Episode 21: Sloppy Joe, the Sixties and Radical Politics

Looking to the Great Court

A view of part of the Great Court at University of Queensland

In my first full year at the University of Queensland, I encountered an inspirational Political Science lecturer whose nickname was Sloppy Joe. He was, of course, improbably and completely irresistible on many levels.

Two years earlier, I had started tertiary study as a full-time worker/part-time student. That juggling came to an abrupt halt, when I was severely injured in a car accident in May 1963. Just as I was feeling almost ready to take the plunge back to University, Leith, an intrepid friend, decided she might venture there after her own two-year gap. So two young women from the Southside gave each other courage – to us, UQ seemed to be quite a formidable, distant place in 1965.

This is how the Main building looked in the Sixties.

This is how the Main building looked in the Sixties.

We headed off to St. Lucia, both enrolling in first year Ancient History and Political Science. Leith also pursued Latin and Ancient Greek, while I studied the standard Arts combination of English and French. I had a vague idea that the Pol Sci subject might steer me somehow towards a career in Foreign Affairs, although I didn’t really know how this might happen… I also wanted to understand more about the changing world I was living in.

Uni of Qld

Sandstone building and sculptures at University of Qld

Much more knowledgeable about politics than I was, Leith already had very definite left-wing views. I was somewhat in awe of her. Ill-informed and rather naive, I knew my parents voted Liberal, and that was about all. Quite quickly, I realised how ignorant I was regarding Australia’s political history, and what an embarrassingly superficial understanding I had of global political systems and current affairs.

This Political Science subject was a key part of the learning curve that gave me the basic knowledge and critical tools to understand historical and political contexts, to unpack government propaganda and spin, and to become very wary of the established right-wing media.  However, on a slight downside, one lecturer was the world academic authority on the ALP – DLP split in the Fifties. We started to feel that we all knew far too much about this historical moment, significant though it was.

Rough and Tumble, University-style  

Meanwhile, Leith and I were spellbound by the performance of one star lecturer, the aforementioned Sloppy Joe. Along with many like-minded people, we made sure we arrived at the lecture theatre early, in order to grab a seat near the front. There was always a scramble anyway in Room B 9 in the building called Main Building, which was then renamed the Forgan Smith Building in 1967. This was Baby Boomer time, and many classes were massively overflowing. Late arrivals found they had to sit on the floor – Health and Safety issues weren’t strictly enforced back then. It was first come, first seated.

Near where our classes were held

Inside the building where our classes were held

Outspoken and passionate, Sloppy Joe sparked a palpable taste for revolution, along with a jaunty sexual frisson. With an impeccable English upper-class accent, this declared Marxist in a crumpled suit stirred our imaginations, our longing for understanding and change, and our loins. We were stimulated by Joe’s rather exotic embodiment of a delicious, class-based incongruity reflected in his aristocratic background, juxtaposed against his cutting ideological analysis of the British Westminster system, the scandalously repressive class structures, and the grinding scourge of capitalism. He performed his self-proclaimed radical role with great class and panache.

Over coffee one day, I discovered that cool Nerissa from my English tutorial was having a wild affair with none other than Sloppy Joe. She further fuelled our fantasies with tales of their sexual exploits, which often involved threesomes with another of his girlfriends. As he always looked dishevelled, overtired and unwashed, bad boy Joe certainly lived up to his reputation. These were heady times, and we relished both the myth and the reality.

Looking into the Forgan Smith building

Looking into the Forgan Smith building

At the same time, in our more serious, yet still lively, Pol Sci tutorial, Leith and I were surrounded by a bunch of self-assured, outspoken males. They appeared to have interesting, authoritative views on everything, debating the topics loud and long.  On the one hand, we felt excited by the competing discourses, and, on the other, rather overwhelmed. Although Leith and I did all the reading and came to class well prepared, we rarely felt confident enough to express our own views.

Amongst this vocal group, I vividly recall three well-known blokes, who were promising students at the time: Andrew Olle, Brian Toohey and Angus Innes.  Andrew and Brian became smart, successful journalists (sadly Andrew died too early); Angus went into law and politics, and, at one stage, he was leader of the Liberals in Queensland.  Our tutor was a helpful, tolerant, remarkable American scholar. When I turned up as an academic at UQ over a decade later, we became close friends, a very special relationship that continues to this day.

The Fashion Police and Political Ferment 

At this University in the Sixties, astonishingly regressive rules governing appropriate student apparel still existed. Male students were supposed to wear suits, while female students were forbidden to wear casual jeans or slacks, along with a random, differently coloured shirt. God forbid we would look ‘cheap’, or even comfortable. Modest skirts and blouses or dresses were the preferred mode, but the powers-that-be eventually conceded that a slack-suit, strictly with matching top and pants, could be worn. I did have a winter navy blue slack-suit – not a great look. This was very much the ‘Damned whores and God’s police’ dichotomy in action, with this outdated regulation regime from previous decades grimly holding on, but definitely cracking at the seams.

My cousin and I at Surfers Pardise in a mid Sixties Uni break. We headed off after this photo was taken to enjoy some Pink Elephant Orgasms (cocktails) at the Chevron Hotel bar.

Being a reluctant ‘media star’ with Joan at Surfers Paradise in a Sixties Uni break.  After this newspaper photo was taken, we headed off in casual attire (not slack suits) to socialise, dance to a live band in the Skyline room upstairs, and relish our first ever Triple Orgasms (cocktails) at the Pink Elephant bar downstairs at the Chevron Hotel.

Of course, this was the Sixties. Youth culture was on the move, rebelling against many outdated ideas and controls.   This ferment was embodied in the burgeoning protest movement at Uni, regarding for instance, the vicious repression in Queensland under the National Party governments of Frank Nicklin and then Johannes Bjelke-Petersen. This party governed via an outrageous gerrymander, which, if it hadn’t been so serious in its consequences, would have been laughable. Their track record on civil rights was appalling, and continued to be so over many years.

Many UQ students and staff were also rallying against the Vietnam War, another highly explosive political movement. In my second year, I moved into English Honours, and therefore my time studying political theory was over. However, for the next two years, I was part of an informal discussion group on Queensland and world politics.  This likeminded yet diverse band talked avidly about the current state of play and possible necessary action.

We also attended major forums to engage with the latest political news and ideas.  These illuminating forums were run by such radical groups as the Students for Democratic Action. This was also a time of many student parties around town, including some in a particular run-down building in Petrie Terrace, where heroic, anti-conscription activists hid from the police.

Near the old refectory and relaxation block

Near the old UQ Refectory and Relaxation block

Sex and Disillusionment

Our pretty casual, but still dedicated political discussion group used to meet in the Relaxation Block at least once a week. One day, my future partner (for a time at least) joined us. He had also started Uni late, and was studying History and Politics.  We connected straight away, we married the following year, and were together for the next 11 years or so – a complicated, wild time of love and heartache.

Political protest and the sexual revolution co-existed as the ‘order of the day’.  I was in classes with someone who was nicknamed The Shag Bandit – one way or another, I seem to have had quite a few similarly inclined blokes in my life. This particular Bandit caused quite a stir when he had an illicit affair with one of our lecturers, the Amazing Amelia.

A breath of fresh air, the Amazing Amelia was a veritable vision, with her striking ‘dirty blonde’ hair before it was fashionable, defiantly wearing very short skirts and high leather boots, thereby breaking all dress codes in that stuffy, male-dominated English department.  And not a matching top in sight! She taught us Old Norse, Old Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon English. I fell totally in love with her mind, as well as with these dead languages.  Quite unexpectedly, I took to them like a duck to water – as did Mr Shag Bandit.

The Cloisters

The Cloisters – many secrets still lurk here

Back to Mother England

Their affair did not end well. Just before our final Honours year began, the Amazing Amelia, whom I had hoped would supervise my thesis, abruptly returned with her  husband to England. I subsequently dropped out, which is another story. The Shag Bandit was not very popular in my circle.

Another key person who eventually disappeared back to the ‘Home Country’ was Sloppy Joe. Neighbours of mine, who knew his wife quite well, told me that Joe had transformed himself into a disgruntled Conservative, a stark fact also confirmed by his former colleagues. This news shocked and disillusioned me. I have a theory that he had to revert to his class origins in order to inherit the family fortune, but who knows what the real reason was.

A friend, Hector, now a Professor himself, still vividly recalls his one and only epic encounter with Joe in a Modern Political Ideologies class. That lecture pretty much changed Hector’s life path and philosophical orientation. Inauthentic though Sloppy Joe may have proven to be, at least for some of us in the Sixties, he ignited a precious, enduring torch here in Queensland.

This blog episode is dedicated to my fellow cultural warrior Leith, who sadly died far too young, in her late Twenties. At least she realised her passionate dream of living and working in Greece. I was on my way to see her in Athens when she died. She is much missed. 

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3 thoughts on “Episode 21: Sloppy Joe, the Sixties and Radical Politics

  1. Thanks dear Helen for the memories of UQ and Sloppy Joe. I graduated from Science in1965 but was excited by a lunchtime lecture on Marxism. Maybe he was the lecturer then. My dress code for science was not restricted but bouffant hair and home made suits was my style in the 60s. I was off in Melbourne by 1967 and have carried radical politics from those days.
    The way your mind works has been an inspiration since we worked together as ABC liaison officers. So glad I connected with you and Anne Shearman.
    Look forward to your next blog post.

  2. I have rounded up some comments from emails and Facebook…Thanks to everyone for your support.

    Have been loving your blog. Your youth was more eventful than mine!

    Just read your blog. Loved it. Thanks very much for reminding me of so many interesting times, places and events. I don’t think Sloppy Joe was around when I did Pol Sci. In fact I was never tempted by any of my lecturers, mores the pity, although I was inspired and hired by Paul Reynolds who taught the Modern Political Ideologies and the general Intro to Government courses…
    I also read the one on your school days which, for some reason, I missed and also enjoyed that.

    What potent, different times you have evoked!

    This is a marvellous episode and I feel a novel coming on.

    A fantastic blog Helen!! I was just listening to my HOD Humanities talking to my Yr 11 Modern History students today about the fist fights he got into at UQ after he came back from Vietnam. He was conscripted and served there in 1969. He said that one day after he and a couple of mates had gotten into another fight, they decided to go to the Toowong RSL, but they were kicked out of there as well.
    So interesting to here what uni was like back then. I love the photos! What a stunner you were!

    Thoroughly enjoy your posts, Helen! How times have changed – not only the transformation of conventions and development of political thinking but also the evolution of social and sexual mores. The strict dress code, particularly, resonated with me – youngsters today are so fortunate to be able to wear whatever makes them comfortable. Thank you for sharing your wonderful memories!

    I remember Sloppy Joe well. I was also in his Political Science lectures in 1965 As you might remember he used to sleep in his office on occasion when short of a bed. He dallied with a girlfriend of mine before I became involved with her and I can still remember him bounding up the stairs of her flat with bottles of beer one night. Fortunately she turned him away! SloppyJoe was rather patronising about the colonies and never really felt at home here. The Economist was his weekly lifeline to the metropolis. His dishevilled bohemianism appealed to those of us escaping suburban conformity even though one could see him as one of that long line of aristocratic younger sons seeking their fortune in the colonies.

    What fun Helen!

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