Australian Biography

Bruce Dawe - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

In retrospect, what did you think you got out of this period of going from job to job?

Well I think probably the most important thing was that ... You remember that I'd had, you might say, a supportive and affirmative backing from the family. However, it would be very easy for that to give any person, you know, a sort of apprentice monster of egotism. Working with other people, where you're a relatively low person on the totem pole, is always very good I think. And I've always been very grateful for the fact that I learnt what it was to sort of do a hard day's work, and to be damn glad when it's over, but ... to get paid for it, and to respect the fact that while I might move on. Other people are sometimes stuck with those jobs for life. And if I moved on, it was moved on sometimes through my own sort of choice, and very often I was aware that other people didn't have choices. For example, the gang I worked with mostly in the Public Works Department, was dominated by the ganger, who was a bully. And the married man with two kids, called Frank, that worked with me, he was very anxious to keep in with the ganger, and with the overseer, and with the leading hand, because they were the three people who meant a lot to him. It didn't mean anything much to me, because I was a single person. And I realised then, I suppose, if I hadn't realised it before, just how much power can operate in those kind of employment situations, just as they have, of course, throughout history, in every country. And if I often write about power, and as somebody said, about the most recent book, it's about the disposition of power, then it's because I learnt something about power from seeing how it operated with people who didn't have the choices that I was still free to make.

When you left jobs, you often did it quite quickly, you'd jump ...

Oh yes, I remember one day, I was working for a junior clerk for a firm where I couldn't possibly have learnt all that they taught me to, or expected me to learn in the time. So in the end I thought I can't handle this. I'm going to go out and not coming back. So a mate rang me up round about lunch time, and I remembered a couple of lines from The Ballad of Frankie & Johnny and I said, 'Well look, let me put it to you this way, there's eight men going out to lunch today and there's only seven coming back', and he got the message straight away that I was leaving the job. So sometimes I did leave like that. I hated sort farewells anyway, and all the tedious stuff that people say. You've been working there for several weeks. They hardly know who you are and they tell you to come back and see them. But they mean well by it, but you think, no, no, you know, to be courteous, candid and quick about things, is ... but especially to be quick about them, is the way to go. So those were [the] days, after all, when you left a job and you didn't have people holding it over you in future, whereas now, as you know, you have to get job clearance. If you don't get job clearance, and even in getting job clearance, you can be tyrannised by ex or would be ex-employers. That situation simply didn't apply. And there were other people lining up for jobs. There were jobs to be had. And that sort of pressure simply didn't exist for people. And I'm very, very aware, and very angry, of course, on a permanent basis, about the extent to which the present job market is so sort of prescriptive, especially for young people, in my situation as I was, who would like the choice to leave jobs, but who, if they do, know they're going to pay an inordinately high price for it.

You said you were living on your own during this time. As the youngest in the family by so much, and the apple of your mother's eye, why weren't you living with your mother?

Some of the times I was living with mum. Sometimes I wasn't. When she went to the final trip to the hospital I was still living with her. And other times I wasn't. But I'd had a big disagreement with her. She thought - this is long after the fox farm kind of fantasy - that breeding Pekes was the way to go. And in the end ...

Breeding what?

Breeding Pekes, Pekinese dogs. And we didn't have the money or the facilities for that kind of activity. And I remember coming home. I'd worked hard, [in] this is Public Works, labouring work, at a place called Rosanna, out of Melbourne. Caught a train into Melbourne, then the train another forty minutes out to Boronia, and then a half mile or a mile walk from the station, and I'd find that there was no tea for me, when I got home at seven o'clock at night. And I remember saying to her one day, 'It's either me or the Pekes', and she said, 'Well, it's the Pekes', and I left the following morning. So with some ... but I didn't lose contact with the family and I'd go and visit them, so it wasn't as though I was never seen or heard from again. But it's just that for a young bloke. I suppose I would have been round about - oh, I don't know - eighteen, nineteen. My temper got the better of me. And it was just as well, I suppose, that it did, because had I not been in Melbourne, I would never have gone to the university, and I went to university through sheer good fortune. I used to have my evening meals at a Man Fong cafe in Brunswick Street in Fitzroy, and there was a young Malaysian-Chinese architecture student, who was brushing up his English at a night school. And he happened to mention to me, or pass on to me - I forget whether he knew it or found it out for me - that without having completed your senior years in high school, at that stage at least, if you did an adult matriculation, and you were of a certain age, twenty-three or something, you could ... you were eligible to matriculate and possibly go to university. Now that ... had I not had that piece of information, the rest of my life would have been different. But because I'd gone to the Man Fong cafe, because I knew this guy - he was a lovely young Chinese bloke, ardently communist at a stage when it wasn't foolish to be communist - and [because he] passed it on to me I went to night school, I did [the] matric, I went to university and the rest of my life has been different from there. So you know, that's how things can ... I've always said that being lucky is one thing, but knowing that you're lucky is the key to it. If you know you're lucky, then you never forget your luck, and when you see a bit of luck you grab hold of it, and do what you can with it. And although I was tempted quite often to leave the studying at night school, after the day's works, I was always implored by my night school teacher to come back, often tearfully, and I always came back. A woman's tears - I'm a sucker for them. Always was. So I came back. I finished off the matriculation, and then went to university the following year.

So although you'd committed yourself very eagerly, to do this adult matriculation, you almost dropped out of that.

Oh yes, sure.

This dropping out, again, looking back to it with the wisdom of hindsight, was it always just that you were fed up, or was it also a little bit that you wondered whether you could do it?

I suspect a bit of both, Robin. In one sense, I guess that's always there. I've never been over confident about my capacity for taking on new things. So you know, I think that was part of it. It was also that if your working life is among guys who are just sort of ... well, guys who have never been to high school for example, and you're aware that you're using some kind of camouflage to keep in with them, and to learn to operate within their sort of expectations, and then you have to switch off every evening to become a person who's studying French and studying English literature at matriculation level, then, especially in those days - I'm talking about the early 1950s - it was a bit of a sort of ... a bit of a switch you had to do on a sort of ... on a weekly basis. And I guess that ... I found that sort of fairly kind of demanding, and sometimes you think, well, is it worth it and what does it mean anyway? I mean I didn't have any career ahead of me. It wasn't as though I was going to go to university and become a lawyer or a teacher or anything. But obviously to ... in my situation, the only way I could go to university was by being bonded as a secondary teacher trainee. So teaching became something that to me was the only way I could get to university.

There aren't too many matric teachers who will weep at the thought of losing a student. What do you think brought tears to the eyes of your matriculation teacher?

Well, often these were tears that I could sort of interpret over the phone. because I'd ring her up to say I was giving it away and she'd beg me not to. So I imagine that there were at least moist eyes at the other end of the line.

But you had a particularly good relationship.

I had a wonderful teacher, a wonderful teacher, and she had a group actually of young people, men and women, who were university students, that she had as a discussion club as well. Very talented person. Her name was Lillian Scholes, and her sister may still be alive. Her sister was secretary to Zelman Cowan, when he was Professor of Law at Melbourne University. And she was a very dedicated and loving woman, and so I was just one of many people that she influenced. I was seen as a bit of a socialist mind you, which wasn't the usual kind of students that she had. But I was clearly not so socialist as to be completely outrageous about it. [Laughs] And so I think she saw me as a bloke who ought to be given some encouragement beyond that in the classroom, so I used to go along and do some private tuition in French with her. But I never ... I was always embarrassed by conversational French, so I switched off then, because I hated making errors, so that when I failed French at university, it was the conversational French I failed, not the grammatical French.

And did she influence you in any way other than educationally?

Oh, sure. Yes. She was a Methodist lay preacher. And she was also ... used to attend high church, Anglican services as well on Sunday morning, as well as preaching Methodist lay sermons at Methodist churches later in the day. And so she certainly influenced me in that way too because any religious belief I'd had to that point was fairly sort of fairly sketchy. But she brought me into going along to church with them, with her and other people, young people she knew. And that was the start of something which, in the end I became a high church Anglican, and within a year or so I switched over to Roman Catholicism, while I was at university, and was confirmed at the exhibition, actually, in Melbourne, in 1954.

Given that you really hadn't had religion as part of your life to that moment, what was it about it that appealed to you?

Well, there was some religion, because my mother taught me, for example, Scots Graces, and there was a kind of ... It was a more chapel influence than anything else. It was, I suspect, Presbyterian more than anything else. And she was, of course, a person who certainly wasn't sceptical - that's my mother - and so she kept that tradition going. But ... and the other ... My brother and sisters had their own sort of religious beliefs. They tend to be more theosophical than theological. But ... so it wasn't as though there was a complete vacuum. There wasn't. But as far as my own sort of upbringing in my later teen years, like many people, I was fairly kind of sceptical and I was especially sceptical of the spiritualism that tended to be a sort of the way in which the family had sort of come to terms with religion. So it needed ... it needed somebody like Miss Scholes to come along with some formal theological expectations, to sort of get me thinking of going seriously about the whole process.

And what was it that in the end attracted you into the church?

Well, into the Anglican Church, of course, was the influence of this woman and friends of hers, including a close friend of hers, who we used to go and have lunch with on the Sunday after the service at St. Paul's in Caulfield, who's now I think, an Anglican minister, who's a wonderful guy, a guy called Alf Stringer. So that was the first step. But he was, after all, Anglican not Methodist, in his sort of orientation. But at university then, there were other influences. I met and knew and liked people that I met who were Roman Catholics rather than Anglican. I was very fond of a Roman Catholic girl there, who presented me one day with a whole series of tabulated responses to some Anglican document, which said why you should be Anglican and not Roman Catholic. And she'd went through the whole lot and come up with answers to all of them. A very clever and very intelligent person, who I was very, very fond of, and wrote love poems about and so on at that stage. And it was ... so there was a whole combination of influences. I suppose the Lives of the Saints was probably the most particular and extensive one. Plus something else, which comes up with Anglicans at times. That is, if the apostolic succession hasn't carried on into the Church of England, then you're safer to go back to where it still exists, which of course is in the original church. That's pre-Henry VIII. And that seemed to be to be the way around that particular logical sort of impasse, [and that] was to sort of jump it by going back early and saying well, the Church of Rome was to all ... to a lot of people's consideration, the original church, the early church. This is before the schism with the orthodox Christians, and therefore that's the way to head, and so that's where I eventually ended up.

Did the poetry of the church ritual appeal to you?

Very much so. In fact, my sort of fondest memories of Anglican sort of worship are of the wonderful sort of services at St. Paul's, Caulfield, and the Little Book of Common Prayer and the order service in that, is still wonderful I think: wonderful English. I don't mind English being at times archaic. I think something about religion demands transcendence and I think what has often happened in the post-conciliate Church of Rome is a tendency to want to match the service and the language with whatever the prevailing language is, and often it's mean, mediocre and banal. And I've regretted that as much as many other Roman Catholics have. And I still recall however, at one stage being such an enthusiast for changing it - changing the order of mass to the vernacular, that I sort of slipped lots of pamphlets arguing this case in amongst the Catholic Church Society pamphlets in St. Francis's Church in the heart of Melbourne, always hoping that the burly lay brother wouldn't catch me in the act and beat the hell out of me. [Laughs] But I've since regretted that and thought how stupid I was. Sometimes vernacular isn't everything. And if the vernacular itself has lost a lot, or may have lost a lot, or is in the hands of people who are busy sort of seeing that it loses whatever it has, then you may be better off with some form of service which is different from what anybody speaks any time in the street.

Let's stop there now and come back to university ... [GENERAL CONVERSATION]

You went to university immediately after you matriculated, did you? How was that?

Oh, it was great. Early fifties. Some people were a bit like the rehab system that operated with American universities too, where they were coming from very different sort of experiences, and with special kind of ... a bit like the GI Bill of Rights, which allowed people in. And so there were people at universities who normally wouldn't have been there ... And it was a time of great expansion of universities. So I remember seeing a figure somewhere at the time that I went that the office or working class, 1.5 per cent of the working class went to university. Now however you like to define the lower socio-economic group, it'd be a much higher percentage now. So then it was ... I was mostly mixing with people who'd gone to sort of posh colleges and top high schools, rather than drop outs from high school. But they were very magnanimous. Again, I mean I was lucky, because I could have met a time where other people ... Writers like Philip Martin, Evan Jones, Vin Buckley, Chris Wallace-Crabbe, were all there or recently been graduated, or already teaching there. And they were universally magnanimous, universally generous, and I could have probably gone at some other time, to some other place, and found myself seen as - because I did write while I was there and publish while I was there - as a threat, or as a pest, or a bit of both. In fact I met none of that. And that was terribly important to me, and still is. So I wrote these kind of ... those prose sketches, the Joey Cassidy series, that Penguin brought out, mostly ... really as a kind of farewell to an idiom, which I expected I was going to leave behind: that is a sort of working class idiom and the working class background I came from and that I'd worked in.

The Joey Cassidy series ...

It's a book called ... What's it called? Over Here, Harv! Harv being short for Harvey Whitcombe, who's a would-be Aussie Rules football start.

And they're short stories?

They're short stories. Yes, short stories.

And you wrote a lot of them in your first year at university.

Yeah, that's right, and published them in university papers and magazines. So they were a kind of ... they were something relatively fresh for university people, because of the class background, and they were fun for me, and they were easy to write. At the same time, of course, I was studying things I wouldn't normally haven't studied: things sometimes I didn't like, things sometimes I did. Some things I didn't understand, but nevertheless, things that widened, I think, my own sort of reading experience and my ... whatever one gets from reading other people's work. So I was ... The poetry side of it was being actually reshaped and re-explored at the same as I was writing these prose sketches.

Were you writing poetry at all?

Yes, I was, yeah. And I was uncertain though whether I'd keep up the short stories or the poetry. But I had a very limited character and I wasn't ... I wasn't you know, like Sherwood Anderson or Ernest Hemingway. I wasn't in there class. So there was no way I could use my limited character beyond a certain point and I think that's where I found the move from the prose sketches to the poetry was desirable. And I made no conscious decision. I just found myself writing more poetry, including some dramatic monologues, and I found that they were a way of expanding the sort of possibilities of what I wanted to put down.

What do you mean by saying you had a very limited character?

Well, he was just a kind of working class bloke, who was mostly out of work. Always falling half in love with various girls. He was ... he was an idealised self in a way, but with no discernible sort of future. And I didn't have any kind of ... I didn't have any way in which I could see myself expanding the character, or suggesting hidden depths, to use that cliché, in the character, that I'd already suggested. So [that is] what I meant by saying I wasn't in the Sherwood Anderson or Ernest Hemingway class.

And so the possibility of inventing a new character seemed to you less attractive than shifting more into poetry?

Yes, though I must say, I never made any conscious decision. I just found myself leaving those ... Remember I left full time ... The only full time university studies I did was in first year. So leaving the university too may have had an effect on that do, though I did enjoy reading. I'd read those sketches at the drop of an eyebrow actually, to various friends, or those who couldn't get out of the room quick enough. So I got into the sort ... got the taste for sort of doing public readings, or at least semi-private readings, with the prose sketches, and that's really followed that through, and I think followed through the possibilities of public voices, into the poetry as well.

Now, at this time at university, you said that you were very positively affected by your relationships with other people there, with people who were poets and writers. How did you, as this knockabout working class fellow, approach them? Did they discover you through your writing, or did you become friends with them on a personal basis?

Well, I think mostly through my writing. And as I say, they were very magnanimous about their situations. Some were teaching staff members already. Some were in the process of becoming academics. And I'd have met them surely, and I'm sure of that, through writing. So we'd have had a common interest. I mean they didn't seek me out, I didn't seek them out. It just so happened that we met. And as I say, they were supportive of me. And that was terribly important, because the only outside, and to that extent, objective support I'd got, had been about eight years earlier from my English teacher. So I've always been very conscious of the fact. And one of the wonderful things that has happened most recently, is for writers' centres to act as focal points for all sorts of writers who find they're in a vacuum, and need some centre where they can get critical appraisal, and ... and critical suggestions, and a whole string of other sort of associated skills. Now that wasn't a reality. So if I hadn't had the university and those critical perceptions and supporting people there, well I wouldn't have ... I wouldn't have kept going.

What about your formal studies. Did they go well?

Well, at that stage the courses were very different. They were year long courses. So you would do four in a year. Four, four and two, I think was a normal pattern. Of the four, I passed two and failed two. I failed Philosophy 1. The rumour used to go around the university that I'd failed it seven times. I failed it twice, not because I didn't like the philosophy, but I couldn't stand the logic. And you appreciate that logic has a kind of ... is semi-mathematical. You know, if A then B and so on. So I used to get myself tangled up in exams on that. But I only failed it twice. And I'm still interested in and still very fond of Plato and Aristotle, but especially Plato, as he was presented to us by Professor Boyce Gibson, who was a wonderful Platonist, or lecturer in Platonic Theory to first year students. Remember, I was a teaching student. Now teaching students were in a really in a kind of schizophrenic situation, or schizoid anyway, because they had lectures from both the teaching centre staff and also from the university staff. And I must say, that at that stage, there was no comparison between the levels. On the one hand you had A. D. Hope and Ian Maxwell and Boyce Gibson and other people like that, who had great sort of bravura and great sort of insight. And on the other hand you had very well meaning people who had a much more - I think they saw it themselves - pedestrian role, which was to, you know, bring these kind of barbarians into secondary teacher level standard.

And so the prospect of being a teacher wasn't really made so attractive to you by your ...

It never was. I mean I'd kind of taken it on, because you know, for fear of finding something worse, as a poet once said. And I can still remember from my school days at Northcote High, being visited in my class by somebody from the Education Department. And I'm sure that ... I know that I thought exactly the same thing as would be in the bubble over every other male student's head - is what would I want to be a teacher for, and give other poor buggers the sort of ... get the hell from other poor buggers that I've been giving to this lot? So you know, that kept most of us, I think, away from the teaching profession. And that was in ... after all, in an all male school, basically Anglo-Celtic. No problems. And yet we still kind of didn't find it a particularly attractive future. Remember though, it was in a stage when - well the war was on - and all sorts of possibilities were there. And teaching wasn't seen as one of the most attractive. Not then. Now, for all its disadvantages, I suppose it does loom larger as a possibility.

So you did it for the scholarship, the teaching side of it?

Well, it was my excuse for being at the university. Yeah, sure.

So you failed two of your subjects at the end of the first year. Now what did that mean for you?

Meant I had to ... I had to either drop out completely. I couldn't go on with my teaching scholarship. I had to, in other words, surrender my bond to the coaching college, and the very charming and very nice and very Aussie bloke there said to me when I came in to tell him that I wasn't being ... going to continue full time, that therefore as my guarantor for university studies, you know, he could take the bond. And he said to me, 'Well Mr. Dawe, you know we often have visits from our successes, but much more rarely from our failures', and he meant it in the nicest way and I took it in exactly that spirit. And it was right. So that was the end of that. I tried part-time, but I was working then in some sort of clothing factory in Brunswick, where all the kapok from all the stuff used to sort of get up your nose and filter down like snow off the various machines, and blowers and so on, and I dropped out of that too. I couldn't keep the studies going anyway. I wasn't a part-time student. So the rest of my university studies I did in my own time.

Were you surprised when you failed?

No, not at all. No, I knew I was failing. And I always remembered I guess those lines from Richard II where he says 'I wasted time and now doth time waste me'. I knew I was for the chopper, and I was quite philosophic about it. I didn't hold the university to account for it. It was simply my own fault. I'd ... I'd, you know, read widely but not well, and was, in so far as my affections were sort of particularly distracted by a particular person. I was ...

You mean you fell in love?

Yeah, well basically yeah. And so that also kind of tended to make me feel the year wasn't lost. It was just sort of diversified you could say. [Laughs] So I left without any really hard feelings. At that stage I don't think I could possibly have become a teacher. I wasn't ready for it. I was twenty-four, but I really wasn't ready to take on what's always been a fairly challenging sort of grind as a ... as a secondary school teacher.

But looking back at that year full time, what do you think, to sum up, you got out of it?

Oh, so much. Encouragement basically. Encouragement to write. Encouragement from people who were good writers themselves, as all of those people still are. A sense I suppose too, that magnanimity was a possibility in life, which is always an encouraging thought. And also reading practices, which were very different from what I had. My reading was basically shaped, apart from some left-wing reading, but fairly critical stuff, by my brother. So for a guy who never finished primary school, if you think of someone who read Wodehouse, Chesterton, Wells, to name a few, he was self-educated, but very, very much more intelligent person than I was or am, actually, but he didn't have the formal education. So I'd got a ... I'd got that upgraded, you might say, in a sense, by having to read other things which were not so immediately sort of accessible, but better for me personally I think.

And when you left university and you started on a series of jobs again, what happened for you?

Well, I did handyman gardening, although I'm not much of a handyman and not much more of a gardener. But I did that for a while. And then I joined the Post Office as a postman, in around where I lived. So I was able to go to the local post office, throw off my mail in the day, and take it on a walk around, which I enjoyed very much. There was a lot of Greek migrants and a lot of ... including eastern European, eastern Europeans, especially German, East German migrants, on that round in Fitzroy. And I enjoyed that very much for a couple of years. It started early and finished about half past four, with a lay off in the middle. So it was kind of a longish day, and it was really enjoyable, but not, as it were, doing anything else. I suppose I wanted companionship more than anything, so I thought I'd join the services.

[end of tape]

Proceed to Tape 3