Australian Biography

Inga Clendinnen - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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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]

So, Inga, you were saying?

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...

How do you know it's false?

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...

Did you get hit?

Oh sometimes. I took it badly.

How?

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.

But you did go on?

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.

How were your scones?

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.

You escaped when you left?

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?

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.

How did that happen?

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.

And what type is that?

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.

[end of tape]

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