The main prerequisite for writing about Adelaide is to live in Sydney.
Sydney academic Adrian Mitchell’s new book Drawing the Crow presents a nostalgic view of his childhood city, complete with the obligatory memories of Fritz, backyard cricket, Ovaltine, and sawdust on the butcher-shop floor. Alan J Whiticker returned home for long enough to retell the story of the Beaumont children, and Sydney journalist and writer Susan Mitchell recently completed a hatchet job on the northern suburbs of her childhood town, but more about her in a moment.
Adelaide is a town at war with itself. The eastern suburbs are the preserve of those descended (apparently) from our pious Methodist forefathers. They attend one of five schools, intermarry and avoid reading The Advertiser. Easterners never mix with the Commodore-driving, Australian Idol-watching riff-raff of the outer suburbs or the Greeks, Italians or Asians in the western suburbs (unless these people happen to run a fruit shop).
In their 1979 book It’s Grossly Improper, Des Ryan and Mike McEwen explain that prior to Don Dunstan, Adelaide was ‘a community too long burdened by a self-serving, ruling class political system in which wealth [and]family connections had for generations overridden all other considerations.’
Although Dunstan was born and bred Adelaide establishment, most South Australians came to see him as ‘one of the boys.’ He was a political and social reformer who changed the way locals lived, dressed and cooked. With his shorts, Nehru jackets and hairstyles he blew the cobwebs out of the ‘old Adelaide’ the establishment based around the Adelaide Club.
Dunstan once described how he developed his sense of social welfare after seeing starving workers around Adelaide during the Depression. He initiated discussions that led to Pitjantjatjara land being returned to its traditional owners, relaxed book censorship, introduced special beaches for nudists, established the SA Heritage Commission, the SA Film Corporation (giving us films like Sunday Too Far Away and Breaker Morant), decriminalised homosexual activities between consenting adults and encouraged multiculturalism.
But post-Dunstan Adelaide has reverted to a slightly sassier, medium-rise, 1950s Blue Hills Adelaide, and the establishment has reasserted itself. Perhaps Dunstan’s social and political reforms were just a blip on the Adelaide radar. Sometimes, Adelaide just can’t help being itself. Which brings me back to Susan Mitchell.
Adelaide cafe culture. Image from here
Mitchell recently returned home to research a book about the Snowtown Murders. This case became famous in 1999 when the bodies of eight people were found in barrels in a disused bank vault in a small town in the State’s north. The men accused of these murders were John Bunting, Robert Wagner and John Vlassakis. Another four bodies were found later two buried in Bunting’s former backyard. These men had tortured and killed their victims before claiming their welfare benefits. The murderers justified their actions in the belief that their victims were all homosexual paedophiles.
Susan Mitchell wanted to understand these men, why they’d carried out the murders and if their backgrounds had contributed to their actions. To do this she had to discover a few things about Adelaide, and more specifically, the northern suburbs, where most of the murders were committed.
Mitchell starts off by telling us, ‘Like most of the people who had always lived in Adelaide’s inner suburbs, I had never detoured off the Main North Road I had never known anyone who lived in Elizabeth and I still didn’t.’
Fair enough. So how could she get to know this part of Adelaide better? As it turns out, by interviewing a host of eastern suburbs fashion designers, writers, editors, art dealers and even the Lord Mayor; by attending long lunches in the Southern vales, sipping wine in city restaurants and attending the opera. Mitchell explains that she wants to ‘understand how such a civilised and cultured society came to produce a hidden underbelly of deprivation and depravity [and]ever-expanding ghettos of deviance and dysfunction ‘
By ‘ghetto’ she means Elizabeth and Salisbury, the two biggest outer northern suburbs. During her discussion of these areas she fails to mention that they now drive Adelaide’s population growth and contain most of the manufacturing, defence and ‘high tech’ industries.
To research her book Mitchell tells us she stayed at a friend’s house at Dulwich, ‘one of Adelaide’s leafy, affluent suburbs.’ She says, ‘I had finally dragged myself away from the warmth of the open fire in Dulwich and driven up the Main North Road past all the new and used car yards, the Chicken Kings and Pizza Huts and McDonald’s.’
She barely disguises her contempt for these suburbs. She describes ‘the tattooed, singleted, bearded driver who had tried to cut me off, and give me the finger.’ She says, ‘In the shadows of those who still had employment, in streets where all the houses looked the same, spread the human debris, hidden in the ghettos of the lost, the forgotten, the disturbed and the deviant.’
The ‘non-eastern’ residents of Adelaide have had to put up with this rot for as long as anyone can remember. The east exudes a puritanical ‘us and them’ attitude that is almost genetic. It’s an ultra-provincial mindset that seems to characterise our city, which reflects a certain smugness that has none of the balance, reason and reality possessed by those living in larger cities.
Mitchell continues. ‘I could drive out of here, leave it all behind, go back to affluent, respectable Dulwich, light a big roaring fire, open a bottle of wine and get on the phone to tell my friends how ghastly and creepy it all was.’
She tells us about her chat with art dealer Kym Bonython (in his ‘book-lined study’) and her time with Lord Mayor Michael Harbison at the Town Hall (in ‘a huge room full of antique furniture, panelled wood and old leather chairs’). Then we get to read about her meeting with Dr Allan Perry, an Adelaide University lecturer in Criminology, at ‘one of the many Italian coffee shops that line the East End.’ The hard slog of in-depth research continues at D’Arry’s restaurant at McLaren Vale where she has lunch with local fashion identities George Gross and Harry Who. As Harry looks at the view he says ‘Have you ever seen anything more perfect? Every time we go to Tuscany we think of this.’
All this time she doesn’t bother speaking to anyone at Elizabeth. Her patronising attitude even extends to her visit to Snowtown where she meets a woman who is a member of ‘this poor, blighted community.’ Then she thinks, ‘I should follow her and buy some useless piece of bric-a-brac just to give her some income.’
Mitchell mentions that certain interviewees attended the elite St Peter’s College (as, ironically, Don Dunstan had) or Scotch College, as if that helps define them. But apparently not as much as where they live, which is as far away as possible from ‘the blank stares of the people in the malls, of the people loitering outside Centrelink, of the teenage mothers dragging their little children behind them.’
Perhaps the product of Mitchell’s research, the book All Things Bright and Beautiful, is a fair description of Adelaide. Perhaps its unintentional sketch of a rickety overclass trying to defend itself against the onset of time tells us more about this town than anything we learn
about a few mass murderers.
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