Terry McGee directing a production of Tommy, circa 1979.
By Terry McGee as told to Graham Askey
In 1972 Terry McGee was producing plays and musicals with an alternative theatre group in Sydney. Johnny Allen was playing the Troll King in Terry’s version of the Norwegian fairy tale, Peer Gynt.
Then Johnny got wind of a better role in an experimental production sponsored by the Australian Union of Students. Soon Johnny was roping everyone into his big new drama – Aquarius, the Festival. I arrived in Nimbin on Anzac Day 1973 and my special memory comes from that time before the festival. A bridge was needed across a possible creek on the site and I worked with Philippe Petit to construct the span. He showed me what can be done with ropes and bamboo and it became partly a piece of practical engineering and partly a work of art. He was like that too.
The concept of starting a large intentional community, which had been floating around for a while, took my interest. So when a forum, chaired by Richard Neville and called After Nimbin What?, was held on the last day I went along. It was a convention of tongues.
They wanted something to happen here, but didn’t know what it was. Neither did I, but Basil Hayter had a plan.
He was the Nimbin baker who continued making the famous ‘Aquarius Loaf’ long after its creators, the ‘Feedwell Foundry’, had gone home. He somehow picked me out as a likely lad and drove me out to meet Sam Mckay, owner of a 1040 acre property at Tuntable Falls. ‘Only ninety dollars an acre,’ Sam offered. Wide awake, I asked for something in writing. ‘Isn’t my word good enough?’ he said, closing the deal. Now the plan was mine – to create a commune from scratch.
I settled on a cooperative as the best model for us. I liked the democratic one shareholder/one vote structure. So I went to see David Horton, Director of the Registrar of Cooperatives in Sydney.
He said, ‘There’s been a bit of paper talk about those communes up there, so I was wondering when someone would finally come in and see me.’ He explained that we’d need to be incorporated and gain approval from a local authority before he would allow any capital to be raised.
The Tuntable Falls Coordination Cooperative began on May 30, 1973, at a meeting of a couple of dozen shareholders sitting on a hillside overlooking the property. The price of a share was fixed at $200. In August the Terania Shire Council, despite continued hostility from town planner Roley Heap, approved our development. Fortunately Wally Duckering, the shire’s health and building inspector, who’d ticked the festival’s ‘long drops’, was on our side.
By October we had over 200 shareholders and had raised half the money. In December, on the day that our title was transferred, our first 40 pioneers moved into the only three buildings on site, a house, a shed, and bails, and set to work on their new homes. Once again we were greatly assisted by Wally.
He set out an overall plan for our Multiple Occupancy (MO) and made sure that everyone prepared some sort of building application. Over the next three years, despite being the wettest period in Nimbin’s history, twenty-odd dwellings went up.
Then on August 12, 1976, the Lismore police decided to gatecrash the party. Sixty armed police invaded at dawn. Among them was Sergeant Harold Fredericks (the Black Prince) who some twelve years later would become mayor of Lismore. Waving copies of a single search warrant, every place was turned over until they found what they came for – just one small bag of pot. Then they rounded up 42 random residents who were cattle-trucked back to the cells in Lismore.
Months later former attorney general Kep Enderby exposed the muddleheaded procedures used by the police and got the case thrown out of court. Much clearer was the cops’ message: ‘You’re in the wrong place, you better leave.’ While there were many, threatened by the mere presence of any counter-culture, who shared that view, for3 the most part the locals either thought that it was a good idea for young people to pioneer, get stuck into the bush and build their own houses, or they were simply happy about all the new business.
After Gough Whitlam was kicked out in 1975 I joined the Lismore branch of the Labor Party and in 1977 was elected onto the newly amalgamated Lismore City Council. In those times the ‘left’ was a minority on a Country Party dominated council, and the most we could do then was to curb some of the more radical attempts to clear out the many MOs which had taken root since the festival. Tuntable, thanks to Wally, was an island of compliance in an archipelago of MOs without paperwork.
A classic example of this antagonism was in 1979 when the Terania Creek logging protests were raging. Looking out of the window following a council meeting we saw a huge fire across the river. Hurford’s sawmill was burning down. ‘It’s the hippies. They started that fire,’ accused some of the aldermen.
The Hurfords couldn’t have held with this because years later I was producing yet another of my Peer Gynts and a bouncy, 16-year-old Kate Hurford was auditioning for it. She pressed me to see her mother about promoting ticket sales, so I went to see Mrs Hurford and she was delightful and more than willing to help. Even so she couldn’t have missed that Kate was wagging school to be in the show.
I did develop another MO and again it was that troublemaker Basil. He just happened to know of a wonderful property at Larnook. At the right price of course.
This time I thought I’d try a different setup. Still a ‘cooperative’ but with ‘freehold’ on each little house block. The rest of property could then be shared as ‘commons’. Otherwise people tended to ‘select’ more land than they needed – just to keep potential neighbours away. Strata Title was the closest legal model available at the time. Out of this evolved Community Title and Billen’s solicitor Tony Pagotto was on the committee which designed it.
Like the anti-hero Peer Gynt, Terry has been on a long journey through life with many adventures and has now returned to the house that he grew up in. He is working on still another version of that most complicated fairy-tale. He says it is nearly finished but hasn’t quite found the last words of the song which brings the curtain down.
• This is the seventh article in an ongoing series run in the Byron Echo and Echonetdaily in the leadup to the 40th anniversary of the Aquarius Festival. For the full series go to http://echonetdaily.echo.net.au/aquarius. For the festival program see http://sassevents.scu.edu.au/aquarius.