Australian Biography: Elizabeth Riddell
Born in Napier, New Zealand, Elizabeth Riddell (1910–1998) was recruited as a journalist straight from school.
In 1939 she started work on The Sun newspaper, during the Second World War she opened and ran the Daily Mirror's New York bureau, and in the 1960s she became senior interviewer and critic in the arts pages of The Australian.
Several books of her poetry have been published over the years.
She was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Could you start by telling me when you were born, what kind of a family you were born into and where it was, what kind of a situation it was?
I was born in New Zealand, in Napier, to a sort of middle-class family, who thought they were upper-class, and they had been missionaries and settlers. I think in Marsden's time, Samuel Marsden's time, and they were a mixture of Welsh, English, Irish, and there's a Tolstoy in the family. That's the only one I claim to really. And I went to a boarding school for ten years. Was brought up in the country way in the north and ... but wasn't a farm child because it was run like a squire-archy. It was a sort of farm with a pig stud, a sheep stud, a horse stud. It was very, you know, we didn't do anything about it. We simply were brought up there. And when I came ... I went down to this boarding school and I stayed there all that time, and was going to matriculate and then my mother told me ... She was a widow. My mother told me, 'I haven't any money to send you to University'. So I stopped doing any work at all and just read books for my last year at school. And then she said, 'Oh, I've got enough money, you can go to university now'. So I did my matriculation and failed. So then I was then at my last term at school and Ezra Norton, who was the newspaper proprietor in Sydney, hired me from New Zealand, because one of his flunkies in New Zealand had read some poetry by me, awful poetry, and it was the custom of newspaper owners to hire people from New Zealand because they thought the education was better than Australia. They used to go over and buy people in New Zealand. And I came over and he paid my fare and my accommodation for a month and flung me into journalism.
Can we go back and go over a little more detail about your family. Who was your father, and what was he like and who was your mother, and could you tell us a little about the family circumstance?
My father was born in Richmond, Virginia - an American. They were a family from ... of engineers from Carlisle, who [was] the sort of engineer who went all over the world and built a bridge or a tunnel or something. And he happened ... his father happened to settle in New Zealand and build a tunnel and go away again and left my father, Sidney John Richmond Riddell - Richmond after the town he was born in. And my mother was from this sort of middle-class family and I had grandparents in Napier and I never seemed to see them. And my father was a solicitor, who was also a yachtsman, so I never saw him. And my mother just entertained for him and played bridge. And then he had a bad ... one day the yacht was in trouble and they were in the water too long and he got pneumonia and died. We were then found to be deeply in debt. So I don't remember him, except once I saw him riding on a fire-engine because the house in the street was burning. And he was in pyjamas. He's gone to give the call. That's all I remember about my father. You see I was about five or something and I was put into a boarding school almost immediately. I was the smallest child in the boarding school. And then it was all with other people, because my mother was incapable of ... she'd never been trained to do anything. So she went to work, collecting insurance from poor people. She went around working people and got their shilling a week or something for their premiums, and then she got a job in advertising and she was terribly good at that. You don't need any training for advertising, of course. She was very good.
Why do you think she was good at it? What was it ...
Personality. She had no idea. She had no idea. She'd never been trained for anything. But I suppose she went and talked to them, talked people into things. And she had very good jobs. She had fur coats, and went to the races, and had lots of boyfriends, and had a good time. And so I was in boarding school, my sister was in another boarding school.
Because we quarrelled. My sister persecuted me.
She told me my mother didn't love me. And she persecuted me in quite a nice way into stuttering. I couldn't speak for a while. I couldn't speak at all. I use to whisper to people. I couldn't speak properly. And she used to ... I'll tell you one episode that was interesting. I had found on the housekeeper's shelf, a book called Confessions of a Court Modiste. It had a pink cover and a black figure on it and it was, I think, a naughty novel. Anyway, as I was trying to read at six, well above my years, I took it down. And then one aunt came to see if we tidied our beds. They built us an annexe in the country with child-size furniture, and she came in every morning to see if we'd had our baths and tidied our beds, then we would go for two days at school or something. And then she found this book and took it away and said, 'You naughty girl. You mustn't read that'. And then the next day, she came in again and it was under my mattress and my sister had put it there: a trick on me. My sister was only two years older than me but she was an absolute expert, at that age even. So we went to separate boarding schools, of course.
And did you believe her when she told you your mother didn't love you?
Yes. I believed everything I was told. I believed everything. I was a very solemn, believing child.
Looking back now, do you think your mother did love you?
Sort of. My mother wasn't meant to be a mother, any more than I would have been. I wouldn't have been a good mother. And my mother wasn't meant to be a mother. She was quite a good mother, but she wasn't terribly interested in it. And the whole ... whole family had children and they were none of them, very interested in their children. They had them as a matter of course. They wanted their children to be clever and make good marriages, but that's all they wanted.
Did your sister make you feel that it was your fault that your mother didn't love you?
Yes. Everything was my fault. Everything was my fault that happened, and I use to lie in bed and look up at the hillside, where there was a great ... the pohutukawa tree, that's that New Zealand tree with the beautiful green leaves and the red flowers. And I would look up at that and make up stories and pretend stories, but they were never about New Zealand. They were always about ... they were always fairy tale stories about England.
Did you ever make up with your sister or has she remained the rival and enemy?
Well, yes. We are now on good terms because we are in different countries and we write 'Dearest Betty ...'. You know, we don't mean any of this. She lived an entirely different life to mine. She had land. She stayed in New Zealand, and married and she had land. And then I came over here you see, at eighteen. And she came once to Australia. She went on a tour of Japan and South East Asia and she came once to Australia and she said, 'Oh, I like it here. I think I'll stay', and I said, 'No you won't'. And she went home. Well, people shouldn't come and land on, you know ... I couldn't have entertained or looked after her because I don't play bridge or go to the races or do any of those fascinating things. [Laughs]
So you went to boarding school and did you continue to have this problem of not being able to speak?
No. The nuns made me ... I had a bad stutter. I got better away from my sister very quickly. Before I went to boarding school I went to a small church school. That was the time when I wasn't interested in learning anything and I use to wag it from school. I used to not go. My mother would see me off out of the boarding house that we were temporarily living in. It was a very fashionable boarding house and I was told to shut up and keep quiet, because Mrs. Somebody didn't like people around the place. Anyway, I would be put off to school every morning and then I would leave school and go to the library or go into a department store and steal to make my mother love me. I stole things for her. I stole beautiful things. She caught on, of course, immediately. So she went to see my teacher and my teacher said, 'Oh she doesn't come much to school'. And then she thought: boarding school. Well she took the things back, I suppose.
Did you think you were sent off to boarding school as a punishment?
I suppose so. I didn't think much about anything, except myself and my fairy story-inside-my-head life. I didn't make friends. I was sort of such a self-interested, abstracted child. And that continued. I didn't make friends at school either. I feel in love with a nun, but that's not making friends, is it? A handsome young nun.
No, I wasn't a Catholic. There were about ten Anglicans in my school and we had to all the same things as the Catholic girls. We had to get up at 6.30 and make our beds. We only had a bath once a week. We had to get up and wash and make our beds, and go to Mass and the Anglicans took their Bible. They were told to take their Bibles with them and read the Bible. And some of us could join the choir. But, of course, we couldn't go to confession or to communion. And the nuns ... It was a beautiful chapel, and a visiting priest every morning in the most beautiful vestments. I was very romantic about Catholicism but never joined. I was very romantic about it because I was a romantic child.
What was it about the nun that drew you.
Oh, she was beauty. And her father had been at Gallipoli and she was young. And she was ... the wimple, you know, her beautiful face. I use to watch her praying in the chapel. I can't remember her name now, of course. And she went over the wall later on and she came to Australia and she came to see me. And she was so uninteresting when she wasn't in her ... whatever they call it, habit. [Laughs]
So did she like you a lot too? Was this the ...
Yes. But she wasn't a lesbian. She liked me as a child because I think we liked the same things. We liked the same books. There was a good library at the school. She liked me.
And was this ... And did this give you the attention that maybe you'd been looking for?
Perhaps it did. I didn't ask of it from any of the girls. Of course, we were all ages from secondary school age or lower. We were all ages. There was nuns from all over the world there. And there was a Chinese nun, a Japanese nun, a nun from England and a French nun and so on. I liked the nuns very much. I had a wonderful time with the nuns. One or two of them were nasty.
I didn't care about the girls.
I didn't really make any friendships. I was competitive. I had a competitor but she wasn't a very great friend. I did see her in the holidays from school. Kara. I did see her. She and I competed for the prizes. Even in Christian Doctrine as they call it. Christian Doctrine, which would be what? Religion, I suppose. And the nuns were horrified when I won the Christian Doctrine prizes. Here's this Protestant winning the Christian Doctrine prize. [Laughs] But it was only another lesson.
Very well at school in the things I liked. But I didn't do well in science or maths, which you had to have to matriculate.
So in the end you didn't matriculate?
No. No. Didn't go to university. I would've liked the life. I wouldn't live the lectures, but I would've liked the life. Because they were small of course. New Zealand had one university with colleges in different capital cities or the provinces. Four all together. And I would've gone to the Wellington one. Victoria College I would've gone to. And I know I would have loved being there. But I didn't get there. I got over to Sydney instead.
At any stage of your life, did you ever get close to your mother again -- or ever get close to your mother?
She would ring up and ask me where ... she would wait for me to come in in the evening if I'd been somewhere. I must have had some friends because I went out. And I would come home and she would say, 'What time is it?' She would've got home sometime and she would say, 'What time is it?' And it would be one o'clock and I would say it was eleven. I lied a lot to my mother about what I was doing, where I was going and who I was seeing. But I wasn't seeing boys. So what, I don't know what I was doing in my holidays. You see only in holidays in those days. Because my after school life was over here and I was working.
Did she hesitate about allowing you to go off to Australia?
No. She was absolutely marvellous. All her sisters and relatives said, 'Don't let Betty go to Australia. It's a terrible country', you know, that thing about 'It's a wicked city', and my mother said, 'Well what's she going to do if she stays in New Zealand?' and I would've become part of the typing pool because there were no women journalist and you don't live on poetry. I'd have become part of the typing pool. My mother said, 'I'm going to let her go'. And she had her life. She didn't mind me going.
It didn't occur to you that maybe she was glad to get rid of you?
No, it didn't occur to me. It's never occurred to me, that. It's never occurred to me. What a funny thought, that she wanted me out of the way. But then she came to live in Australia later, against my will. I think she did that for me. I think that was a genuine thing she did for me: 'I'll give her a chance'. Because she'd been left with no skill, no trade, no profession, no university degree, nothing. Not even a diploma. She was a good cook, fancy cook. You know, rich trifles. That's all she could do. And play bridge and go to the races.
But she actually made quite a lot of money at her job?
Oh, she made bags of money by selling advertising. But then that came to an end.
So, when you were selected, it was on the basis of poems that you said ...
How do you think that was? Why do you think that Ezra Norton thought that bad poems ...
He didn't think it. It was his man, Henry Bates in New Zealand. It was his New Zealand editor who'd been watching these precocious ... precocious poems. But I never asked Henry Bates why he did it. You see I don't make those sort of contacts. My belief is that life is accidental, so let it happen. I don't pry behind why a thing happens. It's self-interest I think. I'm only interested in it happening to me, but not why it happens. Do you think that makes sense?
I think it does but it seems an attitude which is unusual in a journalist because part of journalism is to pry and to find out why something is happening. Maybe you are more ...
But that is a fact of life. That is not a philosophical view of somebody, why do they think that way, is it? I mustn't argue with you.
No, no. But sometimes motivation is an interesting...
Yeah. Isn't that funny about my mother. I never thought she wanted to get rid of me. One thing she said to me was, 'Now don't drink brandy. Brandy is the wicked drink. You'll become ...'. She drank whisky and brandy and anything she felt like and she made me drink whisky and I said, 'That horrible stuff'. And didn't drink it again ever. She put make-up on and I was disgusted with the idea of her putting make-up on me. I was a really prim child. But as I was leaving she said, 'Now don't get addicted to brandy. It's a wicked drink'. She used to drink brandy limes, you see. Of course I drank brandy if I felt like it. She had all those fetishes and things about how you conduct your life. She told me, 'Never become fond of a man with no back to his head'. How do you like that one? [Laughs] No back to his head. Head goes straight down. [Laughs]
So these were pearls of motherly wisdom?
These were pearls of motherly instruction. She never told me anything about sex. She barely fixed me up for the rites of passage. Barely. Didn't tell me anything. She was having love affairs. I knew about that. And I once saw people in a park so I knew what went on. The country didn't mean much to me. I'd seen animals cohabiting in the country, but I though only cows did that but when I saw the people I knew that ... what was on. She didn't tell me. I don't think ... don't think people told their children.
Did the nuns tell you anything?
Not a word. And the girls didn't tell me. The prefects didn't tell me. And I never saw a boy the whole time I was at school. Never went out with a boy. Never got out of the convent to learn swimming even. And then we came ... we got a train and then we crossed the straits on a ferry to Wellington where my mother was based. And we were chaperoned and looked after the whole way.
So all of this protection had made you very ripe for wicked Sydney.
What did you think of wicked Sydney when you arrived?
Oh, I adored it. I loved it. But what I loved was the journalism and the writing and being thrown into it, because it was hot metal and you had compositors and they were simply wonderful.
So you had a direct relationship with the printers?
I did. They gave me a page to run. I use to do theatre reviews, ballet reviews. Knew nothing about anything. I knew a bit about ballet because my mother would take me to see the travelling ballets and operas and things, but I didn't have any critical facility whatever.
Why do you think there's been this tradition on newspapers on giving the least experienced, youngest journalist in the place, the job of the Arts coverage?
I think it's so funny. They take you off the hospital round or the financial pages or the meat prices, and make you a ballet critic. I don't know why they do it. Because journalist have to know a bit about everything. Not much about everything. Just a little bit about most things. And that's why all the mistakes are made.
How did you get on, starting like this, at the deep end?
I just went in. I spent my first ... I wasn't a cadet. He paid me properly. He paid me what a fourth grade journalist would get now. He paid me straight away. And I spent my first week's wages on a coat that I liked. And I found myself with no money. I had to borrow to pay the rent. I had no idea of money, but I soon learnt.
Oh, about eighteen I think.
Where did you live? Did you have anybody to stay with?
I had accommodation for a month, then I had a flat, and a flatmate: a very clever girl who was married to a journalist and used to do some writing. Iris Dexter. And the Dexters were a great family in journalism when I came over. One covered swimming, one covered something else. And I flatted with her because she'd left her husband. In, of course, Macleay Street. Where else?
So as a result of being such a young girl, away from home, in a new job and with nobody keeping an eye on you, did you run into any problems or difficulties, or did you cope with that all very well?
I coped. And then I ... What happened? I fell in love with a man of forty-seven. An editor. A very travelled and experienced married man with a child. And I just disregarded everything and I think we got a flat together eventually. He wanted me to come and live with his wife and child. He would then have two of us in the house. But I rejected that. I had enough sense for that. And he taught me a tremendous amount about the world, not about journalism so much. Because he'd lived in America and Russia and knew a lot about the world and he was radical. The Hat, they called him. He used to wear a big black hat. So he was very romantic and I stuck around with him for quite a long time until I saw the man I married. In fact, this man went away. He got a good job in Fleet Street again running a thing for Frank Packer. A very good job. Head of Bureau. Very nice. And took his wife and child and went off and said, 'You'll come won't you?' And yes, 'Yes', I said, 'Yes'. And then I put all his photographs away and relaxed. And didn't go.
I knew it was over but he didn't know it was over and I didn't tell him. It's the mean thing that people do.
Because I didn't turn up. He kept sending me cables, 'Why aren't you coming? Why aren't you coming?' And I kept not answering. I suppose eventually I answered him. By that time I'd settled on my new great love.
On the beach. Bondi. Saw him. He was journalist and a rugby player. Blue Greatorex. He was the best thing I'd ever seen. So I stuck around and thought this will do nicely thank you. He never meant to marry me. What happened was that we went away, shared a cabin and they made us. Well they said, 'You can't have a cabin, You can't share a cabin unless you're married'. But we'd lived together before that in a flat in a good suburb. I don't know why I did all these things.
What drew you to him? Do you remember that? What was it about him?
Oh his looks.
No. A reader. He liked all the things I did. Funny. Terribly funny. Had been to England already. Very funny man. We used to read with our meals. That's the sort of man he was. Now that's good, isn't it? When you read with your meals. When they let you read with your meals. And, oh, he was a very interesting man. And he let me do ... he didn't want me to be a homebody. He kept pushing me in my job and kept saying, 'Do that. Do that'.
What was happening in your career at this time?
My career was my paper. Two morning papers were merged, so there were two of everybody. If you had a sort of series you were doing, or a round as they were called, you would have an opposition. With two papers and one set of journalists, they had to compete which lot was going to get in. He got his. And I didn't get mine because I was doing casual jobs. I didn't have a regular round. But every week I expected the sack but with a bit of luck I came up with something. You see he won his bit, whatever it was. He was the winner on that side, but I wasn't. But I hung on in there, I hung on and then I went to the ... then I accepted a job with somebody else. One used to change jobs then for another. Would be the equivalent of ten dollars a week. You moved.
You moved for money, not better opportunity?
You moved for money. Well no, you moved for money. You see there was no women journalist except me doing general work. Because I'd been lucky.
Now most women journalist at that time were side-tracked into women's issues, in women's work, with women's pages ...
Social reporting it was called. The women's pages. I never did it.
Well there was an editor, a very famous editor in Sydney called Eric Baume. A real operator. A New Zealander with political connections and other connections and he thought that he would invent 'the sob sister'. They had them in America. That if somebody ... the sort of thing that is now in the tabloids, but wasn't then. You'd do an interview somebody whose wife has just been murdered or something. Television does it now, what I did then. And he produced me. And when all the male journalist where playing billiards, pool or in the pub, there was I. So he sent me out on the good jobs. Good jobs. You know, jockey's being killed or married. That sort of job. Jobs that you got into the paper. Not as ... it was a tabloid in a sense, but nothing like they are now. Nothing. We never said to anybody, 'How do you feel?' which they say incessantly now. 'How do you feel?'
What things did you say instead?
I can't remember now. And we didn't steal photographs from people. We asked for them occasionally. We didn't steal them. But we didn't say to a woman, whose child is lying dead at her feet, 'How do you feel?' We were not as stupid as that.
Now what ... what ... did you continue in this relationship with Blue, you said until you went overseas. What took you overseas?
I wanted to go and he'd been. And I wanted to go. And we found a German cargo ship that would take us for forty pounds each. They would give us the radio officer's cabin. But they wouldn't give it to us unless we were married. It was taking back some Germans who'd been ... been in wool. You see, it was 1935. Hitler was around in 1933. After all, Europe was going to go up in flames and I thought, we'd better get there. And Germans in good jobs were be repatriated. There was a German governess and a German wool buyer on this ship with us. They also had officer's cabins. I think the Germans wanted the money for the ... for the ship. I can't remember what it was called. No, I've forgotten. We were going to Bremen. It would take us a long time. And it sure did. We went round North Africa. We went to places we would never ... we went to Dachau [?]. I would never have gone to these places if I'd gone on P & O, and we came us into the the Girondes in France. We went back down to Bremen, we came back to Southampton, and I think the whole thing took about ten weeks. We saw all these places. And a wonderful, captain who'd been sailing to the Philippines and back. And the bosun was the Nazi, was the Nazi leader on it. And as I did my morning hike with the captain up and down the deck, the bosun would go past us and put his hand up and say, 'Heil Hitler'. And the captain would say, 'Heil Hitler' [mumbling]. He never did the full salute. But the bosun was in charge of that ship and the crew. You see, they were Nazi's.
What did you make of it? The Nazis on board?
Nothing. Oh one said to me that if I lived in Germany that I would have my head cut off. I didn't make much of him. This was one of the wool buyers.
Because I was being opinionated.
In what way? What were your own views at the time?
Oh, the Nazis were terrible. He was, I suppose, giving me Nazi propaganda and I was saying, 'What a lot of rot'. And he said, 'If you were in Germany now, you'd have your head cut off'. It put me off the Germans. My husband got along with them better because he was a more amiable man than I am. I mean, I've got a short fuse. But he would just think, 'Oh, well, who cares'.
When you got to London, what kind of work did you do? Did you work or did you just go for a holiday?
I went to work. My ambition in life at that stage, never mind the poetry, was to get a job on the greatest newspaper in England, the Daily Express, which had revolutionised newspapers because it had understood design. Beaverbrook had it. And Christiansen was a great editor. And the face of newspapers changed. It's hard to believe now, but the value of white on the front page was understood. But anyway, I had some names of papers and editors. Blue was going to work for Reuters. He was all right. He was going to have a lovely time. But I wanted to work. And we took a flat without a bathroom and we didn't understand that some London flats didn't have bathrooms. Then we got another one with a bathroom. And I began my hike of interviews and I went to ... the first thing I went to was the News of the World, because ... I didn't try the Express first. The News of the World, because it was owned by Lord Riddell, who I think called it Riddle. He was from Carlisle, where the Riddells were originally from. And they gave me a job because of my name. The man on ... the news editor said, 'We'll give you a day's work', and they told how to get to someplace and interview some woman. You know, the sort of frightful paper that it was. And I did that and then the news editor said to me, 'Well I think you should pop over to Greece'. I didn't know how to pop over to Greece. Anyway, he told me and they paid for me to and I did an interview then. But that was casual work. And I went to the Sunday Graphic for the same reason and asked the editor for a job and he said, 'We'll give you a day's work on Friday'. And I had this sense to say to him, 'Why will you give me a day's work'. And he said, 'Because Australians can get into places. They're not afraid to get into places where polite English journalists won't go'. He said, 'Australians would never go to the tradesmen's entrance. They go to the front door and bang on it and tell the butler what they want'. So I worked for them, one day a week, the News of the World, one day a week and then there was a train smash at something, Garden City. Maybe it was just called Garden City. No, Welham or Welham Garden City. And they rang me on the Saturday to go out and cover it - help cover it. The Sunday Graphic or some paper. And we both went and covered it. And then I still thought, I want the Express. We bought a car for twelve pounds and Blue took that away on his Reuters job and left me in the flat and [said], 'Get some work. Find some work if that's what you want'. And I got in to see the editor of the Daily Express who said to me, 'No, I won't employ you. You're too experienced. I want somebody I can make into a great journalist'. And he only employed at the most, two women on the paper. One did police court news. Constance did police report news. And he had one on the paper and he'd lost one. He said, 'Yes, I've just lost my other female. But I want one I can mould. You've been moulded in Sydney'. So eventually he gave way and put me on. And I lasted ten weeks. I had by-lines, front page stuff, all sorts of things. I did very well. And one day, he said to me, 'I've found the girl I want. In Hull'. In Hull you see. And he found her and I got the sack. 'Cause it nearly killed me. I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life. And Blue, to stop me crying, we went to a travel agent and I was still bawling I think, and Blue said, 'We want somewhere were we can swim and where it's sunny'. And they sent us to ... '... where it was cheap'. He'd finished his Reuters thing. Tossa De Mar on the Costa Brava in Spain, which was fishing village then, but it's now covered in hotels. I know that. It was a fishing village and we got the top floor of a fisherman's house and we stayed there until Franco. We went out over the border on a train after Franco. It was a communist village. The waiter at the only sort of hotel, which we sometimes had a meal, although it was too expensive for us, even at nothing. Brandy was four pence a glass - wonderful - and we could eat free, eat Tapas in the bar. You didn't need to have dinner. You could eat out of the antipasto and stuff. Anyway, we stayed there for all that time and there was one Englishman, who'd been an officer in an Indian regiment, who was there by himself, living. And we stayed in this top floor.
The waiter was the leader of the Anarchist Party. How you can have an Anarchist Party when anarchists are one-man jobs, I don't know. Zedro. Zedro went to war immediately against Franco. So everything disappeared out of the village. In the meantime, while we'd been living in the village, I had ... we used to go down to Barcelona for weekends in the frightful bus covered in hens and turkeys and onions and people. And we used to take a room in a flea pit in Barcelona for the weekend with that terrible noise of radios. It was the noisiest city in the world. And go ... I hate to tell you this, but it's true, to the bullfights. A great animal lover like me, went to bullfights.
My doing. He didn't want to go. He use to put his head in his hands. Far too nice a man. I use to look at most of it. I was mad about it.
The theatrical experience. And we only went ... we went in the sun. Well there are two sides to an arena. Sombre and Sol. We went to Sol because it was the cheapest and I yelled along with the others. So, I've never been since.
And you had to leave in a hurry?
We had to leave in a hurry, yes. So we came out over the border, whatever it's called. I don't know which bit of border that is. And we took a train back. We spent a week in Paris I think, living again in some flea pit. And then back to London.
No. No. What did I do? 1936, that must have been. I don't know what I did. I never got back on the Express. I did casual work. We did casual work. We did casual work. And we travelled all over England and Scotland in the car. The twelve pound car that had wooden floorboards to the car and one used to slap up on our faces. When we left England we sold it for fifteen pounds. We made money on that car. A Morris with a funny nose. A Morris Oxford, I think. [Laughs]
We'd taken two years leave and it was up. No, we'd taken a year's leave and it was then two years and we decided ... I don't know why we decided to go home.
No. We didn't. We went home for some reason that wasn't terribly sensible and we got on a refrigerated cargo ship, with a drunken captain, whose name was the Stuart Star. And we went round Africa. We went to Mozambique. We went right up the coast of Africa. Elizabeth, what ...
They've all changed their names.
But not the South African ones haven't changed their names. We went right up the coast of South Africa. There was a row in the crew and there was a police court case in ... what's that lovely one on the beach? Durban. Durban. We were days in Durban. Well the member of the crew or the carpenter was being prosecuted for hitting another crew member . We were out of money. We had no money. Then we got up eventually to a place that has certainly changed it's name. And I've forgotten it's name. It's now ... no, it's gone. And there we spent all our days ashore because by then we were not speaking to the captain. And the food was uneatable. We spent all our days ashore eating cheap ... eating fruit and lying on a beach. And then we got back on it and came back and we got off at Melbourne, the first port we touched because that was the quickest way off the ship. And as we ... when we got off the ship with our trunks and bags and suitcase and stuff, I could see it was getting ... Blue didn't want to be back in Australia.
He didn't like it by then. He liked ... I don't know what he liked. He said to me, 'I can't stand this'. And I soothed him and said, 'It's going to be all right'. And we got on a train. We didn't have enough money to fly over or stay. We didn't want to stay on the ship till Sydney. God, it might of taken ten weeks to get there anyway. We got on a train and sat up all night back to Sydney. And my mother had got us a flat. And we had a flat to go to. She got us a furnished flat. We had a flat to go to, a place to open our bags, and we rang up our editors, who both gave us back our jobs. But we had day jobs. We were on morning papers. I forget. I forget. Different papers by then. I was on The Sun. I got a job on The Sun and Blue got a job on ... the Morning Mirror. I don't know. We both got jobs and then the war came. And then he went into the army first. Oh, I changed my job at the beginning of the war because I was offered more money. I think I went back ... I went back three times to the man who'd imported me. He always wanted me back, Ezra Norton. And it was more money and I went back. And Blue went into the army as a private with an application to the air force, although he was too old to fly by then. Mind you, he lied about his age. I don't know how old he was. He was ...
Have you always been truthful about your age?
Oh, no. I've told the most terrible lies. I don't even know what it is now. Except I'm over eighty.
I've confused myself. I don't know whether I was born in 1910 or 1907. If I was born in 1907 I'm older. However ...
He lied about his age and he got into the army as a Sergeant, not as a private . A Sergeant - not much better. He was encamped at Ingleburn and ... but he had his application at the air force, which he again lied about his age, I suppose. And he got into the Eighth division that was lost on the Burma Road and he was pulled out into the air force or he would have been there.
And what happened to you in the war?
Well, I was working in the war doing general work. And Ezra Norton wanted to open a New York bureau and you couldn't send ... you could send a man out, a journalist or anybody out for a useful job, you were manpowered. He could get men to go as journalists, as correspondents, but he couldn't take one out to a soft job in a bureau in New York. So he took me. He picked me.
He would have preferred to send a man?
Oh, I think so. Doesn't everybody? And he was making arrangements to co-operate with the Japanese who were going to take us over because he had a cartoonist who drew the cricket match with a Japanese head used as the ball. And it went into the paper for one edition and Ezra ripped it out and he told me, he wasn't going to have that sort of thing in the paper because he might have to co-operate with the Japanese and he wasn't going to let his cartoonist shadow this arrangement in any way.
Nothing. Nothing. No, I didn't have any views. I didn't have any views about the Japanese or the war, or anything. I was just hoping to live in New York and get some good stories. [Laughs] I didn't have a political conscience. If I have one now, it's all developed since then. And then he sent me by Swedish ship across the Pacific. Another cargo ship. You see, I've never been on a decent ship. There were fifteen of us on the Goonawarra and it's a ship that takes nobody. And a very good Swedish captain and a wonderful bar and a lot of good stories. And we were blacked out at night. We were neutral, but we were blacked out at night. So we went slowly cross the Pacific to San Diego or San Francisco or somewhere, anyway. And then I got aboard a train and went across America. There was another correspondent with me on the ship, who was going for the Herald. A man named, Pitchard, who is now dead and who was quite a famous correspondent, and he and I use to sit on deck at night and drink Drambuie.
And when you got to New York and opened the Bureau, what was that like?
It was like nothing you'd ever hoped to see. It was a square room in the New York Mirror Building. The Hearst Building on the ninth floor underneath the Hearst News Service. There was a Hearst News Service that ran around the world. There was a Hearst paper, the Daily Mirrorand there were odd correspondents, there were odd bureaus from all around the world because it was very powerful. It was a good place to be. You got the news as it happened. And it was on ... down on 45th street on the East side. It was a bare room and I put my typewriter on the window ledge. And I'd been told, 'Oh, take your time. Look around. Find your feet'. And I got cables at once - the first day I was there, 'Send us, send us something or other'. And I at length got a table and chairs and other facilities such as a telephone. And later on I got a very good female assistant from a news service who was absolutely splendid.
Did you at any stage feel daunted when you were asked to do this sort of thing?
No. No, I never thought about it. It was the same thing that. I don't think this is relevant, but you know, women who that have affairs with married men. You know, we never think about the wives. You don't think. You don't think it's anything to do with you.
What kind of news were you sending back from New York?
I was ... I was sending what was being sent to New York from Greece and the European Front and everything. Hearst was getting it in. I was then sending it as quick as possible, because our datelines were all different. My datelines favoured an Australian afternoon paper and that was the Daily Mirror. They favoured it. I could get the news quicker from New York than they could get from Athens or Paris or wherever Germans were not at the moment. Because they had a big London Bureau too.
Was there any kind of news you didn't handle?
Oh no. The Americans never ... where the British and Australians, and so on, were fighting, the Americans only called them the Allies. The Americans never referred to them. When they were in New Guinea on the Kokoda Trail, the American news services only referred to the Allies.
He never said.
He had the house. He had the house. And people came to stayed in it out of the air force and all over the place came to stay in it and somebody would come and clean it. That was his base but he would be going around Australia and into New Guinea doing legal and ... Do you know that ... I suppose you do, that pilots from various places brought back ... smuggled back things.
Some tiny thing that is in a cigarette lighter. We know they brought back nylons, chocolates and oranges and lemons and things, but they brought back eminently useful and saleable things and it was small. They brought millions of cigarettes from all over the place. Very heavy business in contraband in Australia. Well, in London and in Paris and everywhere. Everywhere there was a plane, there was contraband.
So he was busy with that during the war, did he ever see action?
Never. He never saw action. He was ... They were bombed at in New Guinea but he was too old for action. He was never allowed to see it. His great mentor and friend in the Air Force was a man called, Killer Caldwell, who had also faked his birth date, but he got into the action. He flew in Egypt and in New Guinea. In Palestine and New Guinea. Killer flew. He really flew.
So, when did you come back to Australia?
I came back to Australia after the European war. When I got into Cologne ... I'd been in Paris, and when ...
I was in Paris because I asked the boss if I could go to Paris. I didn't work ... you see Eric Baume was again Head of the Bureau. He changed papers too. He had a Bureau at the Savoy and the Reuters Building in Fleet Street. He had his flat at the Savoy and an office building. So did Packer's lot. So did Kerry Packer ... Sir Frank Packer. He had a building. He had a suite in the Savoy. It was always littered with the RAAF. They were always sleeping on the floor. But it was really for the conduct of the offices. It was Bureau too. And they had camp beds and so on.
Well, America wasn't a good place to have the war in. It was too silly. It took it like a film. Sachs 5th Avenue had its window decorated in purple ribbon and pictures of soldiers. People were learning to write letters and the whole thing got too awful for me. And I'd lived in London and I wanted to be back with my friends. And the blitz ... Well I got back. The blitz was over by the time I got there. 1942. Then we had the little blitz. Then they learned how to cope with that. Then we had the other thing that ...
The doodle bugs. I saw the doodle bugs go past my flat window. We didn't know what it was. And, then we had ... the thing I missed was the other bomb. The one that was sent from the Pays de Calais and came straight across Croydon and it was on a ... I don't know what it was called. The something bomb.
So what kind of stories, then, were you sending back from England to Australia?
Well, while I was waiting for the invasion ... well I sent back what people were like in bomb shelters and things. I just sent back everyday stories that every one wanted to read: what was on in the theatres, what was on everywhere. Then while I was waiting for the invasion, on which I was not booked onto anything on the invasion ... The men were all booked on things but not me, but I was accredited to the war office and had to wear a uniform. Ezra suggested that I find out what the people of England felt England would be like after the war. In fact, would they want to emigrate? And I did and I went to Scotland and the north of England, which had had terrible trouble. Coventry for instance. Anyway, they had decided, many of them ... there were no men, there were no men of military age or anything. I didn't go near them. I went to their bomb shelters and the big Town Halls and things, where they used to sleep at night, and they all wanted to get out, at least for a while. You see people thought that England would be ... the churches had been so marvellous and that England would be marvellous again, but a lot of people had had enough. I sent back a series of emigration stories and I enjoyed doing those no end. And they were all printed. And then I got ... Normandy had been invaded and Paris had been reclaimed, and I got to Paris, to the Scribe Hotel, the Press Hotel, the press camp, which was run by Americans. And there were four or five Australians there and we all had desks in the lobby. I suppose it was the lobby - the dining room in the Scribe. It had been a German press camp, so the concierge just ... he knew how to treat the press. He treated the German press exactly the same.
And what happened then in Europe? Did you go?
I went on things that were called sorties. Press people in the services would take people, a group of you, to say Brussels or somewhere that had been ... And I went to Brussels once. There were a lot of Canadians in Brussels and Lord Astor took us. He owned the Observer I suppose at the time or something. He took us to Brussels, about six of us. And in Brussels I met an Australian friend, Sam White, who was with the RAF - the RAF not the RAAF, and he'd been on the front pages everyday. Sam and I were old friends. When we were ... we were both living in London at one stage when I first went you know. I first ... our first night out in London was in Fitzrovieo [?] with Sam. Anyway he said, 'Oh, don't bother about Astor', he said, 'You'll be all right. I'll take you into Metz', which was occupied by Germans. Well half-occupied. The Germans were being pushed out. And he did. He had a ... he had a Manchester driver, he had a PR, who was a Czech, and we had a weapons carrier and we went everywhere we could go. We went into Metz. And we were souveniring things. The Czech was looting everything that had been looted from Prague. He was taking back everything the Germans had taken from them. He piled the back of the weapons carrier with sheets, and the Manchester driver had been told to get an iron for his wife in Manchester and send it home to Manchester.
So they were practical things, not works of art?
Oh no. Oh no. Take soap and everything, everything that poor Britain didn't have. The only country that didn't have everything. And I took a pair of ... Oh Sam told me not to touch anything. He was only looking for champagne. But I did touch something. A wonderful pair of ... I think the German name is Zeiss - wonderful racing glasses. Officer's observing glasses. And I took those.
No I gave them away to an actress friend of mine who lives in Bondi. [Laughs] I kept them for all those years. I brought them home to Blue. Wonderful glasses. He'd used them for years at the races. Nothing went off in my hand but it could have. Because the Germans were great ones, as you know, for leaving a little mine or something.
Did you encounter any Germans?
Oh yes. We looked right into their little faces if we hid. But we spent the night there in a farm house. But the Americans were there by then and they got on terribly well with everyone at Metz because they are the sort of people who love ... As you the know the Americans really love Germans. They would much rather be fighting with French. We then ... oh, then Sam took me back to Brussels where my party had left and gone back to London. And there was a message there for me from, I think, the Canadians. 'You're in trouble'. And I went to a headquarters. Sam took me to a Headquarters of somewhere and said, 'Well goodbye. You're on your own, I'm going back to the war', and, Lord Astor was found for me, at some stage, and called me, 'Here's my little lost lamb', he said. However, they were all right. He told me I would never get out of London again until I was properly accredited in Paris. So I went ... I'll tell you another place we went, it was where there was a German submarine place, perhaps it was Bordeaux, and I went on a bombing mission then. And they bombed that place till they were black in the face and it didn't hurt the submarines. They must have been so far down. That was very good. Everybody brought back stockings and oranges and bananas and things from that raid. Some place they stopped in. You see, some of it was free and some of it wasn't.
So the mentality of you at that time was ... it has the sound of adventure?
A junket. It was adventure and there were a lot of people who had a very good war. When you were not horrified, it was a very good war. If you could ... you could get black market food both in London and Paris. You could dance all night. If you were not being killed. And why not? I had a flat on the top floor of a building in Cliffords Inn Lane, opposite Reuters Building which was my base. It was on the sixth floor. But what did I care, because I was either going to be killed or I was going to go on having an exciting time. I think a lot of people must have felt like that. And there were men galore. Poles. And the very free French. And Canadians. And Australian air men.
And you took full of advantage of this?
So you were able to have a really good time when you weren't being horrified?
I know that you obviously decided then to concentrate on the good time part of it, but now what about the horrified part? What were the things that happened that you found it hard to put out of your mind?
Refugees of all sorts. The last horrifying thing that drove ... drove me back to Australia was German refugees. Always Germans who didn't know ... had never heard of Hitler, had never heard of a prison camp, had never heard of anything like that: 'Oh we didn't know about that'. People driven out of their own country then. A refugee is a ... is a ... and you know it was terrible to be on the winning side. I mean to have French people called 'wogs' by the Americans. To have them ... all that sort of thing is terribly bad for you. I felt I was getting as bad as the Germans. And when I went to Cologne and saw ... that was ... I could have gone back then with the army and kept going ... I felt it was bad for me.
To be a victor is bad for you. We went down - another Australian, a Canadian and myself, and a driver took a jeep to a place where they fatten geese, Strasbourg. Strasbourg. We drove from Paris to Strasbourg and we got to another press camp in Nancy. And in Nancy the press was all there with their feet on their typewriters reading Lady Chatterley's Lover which was for sale in Paris. And they all bought them and they were going to read some dirt and they were all down there. And every day they were sending to their editors, 'Today we saw the death of the German Army'. You know, and they wrote that. The German Army was being pushed across the Rhine. We got to Strasbourg and the German Army was the ... the camp had been ...
You were irritated by the trivialising and dramatising of the war in New York and you decided you wanted to go to Europe where it was really at. How did you go about that, and when you got there, did you actually get into active reporting of the war itself?
I was irritated by the ... exactly by the trivialising of the war, how it was one great big Hollywood thing. And, I think one of the things that started me off was a picture in the paper of a fuzzy wuzzy bringing a man down - a famous picture - to the Kokoda Trail. He was bringing him back. This white-faced soldier. And the Americans put on it: Our Allies. They didn't even put Australian or New Guinea or anything on it. I think that annoyed me. Anyway, I asked my boss ... I asked Ezra Norton in Sydney, 'Could I go to London?' and I went over on a banana boat which took an awfully long time to cross the Atlantic and we didn't see a submarine or a plane the whole way and the sea was flat. I wasn't even seasick going over. We slept in our lifebelts. We were the relatives of soldiers, who'd been ... or sailors, who's been ... of servicemen who'd been on oil cargo vessels, which had burned at sea and they were at hospital in Britain and their female relatives were going over to see these poor men. So there we were, this ill-assorted lot on a banana boat that had only gone to Trinidad or somewhere. But when I got there, there was England at war and it wasn't a bit comfortable. And I got into the office and began sending stuff about England at war, and about rationing, and how you could go to a place and finagle something or rather. You could eat venison at the Savoy without your ration tickets, your coupons, as they were called. Anyway, I didn't get ... I used to go to ... I was accredited to the Foreign Office, to the War Office. I went to briefings. They would give a briefing possibly every afternoon in a department of some sort and you'd hear what was going on in the other theatres of war, how the bombing was going and then we would also hear the Mountbatten Operation. The Burma Operation. Because none of it ever got into the papers because the editors were only interested in what was happening on the Western Front. And I'd go back and send that stuff and I'd go back to send anything I could find to send. And then I went on an immigration story up to the north of England and Scotland and so on. But I only got into the war by being taken on sorties. That was the only way. You were taken and shown things by ... it was PR operation. You were taken in a little group to go and look at some place in Normandy or somewhere and brought straight back. And you should not ... not ... not go off the beaten track.
Was your situation different because you were a woman?
Well, yes it was because the men were with bomber squadrons. Or in ... at sea with the navy or with Monty or something like that. But we were not allowed to do that except some American women. Martha Gellhorn was with the bomber squadron with the Americans and would only turn up at the press camp in Scribe wearing her uniform under a fur coat and cowboy boots, looking absolutely wonderful. But they wouldn't take anybody from the War Office like that. She had some sort of special accreditation. I don't know whether she ever flew. But certainly, if you flew in a bomber, you were ... if you were taken prisoner ... if you were shot down and were dead, too bad. But if you were taken prisoner, you were put into prison camp as an officer class, a Major or a Captain. I think it was a Major or Colonel or something. You were not taken as a civilian spy, which you really were, of course, if you were sending stuff back.
After the Germans starting to be pushed back, and you started making these forays into Europe, and you found yourself horrified of being in the role of victor, did you get to see any of concentration camps?
I got to see ... I went down through France to see ... we wanted to find a man in the Voges, who was a writer, called Malraux and he was an assistant to De Gaulle. We got this idea in our heads - another Australian, a man on the Age, and a Canadian woman and I decided to go and find this man. Malraux had been a very good writer long before the war and was a very hot shot with De Gaulle. So we thought we'd go down to see Malraux. So we went down to France to the Vouge Mountains, in the snow. It was almost Christmas of, I suppose, 1944 or something. And we stopped on the way. We knew that Ravensbruch was above Strasbourg and we went up to Ravensbruch and found the Americans, who had reclaimed it. It had been a concentration camp and it was surrounded by lovely little farm houses. It had an electric fence. Electrified dogs - Alsatians. It had a red-hot camp. And when we went in, the first thing we saw was a heap ... a cairn shaped heap of teeth with gold on them, that had been taken out of the dead. It had been a gas chamber camp. They'd taken the teeth out and piled them neatly in heap. And there were bones in a heap. There were a few prisoners left, who were sort of trustees and they were still wearing prison garb. There were no Germans. The Germans had evacuated across the Rhine. They were sitting on the other side of the Rhine looking at us. And there was this awful place. And not ... We went from farmhouse to farmhouse, little chalet farmhouses: 'Oh, we didn't know anything. We didn't know it was a camp'. That's the sort of things that turns you off war. People will not admit there's a war going on. I never spoke to a German, except a rebel - I mean a revolutionary German of some sort, who got out and was fighting from the outside to get back. I never spoke to a guilty German. There's no such thing. That's a dreadful thing to say, isn't it? Awful. I take it back. They never knew. No German ever knew what was going on. They knew when they had to ... they knew when they were blitzed. They knew that. Poor things.
So when did you decide you wanted to go home?
Then. And I said, 'Can I come home?' and they said, 'Oh, yes'. He said, 'Oh, yes'. And then ...
Ezra Norton. And then he instructed my editor, Eric Baume, to send me home at once, and the quickest and safest way, and I tried to get on a plane home, any sort of way. It would take me a fortnight in a plane or something, but I couldn't do it. And they put me on another ship from Liverpool. We sat in Liverpool Harbour for some reason for three days and then we started back home. Weeks and weeks and weeks on a cargo ship. A refrigerated ship taking meat to somewhere.
Were you at all worried that Blue wouldn't be there for you?
Indeed I was. I thought there'd be no light in the window. I thought. I knew he had ... I knew that women would like him. I knew that he liked women. I knew that he had always been a bachelor at heart and I've thought ... thought that probably that somebody was going to ... here's this empty place - they're going to occupy it. But maybe he thought I wouldn't come back. Anyway, it was a very awkward situation.
Well it's a very awkward situation. You don't know each other. But we eventually got to know each other again. We went ... I went to the same house. He kept the house on all the war. The houses along the waterfront in Sydney, people had left them all. You could buy one for 2,000 pounds or something. As a matter of fact we were renting. And once the war was over ... It was down on the water at Parsley Bay. On the Watson's Bay side.
So there was no rapturous reunion?
There was no rapturous reunion. We were very careful of each other. And he had a great friend here, who'd been a friend of mine, of course. And she had ... she was very good for him. She had been a good friend to him and really kept him ... she was a woman who liked the same books and pictures and had the same sense of humour and liked food and wine and she'd been very good with him. And he didn't give her up altogether. He didn't ask me to go out with them. If he was going to take her to dinner he didn't ask me. And once I asked myself along and got well snubbed. He said, 'No, you can't come'.
Oh, raging with jealousy. But I think that's so strange that you could be doing all sorts of things yourself and the moment somebody you love starts it, you're wild with jealousy. I made fearful scenes afterwards.
Did he ask you about what you'd been doing?
Never. He had too much sense. You see I didn't ask him, but I ... well I don't know yet what he was doing. But I think I know, but I never asked him. [Laughs] I think I know. I think people comforted him for his lack of a wife. Let's put it like that. And enjoyed themselves no end I bet.
But this continued throughout the whole very long period of your marriage, didn't it? That you had an understanding with each other about other relationships?
No. We had an understanding not to talk about other relationships. I don't know what he knew about me. And whether ... I don't know what he knew about me. I took very grave risks, very grave risks.
I didn't want to know. He might've told me. I don't think he would have told me. I was really very fond of staying. I mean, I was very fond of my way of life. We got on so well.
Were you afraid that if you had pressed in a more conventional way, if you had asked for an sort of fidelity, that he might have left you?
Oh, yes. I wouldn't have dreamed of doing that. He wasn't the sort of man to ... he's not the sort of man, that you say, that you ... I mean, that I'd got him was hard enough, I thought. And I'm not sure that I would have got him if they'd had let us ... if they had let him stay a bachelor and still his plans wouldn't have been ... You see he wanted to go with me on this. But he didn't necessarily want to marry me.
So you think he only married you because of the practical necessity of being together in the cabin?
We always thought it was that. I always thought it was that. I'm not sure. But he didn't marry anybody else, did he? And there he was around. There was something that made him marry me. He didn't go short of girls before he met me.
What ever was the reason for his marrying you, he stayed married to you for a long time ...
And he stayed married to me until he died. Happily married to me until he died. But whether he liked it all, I don't know. I think so because I ran my life in a great way. I did a great deal to suit him.
Things like never telling him, 'We're going to the so and so's." Never going anywhere without asking him in pairs, you know. Always saying, 'I'll have to ask Blue'. He didn't want me to ride a scooter. Or drive. He didn't want me to drive his car. I could get another one and drive it, but we had nowhere to put it. He taught me to drive at one stage and he had to give up. He used to say things to me like, 'You can't be as stupid as that', so he hired me a teacher. I did a lot of things his way, to suit him.
Did he do anything to suit you?
I don't doubt it. But he wouldn't say he was doing it to suit me. We had three sets of friends. We had his friends and my friends and our friends. Because he had ... he had a lot of racing and club friends. He played golf and raced and when he got to be the public relations boss for the wine trade he had a lot of new friends and they all became my friends. They are very nice people and I've kept those as friends. But some of our friends I haven't seen for a few years.
Now, you felt quite free in this marriage to have relationships with other men?
No not other men [?]. I had two big love affairs while I was married. Incandescent love affairs. But I kept them dark. I'd say to myself, 'He didn't know'. He had a job. He used to work... sometimes ... it was arranged. I never told him.
I don't know. He never asked me. He never said ... when I brought a strange man home from somewhere or I went on a plane trip somewhere, around the Pacific or something, and I became friendly with a young English man and I said to Blue, 'Let's have him to dinner', and he came along and Blue made frightful fun of him. He never entered the house again. He got rid of him smartly. [Laughs]
So your love-affairs, who were they with and how did that happen?
How did that happen? I don't know how they happened. One was with an academic, who taught Greek. That went over two parts of my life. It went over ... there were two parts to my life. This man was teaching ... was a professor of Greek in New Zealand, a warden of a college and he heard that Blue died and he came over to see me and then he got himself a job back in Australia and we started up again. Now I think that's foolish to do. Because I got tired of that.
So you'd actually met him and he came ...
We had the love-affair and then he came back because I was around again, free. But he ... he was married with children. And the other one wasn't married. And he was ... he got tired of me. He got tired of me. And then we became friends later on.
You said that somebody once said to you, 'Why do women not mind, or not think of the wives when they get involved with married men'. Did you ever think of the wives?
No never. Never thought of the wives.
I don't know. But I know other people who don't think of the wives too.
No. Should? What's should?
I never thought of them. Well look, that first man that introduced me to life and love wanted me to go and live with his wife and himself. I mean, the other face of the coin, isn't it?
Were you at all tempted by that proposition?
Not the slightest.
Because I liked to ... oh, I didn't want to be part of a family. Not at all. I didn't want a child around the house.
Never had children, never wanted to. I went to considerable trouble not to have any children. I became pregnant once and I was having an operation and I told the surgeon I was pregnant and he said, 'No you're not'. And I said, 'Yes I am'. And he said, 'Well all right, we'll give it the rabbit test', or whatever it is. And when he'd done the operation he came back and sat on my bed and said, 'You were', and I burst into tears. And he said, 'What are you crying for? You didn't want the child', and I said, 'That's true. I'll stop'. Why did I cry? Who knows. I had some near misses. I never wanted children. I wanted to have my own life and then I wanted my life with Blue. He was my ... he was my dangerous spot. He was my weak spot.
He was my Achilles Heel. He really was. I was pretty careful with him, except for these other things.
No, no. I said, 'Would you like to have ...'. I said, 'All right, would you like to have a child who could run around and be a great rugby player'. And he said, 'Oh, no. I'd just be jealous'. He didn't want children at all. He'd had a very unhappy childhood. He was the only child of two divorced people with children and they fought over him. His mother once shut him in a cupboard for about half a day so his father wouldn't find him. Of course, they didn't like him. They only wanted him as possession. And his father was a very rich man, who was ... who only ... he gave us money while Blue was alive. He cut me off immediately Blue died, because I hadn't had a child. Cut off immediately.
Do you every wish now that you had had a child?
Not for a second. I never have. I can genuinely say that. And when my relatives had children and sometimes bring them round, I say, 'Look I'll give them money, and when they're older, we'll talk', but their bored stiff and so am I.
You ... all through the period that you were working as a journalist, you continued to write poetry.
Could you tell me a little about what poetry has meant to you in your life? What part it's played for you?
The only thing I ever wanted to do was write poetry. First I cannibalised. I used to write poetry like everybody I admired. It was the worst stuff you've ever read. And then when I came to Australia I began gradually to have a voice of my own. And after the war I had a different voice. In my Selected Poems, there is one: First Life is divided. It's called First Life and Second Life. And my poetry has changed tremendously.
How would you categorise the difference between the two groups?
Well I don't know about the first. I can't altogether reconcile myself with them. The second one is me saying what I want to say and that's the thing you can do as you get old. You can say anything you like. And I don't care what people think of my poetry. I write it to please myself. When I got the book back from the publishers, I didn't read the front part. I went straight to read the back part and I said to myself, 'I don't remember writing that'. But it's the genuine article. The poet named Robert Gray, has been interesting to me on this subject. He's a fan of mine and always has been and he has analysed my sort of poetry. You see, the people who don't like my poetry ... It's not post-modern. It's not constructed, or its too much constructed or its something. They don't like it.
When Robert Gray says that he likes it, do you recognise what it is that he likes?
No. But I like him to like it.
They've been two important parts to your work in your life. One of them has been journalism and the other has been poetry. I wonder if you could tell me why you were so committed to journalism. What it was about journalism as a practice that attracted you so much, why you felt it was so important?
Well, I had to have a job and in New Zealand I would have had ... I would have become a secretary, joined the typing pool, whatever you had. And this was a chance to write. I don't think people of my age were in the sort of frame of mind that they thought writing and journalism were different. Which they've turned out to be different. But that's the influence of television, isn't it? That's turned that out. So I was just working. And what I really wanted to do, what I took seriously, was writing poetry but journalism was a way to earn a living, and it got gradually better. I had better jobs and better times. And I enjoyed it.
What did you like most about journalism?
The excitement. Going somewhere. Doing something. I was always nervous of interviews. I think interviewing is terrifying and if it doesn't terrify the person who's doing the interview, it's not going to be any good. You can't go in there with all guns blazing and inform the person you are interviewing what he or she is thinking. So I have always been nervous of interviewing and if I started again tomorrow I would still be nervous of it, to get it right. I think its very hard to get it right. But that became a great staple of my journalistic career. I have an ingratiating manner, which may have helped me too. And I got a certain slickness which helped me. There's a slickness and a theatrical thing in me, that has always helped as a journalist. A show-off thing. It always helped me. I didn't make friends. People always say, 'You meet such interesting people'. You are interested in them, but they are never interested in you again after you've interviewed them.
When it came to actually writing the papers, the style that was used in those days and the ways in which you went about writing up a story, was that something you paid a lot of attention to?
Yes. And you were made to pay a lot of attention to it. There was a man on the Telegraph called ... the editor of the Telegraph, a man named Brian Penton and he insisted on the active voice. That is, you did not say, 'It seems that so and so ...', you said, 'So and so dropped dead this morning'. is what you wrote. And he made a great difference to Australian reporting. Not to journalism perhaps, not to feature writing, but he made a great difference. The active tense [voice?] is what he liked and he wouldn't have anything else. And I wrote the way it was expected of me but I was always able to. I was very lucky with editors. They always used to let me also have my own style. Not opinions, of course, because I didn't have any opinions in those days, but my own style. As they say, 'They gave me a go'.
When you say you didn't have any opinions in those days, do you mean that they weren't overt in your work or that you didn't have any?
I think I had a few but they were very ... my own sort of opinions for dinner table talk. But in your work you didn't have opinions. You simply wrote the story. You didn't have opinions. You got the names, date ... and dates right and you didn't have opinions. You reported. You reported and you were supposed to have great typing skills and you were supposed to do this number of short hand words - words in short hand. And I must say that the newspapers made you go to those schools, whatever they were called, and I never learned. I never learned to type and I never learned short hand, but I learnt to write very fast. And now they put their tapes on the table and you get it right.
What do you think of the changes that have occurred in the style of newspapers over the period that you've been working?
Well it's good and bad. But the opinion part, of course, I think is a bit overdone. But there are stars. I don't see why the person who writes the story is more important than the story. The celebrity cult is the thing I don't like in newspaper reporting. Now you sweated blood to get a by-line once. Now the by-line comes automatically. It's a straight story: so and so did something or other, and it's signed by somebody. Well you'd never get your name on that. You fought for your by-line. And I think if by-lines are so prevalent, what's the good of having a by-line now?
What about the ethics of journalism? When you were doing your stories, where you went and ... the human interest stories, where you went and ...
The gangster's moll.
That's right. Did you think a lot about questions of intrusion and privacy?
Yes. I thought about them a lot but as a rule, people want you to come. They're longing to tell you about something. I've been invited into places, with the corpse on the bed. It's given me quite a turn, but it didn't seem to worry the relatives at all. That's frequently when somebody has been in a dreadful accident, like a cave-in at a mine or something. The dead ... the body will be taken to the cottage, the miner's cottage, and it will be laid out on the bed and the relatives will be eating corn beef and salad in the next room and you find yourself taken in to look at the body. Well they're often very nice people, dead or not. But it's ... it's not my favourite thing. And never was. But I've done it often enough. I don't know why I should think of my life as covering accidents, but accidents are so much a part of television and journalism, you know. Aren't they?
Hmm. And what about in relation to the whole area of commenting on public life that is supposed to be job of the fourth estate in a democracy? Do you feel that that has been taken as seriously now as it was then? What changes ...
It was always taken very seriously. It was taken in leaders and editorials. The run of the mill journalist didn't have opinions about public life. You took down a politician's speech as well as you could and that was it. But the opinion of the newspapers, and supposed to be very influential on the community, was in the editorials. And now it's right through the paper and I never ... my lot never had opinions about ... We didn't write opinions into stories.
You said that you were a better journalist than Blue.
I was a different kind of journalist.
Well I was as I said, I think, I was a sob sister. I think I was a better journalist than Blue. I don't know. I think I was.
I was going to ask you what you meant by that?
Yes. What do I mean by that? Well, I was a better writer. I was a better writer. That' s all. He was a very good journalist, with very good credentials and then he became a very good PR and he was a good ... he was a good news editor. He was very good, I thought. He took a sort of an interest in sport, which gave him an extra thing that I didn't have as I've never been the slightest interested. I've covered sport. There's even a book out now, called I think The Great Game. It's a book of short pieces about cricket and I'm in that, but I'll tell you what it was. Why I was in it was because it was a women's cricket team. They used to come from England. Maybe they still do. It was an oddity - that's why I reported it. I would only be reporting oddities in sport, whereas he could report a great event.
Later in your life [coughs] ... Later in your life your opinions became more important because you were doing a lot of reviewing of books and so on. Did you find that aspect of journalism more interesting than the straight reporting, when you had to evaluate other people's work?
I just got pushed into doing it. I just got pushed into doing the book ... Book reviews are regarding as simply something you put in the paper because it's expected of newspapers to run book reviews and publishers don't advertise and frequently proprietors get quite annoyed at the space that is given to book reviews, because: why do we give all this to books, we say. The publishers don't advertise. You see travel advertises, that's different. There's a lot of travel space now because tourist agencies are great advertisers. But the book thing was also rather peculiar. You would take a book that was in the news and you would gut it. And you might give it two pages without paying the publisher or the author. I was a great book gutter. That was a thing I was told to do. And I never thought about that - how mean it was to the writer.
You also had a period where you were very well known on radio. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
It was very funny. It was the great radio shows with Jack Davey and the other man - Dyer. It was a great period for radio programmes, of course, for soaps and for panel games. And I first went on a Jack Davey quiz called, I think Any Questions or something, where four of us answered questions. And a guest. The guest could get a free trip on a ship to England. We were paid a small amount. And at the same time they were starting a thing called Leave it to the Girls, which was a sort of Dorothy Dix of radio and it was done to real letters. We might have started the first programme with letters that the producer would have said, 'Write a letter. I want it to go on the air and the girls have got to answer it'. There were these four girls and we answered it and it was absolutely genuine. And we had ... we had a presenter, who tried to change our minds about things. A man who used to sit and say, 'Oh, I wouldn't do that. Why doesn't say so and so', and we were adamant and we really stuck to it and we really answered them truthfully. And that ran for a long time. That was a great success.
Did you have a particular role to play on the panel?
I was the cynic. I was the cynic. There was the great Joan O'Neil who used to say, 'Why don't you sit down. Why doesn't the family sit down together, around the table and talk this out', and I would say, 'Oh, Joan nobody sits down round the table and talk something out. You talk about in the car, leaving the party. That's when you would have your real discussions'. She believed in the family. You see, I don't believe in the family.
Oh well I think the family, can be okay but it can be very intrusive. The family leans on you. And I don't always trust the family. They want you to do what they want you to do. I'm not a great family believer.
Your own family haven't really provided you with a perfect model, have they?
No. If there is such a thing. But ... You made it.
So you were also known and very much cultivated as part of groups of people who met and talked about ideas and interesting things. I hesitate to call it intelligentsia but people who were interested in ideas have always valued your company and your wit and possibly your cynicism. Tell me a little bit about some of the friendships you've had and about what it's meant to you to be part of a connection that talks to each other around Sydney?
At Greek restaurants. It's not serious on my part. It's just we used to meet and talk and once we met and talked and did pick a subject and we asked Robin Williams along to explain something to us. It was a great night. But in most of these things, we're talking and eating and drinking and for years and years I never went public on anything. I don't know why. You know people who are always giving opinions? We won't name them, but they're the people who always get asked ... Now I've never been on a Parkinson. Parkinson has made two visits to Sydney, I think. And the same people have appeared in his programmes. I've never been on those things. I was never a talk person. Never.
Well you were on radio, but that was to specific points. Why do you think you haven't been part of the public talk?
Because I don't want to be and never did want to be. I don't really. It's not a part of life I care for. I'm inclined to say to somebody when I'm going past - the radio was talking and somebody terribly ... a celebrity, a local celebrity is giving his opinion - and I'm trying to say to it, 'Oh, shut up'. I don't want to hear the human voice all the time telling me what to do and I don't want my voice to be always telling people what to do. People want opinions about something.
But in private you felt differently?
Oh we all shout at each other in private. [Laughs]
And you've had some great friendships?
I've had some wonderful friendships. Marvellous friendships. Adrian Deamer, who was my editor on The Australian, who was a great friend of mine. He was extremely good editor. Jim Hall then became the editor. I've had some great editors - people to talk to and people who would occasionally ask you to do things - tell you to do things that you didn't want to do. I remember doing an education series and I begged Adrian not ... I said, 'All right. Don't make me do this'. He said, 'Yes', and I went and did it.
You were also a great friend of Patrick White and important to him as somebody he gossiped with, so I'm told. Have you always enjoyed gossip?
Always enjoyed gossip. And I like being with gossips. I think gossip is very interesting. Now we mustn't say I was a great friend of Patrick White. I was a friend. He never talked to me about his work. He talked to me about his thing about the environment and when he said, 'There's going to be a demonstration in the park because somebody wanted to build something', I would go. I never walked with him in those anti-nuclear demonstrations. We rang each other up and I was interested. I went to his house to ... when he was in a fit state of health, which is a long time ago, to give dinner parties. I enjoyed those immensely and I enjoyed meeting his friends. Because he lived across the park from me but I met him first in 1956 when I reviewed his book, The Tree of Man. I went out to Castle Hill to interview him and although he didn't like talking to the press, he had enough sense to know that, when you write a book you publicise it. And he let me come out and talk to him where they lived on the farm. They were breeding the schnauzers and milking the cow, and all that stuff. And we got on. But we got on in a very slow way. It was a slow friendship. We didn't immediately become ... I don't suppose anybody did with Patrick. Maybe somebody he was in love with but he certainly wasn't in love with me. But he liked women. Patrick liked women very much, that's why he writes so well about them. And it was a long slow, developing friendship. When he went to literary gatherings they would be the same ones that I would go to, which I must say was about once a year. And we gradually got to know each other. And then he wanted to know a couple of good writers who were coming along and asked me if I knew them and I said, 'Yes'. And he said, 'Would you ask them for dinner', and I said,'Yes'. And I had them and had Patrick with them. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But I think David Malouf and Patrick and I began our friendship, not in this house, but in another. And he liked food and drink, Patrick, which was nice. And I've known David Malouf for a long while. Now those are two people that I got to know by interviewing them. That was a success. But that doesn't happen very often. They forget you altogether. But we did. We did have an accord.
But those were two people who liked you and wanted to retain a friendship with you. What did Patrick like about you? Did he ever tell you?
Yes. Or he told David Marr. I don't know that he told me ever, ever. I think he sometimes told me how I was all right. He often told me what I was doing wrong.
What kind of things did he say?
Well for instance I had a couple of little books out and it was advertised in some Arts column in the paper, 'Elizabeth Riddell will read at the State Library', and Patrick will ring up and say, 'I see you're reading again'. He was very against all this literary reading and carrying on. And I'd say, 'Well Patrick, I've got to sell the book', and he would do things that he would not normally do because you don't want to write in the dark or a dungeon, you want people to read what you have written. Patrick wanted to be read. And most writers want to be read. But, there's a limit to how you do it. I perfectly agree with Patrick, you know. But now and again ...
So he rebuked you freely but he also told you ...
He rebuked me often in public and he rebuked me once very badly in public and I was very angry and we didn't have a fight. It was at a dinner and he told me to stop talking about a subject. He said, 'You mustn't say that in front of these people', and, I suppose, shut up and went on with my dinner and I was furious and I didn't talk to him for about a fortnight. He couldn't understand why I was annoyed. Because any opinion of his, he felt you could say. Now, I suppose, that's right and I suppose sometimes I'd do it but I felt this ... he'd gone over the limit.
But you only gave him a fortnight of silence?
That's right. He'd ring up on the telephone and I'd say, 'Patrick I'm still not talking to you'. Then he rang up one day and said, 'Are you talking to me?' and I said, 'Oh, yes, I suppose so'. So we did talk.
As a forthright person perhaps ...
He regarded me as sensible. And then, of course, we both loved dogs and cats, especially cats for my part. And for his part, he had wonderful dogs, pugs and various dogs, and he loved them. And that was a bond. Talking about the vet, that was a bond. We didn't talk about anything serious, except he would give me the occasional burst about politics.
And why did David Malouf like you?
I don't know. David once told me why he liked me but I didn't quite take it in or really believe it. At one Adelaide Festival he explained me to myself but I didn't really catch on.
Didn't he describe you as very original?
As very what?
Not to me I don't think. No, no. He was describing my life to people. He was describing me as a person and as a friend, not as a writer. I don't think David ... Oh David likes my poetry I think, if he ever reads any. I don't know. I like his poetry. But then I like everything about his. I don't know whether I like him more as a poet or as a novelist.
Who were some of the other people that have been very significant in your life?
The Halls. Both Hall. Rosemary Whiten. My oldest friends are the winemakers David Wynn and Patricia, his wife and his son, Adam, and their children. I'm very friendly with ... when I'm in England or away from Australia, I'm very friendly with Patricia Harwood, who was Patricia Smith. I'm very friendly with them. I'm very fond of them. I don't go and stay with people. I don't much like staying with people, you see.
I like my own bathroom and my own tea and toast in the morning. I didn't always, but I do now.
Has friendship been more important to you than family?
Oh much more. Most of my family, well they're all scattered. Now and again ... You see I've only been back to New Zealand once and then I felt I would never get out again. I only went back because I was sent on the Royal Tour and I stayed about a month. It was deadly. It was amusing too. But I saw some of them then but I used to have nightmares thinking I was not going to get out and I would wake fighting off blankets thinking, 'I'm never going to get out'. It's a beautiful place, but it's like Switzerland: it's a bore. I thought ... I've thought at times that I might go back and live in one of those beautiful bits of New Zealand like the Bay of Islands. I wouldn't go back and live in the place I was born, Napier. That's an awful town. But I've never done it. I think I'm an Australian. I really think Australian. And I was married to one and all my friends are thorough Australians.
Could you describe to me again, because we talked about it right at the very beginning of our talk and we didn't actually get it really fully fleshed out, could you sum up for me what struck you about Blue, about Ted Greatorex when you first met him, what kind of a person he was, what was attractive about him? What kind of things he did, and how he struck you as a whole person at the time?
He was entirely different from me, except that we were both journalist and wrote. I thought when I saw him, 'Here is this big beautiful man, who can do everything with a surfboard or a rugby ball. He can do anything. And he's got lots of friends, and he is very independent and he has a good time and is very funny', and then I discovered that he was a reader and a traveller and liked the same things. But I'm sure it was immediate sex appeal. Immediate. Incandescent is my word for these affairs that suddenly throw you.
Where do you think that comes from? What do you think it is?
I don't know but it is very apparent, isn't it? And it doesn't have anything to do with age, or occupation or race or anything. It's there, whatever it is. It's the spirit. I believe in the spirit. I really do believe in the spirit and only really in the spirit. Because I believe in love. That's what motivates you.
People mean such different things by the spirit and by love. Could you tell us more about what you mean when you use those words?
I would really only be able to tell you what I don't ... what doesn't appeal to me. I've gone on about looks, but it really has nothing. I like little cosy men too, just as much as I like big, beautiful men. And I don't mind ... I quite like bald men. I don't care about that sort of thing. But the spirit has got to be there. And you see, I don't know. I only know when they haven't got it. When a man is a stick or ... or a bigot or bossy or ... that's what I don't want. I don't want that. See it's a negative, one way. The other side. How can I tell you what a ... what a spirit is?
And then there's also the fact that these strong incandescent affairs don't last and that ... [INTERRUPTION] There is also the problem that these kind of affairs don't last.
Don't they? I stayed married.
Did it stay incandescent to the end?
Oh yes. I miss him terribly -- my best friend. It did stay. The others didn't. You were right about that. In one case, it might have stayed forever, but I was dumped, maybe is the word. This man, my first love affair, after I was married, this man dropped me. And I rang him up one day. He lived in Hunter's Hill at this time, and I rang him up and said, 'Why is it over?' And, he said, 'I can feel you trying to possess me on the other end of the telephone'. You see, I was too strong for him obviously. Too possessive. Too proprietary. I said, you know, I said, 'I can't stand it. I'm too jealous'. He said, 'Well read the bit in Proust called Swan's Way and read what he felt about jealousy'. He said, 'You'll get over it'. But I used to walk down the street crying. But I did get over it and we became friends. So, you can't win them all, can you? The other one ... the other one was over because I got bored.
You wrote a poem called The End of the Affair.
That was it. That was it. And Jim Hall said, 'He deserves equal space. He should answer you'. I don't know if he even saw it. But that was it. That was true. All those poems are true in the back of the book. I think they're true in the front too but there's, but Second Life in my selected poems, I could tell you everything. Nothing comes out of my navel. It all comes from observation and experience.
Except that, as a journalist, you wrote plainly, directly and you called it how it was. As a person you were known and appreciated for a certain witty cynicism, but in you poems there's deeper, deeper material, that makes one wonder whether or not there is a level at which you were living and thinking and experiencing, which you weren't acknowledging publicly?
I'm sure that's true. But do you know, I'm an optimist in my behaviour but I'm a pessimist by conviction. I believe there are no happy endings and that everything has ... it's the ... it's the ... everything has a sort of cancer.
Yes, your poetry does have a sort of pessimism. But also in say The End of the Affair, for example, seeing as we mentioned it, there was a sort of feeling of disgust with life as well?
Resentment. I suppose there was a sort of resentment that he was growing old and I was growing old. I didn't care for that. I didn't want him ... I didn't want this man to turn into a man who could say, 'If you move that it would go better there', or something. Or, 'I will find you a carpenter who would make you something or other'. I thought: I don't want that sort of advice thank you. And I ... He used to come and stay with me. He lived in Melbourne and he use to come and stay with me and I didn't ask him any more.
Can you remember the day that ...
Yes. And where we were sitting. I was standing and he was sitting drawing something on a piece of paper. 'This is what you need', he said. 'I'll draw if for you with the right calculations on it'. This many inches and this many feet. He was looking at a new bookshelf I wanted. Of course, I wanted the bookshelf but I didn't want him to design me a bookshelf.
Too ordered. Too ordered a mind.
You really think life's pretty chaotic?
Have there been accidental men in your life?
No. One. One one night stand. I can remember the man's name and the place and I've not idea why I did it except I suppose I was drunk. It was after a party in Washington. I suspect that. But that was all it was. I never saw him again. So it was like that for him too, I suspect. He was something to do with the Embassy. A military attaché or something. We waltzed off to my hotel. I remember his name but I don't remember what he looked liked. [Laughs] Glad I never saw him again.
When I asked you about, to describe Blue, when you first met him, we got off on another tack and I never got the nice clear description of all aspects of him that I know Frank [Frank Heimans -- program producer] is hoping for. So I'll ask you that question again. Could you tell me what Blue, Ted Greatorex was like and what it was about him that you found attractive.
No I can't tell you. Just the man. Looks, everything about him. Everything. He suited me perfectly. We suited each other perfectly. But I was adventurous. He was adventurous too, I think but that I don't know, you see, because he was clever enough not to ever tell me and I never pried into it. I'm sure. Well I'm not sure, but I was two or three years away in the war. We had a house in Sydney. He used to fill it with squadron leaders and people.
The resentment that you felt at times in ... and it was expressed in your poetry, did that start in you when you were quite young? Do you remember feeling resentful in the situation that you were in, as a small child, with your mother away and your sister being mean to you?
I was resentful in a sort of stubborn, closed in way. I was a broody ... I wasn't exactly sulky, but I was very closed in and I didn't express my feeling. I was just ... just myself. I just tightened up you know. I was a little fuzzy haired ... I wasn't cross, but I wasn't a ray of sunshine by any means.
It's hard to imagine you losing your capacity to speak, Elizabeth.
That was extraordinary, yes.
Could you tell us a bit more about that and how you got over it?
Yes. I ... I ... I did ... I began to stutter and that was because of my sister teasing. And I said earlier that she persecuted me. That's too strong a word. She teased me and manipulated me. We use to have cold baths for instance. She used to always make me go first to the cold bath. That meant I had to get up ten minutes before her. Now she did this by saying, 'If you go first to the cold bath, you can read my book about rabbits'. And I believed that this was the way life was. So I was continually put in a position of being the underdog. So I would get up and take a cold bath first, you see. And then I really did, go into a sort of baby nervous breakdown, I suppose. And then my mother came up to me, perhaps somebody wrote. My mother used to come for very short holidays occasionally. We were north of Auckland in the most wonderful, north island of New Zealand. The country is beautiful. And she used to come up for short holidays. And I couldn't ... my stutter was bad and I then got worse and I used to whisper to her. And once I started singing to her. And then she knew there was something wrong. So she took me back and sent my sister somewhere else. We left the country then. We left the countryside then. I've never lived in the country since then. But I've always thought, that's a wonderful place to live in. But I never have, which means I don't really want to, doesn't it?
I recovered myself. I always stuttered badly and I didn't speak because I had this terrible stutter. And then when I went to school, to the convent, I found a nun, or she found me, and said she could ... could fix it. And as I was always reading poetry, you know, the right sort of poetry, Paul Graves' Golden Collection of Poetry or whatever it's called, she said, 'Go into the paddock'. The convent was on a farm. We had some cows and things. 'Go into the paddock and take your books of poetry and sit on a log and recite and don't worry about punctuation or commas or anything like that. Just keep reading poetry'. So I sat and read in a flat voice. I suppose I put some sort of rhythm into it because you can't help it. I used to do it once a day. She sent me out. And it cured me. You can still hear it in my voice. And when I pick up a telephone I have a hesitation before I say, 'Hello'. Or if I'm speaking I can say, there's a hesitation when I say, 'It's Elizabeth Riddell'. You can hear it, can't you? A little haunting sound. Lots of people have this. It may be because I had polio when I was little. That may have been one of the reasons. But I had that before we went to the country. I had that when I was about three, before my father died. It was a very mild case, I think. As I'm about to say, everybody had it. I was kept in a dark room and given barley water and I got over it.
Did you have a sense, when you were sent away to your relatives in the country, that there was no adult that was really taking responsibility for you, that you were at the mercy of your sister without an adult figure to interfere?
No I didn't think I was at the mercy of my sister but I knew I was at the mercy of grown-ups. They'd always ... I'd always been at the mercy of grown-ups. They'd fix what sort of clothes I wore. What I ate. They ... I knew that I was a victim but I didn't know that she was going to ... probably she teased me because she was bored stiff. She was very intelligent. She treated me like a ... as if I was a favourite mouse. [Laughs]
And when did you feel that you escaped this sense of being a victim and at the mercy of another's will?
Oh, long after I was in Australia. Somebody was always telling me what to do. Quite nicely. Somebody was always telling me what to do. Well, really, people have told me ... I mean, I've got away, but the situation has been, 'She will do this and that'. If you work for anybody, I mean if you work for a proprietor, I mean Ezra Norton sent me to New York, I could have said, 'No'. I don't know why I never said 'no' to any of these things. I just used to go and do it. I never felt there was any reason for me to say 'no'.
But escaping from that has been an important part of what you needed and wanted from life?
Well I'm a dodger. You know, you do escape. You escape from people who bore you, or tell you their troubles, or want to become part of your life. You gradually drop them off. You ring them once a fortnight, instead of once a week. It's a great ... great manipulating world, isn't it? Am I'm as bad as anyone else.
So you don't want to hear the troubles of others?
Don't want to hear them. And I will do it, but I don't really want to hear them. I don't like going to hospitals. I don't remember birthdays. I'm not committed. I was committed to Blue and I've been committed to poetry and that's it. Oh, a couple of men I've been committed to for a while.
Yet you've said in other places that you are not committed.
I'm not committed.
Yet you've shown you're committed to your journalism, you've been committed to poetry, you've been committed to Blue, you have shown quite a lot of commitment.
Journalism is a trade and it's a way to earn your living. A way to earn your living. Well paid sometimes. Not often. It gets you places. Look at the places its got me. When I was coming home from England one time, I was coming back to The Australian, I asked Rupert ... no, John Menadue, who was the managing director, may I come back through Greece and Iran and he said, 'Yes', and paid for it. Now that's worth having.
Do you think that cynicism is a great protector?
Well it protects me. I don't know why. That is why people are cynical. I suspect it is because the thing you mean doesn't have to be said. I must say that when I was writing my first poetry in Australia it was for the Red Page at The Bulletin. It had a great editor, Douglas Stewart, and the thing was to get onto the Red Page. Get your poem on the Red Page. Its the inside cover of the old Bulletin, which was twice the size as it is now and it was on newsprint. So it didn't have pictures in it. It was all text. It had cartoons and things. The Red Page. And he was discussing me in public once, or wrote about me, and he said, about the collection or the poetry, and he said, 'Her interest in death is an affectation. If you read the poems you'll see that death is there all the time. Death and disappointment is there the whole time'. He said it was an affectation. He could be right, I don't know. He was a nice man and liked what I wrote, but he saw that as being... I was going over the top, he thought. And yet if you read them aloud at places where you are asked to read your poetry it is a monotonous note. I always have to say, 'Well I can't go on reading this'. I can go on, but people can't go on listening to it.
He said that that was the affectation. Some might think that the witty cynicism was the real affectation and the disappointment was when you were actually that?
[Laughs] I don't know what Douglas thought about me really. I was always very respectful towards him. I mean, he was a lot older than I was and a very good ... a very good poet.
Talking of disappointment, in the early days of your poetry it wasn't very much acclaimed. It was later that people began to recognise more, that you were a good poet. Did that bother you when you were first publishing?
It must have and I'll tell you how I found out that, that it must have bothered me. I remember being told at one gathering by a very good poet, Vivian Smith, who's a very good poet ... he said to me one night ... we were all flown with wine, of course. It was one of these Premier's Awards thing. He said, 'Betty you're very underestimated'. And I thought, 'My God, you're right'. But I never did anything about it and then when I got this prize, the last one, I was so gratified. I was so pleased. And I think if I was as pleased as all that, I must have been waiting for it. And if anybody has read a poem I'm thrilled unless it's one they get set at primary school or something, when the teacher says, 'Write to Elizabeth Riddell and find out what she meant when she wrote'. And I write back and say, 'Your teacher is supposed to know what I meant'. Nasty letters back to pitiless, poor children.
So, but you had awards for journalism?
Yes. I have the great Walkley. Adrian Deamer sent me on a tour of breweries. That's a funny thing to send me on. It was ... I went everywhere, to Cascade, Perth and everywhere. And I got the Walkley Award for that. That was a great. But he picked me out to do that. He may have picked me for the education, but he also picked me for that. And I did one on great department store owners and their stores. That was ... that was really interesting. Because it's what life's about - department stores and breweries, isn't it?
Did the Walkley award mean as much to you as the poetry did?
No. They sent me to Perth to pick it up. And when I was going to Perth to pick up my Walkley, I said to the editor ... there was a photographer on this train who'd also got the award and we went off to Perth together and as I was ... as we were getting a brief and going where the pub was, the airline and everything, Adrian Deamer said, 'Oh and while you're there ... while you're there interview ...', somebody - a list of people from him. The woman who wrote, for instance, Kings in Grass Castles, Mary Durack. I was non-stop working when I was picking up the Walkley and so was the photographer. [Laughs] Barry Ward was the photographer. I must acknowledge him.
A great many people read and were influenced by your journalism. Very few read and were influenced by your poetry and yet the poetry means more to you. Why is that?
Means more ... It's what I'm about. You see, I can't explain these things. But one good line of poetry ... I've always said that is what I want to be remembered by if I'm remembered. To write one really barbed, you know ... That's the thing. Journalism is a trick in the trade but poetry's not. Poetry is art. Poetry is person to person, like a painting. You see you don't do poetry in the dark. You don't paint in the dark either. You're talking to somebody. But my poetry is very much influenced by my journalism. Some man in Melbourne, called Barry Reed, who's a very good ... who's quite a good poet and a very good editor and so on, and he said to me, 'Your poems are little novels'. But what he really meant I suppose they were little newspaper stories.
Now it is more usual for journalist to turn to novels. They say they've always got one in their drawer.
Yes, that's right.
And yet you turned to poetry. Was that because reading it out loud in a paddock or do you think ...
Have you ever thought of writing a novel?
I have written a novel and I entered it in a competition in New Zealand and I got it commended. I didn't know what to do about the novel, so I had my hero jump off a balcony. That got rid of it all. That finished the novel. I wrote it on a boat. On a ship. I took my ... I forget coming from where, but I had about six weeks or something where I didn't want to ... I suppose I didn't want to talk to everybody all day. And it was commended and somebody in that board of judges wrote to me and said that he personally ... Professor Somebody or other, he wrote to me and said that he personally had wanted to give it the prize. And he said it was like ... to him it seemed like Sentimental Education. That's Flaubert, isn't it? And I was terribly pleased with that and it was an awful novel. I suppose, perhaps the observation [and] the characterisation wasn't bad but the plot was frightful. So I ... nobody wanted to publish it. I didn't ask anybody to publish it. The competition was run by a friend of mine, who was also a journalist. He won the competition and came to live in Australia. And I put it away in the bottom drawer and never thought about it again and then threw it out in the garbage can. And I'm so pleased it was never published because it would hang about my neck forever. People's first novels should never be published. Or their second ones. Maybe their first one should be. Because one or two first things they do ... See, David's, David Malouf's first book was Johnno, but it didn't get published but when he had a success with the other one about Ovid, whatever it was called, he brought out Johnno, but it wasn't his second book either. They published it as his third book.
Death has played a big part in your poetry, that you describe how when you read it out, you even surprise yourself at the gloominess of the theme of death repeated right through your poetry. How do you feel yourself about death? Have you had much of an encounter with it in your life? Tell us about the deaths you have known [Elizabeth Riddell laughs] and what effect they've had on you?
I suppose, now the nearest I've been to death that didn't affect me very much, but it was very dangerous. I drove my car up a tree. I was driving along the Pacific Highway and I came to the sign. I wanted to go down to Mallacoota. And it said, 'Twenty miles to Mallacoota', so I turned into the Blacktop Road. Just ... I think it may have been Boxing Day. I had been in Melbourne for Christmas and it was at Blacktop Road and I drove down. That's the last thing I remember. And when I woke up I was in Bega Hospital because I had driven my car up a tree. And I was there hanging in by a seat belt. And I was told later that a woman and her husband had been driving carefully down the road, saying nothing to each other, and she said, 'Oh, Joe, stop here. There's an accident. Somebody up a tree', I suppose she said. And he said, 'Oh, no, no. That car's always been there. That was last week, or a fortnight ago', or something. That real country feeling about cars off the road. Going off the gravel. I had turned from the left side from where I was driving, I'd turned completely across the road and up a tree on the right hand side. And anyway, Joe gave in because she said, 'No, no. We'll come and look at this car'. And he gave in to his wife's badgering and got me out of the car. And then they took me to Bega Hospital where they ... and then flew me back to Sydney to be fixed up. But the policeman couldn't find out why I had done this. And it later was said to be something to do with carbon monoxide coming from somewhere in the car. I don't know. Perhaps it was the automatic shift, I suppose. I don't understand all that. Anyway, the car of course was a write-off and the policeman could never find out why it happened.
And what about you? What effect did it have?
Oh, yes. I was damaged from the crown of my head to my ankles but I wasn't broken to pieces. And they stuck me back together at St. Lukes and I got over it very quickly. I then thought, 'Am I going to drive again?' So the weekend I came out I hired a car and secretly drove around in it all over Sydney and I could drive. It was all right.
When you say you were damaged from head to foot, what do you mean?
Well I had a broken arm, and various cracked bones. But, see my arm still ... my arm isn't straight now because the surgeon ... they put me together and then I would have had to have the arm broken again to straighten it up and he decided not to because it's a very strong arm. I can do anything with it. It never affected, the shape was wrong but the arm was strong. I can't straighten it, that's the only thing. [Laughs]
Do you remember your father dying?
I think I've only been told about it. I only remember him on ... on the fire brigade engine. That's the only thing I remember about him. He was a very good looking man. I used to have a picture of him. It's gone now. Good looking man he was. I don't remember him even talking to me. I don't remember a thing about it. He was a yachtsman and a lawyer and he had a lot of male friends, as I recall. I remember, we all called them ... I called them uncle, I suppose. I remember the maid and I remember my mother early. I've got a vague idea of what she looked liked. And I remember Bridget quite well. The Irish maid. I don't go back much beyond that.
So you don't have any memory of the sort of classic family life that you despise?
No, no memory of it. And I remember playing with some children whose mothers played bridge with my mother and they have turned up in my life since. One of them came over here and became a famous journalist. I seem to be hopelessly mixed up with journalists. He was a very well-known journalist. One of the children came over. Funny thing about it was, their name was Rodey and their father was a dentist and they were Jews, I suppose - New Zealand Jews. And I never thought or heard about Jews until I came to Australia. I didn't know there was a problem until I came to Australia. Everybody in my mother's family was ... didn't have any nasty things. Had nothing racist about them. And she had never ... I know, she said to me, and I know it's true, she had no class consciousness. She would tell you, what you can't say, such as you can't say serviette, you say napkin. That would be as far as it would go. She was not a snob and she didn't ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well when Blue wasn't ... wasn't ... He had this wonderful job where he worked if he wanted to. Played golf when he wanted to and read when he wanted to. And he was at home one morning and I'd gone to work. And I was on the Daily Mirror then. And somebody rang me up and said, 'I've just looked ...'. I had a very close neighbour. I mean her fence was close in Double Bay and she was very nice but if she was doing the washing up she would look onto my terrace and she rang me up and said, 'I'm worried about Blue. He's been sitting with his head in his hands and he doesn't look well'. And I said, 'Get the other neighbour', who was a doctor. And she got him at once. And I rushed back and he'd had a stroke and he must have had an indication of it. He'd had a stroke and they took him to the hospital and he had another massive stroke. A really big one. 'Cause he was not capable of speaking to me at any ... I spoke to him for the last time that morning when I said, 'Well goodbye, I'll see you tonight', or something. And then they put him onto a machine and he had a great friend he played golf with, who was a doctor. A great diagnostician. And the GP was very nice, who lived next to me. A very nice man. And he was looking after him in this private hospital and the diagnostician came in and said, 'Put him on ...', the machine, whatever that's called, that keeps you going. He sort of took over the case as if 'because I play golf with him, he's my patient'. He'd never been his patient. And when I went to see him ... that'd happened for a couple of days. I didn't know about it. And then, I went to the hospital one day and Ronnie, my doctor, said to me, 'I must tell you this. They've got Blue onto a machine', and so on. And I said, 'Well, they can't', and he said, 'But so and so has'. And I said, 'Well tell him to stop and let him die. He will not want to live if he's going to be in any way not his full roaring self'. And Ronnie understood this too. Anyway, in some trepidation, because it's not a thing you want to say to hotshot diagnosticians, she says that he's got to be taken off and let die. But he did it and the other one did what he said. And I was standing at the door of the hospital. I shouldn't have driven myself to hospital and I was crying so much standing at the hospital, when I was told he was dead. I was just standing there trying to pull myself together and thought, 'I'll either have to get a taxi or drive', and he passed me and didn't speak to me. This man was so angry that he'd been crossed with his patient. And this is I'm sure not an unusual story. Anyway, we then ... we buried him privately and I went to the funeral parlour and a couple of people came. I rang a couple of his fondest male friends to come up and be with me. But no women. And we stood and for the some sort of very small noncommittal service as he never went ... he had no religion. And they took him off to the crematorium and I didn't go. But the two men went. I didn't want to go, I thought that was the end of it. And I'll tell you something very strange about this. It was Kinselas as it use to be called, I think it is now called Kinselas and I've had dinner in that room since. I've sat around a table for a private dinner in that room. I've told people too. I mean, I told my neighbour at the meal. This is where ... that was the last time I saw him. And his ashes were scattered at the crematorium. So it was over you see. It was over.
And what did that ... where did that leave you?
Desperate. Absolutely desperate. I thought my life had ended and I thought I was going to be very poor. I don't know why I thought I was going to be very poor. And then, my editor, who was a marvellous editor called Zel Rabin, rang me up. No, he called in. He lived beyond me and he called in on his way ... on his way either home or from the office, and he said, 'You've got to come back to work'. And I said, 'I can't. I can't', and he said, 'Yes, you've got to come back to work. So, you've got to come back to work on Monday'. So this was Thursday, and the neighbouring doctor, Zel and I used to sit and have a drink and talk about Blue and then I went back to work. But he knew what the answer was: I must go back to work. But later on, when I was walking the dog and so on, I used to feel absolutely my life had ended. And I busied myself. That was why there was no poetry. You see there was no poetry for fifteen years. 1964 this was. That's what ... I think that's what stopped the poetry. And I became terribly [?]. I was busy with everything. I went abroad and I went out and I behaved like an idiot. I busied myself with everything to get over it and I wrote no poetry.
Was that because the part of you that related to the poetry, the part right inside, was in fact quite numb?
I'd had a terrible blow. Terrible blow. Must've. Must've. And then later on, I was beginning to think in poetry but not writing it. But I was beginning to think what I would write sometime and then I was sitting at a conference with Geoff Dutton at the Australia Council and he said to me, 'Oh, by the way, I'm doing ... I am doing a supplement for The Bulletin. I'd like something from you. What about a poem?' That's what he meant. Write me a poem. And I said, 'Well I've got one in my head'. And he said, 'Well I'll give you a deadline'. And that was my first poem. It wasn't The End of the Affair. I think it was the Elaine Haxton one. I think it was the Elaine Haxton one. Give a journalist a deadline and they'll do anything. Wasn't it funny? Geoff got me back and then another man, who used to be the owner and editor of Overland, said to me one day, at another of these literary occasions, at a dinner in Melbourne or somewhere, 'Are you writing any poetry?' and I said, 'No'. And he said, 'When you write it send it to us'. So I did. I started sending stuff to Overland. I still do. I'm still faithful to Overland now and again.
What makes a poem come into your mind? What kind of situation will create a poem in your head?
Anything. I'll write a poem about this. Anything will start me. Anything will start me and then it grows. And I know when I'm going to write the poem. I wrote a poem the other day. I was sitting at the bus stop, watching the pigeons who had appropriated the bus stop on the other side and then in came those sulphur-crested cockatoos and began hanging upside down in that ridiculous way on this unsuitable foreign tree, which is in European cemeteries. And they began behaving like Australians and I wrote a poem about that. And also, even what somebody says. Anything will start me. Now. Now, I'm really writing poetry.
You're writing more easily now than you ever had.
Because I don't care what anybody thinks about it. Or what anybody thinks. You see, all that is ... all that ... all your perceptions of what is the proper feeling, proper opinion to have, you can put those out the window. They don't matter anymore. When you get old you don't care what people think so you get very free. Very free.
So you've always had a reputation for truth telling but you think only now do you really deserve it?
Oh yes. But I don't know that I've always had this reputation for truth telling. Who gave it to me? Who was listening? I was shouting them down I suppose. [Laughs]
However you have valued truth haven't you? Truth has been a value to you?
Yes, I have. I've always valued truth. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the convent. I don't know why. But I think those nuns ... I mean those nuns were marvellous. When people talk about unhappy convent life, we didn't have it at our convent. It was a very good place. A very good place. And nuns encouraged you to talk about everything. There were one or two rather snappy ones but they'd take you into the dining room, I suppose, and then you'd forget them. They'd let you read. Very good library. I read a lot of people I wouldn't have read otherwise. Very good library.
You value truth. What ... what sorts of things have really irritated you? What kinds of qualities in people or public behaviour have really got on your nerves?
More and more - almost everything. I mean you can tell the lies coming. They're about to say, 'Quite ...'. You know, when anybody is about to say, 'Quite frankly', you know they are going to tell you a lie. And the human voice, the human voice on the radio and television spouting its opinions and bullying other people. And the newspapers! You can tell when somebody has done the sort of story that they practically invented. I don't like jargon of any sort. Gender speak. I realise why we have it. I realise what bad a time women have had. Like Christina Stead, I didn't know I was a feminist. I was pushing my way up and doing what the men did, but I didn't know that I was doing these things for that reason. I'm sure it was. I know the reason for all these things but I don't like to have it said like that. Well they've rewritten the Bible. That's bad enough. The New English Bible is a frightful thing.
With this background in the convent, and obviously caring about the authorised version of the Bible ...
Oh King James Bible. Wonderful literature.
I've been romantically religious. So it was all ... I tell you once. My chapel, the chapel at school, was so marvellous and the whole of the ritual was so good and I was allowed to sing, and I was romantic about it, and when on holiday once, I said to my mother or to myself, 'I think I'll go to mass'. And I went to the local church and I was so appalled by the statuary that I never went again. I'm a snob. So I'm not religious, no.
So you like religion as theatre but only as good theatre?
That's all. That's all.
And so you've never really had a feeling of any other spiritual influence in your life from a higher being? Some people who aren't actively Christian have ideas about ...
There must be something out there. No, never. Never. I'm not interested either in Eastern religion. I'm not interested in either Buddha or meditation or anything like that. I don't know how to meditate. I might do it if I knew how. I don't know. If I ... if I sit down then I'm thinking about something. You're supposed to make your mind blank I think.
And what about death? Do you think that's the end?
Oh, yes. I think it's the end. I'm afraid of hurting before I die, but I'm not afraid of death.
So after Blue went, you really knew he'd gone?
Oh, yes. But I still think about him. For years I used to say, 'Oh I must tell Blue', or 'I wonder if Blue knows." But that was because we were so close as friends. I still think about him quite a lot. Well, a lot of people think about that period of their lives.
What about your own death? Do you ever think of that?
Yes. Often. Intimations of my death. Very strong. A terrible fright I get sometimes. Here I go. I'm very healthy but I think, 'Here I go'. In the park sometimes I think, 'Oh, this is it'.
Because the whole world is going to go up in flames. I think it's going to go up in flames around me. That's what I think about. That's what frightens me. Not dying in bed, that'd be lovely. At least I wouldn't know. So how do I know whether it would be lovely? But I mean I don't want to be hurt. I don't want to have an illness that hurts me. I don't like pain. But I sometimes think the universe is going to finish in Centennial Park. It's going to go up in flames around me. I get a real feeling of that. But it only lasts a second.
And do you ever get the feeling that you are going to die in bed?
No. Oh, yes once. I got out of bed and put my clothes together neatly. Because I thought, how awful if people come in and here am I, pants hung all over my bedroom. I got up and packed and put them ... put them neatly.
The tidy housewife, when I did that. [Laughs] I've only done that once.
You were talking about the position of women and how it's changed in your lifetime and how you didn't know you were a feminist and yet you intrigue me by saying that when Blue died you thought that that would be the end of your financial support?
Isn't that extraordinary.
And, do you think that's because you were so programmed to think that men took care of women?
Yes, I think so. And it's very New Zealand and Australian. Well, it's a very New Zealand thing too, and there were bits of that left in me you see. And I said to myself, 'My God, I won't have any money'. And I think I probably made more money than he did. But we never talked about money. We didn't share a bank account. He did what he wanted with his money and I did ... I suppose roughly he bought the liquor and paid the gas bill or something. But I bought everything I wanted for the house or myself or the food or travel or things. And then I thought, I must not spend as much. I remember walking my dog, Edward, named after Blue, early on. Edward, the dog, was a Maltese Terrier. I was walking the dog in the park and I thought, 'How can I save? I won't have any money. The house and all that. I thought, I'll give up my subscription to the New Yorker. And what's more I did. And I'd been taking it since 1947 and in 1964 I gave it up. And in 1965 I started again. I think, wasn't that weird. That's the breadwinner I suspect. The breadwinner had gone. A lot of nonsense.
What were some of the other changes that you've seen in relation to your position as a woman? Or didn't you notice them because in a way you'd been a sort of honorary male, hadn't you?
I had been an honorary male. But I've noticed, oh, marvellous changes. I ... I think they're wonderful. And people were brought up in journalism that hadn't been, like Margaret Jones for instance. She was produced. She's been ... She's been ... She's been their foreign correspondent. She's been in China, London, New York. She's interviewed everybody that was important. That would never have happened. That's come up. But in ordinary small ways, women in post offices and banks. It's very funny about the banks isn't it. They gave the jobs to the women that the men didn't want, like being a teller. [Laughs] That was cute of the men I thought. Still on that. Most the tellers are women or many of the tellers or men learning to be bankers.
So you think men are still managing things fairly well?
Of course. Of course. Terrific. I mean there are a lot of corporate women. I don't know what they're doing except wearing corporate clothes. I don't think ... I mean there is an awful lot of space in middle management. But it never got ... Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch got to us middle class people. Got to all of us. It never got to the working wives. Working women. And it didn't get to women brought in to work in factories. It was immigrant women who were brought in to work in factories. The last in got the worst job and it was the women who got the worst job. Working with water swirling round her feet canning fish somewhere. They've had ... they've had wins but their not nearly there yet.
Talking about you as a writer, when you write journalism and you write that way, it's very different from the kind of style that you would use for either fiction or for poetry. Do you think it's hard at all to switch between the two? Do you think that one of the reasons you are writing more poetry now is that you are writing so much less journalism?
That may be so. That may be so. I don't know. But I know I'm not ... I'm not any good at fiction. I can tell you that. Because I ... that's not my thing. Some people can write novels and I know I can't.
Could you say why? Could you say why you can write poetry and not novels? What is it about poetry that makes it easier for you to do than novels?
Because it's only what I think. You've got to write about other people with fiction. Also, I've got a severe disability with plot. I could write long boring novels about people's menopause but, no.
You present yourself as somebody who is fairly short on human compassion. You say that you can't be bothered with people who want to tell you their troubles and that you've got no time ...
Can't be bothered is not a phrase I'd ever use. I just dodge it. I think that's ... I don't think ... I would hesitate to say I can't be bothered, but I know that I dodge it. I can be bothered sometimes you see.
Has it occurred to you that you might be afraid of involvement with people?
Oh, yes. I'm sure of that.
Don't want to be bothered. [Laughs] Uncommitted except in a few cases. Leave me alone, I'm all right and I don't want to get mixed up with you. I don't want to know about that. I don't want people to ring me up and tell me about their ailments and I will go and support them. That's another word I hate beyond anything. 'Supportive'. That's my least favourite word. I will go and support them, but it'll ... it really takes ... it really ruins me. I become very, very upset. Now I don't quite know what I mean by that either. We're going to use this word 'stress'. 'Stress' is what I've been lisping for. That's the word I think. Really, really tries me.
Do you think that if you'd had a family of your own and had to raise children, and have that kind of involvement that mothers are supposed to have with their children, though your mother didn't, but ... do you think that that would have also produced that kind of stress and the demand of another person's need upon you?
I would have been a bad mother. If that's the answer. I would have been a bad mother.
If you'd had children of your own and created a family of your own, you would've been required to be involved in that really deep way that you dodge. Do you think that might have had something to do with the decision not to have children?
I think ... I think my decision not to have children was selfish. But I think that after saying that, I don't have much trust in families, or faith in families. I don't believe that families are so good. Family life can be good or bad but I don't believe the family is the answer. And when people in politics talk about families and the way they are now, 'Australian families', they're all saying. It's Australian people. It's just one person really in the end. Families have ruined so many lives, haven't they? Those old Irish mothers who have to be stayed by the grown up sons who never get married and just take to whiskey and drink in grocery shops. That's family. I think families interfere. Now I've had a recent example of an interfering family in my own few relatives that I have. One of the family ... one of the family left her husband and she rang up another one of the family in New Zealand and said, 'I've left dogsbody'. And the family responded by saying, 'What did you do that for?' Not saying, 'Oh, dear I am sorry. I hope you're all right. May I send you a 1,000 dollars'. 'What did you do that for?' And then another one of the family rang up and said, 'Oh, did you have to? Did you really have too? Couldn't you stay?' I mean! She didn't offer a 1,000 dollars either for another flat. So I wrote to one of them and said, 'Now opt out of this. Just forget it. Don't interfere. Send her some money and forget it. It's not your business. It's hers. She will stumble along as we've all stumbled along'. Stumbled along. Because it's all accidental. I tried my theories on her. But see, that's what I mean by family.
And what do you mean by accidental?
Oh life's accidental. Nothing goes according to plan. It's an accident that you do anything. It's an accident you see your husband. Accident that you go into journalism. Look it was an accident. Some man in New Zealand told his owner - proprietor in Australia, 'Here's this clever girl writing poetry'. If that's not an accident, I've never seen one.
Do you think it's accidental what you make of it?
Yes. It's all an accident.
Seeing that I'm an accident it is.
But when we get past the fact that you're an accident, did your poetry feel accidental or do you feel you create it, that you make it?
Oh, I make it. But I take something and make it. And that may be an accident. I happen to be at that bus stop. I happen to overhear that woman in the hospital saying that. 'Ah that was a good line', I say to myself. You hear them say, 'The bus is never coming. It never comes'. And it's coming. I see it coming. And this woman is speaking to her husband, 'The bus never comes. It's never coming'. Here is the bus approaching us. Then she says, 'It's going past us. You didn't wave your stick'. The bus has already stopped. Now there's a good line.
Do you think there is any sense in which we invent ourselves? Do you feel ...
Oh, yes. Lots of people. We invent ourselves. In a way we are invented. No you have to do it yourself. I know lots of people who invented themselves.
Maybe I did, I don't know.
Thinking about the people who will come after you, and who will look back on your life, what would you like to have them think about you?
That I was a good poet and a good journalist. That I had a good career. I think that is something they should think about. Having a good time and a good career.
And what would horrify you to have them think about you?
That I was a boring old witch, shouting her opinions to defenceless television makers.
Have you always thought that being boring was the cardinal sin?
It's pretty bad. It's pretty bad. People repeating themselves. I know a woman who has told me the same story for twenty years. And she's awfully intelligent. And I know when it's coming. And I like her so nothing happens. But I know it. She's repeated this story almost word for word. Because it's got a certain interest ...
You've told us that one of your strong beliefs is that life is accidental. Does this make for a sort of fatalism? Do you think that society as a whole can change, and change other than accidentally? Do you think we have any capacity to deal with the problems that face us as a world?
Yes I think so. But the first thing you have to do is deal with yourself. And that's what I mean about the accident. You can't ... The accidents I mean are behaviour, behaviour accidents. To your personal life. Now that's your concern and you deal with them like that and you go somewhere and don't go somewhere or see some man or don't. But what you can do with the world is, of course, don't give in when people are doing the wrong thing with it. Don't give in. Keep fighting. Keep arguing. Protest. Argue. People say, 'It doesn't do any good'. 'Oh, well that's the way it is now'. To me language is so important and to me language, it face is the most terrible assault from gender speak and all those other things and from ... words lose their meaning. Now there is a word that everybody uses called 'hopefully' and it's used in the wrong way. What it is is a German word that has been used in the wrong way in translation and we take it from the Americans. We shouldn't speak ... we should take the good words the Americans invented and not their bad words.
So you care about language. What other kinds of things, what other kinds of social issues disturb you?
I care about pollution and I'm a keen believer in what the Green people are doing. I don't do it myself. I go out and clean up once a year, but that's all I do. I'd rather send the money for them to do ... spend it on things. But I think all those things are terribly important. I'm not scientifically knowledgeable about it at all. I don't want ... I suppose, the thing I really don't want is animals tortured and the animal life shall be ruined. And I'm not, I must say here, a vegetarian. But I don't want ... I don't want animals [harmed]. But we're doing it by taking up the places where they live. We're taking it up for us. Now, there you've got a real problem. You see I think there are too many people in the world and I mean that's a very catitudinous [?] thing to say. That's why I don't want people to keep on having children.
Do you think that's the biggest problem in the world? Population?
Population's the biggest problem, yes. Because population has got to fed. A woman who is going to feed her family is going to take firewood from a tree. Look at what's happened in Rajahstan. In Rajahstan. When I first went through Rajahstan there was forest. There's no forest now. It's been used for firewood. So then you get up ... get up into the area of fossil fuel and all these things and I don't understand all that.
Do you feel any sort of optimism about the ability to rein back now and bring these things under control?
No, but I wouldn't have felt any optimism if I had been a crusader or ... I mean that was bad. Everything is bad in the world at some period of history.
And how does the individual deal with that?
The best he or she can. Behave as well as you can. Don't be cruel to more people than you need to be. That's all. I can live without religion because I can live with this sort of Protestant ethic or the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. You don't need God if you behave yourself. And if you're cruel to animals you're going to be cruel to people, aren't you? I care more about the animals. That's the awful thing. I really care more about the animals than the ambition of women, who can't have babies, to have them. I think if you want to have a baby, adopt a child. I don't understand the position of it. I understand that a lot of childbearing is simply possession of an object. Here is my personal doll.
You said you were prepared to demonstrate for Green issues, but you didn't march with Patrick in his anti-nuclear stand. Was there any particular reason for that?
No reason. No reason at all. No reason at all. I admired Patrick marching with Tommy Readin [?] and I admired, but all those things, But there are certain things I do and certain things I don't do. I'm lazy I suppose. Uncommitted to some things. No, I never marched with Patrick about any of those things and I really wasn't interested in the Cold War, you know. I'm not interested in the nuclear family or the Cold War. I'm interested in what's happening near me. I pick up a piece of paper outside the house but I don't do anything more. I don't know. I'm trivial.
Do you think that it's in these microcosm that in the end the big picture will be helped?
I hope it's in them. But you know that I do find myself saying, to myself only, I'm now saying it to you, 'Well I won't be here to see it'. So not minding it as much. It concerns me, but surely it concerns people younger than me more. After I'll be deady bones soon, then I won't care, will I?
What do you think are going to be the worse things that you are going to miss out on seeing?
Oh nothing. I haven't missed a thing. Everything's been ... been written and composed. I mean the best things have all happened. Wonderful things. I wouldn't have minded living in the Nineteenth Century a bit. There it was all happening. Mozart and Robert Browning and then later on there were all these marvellous people. The poets, the scientists. Oh all the best poets are dead.
Do you think there is anything good coming up that you won't be around for?
I don't care. I don't care a bit. I don't want to see extraterrestrial things that are coming from ... If they find them, I don't want to see them.
And they've ruined the moon in many ways by putting man on it. Oh I liked it. Look at the moon, it was so marvellous before they set foot on it. The poem I wrote after Lunar II, that's a really ... I got a lot of letters about that. Nobody wants to ... why should we ruin the moon or find ET or a gremlin? A green man. No, I don't want to look at a green man.
When you were a critic, did it ever bother you that you had a lot of power that you might use to the the detriment of the person whose work you were criticising?
Well I didn't have a lot of power because there's only this much you can do with your criticism. But I'll tell you this about criticism: if it's big enough in the magazine or newspaper, they don't mind, because bigness is supposed to equate with goodness so they don't mind. They think, 'Oh, it's been given a good run'. If its in a literary magazine, they mind terribly much so what I have done for many years is criticise people who are remote from me and my life. When I reviewed ballet there were people that would be criticised by much better critics than I was. I don't review Australian books. I've gone into gatherings where I've thought, My God, what did I say about that book? I've been thanked for criticism by people who thought I'd said they were good. They'd remembered vaguely that they'd had a critique and I'm sure it was a bad one. I remember this case very much of a woman who came up to me and said, 'Oh, thank you for reviewing my book', and I'd said it was rotten! They forget that you've said the bad thing. There are a few ... a few people who can't stand me. A few people who can't stand what I've said. But if you are reviewing novels from America or England you're all right. In England the same thing happens of course. There is a ... there is a school, always. People who pat each other on the back, or don't as the case may be.
How have you felt about other people criticising your work?
Very pleased to have it mentioned. Expected worse. I expected one review once and I really waited for that to absolutely clobber me, which she didn't. But what is the bad thing is being left out and never criticised. There were a couple of anthologies which were published lately of Australian poetry and there's been a real row about that. I've been left out of one of them and everybody talked about it at the last Adelaide Festival. I wasn't even in it they say. I wasn't even mentioned in the list of the people who should have been in it. This man ... I spoke to one Australian poet and he was raging. 'How dare they leave me out', he said. So that's the poet's push: poets who are postmodernist and poets who are not. And they are very ... very tough on each other.
Now when you look back over your ... your long life, is there anything that you really really regret?
Yes. Never going to Beirut. [INTERRUPTION]
Is there anything in your life you really regret?
Yes. Never going to Beirut. I always said, 'No, no. I'll do that next year'. But look at it. I've been to Dubrovnik, but I've never been to ... and they're finished. They're gone. There's other places, plenty of other places I haven't been, but I don't mind that. But Beirut.
Is there anything personally that you feel guilty about?
Oh my whole life I feel guilty about.
Because I've done so many stupid, irresponsible, stupid things.
I don't know what's the worst. But you know a few that's happened now. I remember that one night stand. See, why is that in my mind? That was in 1943 in Washington. Why do I still remember it? I'm ... I'm guilty about that.
I don't know. I think I'm respectable you see, at heart.
Is there anything that wakes you up at night? You know, that shivering feeling that you get when you wake up and remember something that you've done and it's been embarrassing or that you feel bad about.
No. I've often woken up in fear sometimes, but I don't wake up embarrassed.
So, you feel guilty you say about almost everything you've ever done. Do you think that's a state of mind rather than a real ...
It's a pessimist state of mind. It's the belief that nothing is good at the heart. There are no happy endings. That's what ... that's it.