MEMOIRS: Some reflections on the impact of Jack Mundey, who pioneered the green bans movement to protect the built environment and who passed away this week.
My partner Lisa had completed a Cambridge certificate for teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) before we went to Taiwan. She wanted to have something to do while I was researching my doctorate as well as escape for a time from the pressures of intensive care nursing.
I picked up a job teaching English in the first couple of weeks there, and we’d settled into a bedsit, when we saw an ad in the local English newspaper for EFL teachers at a US franchise school.
I accompanied Lisa to the interview, but to Lisa’s chagrin, the job ended up being offered to me. I also had the Cambridge certificate, but I had two university degrees and solid experience in the area as well. The money was much better than my other job, so I happily accepted the two hour, three evenings a week position.
My first evening, a Chinese background bloke from Liverpool also started work as a teacher there. His thick accent was a cross between John Lennon and Ringo Starr. We found the staff room was populated by Americans, mainly from mid-American states from New Mexico to Minnesota.
They told us later that they were surprised to see a native American and Chinese guy turn up for work. They were even more surprised by my accent when I introduced myself, but almost fell off their chairs when my Liverpudlian partner opened his mouth.
Things went along swimmingly for a few months. Most of the staff would go to a nearby bar that sold cheap tequila on Friday evenings after class to wind down from the week’s work. This was certainly a salve for me as I was working three jobs: in a translation company in the morning, in the Centre for Chinese Studies in the afternoon, and the school for three evenings. I needed a way to relax.
The turning point came one evening in the staff room. My Liverpudlian mate started reminiscing about London, where he’d lived for a few years. He spoke of the difficulties of living under the Thatcher regime and of how the mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, dubbed “Red Ken” for his communist leanings, was the only positive beacon within the fog of sad governance in the UK.
I spoke of the day I’d first arrived in London, an Easter Monday, at a time when Ken was still mayor. A friend had taken me through Finsbury Park to the Finsbury Park Tavern for a quiet beer. There was a festival in the park. It was a bright sunny Spring day and the air was filled with joyous English Jamaican accents. The Rainbow Theatre of Bob Marley fame was just up the road, after all.
We witnessed a similar quiet celebration of life on the way back through the park, but when we reached the other side, literally twenty riot vans with sirens wailing stopped in front of us outside the park. On the news that night we were informed that there was a riot in Finsbury Park. It was certainly news to us, and was certainly a great insight into Thatcherite England.
In a similar vein, I recounted to my Chinese Liverpudlian friend the positive effect that Jack Mundey and the Builders Labourers Federation had on saving the built environment heritage of Sydney with their Green Bans against the rampant corruption of the developer class.
I even admitted that I’d voted for Jack when he ran for the Communist Party in a NSW election, not because of the party, I’d read Animal Farm far too young for that, but because he was a man of integrity like Ken Livingston.
The Americans moved away from us. Our connection had been somewhat damaged and remained so for the rest of the time we worked there. Perhaps this was because Taiwan had only recently been under martial law, and to speak of communism in any positive way was very much a no-no. But it seemed more of an echo of the abhorrence that many Americans seem to hold for anything socialistic, an idea that has seen the rise of Trump.
My thoughts on this were crystallised many years later when I was invited to dine with the Benjamin Franklin Club, the oldest continuous intellectual club in the US. A comparatively young locally renowned architect asked why we had no Johnny Appleseed myth in Australia.
Having worked as a geologist in the outback, I replied that unless it was a good year, he would probably have died of thirst, and all the seeds he had planted would’ve probably died as well. The US has so much water and rich topsoil that the individual has become the basis of their reality.
Unlike Jack Mundey, there seems to be little respect by Americans for the heritage of their built environment.
A small iron road bridge near the rugby fields of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia is indicative of this. It had been obviously built in the nineteenth century and has a beautiful sturdy structure, but it has been left with little maintenance to rust away to nothingness. Sad really.
Michael Paton is an honorary associate of the School of Economics at the University of Sydney.