Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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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.

Did you take sides in it?

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.

[end of tape]

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