‘IT WAS FUN to have you here, especially listening to your attempts to speak Spanish!’ said Quique, to laughter and cheers from the villagers. He went on:
But it was hard work for us too. Because we had to teach you how to live in the real world, not in Disneyland. Now your ‘ holiday’ is over, and you must go home to Australia and get on with the real work of getting your people’s boots off our heads.
Dean Bridgfoot knew his friend meant it lovingly, so he took it with good humour. This was in 1998 and Dean and his partner Carolyn had been working for a couple of years as volunteer vets in a Third World country – El Salvador, South America. It really hadn’t been much of a ‘holiday’. After years of brutal civil war, El Salvadoreans were struggling to liberate themselves and find a new way. And now the Australian government had cut aid and welfare programs, which meant no more money to pay Dean and Carolyn. It was time to return to Australia – to ‘Disneyland’ as Quique had put it. ‘We left with a sense that we were the ones who had learned the really important lessons, while being incredibly kindly cared for,’ says Dean.
Ned Kelly country
Dean Bridgfoot was the youngest of three boys raised in Benalla, a country town in north-east Victoria. One of his ancestors was related to bushranger Ned Kelly, and his grandmother had many stories of the Kelly gang. During Dean’s early years his father managed a timberyard and was heavily involved in the old-growth logging industry. Dean fondly recalls trips deep into the forest, but he wasn’t so impressed by the felled trees. Even as a young boy, he could see that if this all kept going there would be no trees left one day. Perhaps on some level Dean’s dad recognised this too, as he left the timber industry and became the owner–manager of a local pub.
Dean spent much of his childhood with his mates, racing his bike around town and through the old river redgums on the floodplains. Like his paternal grandfather Jack – who had been an Aussie Rules player for Footscray – Dean played a lot of footy and was the captain of the local team. He also spent a lot of his childhood hanging out with his grandparents. He has particularly fond memories of helping in their ‘prodigious’ and much-loved vegetable garden. ‘They grew everything! Before our eyes my grandma would turn the fruits of their garden into feasts fit for royalty,’ recalls Dean. His parents and grandparents also hated waste and litter, and he grew up with the same attitude.
Both sides of Dean’s family were conservative. When he was 17, his oldest brother challenged their parents’ views by taking an outspoken stance in support of new Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. The tension that created in the home was palpable and formative for Dean.
Then, during the late 1970s when he was in his final years at school, a handful of feminist teachers arrived in Benalla. Dean recalls:
English came alive for me, through new and different activities, such as analysing arguments made in newspaper articles. We would be asked to follow the logic and assess the methods being used to frame arguments, and the information used to back them up. We had never been able, let alone encouraged, to think so independently. It really blew me.
He began to see that many of the ideas that determine a society’s politics are constructed to reinforce the status quo and support the interests of those who hold the most power. Of course, not everyone in Benalla enjoyed having their world views challenged as much as he did.
Dean is an active member of masg.org.au