Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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He first went and got his matriculation, which we call HSC now. And then he went on to do an arts degree, part-time at Melbourne University. And at that time, after he completed about two years they were so desperate for school teachers at the time that they employed him as a secondary school teacher on the condition, of course, that he went ahead and completed his BA, which he did. And I think he'd been studying altogether about seven years when the marriage broke up.

And what about you, did you think of going and doing similar study yourself?

Not at all — I couldn't see myself doing a university course. But after completing that dental nurses' course I went and did a chiropody course at night school for two years. And I did extremely well in that. But never practiced it — that didn't worry me, I love learning and I enjoyed going. But I didn't practice it.

Why did you go and do a chiropody course rather than, say, go and get your matriculation?

Well, there was talk in the hospital sphere that there was going to be another position created for a chiropodist in one of the hospitals. And I thought, well, having worked there for so long and with qualifications, if I was to get them, that I'd be in the box seat to get the position. So I got the qualifications but the position was never created. And the type of person that I am, it wasn't really suitable for me anyway because in the main, chiropody is a disease of the aged. And I live for the future; even though I'll be 70 in a couple of years, I still live for the future. That's my temperament. And what happens when you treat elderly people, who are free to talk while you operate on their feet— in the main, they live in the past — and temperamentally it didn't suit me.

And so you never thought that you'd do any other sort of education?

Formal education, no, no.

And so you never did anything else?

No. I often thought about going, you know, to university.

I thought that you'd got the Leaving Certificate?

Oh yes, I did.

Okay, I'll ask again. So what about education? Did you ever take up anything else?

Yes, actually, what was happening at that time, when my marriage was still intact, [was that] Charlie was studying and Leonie was studying for her Leaving Certificate. And I happened to be looking at her books, and I just looked at them and I said, 'Oh, I could do this.' And she said, 'Of course you could. Why don't you?' And I thought, 'Oh well, will I?' And I thought, 'Yeah, I'll give it a go.' So I enrolled for one subject and I'm not sure now whether it was Modern History or British History, it was one of those at the time. And so I put in an application and I read her material three weeks before the exam. And I went in and I sat in the Exhibition Buildings with thousands of kids, and looked around me and I thought oh hell, you know. I thought well, bugger it, here I go. And so I just went off. And I passed. And I was just staggered. So I thought, oh maybe it was a fluke. So the following year I applied to do the other history. And I went and did the same thing again and I passed again. So I realised then that it wasn't a fluke, that I could do it.

You didn't have to attend a course, you could just go and do the exam?

Yeah, I just read the notes three weeks before the exam, and went and did it. And I suppose as an adult, and being involved in the world and politics and being interested in everything, you have a totally different attitude, and so reading the notes just brought everything that they wanted me to say in an exam forward. And I had a pretty good memory, and so I was able to do it. But I realised then that doing the subjects this way wouldn't get me the Leaving Certificate, because you had to do a certain amount of subjects within a certain time-span. So the following year I had to do three subjects to get my Leaving. And so I was working of course as a dental nurse full-time, and that's when I gave up on the union work, because I couldn't do that as well. And so, while working full-time, I went to night school and I did needlework, which of course I had done, worked in the factories for years so there was no problem. And I had to do that at the local tech, and I did English and commercial principles, I think it was; at the time they called it that. And English was the thing that worried me more than anything.

Why was that?

I passed, always passed, when I was at school. But I missed the boat somewhere in fully understanding all these terms of grammar. I mean, I knew the simple things like adjectives and verbs and nouns and pronouns, but when it came to all the other names that I can't even remember now off the top of my head, I was lost. And I had a real thing about it. I mean, I passed the grammar, but I didn't know why I passed, if you know what I mean. And so I had a tremendous fear. And going to night school and having to do the English, because we had to do essays. And the one good thing about this teacher, who was a teacher by day — he was an older man — and taught in his garage in Melbourne during the winter and all, and you'd sit there in his garage and he'd take this class, but the wonderful thing about him is he didn't correct your work and tell you where you'd gone wrong. He'd put a circle around one of my sentences once and he said, 'This is not a sentence.' And he didn't say why. And I went home and I just looked at it. Why isn't it a sentence? Why? Why? Why? And I knew a sentence had to have a verb and a noun, subject and adjective and all this sort of stuff, and I didn't go and just ask anyone. I realised I had to work it out for myself. And I realised it didn't have a verb — but even so I still lacked the confidence. I suppose I didn't think my vocabulary was good enough. Speaking English to non-English speaking parents, you're forced to reduce your vocabulary so that your parents can understand your English. And it can become habit forming, and what's more you don't develop a more extensive vocabulary. And so all these things played a part. But of course I did pass. And so I got my Leaving Certificate. I got all those three subjects, and so I had my Leaving Certificate.

Did you think of doing the kind of Leaving Certificate that would allow you to go to university?

Well, I would have had to, at that stage, go and do my HSC. Now one young woman I knew, who was about my age, went ahead and did it. And I didn't. I didn't. And of course there were stages I could have gone to university easily if I'd wanted to. But I chose not to. And there were many reasons why I chose not to. Many.

And what was the most important for you at that stage, with this opportunity there to do that? What do you think was the main reason why you didn't?

One of the main reasons — and it might seem idealistic and crazy — was I saw a lot of intelligent working-class people, who understood the situation that workers were in and all that sort of thing, go to university, get qualifications, some of them genuinely believing that they'd be able to give more back by doing this. But they got sucked into the system and became very middle class and were doing very well for themselves and that was the end of it. And I felt that the working people lacked any form of leadership — or had very little leadership — particularly from working-class people, who were capable. So what I had, and what abilities I had, I felt that I wanted to be there with them. And if I did a university course I know that they wouldn't accept me any more, because they would — and justifiably so — feel, well, what's she doing here with us when she can go out and get 40,000 bucks a year, sort of thing, you know. They'd immediately feel suspicious about you. And even though they always knew I was different, they still accepted me. But if I had done a university course, they wouldn't have. That was one reason, not the only one.

During the period of your marriage and living out there in the suburbs, and travelling in to work, working in the union, attending Communist Party meetings, did this affect at all the way in which you looked after Leonie?

Making all my clothes, making all her clothes, knitting all her jumpers, knitting my husband's jumpers and being very particular in the house, I don't think so. I mean, you'd have to ask her that. But I feel that only having the one child — and this is, was, important — I mean if I'd had two or three I couldn't have done it. But only having the one child, I felt able to do that. And Charlie was very co-operative and very helpful too. And the emergency when we both — which was on odd occasions — had to go out then Mum would always come up and babysit, which she just delighted in doing. But as far as parenting, I have asked Leonie, honestly and genuinely, how she saw her childhood and did she consider she had e a happy childhood? And she said, yes she did. And — not because she just wanted to please me, because we have talked about it —we didn't indulge her in material things, but we did take her to theatre, to concerts, to see overseas artists, and encourage — to opera. We took her to all these things, spending money on that sort of thing we felt was worthwhile. But I didn't indulge her in fancy clothes and things like that. That was of secondary importance. But I mean we were always dressed well. But I felt culturally that so many working-class kids miss out. It's not as if they get a choice, but they should be able to have the choice of all sorts of culture so they can decide themselves what they're going to like and what they're going to appreciate in later life.

Now, with the ending of your marriage and the period of your working at the psychiatric hospital there was a big change in your life, wasn't there? What kind of work did you do?

Well, I went from the hospital to work in the Meat Industry Union [Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union] office in Melbourne. At this stage I was still in the Communist Party and the union had a communist secretary. And I always admired these people and felt they were so intelligent and had so much to offer, and I always felt that I had so much to learn. I never, ever, considered I had anything to offer. And so I went to work there in the office, which was a big change for me. And, in the meantime, I sold the house in West Heidelberg which we had bought from the housing commission, and I bought a unit in Carlton. So I was back in the inner city, I was close to my work situation. But at that stage, when I went to work in the union office, I had my house on the market and I wanted to buy this flat. But neither transaction had gone through at that stage. I was happy to be working there, but I still had to travel all the way back to West Heidelberg every day to the commission house and anxiously waiting for the house to be sold and, you know, buying this flat. And so, that was a big change. When I decided to leave the hospital I was terrified again. It was a big step to take. I knew I was qualified in the job I was doing. I didn't know what was going to happen to me, taking on a totally different sphere of work, and at that stage I was what — about 41 — and so I was nervous, very nervous.

So, had you made a decision that you wanted to leave being a dental nurse and get involved more directly in the union movement? Or were you approached about it?

No, no, I just decided as a single woman, living in suburbia was no good. I was getting impatient with the kids at Janefield Colony and so I had to make this change. I discussed it with different friends but ultimately I had to make the decision myself and wear it and so I did.

Now, you began work in the union movement, which had been a very, very, important part of your life, and you really moved to the centre of it, didn't you? Where was the union actually situated? … [INTERRUPTION]

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