Tuesday, April 24, 2012


(Ace architect/columnist / illustrator, Peter Burleigh , recalls those jolly , carefree daze at his ivy-clad alma mater and a leather-clad travelling companion, Pete Steedman, when, like young lions, they prowled parts of the British Empire and other foreign deer hunting grounds . )

QUESTION: Which Pete has the Toni ?

Because it’s easy to predict the behaviour of school, university, office or reformatory inmates at their reunions: lame jokes about sexual prowess, falling hair, failing eyesight and general disgruntlement seem mandatory, the invitations are also easy to refuse.

Imagine your reporter’s angst when I discovered I’d agreed to attend two reunions on a single weekend in Melbourne, a city I publicly vowed would lie over my dead body before I returned; and this at a time when I vigorously ignore both my birth year of 1943 and my ex-girlfriends of that era, all of whom are now over 65 years of age.

The first is a reunion of the survivors of his “Class of 62” intake of the Architecture course at Melbourne University. The second is lunch with Pete Steedman, a radical politico who managed to stretch his student status into the eighties. Readers of Little Darwin may recall stories of our adventures at university, in England, Spain and Morocco. My friendship with Pete continues to defy definition, so the things we have in common must be its foundation - good wine, swearing and a shared missionary zeal in attacking polite societyor maybe it’s our determination not to mature.

In 1962
my evaluation of my Architecture classmates was that the majority of them were and still are of little interest to anyone. A quick troll through the room showed this hasn’t changed (and is reflected in most of the buildings they’ve created), although several people are missing or are dead. A couple of us have been murdered. Surprising that over the years more of us haven’t been slaughtered for crimes against design.

The “askance glance” works overtime as people compare my outward signs of aging to theirs. Reactions of personal dismay or cruel satisfaction can’t be concealed amongst the slowly whitening, wrinkling, squinting, stooping and limping crowd, cowed as always by Melbourne social convention and now by physical deterioration. They say their weight gain has nothing to do with beer or fast food, it’s due to watching McDonald’s and Hungry Jack’s ads on TV.

Exhuberance is hard to find but it radiates from a group of about ten people, the same people who energised our experience of the 60s and who were responsible for the outrages, pregnancies, arrests, fines, breaches of promise, exam failures, repeat years, and offensive behaviour towards earlier generations. They are – ahemmy friends. About half of them still pretend to be architects and the rest have gone into everything else, including psychoanalysis, theatre, veganism, retailing, child bearing and writing for Little Darwin.

The current Dean of the faculty works the room asking us for money. We can have our names on a plaque in the new building, he says. Think of your legacy, he says. Given that our most influential creative experience during our 5-year course was the annual Architects’ Revue, a stage show which was so consistently good it had a following among the theatre-goers in the City – and for a pretentious place like Melbourne this was really something – that is the legacy we would support. But there’s no theatre in the new building, so we don’t fill his hat with gold. No Architects’ Revue? Once again the lid comes down on exhuberance. Cued by our scowls he moves away.

I relate this to Steedman while we are underground in his concrete bunker in a trendy area on the edge of Melbourne’s suburbs. Once his house was surrounded by bushland and rolling hills but now the suburbs have caught up to him, like the creeping fungus from The War of the Worlds. The middle class has joined him, rather than the other way around. Pretend-farms are everywhere, with 2.5-hectare blocks dotted with token sheep, goats, llamas, Shetland ponies, trophy wives and other fashionable livestock. Meanwhile, new residential subdivisions are getting closer. They have lies for names: Fairview, Meadow Glen, Fern Dell, Farsee Retreat. They are “leafy” but you can see the power pylons marching over the hills.

Merc and Beamer owners
patronise the local supermarket, but once it was outlaw bikies, parolees and dysfunctional borderline psychotics who lived out here. Pete may be the last one in the area. He taught them the Steedman style of social interaction: keep advancing on your audience until they back away from you, then raise your leather-clad shoulders and loom. It worked for him as a member of parliament in Canberra.

He uses his bunker as a wine cellar and pretends it’s just a folly, but it’s a child of his paranoia. The bunker roof, he tells me, is two feet thick and obviously built to survive the Apocalypse or at least a direct hit from a neutron bomb. Pete has a compactus-full of secret files on everyone, but they haven’t been transferred from the house because the bunker leaks when it rains. He is expecting an attack from a secret Government agency at any moment, and is looking forward to it.

We remember friends who’ve fallen off their twigs or are still in jail. Pete knows many more people than I do, so their mortality looms larger. Friendships have become lists of victims of attrition. We wish we weren’t participants, but you’re only young once. Or in our case, twice. It troubles us that our delusions can’t bring back our younger days; they sustained us for decades, why not now? We get to work on a new set of delusions, but sound disturbingly like a couple of characters from the Pickwick Papers. After a few wines Pete tells me he’s planning to move house but doesn’t know where to. There is a town nearby called “Beveridge”, but it’s spelled wrongly.

Friends easily reach common ground by ignoring reality and so we easily agree that every one of our surviving contemporaries has sold out, some for impressive amounts of money. Steedman and I remain not-rich and therefore continue to hold the moral high ground – in this case, in a subterranean bunker –and that we are National Treasures.

I took my camera to record the event for Little Darwin but one look at Pete and I put it back in its bag. No one would believe the photograph wasn’t Photo-shopped. How youthful and unlined we are, and how we are still full of it! Potential, that is.

[LITTLE DARWIN ZOO NOTE : Burleigh recently stopped the traffic when he put a tiger in his tank at a service station -inserted the wrong fuel-and his wallet was savaged in the process .]