Australian Biography: Inga Clendinnen
Inga Clendinnen (1934–2016) was a writer, academic and historian whose work on Aztec and Mayan cultures and the Holocaust has been praised around the world.
She also studied the historical relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
In this interview, Inga speaks eloquently about the importance of studying history, her desire to understand how people think and the need to embrace difference, both individual and cultural.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 8, 2000
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
I wonder if we could begin by your telling me when and where you were born? By describing the community, we'll get to the household later, but the community into which you arrived in the world and setting it in time and place.
You're asking a lot of a new-born, aren't you? I wasn't particularly aware of a community. It was in the Geelong General Hospital I suppose. My father had gone down there to relocate himself in a new job and he'd built the house himself and had never really quite got it finished in the way that people don't and my mother, I was her fourth child. It was a street which still regarded itself as on the outskirts of Geelong, in that I can still remember empty blocks on the way down the hill past us. Above us, there was Noble Street which was also known as Nob Hill which had rich people living in it and which ran on down the hill past Geelong College. And then Geelong being a small city at that point, things fell apart very rapidly as you went down Shannon Avenue, at right angles to Noble Street and the houses declined in prosperity arithmetically on the way down the hill. And ours was quite a way down the hill, but the people around would have been clerks, administrators on the whole, not blue collar. The blue collars lived where Shannon Avenue flattened out and Newtown turned into Chilwell, when you got far enough away from Nob Hill the workers appeared in little single fronted weather-board houses. The year I was born was 1934. The Depression was still a very vivid memory. All the households I came to know at all as I grew up were extremely frugal, with a frugality which would seem quite extraordinary to us. To buy anything for children would have been a remarkable thing. That belonged to Noble Street and Nob Hill where girls got new dresses, went up to Myers and bought a new dress. Typically people wore hand-me-downs, cut down by their mothers and sewn up on the Singer sewing machine and collars were turned and the dressing of houses was very little done. Most houses were simple, dark, equipped with necessities, lino on the floor and living was done in the kitchen. So I suppose it would have been upper worker, lower middle class houses. Small, four rooms, five rooms, but just about all of them with a backyard with a few chooks and, depending on the virtues of the male householder, a vegetable garden. Now that seemed to replicate itself all the way down the hill as I grew up and penetrated more gardens.
And your particular household, could you describe that to me?
When I became conscious of it, there was a mother, there was a father, there was a big sister who went away when I was about six or seven because the war had begun and she went off to join the WRANS and she went to Sydney, and she was also in Darwin briefly. So she was our part of the war effort. My next sibling was a brother six years older than me, he was 17 in the last year of the war and my father was too old to go to the war. He'd been in the First World War. And then there was my younger brother who was three years older than me and I was the baby. And I was pretty much, I think I was an afterthought, a mistake. After my birth, very soon after, I think my father was banished to the back verandah which was the rather draconian method of birth control practised in those days I think. And in so far as I remember the house at all in those early days, it was shadowed by poverty. My father had moved into making furniture. He had a small factory which he'd managed to get through the Depression by sharing all the income of the factory between workers, which meant that there was a singular bond in later years between the older men working in the factory and Dad, you know, they'd all survived together. But not long after the Depression ended, and it must have been pretty close to when I was born, the factory burnt down and it was uninsured. So there was a decisive catastrophe in our affairs. I obviously wasn't aware of that but I was aware of tension about money and about the stratagems of poverty, which I didn't know were stratagems of poverty, like catching the dripping to have bread and dripping to have for, say, lunch, you know, that kind of thing. It didn't last long but I think it left its mark on the household of a rather anxious frugality and an intense unreadiness to expend money on things that didn't matter.
Has that left its mark on you, do you think?
Yes, I'm a spendthrift, and it seems to me that, yeah, I have reacted against it. My father never felt it I think. He always went in for largesse, whether it was hanging his pants up over the back of a chair and shaking them so that all the change fell out, so I could crawl around on the floor and pick it all up or, you know , in, in more elaborate ways later on. He liked the notion of being expansive. But my mother who after all had the problem of running the house and of feeding a family of four children with very big appetites - and she was a great cook. You know what she could do with her one fire stove and her collection of old pots and pans, really does astound me. I know a lot of people say this but no one can cook a baked dinner like my mother could. And for a meal she would at night or at midday at the weekends, she'd typically have a soup, a home-made soup, a baked meal and then a desert. Now that's extraordinary to me, I don't know how she managed that. And she would also have to bring all the supplies on foot from whichever place she thought she could buy them most cheaply, though that really isn't true because she had a delivering grocer and the baker came every day, and the milkman came every day, but fruit and vegetables and meat she would carry.
From your early childhood, what is your earliest memory?
I have a very dim recollection, very dim, of slowly toppling sideways at the kitchen table where we ate all our meals, presumably into my mother's lap, you know, just fading out at the end of the night and being carried to bed, and that's probably the earliest. I remember our dog and the exact texture of his hair on his back, it was different from his belly and what his ears looked like inside. Clearly I investigated the dog very carefully. I know him still. And then when I became aware of moving around it was mainly of space and the unimaginably expansive spaces in our 50 feet by 150 feet block of land, because I rarely went beyond that, very rarely, because each zone had its own uses and its own beauties and its own complexities, and I never really came to the end of them. I have to assume it was a solitary childhood because I was the last born of a largish family under stress, so on the whole I was left to my own devices.
Apart from your father's banishment to the back verandah, did your parents get along?
No, they didn't. It's hard for me to be sure when it became a sort of institutionalised hostility, just about for as long as I can remember they would not - they didn't have arguments. There was absolutely no violence, nothing. That would have been unimaginable. There was rather a tight-lipped resentment on the part of my mother and a lowered head evasiveness on the part of my father who was rarely in the house, who spent most of his time off at work or visiting around, he was a very sociable man, or, this is a pretty early memory, down in the garage working on shoes or, you know, cobbling shoes or whatever the odd things he had to do down there, the household things, or out in the garden pruning things. He - I remember his pride when he managed to espalier a pear tree, wrapped around the corner of the house and then it grew two very large pears so you'd tear around the corner at speed, round the concrete path, and you'd be slapped in the face by one of my father's damn pears. We were very much against the pears and he was very proud of them. The hostility was wearing, saddening. It cast a pall.
No, I think none of us did. I dislike talking about it because it seems unfair to my mother who I think had reasons for her anger though they shouldn't have been - it shouldn't have been directed at my father. She would sometimes try to recruit us into her account of the world, but I think in the way most children in most periods in most households feel, it wasn't our business and we were bored by it. You know, it's just not something that interests children that kind of squabbling or tension, and I used to rather hope they might get divorced. I thought that would be a sensible thing to do, having no notion of the serious consequences of divorce and how impossible it would have been in those circumstances to maintain two separate households. No possible way. And Dad was a good provider and, so there was no justification in the rather dour terms of that period. But they also did things with the children. We would be taken off for picnics at Torquay or, and we would go down without my father because he'd stay and work. Each summer we'd take a bungalow at Torquay or Anglesea or somewhere down the coast, probably for a month, where my mother would housekeep, you know, under very difficult circumstances without dropping her standards a quarter of an inch in the matter of food which seemed to me bizarre even then but she didn't. So, you know, they managed, adequately I suppose.
You reacted against the thrift of the household by swinging in the other direction, what effect in the long term do you think that tension between your mother and father has had on you? Have you got any legacy from that do you think?
I don't, I don't, I don't think so, but then I wouldn't know, would I if I had? My husband and I sometimes alarm people with the vehemence of our arguments but we don't alarm ourselves. This is what we do. Neither of us are of a yielding disposition. I don't, look, I did not feel implicated in the conflict. It seemed to me absolutely unnecessary and futile. It was a pointless kind of bickering dispute. It simply generated tension and I think I disliked it and rejected it and was not burdened by it. In fact I doubt that any of the children were burdened by it. I didn't see any evidence of it in my brothers or my sister.
Did your parents agree about the way you were to be brought up? Was that - were the values of the household shared values?
No, I would think not. My father was an extremely liberal and tolerant man and casual in many ways. I say insouciant, my brother would sometimes say irresponsible and he knew him very much better than I did because he worked with him in the factory for a number of years. But he had an equable temperament and an affable view of the world. I've lost you on that, I've lost that first point.
Well, it was really, I was asking about the values of the household and...
My mother, I think, was - this is a diagnosis from her conduct - but I think she was nervous of, very nervous of the outside world, mistrustful of it. I don't think I was brought up. I think I was left to my own devices in a way that I liked a lot. We had no formal instruction in religion or morality or - I went to Brownies for three weeks but I could never remember what religion I was so they flunked me out before I got a uniform which I thought was a bit sad. I was Presbyterian but I couldn't remember, such a long word, and they'd say "Are you Catholic?" And I'd say "I don't think so". So clearly there was very little structure in, in my education. You picked it up as you went along which I think again was fairly ordinary in those households which thought there was nothing remarkable about raising children. You fed them well, you gave them an immense amount of liberty compared to kids these days. I mean I was normally around the house unless I went off with my brothers but then my mother would have not the least idea where we were and we'd be down at Queens Park swimming in the river or trying to walk across stanchions out over the river, we were doing extremely dangerous things [laughs] and it was assumed we'd come home at six o'clock and we did. So - and the other thing I would mention, it was very distinctive in those days - neighbourhood dogs. Everyone had a dog but no one possessed their dog and they certainly didn't keep them on leashes, I mean only the people up on Nob's Hill would take their dogs for walks on leashes and we thought that was ludicrous. You took your, you know, your dog went with you in whatever occupation you were engaged in and they would have massive fights when they met each other out of their own territory, so the fighting prowess of the dogs all the way down the hill was extremely clear and we had a high status because our dog, Dixie, had won some Homeric battles, you know, that had gone on for hours. So it was an extraordinarily free life as exemplified by the dogs and I only became aware of the discrepancy in values when my mother's anxiety I suppose about my becoming a woman and what I would do with my life became more and more manifest as she became more and more anxious over it. You see my sister who was extremely talented and, as you've seen from her photograph, very beautiful, worked as a secretary and then she ran my father's office for him and then she married and stopped work which I saw, and see, as an extraordinary waste of her talents. But it was exactly as my mother thought life could be safely lived. I was always antagonistic to that, incredulous at the thought I could possibly be expected to stay in Geelong, for example, but absolutely unclear as to how I should get out of it. When I read Jessica Anderson's 'Tirra Lirra By the River' I was shocked and shaken at the walking of Nora, you know, the pointless, useless circular walking, walking, walking, walking because I'd done exactly that. The same impatience and desperation and the same absolute ignorance of how you'd manage to get out. Well I got out because of a sequence of teachers who, to my enormous shame and chagrin and outrage, went to the house. One woman, we're now in fifth grade at Newtown State, Mrs O'Loughlin, went up to see my parents and said Inga should go for scholarships. So, unlike my sister and brothers, I went out to Morongo where I was poor and under-equipped for life in things material while most of the other girls were rich and badly under-equipped for life in matters intellectual.
So I discovered it was possible to establish ascendency by wit, which is a very good lesson to learn young, and that, yeah, I saw through social class with proper clarity through having been made to go to Morongo. It's a mean thing to say about the school because it had, it had - it was a beautifully, a beautifully sited school with quite remarkable things, like a great pine plantation and an old boat, gondola swing in which I spent many, many hours. You know it was physically beautiful and many of the teachers were women of probably great insight and knew when to leave you alone and when to teach you. And then at, at Morongo a teacher turned up on our front doorstep and I was completely appalled, liking to keep those worlds utterly separate and said I would have to go on to university, and that probably gave my father an easier road to hoe. It got to be taken for granted that I wasn't good at anything else much but I was good at books and so I duly - and of course they were the good old days too, unlike the extremely weird education system we have now, I could go to the university on a Commonwealth scholarship with everything paid. If I'd wanted to I could have got a secondary studentship at the cost of teaching for three years, I'm glad I didn't have to do that but I got a scholarship to Women's College which meant I was able to go to university without any financial hardship for my family, where my father chose to pay some money to Women's College.
You've explained what your mother's expectation was for you, when you were a child what she imagined your life should be, what was your father's view?
He said little about such matters but one of my regrets, when I was giving the Boyer Lectures I would have loved Dad to know [laughs] because he had a, he had a passion for the intellect but what annoyed me about him was that he thought intelligence had to be validated by university degrees. Now he was much smarter than most of the people he treated with absolute deference because they were doctors or lawyers or whatever and that wasn't because they were of a higher social class, it was because they had had more systematic and trained access to books. And so he'd have been extremely proud of doing well within the academic scene. I'm both pleased and sorry, he would have been intolerable in fact but still, so.
Those years of your childhood, how would you describe your relationship, your personal relationship, with your father?
Distant, yeah. Well, he played no aggressive sort of role, you know, he was a self-effacing man. He was a - he stayed out of the household, that was, as he would have said, Rene's territory, not his, and that again I think was conventional in that period. So that in a way the care and upbringing of the children was my mother's concern and he was a sort of benevolent peripheral figure. It's very hard to give an accurate account that doesn't sentimentalise the relationship, in fact I did quite a lot of things with him, you know, in 'Tiger's Eye', I'd forgotten a lot of this. I talk about bee-keeping with him and the fact that he made an observation hive so I could slide up the wooden panel and watch the bees which was a marvellous thing to do. My son keeps bees, I'm pleased to say. I did all sorts of things with him when I come to think of it, but it wasn't verbalised into a bond. We just went along on our little track side by side and one of the things that I did learn, I think, was to trust and like men, you know, I was taken aback on a thing I was doing on the ABC on 'Australia Talks Books', and someone rang up, a man rang up to say in a very tentative way "You seem to like men". I thought, yeah, I think some of them are great but I didn't, you know, I was taken aback and clearly he's used to women of my vintage being very hard on men, I suppose. But I'm sure that easy side by side doing things with my father helped that, but I had two brothers, and one brother I was extremely close to. He was the person who mattered most to me and I think he supplanted or, that's too aggressive a verb again, I think he simply happened to take the place that some people give their fathers. It would have been awfully hard to do that with Dad because he wasn't there physically so much of the time, or if he was he was silent.
So your older brother got the sort of adoration that some girls give their father, that you, you really thought your older brother was something quite special?
I don't think adoration is the right word for it. He was quite special. There was nothing irrational about it. Probably, though I think the, I think the sibling relationship is so different because there isn't any problem of that generational gap or the power gap. You know, willy-nilly, parents are giants in our childhood landscapes, aren't they? There's nothing - and Dad was a benevolent peripheral giant, but a giant nonetheless, whereas my brother was always, you know, part of my generation.
What role did your sister, your big sister, have in your life?
Oh it was a very big role. She was glamour, she was a vision of how it was possible to be when one grew up. She was a particularly charming person and she let me participate in all the preparations to send her off to the Geelong Palais de Dance on Saturday nights where she did look marvellous and it was, yeah, she brought the outside world into what otherwise would have been a very sealed off house I think, not least because she filled the house with rather dashing Americans during the war and the - not the refrigerator then but the ice chest would be full of orchids, those large corsages people had brought her. And she went to Sydney, which was sort of sin city and full of exoticism to me. She went out beyond the front gate with flair and excitement. And she took me to things. I, you know, again you only realise later how kind people were to you when you were little, she took me to the Ballet Rombert up in Melbourne. She took me to the trots on a marvellous night, I've never forgotten it. She'd take me out with her boyfriends which must have driven them crazy. I think she sometimes took me out with boyfriends she really didn't want to get too implicated with so she'd bring along her little sister. She took me to the Geelong Show, the Gala, a lot, because my mother was, I now realise as I show more of these characteristics myself, reclusive. And she really didn't go out. She didn't like to take me out and didn't and my father didn't, except for these daylight expeditions of delivering furniture and so on, but as I got older he didn't, and that meant I would have led a very peculiar sort of life I think if it hadn't been for Val.
Your relationship with your mother... [INTERRUPTION]
...as opposed to a description of her, what would you say was your relationship with her? Can you characterise that?
Well I'd have to say extremely distant. She was a woman who was not at home with any kind of physical intimacy. She was verbal. I think she did quite rely on me as I got older and when she was ill, but when I see mothers and daughters around me now, I see a relationship that, I see a relationship and I don't believe we had one. It's an eccentric thing to say isn't it, but, you know, we rubbed along side by side. I was concerned for her and spent a large part of my childhood trying to fathom her secrets, not wanting to believe she didn't have any. But her attitude to me I really don't understand even now. She might have simply regarded me as a healthy young creature who kept her own counsel. That might have been how I seemed to her. But it was distant, it was unintimate.
What sort of things did you do with her?
Almost nothing. I'd do the beans, I'd peel the potatoes, I'd set the table, but we didn't talk, once I gave up interviewing her, trying to find out what she was or who she was. I think that was weird.
What do you mean interviewing her?
Well, I embarked, I detail this in 'Tiger's Eye', it all come back in a way that surprised me. I spied on her for quite a few years, from about six I guess, five or six, to probably about ten, because she baffled me. I couldn't understand where she found her life. You see I knew Val went out of the house and found her life and she'd bring back bits of it, you know, in the shape of cars and men and all sorts of things, clothes. There was no doubt there was a world out there and she was operating in it. My mother only went out to shop and I would go with her sometimes and I'd know where she went and I'd know with whom she'd interact and I knew the nature of the interactions, and then she'd come home, we'd unpack the shopping. She didn't garden or do any of those things, she was inside the house. She only went outside to peg the washing up and she talked to neighbours over the fence, one neighbour. She didn't entertain at home except her sisters who lived in Melbourne.
How did you go about spying on your mother? What did you look at?
Well you have to have a hypothesis before you can spy really and I thought she must have - you know there's a fantasy that you yourself were a gypsy child and that you've been dumped on these boring old suburban parents but really you have very exotic lineage and they will come and get you one day. You know, the old princess routine. I didn't think that. I knew I was the child of their loins even though I couldn't imagine how this had been achieved [laughs] but I thought my mother must have a past. See my father was a happy man, I think, and a busy man and he led a life which was occupied by activities outside of the house and occasionally I'd glimpse them so I knew they were real, he wasn't going down and sitting in the garage, you know, for an hour or two, hiding there. He was doing things. I could see my mother's life and nothing happened in it. She did the washing on Mondays, lighting up the copper, you know, the sheer physical labour of washing in those days has to be watched through a long day to be believed. And she'd iron on Tuesdays and she'd bake on Wednesdays. I knew her routine. And then she'd go into her room for about two hours about every afternoon, she'd say to read, but she'd shut the door and I didn't know what she did in there. Quite clearly all this must have been going on before I went to school. Various things dated to then, knowing what she did in the afternoon for one thing. Interviewing her in the wash-house on Mondays, I decided was the best place to interview her because she'd remain relatively stationary, you see, and because I can remember the concrete sink came up to about here on me, so I'd be watching her like this to see what she betrayed. And I knew about interviews because we listened to the ABC all the time which is where I got my toffee accent. My family was outraged, I didn't begin to speak till I was three, people thought I was backward and they actually dared to tell my mother, that I used to follow people around saying not a word, and when I did begin to speak, I spoke the way they did on the ABC radio which in those days they were very careful to do. And my sister in particular was furious, it was too late, nothing to be done about it. And so I knew about interviews because there was a half hour interview program on and so I'd interview her hoping that she would betray something of this other life, which might take place in her bedroom between two and four when I couldn't see her, or might have occurred beforehand, before I was born and therefore it would be a matter of letter writing or photographs or there would be evidence of it. It's weird, isn't it? I'd no idea I was born an historian. But I think it didn't feel anxious but it might have been fuelled by anxiety that her life could be so exposed, so labourious and so empty of gratifications because she seemed to feel no gratification in anything she did. She had no vices at all, as far as I could see, except reading. So that's why she puzzled me and that's why I found it necessary to try to understand.
But you had a belief that there was going to be something more to be found. What did you imagine that would be and why? Where did you get the idea that there'd be something more?
I don't know when I started reading. I mean I know when I started reading, I was late, I wasn't able to read until about second grade. Perhaps there was a picture book, I don't know. I have to say that I found the houses and the little neat gardens and the footpaths and the fences and the street and the uniformity on the way down the hill, scary as a kid. I really didn't like it. There were some houses that weren't like that, mysterious houses with mysterious people in them and there was also a back paddock beyond the back lane which had things like, I guess they were little bullocks being fattened but I thought they were bulls, you know, proper, serious, large dangerous animals, so they were there. They were other things which stood in contrast to this extremely narrowed sorts of lives being led by women in these little houses all the way down the hill. The men would go off in the morning, the children would go off to school and the women stayed put and I found that very disquieting, I think, from quite an early age, because while I found plenty to do within the space of the 50 foot by 150 feet, these women spent their time working on repetitive tasks. And yet I knew some of them did other things. I mean they would go to bowls or they would, you know, there was some other activity but my mother didn't have any other activities. I think that's bewildering still. How was it that she had no other activities? And she had no personal friends. She had her sisters. Later in life she acquired various dependants in the neighbourhood. A woman who had cancer. A woman who might have been a recovering alcoholic, or a continuing one, I don't know. A little old woman who was not cared for by her family. And actually a disreputable friend of my older brother's who was very fond of my mother and who'd come and sit in the kitchen and chat with her. She was a strange woman in that she would attract strangers who felt a warmth about her but it seemed that warmth was concealed, at least from me, I'm not sure how my surviving brother feels about any of these characterisations.
So how did you investigations turn out? Were they successful?
No, on no issue were they successful. I was blocked at every turn by her. For example, she very rarely seemed to say anything to me directly. She talked to other people but we typically moved around in silence. I think probably, now, she probably just felt relaxed or didn't need to talk to me, so we listened to the radio together. And - but she had a saying which she occasionally used and she'd look at me, really look at me and say "You're not as green as you're cabbage looking". I would think what does she mean? Cabbage looking? Do I look like a cabbage? Must look like a cabbage. Green. Anyway I puzzled over this and as the years past I got a better grip on the sentence. I couldn't even work out the grammar at first. But by about third grade, I could understand what the grammar was and then much, much later when I was grown up, in fact probably after she'd died, I'd laugh about it to myself because it seemed so much like her, to pay a sort of compliment with one hand while she snatched it back with the other, you know. You're not green but you are cabbage looking [laughs], a sort of marvellous remark, I thought it was hers, I thought she'd invented it and then I heard someone else say it. So even at that late point I felt chagrin, even that much I hadn't got straight or clear. I listened to descriptions of her by other people with bewilderment. I can't recognise what they say with confidence about her.
You also looked for documentation, didn't you? The little historian was going around looking. What kind of documentation did you find?
Well she had almost no documentation. Nothing. I mean I ratted through all the drawers of the sideboards and so on and there would be nothing, nothing. Just some ink stained pieces of paper and - but no, no writing. She had very few objects that could be taken to be hers, by her choice. I mean I'd know the history of most of them, they'd have been given to her and she seemed to have no attachment to them. She did have a wardrobe in which she kept her possessions and I've still got this poor little shrunken relic of the wardrobe. Someone savaged it through the years and has run off with drawers and sides and tops and it's - I had forgotten about it for years and then I saw this weird little object in the back room at Anglesea, the beach house there and thought, you used to be the wardrobe, this great big wardrobe that covered a wall. I used to investigate the wardrobe when she went out. Going through it drawer by drawer. I knew it backwards. But thinking about all the items in it and what they revealed about her, if anything, and I won't take you through all the drawers but I did like the hat bit on top, behind lead-light glass, opened like that, because the hats she wore when she went out, so if anyone knew what went on, the hats did, but I could never fathom much from the hats. She just had three hats - and a brown felt one, and a dark straw one, and a sort of beigey leghorn which was her best hat which, in which I thought she looked very beautiful. But she did have two little drawers at the - underneath the hats and in one there were scarves and precious objects, you know, a string of grey pearls, a little mesh bag her mother had once owned, a sliver mesh bag, and her few, you know, pathetically few, items that she regarded as of value. And the main thing I liked were the chiffon scarves because they carried a very strange scent and I couldn't fathom what the scent was. Her sweat, her soap, I could recognise those, her face powder, they were there, but behind it there was this strange hot, spicy smell and I couldn't work out if it was actually a smell or the texture of this very harsh chiffon against the face. They were paisley scarves. But I could never work out where they came from, where had she got them from? They obviously came from some other place, in some other past and essentially some other person. But in this drawer on the right, there were photographs and I knew nobody in the photographs. They were all from the time before I was born, before Tom, I would say, before her husband. So I waited until she was ill with flu and I was looking after her, and I was - you see, by this stage I must have been about nine, so I was still in pursuit of her then, because I got them out and said I could perhaps sort them out for her. So, and she was still in bed, and so I dealt them out, like a card-sharp, watching her face to see what she was going to respond to, and she picked them up and laughed at them and tossed them aside and said "Oh they're from holidays I had. Long, you know, before I met Dad. Toss them out, they're no use, you know, they're just junk". And of course I didn't throw them out. They were clues, I insisted to myself, so I gathered them all up and thought how good her cover was. Now I don't know why I thought my mother was an arch conspirator and then of course I reached adolescence and she shrank in the way parents always do, which was a sad thing.
Now you had admired your sister who had followed the path that was laid out for most women then. What did you want for your life?
I was shocked when she did that. She married a lovely man but I was shocked at her diminishing from this glorious, competent - butterfly is too light a word, she had too much force for that but she clearly, she had a singular charm and warmth and I was shocked when she settled for an even neater little house on a slightly smaller block with the lawns more carefully cut and a very neat backyard. I saw that as a very protracted form of death and why it as I saw it as so unrewarding I do not know, but I did.
Out, but I had no vision of into what, no vision at all because I had no access to anyone with a humanities education. I had teachers but I always regarded teachers as a different kind. I obviously was almost pathologically anti-authoritarian, you know, and I don't know how that happened but anyone who claimed to have authority over me, I couldn't, I didn't like that. And I refused to acquiesce in their values above all.
Did any of your older sisters boss you as the baby?
My three years older brother bullied me in the sense that he punched me illicitly and mutter grumpily about me, but no, they didn't. We weren't a bossy household, at all. No one got bossed, I don't think. My father wouldn't boss anyone except in anger sometimes. You know "Get that frigging something or other out of here" or whatever, but no one took it seriously. No. We really did give each other a great deal of freedom.
Your mother was a great one for maintaining her own standards within the limited realm of her life. Did she insist that you maintain standards too?
I think she gave me up, relinquished me, at about the time I moved into conscious opposition to her and I don't mean verbal opposition, I mean, "No, I'm not going to do what you think is safest to do because I think it's a consequence of your upbringing, your experience, I can understand why you're doing it but either the world is different or I'm not going to damn well settle for that until I'm made to", you know, something like that. I knew we were opposed from about the age of 13 and I think at the same point she gave up.
As a kid who did you play with?
By myself. Absolutely isolated. There weren't any - well, there was three little girls who lived down the hill but my mother had instructed me in being timid about other people's places, you didn't go into them. You know I really didn't play with anyone and then I went to school and I would sometimes to go back to a friend's house there but never back home. One didn't. So I never had a party or anything like that, with the result that my children have had enormous parties.
So you were invited to other kids' houses?
Or dropped in after school. Invited is a bit formal.
But they were never welcome back at your place?
I didn't feel it like that, I didn't - welcome, it just felt that it was not territory, it wasn't my territory that I should penetrate in that way. I played with my brothers, we played cricket endlessly in the backyard. I'd sometimes tag along after them on their expeditions and curiously my brother who is three years older than me, who's also very aware of the extraordinary physical freedom we had, away from the house, but he felt that he always just tagged along with the bigger brother and so we must have been a funny little entourage of [laughs] of the Jewell kids and there we, I played with was really a mob of boys, a gang. I was sort of junior munitions maker and I used to wrap the flints in mud so they were good throwing...
This would have been the war years?
I guess it was, yes, though really we were just after the Fox gang.
How old were you when the war broke out?
I was just turned five.
When you went on holidays to the beach places and so on, did you have friends there that you played with?
So you didn't sort of ever pick up with anybody and have fun with them when you were away on holidays near the beach?
No, I was always aware of - no, I didn't. I mean, with my, with, sort of with my brothers, beach cricket and they would pick up friends and I would play as, I'd tag along again with them. No, it was extraordinary how isolated my childhood was and then I went to a state school which is quite a long walk, so most of the, a long walk, I really suspect I should have gone to another school a bit closer, but I went off to Newtown, and had friends there but very rarely went to their houses. And you see I think these were years of - this was a working class school and they were the post-war years and children didn't have parties. I remember going to one party because the girl had those China stalks in her garden, and I went to another party where I won a skipping competition, I remember that, but very rarely did people have parties. And then I went to Morongo, the college, and there I was, we had so much less money than most of the other kids, although I did bring boarders home. I had a couple of good friends who were boarders and they'd come home and stay for the weekend sometimes.
And in fact your mother was very kind to strangers.
She was, she was. They liked her very much.
During the war particularly my father organised - he was president of the RSL in Geelong and he organised a place called the hostel which was a place for servicemen at a loose end to find a bed and to find cups of tea and lunch and also to find good looking girls working in the place, and my sister used to go down sometimes and serve teas and coffees and so on, and Dad would bring back the overflow. I remember once a guy from the Mallee called Jack, who'd lost his right arm from here down, and he wouldn't go back home because he couldn't - he was a big guy - and he couldn't face being useless as he thought he might be. He hadn't long lost the arm and Dad brought him home and we sort of adopted him. I remember at that point I think I must have been about seven I guess, he, he, he had to have his dinner cut up for him so he could eat it with his fork and my mother would stop cutting my meat up for me, which I thought was very mean of her and I'd have a terrible job. We had dreadful old bone-handled knives and I'd be sawing away and it'd flip off onto the table. And I'd be humiliated trying to get my food on my fork and picking up my peas on the prongs, because we weren't allowed to scoop it up in the American style, while he was. He sat next to me and she'd cut up his dinner and he was allowed to splash the gravy about and pick it up and I used to be extremely grumpy about that. However, we effected a marvellous, if unconventional, rehabilitation program because he came down the beach with us and my brothers very meanly made Jack and me a team in French cricket and they were a team. So they used to beat the hell out of us. So we - I remember going down to the beach with him in the dark to practise, you see. I - he had to carry me when he ran - God knows, they must have cooked up these mad rules - and he'd drop me or, you know, we weren't any good at it. But if I was up in the higher part of the beach, we organised the game that way and I'd stand slightly behind him and then he'd give the ball a mighty belt and I would leap for his hip on the right side where he didn't have the arm so his weight was better distributed, he had the arm on this side and then we'd belt off up and down the beach. And we'd practised for hours one night, and we were deadly the next day, we wiped them out. And then Dad took him off and dropped him home and he'd become utterly competent and proficient with his one arm and so obviously it was a great job of rehabilitation which had been effected. And we had seven Marines who adopted us, and were adopted by mother, who were stationed at Ballarat. They'd come down to Geelong for their leave and somehow they'd get distributed around the house, I don't quite know how, and I remember they brought down a turkey for my mother to cook for Thanksgiving. My mother had never cooked a turkey. It was a monstrous failure and they brought down champagne, and we were pretty well a teetotal household. I can remember spitting out the champagne and eating salted peanuts to take away the taste, you know, they were - but they obviously were, loved my mother and they brought down things from the PX store, in fact I think my brother's still got a little wooden case which was a Japanese ammunitions case. But they used to bring down chocolates and comics for us, so we exercised a great deal of power in the neighbourhood at school because we had these desirable American objects.
You certainly weren't saying Yanks go home?
I didn't think of them as aliens in any sense, but I didn't think of them as fighting men either. They were just boys. And then they went to Guadalcanal.
A few of them were killed and I learnt my first lessons about war I think. When I realised what had happened, you know, that they had been sent off with guns to fight and be killed, I was completely appalled and horrified. One was blinded, a very gentle fellow who always carried a flower. And they came back to the house. My favourite had been killed and it seemed to me simply incredible, this happened, when was Guadalcanal, I don't remember. '43 seems right. Never heard of this place and people were still going off, with my mother waving flags, walking, marching along Noble Street. You know it seemed to me bizarre and it still seems to me bizarre.
Yes. Young men, not just being killed, being sent off to kill and be killed and to maim and be maimed and to perform actions which society seemed to think ought to leave no mark on them. Because the man my sister married was I think in the islands and I was once with him when some of his old buddies turned up, Anzac Day I think, and were wanting to reminisce about some of the things they'd done and Geoff was heart-stricken, couldn't bear to remember what they, what he'd had to do, what he had done. And that set up the puzzle for me, it's a terrible thing if you discover your formative years were five till ten or something but that did establish the years of, you know, I've worked on warriors ever since and on the costs of war and on the costs of being victims.
Yeah, and the injustices and the corruptions and the devastations of it and yet young men are meant to go off and do these things and come back and be good husbands and fathers. It is grotesque, I think.
Your own father had been in the First World War. Did he talk to you at all about that?
Yes, infuriatingly, he drove me crazy because I became a radical pacifist in my second year at university when obviously a lot of these childhood memories, which had got overlaid and I hadn't realised how profound they were, were suddenly opened up by a course on war poetry, First World War poetry. And I was an early member of the Pacifist Society and we had poetry readings and we - it was a very good idea to be against war at that point - and I'd ask my father about France where he was an ambulance driver. And he would say, "Oh it was so beautiful. I remember the girl who ran the village cafe and there was an old man with a squeeze-box and the charm and the golden elm trees showering the Australian tents with their golden leaves". He gave me an infatuated tourist's account of France which made me very cross naturally. Didn't suit my fervour at all. And I was angry with him for insisting on this glamourised version because I knew what he'd in fact been in. He was at Ypres, he was at Etaples, you know, there was no doubt what the actuality was because I think trench warfare has got quite a particular horror attached to it, and you know I'd explored that as well as one's able just from reading. And then when he had the stroke which finally killed him, he was flung back. I was with him. In - they'd taken him into Geelong Hospital and he'd be flung back into the mud of France and Flanders and his ambulance had been blown up. They'd hit a mine. And his companion, Billy, his mate, was lost somewhere in the mud and Dad was looking for him, calling out, "Billy, Billy, where are you Billy?" Frantically searching through the mud and of course driving the hospital nurses crazy. Here's this old man screaming for Billy. And whether memory works, whether he'd simply had layers of recollection on top of all that and it had squashed it out of his consciousness and it erupted in those nightmares that came back - because when I said, "It's all right soldier, we've got him", but he carried that horror with him and whether he hid it or whether he kept on puzzling over it, because he'd read a lot on the coming of the war, but it seemed to me that he lacked the final ruthlessness to decide that war was almost always an obscenity and abomination, and I think with a typical modesty he had not wanted to elevate his own experiences too much. And also Churchill was a hero of his. It's a little hard to be a thorough going pacifist if you're a fan of Churchill, so he wasn't. But that memory was there lying in wait for him, to engulf him in his last weeks.
You've described the aspect of the war that you remember that was associated with young men going off to die. For you personally, looking back at the war, those years between five and ten, what is your strongest memory of that time?
It wouldn't, well I suppose it would in a sense have something to do with the war. It was of some people having the right to come into the house, like the air raid wardens who would come in because our black drapes, you know, weren't properly fitted or fixed. It was my father going off to be an air raid warden, would he have been going to be that? Probably. I didn't have a sense of threat in the daylight world. All this blacking out of windows seemed faintly comical but I had nightmares. Lots of dreams but never about Japanese, who were the real and present danger, but about Nazis, storm-troopers. Even at that very early age, I was terrified of Nazis, who I believed spelt their names nasties, and it seemed to me very frightening if people deliberately called themselves that. That meant they would be capable of anything and I proved to be right on that. That wasn't so much, but it wasn't war, it was just childhood to me, that's when I was growing up, going to school and so on. I remember that my brothers and I used to build a fire in the living room or dining room, same thing really, on Sunday nights when we'd be going to listen to Lux Radio Theatre. We wouldn't eat in there. We'd have our baths and then we'd go in there and listen to Harry Dearth's Lux Radio Theatre and we would build a fire in three levels with Goering on the bottom, Goebbels in the middle and Hitler on top, so he took longer to burn. So we went in for sort of our private war, doing what we could. And I remember wondering what in the world could be in newspapers when there was no war because the newspapers were black with maps and descriptions and so on and I had no notion what else could captivate people once the war was over [coughs]. I was actually more impressed consciously with India's independence when it came. [INTERRUPTION]
Well I've only just remembered that something else happened in that, during the war years, which marked it very much and that was knitting circles, where people would sit in our kitchen, I don't know where they came from, and they would knit socks. Horrible khaki socks. And my mother rather endearingly couldn't turn heels so she'd knit these strange columns and then one expert heel turner would come in and flash the needles - and I think they knitted them on four needles - and it seemed to be yet another esoteric feminine skill I had no intention of acquiring. There was a lot of knitting done in the house and shipped off to our boys overseas. But somehow that activity seemed innocent and domestic, it didn't seem to be associated with these packing people off to, to murder. But on the whole we were not much aware of the absence of young men. You know again there was this curious way in which our family missed, as far as ages were concerned. The son of the family next door was a prisoner of war in Germany and came back very gaunt and all he wanted was his sister's baked bread and butter custard. He'd fantasised about it through all those years. But the war was conventional, you know, was, was ordinary and really didn't impact on us very much because we were freed from extreme anxiety. Val was in Sydney when there was a submarine attack but, you know, she was, emerged unscathed obviously. As I was remembering I was very interested in India because I'd done a school project on India and it was probably the first sustained piece of historical enquiry I'd ever done by myself and I still remember it quite well. I'd found it really absorbing so I followed the course of partition and independence in '47, wasn't it? It was my first concern with events outside of my own immediate world.
And that had interested you for any particular reason or only just that it was something that you got deep into?
Yes, I think it was just, I was assigned India, so I did India, and found it engrossing.
Now you went to school and, as you say, your teachers decided you were a scholarship girl and so you were sort of encouraged along a path really by forces outside the house. Did you yourself embrace that path? Did you find that school gave you a love of scholarships, a love of books, a place away to go?
No, because I found it too isolating and too scary at first. It was a long walk to school. It was a very tough school. I have a distinct memory, which is quite clearly false, of being burnt with a white hot wire on my first day at school. I had...
Well, I think probably someone touched me with a wire and told me it was white hot. It seems to me improbable that even at Newtown State kids could get away with heating up a wire to white hottery and branding some new child. It's too melodramatic I think. But I was afraid of the place. I hated it. And we had a very tough and nasty teacher called I think Miss Carroll, a bulbous blonde woman and she ran the infant school, that's preliminary and first year, and she probably didn't like, I mean she probably didn't dislike me particularly but I couldn't read. And I can remember her with horror and fear and what did I do? My mother had failed to write me a note when I'd been ill and I was, you know, she humiliated me and I remember running round and round the school, the school, the block of the school building on the asphalt. It was a classic depressed looking old state school. Red brick with dusty peppercorn trees, asphalt, nothing but asphalt. There were only two male teachers plus Mr Tilley the headmaster and they would vanish into their, what, the common room or whatever it was. So it was in, in my recollection it was an absolute wilderness during, you know, play breaks and lunch. Really mayhem. And so in time I escaped all those problems by becoming the least member of the most formidable gang, which was the way to survive. The leader of the gang is now a distinguished Victorian judge but I will not give you his name. It always makes me laugh when I see him sitting up on the bench [laughs]. And then I remember when I did decide on a life of scholarship as it were, I was a very bad student and I couldn't read and then I finally learnt to read, with difficulty, and then - that was in second grade. And in third grade I have, I have, I write a shocking hand and even then when I really tried to write well, you know, when the teacher pointed there'd be blots appearing at the end of her finger and you know I couldn't understand what had happened to my piece of work when she'd go over it with rage. And there was a teacher called Miss Cantwell, a very wide lady and she - we only had the one teacher for the whole year, so you were doomed if you got into a bad relationship with her - and she had a pet called Kenny Lehmann who was a flush faced, plump boy. And if you got to be top of the class, you got to stand on the desk. In a not very subtle bit of supremacy, and I decided because I hated Miss Cantwell and she loved Kenny Lehmann, I was going to beat him in the exams and I would stand on top of the desk despite my rotten handwriting. And I did. So, then the next year we had a wonderful teacher called Miss Stewart, very austere, hair dragged back, cold, disciplined, but she really knew how to run a class, I think. I really enjoyed her year. And so then I had Mrs O'Loughlin who arranged for my exile from the school before I was in sixth grade. So I find it hard to believe the school was as tough as I remember it but this sort of thing would happen. If two boys were fighting, or if one boy was beating up another boy, which was more commonly the situation, and they were noticed by Mr Butterworth who was the male in charge of discipline, he would say all right then, after school, behind the shelter sheds. And that meant that after school a ring would be made behind the shelter sheds and these two boys would be meant to bare-knuckle fight. And that seemed to me ridiculous because most of the time it was one boy beating up another boy. This spurious notion of fair play and a fair fight. So what would happen is, you know, the, the weaker child would get bashed up by the stronger child so he could have the humiliation public instead of just an incident in the playground. So, you know, I really thought - and we also got the strap and, well girls would get a ruler over the back of the hands but the edge of a ruler on chilblained hands. Chilblains have gone out of fashion, I don't know what's happened to them, but in my day everyone had chilblains and it's a mystery to me...
Houses and schools weren't heated.
I suppose that was it, yes, we had the fire in the kitchen and that was it and chilblains are caused by chill, are they? But, you know, I can remember there were twins, one large, one small, they weren't identical twins. And they would actually have sores on their chilblains and I can remember them being hit across the knuckles with a ruler by Miss Carroll and...
Oh sometimes. I took it badly.
Lifetime of bitter hatred. No, I thought it unforgivable so I didn't often get hit actually because if you're got some mad midget glaring at you [laughs], you know, steely, it's a little hard to hit them, probably. I certainly got away with a lot. However, I remember Mr Tilley the headmaster with great affection. He was a large man, grey man, like an elephant, his hair was all rubbed off at the back, just a few little tufts sticking up, little twinkly grey eyes and he taught us poetry in fifth grade and, you know, we'd have 'The Wreck of the Hesperus' and 'The High Women' and all sorts of great poetry. I discovered that classes could be a lot of fun then, I really liked them.
You were slow to read and to write. Where - when did you cotton on to language in the way that is so characteristic of you now?
I think probably pretty young, I think probably at state school. We used to have to parse things, and I thought parsing was great. I really enjoyed it. And spelling bees, we used to have spelling bees, and I'd always fetch up on top of the desk with spelling bees. I don't know, I think I was late to get to it and then my mother, we had very few books in the house, but my mother had gone to - what do you call those schools that churches run? Sunday school. And she'd got prizes for her Sunday school attendance and conduct and all that, and the prizes were the great nineteenth century novels. And so I read them in these funny muddy little grey paged books with red covers where the red would come off on your hands, so you'd be covered in red. And I read them in a very weird way, you know I'd concentrate on quite the wrong passages, but I certainly loved them and enjoyed them and we even had the collected tragedies of Shakespeare which someone implausibly had given my parents for their wedding as a little bit of portable culture, you know, here we are. And I'd read them at an early age, and thought it was pretty good. So, you know, I can't remember when I read fluently and comfortably and a lot, but I did.
If you had to sum up what your school years has meant to you in the broader sweep of your life, you know, that, that later - what do you think you got out of that time? First of all at the state school and then later at the high school.
I think at the state school I got that old-fashioned thing, a well grounded education. Spelling, parsing, a taste for precision probably came out of the parsing, a fear of large active groups, a dislike of authority, all manner of useful things. The secondary school, the college, a sense of space and that one could win and hold privilege by fluency, something by articulateness. That you needn't worry about disparities in wealth, if you concentrated, if you refocused interest on things to do with the mind.
And what things to do with the mind gripped your imagination when you were at high school?
Almost anything. I mean I remember little now. I do remember Shakespeare. We used to have a thing called Shakespeare Day. I have played most of the major male roles in Shakespeare, I'm happy to be able to tell you, because I was tall and dark and articulate. So naturally. Thank God I never really attempted Lear, that would have been a problem, but it is amazing to me now to realise the intimacy of my knowledge of a lot of Shakespeare and I got it there by teaching, because I now think our English teacher had a genuine passion for literature, but unluckily she liked Wordsworth which I've never managed to do. I think I might have got a sense of style from a very cool history teacher who was the one who tripped all the way to our front door to say I should go on which I ungraciously rejected as an intrusion.
Yeah, well there was absolutely nothing else to be done with me. I mean I was inept on all the practical things, totally, and, you know, no one would dream of trying to introduce me to a typewriter or anything like that. So, you know, practised ineptitude is a very useful thing to have.
I've never made a scone in my life, I can't imagine how anyone does. Even though I've watched my mother whip up batches, even though my sister who never did when she was at home suddenly could do all that stuff. I've cooked two cakes in my life and that's enough.
How do you think you were regarded by the other girls at school? If they had to describe you collectively, as it were, how do you think they saw you? What did they make of you?
Well I had a couple of very good friends. I would typically go in for having one very close friend. I got elected house captain, so they presumably liked me. I really have very little idea. One of the most interesting things I think about how we live in the world is that we don't know anything of the standard gossip or the standard character we're given by our closest friends. We know how we describe them, and they're very well marked. We know exactly what they're up to and what they're not up to, but when it comes to thinking what they make of us, I don't think we know at all. I find it fairly baffling.
To see ourselves as others see us?
Well I think one can't. I know that I was wondering when I'd been thinking about Dad and I was wondering whether he was in fact an impatient man. I could see him moving briskly, you know, zipping in and out. I could see all that but I didn't know if he was impatient, actually. He was simply the way he was. And I raised this with some friends and said, "You know, I really don't know if he was. David thought he was, you know, I wonder if, you know, for all I know I might be impatient" and they'd burst out laughing. Apparently I'm incredibly impatient but I didn't know that. And I know when an Indian restaurant didn't send the right food when I was having the family around and I was on the phone and very angry with them, and apparently stamped my foot, and I didn't know this was - you know, then my sons were laughing their heads off because I'm the only person they know who actually stamps her foot when she gets in a paddy. I didn't think I got into paddies but I do. So I really have no notion how kids at school would have viewed me. I saw nothing of them when I left but that was because I left, you know, I, I moved off into an absolutely different milieu. I saw one girl, that's all.
Yes, I left Geelong too. I left, you know, the whole scene.
While we're still there in your adolescence, when did you first become aware of boys as...
Toys. Not the word I intended to...
I had a boyfriend in the gang but he was assigned to me and he wasn't the boy I had my eye on, but as happens to all gangster's molls you're just handed out and it had no consequences, one was just known to be his. I became - there was one boy at state school who delivered our paper who I liked a lot. He was quite a lot older than I was, I already had a taste for older men. And I have a clear recollection of him having found an injured possum - this again can't be true, it's some dramatised memory - having put the possum, buttoned the possum inside his shirt and was fighting off other boys who would have killed it and his chest was badly lacerated by the terrified possum. Now I don't actually think that would have happened but something close enough to that happened for me to see him as a hero, and I think he was a hero. I used to go down when I was adolescent and score for my brother's cricket team and I liked those men. There was something kind, relaxed but elegant about them as they played down at Queens Park which is a beautiful little cricket ground and they were especially good afternoons. But schoolboys were too young. I tended to like the lairy ones who'd go and get themselves expelled and of course who didn't pursue a female brain, you see. I tended to attract lugubrious types who bored me out of my mind. However, my good times came when I'd go off down the coast, now to stay with an aunt - we'd stopped taking beach houses, but an aunt always took one and took down a tribe of cousins - and we'd sometimes go off to dances along the coast. Down to Kennett River which is a loggers' camp, place, many loggers there and Wye River and later when I was in leaving, I went and stayed with my father at Erskine House for a week or ten days. I think he wanted me to be launched into society and I used to nick out along the beach to the public dance hall, which was amazing, and that's when I became aware not of boys, but of men.
The usual way. [laughs] Well, you know, you'd have your eye - you'd like the look of someone and they would with any luck dance with you and they would have the last dance with you and then they'd take you home.
And in those days what happened when they took you home? Was it different from now?
I'm not sure what they do now, I'd hate to think of my granddaughter getting involved in what I got involved in. I think what happened with me was that at 15 I was perfectly ready to have sex. I wanted to, thought it was a smashing idea in so far as I understood exactly what went on, because while my brother was a lot of use to me in every other regard, when he explained sex to me, which no one else in the household was going to do, it was all X and Y chromosomes, it was nothing that was any help to me. I wanted to know who put what where and [laughs] he wasn't going to tell me that. And it would be a mix of romanticism but mainly it was just straight attraction, a particular man would somehow please you enormously and the same type still does as the one that pleased me when I was 15 and with any luck if you - obviously something lights up and normally they will appear.
Well there are several types actually but that particular type was dark skinned, dark haired, aloof. There's another one you've seen, I liked the look of John when I saw his photograph when I was 16. But fairly restricted, I must say I've never understood women who are attracted to plain men because they have power. It seems to me that a quite high standard of good looks is required.
In those days there was enormous prohibitions on an active sex life for a girl until she was married or at least engaged. Did that not touch you at all?
I think I was extremely lucky. My family - my father and mother gave me no advice on sex at all. The notion that one could get pregnant didn't impact upon me. I obviously ran crazy risks. I would - I led - it was again a bit like the freedoms of childhood. Going into situations which would have to be described as extreme moral danger as a matter of course and obviously sometimes things got out of hand and I could have easily got myself raped a couple of times and it would have been my fault. I was under age as well. Because I simply went along to see what would happen and then things would get out of hand. So I don't know about this stuff about inactive sex lives. It seems to me that ignorance and innocence were much more common then, and my 14 year old granddaughter seems knowledgeable and sensible and she'd be much less likely to be led by pure curiosity and devilry, I think, than I was, because she knows more about it whereas I was just seeing what would happen next.
What did your mother tell you about womanhood? Did she give you the usual talk about menstruation and so on?
She gave me a talk about menstruation which left me with the impression that you could get a sudden gush of blood. She said it was like urinating but that you didn't know it was happening. So I had this horrific vision of sitting up in the Corio Theatre or something, cinema and getting a gush of blood. So she was very bad at explaining it and she also gave me a more considered version, obviously with great embarrassment, when she was cleaning a chicken. We didn't often have chickens but she was thrusting her hand in and out of this cavity and talking about the little eggs that form in the female womb and pulling out these pinkish, grapeish looking things like egg yolks in slime and dumping them. And the hand going in and out, as she was telling me this "and every month there's a new little egg" and then she put the chicken under the tap and turned the tap on hard and then she dumped it on the draining sink and here was this inert little person, you know, flabby and violated and I thought "Wow, is that what happens?" It was a bad scene and clearly she was doing a job which repelled her and I was there and it brought to mind something she felt she ought to tell me.
Did she normally have such a great sense of theatre?
I think she possibly did but she didn't recognise it as a sense of theatre. I think she might of, yeah. It was pity it worked that way this time but luckily it was so wild that I thought "My golly, what am I being told here?"
I see what you mean when you say you're glad she didn't tell you about sex.
Yes [laughs], well,what would she tell me? I mean how do you tell anyone about sex? It's impossible. When, with childbirth, I remember me saying, asking the only question that mattered, "You know, does it hurt?" And she said, "Bones must part, Inga. Bones". And I thought, and I said, "No, they don't have to part. What bones have to part?" "Bones must part." [laughs] She obviously thought it felt as if they did. So - but there was a sort of mystique then about child bed, not about marriage beds, just about child bed. People were, you know, it, it gave you a reason I suspect to say to men in these middle class households, no, you're not getting back into the marriage bed after what I've been through. I suspect it did, I don't know.
When was your first really significant relationship with a man? How old were you?
Well, what's significant? I mean this moderately brief encounter down at Wye River was very significant to me because it was the first time I felt real erotic excitement and I thought, "Wow, there's more to all this than I thought", so that was significant all right. I went to university, oh no, before I went to university, I had a relationship with a guy who's alive, so I don't want to talk about it, but he was older, quite a lot older than I was and he wasn't a serious prospect for me. I was doing that thing that young girls do called practising and it was bad for him. Catastrophic for him. And at the university I had another relationship rather like that where I wasn't really engaged and another one and then John and I got together and I found he was unmanipulable which I was quite pleased about. He was ten years older than I was and he had a big leather jacket and he smoked a pipe and he had a whole lot of curly hair, blond hair. It was pretty nice. He had a car. Was a lecturer. So we got married in my third year.
How old were you when you got married?
Twenty and he forgot my 21st birthday. [laughs] Poor John.
You escaped your life in Geelong, or left it behind, shrugged it off and went to university in Melbourne. What did that period mean for you in terms of your general development? How much did you miss Geelong and what did you find as an alternative life?
I missed Geelong not at all. I went back in my first vacation and hung about like an unquiet spirit. I hated it. Had nothing to do, no connection with anything, none. It didn't occur to me to see any of my school friends who I'd not seen for a year anyway except at the Boat Race Ball in March or something. I'm surprised, and even shocked, at the firmness with which I left Geelong behind but I had - you see, Morongo was a boarding school and day girls but it wasn't as if I'd gone to Geelong High which was the only high school there and which gave you a nexus of people who remained in situ and you went on socialising with them. That had happened to my two brothers and my sister and superficially I resented the fact I hadn't had a chance to develop that kind of horizontal connection with Geelong through my peers. In reality I didn't mind it at all. I made no effort to keep any of the day girl friends I'd had and I shook Geelong from my feet. In fact I had a strange experience when I went back there, only a couple of years ago. I had to go up to town from Anglesea to Geelong, from Anglesea for a blood test, and the pathology lab was quite close I thought to my father's old factory, so I, the site of my father's old factory, so I parked up there and discovered I had to walk along, I'd been a block out, I had to walk along a long narrow street that ran along the back of St Mary's Cathedral. And I began to walk down this long narrow street with an extremely narrow footpath and six foot high rough paling fences which were leaning out somewhat. You felt that the householders were trying to poach a little bit of extra territory. And there was no vegetation except for the odd dusty dandelion thrusting through the asphalt and it seemed very hot and on the St Mary's side there was a lot of stringy, old, dry bushes that had been allowed to spill out and the road was, the path was too broken to be walked on. And as I walked uneasily along, almost with one foot in the gutter, leaning sideways out from the fence, I was overcome with an extraordinary sort of anxious melancholy, a panicky, claustrophobic sense that I'd never get to the end of this goddamn street, that I was enclosed and trapped. And everything about it seemed redolent with a bad significance and I'd had no idea I'd been so unhappy in Geelong. But it was a kind of distilled message: you hated it here. Specially in those territories which I'd very rarely cross. They were still the outside world that my mother was so afraid of, because they hadn't been tamed by regular usage, so the malevolence seems still there and it continued to pervade Geelong and I think Geelong is a terrifically pretty place. It has beautiful buildings. I think Moorabool Street leaping down to the sea is one of the most exhilarating streets in the world but it's not for me. There is this sense of oppression about it. So I obviously was glad to leave it.
And what did you discover at the university?
Well I discovered on my very - I was put into a room at Women's College, a shared room. The other girl had shared a Shakespeare prize with me, we'd both got, we'd shared the exhibition thing, and that's presumably why they put us in together. She was a very pretty girl and she walked around the room naked, and I thought, streuth [laughs] because that was one thing that, you know, our household had gone in for modesty. So I was very impressed, and she painted, which I was pleased about, and on my first night I was adopted by a slightly older girl and I was at an ALP club meeting and Clyde Holding was the president and it was later Clyde who introduced me to John. You know, I mean, in a second I was absorbed in a quite different world of politics and social action. And meanwhile I went, I was doing History and English, literature was my chief love, I don't quite know why I did History as well, but you could do a combined honours degree. And then I fell out of love with English literature very quickly. The department seemed affected, self-conscious, mentally confused and - except for English language which surprisingly I liked a lot. It was taught by a man called Keith McCartney who was a brilliant lecturer and who managed to make transformation of vowel sounds absolutely compelling. I was very surprised to find I loved it. And I became more and more involved with the History Department which was a curious department because it was - it must have been preposterously accessible to its honours students, because I can remember being on friendly terms, not on student teacher terms, with staff members, certainly by my second year. Going to films with them. We used to have end of year parties for honours students and staff and they were extremely convivial occasions that would go on till very late and possibly the most important thing - the History Department at that point was run by a man called Max Crawford who'd been appointed as a young man with no academic experience really and who turned out to be a great teacher and a great creator of a university department, and a man of singular moral courage. I'd already found him because he'd written a small book called 'The Renaissance and Other Essays' and in HSC, as it is now called, Year, Year 12, whatever they call it, I'd taken the Renaissance as one of my histories and I'd read this book of essays and I had fallen in love with it and with the essays and with the vision of the past having once really been alive, which is a well-kept secret in the writings of most historians, never for a moment believe those characters had been real. And Crawford had the knack of making them real and establishing a connection with you and them, mediated by him. So, and before that, books had been these mysterious things on, in libraries and on shelves but of course you never knew the person who'd written them. They belonged to some godlike breed, they lived in some other place altogether. So for Crawford to exist and be there and be lecturing to me seemed to me quite astonishing. And obviously I must have developed some sense of intellectual discipline at that point too because I seriously embarrassed a very fresh-faced young tutor. They used, they'd train you by letting you give the occasional lecture and this fresh-faced young tutor who's turned into Ken Inglis, K.S. Inglis, gave a lecture on Italian humanists and I'd been wrestling with the humanists, and I hadn't been able to comprehend them. I couldn't get the connections between their different positions, I just had - they were still unmapped, and he mapped them for me. And I stumbled up to him when the lecture was over, obviously glowing, you know, sort of saying, "Mr Inglis, that was just wonderful", and he was utterly taken aback, he's never forgotten it. Scuttled out of the building, you know, but clearly I was then ready to respond to acts of intellectual distinction.
But Crawford did a kinder thing and a more remarkable thing. He was a gentleman, a cultivated gentleman, the first one I had ever seen, because in Geelong we were all philistines and he was prepared to display his cultivation, without condescension, to a provincial girl. You know, the Melbourne History Department was my Paris. I had exactly that sense of an expanding world and another lovely man and his friend took John and me off to their house, fed us a beautiful dinner and then we listened to Wagner till four in the morning, and I had no idea people did that kind of thing. So I had, I had a milieu where a quick tongue was an advantage, instead of viewed as an aggressive weapon, and a lot of people, but most particularly Crawford, who would exhibit, as it were, the graces of a cultivated mind because he properly understood that as one of his duties.
When did you get the idea that you might be one of these people that were opening up the world to you?
Women played a peculiar role in the department at that point. It's a contested role now as things have got more ideologised. I think there was a kind of assumption by the men that women would not achieve high seriousness in scholarship, but that they brought different graces to it. There was a woman called Kathleen Fitzpatrick who's written a book with what I thought was the hilarious title 'Solid Bluestone Foundations' but no one else thought that was funny. My mother always referred to her terrifying corsets as foundation garments, you know, solid bluestone ones would have been something else. It's a charming book and she was an associate professor but she was someone who we all were meant to agree had not fulfilled her real promise. There was that kind of notion. Men were given the scholarships and girls were expected to go on and be tutors. Men were given the scholarships partly because the strong connections were all to England and to Oxford and to Balliol, you know, all-male colleges were a bit of a problem. So, you know there was that kind of orientation of the serious intellectual endeavour but it seemed to me that women were cultivated and permitted to play a kind of - this sounds contemptuous, it's not meant to be, it was a great role to be offered - a kind of salon role. And of course it suited me because I was married to John, I wanted a tutorship and I got one, but I did no research at all because they worked you very hard as a tutor but I also had no ambitions to do any writing or research. I really did see that as a higher kind of destiny I suppose and not one that I wanted.
Not one that you wanted or not one that you felt you could claim?
I didn't want it. I loved teaching. I had the two boys and found the most you have ever felt in that. Nothing seemed half as important as my extraordinary ability to produce these miracles, you know. I didn't want, I had no intention, I mean I had no interest in babies or having babies and people kept watching me for the full nine months waiting for me to develop a maternal instinct. I didn't until they actually appeared and then it was effortless. So I was leading a very happy, a very busy life and I had no interest in retreating, as it would have seemed to me, from the world to do research and I only began to write and to research in history when I saw the writing on the wall, when the boys were adolescent. We were away in America, John took them off to Big Bend, to camp in Texas, to Big Bend to camp for three weeks and I stayed home to write, that was the first decision taken that from now on - I mean, well I'd written an MA on, which turned into 'Ambivalent Conquests', but I'd done that very slowly and, but I had been to Mexico, which it mattered to me a lot.
Can you put your finger on what it was that shifted you from someone content with being a tutor to someone who actually wanted to do something on a bigger scale?
I found I liked writing but it really only was when I saw the hole opening up in my life, of the boys growing up, that I quite consciously shifted stride. You see it was '81, I think, that I had my first publication of an international article and Steve would have been, he was born in 1960, so 21. Gone. And then I was obviously going to have to be a different person, differently engaged.
So you do feel that this choice to, for those years that the boys were growing up, allowing yourself to be in this tutor role with your career, as it were, subordinate to your private life, that that was your choice and not something that arose, even unconsciously in you, out of the expectations of the department as you've described them?
They were also indulgent. If I'd said firmly, I'm going to stop tutoring because I want to do some serious research, I'm confident I'd have got, at least moral support, I wouldn't have got financial support, but I would have got moral support, I believe. I actually think it's a great nuisance and it's very hard on girls but I do think that it is important for quite a few years for there to be no doubt which parent is primarily responsible for the well-being of the children. You know I just - it worked out easily for me because it's what I wanted and I don't - I always had help in the house, I always kept a job, you know, I was tutoring. I would have hated to be home with the kids full time. As it was I paid for the services of someone who was a devoted aunt to them, you know, a loving hearted aunt who brought another family into their milieu. They didn't, I don't think they suffered for it, they don't say they suffered for it. But - and John at that point was the primary bread winner, because he had a more senior position and so he'd decide where we'd go on study leave and so on. I think it would have led to difficulties in our relationship if I had asserted a right to full equality in, say, choices of what place we went. In the same way it would have led to great strains on our relationship if he'd attempted to interfere too far in my basic care of the children, too far, I mean he was a great father but - and he knew quite well that if it came to a choice situation, I'd chose the children, which seems to me the way it ought to be.
You'd looked at your mother's life and you'd looked at your sister's life and you'd said, no way, and yet you married at 20. Very young. Why did you decide to get married so young?
We got sick of the back of the Peugeot. I liked him, I trusted him. I'd already had some relationships that I'd, you know, I'd escaped fairly unscathed but I'd done a lot of scathing. I didn't like that. And his parents, his mother, his father had died - he wanted to marry and to my surprise it made a difference to him. I didn't see why it should make any difference except to placate the oldies, you know, but to him it did. I think he felt a desire for that kind of security probably, you'd have to ask him to be sure, but it felt like that to me. I was taken aback that getting married wasn't just a sop to the others.
What do you think it was that he liked about you? You've told us what you liked about him.
I don't know and I really don't know. He has always said he's never fallen in love with anyone, so I keep threatening him, he'll get bowled over in another five years, he'll destroy himself. No, I don't know. He thought I was physically attractive I suppose.
You don't think it had anything to do with your style of mind?
Well he certainly had a lot of dim women, must have made a change. Possibly, I don't know. He has been of great help to me in cleaning up my thinking. You get sick of losing arguments with logicians and so you tend to think harder and more carefully and now I can probably hold my own. But for a long time I couldn't and that was very useful because historians aren't very careful about clear thinking, I don't think. So - and we've always talked a lot, you know, we've had rocky patches, as people always do, but it always seemed to each of us I think that the commitment to children is a very serious one and you don't rob children of their father or their mother for light reasons.
He's a philosopher. Did he ever teach you?
No, would have been the end of it if he had, wouldn't it? No, no, he was on the Philosophy staff, I never took Philosophy. No, I wouldn't have liked that I don't think.
How quickly did the children come?
Oh not for ages. We were married for five years before I got pregnant. And John, but not me, thought perhaps we'd have a problem when we wanted to have children because he couldn't understand how we'd hadn't managed to have one given our rather primitive contraceptive methods but in fact we got it on the knocker. We were extremely smug. Steve was born on the 19th of November in, just at the end of the examination period, so I could draw breath nicely and then dive into the papers. And Rich was born in Swot Vac, and, you see, you know, the huge privilege I had in having a university job which allowed, you know, had extended vacation periods or non-obligatory teaching periods. And where I had a father of six children, he was my senior lecturer and he would come up with the exam papers with Steve, when I had Steve at home in Eltham. And he would - he came in one boiling hot day and Steve was dying of heat in his little bassinet and this expert father of six rigged him up in a sling of a muslin towel in a flash. And so I had his expertise as practised father on how to deal with small hot babies and they were all pleased, you know. I mean I had no sense of anything - I taught until the last conceivable minute. I was in labour on both occasions before I left the university. It was good.
You said everybody was rather surprised to see you become maternal once the children were born, they hadn't quite expected it.
Well I hadn't shown any interest in children or liking for babies or children at all.
I was relieved. I was amazed at the clarity of the feelings, you know, they're - you know those little celluloid dolls used to be around, had lead in the bottom, so that if you bipped them they'd come back up. Well even though I'd obviously seemed quite forceful, I had no sense of being an entity, a moral being if you like, and when I saw Steve, I became one.
Well, I mean that I had a role and a duty and a clarity of purpose I hadn't had before.
To look after that little fella and to make sure he was happy. To make sure no one injured him. To make sure he did as much as possible what he wanted, you know, that I would have to be there, you know, all the usual things. The package deal of obligations. But I had no idea it would be such a delight.
You're somebody who has thought about things and intellectualised things in your life, you know, put sense to them, thought about them, brought the power of intellect to everything that happened to you. Was it harder to do that with the children? Did you find that the emotion...
Oh fascinating. You see I don't like the notion of intellectualisation which seems to leave emotion behind. That it isn't the way it seems to me. It seems to me that intellect is always infused by emotion, otherwise it's mere cerebral exercise, it's eerie stuff. I was astonished and delighted by discovering I was an animal, you know, I was amazed at how well I performed in labour, as if I was born to it. The feeling of athleticism as you produce the baby and help the baby out. It is like discovering that you can speak Chinese or something. You have no idea you could do it and you are doing it. I'd had, at that stage in Melbourne natural childbirth wasn't around but I sought out the one woman who instructed you in techniques and practised them and they seemed to me very good, gave you a sense of control and knowing what was happening. And that was also true with Rich who was born very quickly. And then I was fascinated, I'd be on a tram rushing to get home to Steve and a baby would cry and my breasts would squirt milk in the most ridiculous fashion and I'd be drenched, but I, you know, I found all that absolutely amazing. My body had - you discover your body, I know, through sex, that's true. But this was a whole different discovery of a maternal body that I didn't - and that when they suck at the breast the womb contracts. All those kinds of beautifully wired in things that make it all work, I was very impressed.
When you had raised these beautiful children and you decided that it was now time for you to become a more serious scholar, a more devoted scholar, how did you chose the area of interest that you were going to pursue?
Well the superficial story is the usual one of accident plus career choice plus teaching needs. You know, I'd been lucky, enormously lucky in the person I worked with at Melbourne, where I was first, because there was a man who was a particularly gifted teacher, a man called Laurie Gardiner. I've worked with other people earlier to great advantage but Laurie took me into first year teaching and taught me how to teach and taught me how to examine and to understand that the two activities are absolutely distinct. And he was teaching a course on the expansion of Europe, or the creation of Europe, if you like, and I was allocated an honours segment on the expansion of Europe so there I was with Spaniards heading towards the Americas and I accidentally - John was going on leave, I needed to research a topic to keep me occupied part time while the kids would be at kinder and whatever, first year school. And I began to research on a particular - no, I began to do a man who should have been interesting, was terribly dull - but after four o'clock, every day I would read on Yucatan. Just for an hour, because I'd always liked it, just liked reading about Yucatan. And then I stumbled across this man called Diego de Landa who - I thought there were two of them at first because one man called Diego de Landa had written a marvellously tender recollection of the things of Yucatan describing above all the Maya Indians with such insight and domestic affection for them as well as, you know, he was impressed with their intellectual achievements and so on, but so much of it had to do with the close observations of daily life. How mothers treated their children, for example, and how marvellously plump and pretty the babies were. And then there was this other Diego de Landa who'd led a reign of terror through those provinces when the Franciscan friars who'd been working in the territory thought they discovered evidence of human sacrifice with some periodic Christian additions, like preliminary crucifixion of victims, after these Indians had been officially converted. So they proceeded to punish them, to torture them, to get confessions out of them at any cost. So much so it became a scandal in Spain and was stopped, you know, they, it was a great scandal and a great cruelty. And they were the same men. He had written the tender account after he had left Yucatan having done that and yet he had suppressed all reference to that recrudescence of so called idolatry and to his own role in torturing, leading the campaign of torture against the Indians. So naturally there it was. So it was serendipity but also clearly, as I now know, I've always been interested in extreme behaviour under conditions which can be defined as a kind of war, because these were militant Christians. It was a war against the devil they were waging, and therefore when the chips came down no holds at all were barred. So, it was very seductive and I wrote about Landa and his missionary friars and got my MA from that but one of the examiners, who was an old friend of mine who'd trained in anthropology at Harvard - I'd said, "You know, I've written a paragraph or two on why it was impossible to penetrate the Indians when all we had was Spanish sources" - and he said, "Well I don't see why". And I thought, my golly, perhaps it isn't. So I proceeded to do that.
At what stage of your university career did you move from teaching into putting more emphasis on research? Could you context that for me?
I don't think I ever did because I see the activities as absolutely complementary but where my life suddenly expanded was when I left the University of Melbourne, where I was only a tutor, which is essentially a temporary but extendable position. Had a year away when John took sabbatical leave with the children and I was able to go down to Mexico and I went down for a month, actually, on my own and then they came down and joined me. And I was already pursuing a research topic. I'd found Diego de Landa, we've talked about him, but when I came back, La Trobe University was just being founded. It was to have a big history department and it was being established by a remarkably dynamic and idealistic historian called Allan Martin. His wife Jean was also Professor of Sociology and was one of the first people to work systematically on the migrants who were coming into Australia at that point. And they both, for some reason I've now forgotten, decided that Mexico would be a great first year subject that you could have half a year with the historians and then the sociologists would take over. Now that was the beginning of an extraordinary teaching university where all the staff in History and in Sociology were deeply absorbed with improving teacher student relationships. At Melbourne they'd been good but we had taught in the old-fashioned tutorial with 50 minutes, you know, people sitting around trying to get a conversation going about some past moment. At La Trobe we introduced three hour workshops. So we would take a slice of people's lives and we also kept another hour for films and things like that. I mean you couldn't possibly do Mexican history without seeing Marlon Brando in 'Viva Zapata' and we had a lecture, a more formal lecture, to give a continuing strand. But the innovation were the workshops and I must say they went brilliantly. La Trobe had a very different student clientele from Melbourne. At Melbourne people did tend to mumble because of the silver spoon in their mouth. This very much annoys people who are still at Melbourne University but it was true. On the whole you had sophisticated kids who knew what it was reasonable for a university to demand of them, because their brothers and sisters had gone through university, Melbourne University at that. At La Trobe we had kids, first generation migrant kids or first generation Australian working class kids. They had no notion of what could be expected of them. The university was a scary new world. At La Trobe we also had a marvellous innovation called the Early Leavers Scheme. People who had through necessity left school at 14 or earlier, but who always had a desire to come back, could if they went through a very gruelling selection process. They had to write an essay on why I want to come back to the, go to the university. They had to write a short essay or book review, and these are people who'd had no practise in writing for years in most cases. And they had to front up to a terrifying interview with four or five senior academics and we would interrogate them, and while we were all volunteers and all deeply in favour of the scheme, it must have been a very scary thing. However, the people who came through it would be great nuisances in their first year because they would be so unself-confident. They'd fuss and they'd be sad and they'd get terribly worried and then they'd get their A's for the year which they were always going to get and then they'd be set. And those people would do anything for you. They were marvellous students. Many of them were mature age, you know, very mature age. The students, the young students sometimes moaned about having the early leavers but in fact you got the most preposterous alliances between - I had one class where the tight alliance was between a 75 year old woman and an 18 year old boy and they managed to control the class in a most extreme fashion, I thought. The other innovation - do you want to hear about the workshop method?
Particularly as it relates to you and what you enjoyed about it.
Ah well, I enjoyed everything about it. I think getting to know other people's minds is one of the most fascinating and absorbing and educational processes you can be involved in. And having to find ways to introduce people to the real and absorbing problems of history is a deep pleasure to me. We used to bring these disparate people in for their first workshop, they wouldn't know anybody, they would be frightened. They didn't know what they should be doing, what might be asked of them. And we would make them play something called The Name Game. [INTERRUPTION]
We borrowed the notion of The Name Game from educational innovators of the time. The students would be divided into pairs, just where they happened to sit, no selection. One would be nominated A, one would be nominated B. A would interview B about their childhood for ten minutes and they would - they were all warned that what they said would, might be spoken about later so we didn't want true confessions they didn't want aired. And then B would interview A and then we'd go back to the whole group and A would tell us about B from what he or she had been told in the interview and then B looking severely startled at what happens when other people represent you would talk about A and so on round the group. Now the superficial, the overt aim of this game was that people would learn names but of course much more crucial things were happening. They were getting used to talking in a big room. They were getting used to representing someone else from what they could remember of what they'd said and of course the whole thing opened into some marvellous methodological problems because I'd then ask them, "Okay, what did you think childhood was?" because some people stopped their notion of childhood at the end of primary school, other people went on to the end of secondary school. One other person, one person was struggling not to relinquish it, I remember, in a very first class, saying "No, no, I haven't finished it yet. I'm still hanging in there". So effortlessly they had spent three hours often - I mean they loved the sociability, they need to get to meet people at university and here suddenly they would know 15 or 16 people, pretty well, so they could have coffee with them without embarrassment - and they were also beginning to learn lessons about thinking in class individually and then putting their insights together and expressing themselves without terror, because there's not a right answer for any of this, and they were also being introduced to the way that unstated conceptualisations, like one's image of childhood, control what one says in what looks like a free situation. So we were off and running. And after that the workshops always had the format where the students discussed themselves given work. We then pooled what had been found out by them and I'd systematise it a bit, covertly on the blackboard, so it was easier to work from later, and we'd then look at the underpinning concepts and do some critical analysis of them. And I was astounded at how quickly they developed real sharpness in these kinds of areas. Now that meant I could take them into extremely difficult material, which no one in America would try on postgrads, in their second and third year because I took on my own course in the second and third year, on analysing extremely difficult documents drawn from the Aztec period. And initially they'd be bamboozled but then they would work like beavers and they would come to read them with marvellous sensitivity and what impressed me was that they became self-critical as they did it. They realised that people were humans, even these peculiar people called Aztecs who did very peculiar things to themselves and to others, they were humans all right, but they really saw the world differently, and they became fascinated in how they did see the world and how these different views added up to a coherent and plausible whole. So it was pretty damn sophisticated stuff, these pass students at second and third year were doing and you can see how that fed directly into the issue of how I'd communicate my own research, because it flushed out my own unstated assumptions and prejudices too. So it was, you know, exciting, enjoyable, learning how this marvellously various range of minds actually worked, and it was of immeasurable help to me also in clarity of statement, because if you're not clear and you're not interesting people are going to stop reading and kids are going to stop listening.
You've said that you really liked the teaching because it was wonderful to get an insight into how other people's minds work. Was there anything particularly about teaching history that you enjoyed too?
Oh sure because they could be faced with exotic situations - you had to make them realise these people were exotic. It's often difficult. The temptation is to think that the people in the past are ourselves in fancy dress, you know, a lot of practising and alas historians operate on that assumption. But if you take a seriously exotic culture, and Amerindian cultures are seriously exotic to us, they've developed on their own without European intrusion until the late 15th century, so they really do march to a different drum. And it seems to me there's a vast advantage in teaching out of such a culture. For one thing no one is advantaged. You know English-speaking background, Italian-speaking background, who cares? It's not going to help you with Aztecs. Secondly, there are no entrenched positions. It's very hard to do a class analysis, I'm happy to say, of Aztec society. The rules of social organisation are different. It's very difficult to apply any ready-made theory to them. They can't be easily dealt with in conventional political terms, and I think that eased relationships within the class vastly. No one was advantaged, and no one had a prior position, except some of the Christians and they were a bit of a difficulty. But, so I would - I remember arguing the case for a compulsory first year subject in Aztec history before a row of stone faced Australianists who thought this was rank heresy, you know, appalling, but I still think it's true. It shakes people out of conventional thinking, taken for granted thinking, into pure astonishment at how different other people are.
During that period that you were teaching really quite intensely because it started at Melbourne and moved to La Trobe and covered 20 years really -more...
You, you - that was your main thing, that you were teaching. What, what did you teach apart from the Aztecs? I mean have you had other major areas of interest in that teaching period?
I taught Salem witchcraft - I do go to extremes - and apart from that I stayed with that territory because there's no end to it, because what I was doing during that period - and it can't really have been 20 years, can it?
Well, I'm not sure I never count, was exploring anthropology. The other thing that happened to me at La Trobe was that a man called Greg Denning, who'd been a legend at Melbourne, but whom I'd never known and who'd taken his PhD in anthropology at Harvard, had come back to La Trobe and was in sociology and he taught a course in the History Department on social theory to which I went. Also a member of the - a staff member of that seminar was a man called Rhys Isaac - who'd been at Melbourne with me but whom I didn't really know as a scholar, only as a person, I liked him very much - he also turned up at La Trobe. A few years later, he wrote a book on the hidden social dynamics in Virginia, he called it 'The Transformation of Virginia on the Eve of the Wars of Independence' and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize - so that, you know, he's a pretty good historian. Greg had been one of my examiners for my MA and he's very good at the small question. When I had said, you know, with great fluency why it was sadly impossible to penetrate the understandings of the Indians, I was just stuck with my Spaniards, he said "Why not?" And I thought, goodness, why not? And that made me embark on a hectic self-education program in anthropology directed by one of the great minds of the twentieth century, an anthropologist called Clifford Geertz who was at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton at that point and I was lucky enough to go over there a couple of times and spend six months, it would be very difficult to sit at his feet because he moves very fast, but, you know, doing my best. And his writings, every sentence of them seemed like a private illumination to me, you know, quite extraordinary, one of the miracles of literacy is that kind of extraordinarily intimate intellectual relationship that's possible. And he continues, you know, as he writes, I read and I'm illuminated. So that was happening and absorbing some of that time but I was in fact researching through teaching, I suppose, but then during this time I managed to complete 'Ambivalent Conquests' which in fact is a tripartite narrative. One narrative on the secular Spaniards, and their invasion and conquest of Yucatan and their understanding of the locals. One narrative of and from and in the frames of reference of the missionary friars who proceed to the torture campaign when they uncover what they think is backsliding among their converts, focusing on Diego de Landa and turning into a psychological study of him. And then one, the shortest section of the book by far the hardest to write, an enquiry into what the Indians might have been up to, what would be intelligible conduct given all the things we know about their ways of thinking and, you know, it was a good book to write.
Was 'Ambivalent Conquests' your first book?
When did you first go to Mexico?
Oh dear, I don't remember.
Again, we don't have to have the year but if you just sort of place it in your life. It was...
I don't think I went to Mexico till the children were little, till they were sort of three and five. That doesn't seem right. [INTERRUPTION]
In what circumstances did you first go to Mexico?
Well I went to the United States as a wife with John, with the two children. John will tell you that - no wait on was that - yes, I had still not committed myself to Yucatan at that point and I went off leaving him in Hawaii with the two children to go to Washington state. It was at that point I was still thinking of working on Haciendas and they had a good collection of papers there. But I think it was later on that same time in the United States that I went down to Mexico and began to pursue Landa, and then on the next sabbatical leave, again with the children, this time taking them for the whole time, we went to Mexico and went to the major sites in Yucatan and explored around in that territory. And I can't remember now when I first went to Mexico City and checked out the anthropological museum and the Collegio de Mexico and places like that. But it was made possible because of the absolutely secure notion of sabbatical leave for tenured academics and then once I got a tenured job, you know, we made sure our leaves coincided and the children were getting to be more independent. I think they had one more trip with us when they were sort of 12 and 14 or so.
By the time you went to Mexico and went to the sites, you'd read a lot, you knew a lot, what was it like for you then to actually go there? Can you just...
It was like going home, it was like going home. Yucatan - I loved Mexico I just felt relaxed there, at ease there. We went with great passports in the form, when we went the first time with two small children, one of them a redhead and in Yucatan particularly these sort of dour, tough old Mayan peasants with their machetes would be sort of on the bus - we went everywhere by these little old buses - and then a hand would come out and rub Steve's head. Rich at three got mumps and we were staying in a tiny little hotel where I'd go in and cook the kids' meals to make sure they were okay, and people love children in Mexico. They're very indulgent to children, they like them and like the people who've got children and who are treating them right, you know. And Rich was taken off by a curandera, a woman curer, who used to have very bad habits when it came to children in about the 1700s, and she led him away because the woman running the hotel was so frantic that she should come and see him. He wasn't very good as a, as an informant. He said, "Oh well she gave me something to drink and I drank it and I did this and I did that and then she brought me back". But I felt I was pushing research too far when I saw his little figure going off hand in hand with this very large lady in sort of snowy huipil. So we cracked and we flew out to Veracruz and took him to a European doctor. But it was a place - the landscape, it's limestone, arid. In the territory I was in the rainfall increases as you go south, but the vegetation has got an Australian feel to it. It somehow felt familiar and I liked the Maya very much indeed, aloof, dignified. It's still a state of Mexico in which the local language remains dominant. It's the most successful Indian territory in Mexico. And I did know a lot, so I kept recognising things that made sense to me.
Perfect for speaking to Indians because their Spanish is pretty bad too, so we'd totter along happily together.
And how important was it to you to develop a familiarity with the - what remains or what could be found still extant of those languages - the Indian languages?
You mean how much time did I give to...
Very little. You have a choice there. You can give five years of your life to language study so you can squabble with your fellow linguists over what actually - how words had been said and what they actually meant in the sixteenth century, which is the period that interests me - or you can chose to use that five years reading in linguistic theory or in anthropological linguistics or in a range of other things so you've got some sense of why these things matter or might matter. I have to say too that I 've been treated very generously by Nahuatl scholars in clarifying the very few tiny areas where something significant seemed to hang on how a word was used, but it was a transition period from oral culture to literate, to literacy from local languages to Spanish. It's a very hard century to get reconstructed accurately linguistically because records weren't kept really for the first 50 years after contact.
How do you decide what you're going to focus in on to do your own particular work on? I mean there'd been a context set for you fortuitously, you're pointed in the direction of Mexico, but then when you actually started to hone your own areas of interests, how do you do that?
The ones that interest you, it's terribly simple. They're the ones where you find yourself reading furiously, puzzling over some opaque passage or other. It's delivered to you. It's what you care about getting clear in what seems to be going on. So I never took, as it were, a rational decision. I now can see, and this is a recent revelation, a post-illness revelation, post-reflection revelation, that obviously one of the things that attracted me powerfully to the Aztecs was their taste for one to one combat with sacrificial death as the penalty for the loser. It's a very slow motion form of combat and the identification between the two warriors is intense and dramatised ritually at every point. I won't alarm you by giving you too much detail on that...
I'll give you the best bit. They fight obviously according to protocols. I worked out what the protocols were, no one else had really looked at this. People shy away from examining the blood and guts bits but the blood and guts bits were clearly where the action was for these people. It's what compelled them, you know, it's - and so they're closely matched these warriors and it's a fairly formalised mode of combat, as you'd expect. One of them is finally brought down. He is then kept like a fighting cock, displayed, celebrated, jeered at, and then on the appointed day, he's stripped of his warrior's regalia, daubed with the white of the sacrificial victim and white feathers, and is taken to the gladiatorial stone, as we've dubbed it, which is an elevated stone about a metre high and about so wide, rather less than two metres wide, and he's tethered to that by one ankle to a ring in the centre. And he is given a club, which is a standard combat weapon, but this club instead of being studded with obsidian blades, is covered in white feature down, so he doesn't have the sharp, the razor sharp blades. And these are new rules for combat. I mean nothing like this has happened before. And then against him come in sequence four Aztec warriors, not the one who beat him, four others, leading warriors from either one of the two great warrior orders, the eagles and the jaguars. And they strike at him and their aim is to cut him delicately, clearly around the legs, because that's the only bit they could get to, so that he will slowly lose blood, bleed a lot, until he collapses on the stone, and then he has his heart excised and offered to the sun god. Now he has a great advantage because he's got the height and he's got the waddy. Now if he can adjust in time fast enough to his absolutely unfamiliar situation he could do a lot of damage up there, and it might be legendary, but one great warrior was meant to have dispatched four of the warriors coming against him. It's a great public spectacle. There are people crowded and screaming and, you know, elevated by this. Now comes the good bit. He's dead. He is then - the skin, his skin is then taken off, and I can give you details of how that's done if you want it, by specially trained old men, so you've got something like human skin long johns, if you like - you know, sort of union suit. And the warrior who took him in combat, with whom he is being identified in every way, who's watched him fight because it's himself fighting there, it's his valour being tested up there on the stone, he cares desperately that he fights brilliantly. He climbs into that clammy, bloody skin over his own naked body and he wears it over the next days of the ceremony while it rots and dries and tightens on him. He's experiencing the death that he's given the other young man. And his kin eat a small piece of the flesh on specially dried maize corn - it's a most sort of simple, ritualised meal - and weep as they eat and he doesn't eat of that flesh because it's his own flesh. So they really dive into these heavy, heady psychological waters with passion.
You've said that in later life, looking back you've realised that it was that depiction of conflict, that direct violence and those direct violent encounters that drew you. At the time what did you think about all of that? Can you remember?
How did I morally judge it?
How - were you aware that that was the part that really gripped you?
Oh yes, my first, the first essay I got published in Past and Present was called 'The Cost of Courage in Aztec Society'. It looked at the cost to civilians and to warriors of sustaining this kind of elaborated warrior cult. You know we're used to thinking of the Aztecs as the triumphant kings of the castle, but indeed the costs were burdensome, because I wanted to have a sense of what these - of how it was that these costs were rendered acceptable to those who bore them. And to do that I had to show how babies were cherished, you know, female babies as well as males, but cherished and then the little baby would be dedicated to death in the jaguar meadow in the Flowery Wars, that is death on the sacrificial stone or in battle, very soon after birth. The ways in which people were coaxed to acquiesce in seeing the glory and the necessity of this mode of living and of dying. So, yeah, I was compelled by that because it seemed so extravagantly unreasonable and counter-intuitive, counter-emotional and I was fascinated to see how it could have been sustained, what were the modes of persuasion, what made it seem worthwhile, and what was its emotional texture. One of the most interesting things I think about history is that it delivers actualities from quite different societies, societies who think differently from us, which is quickly said and awfully difficult to grasp. They think differently and they feel different mixes of emotion, or they desire to feel different mixes of emotio. And when I found, for example, that the death on the sacrificial stone of the young captured warrior was an occasion of grief to the family of the captor, I felt I was onto something very interesting, because, you know, history - you asked me why I liked looking at historical, the historical past because it's raw cuts from human conduct, that's why. It hasn't been ordered according to some disciplinary theory because we, we're eclectic in history, we try everything to see what will help us understand. If we need psychology, we'll go into it. If we need linguistic theory, we go into it. I like that catholicity of approach because I think it's what you need in human studies. You need the theories, you need the disciplines, but you don't want them to be priorities. They're tools, that's all.
You've said that we mustn't make the mistake of looking at these exotic cultures, at the people in them, as ourselves in fancy dress, I think that's your phrase, and yet we're studying them in order to understand, as it were, the human condition...
No, not the human condition. There are many human conditions and we need to understand the range. You know, the problems are existential, therefore they're common. How you bear babies, how you raise a child - you know, we, we have a very similar - how, how you encounter the prospect of death, whether voluntary death is tolerated within your society and if so how it's accommodated. All, these problems are existential but the solutions are human and therefore particular. They will be cast according to particular visions of the world and I think it's the great exploration, much better than oceanic explorations or anything else, is to explore those different ways of being in the world. I also think it's politically essential - once we could get away with being monocultural and squatting behind the barriers of our individual countries. That situation has long gone. Now it is crucial that we come to understand the plausibility of other ways of being in the world. I'm not a Muslim, I'm not a Jew, I'm not a Christian, but if I'm to understand what's going on in Jerusalem now, I have to have worked to comprehend how it is that sacred sites, which to me are just pieces of rock piled on top of each other, can be causes for mass murder. And it seems to me a crucial part.
And how do the Aztecs help you to understand that?
Well they have what is apparently an exotic way of being but with time, patience, a great deal of curiosity it's possible to decipher how their world is put together, how they articulate it, what brings them joy and so it's a form of systematic practise if you like. The great thing about the past is that it doesn't change. It's happened. And we're not compelled to respond or to do anything in particular about it. Whereas in immediate political circumstances we're having to do history on the run, as it were, we have to keep trying to comprehend, why did the Serbs feel like that about Kosovo? Is it something we can afford to neglect or is that historical passion for Kosovo something which will lead Serbs to go on acting in a certain way regardless of their apparent self-interest.
Why are you an historian and not an anthropologist?
Luck. For example, I think the classic career parabola of anthropologists is a bit sad. They go off into the field, which I'd be much too timid to do, the notion of fronting up to a whole lot of people who are occupied about their own affairs and hanging about, and expecting them to talk to me and take me seriously and answer my dumb questions, I would find acutely embarrassing. I really couldn't manage that. You know I'll be an armchair anthropologist thank you and look at what various people have, you know, information they've collected at different times. And then they have their couple of years in the field when they're very ignorant and they don't have a very good control of the language and there's all sorts of things that diminish their capacity to know what they're looking at - and there's a very nice small body of literature of anthropologists being honest about that which is lovely. Typically they write up their field notes in these magisterial terms and then they get caught up in teaching, making rush visits back to their people occasionally, but very little. You know the life of a senior anthropologist is writing and going to anthropology conferences and so on, I wouldn't want it. I like being an armchair historian/anthropologist and of course for the past that's all you can be. It is true that the project which was aborted when I got sick certainly involved me in going to highland Guatemala and that was because the people I wanted to look at in the 16th century were sensitive to every contour and fluctuation in their landscape and to every shifting phenomenon of clouds, movement of winds, and it would have been impossible for me to comprehend what the written records were telling me unless I could watch. In the same way in Mexico. It mattered that I should see butterflies in Mexico. I'd absolutely the wrong image of butterflies, derived from butterflies in southern Victoria, Queensland butterflies are more flamboyant but in Mexico butterflies are great flamboyant, swaggering creatures. So that the souls of warriors should come back as butterflies, they're still warriors wandering around in troops, you know, flashing their cloaks. It made sense. I had to see Mexican butterflies, in the same way I'd have to see a Guatemalan landscape. So I can't do it.
As an historian, you are looking at primary sources or evidence. What in relation to the Aztecs was, for both your books, what was your evidence? What were your sources?
Well for the Maya in Yucatan you have the writings of Diego de Landa himself, his great description of the world of the Maya which he wrote after he'd conducted that campaign and had been rusticated to Spain to keep him out of trouble. He later went back as bishop to Yucatan. There were the trial records, the Inquisition, even inquisitions of this illegal kind, were always remarkable in keeping close accounts of the torture sessions, and, you know, they, the Spaniards operated within a legal frame, however illegal their actions might have been. It caused a vast amount of controversy so it turned into a paper war with letters and appeals from Spanish settlers being directed to the authorities in Mexico desperately asking for their intervention. There were legal inquiries so that what would have been an undocumented period of time, is thick with paper because of the idolatry investigations. And the Spanish crown was very good at hanging onto bits of paper. They knew that their only hope of keeping control of these wild men out in these new territories was to keep them under bureaucratic control and make sure that all large decisions were taken back in Spain. So, you know, shiploads of paper went back, so there was plenty for that. And in Mexico proper, in the valley of Mexico were the Aztecs, the chief source was an absolutely remarkable massive compilation of descriptions, it was called 'A General History of the Things of New Spain', as they called the heartland of Mexico, and it was compiled under the aegis of a Franciscan missionary friar late in the century when he became persuaded that the notion of the first friars, that the Indians had been natural Christians and had converted apace to a simple but profoundly Christian understanding of Christianity, was false. That the old religion, the pulse of the old religion, continued to dominate everything and the only way to extricate it was to carry out a proper ethnographic investigation, God bless him, staffed by young, Indian trainees from the Franciscan colleges, administering questionnaires, but very open-ended questionnaires, and I'm sure instructed to let the old men they were questioning run on because Sahugún which was the name of the Franciscan controlling all this, wanted to get the inadvertent, the additional, the relaxed because he thought there he would get insights into what was really going on. The old men were now old. They, the questioning began in the '60s, Tenochtitlan had fallen in 1521. They'd been young men, now they were old men. They'd seen what the Spaniards had done and of course they were ready to talk about the old world which had been completely physically destroyed. So you have this preposterously rich documentation, lovingly dwelt on and things that, if you'd had a film of the past, your eye would have passed over, because you've got the written words, you see that they are obsessed with this very peculiar matter. Why should they care about that? But they're telling you they care about it because they describe it, they carry on about it, so you're alerted. It matters. So it's like going, you know, working with that source is like a detective puzzle, you're trying to understand what it is they're casually telling you, taking for granted.
When your two major books on this work came out, how successful were they? How were they regarded?
Well my first internationally published essay called 'Landscape and World View' won the colonial history branch of the American Historical Association prize for the best essay. My first book won the prize for the best book published that year. It also won the first of the - it was getting close to the Quincentennial of Columbus - a prize offered by the American universities and the Spanish Ministry for Culture, it won that. So they were pretty successful. 'Aztecs' was a Book Of The Month choice which made my publisher at Cambridge incredulously joyful. They were both selections of history book clubs, because - and it was nice that they were successful academically because they were eminently readable. They'd been written to be read because they'd been written essentially out of my experience as a teacher knowing what worked with a very sort of disparate audience of students. There was no point me carrying on about things which might fascinate the eight other experts in the field, but would bore any ordinary, normal reader. So they were written as well as I was able, as grippingly as I was able because I'd been gripped by this stuff. Why should - and I took people into my confidence. You know there was no attempt to be godlike or magisterial, I told them about going to Mexico and seeing the butterflies, and how suddenly something I'd not understood, was clear. That's why.
People commented at the time, the reviewers and so on, about what a naturally beautiful, how an unusually beautiful writer you were. Had you been aware that you were actually a gifted writer as well as an historian?
I knew I was fluent, but no. I still don't understand that really because I'd, I work on drafts but only to make them clearer and simpler. I write - my natural tendency is to be a bit gothic and I simplify as radically as I can. So to me it looks like very simple writing, very plain writing. But I care about making it exact. The words as precise as I can. In fact in that 'Landscape and World View' I had my first moment of joy, conscious joy taken in writing, I can remember where I was, and I realised that I wanted to say, to use the word 'ironic' as an adjective qualifying the word 'landscape'. Now that isn't the kind of thing you do in respectable academic writing. You don't have 'ironic landscapes', but it's exactly what I thought was going on in Yucatan, where you had the Christian message and the Christian narrative and Christian assumptions about beginnings and endings, being told and told again in a landscape which declared the cyclic nature of time, seasons, the gods, humankind, everything. And my last sentence was in the ironic context of the Yucatacan landscape, Christianity could not compel belief. And I thought, "Good, that's it". And I don't always get that feeling, I don't even often get that feeling, but sometimes I get that feeling that something is well said and I like it. But I frankly think it's probably - it's just that clear writing comes as something as a surprise in the academic world, or writing which is designed to keep people interested.
The other thing that was said about your willingness to confront the bloody details, the awful realities of the warrior encounters, your fascination with that, was that you must have hidden in that civilised exterior some kind of element of violence in yourself well suppressed and bursting forth in your writing. What do you - what did you feel about that?
Well it's a bit sinister that I do work on torture trials, Aztecs, Salem, the Holocaust. It's not sinister at all, I don't think. I think, I don't think I've got any violence in me, really. I dislike it intensely. I think it's because I don't, that I find the question of how people bring themselves to use violence, that I want to understand it, because it happens all the time. I mean in every society, not long ago I reviewed a book written by a friend of mine who's a woman who's moved into boxing and, you know, it's a marvellous book because it explains to you how the controlled use of aggression can for her be a self-realisation, and a way of self-exploration.
And could you identify with that?
Sure, she wrote well enough for me to follow what she was telling me and with my Aztec warriors, when I put together the vision they had of what they were doing, it was a noble vision. Stoical, magnificently controlled. You know there's violence and violence, and given that it's a human activity, we need to spend time in sorting it out, and it seems to me frankly completely bizarre to write a book about Aztec religion as if it's a high theological matter when, what it is to anyone who looked at it, is about blood. I mean there was blood everywhere. There were hearts everywhere. How can you possibly talk about the conceptualisation of the movement of the skies, you know, with no reference to any of that, and even pretending that most of the victims are voluntary when you have holocausts of people going, you know, weeping and trembling to their deaths. Humans did it. We'd better try to understand it. And, you know, whether this means something dark about my wicked soul, I'll have to wear that.
The descriptions, the early descriptions of the discovery, in inverted commas, of this, well the discovery by the Europeans of this civilisation have these wonderful, wonderful passages about the...
The beauty and so on, and yet you were drawn to the blood.
No, not all. It was the aesthetic, it was the tension between civil order, a - an exquisite aesthetic and the blood that interested me. It was the, it was the juxtaposition of things we would think were mutually exclusive. No, if you look at the book, there's a major chapter on aesthetics, poetry, feather work, you know, the shadows of the gods. The - I was deeply absorbed in how the real world of the gods and the sacred was only dimly manifested in this imperfect world but what those manifestations were and how it could be glimpsed, and what duties were then laid upon humankind. One of the things I found beguiling and endearing about Aztecs, as about Amerindians in general, is that humankind has no special dispensation. We're not lords of creation. The gods didn't labour for six days and then pop man in on top to run everything in his own image, you know. Mankind or humankind are animals too. They're one of a sequence of a peculiar creation and they have no privilege status whatsoever. In fact in my view for Aztecs, they stand below eagles and jaguars and butterflies and hummingbirds. Now that's a very refreshing view to have of the world.
Has your relationship, your personal relationship with the Aztecs, affected you, changed you as a person?
Yes, I think it probably has. I'm obviously impressed by warriors as people who can overcome fear. I'm particularly impressed by single combat warriors much more than by soldiers, though soldiers interest me a lot, and when I became ill and I was left to my own resources, what I would find in my increasingly muddled head, and I was thinking hard about how I was going to handle all this, when I thought through the labyrinth of possibilities and memory and so on, I found at the very heart of the labyrinth a little Aztec warrior as the vision of how one ought to be in conditions of challenge. Stoical, self-possessed, consenting if it comes to death, as the only way to sustain your autonomy and your dignity is to embrace the death, which was very much their vision as you can find in their poetry. Nothing flamboyant, finally. And it worried me when I got sufficiently well to worry about such matters because I thought, where did he come from that little fella? Has he been in me for a very long time so that when I looked at the Aztecs I projected him? Or did I find him there and take him into me? Now I believe in good faith that I found him there because I can remember my pleasure in the slow discovery of him, of what the moral being was, but it's a disquieting thought for an historian because there's always the problem of whether you might be projecting your own fantasies onto the past. I don't think I did.
And so you think it's possible for a whole idea of how one might be, to as it were migrate from one culture, an alien culture to you, into an individual?
Not the whole vision. I can't conceivably look at the skies and see what he saw, you know, I belong to a scientific universe but as a question of the individual facing mortal challenge, sure, that's possible. But that's not the culture. You know I can - I'm not an Aztec.
So when we study history and we are trying to draw from it what might help inform our understanding of the world around us now, what kinds of things do you think we can legitimately, sensibly, reasonably take for ourselves?
The best thing you can do is to be ready to spend the time to comprehend that past situation in its own complexity, not to read backwards, not to adopt, project backwards partisan positions, but to take it seriously as a moral, political, social crisis for the actors involved and to extend every ounce of intelligence and imagination you've got to understand their different positions, because what we most need I think in the world is an appreciation of the real complexity of every issue, which was the fascination of Salem. You know, it's a marvellous drama in a very small social field. So you've got a fair chance of tracing how different individuals read the evidence differently and then often changed their mind about their reading through time. But what you, what you have to have is a lot of curiosity and what you must not have is condescension. You have to take seriously their ways of understanding the world and how individuals read the world within that situation. So you're not, you're working hard before you take anything because what you're aiming to do is to generously comprehend these other different people as individual moral beings making decisions, taking chances, being blind on certain issues, painfully coming to see, but you pay them the honour of treating them as real people. And what you learn through doing that is how complex things are and how self-critical you have to be, how swiftly you will move in and blanket some response you don't want to take seriously. And I think that practise in analysis of complex situations and in self-scrutiny and mistrust of the self and one's easy judgements, is that which you can take usefully into the present.
You - your career after this work was done and this period of research was really taking off, I mean things were good for you at that time, weren't they? And in that period just before you became ill, could you just describe where you were at with your career and how things were going?
Oh yes, I had sabbatical leave coming up and I was going to go to Princeton again which was a great place to be, I loved it, and I was going to go to Guatemala and cut loose on the Quechua Maya and a big literary source which I'd done a lot of work on. And the kids were grown up and I was getting offers, you know, to apply for chairs in the United States, not that I would have dreamt of going, and yeah, I was riding high. And then I got ill which was a very slow motion business because you can't, you don't believe you've got something seriously wrong with you when you've got a great range of fairly minor symptoms although sometimes they'd cluster and I'd be, you know, I would have stomach cramps or I couldn't walk or something would happen, but then I'd be better, or sort of better. However, after messing around for about three or four months after I'd decided I got ill, I was finally diagnosed with an active auto-immune hepatitis, acute liver disease, with a very bad prognosis and a necessity to go immediately onto very heavy drugs, and 'Aztecs' still wasn't out. It nearly killed me to finish it actually. It was like two dogs locked with their teeth in each other's necks, you know, either I get the book finished or it would finish me, but I finished it, and then I was diagnosed as ill. [INTERRUPTION]
What was it that made you first realise that something might have been going wrong with your body?
Well, my gums began to bleed and felt pulpy, you know, how that can sometimes happen. But I happened to be at my dentist and he was prodding away and he said, "I don't like the look of this, Inga, it looks systemic". I thought "What's he talking about". I said "Oh" and didn't ask him what he meant, partly because he's an old friend and because I discovered I was embarrassed about indications of illness. Then my nose started to dribble blood and it would get everywhere, it would get on essays I was marking or books I'd borrowed, you know, there'd suddenly be bloody fingerprints on them like some inept villain and I felt tired and I would have these peculiar, quite sudden lapses of energy, so I'd be weak and trembling and not able to, to take further steps. I can date some of them because in October in Swot Vac, I'd gone down to Anglesea, my son was there with Anastasia who was then a heavy baby and I was walking up the beach with her and suddenly I couldn't walk any further. And I had a vision of an octopus with jelly legs, just vanishing into hot sand, I just couldn't - and had to give her to my son, and they strode off and I was left feeling, you know, this really isn't right, something bad is happening. But then I'd be all right. So it was that kind of bewildering shift and I believe in having a bad memory for illness so I'd forget about it...
Because it's a bore and a nuisance and it might stop you doing something you want to do and if you feel better, why not just go on? So then the symptoms multiplied and I got swollen and very painful feet so I couldn't walk on them, I had to be pushed in a wheelchair and I had red spots marching up my leg and it was going to a whole clinic full of doctors trying one after another, but in fact they always had my notes of course. And for the first time I had the experience that a lot of women have of suddenly turning from a competent being who can report accurately what's going on to a nincompoop because I was informed by this squat, matronly woman, that what I was suffering from was post-menopausal, no pre-menopausal blues and that I ought to age, you know, gracefully and contentedly. And here I am - but also at this point a hugely bloated belly, you know, obviously sick, and this clown who's producing this nonsense. So I gave that clinic rather a hard time but they gave me a worse one because they kept passing me around like an old bouquet of flowers they were trying to get rid of until finally the senior doctor said, "Oh it's gout". And I snapped "Bullshit". And he said, "Well, I'll have a blood test done and we'll verify", and of course it wasn't gout. And he gave up. He said, "I don't know what it is", so having declined over three months I finally got the diagnosis and once I got the diagnosis everything made sense.
How did you get the diagnosis?
I went to a diagnostic physician who are good at these things and after ten minutes, he says, "Well I'll have to run the tests but I'm sure what you've got is an auto-immune hepatitis, and you're difficult to pick because you don't have the dominant symptom which is jaundice". So once I was officially ill and diagnosed and I was in hospital, I was used to dismay years of poor old medical students who'd be brought in under the eye of their senior doctor and would have to diagnose me and of course they wouldn't think of liver disease because I wasn't yellow. I would lie there willing them [laughs], you know, to get it. So then I went to a specialist who was terrific, very direct and he'd in fact discovered this particular disease just a few years before and there was no cure for it, but there was a treatment. But for some reason the treatment didn't take with me, it didn't work. I continued to deteriorate too quickly and then in, I think it must have been about early August, I was suddenly desperately ill. I'd had something that seemed like a flu with a bad cough and then my fever just ran away to ridiculous heights and the diagnostic physician to his great credit, came to the house in the middle of a teeming with rain night, I didn't recognise him at that point, I was so far gone, and put me straight into hospital. And I was in intensive care for a while and I had my first bout of hallucinations and I came out of it wasted, gaunt, too weak, as they say, to lift my head. I couldn't feed myself. I couldn't walk. I was a, a body and at last I'd turned yellow, at last it was clear that my liver was up to something and I was a sorry sight and in a sorry condition. But then they shipped me out to Freemasons and I was in there for two months getting rehabilitated so I could at least totter by the time I came out, and get myself up out of chairs with a bit of help, but I was a sick, sick woman.
Now you just said very casually, I had my first bout of hallucinations. What kind of hallucinations did you have?
There was - it was a ward in the Royal Melbourne which I thought was underground, though it wasn't. It was in fact on the ground floor and it had very peculiar cases in it. My memory is still clouded of that time but for example there was a woman diagonally opposite and in the first place, I'd lost my glasses in the first few minutes of this drama and I didn't get them back for days and days and days, and I thought she had a large moustache, God only knows what she in fact had because I couldn't see. She had gangrene which was terrible, you know, she cried with pain when they'd change the dressings, otherwise she was utterly silent, and there was a crazy woman right next door to me. A spindly old woman who in the daytime talked to you in a frantic urgent whisper which was disquieting but she was clearly crazy so - but who at night was frantically restless and they'd pull up the sides of her cot so they were high and I would watch with the little light they left on in her little bay with the curtains drawn while this spindly form struggled up onto the top of the rails and got herself out and over, and then she'd erupt through my curtains and grab my feet or rattle frantically in the steel drawer at my head. I tell you she was a very scary phenomenon, and I began to have hallucinations and when I did they were very exotic, they were Balinese shadow theatre projected in blood red shadows onto the curtains dividing the beds with the wailing, high Balinese going on with it and the, the figures shaking and dancing. But they were so extravagant they weren't too terrifying because I could sort of see they were connected to the old woman and her shadow, that that had made me get on to that image of flickering, fire lit shadows cast on a screen. And there were also in daylight, too, processions of little blood red turtles and cockroaches that would march in these solemn processions up and down and across, and up and down and across, all the time. I learnt to ignore them. But what really distressed me very much was when my son, older son and his daughter, Anastasia and, who was then about three I guess, absolutely intrepid, absolutely unfazed by my transformation, cried on one visit because she was too little to look after me. She's always been a realist and the baby, Gilly and Fia was suckling over by the window which still didn't tell me that I was not in a subterranean room, even though there was a window. And suddenly hers and the baby's face, were just masked with blood and I looked at Anastasia who was hanging over the, my bed and her face was just blood too, and my son was all right and I was terrified. I was absolutely frantic. But the thing about hallucinations is they're strictly private. You dare not admit them to anyone. I'm not sure why but it's a complete necessity to control any sign that they're having. So I waited for them to leave and then I sent them a message not to bring the children or Thea back in because I didn't know what would happen to them, you know, superstition is hard to avoid when you're in that kind of weakened state. So it was bad. I hated that whole place. It was terrifying the whole time. I've got all sorts of recollections which can't be true but I have them. The things couldn't have happened.
Well, they're probably libellous. There was a Chinese charge nurse at night who, unlike nearly every nurse who were marvellous, was cruel. She was a cruel woman, she'd hurt you. Now perhaps anyone would have hurt me because I was in a pretty reduced state and you lose skin and bone and injections hurt and your veins collapse and you're a mess. But I thought she hurt me deliberately and we had a little contest of wills even though I wasn't exactly in good fighting shape because I'd been told that I had to recover some physical strength, so I had to keep sucking away at Sustagen, you know, these little containers and she wouldn't get me one in the middle of the night when I was wide awake and frantic to do something to assist my condition. So I'd had little wars with her, and I dreamt or believed or thought that she was assembling her night staff and making them sing Chinese marching songs out around the main nurses desk. Now even when I was persuaded that was real, I didn't quite believe it. It seemed a bit exotic, but that's just sort of happened, things that happened with hallucinations. You were badly. Your old reality checks don't really work.
I assume I had them because livers control an awful lot of processing of, of natural drugs and other drugs in the body and I assume that some of those toxins were on the loose because, you know, loss of memory, loss of vocabulary, loss of wit, is a standard phenomenon in liver disease. It's called encepathology [encephalopathy], or something, it means inflamed brain sickness and it's a direct consequence of the importance of the liver in processing and getting rid of all sorts of toxins. Where the poor old liver is a quarter as big as it should be and is sort of tottering along, those toxins stay in the body and affect the brain. [INTERRUPTION]
Were you in hospital at the beginning with this admission into the subterranean space, or the space that was subterranean in your mind? How did that end? How did that period end...
Well I came out of that acute ward hospital and was sent off to Freemasons for two months and there slowly physically recovered to a sort of viability and also the drugs began to work rather better, but not too brilliantly. The decline continues and the point is you keep sustaining more and more damage. There's an accretion of damage. My, er, my specialist was marvellously direct and I was trying to plan what I could do with myself for the times I was all right, I mean, this seemed crazy. So I said, "Well look, you know, realistically, how long can I plan ahead?" Thinking the answer would be six months or a year or at worst three months, and he looked at me speculatively and said, "Fortnight", and I thought "My goodness me". [laughs] But it's true, there is no way of measuring - odd things grow and I never really understood what they all were but you ran the risk of collapse which would be a crisis and hospitalisation and action. That didn't happen to me. I tottered on, up and down and then I proceeded to get more and more mentally affected... [INTERRUPTION]
And so what was the effect when it began to have this mental effect on you? How did that, how did that manifest itself?
Well you lost words and they were commonplace words. They were words like cup, wardrobe, cupboard, hat and it's rather hard to manage without those words and you'd be stumped trying to think what it could be. It led a quite different - lent a quite different feeling to reality, a very sort of slowed down, problematical sort of reality. In conversations you had to start faking it because in fact you were concentrating like mad and yet you were several moves behind. Your thoughts moved very sluggishly. You forgot names, so again you faked it, you used endearments. I started calling people 'Honey' because I couldn't remember their names. It was - I found it very disquieting and of course what I did was to try to write about it. There's a rather funny passage in 'Tiger's Eye', which I wrote just after I'd come out of this, but when I'd rehearsed it all in my mind, of when I was down to single words, I had nothing to think about. If you're thoughts aren't coherent, you know, your mind is emptied and I'd grab a little single word as it went past and I'd think about this little single word and what sayings might surround a single word and what the single word meant to me. And I'd do little poems out of my single word and I'd play with it, because I knew once I let it go, it would go. So it was a curious time. Sometimes it seemed quite restful because weird words would come yawning and stretching out into the light. I've forgotten them now, but I did write them up at the time and you could make up little stories about them. Just a word like 'extricate' or a word like 'incandescent' which kept me happy for a long time because it was incan-descent when I thought about it and so I'd make up little sentences with I of incan-descent, you know, will do the following things. So there were ways of filling the time with these mad little games but the disquiet was much more attached to social situations and to an awareness that you really could play no part any more in any of your old relationships. You were gone. There were some good consequences. I used to trundle out to see the people at the Liver Transplant Unit who at this point were at least considering my case and I ran into an interesting problem. I have a desire to seem in control of situations and to seem fluent. So I'd in fact feel terrible and be wandery, but I'd go out and the man I had to see was a very challenging, very bright guy, it's not my specialist any more. Now it's the Liver Transplant Unit at the Austin and he had the unfortunate effect of putting me instantly on my mettle. So I would stiffen my spine and I would perform as well as I knew how. And he'd say, "Well I don't think you're in much trouble yet Inga, I think", and I would go off thinking, "Drat, I'm an idiot". But one day at long last I went in and I was really off with the fairies, you know, I couldn't put a sentence together, I couldn't listen to him, I'd just be drifting off [laughs] and that impressed him. I also wrote to him and explained the dynamics of our interactions, because it was funny, when I knew what I was doing, I was showing off instead of letting it be clear I was in a lot of trouble. And another funny thing happened. It's very important to them understandably because it's a long drawn out, difficult, risky procedure and it takes a lot of care of the people around the patient to support them and to make sure they take their medicine and to do all this stuff. And so it was important to him to know whether John supported me or not. Now as you know, John is a philosopher. John thinks it unprincipled and immoral to take other people's decisions for them. So all he would say was, "Whatever Inga decides, I support utterly", which understandably my medicos, not being philosophers, read as unreadiness for me to have it. So I explained - I thought this was what was going on. So I explained it to John and said, "Look, you know, they think you hate the idea so you just nobly say "I will support her", you know. Say, "She's going to drive me crazy unless she gets it".
Say "It's the only thing she wants". Say "She doesn't mind dying". I want it." But he couldn't. So that was a big nuisance but finally after I'd done this away with the fairies routine and clearly couldn't find my way across the street, I was on the list, on the waiting list, or activated as they call it. And naturally I was delighted and excited and I packed my hospital bag and I paid all my bills, and in between my moments of being off with the fairies, and I settled down to wait and then I realised that it was a snare and a delusion because of course with a liver transplant there's a queue of people in desperate need. Anyone who suffers a crisis and this can happen, boom, out of the blue, naturally is at that head of the queue, otherwise they will be dead in 12 hours or whatever. And you are dependent on the terrible problematic of there being, typically, a car crash, not too far away from a major hospital. That someone is brain dead, destined for total physical death, can be sustained on a life support system just long enough to harvest the organs. That they will have checked a box to say I'm ready to be an organ donor in some casual moment. Or that their families who are wrestling with this shocking bereavement, this appalling accident, will hear and respond to a barbarous request. So it's asking a lot. So you wait and it's a very depressing experience because the one thing you do not have is any kind of autonomy. You can decide nothing. You could decide to kill yourself but that's all. You don't have any other alternatives, and I hadn't thought of that till just now. Your doctors will decide if you'll be the next cab off the rank, or your body will decide by collapsing, throwing you into a crisis state and then you'll probably just die, you know, that's what happens to most people, but it may be that you'll be rescued by a transplant. I had what's called a turkey run, which was an experience. The phone went at last. You carry your beeper around with you at first, you know, you think it's going to go at any moment, but of course it never goes, never. I found mine was programmed to Tasmania at one point, I was very depressed, you know. And then the phone went and I was asked to go into the Austin and I went in, and I instantly smelt a rat because there was a deeply jaundiced, very thin man, ahead of me at the radiotherapy, they do x-rays, sorry the x-ray section, with his large wife and his very nice upright country lad son of about 12 and he was being x-rayed and he had a little night bag with him. I heard about these things called turkey runs. What happens is you get a liver coming in which is suitable in all the sort of, the fine tissue tests and the blood groupings and everything else, size, everything, for a particular candidate but to make sure that should that first candidate die, the organ isn't wasted, because they're an utterly precious commodity, there's a second candidate in the queue and I realised I was the second candidate. So I went through all the preparation and then at four o'clock in the morning they said, "Okay, you can go" because he'd survived. We later became friends but it was, it's a very odd experience altogether. The next time I didn't think "My God it's another turkey run", I really didn't think they'd put me second in the queue again, they wouldn't have, I'm sure, and it was the real thing. And I was absolutely exhilarated and joyful. So, and then I remained properly conscious for quite a while after the operation and then I went into hallucinations. They give you a very large bolus of drugs, in the course of the operation they have to. It's a 12 to 16 hour job and, you know, they're doing a profoundly unnatural thing. Everyone commented on the irony of me specialising in Aztecs taking living organs out and then me getting a living organ installed and how puzzled the Aztecs would have been at this bizarre routine.
And more than that also your life depended on the death of somebody else.
Oh yes, indeed. And that's a very, that's a very transforming kind of thing. You have to think your way through that when you're waiting. You know it will depend on a catastrophe, almost certainly happening to a young person. People on the waiting list are always tense on public holidays. Public holidays mean accidents. It's a shocking thing. That's why it's so important, and this is a commercial message, that people talk about the possibility of making their organs available should they die. They've got a good slogan, I like it: 'Don't take your organs to heaven because heaven knows we need them here'. And it's a great slogan, I think, because in fact the body corrupts or is burnt. The body doesn't survive the death for more than a day or two and if organs can be taken, which they are with absolute decorum and care, it does save lives and they're often the lives of children. The transplant patient just before me was little Ben, he was four years old, and he survived.
Do you know where yours came from?
You're not permitted to know that. In some states you're apparently permitted to know if it's male or female but here one is permitted, one only knows that you're in luck and you are permitted, if you want to, to write a letter to the donor family. They won't know who you are, you don't betray, well I didn't betray my age or my sex or my illness or anything else because I thought that if I lost a son under those sorts of circumstances, I did decide that I would say yes to the organ transplant request but I would want to believe that it was going to a young person. I wouldn't want to think it was going to an old lady.
Did you think you didn't deserve this?
Yeah, I did. Now what cheers you up about that is that you see the marvellously random and motley collection of people who've got livers and, you know, we are not chosen and selected for our beauty or our intellect or anything else. We're just sick people who got lucky. So that obstinate, democratic, egalitarianism of the transplant units, I think is brilliant, I love it. But of course you don't deserve it. It's a ridiculous piece of luck.
But it didn't stop you from taking it?
I wanted a liver transplant. I didn't want to die slowly, messily, painfully and tediously if something could be done about it. But I hope it's true that if I'd been told you can it or Ben can have it, I'd have said, "Give it to Ben". But luckily the patients are not in any, in no position to make decisions. You're a body and the medicos decide on their own criteria, and sometimes, I don't know if this is true but it seems to me possible, that a criterion might sometimes be your scientific interest. You know, can we pull it off with someone of her age? Possibly.
Given that you received this liver aged - how old were you?
It was in '94 so I was in my 59th year. Was I?
Yes, you were born in 1934, you must have been virtually 60. And, and you, and you felt that you were old to be having...
I was old, I was the eldest patient they'd transplanted. I don't mean old in the way I felt, I mean old in the gamble which is liver transplanting.
Having received this liver that you felt that you were really not quite as worthy of as a younger person might have been, did you feel some sort of obligation to it, to the procedure, to the luck, that you should do something particularly useful with the rest of your life?
I felt a tremendous obligation to the Liver Transplant Unit, to the nurses. They had, the medicos and the nurses and the general staff, had all impressed me enormously. I developed a loyalty to an institution which I had never done before, I think, to the Austin Hospital because the intelligence and the compassion of their care was completely extraordinary. And I realised really for the first time, the spectacular self-discipline of nurses male and female, often quite young kids, who controlled their own responses immaculately to keep patients comfortable and psychologically secure. You know I was wowed by their talent and their inventiveness. You know it always - the whole experience in fact seemed to me a demonstration of what civil society ought to be like. It's strictly democratic. The states, each state in which the accident occurs will have the first call on any organs generated by that accident, but if they have no one on their lists it then moves in a regular movement to the next state and so on down the line. Strictly democratic, strictly public hospital. You can't buy your way into the queue. You can go to America, put your money down, your $500,000 and get yourself a liver transplant. All the corruptions which attend trade in human organs in other countries do not happen here and I'm profoundly impressed by that. It seems to me a demonstration of values which I hope and believe to be essential Australian values, and as I said, we were a motley lot, you know. All sorts of ethnic origins, all sorts of religions, ages, sexes and yet comrades after having gone through much the same experience. We know what it's like in there, you know, and all of us in love with our nurses, it's just a matter of course. So I had an obligation to them. I had an obligation to the donor family. I didn't know who they were but I was no longer a free agent at all. I had to stay alive. I couldn't do any damn fool things and yet at the same time, because this was a bonus put on to my life, I had a sense of recklessness that I could use it daringly. You see I'd had a sister who died at 53 of breast cancer and a brother who died very young, I think he was 40, of a second heart attack. He'd had a major heart attack earlier. My other brother who's still surviving has had cerebral malaria, cancer, and he's also haemorrhaged very badly after an operation so it's amazing he's still around. So I always had - and my family, my, you know, my parents and so on have, and brothers and sisters of theirs, have died cholerically, quite young. So I've got very bad genes for longevity and now I had produced this absolutely weird disease no one in my family had ever heard of, and I'd been saved from it. I'd been given a new lease of life, cliché and an absolutely accurate description. So the question was, what was I going to use it, it for? I'd resigned from my university job because I couldn't go on teaching. It was way back in '91 I'd resigned. It was just too - I was too sick, and I didn't have the transplant until '94. And I guess I remained fairly sick with it for another three or four years. I could write short pieces, essays, short stories. I was taken - brought by a friend made inadvertently out of a review of 'Aztecs', which was the best review I ever read, and this was a literary, absolutely non-academic person who from a standing start had understood exactly what I was trying to do. Helen Daniel. And Helen, who died recently, had lured me into the fringes of the world of literature because she had no time for academics. She thought that literature was the high art and that I should get into that and I didn't have any other way to go really, so I obediently toddled into the fringes of the literary world.
And then I began to feel much better, much more focused and because Helen had lured me into reviewing Robert Manne's book on Helen Demidenko's novel, 'The Hand That Signed The Paper', the very bad novel which had astonishingly been awarded the Miles Franklin Award and other literary awards in its year of publication. One of those moments of collective aberration that are hard to understand. Robert Manne wrote very movingly on his own sense of sudden isolation when he realised that his fellow academics, for example, discounted the Holocaust as a significant event or thought it should have no residue or no particular resonance. And it shocked me because I'd always been involved with reading Holocaust material. It had had an important role in my imaginative life since I was a little kid, as I've told you, when I was haunted by Nazis and the sheer malice of what they seemed to be doing although at that point of course none of us knew about what was being done to Jews and gypsies and Russian prisoners of war or any of the deliberate killing programs. And I also happened to have just purchased a book, because I was interested in problems of representation in different media, which happened to be focused on the Holocaust and written by a great bevy of the leading experts. And to my dismay they were all arguing that the Holocaust was too difficult to represent, that we had to put it in a too hard basket, either because it was too horrible, or you had to have been in there and suffered it, or because you might be contaminated if you involved yourself too far in what the Nazis were up to, and I was shocked. It seemed to me an absolute abdication of academic responsibility. I was also, I now realise, still pretty high on pregnisolone, which has an elevating and maniacal kind of effect on one, but I thought I was normal. So I decided I'd take on the problem of investigating the Holocaust, not as a scholar - I had none of the relevant languages. All I had was fairly solid reading in witness testimony, nothing much else. I didn't know what had happened in the East. I knew almost nothing about Nazi policy. So luckily I also had an accretion of a lot of energy so for 18 months or so I worked furiously, in a very strange state actually, and then I wrote 'Reading the Holocaust' which is a not a groovy, post-modernist title. It simply means that by reading these books you can arrive at this degree of understanding and that this is a respectable degree of understanding which makes the Holocaust a utilisable sequence of events by humans in their present dilemmas. And for a while at least that purged my sense of having an obligation but of course it also catapulted me into a completely new area of history. A new area of people known and talked with, specially down at the Holocaust Centre here in Elsternwick which is run by survivors. Yeah, into a whole - to the first area in which I have other academics working in the same field. You see there aren't, there are no other people working on Aztecs or Maya in this country - on 16th century Aztecs or Maya - so now I run the risk of being pulled in to academic discussions and I'm doubtful about that.
Well, by the people who mattered most, the survivors, brilliantly. I was astonished at their readiness to say "Yes, it was as if you were there. It was like that. You understand." How can you understand? But you do. And that was, you know, my friends at the Holocaust Centre. And then Premier Carr gave it his history award - General History Award - and then it was awarded the prize for Holocaust studies by the National Jewish Council in the United States which is going well for a rank outsider. And it's being translated into Hebrew right now, it'll be published in Israel. And I've had a huge number of letters from people who have shared my frozen, rabid terror of it. The metaphor I use throughout is of the Gorgon Medusa, whose glance turns humans into stone, and that's the way the Holocaust can seem looked at, it is so shocking. But in fact the Medusa was half human and Perseus managed to slay her by looking at her reflection in the bronze shield and cut off her head. So that the steadiness of human determination and the readiness to look long and hard on the face of horror seems to me the way to take away it's magic power and to make it amenable to human uses.
It was a foray into an area in which scholarship was deeply involved but where you saw yourself more in terms of your new literary career. You were writing a book that you wanted to have judged as a book?
No, I don't think that's true. I wrote it as an historian but as an historian who'd never worked in this field but who believed that the systematic study of history according to the rules of the discipline equips you to make intelligible any situation. It's a large claim and I believe it. And it was reviewed, it was one of the New York Times 11 best books - they obviously had a big fight, they wanted to have ten and someone wouldn't yield on one - best book, fiction and non-fiction for 1999 or 8, 8, 9, I don't know - which meant that it's got very big sales in America. So it's, of course it speaks to people who aren't historians, most of us aren't historians, but nearly all of us need to read history, so I don't see it as literary. It's written according to the rules of the discipline.
I want to take you back now to fill in some of the things we didn't talk about, about your illness - because we sort of leapt ahead, and I let us leap - but if we go back now, I wanted to ask you, you had mentioned that during the period that you were very ill, before you had the transplant, there was, you found social interaction difficult. I wanted to ask you, how did people treat you when they realised how ill you were?
They were scared of me, I think, essentially. It's very difficult to deal with someone who's transformed. They look different, you know, they're dead-eyed, yellow-skinned, bloated, because the pregnisolone blows you up. I got very thin but, you know, wasted limbs but huge belly and this great big face. I was a terrifying sight I can tell you. My voice was a little tiny really whisper and I disquieted them. I shook them up. Very few people could cope with it, terribly few. You know, some good friends couldn't cope with it at all.
How did they react? Did they not come to see you?
They didn't come to see me. They, well, if they did, they were so rigid with embarrassment and fear, both things, they were embarrassed. I didn't feel bad about that because I'd seen exactly the same thing in my own family. When my mother was dying, the rest of the family insisted on standing out in the car park. They couldn't be with her in the room. And when my father was dying, I lived in Melbourne, my brother, the beloved brother lived in Geelong, he rang me to say the nursing home had rung him, that Dad was sinking and I leapt in the car and I got there ten minutes too late and my brother who was ten minutes away, couldn't go. Didn't go. He loved my father, but he was so frightened at the thought of death that he couldn't do it.
Inga, how did you want to be treated when you were so very ill? What did you want?
On the whole I wanted to be left alone. It was too much effort to deal with people and to cope with their disquiet. To try to make them feel better. You know [laughs] you really were fairly exhausted and - but it was a huge relief with the very few people who just treated you the same way. They did the physical things for you that needed to be done, John was marvellous, but he got depressed, which was very annoying. I wanted cheerful chat and he'd be sitting there looking glum because I was so sick. It was a natural response. My sons were terrific. When I was recovering they used to take me out in a wheelchair. Freemasons is right near, fringes onto the Fitzroy Gardens, and they'd dump me on the bench and they'd have wheelchair races with each other which I thought was very mean of them but it was fun to watch. They remained unfazed and confident with me, but most people are frightened of very sick people.
Did you ever have any episodes in public where you needed help from strangers?
[Laughs] Yes, quite often. The short answer is you don't get it. You get it from older people. I fell over in High Street, Kew one day. I was picking up a birthday cake which is one of the few things that would have got me out of the house but a birthday cake mattered and as you know I can't cook them, so I was picking it up. If I'd fallen - and I fell, I caught my sandal in a rough bit of pavement and I fell headlong - and I, your skin gets extremely fragile, it just rips or degloves, rolls back, very frightening and you bleed a lot. But I'd ripped my knee and I'd ripped both arms and there was blood everywhere and I couldn't get up. I was winded, I'd fallen so hard and it was hurting and the parcels were scattered, I had three or four other things piled on top of the cake and I'd fallen just by a tram stop and they were all young people round the tram stop and I was waiting, working out the brave reassuring things I'd say when someone came and helped me. No one came. They ignored me and I turned very vicious there on the ground, I wanted to sort of elbow, crawl over to the nearest bejeaned leg and bite it and hang on, but I had to collect myself, painfully lever myself upright, collect my packages and limp off bleeding heavily to the car. It was ridiculous, amazing. If I'd fallen over in East Kew I'm confident I'd have been picked up because there's lots of old people in East Kew, but I ran into the youngies. Another dreadful time before the transplant, it was, I thought I should try to get some exercise. John was going off to go swimming and I had a white tracksuit, big, which covered everything and I'd set off to go for a walk, and I was walking up Hartington Street and I'd just gone around the corner, so I was out of sight, and I tripped, managed to get a leg underneath me and then thought that was a bad idea because it meant that when I hit the fence and the ground I had much more momentum. It was as if I'd kicked off from this leg and I broke my shoulder and ripped my arm very badly, degloved it right down and both legs and the key I'd been holding in my hand flew out of hand and vanished and I was trying to look for it when I got on to my feet again and couldn't find it. So I thought, John has gone, I'll be locked out of the house, I'm bleeding hard. Someone went past on the other side of the road and scuttled along as fast as they could [laughs]. Didn't want to get involved with this crazy lady. So I limped back and John still hadn't gone and my poor cleaning lady had come, I'd forgotten she was due, so I fell into the house bleeding, you know, drenched and the white made it look worse and said to John, "I think I've broken my shoulder, you know, I've fallen. I think you need to take me to the doctor". And he said, "Oh Ingy, have you done another mad thing?" My poor cleaning lady really nearly fainted. I turn into Mrs Hitler when I'm injured, you know, I snap out orders. "Do this, do that." And then after my transplant, no after this, I still had my arm in a sling, I climbed up on to John's exercise bike when he hadn't got up, I thought I should - and of course I fell off it with the bike on top of me and I'd gauged more holes in myself. He really was cross that time because it was completely stupid.
What I'd like you to do now is the other bit that we missed out on, you were about to tell me about the hallucinations that you had after the transplant, when you were full of drugs and you came out of the operation, you had some very interesting hallucinations. Could you describe those?
They were like rather well made silent movies, precisely. In fact I had difficulty at first working out if it was a film I was watching or whether it was a film being projected onto the backs of my eyelids. Their matter: in the first one I was in the grip of the camera, the camera was controlling everything and I was looking at what the camera was showing me, trying to make sense of it. And it showed me rock paintings, like Altamira, and it - then I realised it was malevolent, the camera, and it was whizzing me along through undulating sand, over undulating sand in an undulating motion, very fast. We were going somewhere. And there was a hump up in the distance and we whizzed up to it, stopped, and the wind lifted away the veils on it of sand and it was a dead dog lying on its back, a yellow dog, with the black gums exposed and the teeth and just little bits of hide left on it. And it was clearly a dog I'd owned, a labrador called Simba, who we'd got when the children were little and who later had cancer, and I'd held her while the vet put her down, and I'd chosen her death. And I said to the camera, "It's only Simba, you know, I'm not ashamed of that. She was ill, she was suffering. Yes I killed her but, yes, I decided to, it's all right." And the camera whizzed me off again, very fast, very angry at me resisting the proper response and I was being taken through sand again with trenches dug in it and it took, took me a while to work out what it was but it was men coming up out of trenches, First World War stuff. And so I said to the camera, "Well, you can't do trenches in sand. You need mud." And then the mud came and I was deep in a very alarming hallucination which is, I don't know, detailed in 'Tiger's Eye', of men drowning in mud, of the classic horror footage from the First World War, being enacted. And then some, a line of stretcher bearers went trotting past at a little distance and the two last ones went past and the body had fallen off their stretcher and I could see it on the ground in the mud but they didn't know it had fallen because they were blind. When they turned their faces towards me, their sockets were empty and one of them was my father. And I continued with the theme of First World War hallucinations for rather too long, and learnt for the first time that my father's time in France - you know, it had cropped up in our relationship - but obviously it was a dominant theme in my imagination. And there followed another hallucination which seemed to me finally - I had to interpret it as well as I could because only by interpreting it would I control it's potentially devastating consequences, psychological consequences for me. Everything depended on my getting, first of all putting into words what I was looking at, and secondly analysing it. In other words, doing an historian's job on it. And it seemed to me to be an elaborate, and not particularly successful, metaphor for my body and the disease and the drugs, but it came in the form of a Chinese combat, very elaborate. Chinese movie. And there were other hallucinations I didn't use in the book because [laughs] they weren't as totally controlling and absorbing. They were more daylight. For example, when I could hear our extremely sweet natured and kind co-ordinator of the Liver Transplant Unit, who has the most delightful Irish accent, telling my favourite nurse, the nurse who I felt had saved my life, that I had to be killed because I was going to introduce the Aztec religion to Australia and the Pope had given her direct instructions that I was to be killed while in hospital so I couldn't do it. And the nurse was demurring a bit but on the whole thinking she'd better do it. Now I knew that that was crazy. You know I knew that Alice wouldn't do that [laughs] and I was somehow stringing it together. But the - I had a music sound in my ears which was, got very wearing. It was of German soldiers singing elaborate Germanic harmonies in a sort of Wagnerian phrase and they seemed to be stationed in the little bathroom off my infection control room and the trouble with hallucinations is you don't know if they're real or not, and you feel you have to take very discreet steps to ascertain if they are.
You mustn't betray yourself because if it becomes clear, what you think you're seeing and what you think is going on, presumably you'll be carted off, you know, who knows what will happen? It's a dark secret. John was a little hurt afterwards when he read them to say, "You never said any of this to me". I said, "Of course not, you know, I". I don't quite know why the inhibition is so huge but you have to deceive the world around you to try to keep them out of all this, so I did.
You had some visitors too, hallucinations, didn't you? Soldiers?
Oh, yes, but they belonged I think to the German soldiers singing away in the bathroom. You see what was disquieting about the German soldiers singing was that they came home with me. They were singing away in that bathroom and I knew it was just this weird thing in my ear but it's a curious thing and very slowly they faded. How that physiologically happens, I cannot imagine. Yes, one of the, one of the most distressing hallucinations was, I was just in my room, in my bed, and a nurse had just been in and out again and I was feeling normal and then I saw that there was a very young German soldier slumped in the corner, First World War uniform. Hee'd had - the wool of the uniform was wet and I could smell the wet wool, and he was a bit yellow. I couldn't see if he was bleeding and he was exhausted and he was gazing at me with absolute appeal, as if our eyes were stuck together, it was so intense. You know, "Don't betray me, don't say I'm here. Leave me alone. Let me stay." He didn't say anything but this was a - and I knew he was there and I thought the nurses couldn't see him but there's paranoia in this too. Did they see him and were they pretending he wasn't there? And he stayed for a while and then there was a burst of noise from the German soldiers in the bathroom, who nobody but me knew about, and then he vanished. So it's very complicated, you know, elaborated hallucinations. The early ones I'd had, way back, before the transplant, which were presumably more a result of natural toxins and debility than drugs I suspect, I didn't know that. I could make sense of them from books I'd read about, they're called phosphenes, they're sort of flashes of light that occur in the retina and which humans are able to organise into meaningful patterns - because I'd done some work on some South American Indians who ingested drugs in measured amounts which induced these physiological phenomena which were then interpreted as a quest narrative back to the ancestors. And you know, there were forms that the anthropologist who'd been all through this absent-mindedly would draw because he'd seen them, he didn't know what they meant, he'd seen them on his drug-assisted journey where he'd taken the measured amount at the right time with the group. And one of the locals looked over his shoulder and said, "Oh, oh, you've got the grass serpent there". He said, "What?" You know, instantly set them to drawing these forms which were formalised shapes of what he'd seen but had been given a group interpretation. So I knew about phosphenes, which was a comfort, but that was no help when I got into the silent movie territory.
What's your theory about why those particular images, that strange collection of images, were thrown up at that time?
I don't know. I don't really have a theory except to realise that the First World War was very important to me. That - and simultaneously I was trying to retrieve childhood. You are alone a lot of the time when you're ill. There are great acres of time and sociability is out, reading is out because you don't have the concentration, so introversion is the only way to go. So you're examining memory and how memory works and how you can elaborate memories, pull one out of another like a magician's silk handkerchiefs. You know, they can keep on going. And by doing that I had remembered aspects of my childhood that I'd forgotten, like for example, the stay in the household and the importance to the household of the American marines who then went to Guadalcanal. And I knew that the phenomenon of young men going to war had been a very important component of my childhood.
You've described a great many different sorts of experiences that your extraordinary illness brought you. I wonder if you could sum up now, with the benefit of a few years hindsight, what really was the legacy of that illness for you? How did it change you? What did you take from it that was, as it were, permanent in its effect on you?
A sense of freedom, liberation, pleasure. A sense that my life had settled onto tracks in the way lives tend to do when you get to be sixtyish and you have a career and there they are laid out in front of you and you have a rather dreary vision of the freedom, of the future and then when someone blows the tracks up, and there's green countryside all around you, and almost anything could happen. It had that sort of sense, it was essentially a liberation. It was an escape from the pleasant constrictions of academe and of a life spent in educational establishments. I now have no desire to go back anywhere near them. It shot me out into what is called the real world, whatever that might be, and into a promiscuous clutter of people doing all sorts of other things. In hospital I got to know farmers, I got to know teachers in provincial schools, I got to know a range of people who otherwise I would never even have met probably. And because I had a room that had a little annexe for an extra bed - so I'd get odd people who turned up and had to get out the major ward for a night or two - you know, we'd have whole nights of conversation, and it was quite extraordinary. I enjoyed that. And I retain a sense, a more powerful sense, that people are extraordinarily benevolent. One of the dilemmas for historians when, especially historians who explore rather horrific subjects, is that people say, "Ah well, that's just what people are like. They do that kind of thing". In reality, that seems to me profoundly false. What most people I've encountered through my life have been, is remarkably kind, remarkably unready to leave you in a fix, despite those kids down in Kew who did ignore me - but they were shy I think as much as anything. What puzzles me is that typically people respond with kindness and goodwill and yet can be turned to other conduct. So the inquiry for me is always how come that people who are basically good - it's the old great division between whether people are basically good or basically bad. The whole experience of the liver transplant and the, being tossed into the world in a, in a weakened state is that, yes, people are indeed basically good, so what has to be explained is when they perform evil actions.
At a personal level, did you feel, as it were, born again? Did you feel a new person?
To a degree, most especially after that first illness when I was at Freemasons, and it was spring and I would be taken out from the confines of a hospital. And one thing I have developed is a sort of claustrophobia now, I hate being inside, you know, closed in rooms. I find that very alarming. And to go out into the gardens there with blossoms and trees and bright green leaves and all the usual paraphernalia was profoundly thrilling. I mean I - it really was a conscious rebirth and I've retained that I think. I haven't got used to the beauty of nature. The beauty of little kids. Just haven't got used to them again. They keep on seeming to me absolutely remarkable. That was a rebirth. I think I'm different, I'm tougher. Much less afraid of anything. Reckless. I could scarcely swim. I could stay afloat forever but I wasn't a good swimmer until after the transplant and now I swim out deep and find it exhilarating. I don't think a white pointer will eat me and if it does, so what? You know, there's a liberation from anxious fears, I suppose.
Well, of danger, of attack, any number of things, just that vague penumbra of anxiety which I don't whether the change is that, you know, I looked death in the eye and didn't blink, or whether it was simply that I had to move much more in public buildings, I had to depend on the kindness of strangers, and I found kindness. So the notion of being alarmed at being on an empty railway station or walking down an empty street and someone comes walking towards you, you no longer feel that.
The Aztec warrior inside you told you how you should behave. Did you find it difficult to do that?
No. I think I've never been afraid of - I haven't been afraid of people who were dying and I certainly haven't been afraid of dead people. And accidentally I had a little experience of both, from young, you know, as a kid. The boy who shared my desk in preliminary infants, died of peritonitis. I was - a car I was in was right up behind a bad accident on the Geelong Melbourne road and I stayed with the little man who'd come flying out of the door as it slewed open and landed with a conclusive thump on the verge. And I knew he was dead, but I covered him with a blanket and held his hand, because I was a bit lonely, and I just - I was about seven or eight then - and I just didn't fear people who were dead or dying which was why I found it puzzling when my family were so alarmed. I don't feel that at all. And in hospital it can happen that you're suddenly in close proximity with someone who's dying and it never seemed to me baffling or puzzling to know what you did.
And did it seem to you to be completely logical that after that experience you should turn to an examination of the Holocaust?
Logical. I'm not sure what connection you're suggesting there.
I'm not suggesting any connection, I'm asking you whether you saw any connection. I mean, after it was over you said that your new lease of life, you wanted to use...
I wanted to use it...
And you told us the trigger and how you were thinking. I'm asking whether or not you see any other connection that might be emotional or whatever that...
No, I don't think so, except, I mean, one connection was a sort of paradox. Anything I had gone through was effected by people who were concerned for my well-being, absolutely. I was surrounded by tender loving care. If people had to hurt me, they did that unwillingly. What it would be like to be surrounded by malice seemed to me a very terrible and terrifying thing. So it was not in any sense seeing the Holocaust as any kind of extension of my situation but as an absolute transformation of it, where the experience of helplessness, which I had, would go along with an experience of implacable malice. And that made it more important to try to grasp not so much the condition of the victims but to understand the perpetrators. How they did it? How they continued to do it?
It's not something I can sum up quickly, but the lessons seemed, looked meagre but I think they'd probably be adequate. The individual conscience is the only guide and guard, you have to practise saying no. You have to be extremely aware - wary of all the secondary virtues like doing a good day's work, being loyal to the boss, being loyal to your mates, not dobbing anyone in. All those sturdy virtues I would view with great mistrust. Take care with what you do, great care, because you'll get used to doing it. If you feel a wince of the conscience, desist. It seems to me it's in those kinds of areas that the lessons like - keep language pure because one of the most insidious and effective and essential preliminary moves of the Nazis was to introduce forms of language, softened forms of language, often with a metaphor of hygiene, to separate citizens who happened to be Jewish from other citizens who were not Jewish and then to condemn the Jewish citizens to death. It seemed to me that a corruption, the corruption of language was an essential preliminary move in that, so guard the language. Use it as clearly and simply and transparently as you can. The old George Orwell point. And as I say, practise disobedience, because you need to practise it. Take on authority, see what happens.
How did you come to write 'Tiger's Eye'?
I wrote it because I had to write something. I needed to write something to hold body and soul together and...
Could you explain that a little bit? You've said that a few times, "But of course I had to write it. When I started thinking about it, I had to write it"...
When I was experiencing what I was experiencing at each stage of my illness, because it was an acutely lonely sensation, because Sylvia Plath has it exactly right, any form of illness, not just mental illness, claps a bell-jar down over you. The first thing that happens is social isolation and it keeps on happening. So you're going to introspect and you also have to try to make sense, or I found I had to try to make sense, render intelligible, get a grip on, that which was happening to me, both physically and socially in the first stages. So when I was clapped into hospital and began to feel beleaguered and shredded and got at, it seemed to me very important to analyse what was being done to me and why I was getting those responses. Why did I feel like a four year old again? What was going on? I would tame it by putting it into words and then I could examine it. You know, experience was turned into an examinable form. The same thing with the physical changes. You can just be left in a inchoate state of mortified vanity but once you start really trying to describe what this weird phenomenon in the mirror is, it, it's much more manageable, it's even quite funny. The memories were rather different, because there's chunks of memoir in 'Tiger's Eye'. They were about my own sense that I was going to die, I was fairly sure I was, didn't seem likely as if I was going to clamber out of this. And I had an urge to memorialise my parents, to try to clarify my relationship with my mother particularly, and at least to memorialise my father and the way it used to be. And I found I could hardly do that without memorialising my childhood because we were in that parent child relationship and I knew nothing of them, really, beyond that limited interaction, that peculiar squint of a relationship of a parent and a child. And then I began to take pleasure in memory and I began to be diverted by what an untrusty worthy thing it is. Historians know memory is untrustworthy, that's not news to us, but just how devious, deceitful, what a chronic liar it is I hadn't really worked out in detail by working on my own memories. And I enjoyed doing that and that filled in the spaces when I would otherwise have been very lonely, when I was feeling better in other words and less beleaguered, so there was time. And then, a variety of accidents, like once thinking I was going to absolutely run out of things to read, which always terrifies me and I knew I would, so I thought I'd better write something as the only way to make the one little book I had left last. And I began to write short stories, and I was amazed at how absorbing they could be in a different mood, and also at a different level of health. And then as I say, when the inflamed brain sickness was at its worst, I would just be chasing individual words which let me map just how fast I was losing language. You know, and how quickly memory, my cantankerous friend, was abandoning me, and I did get worried. So there were a whole series of, to me, new experiences and dilemmas, I suppose, existential dilemmas coming out of being ill and the vagaries of being ill. It's a very peculiar, shifting state and my way of handling those and giving me, whoever that is, some sense of continuity, was to keep a written record. The real question about 'Tiger's Eye' is not why I wrote it. I wrote it to stay alive, but why I published it. That is a mystery to me in a way.
You don't have the answer yet?
I don't think I do.
Was it your idea to publish it?
No, not originally. Helen Daniel never believed in wasting writing. If you had writing you published it. And I'd written something else for her as I was improving, when I was coming back to ordinary life, my vehicle for doing that was writing a piece called 'Reading Mr Robinson', which was my first sally into Australian history. You see once you've been sick, you're not scared to invade any territory. They can just try to keep you out. So I wrote about Mr Robinson... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, he'd been Protector of the Aborigines in Tasmania and had managed to round up the remnants of the tribes after the herding of the Aborigines right across Tasmania in what was called the Friendly Mission. He collected them and then, perforce, betrayed them by dumping them down on an island instead of letting them remain in their homeland. And then he came to Victoria and became Protector of the Aborigines here. He was a travelling man. His assistant protectors would have much preferred him just to stay home but he'd clamour on his horse and off he'd go on surveys of his new territories. And he happened to keep journals of his journeys and one of his journeys covered the winter months of 1841, I think, and, as he went from Melbourne down to Portland and back with a dog leg swing into the Grampians on the way home. And of course that's territory I knew but territory I knew as an empty landscape. And there he was riding through it and he was also an absolutely marvellous writer. There are people who leap off the page and he was one of them and I wanted to - I read it almost by mistake and then I wanted to sort of celebrate him as a person, as a phenomenon, only within the space of that journal, pretending he hadn't existed beforehand, because in a way we're always renewing ourselves and changing. I wanted the Mr Robinson of that journey and what he told us about the nature of relations between Aborigines and white Australians during that period. And I was extremely startled at what I learnt. It was a crucial period in the effective extinction of the Victorian Aborigines and the herding of the survivors into a few reservations. And I enjoyed doing it very much. And it brought me back to history because I wasn't ready for the full rigours of going back into my own period - and I've forgotten so much of that, you know, it's hard, it's going to be hard - but this was simply a strange little discreet topic and a vivid individual and so I wrote about him, and Helen published that. And she got me to publish reviews and so on, so she gathered up the writings I'd done, because I said, "Look, you know, they're just self-indulgent jottings there. I like some of my little stories but I'll bung them in the odd short story competition" because I'd managed to win the very first short story writing competition I went in for which is a very corrupting thing to happen to someone. And then a thousand word story won the Books and Writing short story competition, so I was very pleased about that, because all these things were happening after the transplant. You know, it was fun to do something different and to get these little awards. But she gathered them up and took them off to Michael Heyward at Text Publishing and he proceeded to make a book out of them or to tell me what I had, extra bits I had to do to make a book out of them. But it's been a difficult book to explain to people because they keep saying, "Oh I like the memoirs. Why did you have this stuff about the sickness?" Or "I liked the sickness, why did you have this stuff about childhood?" Well, they usually say they like both of those, what they didn't like were the short stories, which is like telling me my children are plain or something. However, I obviously hadn't explained properly in the body of the book which I'd tried to do, what I should have called this was not a memoir, but raw material towards a biography of the self, you know, not an autobiography, but these were the writings I'd generated in conditions of hardship, so they were documentation of what was going on within me that I wasn't really aware of at all. And so perhaps I should call it raw materials towards a history of the self, see how many that will sell.
The interesting thing is that when you use documentation in your historical writing, in your writing of history, you always, you have this method which, you see through all your work, where you supply the document fully and give us the evidence you've got and then you do an interpretation of it. In this book about the self you supply the documentation, but with not a great deal of the kind of discussion that you use in exploring other histories and not the history of you. Why do you think that is?
I do a little bit, mainly with disclaiming the reliability of the texts I've offered you. You know, I have a daughter's eye view of my mother, why should you rely on that? You know, I've raised the critical issues about the status of these documents. No I don't try to interpret them, I think because I don't think that's my job, I don't - I generated them, I do some elucidation. I see some of the connections obviously in the hallucination material back to my father's war, back to my concern with warfare. I mean there's ways in which I now would write a different account of my career, a more internalised account, that it wasn't as external career choice, rational, but coming out of earlier experiences. I notice in the short stories something that nobody else seems to notice, many of them are puzzles about how far autonomy can be pressed, and how lethal autonomy can become if it's pressed too far, because clearly I'm interested in being autonomous but I'm also aware of the perils of it. So I, I thought I was sort of elucidating that by plonking the stories down one after the other, but no one's noticed that. I - I don't think - I have a nice time doing something I think is wicked by writing a prequel to Chekhov's 'Lady with a Little Dog' ['Lady with the Dog'], which let me play around with his letters and work out of his letters, which I enjoyed doing very much because the one thing I thought was wrong with that marvellous story was that the girl comes across on a second meeting with Gurov and it's too quick. She's a well brought up, young wife, provincial wife and she has brought with her on holidays an icon and she's shy and aloof and I couldn't believe the second meeting would see it happen. However, she has a little dog, Chekhov has a little dog and if she had seen him, been attracted to him and almost encountered him several times and then realised he was spoken for, it would be possible for her to accidentally trip and fall with the next man who turns out to be the love of her life, but that's the kind of thing that can happen.
You took these fragments really of your life, the memories that came up to you as you pointed out in the book, almost by chance what you remembered, and the hallucinations that presented themselves to you almost thrown up like an earthquake throws up artefacts. But there is such a chance in this, isn't there? And this is something that, you know, in that parallel between the history of the self and the histories that you've written of other periods, there is a certain chance factor in what survives.
Oh yes, absolutely.
Is there a danger of putting too much weight on the things that happen?
On the things we happen to know about, of course, but that is a problem that historians have to live with and there's always a possibility of - actually in practice it never feels as bad as that because you begin to get a glimmering of a possibility, a possible interpretation, and you will begin to pick up reverberations of that interpretation in all sorts of unlikely places. You know, of course this can feel risky, but when you're, you think you're beginning to get a fix on the moral processes, the hidden moral processes through which a warrior goes ideally as he goes through the stages of the ritual combat and either is victorious or defeated and what conduct is expected from him, how he can best behave to the moment of death. And you think you've worked something out from a close analysis of the ritual action, it's something that's plausible, and then you get verification from the movement of some of the warrior chants and from the metaphors used in the poetry, they reinforce it, and in the advice given to virtuous conduct to a young girl. You know, you spot some of the same notions, and so there's a way in which the verifications, that's putting it too strongly but there, it's supporting evidence, comes in from a wide range of disparate sources. Now when that happens, you get happier and happier. It fits, and obscure things fit, things you haven't understood, suddenly reshape themselves and you think, "Yes, it's about that".
And so in doing 'Tiger's Eye' and presenting us with documentations of the self, you were giving us the opportunity to do just that kind of cross-reference?
If you wanted to, yeah, absolutely, and I think I felt that given my job was generating the documents which in a sense had come to me, I didn't invite the hallucinations, heaven knows, and in a way the randomness of the memories intrigued me. Why was I selecting them that way? Why were they those memories in that sort of sequence which intruded? Why were the stories, which seemed completely gratuitous, the shape they were? Why did they have the obsessions they had, because they really just did seem like little freak stories that came into my head. Why did I remember some people from my childhood and not others? Why had they compelled my imagination? It seemed to me that my job was, as it were, to inscribe those things honestly, including these communiqués from my dark interior that I hadn't known about, were new to me, it would have seemed to me very odd, I hadn't thought of this, but it would have seemed to me very odd for me to try to interpret them. I think I'm...
Yeah. Job or pastime or if they want to. And I think that's important too, you flummoxed me earlier by asking me what my friends thought of me and what the people at school had thought of me, and I said "I didn't know", and that's true, I don't know. It seems to me that what other people make of us is one of those imperishable liberties you can't take away from people. It's up to them.
How did you come to do the Boyer Lectures?
Ah, I got a letter in the post and I thought it was a hoax because it pretended it was asking me to do the Boyer Lectures and it was signed by someone improbable called Donald McDonald, and I thought which of my lunatic friends would consider this amusing. And my second thought was, and this did amaze me, if it's not a hoax, I'll do them because my inclination previously is always to decline things. No, I won't, I don't want to, no, thank you. And it really is because I was too unself-confident and too anxious to undertake exposure. People would find that a bit surprising seeing that once I've undertaken it, I do it without blinking, but I was very surprised when my response was, if it's not a hoax, ttch, because I had nothing to do it on. I couldn't tell the Radio National audience all about Aztecs very well. It was a standing start for me, whatever I did - and of course I was told very graciously I could do it about anything I wanted to.
You said you were surprised you said yes, without even knowing what you were going to talk about, and yet you did say yes.
So what had changed about you to surprise yourself so much?
Reckless, nothing to lose. Why not? That sort of talk. That's why and I suppose I was helped by the fact that I knew I could talk reasonably clearly and communicate quite well and I wanted people to be able listen to an academic with the sense that they could follow them, easily.
How did you decide what to do with the Boyer Lectures. What you would talk about?
That was indeed a problem because the one specification was that it had to be about Australia and I knew nothing at all about Australia. I lived here, that was all. And that was an occasion for some panic but the reason I decided to do them was that I'd always believed that historians typically made what they did too complex. They spoke to the eight other experts in the field, instead of taking people through the process they go through themselves of discovering small stories, a fragment of a story and then puzzling over what it might mean. So, I had the fragment of Australian history that I'd taken from George Augustus Robinson's journals of that one winter horse ride, and I'd found that deeply fascinating and illuminating. So I thought the big issue in Australia at the moment is the depersonalisation being affected by the development of corporations and so on. The next biggest is the problem of unemployment. I clearly can't handle either of those, but there's also the issue of race relations where I've had some experience in other situations, in other colonial situations, so I decided I'd do that. And off I went like a hound dog looking for the fragments I could bring back and show the audience. After all these were radio lectures, they were to be taken by ear, so they would have to be simple in structure and focused in content. And I began with the fragment, which had obsessed me for years when I'd stumbled across it accidentally, of what happened when a group of French scientists landing on a Western Australia beach encountered an Aboriginal woman. And it seems to me that those small vignettes, those moments of past time, if you give them to people they're then left with the job of discovering what the meanings are. I can suggest some but they're the sorts of small stories which lock into the imagination, and liberate both the imagination and the moral sense, which is what I think the study of history is essentially about. So I did that, getting progressively more complex as I hoped my invisible listenership might come to trust me more.
And did you find from that experience of doing that work that you changed your attitude to the question of race relations in the country?
Yes, I got much angrier. I really had not known what had been done so consistently generation by generation. You know, like most ignorant liberals, I was aware of initial violence and expropriation, but that was just about the end of my knowledge, and one of the things I tried to do in the lectures was to show the way that different endeavours to come to terms with this intruding dominant white culture: gallant, creative, inventive attempts had been obliterated by ignorance or malice on the part of those who controlled the great structures of society.
And did you get feedback after you did the lectures that they'd had an impact on other people?
I got some straight away which was extremely nice because it's a very weird thing. You record these lectures, you're cramped in a little tiny studio, doing them in bits with a deeply unsympathetic recording technician, who would say, "Lighten up", you know, "Do this", "Do that", so you'd have to do it again. And it was a very artificial and weird experience, though I have to admit I did enjoy it, and I learnt a bit about how you cope with radio, but it's quite unlike talking to someone, or giving a lecture, or anything like that. So you're really speaking into a void. So I was very pleased when I got, you know, a little flood of letters from people, some of them marvellous letters from people who fed me stories that connected with the stories I'd told and completed them, all sorts of people who were able to tell me what happened to individuals I'd mentioned, or to come up with a parallel story to one I'd told. Quite extraordinary. Non-professionals, you know, not academic historians at all, people concerned with their local and family histories and connecting it all up. I found that marvellous. And then as time has gone on, I have discovered they've gone into courses which is an ambition I'd had. They're being used in Papua New Guinea by local historians to give them some sense of how the discipline can be made to work in those circumstances. They're being used in a poetry course and I don't know how that works. But I think small, very portable collections of lectures like that can have quite a long life. Certainly others in the series have had a remarkably long life because they're useful.
How were they received by the Aboriginal people?
That I don't know. I know the Palm Islanders were pleased that their local triumphs had - at last were getting attention paid them. Noel Pearson liked them which pleased me very much. I was only interviewed by one Aboriginal broadcaster but she'd liked them. So you know I would expect there to be very slow filtration, if there were one at all, for Aborigines. They don't need to be told all this stuff, they were there. They lived through it. It's the whites who don't know. They were triggered too by the compelling interest of having gone for the first time in my life to live for some months of each year in the northern part of Australia. It was fascinating territory to me because it was at once absolutely recognisably Australian, both culturally and in vegetation, and yet profoundly different because many of those people were oriented towards the north. They'd worked in Papua New Guinea for years or they'd worked through the Torres Strait Islands, or they were oriented towards the Northern Territory, the Kimberley and so on, and I was used to moving among white southern intellectuals. So it was a very big shift and I liked it a great deal. And the elections in which, you know, a third of the vote went to One Nation, nearly a half on my particular island, occurred after we'd gone up there, and I became aware that a lot of the people I knew, respected and liked, must have voted for One Nation. And I began to do a little bit of on the ground surveying on that issue to find out why, and I was abashed to find they had, what looked to me to be good and sufficient reason for doing that. Very rarely racially based. Nearly always based on justified anger against politicians, a long experience of neglect and of the infliction of ignorance upon them. But there were some - it wasn't even anti-Aboriginal feeling. These were people who had experience of Aborigines, which was more than I'd ever had, but it was experience within a very narrow frame, both in terms of time, one generation, a few years, and of locality, one situation. You know, dwellers in a small provincial town for example. They really knew nothing else, they didn't even know the context, the living context of Aborigines who'd come into town on pension day and shop in the supermarkets. They didn't know where they went back to. And I also noticed that there were a great variety of myths about privileges Aborigines enjoyed, which they did not enjoy, but which folk wisdom insisted they enjoyed, with naturally a great deal of resentment attached to that. So really my secret audience for the Boyer Lectures were those people. Now they're not the kind of people who'd ever listen to the Boyer Lectures, or they might by accident, or they might if they knew the funny lady who's living in the new house down the road, you know, is on radio, but that was my hope, because I believed in their decency, I believed in their sense of justice and I still do, and I believed and believe that if they understood the actual political and social context of the Aborigines they saw, and occasionally interacted with, they would judge them quite differently.
Inga, having turned your mind to this as an historian and doing that work as an historian, can I ask you now as a citizen what conclusions have you come to about how we should go forward as a nation with this problem?
It's a difficult question because I'm not politically involved. I'm sardonic about large symbolic gestures, like apologies and bridge marches, and I might be wrong to be sardonic about that. But for me what eats into my heart is the daily violence, illness, suffering of real Aboriginal communities. So when reconciliation groups sit together in suburban living rooms in Melbourne, I find it extremely difficult to care, because that seems to me a moral paroxysm that whites are wanting to go through, which might be diverting but I can't see that it helps the woman who's just been bashed by her husband to get hold of the pension money so he can spend it on grog. Therefore, I am very much against the padded speech which has become typical in representing the conditions of Aboriginal life in many of the communities. Obviously Aborigines live all over the place in utterly different circumstances. You know, there's no, it's an absurd word to use, except that I do believe all those people who define themselves as Aborigines are utterly aware of their shared history. They have experienced certain systematic injustices at the hands of whites, wherever they live. But the ones who cause me most immediate and constant anxiety are the people in the communities and there, of course, we happen have a hero in action in Noel Pearson, an extraordinary man, I think. I've read everything I can get that he's written and it's a very unusual mind, because he actually understands when and why his mind changes, and that's a very unusual capacity, that self-critical capacity, he has it. He is both deeply implicated with his local communities and utterly sophisticated in his management of white society and white organisations. So I would believe that he is the hope for the future, that his solutions are profoundly based in experience. In his own life he's had to learn a remarkable athleticism when it comes to evaluating other people's moral attitudes because he grew up on Hopevale Mission, a Lutheran mission, and the hero of the mission was Joh Bjelke-Petersen because as a Lutheran he had managed to get the mission re-established after it had been dispersed, its German Lutheran pastor imprisoned during the war and its people taken off and dumped down elsewhere when it was the closest thing to a homeland they had. So he grew up with God-fearing parents he respected, who had a profound reverence for his enemy, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, because he was an activist. So, you know, that's a rare man.
But from your point of view, speaking as a white intellectual who lives in Melbourne, and looking at the future, your - what aspect of those ideas that he expresses are the ones that you want to see go forward? Could you enunciate from your point of view?
Oh, well, I mean I want employment opportunities delivered to communities which have to live where they live, but which have been located absolutely outside of the real economy. It's going to cost money, it's going to be difficult and the chief employment opportunity for young people is going to be education because here's a living example of what education can do. As for what I can do, what concerns me is my lack of knowledge in this area. I've read a lot but I have no immediate experience. But that need not be a difficulty, it can almost be a drawback, because one sees the language getting corrupted, I'm back on my hobby-horse. You see the language being corrupted in completely unhelpful ways. You can see actuality being masked and softened. You can see squabbles over whether male Aborigines used violence against female Aborigines before contact or whether it's purely a post-contact phenomenon. Who cares? If they're being bashed now, there's an issue of keeping the mind clear and focused tightly on the real issues and not on the political shadow-boxing that takes up so much time and energy and so much passion. For example, I am deeply antagonistic to the use of Holocaust imagery to describe what happened to Aborigines. It permits those decent people, for example, living in the tropical north to absolutely dismiss all the talk about genocide, stolen children and so on, effortlessly because they know it is nonsense. They know it's not like that. They've got a common man's appreciation of what the word 'genocide' means. They believe it means killing people, and I think they're right. You know, we need a word for deliberately killing whole ethnic groups of people, because it happens in the world, we need a word for it. So when you tack cultural on the front and say it's genocide when you make a child speak English at school, now something bad is going on when you make a child speak English in school if his home language is something different, but please don't let's say it's genocide because that instantly lets half the voting population, more, off the hook of working out just what the injustices are and how they might be remedied.
And what's your objection to the phrase 'stolen children'?
I don't have one to that, because that happened.
Oh I see, but you put it with genocide?
It's off - no because the children - because of the tacking on of the adjective 'cultural', they're taken, they're put in white homes, you know, either institutional or individual and they're - the attempt is being made to make them forget the fact they've spent crucial years of their lives with other people. Now that is a crime and it's important to try to understand what the precise nature of that crime is, but to call it genocide, in my view, simply muddies the waters in a politically disastrous and morally disastrous way. When Aborigines begin to write in detail their own histories and their own experiences, there's some writers have begun to do it, memorably, but as yet we're only beginning to get the Aboriginal histories. I don't want their minds cluttered with metaphors and images which belong to an absolutely different experience. Their experience is unique, distinctive, we need to understand it. And getting your experience down on paper is hard enough, without having to go through an obstacle course of the metaphors that white liberals keep thumping down in front of you, saying, "Don't forget to say genocide, concentration camp, when you're talking about the mission". Now the missions were hard places but they were not concentration camps. So that's my little hobby-horse but I don't think it's going to help many Aborigines if I start riding it around. I don't know what I can do that's of any assistance.
Maybe what we need to do are the things that we each have the possibility of doing because of our expertise, and by doing that in the Boyer Lectures, by using your expertise as an historian, many would think that you'd made the most significant contribution that you could make.
Well good, good [laughs], but - and yet there's always a problem. You're always casting bread on the waters, aren't you, and you don't really know what comes back, but you've got to keep on tossing it. Yeah, all right, I will go ahead and write a short article on the use of the word 'genocide' which I had not intended to do because it does seem so painfully remote from the real life circumstances of those people.
Can you talk now a little bit about language because it is so important to you? And if you could look back through your life and think about how your interest in languages evolved and I suppose, most importantly, why you think that language is so important in human affairs?
I can't put any sort of date on when words seemed to matter to me, but I can imagine, I assume, that's it is a conventional account of being a very isolated child with very little interaction with other playmates really, long periods of solitude, and therefore reading becoming important early and also thinking to myself, you know, I've always formulated thoughts into words. I've written them in my head in effect from a very early age. A lot of the memoir material in 'Tiger's Eye' I probably wrote when I was about eight, you know. I'd feel comfortable if I could coax feelings into words which more or less fitted them but I was also very aware from a very early age that the word hardly ever fitted the emotion. It was only a very rough fit at the best of times. So that problem and that challenge and that interest stayed with me. The writers who've most absorbed me through the years are those who do miraculously best at getting the word that fits and that shock of delight as you see that this is the right word, is not something you can give up once you start getting addicted to it. So clearly, but only in retrospect, I realise that words have always been primary to me. I watch and then I put it into private words which might or might not become public. Now that is very different from the way other people operate in and on the world. I was the only one like that in my family and my sister was a marvel to me because she interacted immediately and expressively with words, but words were only a small part of her method of communicating with others, and I'd watch her with fascination but I'd never try to imitate her.
When you were going through - when you were going through a very intense life experience with your illness, you've said that in order to understand it, you had to write it. Now some people in those circumstances would have a great need to use words but in conversation with a friend or a confidant. In your case you actually took to writing and indeed while you were in hospital used writing as a way of avoiding having to converse with other people... Could you tell me about that? Could you tell us that part of the story?
That's true... Well the bit, the sort of talk I was avoiding were not intimate exchanges. It was chit-chat which has always driven me crazy. You know, affable chatter that is about nothing. I was, I had another experience of it because I got ill in Townsville and was in hospital for a few days and decided I might as well take an interest in what was going on and this was two women and they spoke in parallel, they didn't communicate. They delivered separate speeches on approximate topics, curtains in fact, but, and they repeated themselves a huge amount. Now that stood in stark contradistinction to one of those women who I set to, as it were, to interview, to find out about because she dropped enough things in her discussion of curtains and other things, an extraordinary sort of life. So then I had a very good - well it wasn't a conversation. I just interrogated her. I suppose, I suppose because I have a secretive nature, you know, I, I like to control what I finally say which is one reason I find being interviewed difficult because I'm not in control of the form.
And that particular form asks you a double-barrelled question which is against the rules. So let's go back to the one that I asked first, which was why did you, in a situation where you wanted to express yourself, turn to pen and paper and to word processor rather than to conversation which is what a lot of people would do in a situation of stress?
Would they? I'm not at all sure about that. You see the point is you're among strangers and even when you're among friends, when friends visit you, as we were saying, they are normally appalled by your physical transformation and they fear an inner transformation as well, and you don't have the energy to reassure them. You can't do it. And I didn't go to pen and paper straight away, I went inside my head and formulated the words there. Often I wasn't physically able to write them down until later. So there were different phases in my relationship to writing when I was ill. For example, when I was put in for a fortnight of tests, preliminary to the transplant, so you'd only be lugged off once a day for something or other to be done to you. The rest of the day you were feeling okay and you were just trapped in hospital. That's when I brought the laptop in and went in for doing my hospital ethnography, you see, as a way of getting control of this absolutely new milieu and also as a weapon of defence against casual chit-chat and people wanting me to comment on what Oprah Winfrey was saying or whatever. Hospital gives you a chance for extremely close conversations which I valued extremely. It also gives you a chance for acre on acre of mindless chatter which I don't value at all, and writing let me select radically between the two situations, so it was a social weapon but later it was a, it was a survival technique. You know when your mind has shredded, when your vocabulary has flown, when your mind is empty, that for me is a very scary situation.
Why is it so important for you to be in control?
I don't know. I don't, but, I mean, it's one of the realisations that comes with age, or I can decide not to be in control, but I have to decide. But I think it is an extremely important thing to me because, you know, under hilariously, out of control circumstances, as with broken shoulder, bleeding, you know, all that, I will say, "No. Cut off, cut off the windcheater. Do this, do that". Ridiculous.
Can we talk now a little bit about the changes that you've seen in the course of your life? You've been a teacher, an academic, working in the university environment. How have universities changed and how have they changed for the people, the academics, who work in them as scholars and teachers and researchers?
Well, I've been out of it for ten years, thank God, otherwise I would have resigned about 14 times. My view is that they're completely transformed. You see we had a situation, in the good old days, where we were taking in a generous slice of the population who really wanted to go to university. They didn't just want a better job or a car, anything like that. They wanted a sense of being liberated into a world they thought might exist at the university and thank heavens some of them found such a world, because there was an expansiveness and a generosity. Ours was a - for example, I only really knew the History Department, though we worked in close association with other humanities disciplines, and I would be intermittently reminded of the generosity and liberal mindedness of my colleagues, colleagues with whom I might disagree on theoretical issues but whenever we had to work together closely on, say, examining a student for something that mattered, I would be so impressed by how hard they worked and how generously they thought. It was a great department. Then quite quickly, and initially under a Labor government of course, several things happened at once. The old rather shambling system of democratic conciliar government was destroyed and we got a return, not even to the god professor, which God knows was fraught with enough injustices, but the god vice-chancellor and administrators or as they came to call themselves, CEOs. We got a transformation in language and a transformation in conceptualisations, that's why I care about language. We started to talk about, we were meant to talk about our students which is an honourable profession, as clients, or even customers, and in a major report done for the government, it seemed to me that there was a basic and consistent confusion between information which is inert and knowledge which is active. So this very strange person was recommending wide and promiscuous use of the internet because the internet was absolutely stuffed with knowledge. It is absolutely stuffed with spurious, pseudo information, and it offers you no training at all in critical evaluation. Meanwhile, our - politically there was a concern about keeping voters happy so anyone who wanted to send their kid to the university had to be able to do so and that meant we lost our early leaders, we lost all the people who'd leavened the lump of adolescents who were concerned primarily with mating, not with intellectual exercise, came to the campuses, often holding down part time jobs as people had always done of course. So that was a transformation in the nature of the student intake. [INTERRUPTION]
Some of these changes to universities had begun while you were still there. What effect did they have on you as a person working in that environment?
The only real effect on me was that the size of my classes went up, a bit. Now what's interesting about that is that say you've got 45, 50 students in a subject and you teach them in three or four groups, you can in fact keep in touch with every one of those students. You know them. There's a bit of selection goes on because people can drop out of subject a fortnight after it's begun, so the people who couldn't stand me or my style could get out so the people who were left were ready to be committed. Now when you take those numbers add in 15 more you lose not just 15 students in understanding, you know, mental contact, you go down to about 15 to 20 that you really know. It's a very curious thing the way the - what's possible in terms of close relationships, shifts and I was beginning to feel that but because I taught in workshops they were more flexible. I could take in more people but the work burden began to be oppressive instead of a pleasure. Otherwise I was pretty protected because I could always fill my quotas with my exotic subjects and I was extremely recalcitrant about doing anything I didn't want to do. My view that you have to learn to say no very firmly, very early - and you see the people who were in real trouble were people who couldn't fill their quotas and therefore they'd be shipped into another subject to fill in, which is a hard thing to do if you really care about teaching. So I managed to escape and ours was a very compassionate department which lasted longer than most of the others. I don't believe it has endured, I think it has been, you know, its morale has been effectively destroyed although some of the people most active in the department now would absolutely deny that, but the trouble is they've managed to do that by unreasonable self-sacrifice. And it seems to me improper for those in charge of a system to alter it wantonly and wilfully so to make the burdens on devoted individuals close to intolerable.
Since you left the university world, you've moved into writing and communicating by other means than the ones ... are they as satisfying?
They're immediately satisfying and they, they are a solution to my restlessness and I like new things, you know, and I find it hard to say no. If someone says "Why don't you review a book on Nabokov's butterflies?", I say, "Well, yes". And it's crazy because you take weeks and weeks to do something like that, but I think it is a sort of self-indulgence and I must say I'm beginning to miss serious engagement over a long period with a problem that's much too difficult for me, which is what my academic career has been made out of, how to, you know, manage something about this inordinately difficult problem. And I am trying to return to more sustained writing and I think I'm sufficiently well now to do that, even though research is out of the question, which is a problem.
Yeah, yeah, well even actually, well travelling I find too taxing now and even getting in and out of libraries with very heavy glass doors can take me rather a long time [laughs]. You know, they're not easy to deal with if you don't have a lot of physical strength, but I think that can be managed.
As a writer is there anything other than those things to stop you from doing the sort of really deep research that you used to do as an academic? I mean what would come next for you if you were going to do something like that?
Well, what is coming next is an attempt to put on paper the sorts of issues I once discussed in class. And it's a bit like an extension of the Boyer Lectures I suppose, that for students, people wanting to write history, they get very few examples of how to do it. You tend to get a performance, a polished performance where the ropes and the, the safety net and everything else are made as invisible as possible, whereas I think I want to write something, I've begun to write something, in which I do some things in slow motion, and say this is how you do it, this is how you critically evaluate a document, this is how you read it from different points of view. Now, watch me do it fast, because then it's demystified, this process. Also there are issues about what degree of local detail, of writing skills it's permissible to use in history. There's been a bit of a revolution here. When I began people treated my skill in writing as a defect. It rendered me untrustworthy and then suddenly people thought it was great. You should be able to tell a story, you should be able to make someone's palms go sweaty over some issue or other, but students above all, PhD students for example, get no training whatsoever in any of those strategies or in learning to see what limits there are on your imagination in history, because there are. You're not writing fiction and I'm absolutely devoted to the distinction, unlike nearly everybody else in the world as far as I can see.
What do you think - what do you think has been the reason for the decline in interest in teaching history in the world?
Oh, I think it's straightforwardly vocational. I don't think it's got anything to do with student inclination. I think it's purely to do with decisions taken in this country, for example, that history would be not be regarded as a teaching subject, in that throttling off of the teaching profession, and the attempt to manipulate people into teaching business management or whatever dreary subject they thought it might be good for people in Year 10 to take. So history was simply bureaucratically removed from the list of teaching subjects, so kids at school were faced with an extremely painful decision. They were in love with the notion of doing, say, classical history or renaissance history or Australian history but if they did that, their scores wouldn't be as good, they would not be as well positioned to get into an education department later. So I think it was decisions from people who didn't give a damn about history, never having experienced it and who cut it out in face of student interest and desire to the conscious and expressed regret of the students.
What do you think is going to be the consequences of that in the longer term?
In the short term and the long term, it's going to make people narrow-minded, ignorant, intolerant, bored and generally a danger to man and beast, I'd have thought because once, once you've really come to understand that other people think differently from you, other individuals think differently, and you learn that from reading biographies, you know, they construct the world differently. Other peoples, other cultures certainly think differently from you and they don't do that because they're wicked or because they haven't been converted to Christianity or because they're primitive, or for any of these old slogan reasons, they have a completely functional, viable vision of the world. It's not yours and it is a marvellous liberation to be able to explore it, that you're enriched by this fact of difference. Now that seems to me the constant offer that history and the study of languages and of other literatures and of anthropology, all these things keep on offer. However unless you're trained to get over your own nervousness at embarking on those sorts of projects, your own sense of inadequacy, because we're all essentially inadequate for it, but we can all get better at it. Unless you're helped through that and your taste for the other and the different is nurtured and your respect for people's right to be different nurtured, what have you got? You've got mass culture, you've got the commodification of the individual. You have the sorry state we seem to be heading into, with beaming politicians and bureaucrats presiding over it.
As a writer you've written a lot of history and a little bit of fiction.
Could you tell me how you see and experience the difference between history and fiction?
Well I think the great fiction writers are gods who create worlds and who can play with morality so we perceive depths and possibilities we'd have to be extraordinarily lucky to find in real life. They have magnificent freedoms and they have the capacity to exercise them. And I'm with the great aestheticians like Nabokov who says what matters is the art, not the morality, the art because there's nothing like it. When you see it in action, there it is, you know, this glorious figure on the high trapeze is doing things you thought no human creature could do and he's doing it with utter grace and authority, and there's nothing more exhilarating. They're the great writers. There are always a great mishmash of lesser writers below them, they're probably are necessary to hold the great ones up, who knows, and there I find all kinds of experiments between fiction and history which I think are preposterous and need to be sorted out. Some people do it who aren't the great high-flyers, do it excellently well like Margaret Atwood in 'Alias Grace', it's impeccable. She does beautiful social history and she tells you when she's going to switch to the world of invention and she switches and she makes things up, and she also tells you when she's, in her little afterword or foreword, when she's going to go in for a blend, it'll be plausible in terms of these people's understandings, general cultural understandings, but her particular personages are invented and that's a marvellous exercise in covert education. People learn a lot about how different it was back then in that place and they learn it painlessly.
Accurately, in so far as the contract she offers you. Other people waffle about and slither about and really don't seem to know the difference between the kind of moral authority that's invoked by saying this really happened, and the aesthetic freedom of saying I'm going to make this up. They seem to me different activities. And I believe it is an extremely useful and desirable human characteristic that people cannot pass by that which they know to be real, whereas they will close a book where what's being described is made up and painful. I thought Australia responded politically very alarmingly, they wanted to invade, but gloriously morally when there was that huge wave of genuine distress over what was happening in East Timor. Outrage. Because they knew it was not only real but it was happening close by and it was happening now. And they burnt to intervene. I think that's a splendid thing.
You use the word 'moral' a lot when you're talking about history, about the writing of history and the uses of history. What do you mean by that?
Having taken decisions about what conduct is appropriate for oneself and what conduct is tolerable in others and what is intolerable, I think it's man-made. I don't think it comes from anywhere else. I think it's a matter of personal decision where you draw those lines and I think it's the most important thing you've got to do through the course of your life. And then you have to learn the courage to act on it and unfortunately, the world being organised in various ways, it's very easy to be moral in some societies and terrifyingly difficult in others, terrifyingly difficult. Nonetheless, if there is a purpose in existence, and I believe such a purpose can only be humanly invented - outsiders like gods needn't apply - it is what one does if one wants to have, to construct a meaningful life.
When I asked you the other day about what, what you thought had made the perpetrators of some of the awful things that have happened in history, like the Holocaust, you described the conditions, the societal conditions that one has to watch for and prevent, but you didn't actually answer the question of why at the end of the day the people who did those awful things did them. And I want you to talk a little bit about the idea of evil, which always gets called into being when those subjects are discussed, and the individual operating in society.
Let me first take up your 'at the end of the day'. At the end of the day it is too late, you have to learn to pick the dawn of certain phenomena in the world. Evil, I think it's a completely useless term in human affairs. It's a metaphysical term, it belongs to a conversation out there between the gods possibly, and it illuminates nothing in human affairs. I think you have to look close and hard at the people who perform actions which are devastatingly destructive on their fellows, causing them mental or physical anguish or death, and you will nearly always find idealism is motivating them. And that's now - you know, men and women can be idealists, God save us all. When I look at Diego de Landa torturing the Indians, he is driven by an obsessed view that his preposterous vision of how the world operates as a sort of slow, unreeling of God's will, in which he has played a major role in converting these Indians, the proper order of things has been violated. So suddenly these screaming naked people being flogged and having burning oil splashed on their skin, are vile creatures who must be punished to the last inch of their lives. It's a transformation of his vision and it's brought about by ideas he's carrying around in his head, and which are powerfully reinforced by the small cluster of men with similar ideas around him. And of course they are also coerced by a desire not to lose political advantage, you know, to sustain quite unnatural supremacy in this colonial society. So you need to analyse their precise situation, to see the number of forces operating on them. Of course there's also the question of temperament, individual temperament. Landa is a charismatic man, there is no doubt about it. He is a man of passion and clear-mindedness, narrow-mindedness. He is a certain kind of fanatical temperament and I do believe he is one of those rare creatures, a useful man to assassinate, because I think with Landa the only way to stop him is to kill him. He has that kind of tenacity and deafness and blindness to what he's doing. And I think there were quite a few of those scattered through the Nazi movement. To see Hitler as a buffoon or a monster is of no help whatsoever. He was a passionate idealist with a terrifying vision of how the world really worked, and again he was not a man who could hear other accounts of the world, and he had no ordinary compassion for the way ordinary people are, and their small domestic pleasures. Landa did, which is one of the terrible paradoxes, and he writes about those domestic scenes, you know, he can feel something about the way ordinary people feel and live and enjoy, and yet he will pluck out this extraordinarily simplified vision of the world and attempt to hammer it into living flesh.
Blood has played a huge part in your life. When you talk about your life personally, when you look at what you've studied and thought about, there's been a lot of blood in it.
That's misleading. There's a lot of blood in life, it's just that we mop it up very quickly. I was astounded to find that there is blood when babies were born. I didn't know that. Women bleed. A great deal of illnesses are associated with bleeding. With the Aztecs it was, something you find right through Mesoamerica, a deep conviction that human blood is sacred and potent. It's not because it belongs to the individual but it's because it is that which best feeds the agricultural gods. That's a common belief right through. We get a little limp version of it with wine having been blood, you know, in the Christian sacrament. Blood was not dominant for the Aztecs. It was a different vision, but it was sustained by the regular shedding of one's own blood and the massive shedding of the blood of human victims as part payment against your own existence. Because the gods, their gods - when one of the things that liberates you from religion is to look at the extraordinary range of attributes which have been associated with gods in different cultures. Their gods are great voracious beasts, creatures, female usually, wolfing human bodies and blood. It's, you know, it's a Kali vision of consumption and destruction if there's to be any creation. A very common view.
And violence and bloodshed associated with violence is something that many people believe is absolutely intrinsic to the human condition. You as a pacifist...
I'm not a pacifist.
You were once. Okay, let me ask that...
I belonged to a society which was a peace society, which was an extremely good idea at the time. I don't think I've ever been a pacifist.
Let me ask that then as an open question. Do you - what is your view of that belief that many people do hold that violence and bloodshed is something inevitable and...?
I don't believe it and I've spent a lot of time reading about warrior societies and how we hold modern armies together and how we've held mass armies together since Agincourt. I find it an extremely important question and it seems to me that the thinking now seems to be that there are certain individuals who can kill without compunction. About two out of ten of the people taken into the American Army, we've got statistics on it now and they're pretty good statistics, because they came out of a terrible discovery in the Second World War. Out of their armed men, only something like two or three out of ten discharged their weapons in encounters. They didn't even shoot them which is a scary thing, you know, if you're a General, you think what the hell is going on [laughs] with these characters and they discovered that men have an extreme inhibition against shooting other people. They have to be trained to it but there are, you'll be happy to know, ways of training them. And it does overcome the inhibitions, and the other thing you do is - in the American Army, the British Army handles this differently - you have small groups of men with an easy killer, one among them, and in support of him, to back him up and to imitate him, the others will shoot to kill. Now the - in Vietnam the firing rate had gone up a lot, it was something like six or seven out of ten, they were doing much better and it was a different war. The contexts matter fantastically. You will get atrocities in war, you'll get atrocities down at the local football club when people get drunk. You know young men can be brought to violence and that can lead to blood and rape and pillage and all manner of undesirable things but they'll typically have to be brought to it. And one of the more disquieting findings of a man called Dave Grossman, who's done a lot of work on this, one of the phenomena which has most disturbed the United States is when school kids take guns to their schools and proceed to pick off their fellow students. And one child of only about nine or ten, did particularly well. He took a gun, he'd only got hold of the day before, and he kept steady and swivelled his gun in just the approved way and he was able to get head shots of ten people. Superb marksmanship. How had he done it? By using arcade games. He'd overcome inhibitions, he'd learnt to go for the head shot, he'd been trained as a killer, a sniper in the army, would have been trained. Now what that means about the commodification of violence is not hard to see, and the proliferation of those kinds of games, and the whole assumption that killing violence doesn't kill. And yet think of the way people shun the sight of actual blood, actual injury, actual damage. Think of those rotters in the Kew High Street who wouldn't come near me because I was bleeding over everything, apart from anything else. You know I, I think all the societies I've looked at, young men have to be trained, baited, coaxed, rewarded to go into battle and even then many of them are destroyed by it, quite destroyed, and some are destroyed in the different direction of becoming cold, compulsive killers.
Changing the subject completely, I'd like to ask you about, in the course of your life, in your career, what changes have you seen take place for women and how have you experienced those?
It's something I only realised as a massive change moderately recently, but when I compare my mother's life, body-servant and house-servant to five people, husband and four children, in a small, cold weather-board house, where she was the porter in of most of the food, and the maker of most of the clothing. And where she worked from close to, from dawn to two o'clock and then she had two hours off and then would have worked again until about nine o'clock, all the days of her life. It got much easier when the children had left home and she got more modcons. But her life was a life of physical labour with small remissions awarded her by her literacy. She'd read for those two hours off. And that was her life. That was it. I conscientiously shunned the possibility of that kind of life. You can see the difference in our hands. My mother had the hands of a working woman, I don't. I went into, I was very fortunate because I went in, at the university, I went into a job with equal pay which was not the case in most jobs. Equal pay and equal terms, except in terms of career opportunities, which didn't worry me because I could run a job which maintained my social and my intellectual world while earning enough to pay a sort of surrogate aunty to look after the kids for the times I wasn't at home. So I didn't have the experience of the typical working mother at all. I had a featherbedded existence because I'd got into academe. I've travelled - because in the good old days, no more, universities sustained their permanent members to go on study leave. So purposeful, you know, travel - not the terrible wearisomeness of tourism - but purposeful travel was offered me from an early time. My mother went on a few Pioneer trips, you know, in old age. My life has not changed in its texture since my illness/retirement because you don't have to stop thinking. You're allowed to go right on thinking and writing. You might get to the point where no one will publish you, but you can still write, and you can subscribe to journals you want to read. My mother would have been told by all the society about her that she'd stopped being useful when the last child left home, and I don't know how she managed tolerating that.
What about your granddaughter? What sort of a world for a woman is she in now and how - are you happy about it?
I'm very happy about her and I think she's been equipped by nature and nurture to deal valiantly with any problems she'll encounter, but I do believe she will encounter serious problems. I mean, you know, you can't have global warming at this kind of rate, you can't have the kind of casually accepted ecological catastrophes like ships going aground on Sudbury Reef. You know, one of the joys of my middle life was discovering snorkelling, and you know it has been a radiant pleasure, a very important experience to me. Will Anastasia have that? Quite probably not but she's equipped with intelligence and confidence in a way I certainly wasn't at her age, because my equipment was essentially a private equipping to resist the world, I think. And to sneak through or to - in a way I was delivered out of it by scholarships and so on. It didn't take my volition. Anastasia is supremely confident. I keep telling her perhaps too confident, in her belief that she can control the world. So when I think of the distance she's come from my mother, who was terrified by the world outside the front gate, the transformation is massive. You know Anastasia will go in for - she'll address public meetings, she'll - with ease, with none of the self-consciousness that would have bedevilled me if I'd ever dared to do it.
History is something that you have said requires the use of imagination. How does that fit in your view that it's important to understand the difference between fiction and history?
If you are to understand any human situation you have to exercise the muscle of the imagination. There's no other way of doing it. You have to make the huge recognition that these people you're reading about once were real. Now that is a hard thing to do. And to comprehend that in anything like its fullness, you have to work at imagining. For example, the Aztecs had a certain view of how the gods appeared in the heavens. So they had a very particular view of what dawn meant and what the movement of their sun god meant as he rose, slowly took on his full glory and then declined, turned a sullen, aching resentful red as he was dragged down into the underworld by malign forces of darkness. So they had a whole dramatic narrative about that, what we would call, a natural phenomenon, and if we're to understand why the presence of their gods was immediate and coercive on their domestic affairs, in a way that our much more rarefied notions of what gods get up to and where they get up to it is, you have to, as it were, consciously and conscientiously stare at a lot of sunrises, stare at a lot of full moons, and comprehend it and you're only going - then you will think, "Ah, I've seen it. Now I know why they say that". It would be something about the landscape in that particular place too. I know with, I think I might have mentioned this earlier, I was very puzzled that Mexican warrior spirits were meant to come back after death just for four years as butterflies sometimes. I could see that butterflies were sun related. They only happened when the sun came out. They might look like spirits called into existence by the presence of the sun, but butterflies, those poor little doomed creatures, you know, fluttering on their path to oblivion, warriors? Why? Then I went to Mexico and I was lucky enough to be there at the right season, to see great swaggering mobs of butterflies, huge things, glorious things, preening and parading and flexing their wings and I thought, "That's why". Now that isn't quite imagination, it's observation plus imagination. But the great enterprise is to recognise that these people were actual, their lives as complex as ours, but differently ordered and that has to take all the imagination you've got.
You've talked a lot in your writing about good history and bad history. What's the difference and how do we as the general public tell when we're being offered bad history?
The difference is relatively easy. Bad history has a present day agenda. The interest is not in uncovering the several layers and complexities of a real past situation and giving due respect to the hopes and beliefs of the very different people implicated in it. It really is the old-fashioned business of trying to know what actually happened. History written from a present position - I mean of course we'll be interested in certain questions which might not have been dominant in the minds of people in the past. For example, a conscious evaluation of how much freedom women had, but you can be quite sure that if women were constricted in ways they minded, you'll be able to find that out. You know, the emphasis is new but the issue is always there of how much freedom women have. How you tell is very difficult for the general public. I'm afraid, and I've thought about this a lot, it comes to down to a sort of trust because in reality the historian has been dealing with a multiplicity of documentation. You know, a huge amount of stuff and in honesty, the historian can't give the poor old reader all that, it would take them as long to get through it as it took the historian. What I think you need to do is to offer a few examples of how you go about interpreting a document from the past. You do it up front, in slow motion, you say this is what happened as far as we can reconstruct the action though it blurs at this point, we just don't have any information, but then we can see what happens after that. And what I make of it is as follows, and that gives the reader a chance to think, "Oh, well I don't think that's what's going on. This interpreter tends to put too much emphasis on such and such", or whatever, you know, and that means that as you go on reading you're in a position to be slightly sceptical of the interpretations that are being offered you. If you're a committed reader of history, you really should read the footnotes. Often they are astounding and they blow what's being said on the page out of the water because in my view the really great historians are people who conduct a dialogue between themselves and their sources on the page. It needn't interfere with their telling of stories and their analysis of problems, but they take the reader into their confidence as to the strengths and limitations of the documents they've got for the inquiry they're trying to make. And, you know, I really do believe that it's the great ones who do that. The compelling ones because you know how they've got there and you think, "By golly, on the whole, I think that's got to be right".
Both in the history that you do and in your writing about your personal life in 'Tiger's Eye', you use memory a lot, your own memories and the memories of others. I assume from that that you've thought quite a lot about the nature of memory.
That would be true.
What, what have you thought about memory?
That it's profoundly unreliable and profoundly coercive. Memories can seem absolutely real, realer than reality, as you know quite well when you get a sudden whiff of a scent and you're transported back into some situation you'd thought you'd forgotten and you remember everything about it. You know, the sound of the magpies, the smell of the grass, it's there, held in that whiff of scent. But what I, what I think about memory is this. I think we construct our memories. I think we have vivid sense impressions and out of them we construct a narrative and the narrative is about the sense we make of what's happening to us and our dominant mood and what we think matters about the scenes we're involved with. And we classically do this very slightly, of necessity, after the event. And then those memories which are personal and private and vivid can become consolidated into a kind of group narrative as with family memories. Remember the day when Aunty Nora did such and such? And in fact you don't know if you remember the day or even Aunty Nora, but you remember the story, but you will treat it as gospel truth and you will feel it to be gospel truth because it matters to you. There's a whole lot of social meaning been invested in that family tale. The problem comes up very painfully with the memories of Holocaust survivors. Now sometimes it is possible to demonstrate that cherished memories, which you have to remember is all they have now, is false in certain material matters. It couldn't have been that city, it couldn't have been that month, it couldn't have been that occasion. And that's the problem with human memory. It's both fallible and creative, and it's also our most private and personal possession. Our most cherished possession. So you attack someone's memories and you're attacking the seams of their being. Nonetheless it's historians jobs - job to tackle other people's memories, and therefore of course their own. And I really hadn't understood just how perverse and creative memory was until I started doing a very close scrutiny of my own.
The same of course, in a different way, is true of written records. You know from looking at contemporary written records like newspapers how often they're not correct. So what do you do about that?
Well typically once you're into a literate society that keeps a multiplicity of records you can do your cross-checking between records and other kinds of sources, tlthough that's also very difficult. You know, some naive historians take oral history as sacred truth. Heavens, you know, it's - all human products are fallible, wherever they are, and they have to be critically evaluated, which is done in intimate terms about that particular object whatever it might happen to be. When my old Aztec men are reminiscing about their youth, idealising it like crazy clearly, you have to watch them for their little slip ups. They say, "In our day nobody ever drank. And if they did drink we stoned them to death". You know, and you think, "What? What's going on?" And then there'll be an account of a ritual in which a lot of pulque, which is their fermented maize beverage, has been drunk and then you get a picture of what it's like when it all breaks up, and these drunken characters go lurching off. So you have the idealised statement, which your general knowledge of how old men's memories work, will have alerted you to the possibility of a problem and then you get these marvellous little moments of recollected, direct observation that blows the artificial model out of the water. On some issues, you will not be able to resolve it. You won't know and then all you can do is say, "Reader, I don't know".
You've been interested in a lot of activity, human activity that many would describe as evil. Warrior societies that were to us unimaginably cruel seeming. The Holocaust. What do you think about the idea of evil?
I think it's an external judgement made out of a fantasy of metaphysical timelessness which cannot illuminate anything as complex and dynamic as human action. What you - the first thing you have to do with people you might be tempted to call evil, whether they be Nazis or Aztec warriors, almost anybody, because one person's evil is another man's idealism, and you have to go into as close a focus as you can to see what they think they're doing. What it is they're trying to effect by what they're doing. Now you might judge having done that that they are chronically destructive and dangerous people. Such people clearly exist. You might decide that they're psychotics who really don't have much understanding of what they're doing but are impelled inwardly to do these shocking cruelties. There won't be many of them. But you have to understand what they understand themselves to be doing which will have, if you come across anyone who says "What I'm doing is evil, tee hee hee", you're just in a bad melodrama, aren't you? I mean humans don't in fact operate like that, because it's only by understanding their precise circumstances, the vision they have of the world, what sustains that vision, what might conceivably change that vision, how much familiarity they have with the actual actions that are being carried out on their behalf, are they doing this directly? One reason I admire Aztec warriors is that any shedding of blood they do is done up close and intimate. Very different from an Adolf Eichmann. So, you know, there are these things called blanket categories like evil and I think they're completely unhelpful. It's only the close up and the tense and intense analysis of the actual situations of these persons and what they do, that would illuminate you as to the peculiar way in which they have detached themselves from what we'd see as normal, imaginative identifications with other human beings.
In 'Reading the Holocaust' you looked particularly at the ordinary men and women, the every day ones that did these things and about their motivation. What did you discover?
You see you have the brutal fact that most of, most Holocaust activities, because it was such a massive enterprise, had to be carried out by ordinary people. We couldn't pop them all into SS uniforms and shiny boots and say they've been trained to it, though there were some of those of course. And because we're trying to understand the dynamics that work on people to detach them from their ordinary concerns with other people within their ordinary landscape, how is it possible to treat these other people as other than human, because that's what you've got to do. Your best hope is to trace the process these ordinary people when they go in go through until they come out as killers on the other side, because only a close narrative of those changes will satisfy anyone when it comes to the question of saying, now we understand how they did it. We might still be left with a gap because we might have to say at the end of this close description of what influences they came under, what experiences they had, what rhetoric they had to live, listen to, what social coercions they came under, we might still say, I still wouldn't have done it. And that's a very difficult question and one you have to agonise over because you have to be quite sure that in fact you wouldn't have done it and if you wouldn't do it, why not? When would you have said no?
And what was your answer to that question, Inga, for yourself?
My answer was I wouldn't have done it and my, my justification for that was I would have said no very much earlier, and that doesn't make you a hero. Some people did, in this particular case I'm thinking of which was of ordinary - the book is called 'Ordinary Men'. And it's a police unit who's been used for police services in, within Germany and then is shipped out to Poland and their first job is to slaughter the women and children and old in a Jewish village, leaving the young men, who'd be some use for labour, alive. So it's, as they might say now, a big ask, and it comes out of the blue. They're only told what they're to do when they're assembled in the dawn outside the sleeping village and we know what they did. We can follow them through. Some men said "No, I won't". Very few said, "Sure, no problem", though at the end of about six weeks most of them were seasoned killers. They'd taken out a lot of villagers. Now that's one of the most interesting questions you can ask, isn't it? What happened? How were they brought to do it? What were the forces on them? I think very few questions matter as much as that. And you can get an answer.
And do you think in those situations the really dangerous thing is to even put your toe in the water?
No, because you can't keep out of the water, water is everywhere. You have to practise resisting appeals to loyalty, to duty. You have to face the hostility of your peers. You have to be ready to assert the primacy of the individual conscience against the multiplicity of extremely powerful and largely invisible forces that act against it. It's not easy and it does seem to me - and I have thought a lot about this and I've listened to a lot of people talk about this - it seems to me that it takes practise, because once - one friend was telling me when she acquiesced in an action she in fact thought was wrong and she acquiesced in it because of loyalty to a brother, she hadn't been putting the time into the issue, she felt guilty, he wanted it, she did it, she regretted it. So you need to reflect on moments like that which show you how you can become implemented, implicated in an action even at the time you think to be wrong, but you go along with it, and I think we, I think we face those moments so often.
What do you think about the idea of good? You find the idea of evil fairly useless, what about the idea of good? [INTERRUPTION]
I have to say that in all my experience of life, I have relied on the kindness of strangers, time and again. I've believed in the general benevolence of the world, and I must have been disappointed sometimes, but I've never been directly denied, you know, some sort of kindness. I've never been hit, I've never been, I have been molested I guess, but I could understand why that was happening. Now it would therefore seem to me very odd to start peddling a view of human nature as naturally wicked. It is no part of my experience. I've been met by kindness, not just in this country but in other countries, even under quite difficult circumstances. I've also, of course, had a personal experience of overwhelming kindness and good with the whole process of being taken in late middle life, when it would have been quite reasonable to think time for this old lady to fall off the twig, and instead of that I get conscientious, affectionate, sensitive and extremely expensive treatment from a cluster of people who'd been complete strangers to me, and through the extraordinary benevolence of an unknown family, I'm made healthy again by having an organ transplant. And when you look at the way organ transplants are arranged in this country, it is a beautiful model of egalitarianism and practical humanity. Now all that is solid evidence. I have friends who say, "You can't trust anyone and the world's an evil place and this and that's going to happen". They're outraged if someone breaks their rear-vision mirror without leaving a note. Evil? So I think our assumption is of benevolence and we get away with it, thank heavens.
And so you find the concept good much more useful?
Much more, except it doesn't do anything. All it does is explain, it's too big, the concept. I like up close, particularities, close analysis. So I mean I'm certainly extremely wary of any person who describes themselves as good. That usually means trouble.
When you were a kid, when you were an adolescent, that's when most people get called wicked or bad or naughty. Were you ever called wicked or bad by anybody?
Quite often, but I had my lesson about that very young. My mother made a very unwise grab towards organising the authority of deities in controlling me at a very young age. And do you know how in old weather-board houses there used to be ventilators in the wall, sort of griddy things? And it's true that if you looked at them quickly you seemed to see a flash of movement, and she said that living up behind the grid there was a man, a little man, a little person and he had a golden book in which he wrote down your good actions, and he had a black book in which he wrote down your bad actions. And she would control me by looking up anxiously at the grid if I was doing something wicked. And I would look up and I'd think I'd see someone and I'd think, drat. And then as it went on, I thought, well I can do evil or whatever other people might call evil in other rooms, and then I realised there was probably a network behind the walls and he could probably get into every damn room where there was - and I checked out all the rooms and in every room there was a little ventilator so evil would have to become an outdoor enterprise. And then I thought, so what? He never wrote in the golden book, to my knowledge, and what if he did? So I thought, scribble away, and I was liberated from all notions of extra-human, extra-natural control. So really those concepts never had any reality to me and being of an analytic turn of mind even when young, I used to win the scripture prize all the time, because I would look at what claims were being made and what conduct was being said to be virtuous, and I would be extremely dissatisfied, which is unsurprising seeing we were looking at stories that came out of a blood-drenched, tribal culture.
So you weren't terribly worried about what other people thought? You'd worked it out for yourself.
I worried about being shamed, I didn't like that. But, no, I didn't worry about my actions and - if I got away with them - and I didn't really in the long run mind much what other people thought, except my brother, but his approval was automatic so it didn't matter.
Were you ever shamed very publicly? [INTERRUPTION]
Well, attempts were made to shame me publicly because that was the technique used in state schools all the time by teachers. [INTERRUPTION]
Can I ask you in that context about another big thing that I wanted you to talk about which is courage, because we talk about courage and bravery and we associate it a lot with the very warriors that you're talking about, but it's a more complex issue, isn't it?
I think it is.
Can I ask you about your view of what courage is?
Well I saw the best exemplification of courage I've ever seen in a quiet, suburban housewife, pretty, well turned out, a tennis player, all the things that I tend to think don't matter and when it came to consistent, stoical courage she was unmatched in hospital. I met her first in a hospital ward where she'd already endured a year of eruptive illnesses, you know, extraordinarily demoralising and difficult illnesses which involved painful operations, painful tests and whereas - she had a liver transplant before me but she'd already had many other things and she'd been a healthy woman until two and a half years before that. And she had a liver transplant, and where everything for me went beautifully, she ran into very many difficulties, and difficulties mean pain, discomfort, nausea, endless taxing of limited energies. And her demeanour never slipped. She was tranquil. She would listen to what the medicos had to say and she'd say, "I see, yes". When one test went wrong and the medicos' faces were grey with what she was going through, there was no moaning and there was no complaint. It was an absolutely extraordinary display of steadfast courage under pain, humiliation and an increasingly likely prospect of death after you'd gone through everything possible to avert it. Now I must say I was impressed by most people's courage when the chips came down, they were tremendous, but she was in a class of her own. And I don't think she knew she could do that, but she did it when she had to. And I asked her how she did it, and she told me, and that helped me a lot too.
One of the things that destroys you in hospital is that there are many people coming in and plucking at you. They're taking blood or they're making you do this or they're taking you off and you get - if you're very worn out - you get, you begin to feel your control just shredding and going. You, you're not going to be able to stand much more of this is what you feel. Just, that there is a sort of way in which the flesh gets weak. It won't take any more, and she had - I was beginning to feel that - and she had been through so much more and so much more was happening to her as we lay side by side and she said, "I keep a space in my head, just a small space and I don't let anybody in. Not husbands, not nurses, nothing, not pain, nothing, there". And that inviolate self survived and gave her that core strength.
This idea of the inviolate self is one that would have felt quite familiar to you, I imagine, because from when you were a small child you had had this solitary centre. Has that capacity to live and think so apart, so inwardly, ever cut you off from connections with other humans that you would have liked to have made?
I don't think it's a desire to live apart. I think it's a desire to recognise one's own autonomy, which is a very different thing, and of course autonomy would be a very wearisome thing if there were no other people in the world. I don't believe it's operated to separate me from people at all really. It might be that I place too high demands on social interaction and I expect it to be intimate and interesting, but I have close and dear friends. I love my children in a very uninhibited, joyful way and my grandchildren. I would think - going back to this problematical thing of how other people would describe you - I'm confident people wouldn't describe me as cold. I don't think I'm cold. So it seems to me much more a recognition, you are on your own, you are the only person who can influence your own destiny. You have to take responsibility at least for yourself and I've never seen any charm in submitting my will to outside authorities. And if you're in that situation, clearly you develop your own morality, your own sense of priorities and I'm very mistrustful of people who cheerfully accept imposed structures without evaluating them.
You've thought a lot about the self because you undertook an investigation of the self in 'Tiger's Eye', an historical investigation of yourself. What do you think about your self? Have there been many selves? What do you think about the continuity of who you've been through your life?
It's a difficult question for me because I - essentially my life has been a flow of intellectual activities overlaying a social world that changed from being single to being married to being without children to being with children living with me to the children leaving and so on. There is that sort of basic structure of life and domestic conditions, if you like, coupled with the whole business of ageing. But my life was otherwise mapped in terms of intellectual enthusiasms and that in a sense constituted my self. My self was in action. It wasn't something I contemplated as an entity. It was really only with 'Tiger's Eye' which had got, where writing had got generated as a matter of pleasure, of locating myself socially in threatening circumstances and as a matter of survival, that when it came to the issue of why should I publish this, I looked at it and I thought, well, it's all evidence. These are the sorts of external, externalised texts that people use when they're writing biographies. Now, God knows, I didn't want to write my own biography. I'd sort of been there but in a distracted kind of way, but I think one reason I agreed to publish it was that I felt, as an historian, the text had a sort of general utility beyond my private purposes. This is what happens, this is what this batch of hallucinations looked like, because to my surprise I found that there was very little close account of hallucinations, for example. So it was really part of my sense that documents should be allowed to stand regardless of how they might be interpreted by others. I didn't feel self-protective about them because the process of writing had externalised them.
Now obviously for our purposes we wished you hadn't been self-protective in the destruction of photographs through the course of your life. Could you tell me why did you destroy so many of the photographs of yourself?
I suppose vanity had a lot to do with it early. I hated the way I looked in photographs. But I think it's also that photographs, in my view, challenge and corrupt memory. That one remembers individuals, for example, through time as a sort of moving collection of lights or a melody, I've tried to think of how you can describe people who've mattered to you, and it's never in terms of a static photograph. They will be an action. It will be a glance, it will be a sensation you get when you see them, a particular happiness. It's a bit like a distinctive melody that surrounds them. And photographs have always seemed to me to cannibalise that complicated moving memory, you know, sequence of memories and fix them in a form, because I didn't like the photographs of my children either. I would say, "I hate that photograph. He's not like that". And he wouldn't be. So I see them as a violation of the actuality I want to cherish in my memory, and I know quite well we lose things, and memories fade and now with what we've been doing with these photographs, you know, I love looking at the photographs of my father in the First World War. I'm very happy to have a photograph of my sister which catches something of her brilliance. So I guess I like other people's photographs but even - and I love my grandchildren's photographs - but even with my own children, I felt they never caught them in the way they were.
As an historian though you've used photographs.
Indeed and been grateful for them. Yeah, all methods of recording past actualities are imperfect, every one of them. Human memory, written texts, photographs. All of them.
One interpretation of your destruction of the photographs might well be, some people might suggest, that it demonstrated an uneasy relationship with yourself.
I think we get on fairly well. I don't feel derided. Other people talk about feeling like this. I don't. I don't feel separated from my landscape, I don't. I sometimes feel very jubilantly myself, when I'm swimming for example. No, I just didn't much like the way I looked and I didn't much like the falsification of experience that I thought was entailed in photographs. But I might be wrong.
Inga, the beach has played a big role in your life, hasn't it?
What does the beach mean to you?
A huge amount of things. For as long as I can remember it's been the place I've loved. I could never live inland. You know, I'm uneasy if I'm too far from saltwater and a whole lot of it. It locates me as insignificant with the slightly patterned but complex movement of the waters, the shifting beauty, the complexity of the life it sustains, the pleasures of being underneath the water or on top of the water, whichever, and the freedom that's conferred on anybody who heads down over a sand dune, across level sand and sees the sea. It seems to me that that is both a great consolation for living and a necessary, gentle and tender reminder of one's own personal insignificance. The beaches, I remember, are heavily populated by family and friends, but they're also solitary places because everyone goes for solitary walks on the beach which might be the most important experiences of their lives. I sometimes think that. One of my few conscious fears is that someone I love should drown in waters I love. I think it would be very difficult to keep on seeing the sea purely when it signalled a personal desolation.
What does being Australian mean to you?
Being lucky, very lucky. I don't - people sometimes write about their sense of alienation from the landscape or their sense that they don't have a right to be here, an uneasiness, an existential uneasiness. I have never felt that, partly because of the beach being such an important part of my life from the beginning. And the beach is an extraordinary experience of physical well-being that's often - and freedom that comes, you know, it's a package deal, there it all is. And Australia's beaches are incomparable and they're various and there's miles and miles of them, so you never come to the end of them, that sense of expansion. I have a sense of space, freedom, newness and also of the autonomy of the individual here and that obviously has not been true for the Aboriginal part of society, on the contrary. So that is a large necessary truth that I have to had to get into my mind and then to keep in my mind, but I think for most peoples coming in afterwards, something like that experience of freedom and openness has really happened. Yet another of the obscure pleasures of going to the Austin Hospital quite a lot is that it's a magnificent mixing bowl of different peoples. You know, you really do see Australian society in co-operative action and it's a very pretty sight. Now, whether we can retain all that, with the brutalisation effected by the changes in the economy, and the ruthless and outrageous immoralism of people saying "My only duty is towards", you know, "my shareholders" - when they're lying even when they say that - whether those, that sense of space, freedom, possibility, autonomy, will endure, I don't know. I'm shocked at the number of people who think those peculiar attributes we have can be best maintained by an increasingly close and severe grip on people. It isn't the way to do it. But I think I'm inordinately fortunate to be born in this country when I was born. I struck it lucky.