Australian Biography

Diane Cilento - full interview transcript

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Diane, could you tell me, could you begin by describing for us the kind of household you grew up in.

Ah. Well, it was very unlike other people's households in that both my parents were doctors and my mother had her surgery in the house. And so there were six children, and they always had a few friends staying and my mother had a few little people she kept under her wing. Then there was someone to sort of look after the kitchen, then there were both my grandmothers, one upstairs and one downstairs, and on the ground floor there was a surgery, and my mother held her surgery every morning, so there were a whole huge mass of people came in then. And it was, I suppose, compared with other people's houses it was just a hugely milling about sort of anthill, comparatively. I used to go into other people's houses, other kids' houses, and I always used to go back and say to my mother, 'Why don't you ever ask me where I'm going and when I'm going to be back and when I'm going to be there?' And she looked at me and she said, 'Why, dear?' And I said, 'Well, because everybody else's mothers do that', but she never did. She was very, extraordinarily occupied with her medical career in a very close family way, if you can see what I mean. It had to do with all of us as well. We were sort of guinea pigs a bit too. But it was a very odd household too, because the grandmothers were so different. Both of them had their own pianos. And when one upstairs, who was sort of flighty, and had a sort of calliper on her leg and was very vain and extraordinary - she would start whipping off a bit of Chopin or something - the one downstairs would immediately start playing hymns. So these two pianos would be, you know, fighting: duelling pianos by grandmothers. And the one upstairs also was very frightened of snakes and things, and there is a family story that my mother came home once and found us all sitting on the kitchen table, pointing to the corner, where there was a sort of stick that my grandmother had convinced us all was a huge black snake. We were in terror. No - it was a very rackety, extraordinarily volatile household. And don't forget, I mean I, being down the end a bit ... I mean, I had a brother who was a lot older than me. He was, I think by the time I knew anything, he was already in medical school. And so I sort of was this little thing in the middle down the end that was ... I mean my mother did have a problem in remembering everyone's names, actually. We all know that thing: 'Now, Carl, Ruth, Diane, ah, Jack, ah, what is your name dear?' You know, it was a little bit like that. But she was an extraordinary woman.

Did you feel neglected?

No. I didn't have a place though because we all slept on a sleep-out, and my elder sisters had a room where they kept their things and I was sort of just barely, you know ... if I went in there they used to say, 'Get out', and I slept on a top bunk outside. But I had a very friendly cat called Phenos that I was familiar with, that slept up there with me. And I ... and then there was a balcony out from the sleep out, which had netting right down to the floor. Everyone slept there, all the children, on double-decker big ones, and my trick was climbing down and getting on to this balcony and then dropping down to the ground and sort of wandering around. I was a totally nocturnal being with this cat. And then I'd come back and pretend I'd just woken up and ask for hot chocolate and pretend - I used to do a sort of acting job. Oh, you know. So that's ... I do remember that very well.

What's your own earliest memory?

I think it's having my hair washed at a big sort of lead sink, or whatever they were - those great big things, and then squealing because it was being sort of combed, and it had sort of curls in it and I do remember that very well. And standing there, above everyone, being angry.

Where did you come in the family?

I came fifth out of six. But I think it was slightly different in that my mother probably, before I was born, I think she sort of had another kid, but I was quite down the end, and my brother. We were both born when my mother was sort of like forty, forty-two. And I think she ... I think both my parents had said that they were better with us than the older children because they got less strict and less desirous of them to be top of the class, and I think we were sort of lucky that we weren't fussed so much.

What about your relationship with your older brothers and sisters, did they have much to do with looking after you?

Only one, and that was my sister Margaret, who's a painter. And she was terrific in that she was ... sort of used to tell us stories all the time. And then I have a brother that's near me called Carl, and he ... I just used to be following them around - all those boys, you know, all the time - trying to get in on the ... I mean I can remember when they used to have trolley races down this huge long hill, and I was allowed to get on board once to make it a bit heavier, so they could go faster. But that's about ... you know, you never really ... and then I do know that my ... when we went to Mooloolaba where... and Caloundra, they all built a big pandanus raft. I was the one put on to see if it would sink or not. It did sink, and so I was left in the sea being pounded up against the rocks, and I think they were a bit worried that they might have to go back and tell my mother that I'd been smashed to pieces or something, so I think they sort of saved me then.

They did save you?

They were ... I mean it's just like any kids, they were tremendously, you know - they don't treat you like kids in films. It was never like that. It's tough. And I think that's probably good: toughen you up a little bit. You don't really get much quarter from your older brothers and sisters. They're not really interested in looking after you much. I mean not that I ... I don't think in my family anyone looked after anyone. It didn't matter how old they were.

Did you have a sense of relationship with your mother as an individual?

Well, my trick with my mother was I used to climb into the back of her car at night sometimes and go to sleep there, and she would be called out to go on a delivery or something - a case - and then she'd turn round when she was nearly there and see this figure in the back, and she couldn't go back, so I got in on lots of, sort of, nocturnal sort of talks and things, and sort of saw babies [being] born even, and I was quite little. And I thought it was very exciting doing that.

And you did it to get her attention, of course.

Of course, because, of course, I had a brother, who was younger than me that she ... I mean he was her last born son in the world and he was really the apple of her eye. But I in fact was my dad's pet, favourite, the youngest daughter, and you know, in fairy tales it's always the youngest daughter that is given the ... I don't know what, the best dress, or the worst, like Cordelia. It isn't very good. But, my father really was very, very close to me. I mean, I was close to him. He had a study where you were allowed to go after school, and he would show you amazing things from a big roll top desk - just like that one I've got now. And he'd picked up all sorts of funny things, like little birds that pecked things and laid eggs, you know, those little Chinese, little ... and he used to cut our hair with very, very sharp scissors. So we were all like that. And he was always full of terrific stories. He was a great story teller, and he'd read books to you. He read me all of Robert Louis Stevenson and, oh, lots and lots of books.

Why do you think you were his special pet?

I think ... I don't know. I mean I was thinking that I knew but I don't. I think it was because I had a quick ear and could pick up languages too. And I really ... because he always dramatised all the stories, I sort of copied him a bit, and I think that's where I ... I just think he was ... I thought everything he said ... but I never quite understood why all the stories were slightly different the second time. They always were a little bit different. But then I realised that was sort of dramatic licence. But he had been in New Guinea and he'd had a spear through his eye and one through his knee, and he used to tell wonderful stories about fool's gold and stuff. All real, I believed, every word of it. Of course some of it I realised afterwards was total fabrication, or I might have even read it again in a book, but he was a great storyteller.

So he was a medico with an imagination?

Oh yes. I think he ... he was also a lawyer. He did law when I was born. He just was called to the bar. But he had this extraordinary thing that, you know ... at that time greenies used to come over every morning and they'd shriek, and that ... I couldn't do it before that, but that was the sign that I could run into their bedroom and go ... [ITALIAN] ... And that was the words of power that allowed me into the room and I could jump into bed with them. Sounds crazy now but it ... Once, the parental bed collapsed because all the children sat on it at once, and it just went phut, and my mother did have a sort of very gurgly sense of humour, and she spent a lot of time laughing after that. She was very ... she wasn't at all ... She could have a bit of a temper. I mean, once our dog bit her, because she was just about to give me a huge whack and she didn't know whether to laugh or get very angry. There was a moment when I thought she might hit the dog as well, but she didn't. She did laugh in the end, yes. She was a very forceful creature too, which was an interesting marriage combination between a Cilento and a McGlewd, because that was their names before - I mean that was her name before she was married.

What does that signify about her background?

I think she was a mixture of Scottish and Irish. And I ... her father had very red hair and my sister's got red hair and I think it signified rather a fiery personality. And my father being sort of from an Italian family, I think there was a bit of what the Italians call a fritto misto, a mixed grill.

Did it make for what's called a happy childhood?

You see, everybody keeps talking about whether they had a happy childhood or not, but I had a childhood and I can't remember being unhappy or ... very much, but I think I probably was. But, I mean, I don't ever think about it in that way, whether it was happy or not. I did have a fantastic childhood in that we spent a tremendous time, a lot of time on the beach, when it was incredible, sort of pristine: Noosa, Mooloolaba, Maroochydore, Caloundra - all that Sunshine Coast was where we all went. And it was sort of open, open days. You never came home for lunch: you just stayed doing, playing, having fun, surfing, running round. I can never remember anything ... I can't remember any sort of unpleasantness except, I mean, you've always got a few crow pecks and things from your brothers and sisters, but any ... I was often very, very incredibly naughty, and I did have that thing of if I didn't come home at tea time I used to be sent to bed without any dinner, but then people used to bring me things: I was better fed in bed. But, I mean, I was rebellious, yes, as a child. Very much so. But I certainly ... it was something to do with authority that I didn't cotton to very well.

And yet it doesn't sound as if that was a reaction to your being, your parents being strict, because ...

No.

... they were fairly lax. There wasn't a lot for you to rebel against from the sounds of things.

No. My mother used to do things like if I didn't make my bed, which was bloody hard to make, because ...[GESTURES HEIGHT] or do my violin practice or that sort of thing, she used to ring up the school and have me sent home, and she would say, you know, 'And I want you to say why she's being sent home in front of the class so they'll all know it's not because something terrible has happened. [It's] her own ... she's got to go and do it'. And of course I used to run home hating her all the way because it was just sort of being shamed in front of your peers and all that. But you know, that's the sort of thing that I think everyone's childhood's got in it, don't you? I mean, I don't think, if you've got a lot of children, I think you let the other children bring them up more and you just sort of step in and do stuff like every now and again.

Looking back at what it offered you from the perspective of now, what do you think were the advantages of the kind of childhood you had?

Tenacity. Well, a sort of bloody mindedness that does do its own thing; an idea of striving for perfection. Yeah, I can't think of anything else that it ... I mean, also I think my parents had a huge taste that was sort of innate. And you ... I don't know how that is passed along. It may be that it isn't. But, you sort of know when things look ... are right, and a way of behaving that ... You know, my mother and father I think came from that idealistic age, when they were brought up to believe that they should be working for the good of mankind, not for ... and that everyone should be doing that, including their own children. And I think my mother was totally in that way. I mean, yes, she did, for instance, have children that were in the household, but she never treated any of her children differently from the children who weren't hers. Ever. Not even [SNAPS FINGERS] like that. In fact, everybody used to think it was a bit odd how she wasn't discriminating on the side of nepotistic belief at all. No way.

Tell me about her career and how her interest in children got expressed in that.

Well, she was an only child and she had a father who wanted to have a son, so when she was little, she was actually dressed as a boy for a bit. And she used to go around with her dad to various different ... on horseback ... and her mother and father absolutely didn't get on. I think by the time she was about ten they had parted. And she ... her father went away and took the opportunity I think to go to the First World War and was gassed. He didn't die, but he never came back to Australia, and she, I think, probably always wanted to go to Europe to see him. He did die long before I was born. But he ... she wanted to be all sorts of things that he would allow her to: she wanted to be a trapeze artist, then she wanted to do art, and when she went to Adelaide University to do art, she fell madly in love with the body - anatomically - and she changed to medicine, and she was the only female in her year, and it just so happened that my dear old Daddo was in that year, having scraped together lots of ... It was very difficult for him to actually get to university. And these two met, and I don't think her father approved of that. She was engaged to someone else, and then she did that trip around to look at all the trenches from the First World War and she went with her mother, and she was going to marry someone else, and it was all ... and then suddenly she married my dad. So I don't think ... It was sort of not very popular with her mother, or her father, that she'd married this sort of crazy Italian guy.

And during your lifetime, her medical career took her in what direction?

Well she started as a paediatrician and gynaecologist, and then she got arthritis in her thumbs, especially. She could actually turn a baby round. She had very sensitive hands. She could turn a breech birth round inside the ... well that's what's said anyway. It sounds very good. But once she lost the strength in her thumbs and hands - she used to actually wear splints on her fingers sometimes - she began to change her medical career to diet and the whole thing of vitamins. She did bring vitamin C and vitamin E, and she went over there and studied and really she was nearly struck off by the AMA in Australia for [it]. There's a famous story about my mother you may or may not have heard about, when she gave an interview to the Melbourne Age about vitamin C. This is probably very early on in the sixties or somewhere earlier, and a headline appeared in the Age saying, 'Queensland doctor says that vitamin C, mega-doses of vitamin C, will give you hallucinations'. She was absolutely furious and she rang up this girl who'd done the interview and she said, 'I did not say hallucinations, dear, I said loose motions'. So it became sort of a great joke in our family about loose motions, with my mother. And I think that story, which is true, has sort of ... is the story of my mother's life. She was often misunderstood when she was being completely practical. People sort of thought ... Although now of course, Blackmore's has a lot to answer for, for her. I mean, she helped them get going and she did an enormous amount of work with, you know, all that stuff of hyperactivity, because of different dyes, and she went over to America. When I was there, she came. She would come to London when I was in the theatre, and that's what she'd be doing.

What kind of a doctor was your father?

My father was an administrator. He'd been up here. He came up to the north here, and got rid of Wheel's disease. And he has a wonderful story, he had a wonderful story to tell about this, which was all the cane cutters, you know, Wheel's disease is called another name, like spiragella [transcriber's note: leptospirosis] or some funny name now, but it's a little thing that gets into your feet from when you [have] bare feet and it's sort of like ... I think it's carried by rats - rats' pee or something, and it's a very unpleasant disease. But you can only test whether you've got it if you give a specimen of faeces. So he went round with little tins and he decided, because there were a lot of Italian cane cutters and most of them went to church, he'd go to all the priests and give them these little tins with people's names on. So he did that, and asked for them to go, and told the priest what to do and say, and [to] leave them [at] the door, and we'll pick them up tomorrow. He picked up a huge amount in one church. It was all filled with money because they'd put money in [the tins] instead of specimens of the other stuff. I suppose they thought the priest was being sort of allegorical when he said [to] fill it with shit or something like that. Anyway that ... I think then he went to New Guinea and he was Director General of Health and Home Affairs for the whole area, and he was very good at it, because he could speak languages. He had a very quick ear for all the languages and spoke pidgin English with people and all sorts of things. And then he went, when I was a child ... he was the person who was chosen to go to Belsen and clear out those prisons, [those] horrible camps. And he did go there and he employed some ordinary doctors [at] first. And they were all totally out of it within about two days, because it was so horrific. So then he got hold of a whole lot of medical students from Edinburgh and Glasgow and he brought them in and he said they worked terribly well, because they believed that they could amputate at the neck and the patient would still live. They had sort of an enormous faith in their own ability to save people and everything. So he did that, and that had a strange effect on him, I'm sure. It could not have had. He never let me ever look at any of those pictures, although, of course, now we look at them with sort of, you know, we're much more brutalised in our idea of what we see. And he then came back to this country and he actually tried to start a political party, the Democratic Party, but then he didn't want to do that any more, and I think he sort of retired to the coast. And as he got less famous, my mother got more famous. And it became very odd in a way, because he'd always been in our family the sort of ... my mother was, 'Now, your father ...' and then suddenly it was my mother. All her books began to come out and it was very difficult, I think, for both of them.

It didn't fit with the idea of an Italian patriarch.

Not at all. Not at all. So he sort of walled himself [in]. He built a tower, you know. It's very, very Islamic. He had a master builder, who had a sort of house, which he built a tower and put lots of green cement around it, for some strange reason. He was known as Dr. Cemento for a while there, and he sort of became very reclusive and was trying to write an autobiography, but it ... we all gave him tape recorders and things, but it sort of fizzled a bit because I just think he couldn't quite keep his attention on something long enough. But he was an extraordinary person, my dad.

How did you feel about him?

Very loving. I really thought he was the greatest person in the world. And great compassion then. And that's why I came back to Australia mainly, because he had one of those freak accidents, where he'd gone out to have a pee on the verandah in a place that had no balustrade, and he ... someone passing by had an aerial up on a boat, and it hit an electric wire and fused all the lights in the area, and he was left in the darkness and fell off the verandah and lost his inner ear balance, and then he had a sort of slight heart attack. So I came back to Australia and took a job. I took a job with the Queensland Theatre Company to do Taming of the Shrew. And he ... just to be near him for that time, but it was ... but he did have a very lengthy period of decline, and we all felt it very much. But that is, I mean, sort of indirectly, how I got here. Because when I did Taming of the Shrew, the guy, who ran the theatre, had oversubscribed, so at times I was doing the Shrew three times a day to fill in all the subscriptions that had [been sold], so it was very tiring and I was very tired, and I decided to come up here to have a holiday and make a documentary about here. And that's how I got here first. I'd heard about it a lot from my dad. He talked about here quite a lot. And we had ... there are very many great connections with here. My great grandfather was shipwrecked here. He was called Captain Walker, and then another ... I think it was him [that] started the Bank of New South Wales in Cooktown, and Captain Walker walked for about six months. It's called Captain Walker's Marathon. There's a book. And the people he left behind, who'd been on board ship with him, were saved the next day but he was walking forever. Anyway, so I have a lot of strange family connections with this [place], and when I came up here and saw this country, I sort of immediately felt a huge connection. And I ... that's when I bought this land, and I didn't really ... I had a place in England and I was commuting back from England to Australia, which is pretty stupid anyway, but after two years I sort of knew what I wanted to do with it more or less.

[end of tape]

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