The Birth of Conception Day

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WORDS Amy Way

Since 1969, Conception Day has brought us awesome music (and drugs and sex and alcohol). We look at origin of the festival and what has been gained and lost over the years…

Semester Two powers on, and one of Macquarie’s favourite events is on its way. Good or bad, most of us will have memories and stories of at least one Conception Day. Stretching out in the sun with a beer in hand and a band on stage, having a dance-off with friends in the DJ tents, or making the regretful decision to ride that damn twirly-ride after too many hot chips. For me, it’s seeing my long-haired, thickly bearded friend riding shirtless and tattooed on someone’s shoulders in the mosh. While Van She crooned in the background, the crowd praised him with outstretched arms as though he were a floating messiah.

But how did it all get started? Unlike other universities that celebrate their foundations, Macquarie University Student Union instead chose to celebrate a person: our namesake Governor Lachlan Macquarie. Often referred to as the ‘Father of Australia’, Macquarie was Governor of NSW from 1810 to 1821. He has been credited by historians as being one of the most influential governors in our state’s transition from a penal colony to a free state. He exists in public memory as a legend, a hero for the poor and oppressed, who fought against bureaucratic elite. Born at the wrong time of year for a good party, the Union decided instead to celebrate Governor Macquarie’s conception – raunchy – and thus, the conception of Conception Day.

[quote] We’ve played host to You Am I, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, John Myall and the Bluesbreakers, Violent Femmes, Gyroscope, Art vs Science[/quote]

When the first Conception Day was launched in 1969, our university was only a few years old. These early Conception Days exist in the university archives as fields of sun-baking bodies, girls grooving in their tie-dyed playsuits, and rock bands in flared pants. As the 20th Century dragged on, the day involved dodgem cars, sumo suits, market stalls, fireworks, jumping castles, rides and DJs. And over the years we have consistently played host to some pretty big names: Itchy Feet (Tim Freedman’s pre-Whitlams band), You Am I, Eric Clapton, Bo Diddley, John Myall and the Bluesbreakers, Violent Femmes, Gyroscope, Art vs Science – the list goes on.

The early Conception Days have a wild reputation among Macquarie staff and alumni. Drinking from the early hours of the morning, you could take part in the student-held breakfast on the median strip on Epping Road, a cross-campus streaking spree, or even a gnome convention in the early 80’s, in which students would nick hundreds of garden gnomes and scatter them all over the lawn. Despite frequent shenanigans, the celebrations seemed to be all about the music.

Maybe this was a result of the period and its Woodstock-type focus on peace, music and enjoyment. Sure drugs and alcohol were present, but most of the stories reflected a mischievous muck-up day vibe. It just wasn’t a good Conception Day unless some sort of vandalism was wreaked upon the Vice-Chancellor’s car.

There is no doubt that the Conception Day most of us have experienced is much more regulated than its forebears. Fences dictate the party areas, drinks are pricey and half-strength, and the cops and security guards impose an ever-present vigil. Despite these regulations, a vast majority of the people you ask probably won’t remember what bands were playing or even where they were for most of the day – and that’s if they’ve even made it through the gates. If you’ve come from a Village party there’s a good chance you’ve been drinking since 9am, and if you don’t live on campus there’s an even better chance you’ve created your own pre-drinking venue, ranging from a public park to a train carriage.

Stories circulate of people passing out in the Village and being taken to hospital, only to escape in a desperate attempt to get back on campus. Cops have caught couples in very comprising positions in university bathrooms. Those lucky enough to get let into the venue will sometimes spend 10 minutes lying on the grass before being kicked out.
Conception Day is just one of many events caught up in the drug and alcohol culture that seems to have taken over the 21st Century festival experience. No doubt this was a problem for celebrations in the past, but alcohol has made a powerful comeback in the form of binge drinking. With events like Stereosonic and Future Music, emphasis among revellers is often drinking all day and pinging all night. Gone are the days of going to festivals for the music.

[quote]On Conception Day in 2003, Macquarie University broke the world record for the most tequila shots slammed in a row[/quote]

Whether you agree with these statements or not will depend largely on what you define as a festival experience. In the last 10 years, questions have definitely been raised over whether such celebrations are even appropriate for a government institution like a university to allow. On Conception Day in 2003, Macquarie University broke the world record for the most tequila shots slammed in a row. Starting at 8:45am, 1,049 students took shots from over 40 bottles of tequila sponsored by the Epping Hotel. Despite the Student Union defending the record-break as safe and responsible,

The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre severely criticised our university and questioned why any institution would want to hold such a, “bizarre record”. “We’ve got an issue with university students and drinking,” said Paul Dillon, a spokesman for the Centre. “This sort of record sends a very poor message. It fits into the whole issue of the Australian culture – that drinking is fun. The reality is it’s still about consuming a lot of alcohol… It’s still a big win for the alcohol companies.”

Others, like Sex Party President Fiona Patten, take a more liberal view. In 2010, she criticised then Premier Kristina Keneally for sending ‘contradictory’ messages to young people regarding drug policy. In Patten’s view, Keneally had made progressive moves on the Kings Cross Injecting Centre, yet still sent armed police and sniffer dogs into Conception Day to monitor ‘small amounts’ of drug possession. Patten claims that many public figures, including then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, had all admitted to smoking marijuana in their youth, why then was Keneally so intent on making sure university students couldn’t enjoy a joint as part of their celebrations?

No matter what opinion you old, if any at all, about safe and acceptable drug and alcohol use, the public assumption exists that festivals will always involve some level of it no matter how much you regulate. In the 1987 book Myth of Oz, the authors state that young people almost always choose pastimes that derive from the pleasure of the senses, a life of freedom that lives for the present moment and resists the responsibility and conformity of social norms and institutions.

When this search for sensual pleasure leads to sexual promiscuity and the use of drugs and alcohol, adult disapproval is more forcibly expressed, and this often manifests in efforts to reclaim radical behaviours, like drinking and dancing, back into the sphere of structured culture.

Should we really be surprised then, that a festival that literally celebrates the most natural and sensory human act, that of conception and creation, would include the sensory pleasures of music, sex and drugs? Perhaps then, the Woodstock spirit remains, but so too does the difficult question of where to draw the line. As always, it seems to fall mostly into the realm of personal responsibility. At the risk of sounding like an after-school special, if you plan to get rowdy this Conception Day, like I am, then do it safely. Enjoy the music, your youth and the sunshine. And don’t forget to raise a glass, whether it’s regulation half-strength or just water, to Lachlan Macquarie, who fought for the little guy.