On June 13, 2011, ABC TV broadcast a “Four Corners” report on the history of bastardry in the Australian Defence Forces, (http://www.abc.net.au/4corners/content/2011/s3239681.htm) claiming there was a persistent culture of harassing and bullying junior recruits, which had not been eradicated despite many reports and reforms.
The report saddened me, but I was proud to recollect the achievements of “Withgart Blainsmith” at St George’s College (within The University of Western Australia) in the late sixties in reducing the violence and nastiness of College initiations.
In fact, by 1966, “Initiations” had been banned across the whole University campus, but when I arrived as a Freshman at St George’s that year, I discovered that they had simply switched the name, and we were to make ourselves available for a week of “Cognitions”.
These were really a series of humiliations: the first night quite subtle as Seniors and Gentlemen (3rd and 4th years) invaded freshmen’s rooms, made them stand on their desk and engaged them in banter designed to cut the freshers down to size.
The second night was the night of the Sophomores (2nd years). In large groups, they hunted from one freshman’s room to another, shining spotlights and hurling abusive remarks in their faces. Freshers were told to “make love to a pillow”, or “hold hands with your roommate, you poof”. While this yelling was going, other sophomores stripped the beds and festooned the sheets across the front of the main building.
Freshers whose responses were unsatisfactory could be stripped. On one or two occasions (not in my year), freshers were dropped naked from the Narrows Bridge 5 kms down river and told to make their own way home.
For some freshers, this invasion of their intimate lives and the threat of (or actual) violence were quite intolerable. The only support that appeared to be available was that of peers.
On the Friday night – Freshmen’s Task Night – Freshers performed for the whole College by singing or reciting. Again it was designed for the seniors to laugh at – and never with – the freshers. Some of these acts were crude and quite degrading.
I don’t know why Withgart Blainsmith (Robert Garton Smith, Tim Blain and myself) were so incensed with Cognitions. We had withstood the humiliations comparatively easily, perhaps because we understood their crude psychology of bonding through hardship. But we were appalled at the distress inflicted on some of our fellow-freshers and resolved to use our creative skills to change things. Initially, I suspect, we wanted just to make Cognitions fun for freshers and not frightening, later, we were more intentional in reinventing the whole initial bonding activities.
Firstly, we asked the College Students’ Committee if we could write the skits for the 1967 Task Night. We changed the words of popular songs to make gentle fun of the College hierarchy. The Warden has just undergone a hip replacement, so the Freshers serenaded him with “Hello, Joshua” to the tune of “Hello, Dolly”.
The seniors – some through gritted teeth admittedly – laughed, and laughed with the freshers.
Then in 1968 we demanded two nights of Cognitions Week to rehearse for Task Night. This had the side-effect of preventing roaming gangs of sophomores molesting freshers in their rooms: they were with Withgart Blainsmith polishing their performances.
That year, we re-spun Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Trial by Joshry” for Task Night. It was again a success, but required too much exposure for the freshers taking solo parts. They still risked being laughed at.
So in 1969, we wrote the first version of “Everyfreshman”, a morality to be played outdoors in the Quad. The character Everyfreshman had to meet Warden Hardwork, Matron Cleanliness and other partly disguised College notables (all played by freshers). St George himself appeared on Top Balcony and condemned Everyfreshman to be thrown into the pond – and he was duly ponded.
It was all good-humoured and gentle satire and the freshers had fun making it happen. There were some furious behind-the-scenes battles. St George appeared on the Top Balcony, then reserved to Seniors and Gentlemen. WG BS fought hard for the freshman playing St George to step foot on this hallowed platform. It helped that (now MLC) Philip Gardiner was Senior Student in that year, and he supported our request. For safety that first year, we made sure St George was costumed top to toe in a sheet, so was unrecognisable.
Withgart Blainsmith cannot claim that all the changes that happened in four years were due to them. “The times were a-changin’” with or without us. But I think WG BS recognised that initiation into a new community requires ritual, and includes some ritual hardship, but that the activities should be fun and respectful.