Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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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.

What did you want?

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?

Older siblings?

Mmm. Older siblings, sorry.

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?

No, no.

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?

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.

And what happened there?

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.

Young men being killed.

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.

And the horrors of it.

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.

[end of tape]

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