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Walking on the Aussie Wild Side: The Counterculture Down Under with Michael Wilding

“Surely, there was a counterculture in the 1960s. That’s what seems so missing in present times. It wasn’t just dope smoking, music and back to the land, there were all the countercultural newspapers papers and small presses, a thriving alternative publishing scene, which is no longer with us.”

– Michael Wilding, Australian author

You’re either in it or out of it. In this case “it” is the cannabis bubble. If it’s a bubble in California and elsewhere in the U.S., it can feel much the same around the world, including Australia, as Michael Wilding knows. Smoking a joint is smoking a joint whether one is in Sydney or Sacramento, Melbourne or Modesto.

An Englishman who settled in Australia in the early 1960s, Wilding has helped—through his writing—to move cannabis away from the periphery and toward the mainstream.

Many of the same words that are used in the U.S.—grass, weed, dope, marijuana, pot, reefer, cannabis and more—are used “Down Under,” Wilding explains, though the land Down Under doesn’t have a history of African Americans jazz men and woman, such as Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, or Hollywood stars like Robert Mitchum, who smoked reefer and went to jail.

American cannabis activists might pat themselves on the back and insist that they’re in advance of the Aussie movement for legalization, but as history, culture and language show, Americans and Aussie are in the same boat, though separated by a vast ocean.

The island nation—which Wilding has mapped in his fiction and non-fiction for more than half a century—is a vast continent, that boasts surfers and stoners, plus cattle and sheep ranchers, and descendants of criminals who were kicked out of England and who helped to create the backbone of the nation, much as slaves, indentured servants, non-conformists and misfits helped to shape the national character of U.S.

The Aussies are our cultural cousins. They share many of our problems, including racism and white nationalism, though they have also made them their own, as Wilding knows all too well. They also make their own world class wine and beer and enjoy inebriants.

In Australia—which is about the same size as the 48 continuous states of the U.S.—cannabis is cultivated and consumed, Wilding explains, from New South Wales and Victoria to Queensland and beyond. But it’s not legal to do so without a government license. Like the U.S., Australia has a long history of prohibition, though it’s rare these days for anyone to serve time in prison for possession or cultivation. Decriminalization has proceeded slowly Down Under.

Weed smells, tastes and looks much the same in, say, New South Wales as in California, though a cannabis connoisseur in Sydney or Sacramento might be able to tell the differences between ours and theirs—terroir does matters—much as wine connoisseurs can tell the difference between an Australian red and a California red.

Working class and British, Wilding attended Oxford, where he studied English. Teaching jobs at the university level were hard to come by in the early 1960s, so he left the land of his birth for greener academic pastures.

Getting out of England and settling in Australia was the best move he ever made, academically speaking. For decades, he taught literature at the University of Sydney. He has also taught at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he had a chance to see the hippie counterculture, and the National University of Singapore, which isn’t friendly to countercultures.

Now a professor emeritus, Wilding is a national literary treasure and the author of twenty-three books. He’s well known for a series of novels with a private investigator or P.I. who is appropriately named “Plant,” and who has appeared in seven novels so far, with an eighth on the way.

None of the Plant novels have been published in the U.S., but some, including In the Valley of the Weed, Little Demon, and The Travel Writer, are available on Amazon. Like the American detective, Moses Wine, in the novel The Big Fix, which was made into a movie with Richard Dreyfus, Plant belongs to the counterculture, at least in part.

“I call him Plant because he’s a sort of a passive observer,” Wilding explained. “He’s also a vegetarian and he’s non-violent. PI’s traditionally were hard drinkers. I differentiated him by making him a cannabis user.” In one dramatic scene in The Prisoner of Mount Warning,Plant rolls a joint and describes how he does it.

“Roll, roll, roll,” Plant tells himself. “Lick, lick, lick.” He adds, “How could it have become so difficult, he had to be stoned.”

Like his creator, Plant doesn’t flaunt his cannabis habit. On the whole, Australians don’t flaunt it, either. They’re discreet, though there are Australian versions of the Emerald Cup, and other cannabis festivals were growers and users congregate and smoke in public.

Ever since the Sixties, conservative social historians in the U.S. and elsewhere have gone far out on a limb and insisted that there really never was a counterculture, and that all cultures reflect the norms and values of the dominant society.

Tell that to hippies, stoners, dissidents and fans of rock ‘n’ roll who protested against the war in Vietnam, which the Australian government stupidly supported, and that sparked an anti-war movement in the land Down Under.

After all these years, what did Wilding think about the counterculture?

“Surely, there was a counterculture in the 1960s,” he told me. “That’s what seems so missing in present times. It wasn’t just dope smoking, music and back to the land. There were all the countercultural newspapers and small presses and a thriving alternative publishing scene. Of course, it soon became another area for capitalist exploitation.”

In 1974, Wilding co-founded with Pat Woolley, the Australian book publisher, Wild & Woolley. For the past three decades, Wilding has been the foremost critic of and apostle for Australian literature. He’s also capitalized on his last name, Wilding, in books like Wild Bleak Bohemiaand Wildest Dreamsand has explored Australia’s wild side in fiction and non-fiction.

Cannabis doesn’t grow wild in Australia, but it’s wild in the sense that it’s mostly unregulated. Australian law calls it a “narcotic drug.” For decades, Australian drug warriors took many of their cues from Washington, D.C. “Reefer madness” Down Under matched reefer madness in the U.S. Like American potheads, Australian potheads suffered under politicians who believed that cannabis was the Devil’s very own weed.

These days, cannabis can be cultivated legally with a license from the Australian government. Applicants must be “fit and proper persons.” How very British that sounds! As of November 2018, fewer than 50 licenses were granted to companies with names like “Little Green Pharma” and “Indica Industries.” The government is mighty stingy, but that hasn’t stopped growers from growing.

In Australia, as in the U.S., attempts to eradicate cannabis only seemed to make it stronger. An estimated 300,000 people used it daily; 750,000 on a weekly basis. A MardiGrass Festival, with a rally and parade, takes place in springin New South Wales. Indeed, Aussie potheads occasionally come out of the cannabis closet.

On the subject of the black market, Wilding said, “Keeping drugs illegal meant a huge amount of money could be made from them. I think that’s one reason why the Reagan-Thatcher years introduced de-regulation and large-scale privatization. There was all that funny money around that was looking for legit business to invest in.”

Is that a conspiratorial view? Perhaps so! Wilding has been fascinated with conspiracies and conspirators. In fact, drug smugglers from Miami to Sydney and beyond have laundered the money they’ve made in cannabis and cocaine, which sometimes went hand in glove.

One of Wilding’s most appealing characters is a feisty Australian woman named Rose who enjoys flirting with Plant. She appears for the first time in a novel called Pacific Highway and again in The Prisoner of Mount Warning. Wilding calls Pacific Highway “a sort of hippified, Richard Brautigan-influenced, peace and love post-modern novel.”

That is, in large part, Michael Wilding: a post-modernist who has explored the hippie countercultural world, and in doing so has put Australian literature on the literary map of the world. His English working class roots, to which he has remained true, have also led him to study and write about the Australian working class—another kind of counterculture—but that’s a story for another day.

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