Australian Biography

Bruce Dawe - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

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Could you tell me about your childhood and the kind of family that you were born into?

Well, now this not as easy for me as it might be for others, in that I don't have very vivid or consecutive memories of my childhood. But we grew some time ... I grew up sometimes, and my family as well, my brother and sister, sometimes in the country, sometimes in the city. And my earliest recollections in fact are divided between city and country, and I think that's something that's always stayed with me, that I don't have a very clear choice of one or the other, even though in latter years I've been located mostly in the city.

So your life was divided in that way. Did you stay long in any one place?

No, a year or two I think is about as much as I did. So that by the time I left school at sixteen, I'd been to about eight schools, which is about seven too many, or at least six too many. So I don't say that to account for the fact that I wasn't terribly good as a student of this or that. But just to account for the fact that I don't have, as it were, very persistent ... There are memories that are very vivid ones. For example, I always tell the story about the games that were played at a school, that I found very cavernous and Dickensian, with very high classrooms in Lee Street in Carlton. When we went to the playground ... I have no particular memory of tyrannical teacher or anything like that at it at all. But when we went into the playground, it was coarse gravel, and the kids would set up a whole betting system, of little mounds of coarse gravel, with concave holes in the top, a bit like golf tee things, and a line marked back in the gravel, and cherry bobs were the cherry stones - were the currency. And each ... each person would be like a bookmaker, standing by his mound, he would say, offer the odds, 'Six and your old girl back', your old girl being your investment cherry pit. And you would stand at that mark, and depending on the extent of the concave hole, try and lob it in. If you lobbed it in, then you got six cherry bobs plus your invested one. And so you'd go along looking for the best odd, exactly as I imagine punters go at any racecourse looking for odds. I've never seen that process. Incidentally, cherries would be too dear now probably for most working class kids to afford to build up a bag unless they ... I don't know where they got them from. But it was at that one school. It's the most vivid memory. The other thing was, at the same school, others would go around with three ply boards, with the old bakelite knobs off radio sets on them, and they would be, as it were, travelling lucky wheel spinners, and you could bet your cherry bobs on the spin of the wheel. And this is also done at the same school. I never saw it anywhere else. I never heard of anybody else who ever saw, [coughs] excuse me, this betting practice in operation.

Was this school near a racecourse?

No, Carlton is in central ... central Melbourne. It was as close to the city as you can get.

So it was in Carlton?

Yes, it was in Carlton. So, as I say, the coarse gravel of the playground obviously offered itself to various creative activities in out-of-school time. The kids must have got a lot of the taste for that kind of thing from back lane betting and so on, SP betting, from their parents, and then the two particular ways in which it was done, of course, were something that they evolved in their own way. But that's one very vivid and very creative memory that I have from my childhood.

Why do you think, of all the different experiences you had in your childhood, a memory of school yard gambling should stand out for you?

Well, I suppose because it seemed to me like one which ... in which the child becomes the ... the initiator: the person who does things, and who evolved this system themselves. It's not as though it's something that was passed on from their mothers. I mean tip cat's often been a ... and in fact it's a universal game. Knotting your handkerchiefs. We used to call them tadpoles and belting other kids over the head with them, was a kind of relatively inoffensive way of expressing aggression. But there again, I imagine things that are done in various ways, and were done at other schools. But this was one. And I think particularly for a inner city school, where the classroom atmosphere was restrictive - not prohibitive: restrictive, because of the kind of classroom, and the kind of teaching at that time. It's nothing to do with Lee Street State School now. This seemed to be the flowering. It's not quite the renaissance flowering, but still I think it was an interesting and enjoyable thing and obviously it may have been the source of, who knows, Jeff Kennett may have gone there at some later time, and the whole casino fascination may have stemmed from similar background.

And from your point of view, as a child, what did you do? What did you have to do with this game? What was your role in it?

I don't know. I mean I may have been an observed of all observers for all I know. I was never a better or punter of any great shakes, so it wasn't something that actually kind of changed the course of my life and led to a life of domestic misery, or of domestic bliss, or great fortune. It was just something I noticed at this school ... for a year or so.

And it struck you as creative.

As creative, and sort of memorable because it was creative I guess. At another school I went to, which was Fawkner Street Secondary, we used to have kind of class wars. Not quite like the Marxist ones, but ones where the kids from one grade would line up against the back fence at the school armed with Moreton Bay figs, off the Moreton Bay fig tree, which were often very ... could sting when they hit. And they would then surge forward in a long thin line against boys from another class or another grade. And they would meet - something like the way in which in pre-modern times, battle lines were often drawn up. And they could be often quite sort of stinging and hurtful. The only other thing I remember is from a later stage still, when I went from there to Northcote High, we used to play with zip guns in the aniseed bushes along Merri Creek. You know the zip gun? Two pieces of wood joined together by thick rubber bands, and you fired BB shot from them, or ball bearings. So they're actually very dangerous weapons. And they had a nail attached to the underside which acted as a trigger, and released the ball bearing, which was held in a taught rubber band between the two bits of wood. Now, they're my three vivid memories, apart from a couple of fights I had at Northcote High School, which were gentlemanly sort of affairs, about all my memories of school days. Oh, apart from kids getting belted with doweling at Northcote High School by an irate arts teacher. Because the whole class used to hum and humming is a terribly subversive activity, because you can never tell who's doing it. Everybody's got their lips sealed. The whole class sounds like a hive of bees. The murmur of innumerable bees, I think Tennyson calls it. You know, and he'd go round the classroom shouting and declaiming and swearing it was this or that kid who'd started it but of course, everybody was in it. I remember writing about the fights when I went back to Northcote High some years ago for a jubilee, silver jubilee celebration of the school's founding. They asked me to write something for the school magazine, so I wrote about my two fights, which wasn't really what I think what they want an old boy to discuss in detail but that was about all I could remember.

Did you win them?

I won the first one by a low blow and that was against an older opponent. That doesn't excuse the low blow. I mean, I'm not doing a kind of Mike Tyson. The other one, I also took on an older boy and he held me down and offered to, you know, show me the ropes at Storeman's Gym in Northcote. And I didn't take him up on that, but it was a friendly, friendly altercation. We were playing with paper footballs, which you know, you roll up newspaper and put rubber bands around them, and kick them round the playground. And I was obviously, in the heat of the game, the same as all those Rugby League people say after, 'Oh well, it was all in the match'.

Why were you moving around so much as a family?

I think it was necessity. Dad wasn't at home very much, so it was mostly Mum and my older brother who kept ... kept us going. There wasn't much in the way of pensions or social welfare to the families that didn't have both parents creatively working and it was during the Depression years, anyway, when Dad was a farm labourer, so there wasn't any work for him. And I've come, in recent years, to recognise that I've been a bit harsh, through faulty memory, on my memories of him. And my brother's memoirs of the earlier times have corrected that sort of false impression. So ... but it was often Mum who sort of did the work, and brother, when he could get work, he'd jump the rattler and hawked apples and worked in timber camps at Orbost and various other places outside Melbourne. But they were the ones who kept the family together. And moving from place to place, I think is something that people often do. They go where work is, or where there seems at least the illusion of work.

What ... what sort of work did your mother do to keep the family together?

Well, she came off a small farm too and she and Dad never made a success of their life or of their farming activities. At one stage they planned to go into fox farming, of all things. And that little red fox that I wrote a poem about, that's shown on my dad's shoulder, was presumably the last remnant of the fox farm, or perhaps the progenitor of it, I don't know. But they had ... they had various fanciful ideas of making a success of a farm or this kind or that kind of activity. It always meant, sooner or later, picking up stakes and going somewhere else. And so, it was never a case of starving or anything like that. But it was often a case of not being sure where the next job was coming from.

So your parents experienced a whole succession of economic failures. What kind of an effect do you think this had on their relationship? Do you remember that?

Well as I ... I don't think they were really meant for each other in any kind of sense of that word. I think they were people who looked as though they could make a go of it, and found out, as many people do, that they couldn't. Or that they needed much more favourable general circumstances and favourable personal circumstances in order to make a go of it. Neither of those things seemed to apply. So that ... so they did often sort of part company or he went up country looking for work, and then it was up to mum or ... and or my older brother to sort of keep the family together. Now the other ... the girls married earlier on, my brother married later. But I suspect it was partly because he was busy sort of trying to make ends meet and support the family. And they ... Mum and dad had often fairly sort of acrimonious conflicts and I can remember coming home from high school and threatening to belt him up, which I couldn't have done, but I suppose anger led me to, you know, threaten to do that, on one of the few occasions when he was around the place in the latter years, when I was in my teens.

As a small child, how did you experience that whole relationship with your father?

Oh, not unfavourably. I can remember him telling stories. And he was obviously a person from the bush and he knew various bush crafts, and I think [coughs] he was favourably disposed to me. I don't think he saw me as somebody that shouldn't have happened. So I've got no kind of personal memory of conflict or of any sort of oppression or unpleasantness at all, personally. I think I was a toddler, who flitted around the place, and who was generally very well treated by all.

Where did you come in the family?

I came fourth, as the Bible says. [Laughs] They called to Moses and he came forth. You know, it's a sort of outside place. [Coughs] So [coughs], excuse me, the two sisters and brother at least twenty years or more older than me, so I was very much a late thought. But it meant that I had two surrogate aunts, and a surrogate uncle, you might say ...

In your siblings?

Yeah, so I was very fortunate. And I think, you know, it's often been said since that I was so horribly spoilt, then spent the rest of my life trying to shake it off. Well, I haven't tried. Others have tried. [Laughs] So I couldn't say I had an unhappy childhood at all. I was well looked after by people who didn't have very much money. And I think being well looked after is the key thing, not whether you have money or not.

Did you like it when you were in the country?

Yes, I did. I remember ... the only lines I can remember, a very Dylan Thomas-ish poem sort of described that: 'Brown as a berry, I scuffed through blistered pastures and everywhere under the opal heavens was home'. There's something of that sense sometimes in photos. I ... yes, I enjoyed living in the countryside, but I never got back to living there again very much once I grew up of course. So it's a distant and fading memory. But I can recognise so often in the writings of others, what it was like. I didn't live in the far outback or anything like that. It was always Gippsland or somewhere fairly contiguous to towns.

What kind of a person was your mother?

Well, she was a ... she was a dramatic person. And I suppose many, many ... That doesn't say very much. She loved elocution and she could recite The Sale of Pet Lamb and A Child's First Grief, and Casabianca, (the Boy on the Burning Deck), and The Burial of Sir John Moore. And you'll note that in the sort of late Victorian and early Victorian fashion, it was deaths that usually moved people to ... and I ... I ... I assume that my own interest in sort of elegies and so on, stems partly from that sort of dramatic. And I used to often say to her, 'Gee mum, have you ever thought of getting your voice trained?' and she'd ... she'd colour up very sort of prettily and say, 'No, no, no, why?' And I'd say, 'Well, it's no bloody good to you the way it is, is it?' And oh, she'd always fall for that one. But she learnt elocution the way kids learnt it in school: the waving of arms and sort of like a Shakespearean sort of, Nineteenth Century Shakespearean performance, with lots of sort of stress on words. And I ... my own enjoyment of poetry reading I think is stemmed a lot from that. In fact, there's a poem called A Tribute, which talks about this elocutionary sort of emphasis in a very ... which is a very, as you know, melodramatic form. And she loved that. It was a way also of course working out through the elegies and tragedies of poetry, her own sort of sadness and her own sense of tragedy in her own life. I understand that now, at least. So she could be pretty tough as well. And she was always an optimist I think, despite all that had happened to her. And she always hoped that one of her kids would get an education. As it turned out, she meant a formal education, and that's why she put her last sort of hopes, I suppose, on me. And any time I've managed to improve my formal education, at least I've felt that I owed at least that much to her.

How did she cope with the moving all the time?

Oh, I don't think she liked it at all. One of the best known poems I've written is really about that process.

The Drifters.

Yes. It's very much about her, and I realised later on just how much, when I grew up, how much it must have meant to her, because she loved to sort of grow things and how often it must have hurt her, and bewildered her as well, to find herself moving again. Usually through circumstances other than her own will. Because Dad wanted to move, or because the people we were staying with or whatever it was. Because I wasn't privy to the economic circumstances at an early age. That was how it was, and so she found herself just, you might say ... always she must have been waiting for the other shoe to drop and for another move to be on the cards.

She pinned a lot of hopes on you, and your schooling. How did you go in fulfilling those hopes?

[Laughs] Well, you know. It's a story of sort of banished hopes, or at least obliquely realised ones, I suppose. I was ... I wasn't a bad student. I did my best, but maths weren't my long suit, and the further I went with them, the more they became a mysterious world beyond my comprehension. And I think by the time I left in my sub-senior year, I was doomed to go and find my way somewhere else. So I wasn't able to ... She put me in the commercial stream, because of course that sounded like the money stream but I would have been better off in the professional stream, where I might have tackled languages. I had to pick up French somewhere along the line and I'd been reasonable in Latin, at least to intermediate ... to junior level. But I was in the commercial stream, and it wasn't meant for me. I couldn't ... commercial principles and practices, which was a sort of bookkeeping thing, was beyond me. I can still remember, you know, DR, B black, P purple, CR and all that sort of jargon. But I was never good at keeping the books. My wife looks after the family finances, and it's just as well that she did, because I wouldn't have been able to handle it I don't think. But again, that was ... the stress I suppose on maths into the commercial stream was something that inevitably led to my departure from school when I was sixteen.

Before you'd completed your high schooling.

Yeah, I left in the year before the completing year. [coughs]

Was there anything you did well at, at school?

Well, I did well at English, yeah. In fact, my English teacher assumed that ... before he knew me better - that I'd pinched my essay out of a Women's Weekly. I hadn't. I'd written it myself. I didn't read Women's Weekly, didn't get Women's Weekly. But it seemed to him to sort of at least have the journalistic promise of a Women's Weekly article. And he then ... This is George Stirling - a very fine teacher, a wonderful person. He then encouraged me, and gave me books to read and I always thought that influence sometimes works best when it's least noticed. So he didn't stand, as it were, over my shoulder telling me to write this way, or write that way, or why don't you study? He simply gave me some of the Angry Penguins publications, and a few books outside the usual run of poetry that I'd read at school and it was enough to sort of knock a few holes in the wall, and get me thinking, and to stimulate my sort of writing poetry at high school, and for me to be on the magazine committee. And it was enough to give me a start. And years later, many years later, I suppose about twenty years later, he was at a service station in New Zealand, and he read about my being awarded the Ampol Arts Award for Creative Literature. It was only awarded in literature one year, and he said he hadn't realised that the oil that was running into his sump was also greasing my palm, [laughs] which is a very nice way of putting it. And so he'd written to congratulate me. And I remember having said in the article in the newspaper that I didn't drive a car but at least I could say that I brushed my teeth with Ampol. So ... so he was a teacher that I always admired, and we kept in touch. His memories of me, of course, got foggier. But I'd lose the reference he wrote about my promising literary ability at school. I had to write to him and remind him about my promising literary ability later on when I'd lost the last reference, but as I started to publish and so on, of course, he thought, well maybe he was right after all.

How old were you when you wrote your first poem?

Well, I started writing as a young kid. The younger of my two older sisters was a very talented writer I think. She published some poems, I think, in the Herald newspaper. And if your memory goes back to Pixie O'Harris, then that kind of fairly decorous but competent versification - I'm not putting the word down, it's just that it was verse - was ... she was very skilled at. And had she had the education, I think she'd have probably been a very fine writer. As it was, she was competent within her sort of skills. So she was a kind of present example for me as a young person. I didn't have many examples. Many people in a country as large as this, and where people are often scattered, don't always have ready made models within cooee. And the general support of the family was there all the time. They thought Bruce was always supposed to be, you know, a clever young fellow. Not half as clever as I think they thought he was. But I wasn't going to disappoint them or disillusion them about that. So, as I say, that's what I mean when ... also what I meant, when I was talking about the earlier influence, that they were supportive always. And that plus that encouragement at high school, and then the university encouragement, saw me through to a reasonable point.

But well before you got to university, you dropped out of school. Can you remember what precipitated that? Given that your mother was wanting you to go on, and you were a clever young fellow who wasn't going to disappoint anyone, why did you drop out just then?

Well, I'd ... I'd ... I'd had some sort of difference of agreement you might say with my maths teacher and I remember storming out of the classroom and being ordered to come back and close the door properly which I, being an obedient person, came back and did. But that was my last class. And I went home, and on my way I caught the tram home, and I stopped off at the lending library to take out some Ellery Queen books. That was my sort of act of emancipation: was to read some Ellery Queen mystery stories. Because I'd got the liking for mystery stories at high school. A good friend of mine, whom I've been in contact again with recently, we used to read mystery stories and discuss them. They were a kind of stage up from Colwin Dane Teck [?] in The Champion, and Rockfist Rogan and the hero of the RAAF, or whatever he was called. So they were kind of all part of my kind of growing up. And so ... so that's how I left school. And I went home and proudly declared that I'd sort of finished with school. And I got a job then in a lawyer's office, called Wylde and Crowther, in which may still be in fact - I think it still is - in Melbourne, as a junior, as an office boy, which meant, amongst other things, sort of emptying out the cigarette butts from the typing pool's teacup saucers. And at the end of a year, the junior partner said to me, 'Well, you don't seem to be sort of making that much progress. Would you like a week's pay, or a week's notice?' And I said, 'I'll settle for a week's pay'. So it was ... I like ... I always believe in sort of quick finishes, you know. So that was my first real job. Though I had worked over school holidays at Spicer's shoe factory, on the heeler, in which you put all these headless nails in a steel heel, which is punched up into the heel of the shoe. And that took a whole succession of different jobs, most of which for one reason or another I didn't last too long at.

Was the hope with the law firm that you might have been able to convince your mother that you were going to go on and do law?

I think, well I think my mother convinced herself about that. I don't think I did much to convince her, because I think, you know ... I think that might have been the idea behind it, that a clever young chap with a bit of a big mouth should be able to make a way in the world in the legal profession, as obviously lots of people with big or little mouths do. But ... so I think that's why that particular kind of job suited. But to get from office boy to anything else you had to go through, you know, university, and I think even then you had to be ... after university you had to be articled and so on. But I enjoyed the ... I enjoyed the year. They were good to me, and it certainly wasn't with any sort of bitterness or anything that I took the opportunity of a week's pay.

And what was it about the way you'd gone about the job that meant that the boss had so little faith in your future?

I don't know. I may have just had a terribly blank look, or ... I haven't the faintest idea why I didn't sort of suit whatever the next step in it was. I used to work downstairs in the probate section, writing by hand - very much like Bartleby Scrivener - writing by hand last wills and testaments. Which if you take that on top of my mother's sort of interest in elegiac sort of effusion of the Nineteenth Century, helps to explain my own sort of later career I suppose, because I'd be writing, you know, 'I So and So, of Such and Such, hereby bequeath to my ...' and I'd be writing these all out in longhand. So I don't know what ... I think they just wanted somebody brighter and more useful, or with a more ... who was actually ... as well as being an office boy, was actually going to work towards a university career.

And you weren't showing any inclination to do that. What did you do after you left the law firm?

Well, I'm not sure about the inclination. It may have been that I just simply obviously didn't have the funds for such a, you know, ambitious sort of future, which I never did have. When I went to university, I only got there by bonding myself to the Education Department through the ... to the Secondary Teachers' Centre. So I never had the money. I had to actually ... My mother had left a little corner block of land in Noble Park, and that was my surety for teaching scholarship. So that was the only reason I ever got to university at all.

But that happened later.

Oh, that happened later, of course.

So after you left the legal firm, you said you had a succession of jobs. After you left the legal firm, what did you do?

Well I worked on a share farm up at ... near the ... in the Cann River valley, up near the New South Wales border. A share farm run by the ... a couple who ... both of whose families still lived in the huge rambling farm house, along with their married kids. And I was the go-between, in the L. P. Hartley sense of the word. I sort of carried the messages between the two families who were always warring with each other. So it was a hell of a situation to be in, as the sort of fifteen bob a week farm hand. You'd get one day off in every month. And I saved up enough money to get out and get the bus back home. So I lasted about a month. I enjoyed it: riding horses and they were nice to me, but it was not the kind of ideal thing, because there was so much animosity between the two lots of families. So that was one kind of farming experience. It was a sort of dairy ... share dairy farm. And then I worked in a series of different jobs. Some of them junior clerical. I worked in three different sawmills, as a tailor out on the saws. One I worked at in South Melbourne. I was working on a band saw and the band saw broke. You have all these horror stories about band saws, because when they break you don't even see them go. They're like a rattlesnake. And I had three tooth marks in the side of my nose. And I got Dettol on them and left the same day, actually. I thought that was enough ... that was enough of a hint for me. But that was again my own carelessness. I tried to turn a bit of wood where there was a knot under the band saw, and I survived the experience. But not everybody needs a lot of cautions about that. Once is enough for some people. So I'd left that. But I had other jobs, labouring jobs often with the Public Works Department. In fact, labouring was the thing I did mostly, between when I left school at sixteen, and when I went to university at twenty-four. And it was the most ... working with the Public Works Department, just as a straight labourer, with a truck ... a truck that went around schools - often creating, constructing school playgrounds. So you were often covered in coal lass [?], a sort of tarry substance. But it was a ... you know, it was a job, and you ... I'm not like a lot of the younger generation today who want creative potential before they have any to give. I didn't have much and I wasn't ... I was concerned. I living on my own, in a room, didn't have flats and apartments and so on [like] these days. They were all kind of rooms. Well, [they] mostly were, I think. And so I had to keep body and soul together and I did it by labouring.

[end of tape]

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