Australian Biography: Bruce Dawe

Australian Biography: Bruce Dawe
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This encounter with highly regarded Australian poet Bruce Dawe (1930–2020) gives an insight into the motivation and methods of a very fine writer.

His ability to express the drama and beauty of everyday life made his work readily accessible to the general public.

He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1997.

Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: July 7, 1997

This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.


Could you tell me about your childhood and the kind of family that you were born into?

Well, now this not as easy for me as it might be for others, in that I don't have very vivid or consecutive memories of my childhood. But we grew some time ... I grew up sometimes, and my family as well, my brother and sister, sometimes in the country, sometimes in the city. And my earliest recollections in fact are divided between city and country, and I think that's something that's always stayed with me, that I don't have a very clear choice of one or the other, even though in latter years I've been located mostly in the city.

So your life was divided in that way. Did you stay long in any one place?

No, a year or two I think is about as much as I did. So that by the time I left school at sixteen, I'd been to about eight schools, which is about seven too many, or at least six too many. So I don't say that to account for the fact that I wasn't terribly good as a student of this or that. But just to account for the fact that I don't have, as it were, very persistent ... There are memories that are very vivid ones. For example, I always tell the story about the games that were played at a school, that I found very cavernous and Dickensian, with very high classrooms in Lee Street in Carlton. When we went to the playground ... I have no particular memory of tyrannical teacher or anything like that at it at all. But when we went into the playground, it was coarse gravel, and the kids would set up a whole betting system, of little mounds of coarse gravel, with concave holes in the top, a bit like golf tee things, and a line marked back in the gravel, and cherry bobs were the cherry stones - were the currency. And each ... each person would be like a bookmaker, standing by his mound, he would say, offer the odds, 'Six and your old girl back', your old girl being your investment cherry pit. And you would stand at that mark, and depending on the extent of the concave hole, try and lob it in. If you lobbed it in, then you got six cherry bobs plus your invested one. And so you'd go along looking for the best odd, exactly as I imagine punters go at any racecourse looking for odds. I've never seen that process. Incidentally, cherries would be too dear now probably for most working class kids to afford to build up a bag unless they ... I don't know where they got them from. But it was at that one school. It's the most vivid memory. The other thing was, at the same school, others would go around with three ply boards, with the old bakelite knobs off radio sets on them, and they would be, as it were, travelling lucky wheel spinners, and you could bet your cherry bobs on the spin of the wheel. And this is also done at the same school. I never saw it anywhere else. I never heard of anybody else who ever saw, [coughs] excuse me, this betting practice in operation.

Was this school near a racecourse?

No, Carlton is in central ... central Melbourne. It was as close to the city as you can get.

So it was in Carlton?

Yes, it was in Carlton. So, as I say, the coarse gravel of the playground obviously offered itself to various creative activities in out-of-school time. The kids must have got a lot of the taste for that kind of thing from back lane betting and so on, SP betting, from their parents, and then the two particular ways in which it was done, of course, were something that they evolved in their own way. But that's one very vivid and very creative memory that I have from my childhood.

Why do you think, of all the different experiences you had in your childhood, a memory of school yard gambling should stand out for you?

Well, I suppose because it seemed to me like one which ... in which the child becomes the ... the initiator: the person who does things, and who evolved this system themselves. It's not as though it's something that was passed on from their mothers. I mean tip cat's often been a ... and in fact it's a universal game. Knotting your handkerchiefs. We used to call them tadpoles and belting other kids over the head with them, was a kind of relatively inoffensive way of expressing aggression. But there again, I imagine things that are done in various ways, and were done at other schools. But this was one. And I think particularly for a inner city school, where the classroom atmosphere was restrictive - not prohibitive: restrictive, because of the kind of classroom, and the kind of teaching at that time. It's nothing to do with Lee Street State School now. This seemed to be the flowering. It's not quite the renaissance flowering, but still I think it was an interesting and enjoyable thing and obviously it may have been the source of, who knows, Jeff Kennett may have gone there at some later time, and the whole casino fascination may have stemmed from similar background.

And from your point of view, as a child, what did you do? What did you have to do with this game? What was your role in it?

I don't know. I mean I may have been an observed of all observers for all I know. I was never a better or punter of any great shakes, so it wasn't something that actually kind of changed the course of my life and led to a life of domestic misery, or of domestic bliss, or great fortune. It was just something I noticed at this school ... for a year or so.

And it struck you as creative.

As creative, and sort of memorable because it was creative I guess. At another school I went to, which was Fawkner Street Secondary, we used to have kind of class wars. Not quite like the Marxist ones, but ones where the kids from one grade would line up against the back fence at the school armed with Moreton Bay figs, off the Moreton Bay fig tree, which were often very ... could sting when they hit. And they would then surge forward in a long thin line against boys from another class or another grade. And they would meet - something like the way in which in pre-modern times, battle lines were often drawn up. And they could be often quite sort of stinging and hurtful. The only other thing I remember is from a later stage still, when I went from there to Northcote High, we used to play with zip guns in the aniseed bushes along Merri Creek. You know the zip gun? Two pieces of wood joined together by thick rubber bands, and you fired BB shot from them, or ball bearings. So they're actually very dangerous weapons. And they had a nail attached to the underside which acted as a trigger, and released the ball bearing, which was held in a taught rubber band between the two bits of wood. Now, they're my three vivid memories, apart from a couple of fights I had at Northcote High School, which were gentlemanly sort of affairs, about all my memories of school days. Oh, apart from kids getting belted with doweling at Northcote High School by an irate arts teacher. Because the whole class used to hum and humming is a terribly subversive activity, because you can never tell who's doing it. Everybody's got their lips sealed. The whole class sounds like a hive of bees. The murmur of innumerable bees, I think Tennyson calls it. You know, and he'd go round the classroom shouting and declaiming and swearing it was this or that kid who'd started it but of course, everybody was in it. I remember writing about the fights when I went back to Northcote High some years ago for a jubilee, silver jubilee celebration of the school's founding. They asked me to write something for the school magazine, so I wrote about my two fights, which wasn't really what I think what they want an old boy to discuss in detail but that was about all I could remember.

Did you win them?

I won the first one by a low blow and that was against an older opponent. That doesn't excuse the low blow. I mean, I'm not doing a kind of Mike Tyson. The other one, I also took on an older boy and he held me down and offered to, you know, show me the ropes at Storeman's Gym in Northcote. And I didn't take him up on that, but it was a friendly, friendly altercation. We were playing with paper footballs, which you know, you roll up newspaper and put rubber bands around them, and kick them round the playground. And I was obviously, in the heat of the game, the same as all those Rugby League people say after, 'Oh well, it was all in the match'.

Why were you moving around so much as a family?

I think it was necessity. Dad wasn't at home very much, so it was mostly Mum and my older brother who kept ... kept us going. There wasn't much in the way of pensions or social welfare to the families that didn't have both parents creatively working and it was during the Depression years, anyway, when Dad was a farm labourer, so there wasn't any work for him. And I've come, in recent years, to recognise that I've been a bit harsh, through faulty memory, on my memories of him. And my brother's memoirs of the earlier times have corrected that sort of false impression. So ... but it was often Mum who sort of did the work, and brother, when he could get work, he'd jump the rattler and hawked apples and worked in timber camps at Orbost and various other places outside Melbourne. But they were the ones who kept the family together. And moving from place to place, I think is something that people often do. They go where work is, or where there seems at least the illusion of work.

What ... what sort of work did your mother do to keep the family together?

Well, she came off a small farm too and she and Dad never made a success of their life or of their farming activities. At one stage they planned to go into fox farming, of all things. And that little red fox that I wrote a poem about, that's shown on my dad's shoulder, was presumably the last remnant of the fox farm, or perhaps the progenitor of it, I don't know. But they had ... they had various fanciful ideas of making a success of a farm or this kind or that kind of activity. It always meant, sooner or later, picking up stakes and going somewhere else. And so, it was never a case of starving or anything like that. But it was often a case of not being sure where the next job was coming from.

So your parents experienced a whole succession of economic failures. What kind of an effect do you think this had on their relationship? Do you remember that?

Well as I ... I don't think they were really meant for each other in any kind of sense of that word. I think they were people who looked as though they could make a go of it, and found out, as many people do, that they couldn't. Or that they needed much more favourable general circumstances and favourable personal circumstances in order to make a go of it. Neither of those things seemed to apply. So that ... so they did often sort of part company or he went up country looking for work, and then it was up to mum or ... and or my older brother to sort of keep the family together. Now the other ... the girls married earlier on, my brother married later. But I suspect it was partly because he was busy sort of trying to make ends meet and support the family. And they ... Mum and dad had often fairly sort of acrimonious conflicts and I can remember coming home from high school and threatening to belt him up, which I couldn't have done, but I suppose anger led me to, you know, threaten to do that, on one of the few occasions when he was around the place in the latter years, when I was in my teens.

As a small child, how did you experience that whole relationship with your father?

Oh, not unfavourably. I can remember him telling stories. And he was obviously a person from the bush and he knew various bush crafts, and I think [coughs] he was favourably disposed to me. I don't think he saw me as somebody that shouldn't have happened. So I've got no kind of personal memory of conflict or of any sort of oppression or unpleasantness at all, personally. I think I was a toddler, who flitted around the place, and who was generally very well treated by all.

Where did you come in the family?

I came fourth, as the Bible says. [Laughs] They called to Moses and he came forth. You know, it's a sort of outside place. [Coughs] So [coughs], excuse me, the two sisters and brother at least twenty years or more older than me, so I was very much a late thought. But it meant that I had two surrogate aunts, and a surrogate uncle, you might say ...

In your siblings?

Yeah, so I was very fortunate. And I think, you know, it's often been said since that I was so horribly spoilt, then spent the rest of my life trying to shake it off. Well, I haven't tried. Others have tried. [Laughs] So I couldn't say I had an unhappy childhood at all. I was well looked after by people who didn't have very much money. And I think being well looked after is the key thing, not whether you have money or not.

Did you like it when you were in the country?

Yes, I did. I remember ... the only lines I can remember, a very Dylan Thomas-ish poem sort of described that: 'Brown as a berry, I scuffed through blistered pastures and everywhere under the opal heavens was home'. There's something of that sense sometimes in photos. I ... yes, I enjoyed living in the countryside, but I never got back to living there again very much once I grew up of course. So it's a distant and fading memory. But I can recognise so often in the writings of others, what it was like. I didn't live in the far outback or anything like that. It was always Gippsland or somewhere fairly contiguous to towns.

What kind of a person was your mother?

Well, she was a ... she was a dramatic person. And I suppose many, many ... That doesn't say very much. She loved elocution and she could recite The Sale of Pet Lamb and A Child's First Grief, and Casabianca, (the Boy on the Burning Deck), and The Burial of Sir John Moore. And you'll note that in the sort of late Victorian and early Victorian fashion, it was deaths that usually moved people to ... and I ... I ... I assume that my own interest in sort of elegies and so on, stems partly from that sort of dramatic. And I used to often say to her, 'Gee mum, have you ever thought of getting your voice trained?' and she'd ... she'd colour up very sort of prettily and say, 'No, no, no, why?' And I'd say, 'Well, it's no bloody good to you the way it is, is it?' And oh, she'd always fall for that one. But she learnt elocution the way kids learnt it in school: the waving of arms and sort of like a Shakespearean sort of, Nineteenth Century Shakespearean performance, with lots of sort of stress on words. And I ... my own enjoyment of poetry reading I think is stemmed a lot from that. In fact, there's a poem called A Tribute, which talks about this elocutionary sort of emphasis in a very ... which is a very, as you know, melodramatic form. And she loved that. It was a way also of course working out through the elegies and tragedies of poetry, her own sort of sadness and her own sense of tragedy in her own life. I understand that now, at least. So she could be pretty tough as well. And she was always an optimist I think, despite all that had happened to her. And she always hoped that one of her kids would get an education. As it turned out, she meant a formal education, and that's why she put her last sort of hopes, I suppose, on me. And any time I've managed to improve my formal education, at least I've felt that I owed at least that much to her.

How did she cope with the moving all the time?

Oh, I don't think she liked it at all. One of the best known poems I've written is really about that process.

The Drifters.

Yes. It's very much about her, and I realised later on just how much, when I grew up, how much it must have meant to her, because she loved to sort of grow things and how often it must have hurt her, and bewildered her as well, to find herself moving again. Usually through circumstances other than her own will. Because Dad wanted to move, or because the people we were staying with or whatever it was. Because I wasn't privy to the economic circumstances at an early age. That was how it was, and so she found herself just, you might say ... always she must have been waiting for the other shoe to drop and for another move to be on the cards.

She pinned a lot of hopes on you, and your schooling. How did you go in fulfilling those hopes?

[Laughs] Well, you know. It's a story of sort of banished hopes, or at least obliquely realised ones, I suppose. I was ... I wasn't a bad student. I did my best, but maths weren't my long suit, and the further I went with them, the more they became a mysterious world beyond my comprehension. And I think by the time I left in my sub-senior year, I was doomed to go and find my way somewhere else. So I wasn't able to ... She put me in the commercial stream, because of course that sounded like the money stream but I would have been better off in the professional stream, where I might have tackled languages. I had to pick up French somewhere along the line and I'd been reasonable in Latin, at least to intermediate ... to junior level. But I was in the commercial stream, and it wasn't meant for me. I couldn't ... commercial principles and practices, which was a sort of bookkeeping thing, was beyond me. I can still remember, you know, DR, B black, P purple, CR and all that sort of jargon. But I was never good at keeping the books. My wife looks after the family finances, and it's just as well that she did, because I wouldn't have been able to handle it I don't think. But again, that was ... the stress I suppose on maths into the commercial stream was something that inevitably led to my departure from school when I was sixteen.

Before you'd completed your high schooling.

Yeah, I left in the year before the completing year. [coughs]

Was there anything you did well at, at school?

Well, I did well at English, yeah. In fact, my English teacher assumed that ... before he knew me better - that I'd pinched my essay out of a Women's Weekly. I hadn't. I'd written it myself. I didn't read Women's Weekly, didn't get Women's Weekly. But it seemed to him to sort of at least have the journalistic promise of a Women's Weekly article. And he then ... This is George Stirling - a very fine teacher, a wonderful person. He then encouraged me, and gave me books to read and I always thought that influence sometimes works best when it's least noticed. So he didn't stand, as it were, over my shoulder telling me to write this way, or write that way, or why don't you study? He simply gave me some of the Angry Penguins publications, and a few books outside the usual run of poetry that I'd read at school and it was enough to sort of knock a few holes in the wall, and get me thinking, and to stimulate my sort of writing poetry at high school, and for me to be on the magazine committee. And it was enough to give me a start. And years later, many years later, I suppose about twenty years later, he was at a service station in New Zealand, and he read about my being awarded the Ampol Arts Award for Creative Literature. It was only awarded in literature one year, and he said he hadn't realised that the oil that was running into his sump was also greasing my palm, [laughs] which is a very nice way of putting it. And so he'd written to congratulate me. And I remember having said in the article in the newspaper that I didn't drive a car but at least I could say that I brushed my teeth with Ampol. So ... so he was a teacher that I always admired, and we kept in touch. His memories of me, of course, got foggier. But I'd lose the reference he wrote about my promising literary ability at school. I had to write to him and remind him about my promising literary ability later on when I'd lost the last reference, but as I started to publish and so on, of course, he thought, well maybe he was right after all.

How old were you when you wrote your first poem?

Well, I started writing as a young kid. The younger of my two older sisters was a very talented writer I think. She published some poems, I think, in the Herald newspaper. And if your memory goes back to Pixie O'Harris, then that kind of fairly decorous but competent versification - I'm not putting the word down, it's just that it was verse - was ... she was very skilled at. And had she had the education, I think she'd have probably been a very fine writer. As it was, she was competent within her sort of skills. So she was a kind of present example for me as a young person. I didn't have many examples. Many people in a country as large as this, and where people are often scattered, don't always have ready made models within cooee. And the general support of the family was there all the time. They thought Bruce was always supposed to be, you know, a clever young fellow. Not half as clever as I think they thought he was. But I wasn't going to disappoint them or disillusion them about that. So, as I say, that's what I mean when ... also what I meant, when I was talking about the earlier influence, that they were supportive always. And that plus that encouragement at high school, and then the university encouragement, saw me through to a reasonable point.

But well before you got to university, you dropped out of school. Can you remember what precipitated that? Given that your mother was wanting you to go on, and you were a clever young fellow who wasn't going to disappoint anyone, why did you drop out just then?

Well, I'd ... I'd ... I'd had some sort of difference of agreement you might say with my maths teacher and I remember storming out of the classroom and being ordered to come back and close the door properly which I, being an obedient person, came back and did. But that was my last class. And I went home, and on my way I caught the tram home, and I stopped off at the lending library to take out some Ellery Queen books. That was my sort of act of emancipation: was to read some Ellery Queen mystery stories. Because I'd got the liking for mystery stories at high school. A good friend of mine, whom I've been in contact again with recently, we used to read mystery stories and discuss them. They were a kind of stage up from Colwin Dane Teck [?] in The Champion, and Rockfist Rogan and the hero of the RAAF, or whatever he was called. So they were kind of all part of my kind of growing up. And so ... so that's how I left school. And I went home and proudly declared that I'd sort of finished with school. And I got a job then in a lawyer's office, called Wylde and Crowther, in which may still be in fact - I think it still is - in Melbourne, as a junior, as an office boy, which meant, amongst other things, sort of emptying out the cigarette butts from the typing pool's teacup saucers. And at the end of a year, the junior partner said to me, 'Well, you don't seem to be sort of making that much progress. Would you like a week's pay, or a week's notice?' And I said, 'I'll settle for a week's pay'. So it was ... I like ... I always believe in sort of quick finishes, you know. So that was my first real job. Though I had worked over school holidays at Spicer's shoe factory, on the heeler, in which you put all these headless nails in a steel heel, which is punched up into the heel of the shoe. And that took a whole succession of different jobs, most of which for one reason or another I didn't last too long at.

Was the hope with the law firm that you might have been able to convince your mother that you were going to go on and do law?

I think, well I think my mother convinced herself about that. I don't think I did much to convince her, because I think, you know ... I think that might have been the idea behind it, that a clever young chap with a bit of a big mouth should be able to make a way in the world in the legal profession, as obviously lots of people with big or little mouths do. But ... so I think that's why that particular kind of job suited. But to get from office boy to anything else you had to go through, you know, university, and I think even then you had to be ... after university you had to be articled and so on. But I enjoyed the ... I enjoyed the year. They were good to me, and it certainly wasn't with any sort of bitterness or anything that I took the opportunity of a week's pay.

And what was it about the way you'd gone about the job that meant that the boss had so little faith in your future?

I don't know. I may have just had a terribly blank look, or ... I haven't the faintest idea why I didn't sort of suit whatever the next step in it was. I used to work downstairs in the probate section, writing by hand - very much like Bartleby Scrivener - writing by hand last wills and testaments. Which if you take that on top of my mother's sort of interest in elegiac sort of effusion of the Nineteenth Century, helps to explain my own sort of later career I suppose, because I'd be writing, you know, 'I So and So, of Such and Such, hereby bequeath to my ...' and I'd be writing these all out in longhand. So I don't know what ... I think they just wanted somebody brighter and more useful, or with a more ... who was actually ... as well as being an office boy, was actually going to work towards a university career.

And you weren't showing any inclination to do that. What did you do after you left the law firm?

Well, I'm not sure about the inclination. It may have been that I just simply obviously didn't have the funds for such a, you know, ambitious sort of future, which I never did have. When I went to university, I only got there by bonding myself to the Education Department through the ... to the Secondary Teachers' Centre. So I never had the money. I had to actually ... My mother had left a little corner block of land in Noble Park, and that was my surety for teaching scholarship. So that was the only reason I ever got to university at all.

But that happened later.

Oh, that happened later, of course.

So after you left the legal firm, you said you had a succession of jobs. After you left the legal firm, what did you do?

Well I worked on a share farm up at ... near the ... in the Cann River valley, up near the New South Wales border. A share farm run by the ... a couple who ... both of whose families still lived in the huge rambling farm house, along with their married kids. And I was the go-between, in the L. P. Hartley sense of the word. I sort of carried the messages between the two families who were always warring with each other. So it was a hell of a situation to be in, as the sort of fifteen bob a week farm hand. You'd get one day off in every month. And I saved up enough money to get out and get the bus back home. So I lasted about a month. I enjoyed it: riding horses and they were nice to me, but it was not the kind of ideal thing, because there was so much animosity between the two lots of families. So that was one kind of farming experience. It was a sort of dairy ... share dairy farm. And then I worked in a series of different jobs. Some of them junior clerical. I worked in three different sawmills, as a tailor out on the saws. One I worked at in South Melbourne. I was working on a band saw and the band saw broke. You have all these horror stories about band saws, because when they break you don't even see them go. They're like a rattlesnake. And I had three tooth marks in the side of my nose. And I got Dettol on them and left the same day, actually. I thought that was enough ... that was enough of a hint for me. But that was again my own carelessness. I tried to turn a bit of wood where there was a knot under the band saw, and I survived the experience. But not everybody needs a lot of cautions about that. Once is enough for some people. So I'd left that. But I had other jobs, labouring jobs often with the Public Works Department. In fact, labouring was the thing I did mostly, between when I left school at sixteen, and when I went to university at twenty-four. And it was the most ... working with the Public Works Department, just as a straight labourer, with a truck ... a truck that went around schools - often creating, constructing school playgrounds. So you were often covered in coal lass [?], a sort of tarry substance. But it was a ... you know, it was a job, and you ... I'm not like a lot of the younger generation today who want creative potential before they have any to give. I didn't have much and I wasn't ... I was concerned. I living on my own, in a room, didn't have flats and apartments and so on [like] these days. They were all kind of rooms. Well, [they] mostly were, I think. And so I had to keep body and soul together and I did it by labouring.

In retrospect, what did you think you got out of this period of going from job to job?

Well I think probably the most important thing was that ... You remember that I'd had, you might say, a supportive and affirmative backing from the family. However, it would be very easy for that to give any person, you know, a sort of apprentice monster of egotism. Working with other people, where you're a relatively low person on the totem pole, is always very good I think. And I've always been very grateful for the fact that I learnt what it was to sort of do a hard day's work, and to be damn glad when it's over, but ... to get paid for it, and to respect the fact that while I might move on. Other people are sometimes stuck with those jobs for life. And if I moved on, it was moved on sometimes through my own sort of choice, and very often I was aware that other people didn't have choices. For example, the gang I worked with mostly in the Public Works Department, was dominated by the ganger, who was a bully. And the married man with two kids, called Frank, that worked with me, he was very anxious to keep in with the ganger, and with the overseer, and with the leading hand, because they were the three people who meant a lot to him. It didn't mean anything much to me, because I was a single person. And I realised then, I suppose, if I hadn't realised it before, just how much power can operate in those kind of employment situations, just as they have, of course, throughout history, in every country. And if I often write about power, and as somebody said, about the most recent book, it's about the disposition of power, then it's because I learnt something about power from seeing how it operated with people who didn't have the choices that I was still free to make.

When you left jobs, you often did it quite quickly, you'd jump ...

Oh yes, I remember one day, I was working for a junior clerk for a firm where I couldn't possibly have learnt all that they taught me to, or expected me to learn in the time. So in the end I thought I can't handle this. I'm going to go out and not coming back. So a mate rang me up round about lunch time, and I remembered a couple of lines from The Ballad of Frankie & Johnny and I said, 'Well look, let me put it to you this way, there's eight men going out to lunch today and there's only seven coming back', and he got the message straight away that I was leaving the job. So sometimes I did leave like that. I hated sort farewells anyway, and all the tedious stuff that people say. You've been working there for several weeks. They hardly know who you are and they tell you to come back and see them. But they mean well by it, but you think, no, no, you know, to be courteous, candid and quick about things, is ... but especially to be quick about them, is the way to go. So those were [the] days, after all, when you left a job and you didn't have people holding it over you in future, whereas now, as you know, you have to get job clearance. If you don't get job clearance, and even in getting job clearance, you can be tyrannised by ex or would be ex-employers. That situation simply didn't apply. And there were other people lining up for jobs. There were jobs to be had. And that sort of pressure simply didn't exist for people. And I'm very, very aware, and very angry, of course, on a permanent basis, about the extent to which the present job market is so sort of prescriptive, especially for young people, in my situation as I was, who would like the choice to leave jobs, but who, if they do, know they're going to pay an inordinately high price for it.

You said you were living on your own during this time. As the youngest in the family by so much, and the apple of your mother's eye, why weren't you living with your mother?

Some of the times I was living with mum. Sometimes I wasn't. When she went to the final trip to the hospital I was still living with her. And other times I wasn't. But I'd had a big disagreement with her. She thought - this is long after the fox farm kind of fantasy - that breeding Pekes was the way to go. And in the end ...

Breeding what?

Breeding Pekes, Pekinese dogs. And we didn't have the money or the facilities for that kind of activity. And I remember coming home. I'd worked hard, [in] this is Public Works, labouring work, at a place called Rosanna, out of Melbourne. Caught a train into Melbourne, then the train another forty minutes out to Boronia, and then a half mile or a mile walk from the station, and I'd find that there was no tea for me, when I got home at seven o'clock at night. And I remember saying to her one day, 'It's either me or the Pekes', and she said, 'Well, it's the Pekes', and I left the following morning. So with some ... but I didn't lose contact with the family and I'd go and visit them, so it wasn't as though I was never seen or heard from again. But it's just that for a young bloke. I suppose I would have been round about - oh, I don't know - eighteen, nineteen. My temper got the better of me. And it was just as well, I suppose, that it did, because had I not been in Melbourne, I would never have gone to the university, and I went to university through sheer good fortune. I used to have my evening meals at a Man Fong cafe in Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, and there was a young Malaysian-Chinese architecture student, who was brushing up his English at a night school. And he happened to mention to me, or pass on to me - I forget whether he knew it or found it out for me - that without having completed your senior years in high school, at that stage at least, if you did an adult matriculation, and you were of a certain age, twenty-three or something, you could ... you were eligible to matriculate and possibly go to university. Now that ... had I not had that piece of information, the rest of my life would have been different. But because I'd gone to the Man Fong cafe, because I knew this guy - he was a lovely young Chinese bloke, ardently communist at a stage when it wasn't foolish to be communist - and [because he] passed it on to me I went to night school, I did [the] matric, I went to university and the rest of my life has been different from there. So you know, that's how things can ... I've always said that being lucky is one thing, but knowing that you're lucky is the key to it. If you know you're lucky, then you never forget your luck, and when you see a bit of luck you grab hold of it, and do what you can with it. And although I was tempted quite often to leave the studying at night school, after the day's works, I was always implored by my night school teacher to come back, often tearfully, and I always came back. A woman's tears - I'm a sucker for them. Always was. So I came back. I finished off the matriculation, and then went to university the following year.

So although you'd committed yourself very eagerly, to do this adult matriculation, you almost dropped out of that.

Oh yes, sure.

This dropping out, again, looking back to it with the wisdom of hindsight, was it always just that you were fed up, or was it also a little bit that you wondered whether you could do it?

I suspect a bit of both, Robin. In one sense, I guess that's always there. I've never been over confident about my capacity for taking on new things. So you know, I think that was part of it. It was also that if your working life is among guys who are just sort of ... well, guys who have never been to high school for example, and you're aware that you're using some kind of camouflage to keep in with them, and to learn to operate within their sort of expectations, and then you have to switch off every evening to become a person who's studying French and studying English literature at matriculation level, then, especially in those days - I'm talking about the early 1950s - it was a bit of a sort of ... a bit of a switch you had to do on a sort of ... on a weekly basis. And I guess that ... I found that sort of fairly kind of demanding, and sometimes you think, well, is it worth it and what does it mean anyway? I mean I didn't have any career ahead of me. It wasn't as though I was going to go to university and become a lawyer or a teacher or anything. But obviously to ... in my situation, the only way I could go to university was by being bonded as a secondary teacher trainee. So teaching became something that to me was the only way I could get to university.

There aren't too many matric teachers who will weep at the thought of losing a student. What do you think brought tears to the eyes of your matriculation teacher?

Well, often these were tears that I could sort of interpret over the phone. because I'd ring her up to say I was giving it away and she'd beg me not to. So I imagine that there were at least moist eyes at the other end of the line.

But you had a particularly good relationship.

I had a wonderful teacher, a wonderful teacher, and she had a group actually of young people, men and women, who were university students, that she had as a discussion club as well. Very talented person. Her name was Lillian Scholes, and her sister may still be alive. Her sister was secretary to Zelman Cowan, when he was Professor of Law at Melbourne University. And she was a very dedicated and loving woman, and so I was just one of many people that she influenced. I was seen as a bit of a socialist mind you, which wasn't the usual kind of students that she had. But I was clearly not so socialist as to be completely outrageous about it. [Laughs] And so I think she saw me as a bloke who ought to be given some encouragement beyond that in the classroom, so I used to go along and do some private tuition in French with her. But I never ... I was always embarrassed by conversational French, so I switched off then, because I hated making errors, so that when I failed French at university, it was the conversational French I failed, not the grammatical French.

And did she influence you in any way other than educationally?

Oh, sure. Yes. She was a Methodist lay preacher. And she was also ... used to attend high church, Anglican services as well on Sunday morning, as well as preaching Methodist lay sermons at Methodist churches later in the day. And so she certainly influenced me in that way too because any religious belief I'd had to that point was fairly sort of fairly sketchy. But she brought me into going along to church with them, with her and other people, young people she knew. And that was the start of something which, in the end I became a high church Anglican, and within a year or so I switched over to Roman Catholicism, while I was at university, and was confirmed at the exhibition, actually, in Melbourne, in 1954.

Given that you really hadn't had religion as part of your life to that moment, what was it about it that appealed to you?

Well, there was some religion, because my mother taught me, for example, Scots Graces, and there was a kind of ... It was a more chapel influence than anything else. It was, I suspect, Presbyterian more than anything else. And she was, of course, a person who certainly wasn't sceptical - that's my mother - and so she kept that tradition going. But ... and the other ... My brother and sisters had their own sort of religious beliefs. They tend to be more theosophical than theological. But ... so it wasn't as though there was a complete vacuum. There wasn't. But as far as my own sort of upbringing in my later teen years, like many people, I was fairly kind of sceptical and I was especially sceptical of the spiritualism that tended to be a sort of the way in which the family had sort of come to terms with religion. So it needed ... it needed somebody like Miss Scholes to come along with some formal theological expectations, to sort of get me thinking of going seriously about the whole process.

And what was it that in the end attracted you into the church?

Well, into the Anglican Church, of course, was the influence of this woman and friends of hers, including a close friend of hers, who we used to go and have lunch with on the Sunday after the service at St. Paul's in Caulfield, who's now I think, an Anglican minister, who's a wonderful guy, a guy called Alf Stringer. So that was the first step. But he was, after all, Anglican not Methodist, in his sort of orientation. But at university then, there were other influences. I met and knew and liked people that I met who were Roman Catholics rather than Anglican. I was very fond of a Roman Catholic girl there, who presented me one day with a whole series of tabulated responses to some Anglican document, which said why you should be Anglican and not Roman Catholic. And she'd went through the whole lot and come up with answers to all of them. A very clever and very intelligent person, who I was very, very fond of, and wrote love poems about and so on at that stage. And it was ... so there was a whole combination of influences. I suppose the Lives of the Saints was probably the most particular and extensive one. Plus something else, which comes up with Anglicans at times. That is, if the apostolic succession hasn't carried on into the Church of England, then you're safer to go back to where it still exists, which of course is in the original church. That's pre-Henry VIII. And that seemed to be to be the way around that particular logical sort of impasse, [and that] was to sort of jump it by going back early and saying well, the Church of Rome was to all ... to a lot of people's consideration, the original church, the early church. This is before the schism with the orthodox Christians, and therefore that's the way to head, and so that's where I eventually ended up.

Did the poetry of the church ritual appeal to you?

Very much so. In fact, my sort of fondest memories of Anglican sort of worship are of the wonderful sort of services at St. Paul's, Caulfield, and the Little Book of Common Prayer and the order service in that, is still wonderful I think: wonderful English. I don't mind English being at times archaic. I think something about religion demands transcendence and I think what has often happened in the post-conciliate Church of Rome is a tendency to want to match the service and the language with whatever the prevailing language is, and often it's mean, mediocre and banal. And I've regretted that as much as many other Roman Catholics have. And I still recall however, at one stage being such an enthusiast for changing it - changing the order of mass to the vernacular, that I sort of slipped lots of pamphlets arguing this case in amongst the Catholic Church Society pamphlets in St. Francis's Church in the heart of Melbourne, always hoping that the burly lay brother wouldn't catch me in the act and beat the hell out of me. [Laughs] But I've since regretted that and thought how stupid I was. Sometimes vernacular isn't everything. And if the vernacular itself has lost a lot, or may have lost a lot, or is in the hands of people who are busy sort of seeing that it loses whatever it has, then you may be better off with some form of service which is different from what anybody speaks any time in the street.

Let's stop there now and come back to university ... [GENERAL CONVERSATION]

You went to university immediately after you matriculated, did you? How was that?

Oh, it was great. Early fifties. Some people were a bit like the rehab system that operated with American universities too, where they were coming from very different sort of experiences, and with special kind of ... a bit like the GI Bill of Rights, which allowed people in. And so there were people at universities who normally wouldn't have been there ... And it was a time of great expansion of universities. So I remember seeing a figure somewhere at the time that I went that the office or working class, 1.5 per cent of the working class went to university. Now however you like to define the lower socio-economic group, it'd be a much higher percentage now. So then it was ... I was mostly mixing with people who'd gone to sort of posh colleges and top high schools, rather than drop outs from high school. But they were very magnanimous. Again, I mean I was lucky, because I could have met a time where other people ... Writers like Philip Martin, Evan Jones, Vin Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, were all there or recently been graduated, or already teaching there. And they were universally magnanimous, universally generous, and I could have probably gone at some other time, to some other place, and found myself seen as - because I did write while I was there and publish while I was there - as a threat, or as a pest, or a bit of both. In fact I met none of that. And that was terribly important to me, and still is. So I wrote these kind of ... those prose sketches, the Joey Cassidy series, that Penguin brought out, mostly ... really as a kind of farewell to an idiom, which I expected I was going to leave behind: that is a sort of working class idiom and the working class background I came from and that I'd worked in.

The Joey Cassidy series ...

It's a book called ... What's it called? Over Here, Harv! Harv being short for Harvey Whitcombe, who's a would-be Aussie Rules football start.

And they're short stories?

They're short stories. Yes, short stories.

And you wrote a lot of them in your first year at university.

Yeah, that's right, and published them in university papers and magazines. So they were a kind of ... they were something relatively fresh for university people, because of the class background, and they were fun for me, and they were easy to write. At the same time, of course, I was studying things I wouldn't normally haven't studied: things sometimes I didn't like, things sometimes I did. Some things I didn't understand, but nevertheless, things that widened, I think, my own sort of reading experience and my ... whatever one gets from reading other people's work. So I was ... The poetry side of it was being actually reshaped and re-explored at the same as I was writing these prose sketches.

Were you writing poetry at all?

Yes, I was, yeah. And I was uncertain though whether I'd keep up the short stories or the poetry. But I had a very limited character and I wasn't ... I wasn't you know, like Sherwood Anderson or Ernest Hemingway. I wasn't in there class. So there was no way I could use my limited character beyond a certain point and I think that's where I found the move from the prose sketches to the poetry was desirable. And I made no conscious decision. I just found myself writing more poetry, including some dramatic monologues, and I found that they were a way of expanding the sort of possibilities of what I wanted to put down.

What do you mean by saying you had a very limited character?

Well, he was just a kind of working class bloke, who was mostly out of work. Always falling half in love with various girls. He was ... he was an idealised self in a way, but with no discernible sort of future. And I didn't have any kind of ... I didn't have any way in which I could see myself expanding the character, or suggesting hidden depths, to use that cliché, in the character, that I'd already suggested. So [that is] what I meant by saying I wasn't in the Sherwood Anderson or Ernest Hemingway class.

And so the possibility of inventing a new character seemed to you less attractive than shifting more into poetry?

Yes, though I must say, I never made any conscious decision. I just found myself leaving those ... Remember I left full time ... The only full time university studies I did was in first year. So leaving the university too may have had an effect on that do, though I did enjoy reading. I'd read those sketches at the drop of an eyebrow actually, to various friends, or those who couldn't get out of the room quick enough. So I got into the sort ... got the taste for sort of doing public readings, or at least semi-private readings, with the prose sketches, and that's really followed that through, and I think followed through the possibilities of public voices, into the poetry as well.

Now, at this time at university, you said that you were very positively affected by your relationships with other people there, with people who were poets and writers. How did you, as this knockabout working class fellow, approach them? Did they discover you through your writing, or did you become friends with them on a personal basis?

Well, I think mostly through my writing. And as I say, they were very magnanimous about their situations. Some were teaching staff members already. Some were in the process of becoming academics. And I'd have met them surely, and I'm sure of that, through writing. So we'd have had a common interest. I mean they didn't seek me out, I didn't seek them out. It just so happened that we met. And as I say, they were supportive of me. And that was terribly important, because the only outside, and to that extent, objective support I'd got, had been about eight years earlier from my English teacher. So I've always been very conscious of the fact. And one of the wonderful things that has happened most recently, is for writers' centres to act as focal points for all sorts of writers who find they're in a vacuum, and need some centre where they can get critical appraisal, and ... and critical suggestions, and a whole string of other sort of associated skills. Now that wasn't a reality. So if I hadn't had the university and those critical perceptions and supporting people there, well I wouldn't have ... I wouldn't have kept going.

What about your formal studies. Did they go well?

Well, at that stage the courses were very different. They were year long courses. So you would do four in a year. Four, four and two, I think was a normal pattern. Of the four, I passed two and failed two. I failed Philosophy 1. The rumour used to go around the university that I'd failed it seven times. I failed it twice, not because I didn't like the philosophy, but I couldn't stand the logic. And you appreciate that logic has a kind of ... is semi-mathematical. You know, if A then B and so on. So I used to get myself tangled up in exams on that. But I only failed it twice. And I'm still interested in and still very fond of Plato and Aristotle, but especially Plato, as he was presented to us by Professor Boyce Gibson, who was a wonderful Platonist, or lecturer in Platonic Theory to first year students. Remember, I was a teaching student. Now teaching students were in a really in a kind of schizophrenic situation, or schizoid anyway, because they had lectures from both the teaching centre staff and also from the university staff. And I must say, that at that stage, there was no comparison between the levels. On the one hand you had A. D. Hope and Ian Maxwell and Boyce Gibson and other people like that, who had great sort of bravura and great sort of insight. And on the other hand you had very well meaning people who had a much more - I think they saw it themselves - pedestrian role, which was to, you know, bring these kind of barbarians into secondary teacher level standard.

And so the prospect of being a teacher wasn't really made so attractive to you by your ...

It never was. I mean I'd kind of taken it on, because you know, for fear of finding something worse, as a poet once said. And I can still remember from my school days at Northcote High, being visited in my class by somebody from the Education Department. And I'm sure that ... I know that I thought exactly the same thing as would be in the bubble over every other male student's head - is what would I want to be a teacher for, and give other poor buggers the sort of ... get the hell from other poor buggers that I've been giving to this lot? So you know, that kept most of us, I think, away from the teaching profession. And that was in ... after all, in an all male school, basically Anglo-Celtic. No problems. And yet we still kind of didn't find it a particularly attractive future. Remember though, it was in a stage when - well the war was on - and all sorts of possibilities were there. And teaching wasn't seen as one of the most attractive. Not then. Now, for all its disadvantages, I suppose it does loom larger as a possibility.

So you did it for the scholarship, the teaching side of it?

Well, it was my excuse for being at the university. Yeah, sure.

So you failed two of your subjects at the end of the first year. Now what did that mean for you?

Meant I had to ... I had to either drop out completely. I couldn't go on with my teaching scholarship. I had to, in other words, surrender my bond to the coaching college, and the very charming and very nice and very Aussie bloke there said to me when I came in to tell him that I wasn't being ... going to continue full time, that therefore as my guarantor for university studies, you know, he could take the bond. And he said to me, 'Well Mr. Dawe, you know we often have visits from our successes, but much more rarely from our failures', and he meant it in the nicest way and I took it in exactly that spirit. And it was right. So that was the end of that. I tried part-time, but I was working then in some sort of clothing factory in Brunswick, where all the kapok from all the stuff used to sort of get up your nose and filter down like snow off the various machines, and blowers and so on, and I dropped out of that too. I couldn't keep the studies going anyway. I wasn't a part-time student. So the rest of my university studies I did in my own time.

Were you surprised when you failed?

No, not at all. No, I knew I was failing. And I always remembered I guess those lines from Richard II where he says 'I wasted time and now doth time waste me'. I knew I was for the chopper, and I was quite philosophic about it. I didn't hold the university to account for it. It was simply my own fault. I'd ... I'd, you know, read widely but not well, and was, in so far as my affections were sort of particularly distracted by a particular person. I was ...

You mean you fell in love?

Yeah, well basically yeah. And so that also kind of tended to make me feel the year wasn't lost. It was just sort of diversified you could say. [Laughs] So I left without any really hard feelings. At that stage I don't think I could possibly have become a teacher. I wasn't ready for it. I was twenty-four, but I really wasn't ready to take on what's always been a fairly challenging sort of grind as a ... as a secondary school teacher.

But looking back at that year full time, what do you think, to sum up, you got out of it?

Oh, so much. Encouragement basically. Encouragement to write. Encouragement from people who were good writers themselves, as all of those people still are. A sense I suppose too, that magnanimity was a possibility in life, which is always an encouraging thought. And also reading practices, which were very different from what I had. My reading was basically shaped, apart from some left-wing reading, but fairly critical stuff, by my brother. So for a guy who never finished primary school, if you think of someone who read Wodehouse, Chesterton, Wells, to name a few, he was self-educated, but very, very much more intelligent person than I was or am, actually, but he didn't have the formal education. So I'd got a ... I'd got that upgraded, you might say, in a sense, by having to read other things which were not so immediately sort of accessible, but better for me personally I think.

And when you left university and you started on a series of jobs again, what happened for you?

Well, I did handyman gardening, although I'm not much of a handyman and not much more of a gardener. But I did that for a while. And then I joined the Post Office as a postman, in around where I lived. So I was able to go to the local post office, throw off my mail in the day, and take it on a walk around, which I enjoyed very much. There was a lot of Greek migrants and a lot of ... including eastern European, eastern Europeans, especially German, East German migrants, on that round in Fitzroy. And I enjoyed that very much for a couple of years. It started early and finished about half past four, with a lay off in the middle. So it was kind of a longish day, and it was really enjoyable, but not, as it were, doing anything else. I suppose I wanted companionship more than anything, so I thought I'd join the services.

What was it like being a postman?

Oh, it was very enjoyable actually. The hours were long because we had a break in the middle of the day before the afternoon round came up. But you met a lot of people. I learnt, in bad Greek, several words to say, 'No letters today, maybe tomorrow'. I didn't learn any words of German, because well, there weren't quite as many German migrants on the round. And they were nice, friendly people and the postman is generally the bringer of good news, especially to people from overseas, who've come recently from overseas. So I enjoyed the round. I'm sure it was a round with more people who were used to dense living, and being convivial over side fences, than if I'd been to some upper class round in Toorak or South Yarra. And these were walk rounds, so you did actually ... unlike the person who whips around now on some sort of moped, you did actually get to see people, and you didn't have to wear a helmet and, you know, appear as though you were, you know, a bandit on holiday.

Were you writing poetry at this time?

As far as I can recall. Let's see, that's the latter part of the fifties. Yeah, as far as I ... yeah, I mean there wouldn't be a year I haven't been writing poetry. More some years than others and sometimes it's not the amount you write in any case. But yeah, I'd have been writing off ... off and on. Air force life tended to be a bit more demanding at times than that, especially when I was doing my trainee telegraphers course. And I didn't write much in the six months I spent in Malaysia. I found that the climate was just too, too soporific, too, too humid for me to concentrate on much except trying to keep cool. So I wrote a few things then, but when I came back to Australia, I started writing again.

When you were working as a postman, I suppose one imagines that doing a job like that would leave your head free to do some thinking.

Yes, I think that's true too. Yeah. I mean it wasn't a great mental strain to sort of figure out the numbers on the boxes or the doors and what you had in your post bag. And at the same time you were generally bringing good news or - especially people from migrant backgrounds. So yeah, it was a kind of ... It was very enjoyable that way. But it was just that I suppose I was sort of living on my own, and ... as I've lived until I got married, but I think I was looking for some kind of more companionate sort of life. And that's what you do find, and I think many people find that in the services. You're in with a lot of other people, and you've got something to do every hour of the day, and at night too if you want to.

Did you spend a lot of those years, apart from the one that you were at university - but between leaving school and when you joined the services - where you were mostly drifting from job to job?

Oh yeah, sure.

Did you spend a lot of those years lonely?

Yeah, that'd be true to say. Yes I think so, yeah.

Lonely in what sense?

Well sometimes there were girls I knew. Sometimes there weren't. That was one solution to loneliness. It was a very sort of common one, I gather. But I was living away most of the time, not always, from my family, which was something I guess I missed. I lived with my brother and his family when I worked as a labourer and the Whangee [?] powerhouse when they were building that in Whangee, New South Wales. I lived with my sister and with my mum ... my sister and her husband and my mum in Waterloo in Sydney, for a year or two. But the work there I worked at was pretty hard work in a glass factory. But yeah, I mean there weren't many people that I knew, for example, as writers. One of the things I was saying about the writers' centres is they do create a possibility for people to meet other people, without being lucky about it, from ... who have similar interests to your own.

Going back to your family, what happened to your father?

Well, he died in his eighties. And by that time, I think, he wasn't living at home. So he'd ... I think he'd been drinking a lot, and I'm not sure in fact what he even died from. It was probably cancer, but I'm not sure. But he was well into his eighties, and it was a bit sort of vague to me, because I was out of touch with him, and to some extent with the family at the time.

He'd moved away from the family, from your mother, when you were still in your teens?

Yeah, yeah.

So how did your mother get on? How was she managing during those years, between when you left school and when she died?

Well, mostly ... I was mostly with her most of the time, and at times it was my money that was helping. At times I think my brother was still helping. At times she went out to work in the kitchens of various posh hotels, and bring home the sort of carcasses of chickens, which are sort of, these days might be very common in the days of the you know, takeaway places. But the only takeaways then were what workers got from the kitchen themselves, after those who paid for their meals had finished with them. And so that was very nice for us and that was one way to supplement the family diet. But it was living fairly sort of close to the bone. I mean, I had one suit a year and that had to sort of do me at high school. And I was very grateful that I had a suit. We didn't have this sort of flash American democratic principles where you dress up or dress down according to your style and your pocket book. At least with a suit, as people point out many times, there's something democratic about suits. They can be made to do.

And your mother lived in various places during that time too.

Yeah, mostly in Fitzroy. When I went back there a year or so ago, it's ... the whole block's gone. It's warehouses or something. Opposite there was - I don't know if that's still there either - the Fitzroy Gasworks. So we were told that the healthy smell of the gas fumes was good for you. In fact, they used to take people up the top of the gasmeter for their various chest complaints. I don't know whether it was in order to push them off, so they didn't have the complaints any more, [laughs] or what the circumstance was. But if you lived next to something like that, it stands in your memory as memorable. So we lived there. And we went from there to ... I think to New South Wales, to a place called Dora Creek on the Lake Macquarie system, and lived in a house there. And then I went to Sydney and stayed with ... the order may be a bit confused here - stayed with my sister and her husband. They were in a mixed business in Waterloo. And then I went to stay at my brother at the Whangee Powerhouse.

While you were with your brother - with your sister and brother-in-law in Waterloo, your mother came and lived there for a while, didn't she?

That's right, yes. Quite right.

She was a bit concerned about you, wasn't she?

Well, she had delusions of sort of persecution at that stage. And that was kind of a bit worrying. And she'd had those, and she'd had them off and on I think from then on. And I refer to them in a poem. And that's when I went to ... had to take her into one of the hospitals in Melbourne, where the ... one of the medicos there said to me on the quiet, 'Have you ever thought of getting her committed?' And I said, 'No, it's never occurred to me'. [Laughs] But she was ... she had delusions at times: thought everybody was out to bump her off or something, but they were part of the process, I guess, in her case.

And when you were living with your sister, she was worried about you.

Yes, she was. And used to sort of sneak food in. She believed I was being kind of ... not deliberately, but one way or another being kind of starved and denied proper nourishment. It wasn't true. But it was one way probably also, now I come to think of it, of helping her to feel useful and you know, contributing in some way to [coughs] at least one member of the family's well-being.

And in one of the houses you were living in with her, the house burnt down, didn't it? Could you tell us that story?

Well, that was really when we were living outside of Boronia. Boronia, I think, is now a Melbourne suburb. Then it was a little country town. And my brother was with us then too. And he was incubating ... had an incubator with chickens in it. An old style incubator, with obviously a live flame. And he'd left it on one night and up went the chickens and the house. And so I lived on what was left of the house, which was a charred sort of room. I could see starlight. But I had a kind of iron sheet above ... sheet iron, galvanised iron, above, on four posts above the bed to keep the elements off me. And I could see starlight through the boards. And that was where I was when Mum had lived on in what was the dairy of the house. And that was the stage at which ... when she said after persevering with her Peke breeding program, and then I said to her, 'It's either me or the Pekes', and she said, 'It's the Pekes'. And so that's when I ... when I [was] presumably feeling reasonably piqued, sort of left.

And why didn't the house get fixed up?

It may have been in the fullness of time. The older sister, my older sister, whose husband ran a piggery at Glen Waverley, which is also I presume now a Melbourne suburb, but was then ... she had a sixty-four acre pig farm there. This is when they treated pigs a bit more humanly than they often do now. And so they put on the premises in the place ... or rather to replace the burnt house a big one room thing where my brother lived. But the house wouldn't have burnt down except that where the main sort of water supply ... main town water supply was, was to too far from the fire brigade hoses by the time they got there. These small sort of administrative problems create difficulties for families at times. [Laughs]

And your mother's health really deteriorated, didn't it, from about that point on? Could you talk about that, because it's a common experience for people to have this happen. How did you handle it and what did it involve for you?

Well, I mean it may well have deteriorated in any case. But I suspect that often that's aggravated it if there's been a long history of depression or of disappointment and disillusion, and frustration with life, and frustration with family aspirations. So I'm sure they kind of, if anything, accentuated and aggravated the problem. All I could do was do what I could. And I don't ... I'm sure I was no saint about it. I probably grumbled and whinged and carried on like a lot of people do. But I can't remember that. But I guess I had some basic kind of sympathy with her situation and did the best I could. I mean I didn't ask for ... I didn't expect a palace, and nor did I expect, you know, a mother who was a St. Monica. All I expected was that you know ... that sometimes I'd get a meal if I came home late and was tired. But things don't always work out. So I never took it out on her as far as I know. And the family generally were very generous, and did what they could for mum. I felt, at times, that she'd been neglected, but I don't know. Again, I ... looking back over your own criticisms of others, it's easy to make criticisms at the time. When you look back, you wonder, as in the case of my father, whether I was accurate in what I said, and it's sometimes just ignorance masquerading itself as ... as, you know, forthrightness.

When did you decide to go into the air force?

Well, in those years I was ... in fact I originally aimed to go into the navy. They couldn't have put up with me I don't think and I probably couldn't have put up with them. But I was just a little bit too old. So my first aspiration was the navy, and then ... and then the air force came second. I'm glad however, as in other things, that I didn't get my first choice, because I wouldn't have been any better in the navy than I would have been as a twenty-four year old or twenty-six year old school teacher. So it just came about as the, by default. But I made it sometime during the time when I was still happily enjoying myself as a postman. But I couldn't see it. I couldn't last on like other postman because of lack of opportunities, but I thought if I was going to try something else, I should do it while I still had the ability to possibly make a go of it. So that's why many people do those things in their twenties, when they've had a bit of a look around, and they think, well this isn't ... this is ... this is fine, but you know, is this all there is to it? And [they] try something else. [DOGS BARKING]

When you found yourself in a situation where you felt, you know, you weren't getting anywhere or going anywhere, why did you decide to go into the air force rather than perhaps resume your studies?

Well, I think for the sake of possible companionship more than anything else. I didn't know whether I'd go back to do more study or not and it was very fortunate that I chose the air force, because I did have the spare time. I wasn't by inclination or ability a boozer. Not that the air force personnel are any more boozers than others. Nevertheless it's a possibility. I didn't have to take that, so I had spare time to take up the study. So again, had I chosen the navy, I probably wouldn't have had the time or the ... or the access to libraries and so on, whereas I was posted from places to places where there were libraries, and I could do some sort of research. So again, it suited me, and I had the spare time that I would have found probably more ... see, I often lived off base so I had spare time that I found much more difficult to find in the constraints of a navy career, especially on board ship.

What did you do in the air force?

Well, I started as a trainee telegraphist, and my morse code was fine, and I handled the other stuff okay, but I was a lousy typist, which I still am. So I could see myself being off course. So I was on ten words a minute touch typing, when the rest of the course was on twenty and I figured I'd better jump before I was pushed. So I moved on to education. So I became an education assistant then, which meant sometimes showing movies, sometimes repairing and splicing film, sometimes repairing aircraft manuals, sometimes issuing books, a whole range of different sort of possibilities, education people. And again, it was very helpful to me. It wasn't demanding and it left me free with spare time to - as I did later on - take up studies again. And I finally finished the university, the matric part of the university. Was it the matric part? No, I finally finished the French at high school on the New South Wales-Victorian border, sitting in a class room with high school kids, doing a university French exam. They weren't doing university French. They were doing whatever they were doing. But that was the nearest place for an examiner to supervise mine. But that was because I was at the moment at Wagga, at the RAAF base in Wagga.

So where you mostly posted?

Well, Rathmines was my recruit training spot and then I went to Ballarat, which is colder than Toowoomba. And then after dropping out of the training, the telegrapher's course, and taking up [as] education assistant, I was posted down to Wagga. Then from Wagga to Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, which again was very handy for me. And then from Victoria Barracks to a place I'd never heard of, in Queensland - I hadn't heard of many places in Queensland anyway - called Toowoomba. And most of the people ... many air force personnel, young personnel were Queenslanders. For example, on my recruit training course, eighteen of the twenty-eight were Queenslanders. I wasn't one of them. But I did get the impression that Queenslanders were Australia's Texans. I've never heard people brag as much about their home state. Neither New South Welshman or Victorians ever thought of cracking up their state the way Queenslanders did. So anyway I got posted to Toowoomba. I met my wife at the civil stores depot here, and continued studies here. And although I had my final subject, I actually did down in Melbourne, I graduated then finally from Queensland University as a B.A. in '68. So it'd been a long time. These days, I probably wouldn't have been allowed to have a fourteen year course, but they were sympathetic, and I was lucky again. And having got that one, then I immediately started ... I then started teaching across the way here, and see my first teaching experience [was] down there in Sacred Heart College. Where again, I was very lucky, because I couldn't do that now without teacher training. In those days you could, at least, if you were lucky and had some support, land a teaching job in a private ... private school, without teacher training. I don't think you can now. So again, I was lucky that the times were right for me to sort of make that move into teaching, which I enjoyed tremendously. And again I was lucky in that single sex teaching seems to me - I may be wrong here ... is so much easier than co-ed. It doesn't require anything. If you're a male then you teach males. If you're a female, you teach females and that's it. Again, I was lucky in that I got that first blooding as a teacher with an all male school, which became co-ed, but then they started to expand the other institution out here, the technology place, the Institute of Technology into a CAE. But before that it became in Institute of Advanced Education. And I was [cough] again terribly lucky, because my selected edition was launched here in Toowoomba, and a chap, who was then already teaching - he was teaching history, out at the institute - happened to see me on the evening of the launch and said, 'Are you going to put in to that job out at the institute?' Well, I'd never even heard of the job, and if I had I wouldn't have thought of putting in for it, but he suggested that I should, and as they say, a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse, so I thought well, here's a staff member telling me to put in for it, who knows? So I consulted with my wife and Gloria said, 'What have you got to lose?' which is always the way to go, of course. So I tried and I got a job as a lecturer in English and Drama. Now I'd been studying modern drama, so that helped me to get ... I'd taken up a postgraduate course in modern drama at University of New England. So that again helped me to ... plus I had references from Judith Wright and Alec Hope. And I don't know whether they knew either of them, but they sounded as though they knew what they were talking about, and between the lot of them, I landed the job. And that was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the ... in the job line, because I enjoyed the twenty-odd years I did teaching at what was an institute, then a college of advanced education, then a university college and now, in the final years I was there, a university. So there you are.

Yes, now can we take that apart. We've covered a lot of territory there. Let's go back, first of all, to ... to the more personal side. When did you first discover girls?

[Laughs] Well, I imagine fairly early on. I can remember being absolutely daffy about the daughter of a girlfriend of my brother's, when I was eleven. I do remember that. Real calf love, it was marvellous. And I can remember he used to give a ride ... It's mentioned in a poem called Kids' Stuff. He used to ride to Geelong on a motorbike and I'd ride on the pillion seat at the back and he'd be seeing her and I'd be sort of ... I'd not be seeing so much as sort of just quietly going silly over [laughs] ... over her daughter, who was a lovely girl. So that's, I suppose, basically when I discovered girls as a fascinating sort of experience, yeah.

And there was the girl at university that was very influential on you becoming a Catholic.

Yeah, but there were others in between. There was a girl that I knew for three years under my pen name. I never told her my real name, because it sounded so dumb and ordinary after ... I called myself ... I was crazy about Dylan Thomas and I called myself Llewellyn Rees, which is as Welsh as you can get. And she knew me always as Llewellyn. We didn't live close together and of course, neither I think of us had phones on so there was no way of checking. And I didn't like to disabuse her. At that stage, when I had hair and I was a lot leaner, I could have passed, I suppose, for a lanky Welshman, not that there were that many. But it's kind of part of the thing. I wasn't being dishonest, I was just trying to help her keep up her romantic image of another writer. She ... she used to write, and I met her through us both publishing, I think, poems in the Junior Age, the Melbourne paper.

So as a teenager, you published poems in Junior Age, under the pseudonym of Llewellyn Rees.

Yes, that's right.

And what kinds of poems were they?

Oh, I think reasonably competent poems for a bloke in mid-teen years. Formal ... Always formal poems. One about a captive lion I think. I can still ... I can't recall the poem, but I can still remember that as a subject matter. And various descriptive ones: sentimental, I imagine. But they called me in, in the end to come and meet them at the Age, which I did. So I'd showed some sort of promise I suppose then. [DOGS BARKING]

When you did get interested in girls, did you find that that ... When there was a girl around, did you find that you wanted to write poetry?

Oh, yes. Yeah. I mean that's a natural, I think. It's such a common experience now. As poetry editor to the Courier Mail, I get lots of poems from people that have just discovered a new love. It's a ... it goes with the territory I think, sure.

And how did you meet your wife?

Well, she was the switchboard operator at the air force base that I was posted to in Toowoomba. And I met her, of course, through being ... I was one of those guys who had to relieve on switch at weekends. I don't know that I was very good as a relief switch operator, but at least I kind of ... I met her then, and I liked her very much, and so that was how we met. And we kept pretty quiet while we were on base, but eventually decided to get married. Yeah. It was all in the first year, actually. And it's been, of course, a great thing because she's both a good critic and has been a wonderful wife and a wonderful mother to the kids, and they think the world of her too. So again, I've been terribly lucky. I mean one looks around and sees that it's not always the case. In fact, less and less the case. So there's nothing to say that I deserved any better than lots of other people who didn't get as good.

And is she the one in the family who manages things?

Oh yes, oh yes. She's the financial adviser and keeps things. Oh yes, I don't have any sense of money or finances or sense about those things. I never did have. I mean I didn't go round putting ads in the paper, 'Wanted, feminine financial adviser', but it turned out to be again one of those very lucky things that very often happens. I'm not alone in it. I'm very aware that many men think that women, especially when they often have to do a lot of the general accounting, are in a much better position to know what one should do with ... you know, with the money and the household. As long as there's grub on the table, most blokes don't care a great deal. I'm not a dress conscious person so that doesn't worry me. And she's always done a wonderful job.

Did you have any overseas postings while you were in the air force?

Malaysia for six months, is the only one I had overseas. And ...

What was that like?

Well, I found myself in a sort of ambiguous situation and I suppose that may be more a reflection on ...

Bruce, I'm going to ask you that question again, and could you - you're looking down quite a lot.

Well I found that a very ambiguous situation, because I'm not used to having servants for a start. And although, as a NCO, I only had one servant, as against the couple which officers are entitled to, I found that one was, as charming as the person was ... was something that just didn't sort of fit with either my own or my wife's sort of way of doing things. We didn't keep them at a distance but they would say ... It was actually a Chinese-Malay woman and her daughter ... sorry, her younger sister, who was actually being apprenticed, more or less, to learn the trade of being an amah, and the elder of the two would say, 'Oh, Mem, we're not used to this'. They felt uncomfortable, actually for us to be sitting in the kitchen having coffee with them. They would have rather that the distances were maintained. I can understand that, because if somebody has to then go on, like the younger sister, and find a living like that, it may be the wrong kind of upbringing. But we couldn't change our ways for that. And so it just reminded me of how sort of, how difficult the codes are. When you go ... and I don't think Australians are used to servants. It's not ... It doesn't come with our ... certainly not with our particular background, and certainly not the background of most Australians. We like to do our own things and we don't like to maintain those kind of distances which are often very necessary in those circumstances. So that was a kind ... that was one thing. The other thing was that I think even though we went as ambassadors of goodwill ... was the phrase used by the flight sergeant as we were ready to disembark from our boat, but even so you can become conscious in Asia that you are not Asian, in the sense that Asians are. And when you're going to and from, often on a ferry to the mainland and back again, and local people are standing separated from you, and watching you, you can't help but feel that you're the visitor there and that you've got a very transient role to play in their lives, and that they're the people that really count, and they have the history and the culture. And I was always very conscious of that. And I could understand how people - even though our relationship with Malaysia was of course a very friendly one - how ... you can guess what it might have been like in a much more potentially hostile situation, such as Vietnam.

Did you find the attitudes of your fellow servicemen there very like your own?

No, [laughs] not that much. I must say that many of them felt ... we were always being told that these other people had just come down out of the trees recently. They were noggies, of course, which is a derogatory term in itself. And I wasn't terribly impressed. Now I'm not blaming that on ... on those servicemen, because some of them were really nice guys. But that was the attitude which they very quickly acquired from others, a sort of attitude of the old timers who'd been there before them. I don't think they necessarily had those attitudes when they left Australia. They might have been dormant, but they certainly weren't active until they went there. But then, when you get spoilt - if that's the word - with servants, when you haven't had servants, when you get the kind of cheap accommodation and the way you could buy expensive things cheaper than you can get in places, either duty free or next door to it, then ... and you know ... then when you know how much you may be in fact, despite yourself, contributing to the national economy there, you can be ... you can understand why people take those kind of high faluting ideas a bit more seriously. We didn't take those at all, but as I was saying earlier, we ... that made us anomalous and perhaps not less ... not as amenable to local liking as we might have been, had we been a bit more sort of race conscious.

During the Vietnam War, your opposition was very public, very strongly articulated. How did that sit with your ... with the people that you were working with in the air force day by day?

Nobody ever worried a bit. I mean the air force, of the three services, is the most junior of course. And also, the most apolitical. It ... they didn't worry a continental. I ... I mean every RAAF library had copies of my books. There was an item in the Sydney Morning Herald once which said 'Anti-war poet goes to war', which wasn't true. I wasn't going to war, I was only going to Malaysia. They didn't worry a bit. Had it been the navy or the army, I would have probably been hauled over the coals. But no, no, they didn't take offence. I was winning a few prizes and so on, which helped to perhaps redeem me, but I don't think in most cases they read the poems. Or if they did, they thought well, you know, poetry being what it is, who else will read this anyway? So it never, in any way, reflected on my sort of relationship with either officers or other air force personnel.

What was the basis of your opposition to the war in Vietnam?

Well, I'd been reading about, and thinking, in so far as reading encourages thought - about the French Indo-China, when it was French Indo-China, and reading the books by Bernard Fall and Lacouture and others, the French men who'd written about the struggle of the Viet Minh against the French in North Vietnam, or in Northern China. And I was so impressed by their experience, and their perception of how in fact, difficult, if not impossible, it was for the French to hold on. That, with the fall of Dien Bien Phu. I came home from university that day. It was 1954, [and I] saw the headline and I thought, well that's the end of the French experience. And of course, eleven years later, when the Americans and the allies, the Australians to a lesser extent, got involved, I could only look on with dismay because the history of Vietnam is a history ... an anti-colonial history. They've ... they've opposed Chinese hegemony throughout their history, and some of their great heroes are histories of anti-Chinese resistance. So the temporary association of Indo-China, or Vietnam, with some communist take-over of South East Asia wasn't going to make sense historically to me at all. It was nonsense, and it was proved to be nonsense, because as soon as the Vietnam War was over, almost, the Chinese and Vietnamese were fighting on the border. There's no way that the history of Vietnam would allow Chinese hegemony or Chinese domination to be a very serious thing. So we really, I think, had been - because of the Cold War emphasis - worrying too much about some colossal take-over, fanned of course by the earlier Malayan Emergency, where there were communist terrorists in the jungles of Malaysia. But it was all a nonsense, and a very tragic one, to me, and I wrote out of that sense of the tragedy of it, which of course has been an enormous tragedy for the Americans. And every time I see shots of that wonderful Veterans' Memorial in Washington, I think again how disastrous. It's as though substitute sort of, you know thinking about history, but people do let political imperatives dominant, often, any historical vision they have. But Vietnam was certainly not ever going to be a Chinese lackey.

I suppose it's odd that some people at the time, given that you were a serving member of the air force, thought of you as a pacifist.

Yeah, I suppose so. I mean there seems to be often a natural connection with the two, but I've never been a pacifist in that sense. I've always made it quite clear, often when I'm speaking publicly, that I'm not an absolute pacifist at all. There are times, I believe, when people have to fight for what they believe, and fight to the point of ... even if it means killing somebody else. And so I've never been a pacifist in that sense at all. I don't believe it's a very practical sort of way to go. If the kind of pacifism that is advocated was really being practised, then the totalitarians would have had the world, not just part of it. I don't think the military elite in Japan would have worried about pacifism. I don't think the Soviet Union would have worried about pacifism, and I don't believe the Nazi Regime would have worried about pacifism at all. I admire people who take that line, but I don't believe it's one that I'd feel happy with at all. I've got great admiration - not just because I joined the services - but great admiration for people who decide that the way for them to serve the interests of peace is by fighting for it, and by fighting for it, if necessary, with weapons. And I don't care really so much what the weapons are. I'm not a sentimentalist about whether you drop napalm or drop any other kind of bombs. Military historians and military strategists and experts on military warfare, like John Keegan, have pointed out that the horrors of Twentieth Century fighting are no worse, basically, than the horrors of fighting a war where weapons are merely bows and arrows, or swords.

Did you find any difficulty in ... in being a member of the air force and holding some of the personal beliefs that you do?

No, basically not at all. It was never a matter of any sort of struggle with conscience. As I say, for the reasons that I've given, that I always admired ... I admired people who, in whatever service they were in, in whatever situation they were in, not just in the Australian services, fought valiantly. I've admired courage, I suppose, above everything else. And those ... I'm not saying that courage is peculiar to the services. Of course it isn't. But ... In fact most people's courage doesn't take them into service life at all. But courage is courage, whether it's in uniform or outside, and wherever it is, I sort of, I'm prepared to sort of honour it, by writing often about it too. I've written poems about serving men and their heroism in battle. For example, in the revised edition, I've even given further information about an American, who was in the first big American confrontation with the North Vietnamese in Vietnam in the Chu Lai Valley, in 1965. I wrote to the American Information Service, and they passed it on to the ... whatever the department was in America, and [they] gave me back the full details of what the award was and who was the person, so I was able to add his name, and the actual citation of the award to the poem I had about him, that's in the collected edition.

Probably your most quoted poem, one of your very best known, is Homecoming. Why do you think that that touched such a chord with the Australian public?

Well, I guess because it's analogy. It's not taking sides at all. I've said many times that had I known, or had I had it been my particular persuasion to write about the other side in the same way, I might well have done it. But I knew very little about the way in which the Viet Cong and the Viet Minh dealt with, or disposed of their dead. Often of course, if they were killed on the field of battle, they were bulldozed into mass graves. But the Americans have always been - and I honour them for it - respectful of their dead. And so I chose that kind of as the point of approach to the whole question about the cost, which is paid in war, by people who are prepared to sort of fight, or find themselves anyway fighting in a war. But I think it's because it's non-party, non-political. I've never, ever given permission, for example, for communists to use the poem. And I was approached some two or three years ago by somebody in Beijing, whether they could use the poem there, in some exhibition of art by Chinese artists. Now I've got nothing against Chinese artists at all. I'm sure I'd admire them as anybody else's, but I wasn't prepared to let a communist government use my work, and I never have been.

What is your attitude to communism?

I think it's a disaster, actually. And I'm sorry for every country that - understanding as it may be at a certain time in its development, it's tempted by it. I'm sorry for what will happen to them under it. But then I'm against totalitarianism per se. I think the Soviet experiment has been an absolutely disastrous one. And I think the number of people that have died in Gulags, in various other ways, have never made it to a term like a Gulag, far exceeds those whom the Nazis and their fascist sort of friends killed. But because the Left has always been rather more partial to the Soviet experiment, I think that's been forgotten. And I've always appreciated Orwell's attitude to that, as well as that of course of people like Solzhenitsyn, who've written about it, and people like Robert Conquest, who in his book, The Great Purge, reveals just how horrifying the true Animal Farm is, of the 1930s purges.

Because you were very much accused of having gone soft on communism when your opposition to the Vietnam War became so public.

Well that may be so, but I think my kind of history stands me, and my general sort of attitude, stands me in good [stead]. I mean if people ... It never worries me in one sense. People say what they're entitled to say and that's their ... I don't want to go around, and I never have gone around trying to correct false impressions, but I think that's a false impression.

During the sixties, too, and later, you took up the cudgels on behalf of free speech in Queensland, and found yourself in strong opposition to Joe Bjelke-Petersen. How did that come about?

Well, I think it comes naturally out of my sort general belief that in most cases, dissent is a healthier thing to have out in public, rather than underground. And I have the very same attitude for example to Pauline Hanson, in so far as she represents a dissenting voice, however much it may hurt various people, because her dissent seems to be an attack on their particular position. I think it's much safer to have it out, and I'm rather appalled by the idea that ... I said, for example, in the Right To March thing, Robin, that ... I remember in a letter I wrote in to the paper, [to] that person who was having a go at me over it, I said, 'At the moment we may be on opposite sides of the barricades, but some time in the future we may be on the same side', and I think that's often the case. You can only sort of take these things from where you see the need and I see the need is, in fact, for people to have the right of free speech, and that's a kind of right that's a very ... a very thorny right. And I think what we are experiencing at the moment are the thorns that go with the right and people don't like the thorns. Well I think that's tough. But I defended ... I defended in the Right To March, people whose views I abominate, and I'd still defend other people's views, and I think other people should defend them too, even though they may find those particular views abominable too.

And as a result of your being involved in the Right To March, you ended up in gaol. How did that happen?

Well, I led a march in Toowoomba, which was mostly composed of students from the college, and we were arrested, and I realised that as part of that, they would spend a night, at least, in ... in ... in the local watch house. And so I recognised that it would be rather foolish of me. I had the money to bail myself out if I wanted to, but I didn't think that was an appropriate position for a staff member, simply because he happened to have more money than the students, to take, so I shared the ... shared the cells with other dissenters of the same opinion, who weren't staff members.

So what was it like? Could you describe to me the demonstration and the aftermath? Tell us the story of it, because it was a time when people really actually got quite a lot of ...

Well, in Toowoomba of course, it was all a gentlemanly affair. There was no ... The police were very nice. And I remember telling the constable that he needn't grip me so hard, I wasn't going to run away. It was all very gentlemanly and it was very well conducted on both sides. And I'd like to think that that's the way most things should be. But then we weren't, after all, violently sort of making it difficult for the police. We went along peaceably, we didn't let them drag us around. So we didn't create the sort of difficulty and the will to violence that often takes over both sides. So it was a sort of as peaceful and gentlemanly as you could imagine. That's very different from how it often was in King George Square and elsewhere during that time. But I wasn't in King George Square, I was here. So I was happy enough to take it in that form. I wrote a poem about it which I've lost since, about it because I was very pleased to sort of actually be doing something. And I had a speech ready to make. But the magistrate was fairly quick off the mark with shutting me up on that. [Laughs] I understand that too.

So you didn't get your day in court?

Oh well, I got the day in court and I got to say part of what I said, and the rest of course, I handed in. And that was okay too. You do what you can, but I wasn't going to kind of do any more about it.

You've got a view of the importance of a poet being a public person, who engages with the events around him. Was that very much in your mind when you got involved in this?

No, I didn't have a ... I didn't have a view of the poet as a person. I mean I just had a view of the person as a person engaging in things. I don't generally think of the poet as some special kind. I don't put on a uniform and then act in terms of what the uniform dictates. That's not my way of doing it. I say, 'Well this is what a person would do'. I've often said that the greatest sort of ... the greatest claim anybody can have is that they're a citizen, and I think part of being a citizen is, at times, supporting the state and at other times disagreeing with and opposing the state, and I think that has to be the position. There's a marvellous line in one of the translations of one of the Greek plays, where the Persian empress, I think, asks of a messenger, what ... She says, because she's just heard about the defeat of the Persians, 'What is this Athens of which all men speak?' and the messenger, the Persian messenger, says, 'They bow to no man and are no man's slaves'. And I think that's a kind of definition of citizenship that I ... I hold very strongly to.

One of our best lines recorded.

Well it's not mine. It's somebody elses.

Yes but it's very much you. Yes but it's very much you. [PLAYFUL CONVERSATION ABOUT PRACTICALITIES OF FILMING]

When you finished your term as ... in the air force ... How long did that go on for by the way?

Nine years I was in. Six year term, and then they brought in three year terms and I took one of those, and by that time I was ready to ... ready to get out.

And when you got out, what did you get out to?

Well, to nothing basically. There were no jobs lined up or anything. So I came ... I was steadily going broke in Melbourne, but I came up to Toowoomba to graduate. Rather I graduated in Brisbane, but my wife stayed with her folk in Toowoomba. And I did a reading when I was up in Toowoomba, at Downlands Sacred Heart College, because again, good fortune. I was a fellow student with the then rector of studies there, when I was doing the first degree, and he'd said to me, when I did this reading at the time of graduation, 'What are you doing?' and I said, 'Well, I'm steadily going broke in Melbourne. I'm working as a temporary file clerk in the Land Tax Office in Queen Street'. He said, 'Look, we can fit you in here, now that you've got a degree, if you like it'. So, I didn't take him up on it straight away, but we did sell up the place we had and moved up to Toowoomba. But I tried for a ... I looked at a job as a clerk at one place that had gone, and I was interviewed for a job at a radio station, but I disliked the interviewer so much I thought I couldn't possibly stand that. So the third option was then open to me, and so I took up teaching within about the first week. Came up here that week they landed a man on the moon. But it's been a very handy ... a very lucky landing for me. [MORE CONVERSATION ABOUT PRACTICALITIES OF FILMING]

You say that your poetry began because your sister, Ethel, in a way, offered you a role model for doing it. But from your own point of view inside yourself, what gave you the confidence to feel, as time went on, that your poetry was really worth showing to other people?

Well I think it must have been having shown it to people, and that people said that they liked it. I mentioned I think earlier that my family had encouraged me. But I was always I think sufficiently aware that families do things out of love, that you shouldn't mistake [it] for being wisdom. And so I wasn't altogether you know, confused about that. And for really objective judgement, you often do have to stand outside, unless it's somebody who knows that you can ... you can take a bit of honesty as well. Like my wife always gives honest opinions and I think most of the people I know, whose judgement I trust, do now. But then it really did depend upon some acceptance. I had poems in Jindyworobaks Anthologies when I was seventeen, which is fairly young. And that was, what I considered, and consider still, reasonably good company for a teenager. And that was an early kind of, I suppose, sign of encouragement. But there were a lot of years in between seventeen and twenty-four, when I went to university, when I wasn't quite sure how much ... I mean, the world's full of people who have promise, but the promise is never realised for one reason or another, and I was sufficiently out of touch all the time, or most of the time, with any literary group at all, until I went to university, to really not have ... not have a very clear understanding. And I think I'd have still lost a lot more time trying to find out had I not been lucky enough to get to the university, so I've always been very grateful for the university backing ever since.

When you were working in labouring gangs and in this very rough, tough work that you were doing as a young man, did you tell your mates that you were a poet?

Oh, never. No, no, no. I used all the camouflage I could, linguistically. And I think some of that probably still shows. And I was grateful for it, because I learnt phrases, some of which I won't repeat on television, but which I found were quite unique to the people I was working with. I've never found them used by anybody else. I've tried them out on language experts and they've never heard of them either. So it's interesting that particular phrases and terms can become peculiar to one group, not just within a state, but within almost a locality. And they reminded me again, that I think there's something kind of interesting about being laconic, and I've always appreciated that aspect of Australian language.

And you've also liked using the vernacular in contexts where you don't usually expect it to be used.

Yeah, I think so. I mean I think it's part of ... A lot of people's style is to throw bits in here and there. It's a kind of smorgasbord in a way. If you don't like the roast pork, then you may like the you know, the roast beef, or some of the other smaller bits. So you cut bits off to suit yourself. And I've said once that I think most writers, and certainly most poets, are in fact journalists of a kind. They're vacuum cleaners. They'll pick up and run with all sorts of bits and pieces of language and find them sort of useful. My brother's memoirs, which are still to be published, uses a term that I applied to it when I was editing the collection of memories, which again is a piece of vernacular: 'beggar's velvet'. 'Beggar's velvet' is in fact the small rolls of fluff that you find under beds and under lounges and so on, where the vacuum cleaners don't get. This is the kind of thing that is a nice idea: beggar's velvet. And that appeal for using phrases, in particular poems, like for example, Weapons Training, was handed to me really on a silver salver, when I was in the air force, because I was always a kind of pretty awkward customer. Never knew my right arm from my left foot, so I got a fair bit of the drill instructor's abuse and took it in good ... good part. And was actually quite grateful for it, because I've made quite a thing out of putting it together. I always point out that in that poem, I didn't invent the metaphors. They come hot from the lips of the drill instructors we had at Rathmines when I was doing my recruit training in the air force. So again, [with] one's use of the vernacular, you really owe that to the people. It's the people's other world, I suppose, in a way. Or the 'vernacular republic,' to quote another of Les Murray's well chosen sort of phrases. And that republic, although I'm only a lukewarm republican, is one that I think that is a very valuable one. I often like to think that when you hear, for example, in Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, or in David Williamson's plays, the language and the metaphor of people, [in] Don's PartyThe Removalists, or the later plays ... when you hear that language being spoken, it's the language of the people. It's how people do speak: middle class people, working class people. And it's how the Elizabethans must have [been] thrilled to hear from Shakespeare, and before Shakespeare, and through Marlowe and the Jacobeans: their own language being preferred and chosen, exulted by the wonderful use of it. I think it's one of the great sort of things is to ... is to be in touch with that sense of the language as she's spoken by people who are not so busy coining phrases, or doing other than expressing themselves as expressively as they can.

When you began to be recognised as a poet, one of the things that was often said about you was that you had ... you were the first really strong voice of ordinary people that we'd had in Australia since the Henry Lawsons and so on. Did ... Were you conscious of that when you came to write? Did you have a feeling that you were giving voice to the ordinary man's view of the world?

Not ... not consciously. I wrote, you know, I wrote as I wrote. I didn't have any sense of it having a resonance beyond my immediate concern with expressing myself, and if the expression had never received any kind of recognition, I would have still attempted to keep on doing it the same way. I've often ... Randolph Stow pointed out some many ... well, many years ago, actually - that I was like various other people who moved around enough never to become babbitt baiting babbitts. Who, in other words didn't ... and even if they moved from one class to another, didn't feel like biting the class they'd left, or the class they belonged to in the backside, just to prove that they were free spirits. He was sort of making a general point, which I think it quite true. It's why a poem like Homo Suburbiensis is dedicated to Craig McGregor, because Craig McGregor, in an essay called Alfs and Anti-Alfs, that's A-L-F, who was as you know the predecessor to Norm as a kind of icon of the couch potato and the male slob, [saw] that the suburban person was intrinsically as interesting as any other person. And for all the Melvyn Reynolds and others who sing little ditties about little boxes, and they all live in ticky-tacky, and they all go to universities and they all end up just the same, in fact, as urban sociologists have proven in their studies, suburban living and urban living, is as varied and fascinating as any other form. And in the past in Australia, we've had more than our share of it. And I've been very grateful to actually become ... to aspire to the middle class. And I've had no kind of ... none of the sort of Marxist desire to la classé le bourgeois, that seems to be so popular with people of the Left.

You've been given quite a lot of formal recognition of your poetry now in the form of prizes and awards, haven't you? How did that begin to happen for you? And what did it mean to you as a poet, to have those awards?

Well I think one of the first prizes that I got was for a volume which had been rejected by the Commonwealth Literary Fund. And my publishers then ... and I was again, extraordinarily lucky in having a gentleman publisher, Andrew Fabiny, who headed F.W. Cheshire at the time, and when that particular book, my second book, was knocked back - the first had had a good reception, good reviews from people like Judith Wright and sold out quickly - then he was a bit taken aback as I was. And he checked with the CLF, and they said they'd subsidised enough worthy volumes for the year, and you know, that was it. They were nice about it, and I [coughs] was grateful for that. But the other ... and I wrote a poem called Glass Slipper for Sale, suggesting that I was like Cinderella, who would have liked to have gone to the ball, but just couldn't find the slippers to go in. And ... but that was my one kind of ironic response to the situation. Now he said, 'Well, we'll publish the book, even though it hasn't got any funding against loss', which was the important thing with poetry publishing. So that was a leap of faith for him, and it was rewarded, as I say, by getting the Myer Prize for the best book of Australian poetry for the year, which at least, to him, confirmed his own judgement, and cheered me up no end. And it was not ... I also won the prize for the next but one volume after that. So those two prizes were very important for sort of saying, 'Look!' and for establishing my sort of worthiness, at least in the eyes of a particular publisher, and an Australian publisher at that. So those prizes were terribly important. Then other prizes would come along, like the Ampol one, and the ... but even to the most recent one, which is the Philip Hodgins Memorial Medal for Literary Excellence. I mean if you like a person, and like a person's work, then the fact that you've been chosen as the first winner of an award set up in their memory, is a very kind of ... almost a kind of sacred thing. And Philip, whom I never met, was a person who, when you read his work, you find yourself extraordinarily moved by it. So it's you know ... it's ... it's quite a mantle to carry, but it's an encouraging one too.

These recognitions from awards, given out by people who have fine literary judgement and have given you that accolade because they've evaluated your work as poetry, as literature, and wanted to give you recognition for it, does that mean as much to you as the fact that you are the most popular poet alive, and that your books sell to all kinds of people who would not normally buy poetry?

Well, I think the two recognitions are coming from very different [spaces]. One is a more amorphous recognition. It reflects itself basically in sales, and sometimes in receptions you get if you're reading your work personally. The other is a more formal, of course, recognition, and looks good on the covers of books and so on. So they inhabit sort of different territories. But the thing about both of them is, that you still have to ... Peter Porter once said, something which thought was absolutely critically important, as it is obvious, and he said it in Toowoomba, which is a fine place to say it too, because I managed to hear it then. He pointed out that there is no plateau to creative ability. You ... The assumption with younger people sometimes is that you climb for a certain extent, slip back on the shale, and you climb up again, and eventually you reach a plateau if you're lucky, or if you have the talent, at which it all becomes plain sailing. He said, 'There's no such thing. Everything you write has all the uncertainty, the peril of the first thing you ever did'. In other words, the whole of life is a climb, not just to a certain point at which suddenly you reach a plateau where everything becomes easy and if it comes that easy of course, the thing is, it's also becoming less worthwhile potentially, and less individualised, less full of that sense of taking a chance or a dare. And so I think it's a very important point, that isn't always made. There's some kind of assumption that when you reach a certain stage where you may be interviewed or your opinions are spread amongst others besides your private friends, that you know ... [cough] that you've learnt some secret. There's no secret. The only secret is that you must treat with respect whatever it is you're about to do, with the same sense of chance as the first thing you ever did.

It's often assumed that poetry, by definition, is not going to be popular. Just how popular is your poetry? How well do your books sell?

Well, I mean the major source of sales has clearly been text sales, so I wouldn't want to confuse that with the idea that you know ... but every book since the second book has been set somewhere, and that's an important thing because very often, very effective writers only get to appear in anthologies on a regular basis. But to have actual books set in schools or universities, is a big step forward. And I took that as a kind of benchmark, and also something to aim at from fairly early on. So that I did establish a kind of limit to the number of poems of mine that could be used in any one anthology. So that people weren't able to, for example, run off - use twenty poems and pay your reprint fee, and have something like a kind of mini ... a mini volume of your work at a cheaper rate for a school or university. So that it did mean it had some constraint, but it also did push people into sort of actually buying books. For example, one doesn't really expect that a playwright will give easy access to scene one, or scene two of his play. He'll want people to set and understand on the basis of a complete work. If you can take a collection as being a complete work, then that's the parallel that I made to myself early on, and tried to establish some sort of ground rule along those lines, that six poems was the normal permissible number that could be used in an anthology. And that's one way in which I pushed sales. It wasn't my intention so much to push sales as to establish a certain general point for writers. And I remember discussing this with Judith and other people once in Sydney. That while, you know, you can be enthused and think that you're being included, one or two of your works in anthology, at a certain point you may want to say, well, you can't keep on doing this without enabling or allowing your students or your audience to read you in a wider way. The same as you wouldn't expect David Williamson or Shakespeare or anybody else, to be happy to settle for just certain scenes of their work. Even, in one sense, a collection of poems can be similar to that in that it often has a shape, a form, it covers a certain period, and may well be often quite as dramatic as a ... as a ... as a play.

So a collection like Sometimes Gladness, which has been one of your more successful collections, how many would that have sold?

Well, over a hundred thousand copies so far and the sales will go up again with the forthcoming fifth edition. And so each edition has sold roughly between twenty or thirty thousand, which is an enormous number. The individual volumes, which appear in between the various editions of the collected, have each sold in the thousands too, which has boosted their sales. And then the selected edition, which predated the collected, has sold about thirty thousand copies.

This is sort of C.J. Dennis levels, isn't it?

Well, it's getting towards that, yes. And I mean it's not something that I kind of ... You were mentioning earlier about prizes. Whatever ... the thing is that by being to some extent isolated from the main cities for a good part of my writing life, it's meant that it's been ... it's always put the pressure on me to go on writing without necessarily thinking that the people are sort of shouting hosannas at the door. They're not. Most people in Toowoomba don't even know who I am and I'm quite happy for that to be the case. And I ... There's something also that Randolph Stow said in his article I mentioned, that the big cities do tend at times to establish coteries, cliques, claques and so on, where you find enormous pressure to negotiate between these as between various sort of rocks or reefs. Now having not been sort of, in a lot of my life, established for very long in big cities, I've been able to negotiate the reefs or not, or ignore the fact that there are such things, by being out of the big cities, even though, I must say, that big cities I still find fascinating places.

When you actually come to write a poem, do you work it out in your head before you write it down? Or how do you go about it?

I usually know ... now the only thing, if it's a formal poem I may work out what the form is. But I'm not even then quite sure that this form will suit. I always call it a sort of ... it's like a mix and match outfit. You don't know what goes with which, until you try them out. So you may start something in one form and then move to another form, because it doesn't seem to be working. Very often, if you're working with direct speech, then of course it may be free verse and it may end up being some kind of dramatic monologue, or mixed monologue, such as Enter Without So Much As Knocking, where you're cutting in a sort of cinematic way from parts of the voice to parts of some other sort of action or image. But apart from that, the way in which the form determines the thing, I kind of leave open, because I've seen enough examples in other people, quite apart from my own, where if you start to get hooked on rhymes, or hooked on some particular form, it may take you away from what your original intention was. And you can often end up writing about something quite different from what you had in mind, not necessarily something better, but something different. So you have to be ... and I've tried to be fairly free and easy about what form it is. And sometimes people say to me, 'But look, is this poetry?' whatever their definition of poetry is. And I say, 'Well I'm not terribly concerned as to whether it's poetry or not. It's something that I simply want to write in this particular form'. And if somebody turned around and said to me, 'Look, that's poetic prose', or 'It's not poetic, it's just plain prose', I say, 'Well, so what? That's what it is'. And at times, of course, I've written prose monologues, and again, had I wanted to, or had I tried to, I may well have cut them up into some free verse form, and served them up as poetry. But again, it's not an issue that particularly worries me one way or the other. I'm not a kind of purist about form. But it will often be ... The images or the metaphors will often determine the form. Sometimes the form will determine the metaphors. It's not really a closed or simple question at all.

How important was it for your confidence, for you to feel that you had a really good grasp of the craft of poetry?

Well, I [laughs] never thought ... I've never thought that I had such a great grasp actually. I mean I could point to people that I think are far better, far more skilled practitioners of verse forms than myself: Les Murray, obviously, for one. Alec Hope for another. Gwen Harwood is a third. Rosemary Dobson is a fourth. Judith Wright of course. Not necessarily all in that order. I'd put them all within ... they're all in a first four or five of my sort of Oz Australian Eleven. But ... and I think all of them are probably better practitioners of various forms than I am. But I've had a go at a lot of forms. I've never been particularly tempted to attempt many villanelles or forms like that. Or ballads for that matter. But I don't let form become a kind of determinant in a sense, whereas some people may decide that the form determines the ease of which, or the effectiveness which, they'll be able to go ahead. I'm not ... I'm not stuck on that.

Do you write regularly?

Not regularly at all. Weeks, perhaps months, may pass and I don't write anything. And other months may come which I'm writing a lot of different things. Things often trigger other things, and not things that are necessarily closely related. Sometimes though, forms contribute something. There was a month in Melbourne where I wrote about twenty sonnets on all sorts of subjects: about visiting an ideal homes exhibition and finding somebody using the loo was the subject of one sonnet. Various ... some of those, but not that one, are in the collected edition. And various sonnet forms: Shakespearean, Spenserian, Miltonic and so they're ways of ... they're five finger exercises. Sometimes just to take particular forms and work your way through them. They're ways of keeping your ... I always believe that a person should have some skill with form. If they don't ... I mean I don't think everybody can be a Bradman and be unorthodox in making big scores, or hitting enough runs to justify inclusion in that Australian Eleven. I think you've got to kind of have some skills behind you. Even behind what, you know ... you may be writing in free verse. You have to be ... I mean Bradman practised with a cricket stump and a golf ball I believe in Bowral, and that seems to me to be demanding, a very demanding skill in terms of eyeball sense at an early age. So then if he wanted to be unorthodox later on, behind the unorthodoxy would lie a lot of very formal skills that he could call upon, if he needed to.

Looking back, do you see that there was any particular time or any particular kinds of times that produced a lot of response from you? The times that you were writing well, was there a particular reason for it that you can see now?

Yes, well sometimes a person, if you're fond of someone, it may be something that triggers a number of poems, or somebody you're particularly unfond of may trigger a number of poems. There've been politicians that have entered both categories. There are politicians that I'm particularly fond of. John Kerrin, for example, I liked very much as a Minister of Primary Industry in the Labor Government at one stage, and I thought he was a great man for the job. So great a man for the job that in the end they kind of got rid of him. But I admired him very much as a sort of, as a person from, you know, the distance that of an ordinary voter. Other people I detested thoroughly, and wrote a number of poems, working through my detestation. And it's not a matter of whether they're going to succeed or not. You simply, you're doing in your own way what other people do, is expressing your beefs and dislikes and working them out of your system. And I think that's good for you. It may be unfortunate for your friends who have to put up with the results of it, but they don't all get into print, and they don't all get to hear all of them. So there's a certain amount of sort of tamping the wind to the shorn lamb, as far as other people getting to know about it. But again, that's part of the sort of process of working through. I've never been a kind of purist in the sense I have to choose some great subject. It can be anything. And I ... But if I work through and something occurs to me, I'll try it out. As I say, it's like the mix and match thing. A particular personality, some particular approach may work, others obviously won't. And I've written plenty of failures, where I attempted to do some sort of thumbnail sketch. I'm particularly fond, for example, of political cartoonists. And Australia, as you know, from the last hundred years, has been very rich in political cartoonists. I love their work, and the Pettys and the Patrick Cooks. I mean Cook is also a fine satirical writer as well as a cartoonist. And Leahy [?] and obviously others who are not so much political, like Leunig, who is a particular favourite of mine. You can see on the wall here, various things from various cartoonists at various times. Larsen at times. He is an American. And they all sort of trigger particular ideas, and express in a short and very pithy way, things I would loved to have been able to do myself.

But some of your poetry is a little bit like verbal cartooning, isn't it? Some of the shorter work that you did, or maybe what people have referred to as your less serious work, has nevertheless been quite serious in terms of lampooning people.

Oh yes, sure. Yeah. I usually take the position I suppose of the little man who looks up at the ... at sometimes the effigies and the great statues and imagines himself having the wings of ... not of a dove, of a pigeon, so that he could kind of express his sort of disdain for them from a suitable height. [Laughs] So, that's part of the fun of being at all satirical. And I think it's very important that public figures should get used to the idea. I mean the idea, for example, that ... I think I wrote about this once, that pigeons should be banned from public edifices, seems to me a horrendous notion, and one of the ... surely one of the functions of pigeons is to express the people's contempt and concern for those they, that, you know, stand beneath them.

Especially the Joe Bjelke-Petersens of this world.

Well, to name one, yes, though, I mean in a way, Joe's a kind of ... you can live in a world of Joes, but there are others who are far more kind of ... far more worrying than Joe. And I think of the ones that other countries have seen in operation. We've been very lucky that way, that we've had ... We may have had kind of aspirants to tyranny, but we've had no tyrants in the sense that other people have had them. And I particularly admire the work of writers like Herbert, the Polish poet, who lived through the kind of communist occupation of Poland, and had to take a very subversive sort of ... and indirect ways of dealing with the kind of ... with the oppression of the communist authorities.

They physical act of writing a poem, do you have ... Some poets have very particular ways in which they want to do that. What's your approach to writing it?

Pretty ... pretty haphazard actually. I ... well I get a ... you know, I don't line up pens, or pencils in a neat line and ... not like Rowan Atkinson, doing an exam. I don't do that kind of thing, I take it as it comes. So I'll try something out. And I may be sitting at the dining room table. I've never had a study. So even when I did studies as a formal sort of activity, I did them either in the kitchen or in the dining-room. And the television's usually on, or the radio may be on, and it was often when the kids were home, activities. And they seemed to me to be a natural, and nobody ever got shushed or told the master is creating or that sort of nonsense. So things went on with their activities and dogs and cats wanted to be fed and tickled under the chin and so on. And you accepted that as part of the free flow of demands that you had to meet. And so I've never kind of taken it ... it's never been a kind of sacrosanct activity. You know, whisper, 'Who dares, little Brucie Dawe is saying his poetic prayers', is not the sort of ... is not the way I approach it. I can appreciate others might find that as the kind of circumstance in which ... and I hope you know what I'm talking about - where they have to go bush or meditate or contemplate their navel, or go through some yoga exercises in order to come to terms with their inner self or the inner child or whatever the particular fantasy is. I don't have that kind of approach to it. I just take it as it comes. For me, poetry is a kind of ... is a common sort of daily activity. And even when it comes to recognition, I always think you have to go ... you have to leave the recognition, whatever praise or condemnation you've received, and go out into the workaday world and justify the rest of your life. So life comes first, art comes second, and I think that's the way it always has to be for me.

So you choose a really sort of offhand approach?

Yeah, absolutely.

Does that mean that your work's fairly variable?

Well, yes, yes. And people have pointed this out at times. And I can remember a very early critic, David Martin, being spot on when he said in relation to my first collection, that I'd often be blamed for not having an authentic voice, though some have managed to find some sort of authentic voice since then, but that I shouldn't let it worry me, because there was enough of the poetry in me anyway to survive such criticisms. Now that seemed to me to be a fine enough sort of encouragement in itself to say, 'Look don't worry'. And young people often say, 'How did you get your voice?' I don't think you get voices. I think people who get voices end up being taken carefully away by somebody else and put in a padded room. I don't get sort of voices in that sense. You are what you are and if it occurs to you to, that from your memory bank, some things pop out and suggest themselves as tones and expressions and terms, then that may be so. But voices, no. And to aim at a voice, it's like those kind of fantasies they have when they do the lives of musicians: the bloke who's trying to hit that top note that always mysteriously alludes him, but he seeks it as a kind of, you know, holy grail. That may be true with saxophonists and trumpeters, or Glenn Millers or other sort of musicians, I don't know. But it's not something that occurred to me as being worthwhile. It seems to be will o' the wisp. You are what you are. And if no kind of discernible voice or approach comes out of that, well that's ... that's your problem.

Do you think that some of the strength, and particularly the humour of your poetry, comes from the fact that you won't take the whole thing too seriously?

That could be so, I think. I mean I ... I think it also matches up with something in the Australian temperament which says it's a big country and we're kind of thinly spread here, and epic voices and monumental kind of percussions are not really not going to be ... amount to much. So let's try and do what we can with a certain sort of modesty, as to how much we'll achieve and whether, if we sound a note in Toowoomba, they'll hear it at Uluru. That's the kind of approach I have. And so it never dismays me to know that people say, 'Oh, look I've never heard of you'. I say, 'That's fine, the world's full of people who have never heard of people, and it doesn't do either of them any kind of harm'. And I appreciate that. That suits me fine. I like that approach.

I get the feeling that worst thing you could be called is pompous or pretentious.

Well, there are worse things, but offhand I can't think of them. Yeah. It's ... I mean nobody wants to be pompous or pretentious, I guess. It just turns out that some have a natural affinity for it. And others, it comes a little hard to them. And I never kind of ... I never sort of work at that sort of thing. But I'm aware that it can happen. And the problem of being any kind of talking head for any length of time is that, you know, pomposity or pretentiousness can sort of creep in. You know, it's a bit like they said about the person who studied philosophy. That the person said, 'I always tried to study philosophy, but humour would keep on breaking in'. And there's a worry about thinking too consecutively and too long about any one thing, that in the end you'll end up turning it from something serious into a farce.

Could you describe the sort of subject matter that you've mostly been preoccupied with?

[Laughs] Well, I can't think of ... I mean, as you know I mixed in politics, as a ... I vote like other people, and I don't believe in being an informal voter, even though I can see the temptation is often there. I write about people, who interest me more than anything else, because I'm one of them. And in writing about others I'm, I suppose, at least part of the time, I am trying to come to understand myself. But it's a more gregarious way of coming to the understanding than simply kind of immediately and directly delving into the inner person, which seems to me to be one of those frightening things that Tom Wolfe writes about in the Me decade. And we've had these Me decadent people around for several decades now, and I think they're the most boring and terrible people to deal with. So I'm not that interested in the inner life as a permanent subject. So people become the kind of way in which I try to come to terms with myself and the world. And other things: animals. Dogs, I particular like.

Yes, dogs feature in your poems, not so much in poems about dogs, but very, very often dogs pop up in your poems in very key moments.

I think they're kind of ... I think they're sort of, you know, people creatures, in a way. I mean they're close to us. There's a kind of anti-dog movement at the moment I think that's because I think feminists feel that men like dogs because they like creatures who are quiescent and subservient. And I think that ... I don't think that's the only reason why men like dogs. It may be one of the reasons, but of course, it's something that tends to sort of ... and I don't want to get into questions about whether men relate to dogs as women do to cats, though I can see why that kind of connection was made. But dogs are just kind of friendly creatures and I think they're idealised selves in way, too. They're what we ... and many people have made the point I think that they're Edenic creatures. They're us before the Fall. They're us when we still believed in trust and loyalty and faith, and devotion. And in those ways, I think having dogs ... and the point has been made ... I mean it's one of those kind of curiosities, isn't it, that people have to do Ph.D's and vast research to find out that dogs and pets are good for people. We knew that. Anybody who had pets knew that long before researchers decided they would put dogs in hospitals and in retirement homes and so on, and that people who had such creatures, were often psychologically and physically the better for it, no matter what, you know, potential diseases they might catch from cats or dogs. I think a world without either would be a dreadful place. So I'm not in favour of ... I'm not in favour of ... I meet people that I think should respect the fact that you can't have dogs everywhere or cats everywhere. You have feral ... you have a feral world, and we've got enough of those with feral kids. So I think, you know, I think you have to kind of you know, keep the vets.

Is it important to you when you're writing your poetry, to think of it as read? What about reading poetry aloud?

Oh, I think that's very important. And I ... I'm very pleased to see now that poetry readings are assumed to be part of the normal way which people come to poetry. The poem on the page, seems to me, after all, is a script. It's still waits for actors to read it. And without going into the question of performance poets, I think every person who reads is a performer - and it's not just waving your arms around and doing back flips, or one and a half gainers or something that proves that you're a performance poet, not like the other dreary readers. I think every reader is a performer of poetry. Every person who looks at the poem on the page and hears that poem in their head is a performer of the poem. And so I see poems as sort of scripts on the page, for people to take up and read. And if there's more than one interpretation, within reason, then that's fine. But I'm not an absolute relativist about it. I don't think every poem's about anything. But I still think that a great advance has been made in coming to terms with the possibilities of language, when people can readily take up and read and make sense of, and share some of the experience of the original creator of the poem, or whatever the work is.

When you read your own poetry, do you ... do you enjoy doing that? Do you like being the one that reads your poetry?

Yes, I do. I mean I don't mind other people reading it too. It's not that I have a kind ... I don't want to have a kind of, you know, a copyright on it in that sense. I don't mind who reads the poetry, as long as people are reading poetry. I kind of ... I'm always tense before a reading and that's they tell me the normal thing to me. And I've hyper-vented once or twice, which helps to keep you in your place too, to think it can happen again, which you hope it won't. Audiences are mostly kind of supportive, and most readers find this. And once you have a supportive audience, then nothing really can go wrong. But I don't read from ... I don't read ... I don't ... Like performance people I think usually perform. I always read from text not from ... I've seen tragic examples of what happens when people thought they'd remembered the poem perfectly, and suddenly forgot half-way through. I ... I ... And I also like to have the book in front of me because it's a reminder to the audience that you have actually kind of got a book. You've reached that stage of definition.

Have you always had everybody in the audience appreciate your reading?

Oh no, no. I've had people walk out on readings. And it's ... and I accept that. If I'm reading a poem which is about abortion and there are women in the audience, it's almost kind of a necessary thing now for some women to walk out, feeling that first of all, as a man I shouldn't have an opinion about it. And secondly, if I have an opinion, it should be the same as theirs. Neither of these things I accept. But I defend their right to differ. And as long as they don't completely disrupt the reading, I don't mind them absenting themselves in felicity a while.

You've written quite a lot of poems that come out of your religious beliefs. Is that a very important element to you when you come to be inspired to write poetry?

If so, yes, of course, I'm a practising Catholic in the way that some people are goof golfers. You know, [laughs] I'm not ... I don't, as it were, carry a kind of halo round with me or anything like that. I sort of ... I see myself always as a kind of converted pagan. And I think that's a ... probably a healthier way to be. So I've got over the first sort of enthusiasm, which is pretty frightening to everybody else, of being a convert to a religious faith, and have reached the stage now of finding what I have in common with other people who don't happen to share my particular beliefs, as well as with other people who do share them. But I still believe in beliefs, and I still believe in doctrines, which many people these days would like to think don't exist. They want everybody to be equally woolly and vague about everything, so that we can all be sort of together in some nirvana, where nobody believes in anything much except each other, which is a pretty dreadful thing. I don't hold with that. I'm a traditionalist in religion. That makes me a conservative. And I'm very happy, in fact, supportive and argue for a conservative approach to religious belief. I don't think people should change their doctrines, and accept or modify teaching simply because they think the young people will be fooled by that. That's kind of coffee-in-the-cathedral-crypt religion, and I don't happen to believe in that. Though I know there are people in many orthodox religious bodies who do think that way: to get the young in is to add to the number of tambourines, or the number of slide shows or something or other ... which will lure them in. I don't think that's possible. I think good imaginative teaching of basic truths is the way to get people to believe in faiths. It's the way anybody ... Otherwise they'll be seen for what they are: con men or con women trying to sort of lure the innocent into things without really believing that themselves.

What kind of a god do you have in your head that you worship?

[Laughs] Well, I don't have a god ... I don't have a god in any kind of anthropomorphic sense at all. I've got past thinking about elderly gentlemen with flowing beards. I think, as a kind of orthodox believer, I think that the ... It has to be a god who can accommodate what we know of the life of Christ, and the intentions of Christ. And so it has to be a god who's larger than many people's gods, but still one who was ... had a sufficient sense of humour to create us. And I think that's got to be a god with ... a fun-loving god in a way too. I mean, there's been some rather tedious debates about the fact that there's no humour in the Bible. That's absolute nonsense. Anybody who goes no further than to study the parables of Jesus will sort of know that they're full of irony and full of humour. It's just that people like to think that the Bible is a ... is a dead serious text. It's not. It doesn't start serious, and it doesn't end serious. It's got lots of, you know, highs and lows in it. There's a lot of chiaroscuro there. And I think that's the sort of god we have to create out of our understanding of the one time when, as far as we know, he took on historic form, in the life and person of Christ. And through various sacraments, which depend upon which particular denomination you ... or even as to how seriously and in what form they take.

Was there anything in particular that moved you to write poetry about abortion?

Well, let me first point out that I had been writing about abortion long before I became a Catholic. It's something that went with my belief in the sacredness of life, and so it's consistent with a generally anti-nuclear view of the world, and a pro-environmental view of life. So ... and I think that anybody who thinks about it, and steps outside their ideological position, would find it very hard to believe that a person, for example, according to the law, can be had up for manslaughter or murder for killing an unborn child, as a person was charged, I think a few years back in Brisbane. But if they do it when they've got a hospital gown on with the right documents, then it's okay. I don't believe that's possible. There seems to me an intense conflict of perceptions there, and I'm all in favour of the unborn having rights too. I don't believe that simply because the unborn happened to be located where they are, gives the woman all the rights and the unborn child no rights, and that's irrespective of Rowe versus Wayne.

It's been commented about you that it's very ... you're very hard to pigeonhole ideologically, because you have quite strong, what would be called, Leftist views in some respects, and in other respects, as you've described, you're really quite conservative. Do you enjoy the fact that you're so hard to pigeonhole?

Not particularly, no. I mean again, it's not one of those things I sort of ... if you start to think about ... Ellicoat I think once said, in another context, that more people are destroyed by other people's opinions of them. And I've always kept that in mind: that you mustn't let other people's opinions of you be a determinant of what you yourself can make of yourself. So I don't let perceptions of myself as leaning to the Left, or leaning to the Left with a strong bias to the Right, and some kind of confusion in the middle, be a determinant of who I am. I'm always grateful that I had some Leftist leanings, because I admire the Left for their involvement and concern with social issues and political issues, and with the defence of certain rights. On the other hand, I'm aware also that the Left has been a great ... The extreme Left, in particular, but also perhaps the centre Left, has been a great sort of haven for self delusion, and the Soviet experiment was a classic example of that. So I was very early disabused of any kind of simplistic view of what your ... of what your political orientation should mean to you. Stalin and Lenin, two of the monsters of the Twentieth Century, stand sufficiently sort of out in my ... so much highlight in my imagination, that it wasn't possible for me to kind of go along with any party line. And that goes for, of course, conservative party lines too.

So a cut and dried world doesn't have much appeal for you?

No, it doesn't. I mean, I believe in ... I believe in original sin, especially the bit about not being original. [Laughs] But ... and I think that we're basically imperfect creatures. And those who lead us one or another to Utopia, through something we smoke or something we kind of get into our heads one way or another, through socialist Utopias, or Aryan Utopias, I think are kidding themselves and I think they're often very dangerous people, and have very dangerous thoughts. Now I defend their right, within reason, to have those thoughts, but I don't want to share them. And I've seen enough of Twentieth Century history to see how dangerous some of those perceptions can be.

[DISCUSSION OF TAPE POSSIBLY RUNNING OUT] You've earned your living, for the major part of your life, from teaching. How do you like teaching?

Oh, I thought it was wonderful. I was again lucky in that I stumbled, as it were. Remember that when I first went to university, it was in the guise of, or under the guise of a teaching scholarship, though I believe I wouldn't have been very effective, very useful as a teacher at that stage. But coming to it later, another fifteen years later, at least I'd learnt. There's a saying in the services, when you get your long service good conduct medal. They always say fifteen years of undetected crime, and in a sense that kind of sardonic view of what you may have acquired through experience, not through native intelligence, was something I think I may have picked up to. Sufficient years of undetected crime between nineteen ... when I was twenty-four to when I was thirty-nine, those fifteen years. I didn't get a long service good conduct medal, [coughs] but it did fit me into more for covering my deficiencies as a teacher. And I started at a single sex school, which is always a lot easier, in a very kind of convivial and supportive atmosphere. The common room was very supportive of me, and I was always very grateful for the men and women that I taught with, because they made me feel at home from the start. And those two and a half years at Downlands were immensely important to the twenty plus years that I then went on to spend at a tertiary institution in the same city.

And teaching English Literature, did that ... do you feel that that was helpful to your poetry, that you actually found that role?

Yes, I think so. There's always one kind of problem about it, though it's a kind of two way ... it works both ways I guess. That is, the very fact of being a teacher means that you're a metaphor user. Your metaphors, your analogies, the inevitable bridges that teachers make between their experience and that of students, so that some traffic can sort of go both ways across whatever dark and troubled waters there are. And so in a sense, I often thought using metaphors in the process of teaching, I was possibly running the risk of exhausting my sort of ... my reserve bank of metaphors and images and so on. But the other thing is that I think you get a lot back. Incidentally, you get back the forced education that you have to give, as ... you have to get it as well as give. And I think that was important for me, because I think I may have pointed out before, I was undisciplined as a sort of reader in my early ... in my teenage years. And university studies forced me to read things and think more consecutively than I would have otherwise, and then teaching also forces on people, however undisciplined they are, a certain sort of formal requirements. And that again I think was good for me. It kept a bit of - if I can use the term - tone in my intellectual muscles. So that was good for me. It may have been not quite so wonderful for the students. But they were ... were very kind of ... they were very forgiving. And I enjoyed those early years. But also all the other years I spent at the tertiary institution, which is now the University of Southern Queensland, were equally kind of rewarding.

How do you feel about the downgrading of the humanities that's occurred in universities and generally in schools in the last little while? As a teacher of the humanities and someone whose work is also studied, how do you feel about all of that?

Well, I'm naturally appalled. I don't believe that the downgrading can possibly be justified, and I'm thoroughly on the side of those who've represented the humanities in various ways, in discussion, in letters to the editors and so on in various newspapers, and I thoroughly agree with them. I think it's a disastrous thing. If the humanities mean anything, they mean the capacity for us to go on being human in the widest and most intelligible ways, and therefore the downgrading of that area just doesn't make sense to me and never has, and never will. I think it's been on the cards ever since there's been a narrowing of the definition of what a university is for in the minds of some people, and especially in the minds of politicians, who are looking ... I can still remember in fact the Democrat senator speaking at our university, and saying to us, to the staff association members, that education is ... while it's often spoken about, it's rated very, very low down in the list of priorities in surveys, and while it has this low rating, then politicians are not going to do very much to pick it up, and it's really up to educators themselves to put forward their case very vigorously and very militantly, in order to register, not only in the public mind, in the mind of the public's representatives, the politicians. That it deserves more attention and more ... and more respectful attention than it's getting and until that happens, then it will continue to suffer, simply because it's got a low rating.

How did you react personally, when you were first ... when ... when this first became a very fashionable view, working as you were, as a fairly senior person in that area, how did you feel?

Well, in the case of the tertiary institution I was working at, the proposal was that literature, for example, should become a minor option study. I thought this was a nonsense. I still do. And since then of course, it's been redefined as a major study, and now has its own sort of full professor. And these are things which I'm ... I'm personally delighted with because I think they're absolutely essential. The other thing that, more recently, horrified me again, and made me feel that after all we were certainly not protected fauna in any sense, but rather an endangered species after all, was a recent analysis in the Courier Mail, suggesting that there was some ... on the books, there was some proposal that history units should be grouped under some generally vaporous title, such as Time, Continuity & Change, which the author of this article saw as being, in fact, a polite way of doing away with history as a ... as a serious discipline. Now, if that ever becomes the case at the secondary level, then it will obviously have terrible and irreversible ramifications for the tertiary level, and it will immediately signify, I think, that literature itself, as a discipline area will be under similar threat, because history and literature are, in my view, indivisible, and especially for a relatively ahistorical people such as our own. So I view all these things with the utmost sort of alarm and concern, and I'm not sure where the dove that's going to bring our rather endangered art to the land is going to come from. But I think a lot of people in Australia have to think again about what their priorities are, or we're going to live in a very different and very much more hostile and, I think, degraded world than the world we presently inhabit.

Can I ask you now about your other writing, the writing that you've done that is not poetry. You've written essays and you wrote for the local paper and you're also an inveterate letter writer.

Well, I ... inveterate until the last year or so. Once I started to do a television review column for the Chronicle, which I did for two plus years on a weekly basis, I decided I wouldn't also enter the fray in any other form. So ... and then at the same time I was, and still am, poetry editor for the Courier Mail. So again, I excluded myself from participation, not out of any ideological grounds, but simply because I thought I had enough on my plate. Now I no longer do the television reviewing, but I enjoyed it while I did it, but in the end I found it harder and harder to find the grains of wheat amongst the chaff, in the commercial stations in particular. There are so many repeats of repeats and so many things which are put together from the cutting room floor, you know: the best of this and the worst of that and so on, that in the end it made reviewing, in fact, very - for a person who saw himself as a kind of loan ... a sort of ... what shall we say? ... a lay man's Clive James - a very limited sort of territory. And so at that point I gave it away. But it was enjoyable in itself. And I particularly admired Clive James's television viewing, which at times was marvellous. I think it's the best thing. In fact, I'd written to him I think at one stage, and said to him that I thought it was wonderful and it really throws a new light. And some of the things that he did, I think, as working principles, were eminently sensible. For example, he always said that he should simply not get stuff from the television networks, but actually treat himself as a sort of private viewer, and write from that perspective, which is very honest I think, and a very worthwhile one, because it puts him in the same frame of mind, of course, as most of his readers, who as you know, are sort of ensured that those collections of his television reviews have gone into reprint after reprint. So that was my initial kind of point there. And I took up television reviewing immediately upon completing my sort of teaching career, my full time teaching career, so that was one of the ways in which I tried to fill in one of the gaps. But in the end I found myself ... It's a bit of a kind of trap, because you think well I'll just review this and that, and I'll do a few more bits and pieces, so that the features editor can choose the ones that she wants, but in the end, you find yourself with notepad and pencil in hand, watching too many things, hoping to pick up the odd sort of slow swimming ... you know, that actually beats your net anyway. But you say, 'Well is it all worth it?' And as I say, I never saw myself as a threat to Clive James or Philip Adams, or Errol Simper, or any of the other television experts and critics. So in the end I decided, no, no, I really wasn't ... It didn't pay very well. I didn't mind that so much, but since the time seemed inordinate to the recompense I was getting, I gave it away at that stage.

Were you asked to do it in the first place, or did you suggest it?

No, I volunteered to do it, I think.

It's an interesting thought, a poet as television critic, because Clive James was an example of that, but it was interesting that you would. Do you like television?

I have a kind of hate-love relationship with television, as I have with lots of other things. I find it fascinating, compulsive, irritating in the extreme, loathsome, demeaning, and at times very instructive and very moving. It depends on what the programmes are, and who's running them. And I mean, you know, all the kind of things that Jacques Costeau used to do, the David Suzuki, and Attenborough, the wildlife things generally, apart from when they're showing things about how many creatures can be cruel to each other, I'm sort of ... I'm usually watching, fascinated by. I love for example, the segment in Burke's Backyard - the one segment I did love, because I can't stand Don Burke - where the woman comes on with the insect section. I forget her name now. I thought she was wonderful.

Densey Clyne.

Yes. I thought they were marvellous. But there've been lots of other wonderful series on insects and so on. Those, plus some historical ones. Some of the American ones, like The West, and The Civil War and so on, are marvellous things. And although I gather that the American Visions is better as a book, I'm a great fan of Giles Auty, the art critic of The Australian. I think he's a wonderful writer, and very perceptive and very, very honest, which seems to me unusual in an art critic. He sees right through the pretensions of the age and of the ... especially the artistic aspects of the age. And so I like those kind of ... he mentions that ... he thinks the book of American Visions is better than the film version. But no, there are things I like about it and things I don't. There are shows which show great insensitivity and stupidity, and they seem to abound, and there are other shows which have, you might say, a more modest basis, such as, for example, Australia's Most Wanted, which shows much more - both my son and I both agree ... show much more sensitivity to the victims of crime, than the shows which are supposedly the current affairs oriented shows, which are often tendentious and presumptuous about their own position, and they position themselves in relation to the victims in a way that makes the victims, victims twice over.

Your interest in television seems to be part of that whole sharing of the interests of middle Australia, of ... of the suburban, and so on. It's something that you are really quite happy to be involved in.

Oh yes. I kind of ... I don't feel guilty about it. And I don't feel I should be necessarily doing something else, although I do know that I'm going to be, in any one night, unless it's watching football or tennis, probably disappointed in some of the offerings I ... I get. I tend to sort of surf channels rather than stick with one, so that means you're trying to get what suits you - what suits you or what appeals to you best. But you can often be mistaken about that. And there are particular kind of series I like. For example, I like the Inspector Frost series, but I couldn't stand Morse, because of his - I thought - boorishness. And I can't stand Wexford, whom I find incredibly sort of dull, and the stories, you know, usually on the psychopathic side of right. So there you are. I love The Simpsons, though we don't always watch it. But I love The Simpsons. I, in fact, used to urge students to watch The Simpsons long before they became part of cultural studies.

What makes you write a letter to the paper, rather than a poem, when you're moved by something?

Well, I mean sometimes, one poet called his poems Letters to the World and I think, in fact, whether it's a letter or a poem, is sort of a matter of relative sort of indifference, personally. It may be that it's a letter ... although I'm not writing letters at the moment, but letters are just ways of saying things that I might try in another form when writing less poems. But I don't have a kind of ... I don't say this'll be a letter, that'll be a poem. I write and it'll turn out to be a letter in one form. Sometimes it's being engaged by somebody else's letter, or somebody else's position which I want to have a go at. But as I say, I ... I'm not in a letter writing mode at the moment. Haven't been for some time and I guess I've left the Courier Mail off my list, because of being a poetry editor for them, and I've disengaged, to some extent, from the Chronicle, I guess because, in a sense, if you take up those things, you may have to run them through a whole series, and I've had that happen to me, where I've had a series of letters on a particular point. There was a person in Toowoomba, for example, who was clearly a conspiracy theorist of a fascinatingly extensive kind. So I wrote, purporting to be the chairperson of a panel called the Conspiracy of the Year Award, COTY for short, and awarding him the prize for the year. And he got furious with me and got my terms of reference wrong, and I congratulated him in a following letter, saying that getting the terms wrong is another proof of the wisdom of the committee in choosing him and he was then abusive. And I said, 'To be abused is further proof that the committee has chosen well' and that however he must realise that you can't win the award two years running and he must now sort of desist from this. So playing that kind of end on game is one way that you ... you can do it with a series of letters, which are kind of like a ping pong game. But I'm not into that at the moment.

You're a terrible tease to do that to him.

Well, yeah. I think he felt I was just an idiot, and that's okay. I mean in the eyes of anybody, anybody else you can appear to be an idiot, and if it pleases them to think you are, then at least you've given some pleasure to their lives. And I don't mind that. I mean I don't expect everybody to take me seriously. I don't take myself seriously all the time. And I would enjoy ... There's something about the cut and thrust of that sort of thing, which ought to be a sort of pleasure. Unfortunately it isn't. One's worry is that often letters to the editor become merely kind of [an] ideologue's personal battleground, where they ... and often not their own battleground, but actually they're serving up material, whether it's the Sir John Birch Society, or some other group, which countless others have manhandled before them. So it's not even ... not even original, though in the local newspaper there are often witty correspondents, who know how to turn a phrase and strike some sparks of wit from what seem unlikely stones. And I think that's a very pleasurable part of the ... any editor's mail bag.

Do you find now that you're very much a public figure since your awards and your public recognition and so on, that you get asked to do a lot of public speaking and so on, that actually makes it hard for you to stick with doing your poetry?

No, not very much. I don't get asked very often. I think ideologically I'm off-centre in various ways to various people. And I accept that that's ... that's the necessary cost if it is a cost, that you pay for not being middle of the road. And ... and if I can use that abused term, 'politically correct' in every way. If you're politically incorrect, then you're going to be offside to this group or that group and you may not ... Besides which, at my advanced age, I'll be seen as part of the past. I'll be included with sunset clauses rather than anything else. So I don't get ... I don't get asked a great deal. And sometimes after I've done a reading, it may be years will pass and I'll realise ... I remember doing a reading in Sydney, in which my two sons were present, and probably the first time they'd ever seen me read. And they're both now fully grown. And they said when I read, 'Oh you lost them Dad, you lost them on that', and I knew I'd lost them. I didn't intend to keep them actually. But I was reading things that were important to me, but they obviously were found to be potentially offensive to others. Well, that's ... that's their privilege. But then, when you get asked ... Another writer said to me once that one thing he liked about me was I didn't always read things that flattered people, and I always imagine that one of the things an audience should be able to depend on, is that not everybody will try and, as it were, sleep them down and cuddle up to them with everything they do. You have to be yourself first and foremost, and without going out of your way to gratuitously insult everybody, you know, there are ways in which you still have to observe certain sort of primary sort of principles.

You've said that you feel that a poet ought to be more a blue heeler than a lap dog.


So what did you ... what did you actually mean by that?

Well, I think for a start, there are all sorts of cattle that need to have their heels nipped. And all sorts of sheep that need sort of turning around, and, or having their backs run over, as often happens with cattle dogs. And I think that that kind of ... blue heelers are not the most aggressive dogs, but they can be aggressive. And there's a certain sort of Australian need to be aggressive where it's an appropriate thing, and I don't think it's a matter of ... a matter of sort of, as I say, cosying up to everybody. There are ways in which you have to be yourself, and one way is that you ... is that if things matter somewhat to you, you shouldn't down play those concerns, simply because you're in the presence of others. After all, if you've gone public with them, then you must expect people to have various reactions. So I've never kind of, as I mentioned earlier, expected that every audience will like everything I do. I'd be horrified if they did. Probably everybody liked Tiny Tim, not Dickens's one, the one who played the little instrument. But then by the time they liked him, it was all over in ten seconds. And I accept Andy Warhol's definition of fame in the Twentieth Century. But [laughs] you know, I think I don't have to kind of work that hard for so little reward. So I ... You have to go your own way, and I think most artists do that. They recognise that they have to do their own ... do their own thing, and that if they're invited to read or speak, that somewhere along the line they have to say things that may not be to everybody's liking, otherwise they don't get invited. Now this is an age, in my view, where there are lots of you-beaut things, and lots of things which are not considered on the agenda, and I don't altogether agree with the agenda. So I'm not surprised that I don't get as many invitations as I should. But then if I had all the invitations, which another age might have given me, I wouldn't have been able to take them up anyway, and I may have simply disappointed more people.

What does an issue where you were, as it were, a blue heeler, spring to mind? Was there ... Is there one example you could give us?

I suppose - well, one obvious one, one is taking political figures. For example, to attack Paul Keating wasn't always considered, in artistic circles, a wise thing, the Labor Government,the Federal Labour Government, being seen as greater sort of patron to the arts than most Liberal governments, and most Labor governments before it. And he himself, seeing himself, for reasons best known to him, as something of an art connoisseur, it was a sort of a natural thing, that I think it would be expected that people would leave him alone. But I don't ... I didn't have that line and I wasn't a great admirer of his way of doing business at all, and so I took it ... I took it as being a natural thing for me to attack him and attack his personal foibles as much as anybody else's. It didn't ... I ... I'm sure it didn't worry him one little bit, and if it did, well that's just tough luck, because that's what public figures are there for, to have critics. And I think a smart person will realise that many of the critics have the target's best interests at heart as well. And I've taken the point at times that critics that have attacked me have done so out of their and my best interests, and I've respected that. And I think any political public figures, as well as poetic figures, should sort of take the same line. [INTERRUPTION]

When you've read your poetry publicly, has it always been appreciated by the audience?

Mostly, I think by most audiences. Sometimes people may walk out, but as I say, if they walk out, that's their privilege and it doesn't distress me. I guess if I was in their position, and I had the views they had, then I would probably walk out too. It's a way of making a statement. And at times others have written to me, or contacted me and said, 'Look, I'm sorry about that', but there's nothing to be sorry about. I mean if they started throwing things, I might kind of ... if the fruit and vegetables weren't usable, I might kind of be annoyed, especially if it was my best shirt of something. But apart from that, I don't mind. It's ... I understand the problem with going public. You know, if you go public, then you expect the critics will express themselves in various ways, and I understand that. And so it's not a matter of great concern to me. I remember years ago, going to a speech and drama society reading and a lady approached me before the reading and said, 'There may be a certain person here tonight who'll ask some awkward questions. I hope you don't mind and just don't take any notice of him'. Well the person was there. I found him a charming person, who kept on asking me questions. He always called me John and asked me had I got a job yet. And he used to haunt the university. I was then a ... shortly after a writer in residence at University of Queensland. He'd come bounding up in the walkway or something and say, 'Have you got a job yet, John?' And I kind of would say, 'Nah, still working at it'. Or you know, and keep him happy. And he used to appear everywhere apparently. He was a kind of ... I wrote a poem about him called A Certain Person because he apparently appeared also sometimes at very important conferences of academics, and would sit up the back and ask serious questions, but questions which bemused the visiting dignitaries, you see, who weren't quite sure where he was coming from, or what his qualifications were. But his qualifications were that he was just the kind of interesting, if slightly sort of off-centre, person. So you know, that's as I say, I wasn't put out by, and I'm not usually put out by those kind of things. Though there was a question asked of me, did I ... When ... when you're the speaker, you're in a position of power, and I think that always makes you very wary of, you know ... of being the nasty person who wants to kind of exert your power. And when people have put their neck under your heel, actually sort of putting pressure on the heel. When I was at ... in Adelaide once, on a week's reading, and the week's reading ended with a reading in a very large assemble hall with a pulpit, which is part of the story. And from the pulpit I started to read, and there were about 800 students pooled in from various schools. And when I finished reading - I read Homecoming, that elegy about the Vietnam dead - and when ... which I read in a kind of fairly lugubrious tone. When I'd finished reading, a senior lad slouched up the front, directly underneath the pulpit, put his hand up and asked the first question of the day. And he said, 'Mr. Dawe, do you always read in such a boring and monotonous tone?' And there was a dreadful hush, presumably people at the back identifying him, starting to codify the series of graven punishments that would follow and so on, and nodding between themselves, saying, 'Yes, we knew this would happen. We dreaded this'. And in that situation, I paused for a moment, just to let the kind of, let the possibilities, as it were, develop. And then I said - bearing in mind I was speaking from the pulpit - 'Well, some have called it boring and monotonous, others would rather call it liturgical', and you see him sort of slouch there thinking: Is that an answer? Have I - is that all there is to it? And thinking, I must try and look up the word - what was it again? Liturgical. So that was the way to do it. And I think that there's a certain sort of ... if I was more pretentious I'd use the word grace, and say that grace under pressure is a very important thing. And I think most people should aspire to it, even if they don't always succeed in it, because when you're in that position, you hold all the cards, and it's not appropriate at all to sort of deal them as though you're playing in a even handed game.

Returning now to your personal life, to your private life, discovering your wife, and settling down at sort of beginning at middle age, gave you a kind of stability that continued with you. Did the arrival of your children have a similar sort of effect?

Oh, yes, in a way, though I must say I wonder how I ever got through it all, when I see how difficult it can be. I mean the point was that I didn't get through it, my wife did most of the work. And it was her wisdom and my good luck that the two worked together. It certainly ... I don't think I was any better equipped to take on parenthood than anybody else. In the case of most men, that means rather poorly equipped, but depending a lot on speed and native cunning [more] than anything else. And I think I may have had just sufficient of those to get me through, though looking back now, I wonder how I did it. But that's again, what happens with lots of things that happen. We say later on, 'How did we manage to do it?' If in the process of doing the things you were to think about them, or reach for how to manuals on how to do it, then you'd probably be lost, because the manuals are really often no substitute for personal experience. And as I said, speed and native cunning. So those are the attributes I suppose that seem to me to have got me through it. Plus, perhaps, low form of humour that helped me to kind of bluff my way through certain sort of difficult patches.

What has being a father really meant to you?

Oh, it's meant a great deal. But I have to say from this point of view now, when my children ... or, one boy is already a father, and the other sooner or later will become a father. The older girl is a mother. Then fatherhood to me is a sort of ... is one removed, if you know what I mean. I'm looking at them going through the same process and we have that sign in our kitchen, as you will have noticed, that many people have in kitchens, or similar ironic signs about 'avenge yourself: live long enough to be a burden to your children', and I think that's very wise advice actually. And it's the one way in which parents can feel that they can make up for all the misspent years of toilet training and early childhood development.

But all this difficulty in raising children inspired a few of your most memorable poems too, didn't it?

I suppose so, yes. I must have written about it somewhere. I just can't think of any at the moment.

You wrote ... you wrote a poem to your son, Brian.

Oh yes, that's right, yes. Condolences of the Season is in that category, and that's very much a ... because he was the first. I mean your children are like your first students at school. I used to say when I had my first class as a teacher, 'You realise that you're kind of experimental animals. You die that others may live'. And whether they approved of the use of rabbits in testing cosmetics or not, they used to give a kind of ironic 'ha ha, you know, terrific', that they were being used, but that's in fact what happens. You have to start somewhere, and you have to start with others of the human species, and so you learn by ... you learn by your mistakes. You just hope that your mistakes are not fatal ones, for you or for them. And if you survive your mistakes, in many cases, that turns out to be at least the best you can go ... get out of it, you know. We can't ... We don't all rush around saying, like Cornelia, 'These are my jewels'. But in fact if they've survived. They've shown their own sort of value and obvious some of the things that you've done haven't been wrong.

You feel, though, the degree to which you care about them when they're at risk. And you've had that experience, haven't you?

Oh yes, very much so, yes. Especially when the ... when we came back from Malaysia, the twins contracted gastroenteritis. Rather I think the ... it may have been only the girl twin and she then spent a month being stabilised in hospital. So that was a very anxious time for us. And one doesn't always write about these things at the time, but we had nothing else to do except sit there and wait to hear whether she was going to live or die. So that was a very critical time. And I wrote about that in the poem Katrina and she's still alive and still kicking and has her own little baby now. So again, she's going through the process of anxieties, not of quite such a serious extent, as we went through in her case, and I think those kind of things make you part of the human ... the human chain.

You also wrote about her wedding.

Yes, that's right, which was one of the occasions where ... I mean one of the few times when I've really felt a part ... well, I don't know if one feels at home in one's own wedding, too much is happening. But in the case ... in this case - I've been to various other weddings of relatives and so on - but in this case, I was thrilled by the very way in which the wedding went off so well, and I felt very elated. And that's not my usual situation. But it was a wonderfully sort of managed wedding and it started with the Trumpet Voluntary, and I really felt, for a person of my age, weight and disposition, as light as a feather. Metaphorically speaking.

You'd grown up, yourself, with a father that was very much absent. Did you feel that in your own family you'd discovered the sort of family life that you hadn't really had as a child?

I think that's very true. And I had a kind of, you might say, a semblance of that in the families of people that I knew elsewhere. For example, the Cooney family. I met the Cooneys. Barney is a Labor Senator at the moment, and I met the Cooneys when his mum was running a little shop in South Melbourne. And the other family, also of Irish background, were the Phelans. And I knew, again, the boy through university studies, as I knew Barney through Melbourne University, and got to love the whole family very much. The older boy, Peter, flew up to Toowoomba to marry us. Barry I've kept in constant contact with, and of course I've had poems dedicated to both Peter and to Barry. Barry's poem is about a dreadful haircut he gave me once when I had hair, and poems of course to his mother, Tess. A poem about their father, and a poem dedicated to the father, too, which is the football poem, called Life Cycle. So that family's been - not just because they give you the opportunity for poems ... they're a pleasurable bi-product of in fact a very, very healthy, very effective, very living family tradition, which I value immensely. And I'm the last person in the world to ever believe that whatever Frederick Engels might have said in the Nineteenth Century, that families are a sort of you know, a drug on the market or a waste of time, or a passing phase, I think the family is still the basis on which any society ... and one of my terrible, or great concerns that I've written about often, in terms of the unemployment, is how much it impinges on family: happiness and family hopes.

Could you describe to me what kind of a household you grew up in?

Well, bearing in mind that of course, we lived in various houses at various times, I think generally my memories are not the clearest ... are that my childhood was dominated by my mother, and not by my father. And I had a brother who stood in as a surrogate father very often, in my early years. But there are ... I can remember an early poem I wrote about my mother in an old brown dress, singing. And the songs were of course, sentimental songs of the time, and I think they were one way in which she dealt with what was often a troubled and unhappy sort of situation for her, because of father's absence, and the fact that they didn't ... they didn't see eye to eye that often.

Why was your father absent?

Well, sometimes he was looking for work, and sometimes I think he was just in a disagreeable sort of mode with, as far as mum was concerned. And again, there were all these things washed over me, because I was too young to ... too young to know, and in one sense, too young to care. But I realise, looking back on it, how much there must have been a lot of tension there, for this to happen so often. But brother was always there, and he was the other constant sort of fixed point in my early memories, along with mum, and my ... the younger two sisters.

So where did you come in the family?

I came fourth. So that was the end of ... that was the ... that was the end of the line. But I was in fact twenty plus years younger than my brother and sisters. So they stood as, more or less, aunts and uncle to me, and kindly ones at that. So I was very lucky. I didn't have any sibling rivalry, because I had no siblings in that sense. [Laughs]

Were you a lonely kid then?

I suppose I was. We lived mostly out of town, at places that are now in fact part of Melbourne, but they were bush towns then. Places like Springvale and Clayton and Noble Park, and all, I think now Melbourne suburbs. And Dandenong was a market town, whereas of course now it's an outer suburb of Melbourne. So ... and I remember playing long ... for days at a time with stick men. You know how you make stick men. You take a branch and you leave the top part for where the neck, and presumably head would be. And I would put the vertebrae from - well, whatever - ox tail soup or whatever, as heads, and then the arms would be twigs, those extended lateral twigs snapped off, and leave longer twigs later down on the branch, for the legs. And I would play wars with them. And I can remember talking to myself and going through in a kind of Caesar's commentary of the Gallic Wars, you know, and having great fun at it. And I think my own sort of identification with military history and so on was a romantic one, I must admit, [and] comes from those many days and many hours of playing on sandy loam soil on my own, with these little stick figures. And I'd project rocks from one side to the other as my kind of artillery barrages. And they were ... I've mentioned I think in one of my poems, too. And they were amongst my earliest memories. So when it came to the British Boys Book of Battles, and I read about Sandalwana and Roarke's Drift and the thin red line of British troops fighting against the Zulus, of course I was only re-enacting again, at a literate stage, what I'd already gone through as a younger child.

What kind of work did your father do?

He was a farm labourer, so given that I was born as the Depression started to deepen, in 1930, those years of my memory of him, of course, were the years when he was finding it hardest anyway, to find work. He was always a willing worker. He wasn't a slacker. In fact, it was sort of a tradition in our family of hard work. There were no slackers. And in fact, my feeling is that there were very few slackers around. We didn't have the welfare state to encourage people to be slackers and of course, it was a much harder world in that sense. So he went looking for work. And later on, then my brother went looking for work too, and brought home ... I don't know what my father did with the limited money he had, but my brother certainly didn't spend it on himself. He brought it home to keep the family going.

When you did see your father, which wasn't that often, but what was your relationship with him like?

Rather friendly as far as I know. I think he thought of me as a harmless little todger that, you know, as long as I didn't get in the way, and I'm sure I listened with great interest to his bush stories and so on. I'm not sure that they weren't embroidered, at least at the edges, in retelling. But at least ... and I'm sure he also knew bush ballads. So he really was ... As I came to realise much later in my own sort of adult life, he really was a man of the bush. And he knew bushcraft, and that was where he was, but of course it wasn't an easy time for people with those skills to find work.

And in the context of the family when you came along, he was really very much seen as somebody who ran when the going was difficult.

Yeah, that's right. And I think he also wanted to, like many people - I guess it's not necessarily an exclusively male thing - wanted to make decisions, even when the decisions were the wrong ones or uncertain ones. You know, the need was to be kind of positive and assertive, and I think he often, from my guesstimate, made those decisions without really consulting other people too much. And that must have borne very hardly on my mother, who had to put up the result of those decisions, with often I think very little notice that they were about to be made.

He had various enterprises too, didn't he?

Yeah, well they were kind of joint enterprises in a way. And you know, they planned at one stage to have a fox farm - breed foxes for their skins. In the end I think they got rid of the foxes anyway. But he had a fox cub which he kept as a pet. I guess perhaps a momento of another failed business enterprise. And he had it on the sort of chain and it used to ... there's a photo of him, it sitting on his shoulder. And they ... they, at a later stage, had a horse they'd invested in. I think a bit of a sort of sway back nag actually, but it was called Pink Lady, and they had great hopes for it winning back ... redeeming the family fortunes. It never did. So they went through a whole series. Then later on my mother had the Pekes. And this was when I was actually at work myself. And I did find it completely inappropriate. She didn't have the funds to set up a real Peke breeding programme so that when the house burned down ...

I am going to ask you about that and I want you to tell me that whole story.

So when that happened, of course, the Pekes were of primary consideration for her, because they were, I suppose, another hope that this way further, you know, damaged family fortunes would be further redeemed. But that wasn't how I saw it. And I used to, at that stage, be working with the Public Works Department as a labourer, and it meant walking down a bush track in ... outside of Boronia, outside of Melbourne, which is now I think another Melbourne suburb, to the station, catching the train into town, which is roughly thirty, forty-five minutes, then another train of about twenty minutes, out to Rosanna, and then about a half mile walk from the Rosanna Railway Station to the place where I was working. So all told it would take anything up to going on for two hours each way. And I was working as a pick and shovel person there, and so I'd come home late at night, and eventually it became one of those kind of situations where I put it to her that it was either me or the Pekinese, and she was very prompt in responding that it was going to be the Pekes. And I left for Melbourne the following morning.

Now, I'm going to ask you about your mother, and I'd like you to tell me the sort of story, the run through of her efforts to cope and include the Pekinese story in that. How did your mother cope with the fact that your father was away a lot, and what effect did that have on the unfolding of her life and your relationship with her?

Well, I suspect that it meant that it increased her sort of sentimental dreams of what have been and therefore those kind of memories of the sentimental songs, and the sentimental ballads which she used to recite to me, which she'd learnt as a child at school. And she went to school 'til she was twelve. ... Were part of her sort escape, or her sort of vicarious kind of realisation of romantic dreams of various kinds, and I think they were the way in which she tried to deal with a series of sort of disappointments in her own life. And I know that's a very familiar sort of pattern, which accounts for the popularity of Mills & Boon and other people today. So it was part of that sort of whole thing. Now as a young kid of course, I wasn't to know just how deeply if affected her, although looking back on it, I became keenly aware how much it must have affected her. One's regret often is, of course, that by the time you realise these things, it's often too late to do anything about it. And I've often thought how I'd like to have had the knowledge - and I know this is a universal wish - and the ... at a time when I could do something with it.

And as she got older, and you got older, you were the youngest living at home with her. How did she cope with life as time went on?

Oh, not very well. I think more and more she ... The term used to be that so-and-so was wandering. And I'm sure they wander into other happier times. Or if they're not, into times that seem even more threatening. So at times she accused me of trying to do her in, or other people trying to poison her. At other times she imagined I was being starved of food, and so there were a whole series of things like that, which I think I coped with as well as I could. But after all, I was a working person. So she was at home all day at this stage in her life. She was too old to work. And given her condition anyway, if the work had been there ... So it must have been very, very difficult for her. I did the best I could. But again, it might have been ... it might have been better. I felt, I suppose, as the unmarried child, that it was falling upon me rather more than I was able to justly manage it. But nevertheless, it was my responsibility, and others, as I've already mentioned, had taken their turn at the, you know ... at the wheel. So it was really my turn, and I did the best I could.

Now you were living in towns on the outskirts of Melbourne, and you were travelling a long way to work. How did that work out for you, with your mother at home?

Well, I think she ... This is where she had this dream of breeding Pekes, and she had Pekes to ...


Pekinese dogs. And they ... which in those days, I think there weren't as many people in dog breeding. But at whatever stage dog breeding was at, you needed better facilities than she was able to accommodate, given that she didn't have much money. So she worked at this, and I'd come home very tired from work and expect to have a meal somewhere within cooee, and of course it wasn't very often. And in the end I gave her an ultimatum, and of course one of the consequences of ultimatums is that they do tend to provoke people into, you know, ultimate responses. And the ultimatum was, it's either me or the Pekes, and she very forthrightly declared for the Pekes. So I left the following morning for Melbourne, and I would ... It didn't sever the family in that sense. I used to go and visit her, so I didn't kind of ... I understood that that was, you know, that was definitive in that sense, that I had to then do something about it. So I did leave. But I used to come back and visit them. And so we ... it wasn't one of those cases of a son lost forever. I was still around the place. And so I regret, I suppose, having done it, but in the end, it was necessary for me too, because from that out of town position, I would have been stuck for life, and it would have been, I think, a much more frustrating experience. So I was lucky that I did make the break, and I don't think I could have done much more.

Tell me the story of the house burning down.

Well, my brother at that stage ...

My brother was living with us, and he was intent on breeding chickens, as the way people do, for sale, not just for keeping the family table spread. And he was ... had one of those incubators which has a sort of naked flames. It wasn't ... I don't ... As far as I know it wasn't electric. It may have been, but I'm not sure. Anyway, it caught fire one night and burnt the house down, and of course, the chickens with it. And so the only part of the house that was still left - and I had to be woken up actually to get out in time - was the bedroom I was in. So ... but it was so charred and burnt that I could always see starlight through the charred timbers, and instead of a full roof, I had a sheet of galvanised iron on four posts over the bed. And that was ... that was my kind of accommodation until such time as I left to go to Melbourne. It wasn't the limitations of the sort of, you know, sleeping environment, though, that made me leave. It was this particular episode over the Pekinese. But it was actually the second time we'd been burnt out. The first time was either when I was so young I didn't remember. But it comes up in my brother's record of his earlier life, when they had a fish shop in South Melbourne, and that took fires quite easy, you understand, with fish shops and all that fat. And they were burnt out there too. So it was in this case ... the real tragedy was that the fire brigade, local country fire brigade's hoses, didn't reach from the bottom of the paddock to the house. So there was no way the house could have been saved. So these things ... I mean people put up with it and it wasn't ... it was very limited resources. There was no television to, you know, explain and portray your plight to the nation. You got a few blankets from some wealthier source and that was about it, to replace everything you'd lost. So I suppose that also puts pressure on ... on the family. But the family didn't take to drink or anything like that. They did the best they could with those resources.

What were the circumstances around your mother's death in the end?

Well, she'd been ill off and on for some time, and I was with her in rooms in Carlton for some time. And I can't recall now, it would have been a year or two at least. And she was ... she found it very difficult and once when she was having delusions, she ... I took her to a hospital, and the doctor at the hospital suggested, asked me, in a very sort of matter of fact way, whether I'd ever thought of getting her committed. And I said, very quickly, 'No, I never thought of that'. And whatever they gave her as a sedative or a placebo or whatever, was the temporary sort of solution to the problem. But it's ... it's a common kind of experience again, and I did the best I could, until such time as her illness got to the point where she had to be taken to hospital. In fact, the landlady's curses, triumphant as they were, ringing in our ears as were bundled into a cab and off to hospital, and she never came out of hospital. So it wasn't the way one would have liked ... one thinks about, you know, dying, as an art. But often it becomes a sort of bit of an anticlimax, a bit of a farce, I suppose. And it's not the way I'd liked to have thought of it happening, because she deserved better, as most people do.

How old were you?

I'd have been about twenty I suppose, then. Or twenty-eight. I'm not sure. In the twenties. And in fact, it wasn't as though I was in the ... had a lot of experience of relatives, or loved ones sort of dying. So I certainly ... I certainly did feel it. And I thought also of how much of her life I had sort of ... I hadn't realised because she was an elderly person almost from the moment I was born, if you take my point. That she must have been pushing fifty. So I didn't have a sense of her as a younger person that many people have, whether their nearest and dearest die, or not. She was like a grandmother in that sense.

Was she ambitious for you?

Was she?

Ambitious for you?

I'm sure she was. I was the one person that had an education beyond primary school. Most of them didn't finish primary school. I don't think my brother finished primary school. They were pulled out of school, as so many people were, at an early age, because of the necessities of family finances. And so ... but being a person who was at school, my final English exam, the year before I left, took place on VJ Day. Not VP Day, VJ Day. And they ... While the rest of school celebrated, we tore along with our English exams at Northcote High School, in 1945. And that was my last full year of school, because I left in the following year. But I was still the person who had gone to high school, which is an enormous jump from people who hadn't finished primary school. And I was always very conscious of this, and I went to a high school that I think was a good high school. Good in the sense that I ... you know, it helped me. And I had a wonderful English teacher there. And that made an enormous difference. Those kind of bridges you don't realise how far they stretch across the abyss, of sort, of time. But they're often the ones that make all the difference. And although I left rather precipitately, something like the way in which I left rather precipitately from home at Boronia. At the same time it was right and fitting that I should. I'd lost my way in geometry and algebra. Maths were becoming more and more, you know, beyond my comprehension. And I was in a commercial stream rather than the professional stream. So I was guaranteed to find it more difficult than I should have. So that was ... that was school to me, and I left and started work at various jobs at that stage.

Which you also, from time to time, left rather precipitately. Did this ... did this, looking back at that pattern of sort of chucking it in, as it were, overnight, jumping before you were pushed, I think you've called it, where do you think that came from? Was that from your father?

Well, possibly, although sometimes I think it was because I didn't like the embarrassment of leaving and hanging around for a week, you know, especially with those kind of well-intentioned, but obviously untrue things about coming in to see us, 'Pop in and see us later on, and let us know how you're getting on'. When ... those are courteous ways to say we've had about enough of you and you've presumably had about enough of us, so don't bother. I understood what lay behind it was a courtesy. So I always found last weeks of a job, you're already ... they're looking already beyond you to some more promising sort of talent. So I think I preferred to spare them and me the embarrassment. Those were in times, after all, when if you did leave precipitately, it wasn't taken as a ultimate primal curse, whereas these days, of course, it's all bureaucratically designed to make you wish to hell you'd never worked there in the first place. [Laughs]

But have you ever thought about that, that your father actually, you know, when things weren't going well, just did a bunk?

[Laughs] Well, I must say I spent very little time trying to sort of pair up my own kind of shortcomings with dad's. It's as though I didn't know my dad terribly well, but what I did know, at that time, was so negatively geared that I wasn't likely to find it a favourable reflection on my sort of character, to look for comparisons. So I think I tended to sort of incline towards the younger sister, who was a saintly woman, and think that perhaps I had more of her in my own sort of make-up, than of dad. But later on, of course, I came to see dad in a different light and ... and realised that I'd been ... had not been generous or very fully informed about his own sort of situation.

When did he leave the family entirely?


I mean where you lost contact with him.

Well, in one sense, I never left them entirely. I mean I'm still ...

No, I'm talking about you father. Your father was coming and going for most of your childhood and then he went, didn't he?

Right ... I'm not sure, just to how it happened. I know I was at his bedside when he was dying, or had just died, and I felt very forlorn and out of it then. Because again, I think in the very process - and this happens I'm sure a lot - of growing up, you're not always taking account of what's happening to everybody else. You're so much caught up in what you see as the monumental disasters or promise of your own sort of future, that the rest is happening with a sort of a ... in a blurred way. And so you're only called back to the reality of your sort of family connections, at times like this. And I think that's a very kind of common experience. Suddenly you know, a voice from left field says, 'Hey, this has been going on while you've been busy, absorbed in your own sort of problems', and that's why it's almost as though I've been, you know, teleported in from outer space, to find myself at my father's bedside when he was dying, or had died. And I still have a fragment of a poem [in] which I wrote about that occasion. But that's what I say, there are huge gaps in time and sequence in my, sort of, life. It's too late for me to even attempt to sort of fill them in now, because most of ... my brother's the only immediate sort of relative around, and he's done the best he could with some of that, but those particular things: no, I can't really say.

There is that theory of creativity, which may or may not be true. I wonder what you think of it: that creativity comes from some sort of hidden pain.

Well I mean ... yeah, it's like the Tolstoy quote from the beginning of Anna Karenina, isn't it? That happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are all different. And I suppose it's ... I'm not altogether sure about that. I know that there doesn't seem to be any kind of simple explanation. People can have very unhappy lives, but they don't necessarily impinge upon them or have creative outcomes in their own experience later on, at all. And I ... I ... As I say I'm sufficiently foggy about other things that happened around, both painful and pleasant, as to not be sure whether I've got the full ... the full sum of ... a reasonable sum of pleasure or pain to know just what ... whether just how true that particularly proposition is in my own life.

Now you obviously were you know, clearly very poor through most of your early years. Is that got something to do with your anti-consumerism? [Bruce laughs] You've got a lot of anti-consumer poems, haven't you? Tell me about your anti-consumerism.

Well, I've never thought of myself as an anti-consumer. I mean I consume like everybody else, and I don't feel guilty about it. But it might be truer to say that ... that my sort of placing myself in the middle class has a lot to do with the restrictions on earlier life. And not only myself. I'm sure a great number of people in my generation, and perhaps the generation after, for whom the middle class wasn't something that was to be sort of pilloried in the way that Marx's theories suggested they should, as the kind of the bane of all human evil, but as something to be aspired to, and treasured and valued in many ways. And that's certainly the way I've always looked at it. I don't think you can find me as a trenchant critic of the middle class. I ... I think it's a place where so many people, if they find themselves there, should be darned grateful in a world like ours to be there, and be damn glad they're not somewhere else, because clearly, no class has a lien on happiness exclusive to the other classes. So ... but the anti-consumerism, well [laughs]. I watch a lot of television, which means that you are a kind of consumer of a lot of fibs and porks and porkies and so on, as well as other stuff. But, I mean, I'm sort of caught in the middle really. I can't say I'm anti-consumer when I consume just as cheerfully as most other people. I'm not crazy about some of the big fast food chains, but that's because I suspect, as other people have suspected, including those two brave people in England who took on one of them, that, you know, there are things that go with enormous enterprises that aren't very nice, and aren't always necessarily nice for their employers, or for the ... the economy that they do so well in. And in that sense, yes, I guess I'm a critic of ... of some aspects of the consumer society. I mean I think it's a kind of falsity to suggest, as ads do say blatantly, that the proposition of Descartes should have be rewritten to be 'I consume, therefore I am'. I think that's a kind of nonsense, and ... and I'm happy to kind of satirise that sort of stupidity whenever I get a chance to.

You've said that your religion is not the source of your positions: anti-abortion, anti-communism. That you held those anyway. Is there anything that you've got from being Catholic that means that who you are, how you are, and the sort of poetry you write, is different from what it would have been if you hadn't been?

I guess quite a few things. Although, again, I haven't spent much time thinking about what the specifics are. In the first place, I think some sort of view, or some transcendent view, which gives a special meaning to life. I've never been for example, one who was very rapt in the idea of Heaven. It seems to me to be not something that's not half as interesting or important as what happens in this world. And I don't always like the idea that ... and nor do other people who have no particular religious belief at all - the idea that, you know, you can be bought off by some future life, for either your own unpleasantness or your unpleasant experiences. So ... but on the other hand, I ... I'm always moved by the knowledge that, as in other ways, people can be saints without having a specific creed, but nevertheless, many people who have specific creeds, whether they're Sufi saints, or Buddhist saints or Christian saints, or Islamic saints - well, which is what Sufi saints would be anyway - but others besides the Sufi mystics - I think are wonderful. And I've always been kind of moved by people who live those kind of holy lives. And I think, you know, holy living and dying is an aspiration, an ideal. Most people, of course, fall short of it, but at least it's something to believe that has its own sort of value. And I've ... I know, I've been immensely moved by reading [about] the lives of the saints. But it's a bit like reading the lives of great military leaders, or of great reformers. These are sort of inspiring examples of what human beings can do in a world where, often enough, we're encouraged to think that there's nothing we can do. I mean, I can remember once with a class of secondary teacher trainees, where one of them saying, 'Well what can ...'. We'd just been discussing I think Animal Farm and 1984 and they said ... and we were raising those kind of general questions about well, what do you think it ... it may have been round about 1984 actually? Well what sort of a world have we got, and what can we make of it, and what are the implications? And I can remember one of the students saying 'Well, what can we do anyway?' and it always appalled me to think that of all people, trainee teachers should ask that sort of terrible question. If teachers have no role to play, and if they see no importance in looking at the world and having a critical view of their own role and their own possibilities in it, then you wonder what advantage their education has given them. And what a terrible kind ... what a terrible sort of role model they're going to be for younger people who are even more ... Seamus Heaney made a wonderful point in a conference that I wasn't at, but which I read about, [in] a report, where he said that he believed that cynicism is something that should be ... you know, people should have to earn, and that we shouldn't be in the process, as teachers, inculcating it in the young before they've had a chance to have any idealism to begin with. I think it's the most marvellously true thing. It also points out one of the great dangers of the kind of post-modernist view of the world.

Have you met many saints in suburbia?

Ah, I think I've met people who have lived good lives, there, as elsewhere. I mean, I think it's as full of saints as anywhere else. I don't have a kind of view that you have to be in a monastery to be a saint, though it's obviously not a bad sort of training place. The same as there are good sports people, who never make it to the top league teams. The other people, talented people, who have those kinds of skills and directions, who don't actually inhabit quite that same sort of arena. But, you know, I don't believe for example that suburbia's just full of crummy little people, who make love to their cars on Sunday morning. I think that's a crazy sort of view of life, and it's a simplistic left-wing view that I never did share. And as a person who never had a car, I suppose it might be easier for me to say, but I don't hold with those sort of derogatory sort of views of any class. I don't have, in one sense, a view that one class or another is by definition to be excluded from the human race. I think that sort of nonsense should have been left with Karl to worry about. I mean, I can appreciate that Karl Marx was a much more idealistic and important person than some of the people who took up his doctrines and used them for their own sort of sinister purposes.

You're well known for being someone who's been always prepared to take on authority, and yet, as a practising Catholic, you respect the authority of the church. And you ... Could you talk a little bit about your attitude to authority.

[Laughs] Well, I ... Let's put it this way, I suppose that in many cases I respect authorities that deserve respect, and if we lived in a time when Popes were villainous, like other times, I guess they'd be in my line of sights too. But we don't, and I've got a lot of time ... I mean, I think John Paul II has done a fantastic political job. And the destruction of the Iron Curtain has a lot to do with, in fact, the election of a Polish Pope, and the extent to which at that time, Polish nationalism was associated so much with Roman Catholicism. And I'm not, you know ... I'm not unaware of how different it might have been had their been a corrupt pope but we don't have too many of those in the Twentieth Century. So you know, he's not in my line of sights. I admire him tremendously. Other authorities in the church, in so far as I've ever had anything to do with them, would I think be fair game if I didn't like them. But I again, I tend to sort of work away from too close an association with the ecclesiastical authorities. It may be weariness, but there are enough kind of birds and clay pigeons, and so on, being shot into the air for anybody. I wrote a poem once about the problem with so many satirical targets is that, you know, many duck shooters go home. They can't decide which ones they should sort of spend their ammunition on. And Australia, I think, has been well supplied in that way. In fact, Stuart McRae, when he was the political cartoonist of the Courier Mail, on his retirement, which he celebrated in a pub appropriately enough, said that ... They asked him what he thought about being a political cartoonist in Queensland, and he laughed and said, 'It's a great place. There was more ratbags here than the rest of Australia put together'. So you know, a sort of an embarrassment of riches, as far as targets go, has been always something that I've rejoiced in. It's not quite as easy at the moment as it has been for me in past years, but except that of course, the National Party generally tends to throw up more than the average number of ... of likely subjects for this. And I think that's fair game. It seems to me that when people take on ... just as I myself, if I were an authoritative figure, would accept the fact that I'd be fair game for other people's satire and wit, and low cunning and so on. And I think other people should take the same thing. When you go public , then you must expect that not all the public will like you. They'll accept the opportunity, if they happen to have a you know ... a cream pie in hand, or a custard apple, or a ripe tomato, then that they'll let fly. That's what publics do when public figures appear. And it's the only way in which it seems to me public figures could possibly ever learn to respect publics. They at least learn to duck.

In the classroom, are you an authoritative figure?

In, sorry?

In the classroom, when you're teaching.

Oh well, you know, born with a sort of grim and forbidding sort of face, I can sort of pretend to be for a while. But Brian Matthews, who's a ... said to me once ... told me about his experience. We first met at Melbourne University and he went on to become the R.G. Menzies scholar in London and the author of Louisa and a very fine person, and a great figure. And we were reasonably good pals, and I remember he said to me when he'd gone out teaching - because he finished his teaching training, whereas I dropped out after the first year. He taught first at a country high school in Victoria, and there was an older hand at the school, at the end of his first week of teaching, [who] took him down to the local pub, and said, 'Well, come and have a beer', and he said, 'I suppose your full of all that stuff they feed you up with in teacher trainer colleges. Look, there's only two rules in teaching: be a bastard 'til Easter, and kill your own snakes'. And I think they're absolutely critical rules of life, actually, not just in ... in relation to parenting, in relation to anything, [and that] is to establish some sort of presence first, not of the palsy-walsy kind. Al Capp once said, 'Don't be a pal to your son', and I think that's absolutely wonderful advice too, for many people. And I never ... I never tried to be a pal to students to begin with. Friendship comes in the wake of respect. It's rather hard to get the respect if you're too friendly, too soon, and you never effectively get it back. So that's, you know, flowing from the idea about authority, that's why I'm aware of how authority flows from having some kind of ... establishing some sort of presence, and some right to your convictions and to your taking on the role you ... you have as a teacher.

Are you very confident in your opinions, in the things that you believe in?

Sometimes. I'm - you know. [Laughs] If a had a better memory I'd be less confident, because I might look back over - often - S. J. Perelman once said he was extraordinarily talented in pointing out all the things that happened that never did. So he was a wonderful sort of weather indicator for showing which way the wind wasn't blowing, and I'm sometimes like that too. I make assertions about things and find out I've been dead wrong about it. I'll give you one example. At one stage I thought that once the church caught up with the contemporary vernacular, all its problems would be solved, and all the parishioners problems as well, of course. And I even, I think, pamphleted one particular church in Melbourne, under that mistaken sort of assumption. Of course, it was a foolish notion. When you've got everything down to the level of the common man, then it's too common to be believable, and it's not longer any transcendent belief, or form of ritual worship. So yeah, I've had to backtrack, and I'm pleased that in fact, nobody took any notice of the pamphlets that I used to slip into Catholic Church Society pamphlets, hoping I wouldn't be caught by a burly lay brother and belted up in the vestry. And I never was actually. [Laughs] But I did have the pleasure of going to speak at the monastery that the burly lay brothers came from sometime afterwards, thinking little do they know, that the pest who handed out those pamphlets was now speaking to them. In fact, I remember addressing them and reading the very sort of grandiose title of the talk and saying I thought after a title like that any talk would be an anticlimax. But so, no, I'm often wrong with things that - but at the time I behold them of course. I hold them as firmly as anybody else does but I'm prepared to sort of recognise that I'm very fallible.

What do you think's going to happen when you die?

[Laughs] Well, I mean it'll make no difference whatsoever to the world and I'm very relived at that. I never thought it would. [Laughs] I think I'll ... what happens to me, I don't know. I believe in a life after death. I haven't the faintest idea what it'll be like. [Laughs] It's not something that worries me in any way at all. This life is the one I'm preoccupied in ... in surviving in. Beyond that I don't have any kind of ... I don't have any visions. Nobody's come to me and told me what it's like and whether I should pack my bags or ... and I'm not like the Heaven's Gate cultists, who sort of pack their bags and prepare to hitch on to a you know, a mother ship, behind the Hale Bopp planet, or whatever it was: a meteor. No, I don't have ... I was very moved by that, and saddened by it, but I don't have their kind of clear but very sort of oddly Noddy-like notions about the afterlife.

Between now and then, what are ... what are you doing? What are you spending your time with?

Well I read. I still write poetry. And publish. And do things around the house, and pat the dog and raid the fridge. And on Thursdays, for three terms of the year - these are short terms in ... I teach in U3A. So I use some of my university material and interests with older students, very similar to the students at university, who are often mature age students. But I'm a mature age student myself, in a way, and one way in which teachers of course go on being students is by teaching, because it means that they do have to go over texts or reinvent new ones. And I do that and enjoy it every Thursday, for three or four parts of the year. And occasionally go visiting to ... to talk somewhere, or to speak to high school students if, for example, as in New South Wales, a text of mine is set, or poems of mine are set as parts of the HSC syllabus. And I enjoy that too. And it's a quick trip away, and I come back to live a kind of an ordinary existence here in Toowoomba.

Would you describe yourself as the complete suburban man?

[Laughs] I'm not sure that any person is complete, but I'm happy in that, in the general suburban environment. It seems to suit me. I mean I can appreciate the countryside, but I always keep thinking of what P.J. O'Rourke said. He said, 'If the out of doors was so great, how come the homeless don't enjoy it more?' There's a kind of way in which you can romanticise, and O'Rourke is one of my favourite sardonic essayists, [who] continually sort of disabuses people of romantic notions about, well, Amazonian rainforests or anywhere else, which are not quite as delightful in every respect, if you're sort of tramping through them, as it might seem from watching television wildlife documentaries.