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When worlds collide...

By Garry Wotherspoon - posted Wednesday, 22 February 2012

It has long been a 'rite-of-passage' for young Australians to take time out, to go and live and work overseas for a period of time, and in 1972 I made my move. I was then employed as a Senior Tutor in the Faculty of Economics at Sydney University, so I booked my ticket to London and gave notice. Britain was still then regarded as the appropriate place for young Australians to go to, although the sixties, with a little help from the Beatles, had introduced the idea of India and Kashmir and kaftans and ashrams – and drugs.

I had a higher degree and presumed I would be able to get a research job at a university or research institute somewhere in England - London preferably. But it wasn't to be: despite my excellent references and several interviews, those interviewing me could not understand how a young academic would simply quit a job at a university, and just 'go overseas'! There must be something wrong with me; I was a suspect product, and a colonial to boot.

So with no job offers, but with money saved, I settled in London, in Chelsea, near to Kings Road. And in the aftermath of the swinging sixties, there was much to involve me, and I did indulge myself with the galleries, films, the music scene, short trips to places like Bristol or Edinburgh, Brighton, Cowles, or Portsmouth. But all under the predominantly grey English skies, with only brief glimpses of daylight when winter arrived.


But as a gay man, I was also keen to explore what London had to offer. Going to places like the Coleherne, Bromptons, the Boltons, the Catacombs, and the A & B (the discreet name for the Arts and Battledress Club, an over-refined gentlemen's club where Lord Boothby appeared occasionally) were part of learning how another culture dealt with a similar identity. There were more furtive pleasures to be experienced at the Biograph near Victoria Station or in some of the seedy porn parlours of Soho, while Hampstead Heath was such an expedition to get to. But London had no ghetto, and it wasn't easy – or cheap – to spend a night flitting from place to place, as it had been in Sydney.

Perhaps I had been spoiled by Sydney's gay life – apart from the flourishing commercial scene, there were many activist groups, and I had involved myself in both worlds. In Sydney, even though gay life was still illegal, it flourished in the Oxford Street ghetto area; in London, proximity was not a feature. And it was stultifying in so many ways, which gradually intruded into the awareness: Britain was hidebound by class, and struggling with new ethnicities. Traditions were hallowed, and I found many of the English stuffy, concerned about school and clubs and whom one knew. And while as a gay man I did know many people across those social boundaries – everyone from airline stewards to concert pianists to novelists to yachties to hustlers, and even a bit of minor royalty [the gay world crossed class and ethnicities in a way that the heterosexual world does not] - it was a shock to confront a society where these questions were even asked.

All in all, I spent about six months in London itself, with the rest of the year travelling to more exotic locations, because one advantage of London was that it tour central for Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. So occasionally I would go on one of those six-week tours, usually via Protea Tours (we colonials stuck together). In this way I travelled with other young adventurers, staying in camping grounds, but usually close to all the places to see in France, Germany, Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, and then Spain, Portugal and north Africa, across the Atlas Mountains into Fez and Marrakesh, and back along the coast through Casablanca and Tangier. I experienced new foods, unusual cultures, different values, and loved it all.

It was three years later, in 1975, that I first went to America. After my year in London, I had returned to Sydney and got my old job back at Sydney University (my replacement had turned out to be 'unacceptable' to the Head of the Department). A few publications, good teaching reports, and a need for new talent in an expanding discipline saw me given a tenured lectureship. In 1974 I had met some Americans who were visiting Sydney, and they encouraged me to come and visit, so, on my first sabbatical, I went to Los Angeles. My field of research was Urban Studies, particularly relevant for Australians, as we had sprung, a fully formed urban society, from the womb of the First Fleet. And American cities were also groping with the problems that were confronting Australia's highly urbanized society, of city core decay, of high volume transport in a tram-less world, of ageing infrastructure, and of what to do to protect of our historical built environment..

It could have been the setting – eternal blue skies, the warm weather, lots of gum tress in Silverlake where I lived, the easy acceptability of those in California, who like many Sydney-siders were born somewhere else - but I took to California like a duck to water. The morning drives to the UCLA campus in Westwood were bliss compared to trips on the London underground among the teeming masses. People were more casual, more easy to talk to [Americans are loquacious, even if they don't have a lot to say); life was more relaxed, and as an Australian, I was seen as something exotic, not as that subspecies – a colonial. Visiting scholars gave interesting talks; experiences were compared; ideas thrown around, queried and contested. It was a very stimulating environment, not constrained by traditions that had to be adhered to. And academically, they were interested in what I was interested in. Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, had led people to new paths of research across disciplines, and it was a vibrant time for working in cross-cultural research, where history and economics and sociology and geography all gave input into one's thoughts and writings.

And as a gay man, Los Angeles was bliss; a very open society in those days, adventurous and ethnically mixed, and no one interested in what school you had been to, or what your family did. There were unusual bars, and parties and pot, and beats like Griffith Park; gay life was enough like Sydney to make one feel at ease, while different enough to stimulate the senses.


Both these trips widened my horizons – but in very different ways. Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight, I would say that for a young Australian in the 1970s, London represented Australia's past, while Los Angeles represented a new, and very different, future. They were both 'aspirational' cities, a magnet for those seeking another way of life. London represented tradition and conventionality (especially if you liked flogging aging ex-schoolboys across their bare buttocks); Los Angeles had its Hollywood dream factory, a world of David Hockney paintings come alive, of swimming pools and eternal sunshine, cults like Est, and lots of sex and drugs and rock and roll. The 'siren song' aspects of certain lifestyles to be had there – the charms, the challenges, and the costs – were beautifully captured in songs like Bob Seeger's Hollywood Nights or the Eagles Welcome to the Hotel California; for some a place of infinite possibilities, but, for many, the site of eternal disappointment.

One was a city accreted over centuries, the other a city largely a product of little more than half a century, and though I have been back to them both quite often, these days neither appeals very much any more. Asia beckons…

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About the Author

Garry Wotherspoon is a former academic and NSW History Fellow, whose books include Sydney’s Transport: Studies in Urban History, The Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts: A History, and Gay Sydney: A History. He was awarded Australia’s Centenary of Federation Medal for his work as an academic, researcher and human rights activist.

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