that UQ would be run by the people who did the teaching and the learning. It wasn’t just based on abstract democratic theory. We said, “Look, there’s certain institutional consequences that should flow from the ideal of the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of criticism.”

My thinking about universities was influenced by people like Newman. That mid-nineteenth century view that the university should value knowledge for its own sake and facilitate interactions between staff and students to achieve that. Intellectuals should be equal regardless of their actual full institutional status.

Up the Right Channels was written by one hundred people – I was one of the editors. It originated in a leaflet that I had written at the end of ’69, calling for a meeting of anyone interested in critiquing UQ. Many people responded, and it led to weekly meetings, at 22 Schonell Drive, where many student radicals lived. I remember meetings of the English Department with about one hundred people in the committee, about fifty students and an equal number of staff. You cannot imagine that now. […]

The project we had then would be absolutely side-lined now. But there was a period there where it looked as though we might have succeeded. […]. I’m perpetually astonished that nothing like that ever happens any more.

Dan O’Neill

Dan O’Neill was a leader in Brisbane’s radical movement in the 60s and 70s. He also edited Galmahra, a forerunner of Sugarcane, in 1960. This text is an edited extract from an interview published in the second issue of Sugarcane (published 2018).