Words || Harrison Fraser
Bet you thought Macquarie University, a mere 50-something year old, had nothing when it came to history and traditions compared to some other universities. If you’re like me, some of your friends went to those institutions because of said history and traditions.
Me: “MQ is so close to home and they offer the exact course I want!”
My friend: “But does it have a sandstone courtyard?”
These days I’m really happy with my choice, although I still had irrational delusions about my parallel life at another university. You can imagine my relief when I found out that we do have rich traditions at MQ.
Conception Day, or RE: Conception Day, (I’ll explain the name in a moment) celebrated 50 years in 2019. To understand this celebration of student life, we’re going back to 1969 to discover the unlikely history of MQ’s bad boy past.
Back in 1969 Macquarie was only a few years old and some students felt we needed a muck-up-style event that compensated for the concrete buildings I’ve heard someone call ‘brutalist architecture’. Also, some of those more cultured universities had similar events.
The first task was to choose a date. The easy option was Lachlan Macquarie’s birthday, but it fell during our enjoyably exam period. In a true stroke of innovation, someone joked that we should have it nine months before Mr Macquarie’s birthday and call it, you guessed it, Conception Day.
Clearly that person was not a medical student, or in fact anyone who understands pregnancy, because Conception Day was ‘calculated’ as sometime in September. I have consulted Google and Lachlan Macquarie was born on January 31st, so unless he was 5 or 6 months premature, he was totally not conceived in September.
This aside, the early Conception Days were riotous. They featured flour fights, student bands on roofs and shenanigans with fire hoses that would now result in a sizeable fine. The second Conception Day saw the first Great Garden Gnome Hunt.
From various accounts, I have strung together what happened. The event took place in the eve of Conception Day. There were maps made indicating where all the local garden gnomes were and students were tasked with ‘borrowing’ the gnomes, taking note of where they ‘borrowed’ them from and delivering, that’s right, ransom notes to the owners. It’s okay though because the proceeds were going to charity.
Turns out you really can’t trust people to follow rules when they’re drunk. Despite the gnomes being the target, other alfresco sculptures, outdoor furniture and letter boxes were also abducted for ransom. The organisers didn’t consider the legal consequences until the university field was teeming with the victims from a night of kidnapping.
Meanwhile, the police were flooded with calls from distressed parents, I mean owners, about the abductions and threatened to press charges. What’s worse is that they didn’t even get the ransom notes, which is the best part of any crime. University staff quickly rounded up the gnomes and other items and dropped them off at the local police station.
So basically, the gnomes were abducted and then taken to the police station in the back of a truck. Sounds like victim blaming to me, but it was the 70s so who knows. Hunts of all different kinds took place for decades after on the eve of conception day, some even featuring a good old gnome abduction. I don’t think anything was quite like that first hunt, but I’m going to guess that might have been a good thing.
For Conception Day itself, organisers thought an old-fashioned, colonial (I know, this is the 70s) garden party would be a great way to mark the celebration. For reasons unknown, a camel named Egypt was the key to setting the right tone to the festival. Egypt was on lease from a farm for two days and was treated to a stay in the rugby house near the university.
And what could go wrong?
I can imagine this ran through the minds of the organisers as they hurried a drunk camel along Epping Road in the middle of the night. Alumnus Phil Gibbs recalls being ‘pulled over’ as he rode Egypt by a police officer who was heavily involved resolving what I am now calling Gnome-Gate. Already, Macquarie students were getting a serious rep for Conception Day.
If the drunk camels and gnome abductions weren’t enough, there was the entrepreneurial behaviour of a group of, if you ask me, talented students. The university equivalent of broke kids selling lemonade at a stand was the broke students selling toilet-brewed moonshine to truckers on the side of Epping Road. What did they call it? The Seat of Learning.
Selling potent toilet wine to truckers, who probably drank AND drove is questionable. But with that name and the marketing genius that went into it, I’m inclined to forgive it all. The idea that a toilet can be a money-making machine is thrilling and disturbing in equal measure.
Aside from these lesser known traditions with unsavoury origins, what emerged from the efforts of the early planning committees was an enduring festival. Conception Day became known for its live music performances, market stalls, pyrotechnics and carnival rides, all for the price of $10.
Mr Gibbs notes that by its 40th Anniversary in 2009, Conception Day was comparable to Woodstock. Acts like Wolfmother headlined at what was the longest running music festival in Australia. World records were broken, like in 2003 when the students of MQ broke the world record for the most tequila shots in a row.
However, true to form, a festival was banned in NSW. In the words of VSCO girl, can you believe? Perhaps it was the record-breaking tequila shots or maybe the totally above-board toilet wine, but it was decided that Conception Day needed a facelift, just like every other 40-something nowadays.
Having sobered up, RE: Conception Day (a name change is key to success, just ask Osher Günsberg) kicked off in 2015. Live music still forms a huge part of the event and showcases Macquarie’s diversity and enthusiasm, just without the other stuff.
This year marked 50 years since the first Conception Day and on Friday the 13th of September (for real) around 5,000 students joined in on the fun. Even the OG Phil Gibbs made an appearance. Rather than a way to compensate for feelings of inadequacy, RE: Conception Day is a testament to the culture at Macquarie University.
But when remembering Conception Days past, we can think back on the bad boy reputation we once cultivated. Our traditions are from not so distant generations that have not directly translated into our own context, but they are a kind of legend.
So, when your friend asks you if your university has a sandstone courtyard that makes you feel like you’re Hermione Granger, you can tell them “Nah mate, we’ve got toilet wine”. And honestly, is it even a good time if there isn’t any toilet wine?