By Luisa Mitchell
Garry Feeney was one of the key people working at Grok and within the Curtin University—then the West Australian Institute of Technology—student community in the early 1970s. He helped establish the first on-campus student housing, fought for justice and equality for minority-group students, and wrote some pretty darn hilarious plays.
Here’s what he had to say about his time at uni.
What were you studying at WAIT?
An Associateship in Social Science.
You worked on the Guild’s Strategic Resources Committee as Treasurer for one year in 1971. What are your memories of the Student Guild at the time?
Intense rivalry between conservatives and hard-line leftists. Even more intense rivalry between the hard-line leftists—of which I was one.
Apart from being a “leftie”, in the first edition of Grok in 1972 you’re listed as Grok’s “culturalist”; but you also gained the title of “Sports Editor” or were simply listed under “staff” in other editions. In what ways did you contribute to Grok?
You have to remember this was 50 years ago. It was another planet. There were people who were just there to get a meal ticket and maybe play some sport. Then there was us: the people who were in everything. We did the parties, the drugs, the protests and demos, student politics, the student newspaper and the dramatic society. There was a lot of crossover. The editor of Grok was the sound and lighting guy for the plays we did. I wrote for the paper, acted in plays, served on the Student Guild, picketed Premier John Tonkin when he arrived on campus, protested when the Springboks [South Africa’s apartheid-era, all-white rugby team] came to Perth, and so on.
I wrote all kinds of stuff for the paper. It was amateurish and matey. We couldn’t get anyone to write about sport so I started doing it because I thought that would appeal to the guys who played sport. I can’t remember it all. I wrote the article on Gay Liberation before there was any Gay Liberation in Perth. I wrote “I was Passion’s Plaything”; I did cartoons as Iwaza Inkblot. Rod [Cole—who was Grok’s Editor in 1972] wrote a fair bit of the paper and lifted stuff from other publications.
It definitely seemed like a radical time to be a student. A range of left-leaning political and cultural topics were discussed in the early editions of Grok in the ‘70s, including gay and women’s liberation, anti-conscription and anti-Vietnam War sentiments, environmental issues, and so forth. What was it like being a young man in such a turbulent political and social time?
It was heady and exciting because you really felt like you were a part of what was happening in the world. It was an illusion. This was Perth—the second most isolated city in the world. Nobody gave a damn what we did or said, but for a while there it felt like they did.
Is that why you wrote passionately about gay rights, as a gay man—despite that fact that you’ve told me you’re not one? Did this feel progressive at the time and what inspired you to do it?
Nothing was happening on this issue and I wanted to stir things up. It was the wrong thing to do and I appropriated something I wasn’t entitled to appropriate. But I was young and angry and so sure I was right. It can be like that at 20. Yes, I was passionate about every cause in my heart, but in hindsight I can see it was misguided.
Maybe so, but your writing was still inspiring. You also wrote a damning article in 1972 about student politics and the apolitical nature of students, describing them as being an “inert, amorphous, faceless opposition” to the university administration. You described your formal education as a “complete waste of time.” You openly encouraged criticism of the university environment as a means of facilitating change; why did you feel this way and do you still stand by these opinions?
Academia was very conservative then and most teachers at WAIT were former school teachers, so it was a bit like being at school. Some of my teachers were former ministers of religion which was also quite strange.
Education should be transformative, not controlling or constraining. Everything should be questioned and challenged; nothing should be taken as “gospel”. I could just about write a book in answer to this question, so I will stop now.
That must have been why you liked to write articles that questioned in Grok. What are your strongest memories of writing for the paper?
Sitting around the paper’s offices late into the night helping Rod put it all together, possibly smoking something and having a rave.
There were some hilarious satirical, theatrical scripts written in the first editions of Grok called “WAIT-for-It”. Do you remember who wrote those?
Yes, I wrote this stuff, God forgive me. And I drew the cartoon of me sitting at my thinking desk. The characters were all very thinly disguised members of our inner circle. There was a point to their names. “Quinntessence” (misspelling intended) was Peter Quinn, the very quintessence of realpolitik. “Pole” was the paper’s Editor, Rod Cole, who was a bit of a bean pole, and so on. The “Christmas Swami” was a guy called Krishnashami, one of the very few coloured people on a very white campus. “Kalgoorlie” was Peter Woodward, who worked as a miner in Kalgoorlie before coming on campus, and who was the very essence of that mining town. “Rubenstein” was my mate Tim Robinson, who I used to call Stein because his grandfather had changed the family name from Rubenstein to Robinson—it was sort of our private joke. “Goff Worst” was Geoff West. I can’t remember who the others were off hand but Joe Berry was probably the guy who ran the refectory and one of the characters was obviously a guy in the administration called Cunningham—the “cunning old ham”.
You asked what I thought about the way the student union functioned—well this is what I thought then. But my real inspiration for the scripts was Spike Milligan [co-creator of the Goon Show]. Of course, he didn’t write stuff like this, but it was his style I was ripping off. Very un-PC [humour] though!
You could only get away with it then! How would you describe student politics at the time?
Amateurish and petty.
You worked on an initiative called the Guild Educational Assistance Program, or GEAP. This was an initiative to help people with financial problems access tutoring and education resources, listing “deserted wives”, destitute parents, pensioners and new immigrants as needing the most help. What were you trying to achieve with this program?
Equality of opportunity. But, remembering what I did with GEAP, it reminds me that I was a teaching bursary student. Most of my friends at WAIT were training to be teachers. We attended Teachers Secondary College for about five weeks to a year until we completed our degrees … We initiated this program [GEAP] because we were teachers concerned about disadvantaged kids.
Asides from GEAP, you helped write the report that got the first student housing established at WAIT. Do you remember what your recommendations were and what the report went on to establish?
Three of us managed to get this accepted as our final year assignment for third year sociology and the WAIT Administration paid the costs. We got someone to come up with design for student accommodation—someone in the architecture faculty, perhaps, I don’t remember—and we sent every student on campus a questionnaire surveying a wide range of issues and asking them what they thought of the design. The response was overwhelmingly favourable for the design, which was for independent, unsupervised unit style accommodation. We also got a lot of detailed information about people’s preferences. There is a copy of the report in the library by the way. We recommended the design and it got built.
What are you most proud of working on or achieving during your time at WAIT?
The student accommodation project was the most important thing I did.
Building plans drawn up for the student housing report Feeney co-wrote, which were published in Grok 1972, No. 2.
Do you think that student life and student politics is very different now to what it was like in the ‘70s?
The world changed, so everything changed. University populations have exploded—you guys all need meal tickets. Studying for self-improvement seems to make no sense anymore. What can I say? We become what we consume.
What are you up to now and where can we expect to see you in the future?
I have lived in Sydney since 1980. I am nearly at the end of my working life. I currently work teaching high school students with hearing impairments in a specialised unit. My two sons are grown up and the youngest is just finishing his music degree at UNSW. I will retire in 2020. I haven’t really been on anyone’s radar since my student years and that’s not likely to change.