Australian Biography

Bruce Dawe - full interview transcript

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What was it like being a postman?

Oh, it was very enjoyable actually. The hours were long because we had a break in the middle of the day before the afternoon round came up. But you met a lot of people. I learnt, in bad Greek, several words to say, 'No letters today, maybe tomorrow'. I didn't learn any words of German, because well, there weren't quite as many German migrants on the round. And they were nice, friendly people and the postman is generally the bringer of good news, especially to people from overseas, who've come recently from overseas. So I enjoyed the round. I'm sure it was a round with more people who were used to dense living, and being convivial over side fences, than if I'd been to some upper class round in Toorak or South Yarra. And these were walk rounds, so you did actually ... unlike the person who whips around now on some sort of moped, you did actually get to see people, and you didn't have to wear a helmet and, you know, appear as though you were, you know, a bandit on holiday.

Were you writing poetry at this time?

As far as I can recall. Let's see, that's the latter part of the fifties. Yeah, as far as I ... yeah, I mean there wouldn't be a year I haven't been writing poetry. More some years than others and sometimes it's not the amount you write in any case. But yeah, I'd have been writing off ... off and on. Air force life tended to be a bit more demanding at times than that, especially when I was doing my trainee telegraphers course. And I didn't write much in the six months I spent in Malaysia. I found that the climate was just too, too soporific, too, too humid for me to concentrate on much except trying to keep cool. So I wrote a few things then, but when I came back to Australia, I started writing again.

When you were working as a postman, I suppose one imagines that doing a job like that would leave your head free to do some thinking.

Yes, I think that's true too. Yeah. I mean it wasn't a great mental strain to sort of figure out the numbers on the boxes or the doors and what you had in your post bag. And at the same time you were generally bringing good news or - especially people from migrant backgrounds. So yeah, it was a kind of ... It was very enjoyable that way. But it was just that I suppose I was sort of living on my own, and ... as I've lived until I got married, but I think I was looking for some kind of more companionate sort of life. And that's what you do find, and I think many people find that in the services. You're in with a lot of other people, and you've got something to do every hour of the day, and at night too if you want to.

Did you spend a lot of those years, apart from the one that you were at university - but between leaving school and when you joined the services - where you were mostly drifting from job to job?

Oh yeah, sure.

Did you spend a lot of those years lonely?

Yeah, that'd be true to say. Yes I think so, yeah.

Lonely in what sense?

Well sometimes there were girls I knew. Sometimes there weren't. That was one solution to loneliness. It was a very sort of common one, I gather. But I was living away most of the time, not always, from my family, which was something I guess I missed. I lived with my brother and his family when I worked as a labourer and the Whangee [?] powerhouse when they were building that in Whangee, New South Wales. I lived with my sister and with my mum ... my sister and her husband and my mum in Waterloo in Sydney, for a year or two. But the work there I worked at was pretty hard work in a glass factory. But yeah, I mean there weren't many people that I knew, for example, as writers. One of the things I was saying about the writers' centres is they do create a possibility for people to meet other people, without being lucky about it, from ... who have similar interests to your own.

Going back to your family, what happened to your father?

Well, he died in his eighties. And by that time, I think, he wasn't living at home. So he'd ... I think he'd been drinking a lot, and I'm not sure in fact what he even died from. It was probably cancer, but I'm not sure. But he was well into his eighties, and it was a bit sort of vague to me, because I was out of touch with him, and to some extent with the family at the time.

He'd moved away from the family, from your mother, when you were still in your teens?

Yeah, yeah.

So how did your mother get on? How was she managing during those years, between when you left school and when she died?

Well, mostly ... I was mostly with her most of the time, and at times it was my money that was helping. At times I think my brother was still helping. At times she went out to work in the kitchens of various posh hotels, and bring home the sort of carcasses of chickens, which are sort of, these days might be very common in the days of the you know, takeaway places. But the only takeaways then were what workers got from the kitchen themselves, after those who paid for their meals had finished with them. And so that was very nice for us and that was one way to supplement the family diet. But it was living fairly sort of close to the bone. I mean, I had one suit a year and that had to sort of do me at high school. And I was very grateful that I had a suit. We didn't have this sort of flash American democratic principles where you dress up or dress down according to your style and your pocket book. At least with a suit, as people point out many times, there's something democratic about suits. They can be made to do.

And your mother lived in various places during that time too.

Yeah, mostly in Fitzroy. When I went back there a year or so ago, it's ... the whole block's gone. It's warehouses or something. Opposite there was - I don't know if that's still there either - the Fitzroy Gasworks. So we were told that the healthy smell of the gas fumes was good for you. In fact, they used to take people up the top of the gasmeter for their various chest complaints. I don't know whether it was in order to push them off, so they didn't have the complaints any more, [laughs] or what the circumstance was. But if you lived next to something like that, it stands in your memory as memorable. So we lived there. And we went from there to ... I think to New South Wales, to a place called Dora Creek on the Lake Macquarie system, and lived in a house there. And then I went to Sydney and stayed with ... the order may be a bit confused here - stayed with my sister and her husband. They were in a mixed business in Waterloo. And then I went to stay at my brother at the Whangee Powerhouse.

While you were with your brother - with your sister and brother-in-law in Waterloo, your mother came and lived there for a while, didn't she?

That's right, yes. Quite right.

She was a bit concerned about you, wasn't she?

Well, she had delusions of sort of persecution at that stage. And that was kind of a bit worrying. And she'd had those, and she'd had them off and on I think from then on. And I refer to them in a poem. And that's when I went to ... had to take her into one of the hospitals in Melbourne, where the ... one of the medicos there said to me on the quiet, 'Have you ever thought of getting her committed?' And I said, 'No, it's never occurred to me'. [Laughs] But she was ... she had delusions at times: thought everybody was out to bump her off or something, but they were part of the process, I guess, in her case.

And when you were living with your sister, she was worried about you.

Yes, she was. And used to sort of sneak food in. She believed I was being kind of ... not deliberately, but one way or another being kind of starved and denied proper nourishment. It wasn't true. But it was one way probably also, now I come to think of it, of helping her to feel useful and you know, contributing in some way to [coughs] at least one member of the family's well-being.

And in one of the houses you were living in with her, the house burnt down, didn't it? Could you tell us that story?

Well, that was really when we were living outside of Boronia. Boronia, I think, is now a Melbourne suburb. Then it was a little country town. And my brother was with us then too. And he was incubating ... had an incubator with chickens in it. An old style incubator, with obviously a live flame. And he'd left it on one night and up went the chickens and the house. And so I lived on what was left of the house, which was a charred sort of room. I could see starlight. But I had a kind of iron sheet above ... sheet iron, galvanised iron, above, on four posts above the bed to keep the elements off me. And I could see starlight through the boards. And that was where I was when Mum had lived on in what was the dairy of the house. And that was the stage at which ... when she said after persevering with her Peke breeding program, and then I said to her, 'It's either me or the Pekes', and she said, 'It's the Pekes'. And so that's when I ... when I [was] presumably feeling reasonably piqued, sort of left.

And why didn't the house get fixed up?

It may have been in the fullness of time. The older sister, my older sister, whose husband ran a piggery at Glen Waverley, which is also I presume now a Melbourne suburb, but was then ... she had a sixty-four acre pig farm there. This is when they treated pigs a bit more humanly than they often do now. And so they put on the premises in the place ... or rather to replace the burnt house a big one room thing where my brother lived. But the house wouldn't have burnt down except that where the main sort of water supply ... main town water supply was, was to too far from the fire brigade hoses by the time they got there. These small sort of administrative problems create difficulties for families at times. [Laughs]

And your mother's health really deteriorated, didn't it, from about that point on? Could you talk about that, because it's a common experience for people to have this happen. How did you handle it and what did it involve for you?

Well, I mean it may well have deteriorated in any case. But I suspect that often that's aggravated it if there's been a long history of depression or of disappointment and disillusion, and frustration with life, and frustration with family aspirations. So I'm sure they kind of, if anything, accentuated and aggravated the problem. All I could do was do what I could. And I don't ... I'm sure I was no saint about it. I probably grumbled and whinged and carried on like a lot of people do. But I can't remember that. But I guess I had some basic kind of sympathy with her situation and did the best I could. I mean I didn't ask for ... I didn't expect a palace, and nor did I expect, you know, a mother who was a St. Monica. All I expected was that you know ... that sometimes I'd get a meal if I came home late and was tired. But things don't always work out. So I never took it out on her as far as I know. And the family generally were very generous, and did what they could for mum. I felt, at times, that she'd been neglected, but I don't know. Again, I ... looking back over your own criticisms of others, it's easy to make criticisms at the time. When you look back, you wonder, as in the case of my father, whether I was accurate in what I said, and it's sometimes just ignorance masquerading itself as ... as, you know, forthrightness.

When did you decide to go into the air force?

Well, in those years I was ... in fact I originally aimed to go into the navy. They couldn't have put up with me I don't think and I probably couldn't have put up with them. But I was just a little bit too old. So my first aspiration was the navy, and then ... and then the air force came second. I'm glad however, as in other things, that I didn't get my first choice, because I wouldn't have been any better in the navy than I would have been as a twenty-four year old or twenty-six year old school teacher. So it just came about as the, by default. But I made it sometime during the time when I was still happily enjoying myself as a postman. But I couldn't see it. I couldn't last on like other postman because of lack of opportunities, but I thought if I was going to try something else, I should do it while I still had the ability to possibly make a go of it. So that's why many people do those things in their twenties, when they've had a bit of a look around, and they think, well this isn't ... this is ... this is fine, but you know, is this all there is to it? And [they] try something else. [DOGS BARKING]

When you found yourself in a situation where you felt, you know, you weren't getting anywhere or going anywhere, why did you decide to go into the air force rather than perhaps resume your studies?

Well, I think for the sake of possible companionship more than anything else. I didn't know whether I'd go back to do more study or not and it was very fortunate that I chose the air force, because I did have the spare time. I wasn't by inclination or ability a boozer. Not that the air force personnel are any more boozers than others. Nevertheless it's a possibility. I didn't have to take that, so I had spare time to take up the study. So again, had I chosen the navy, I probably wouldn't have had the time or the ... or the access to libraries and so on, whereas I was posted from places to places where there were libraries, and I could do some sort of research. So again, it suited me, and I had the spare time that I would have found probably more ... see, I often lived off base so I had spare time that I found much more difficult to find in the constraints of a navy career, especially on board ship.

What did you do in the air force?

Well, I started as a trainee telegraphist, and my morse code was fine, and I handled the other stuff okay, but I was a lousy typist, which I still am. So I could see myself being off course. So I was on ten words a minute touch typing, when the rest of the course was on twenty and I figured I'd better jump before I was pushed. So I moved on to education. So I became an education assistant then, which meant sometimes showing movies, sometimes repairing and splicing film, sometimes repairing aircraft manuals, sometimes issuing books, a whole range of different sort of possibilities, education people. And again, it was very helpful to me. It wasn't demanding and it left me free with spare time to - as I did later on - take up studies again. And I finally finished the university, the matric part of the university. Was it the matric part? No, I finally finished the French at high school on the New South Wales-Victorian border, sitting in a class room with high school kids, doing a university French exam. They weren't doing university French. They were doing whatever they were doing. But that was the nearest place for an examiner to supervise mine. But that was because I was at the moment at Wagga, at the RAAF base in Wagga.

So where you mostly posted?

Well, Rathmines was my recruit training spot and then I went to Ballarat, which is colder than Toowoomba. And then after dropping out of the training, the telegrapher's course, and taking up [as] education assistant, I was posted down to Wagga. Then from Wagga to Victoria Barracks in Melbourne, which again was very handy for me. And then from Victoria Barracks to a place I'd never heard of, in Queensland - I hadn't heard of many places in Queensland anyway - called Toowoomba. And most of the people ... many air force personnel, young personnel were Queenslanders. For example, on my recruit training course, eighteen of the twenty-eight were Queenslanders. I wasn't one of them. But I did get the impression that Queenslanders were Australia's Texans. I've never heard people brag as much about their home state. Neither New South Welshman or Victorians ever thought of cracking up their state the way Queenslanders did. So anyway I got posted to Toowoomba. I met my wife at the civil stores depot here, and continued studies here. And although I had my final subject, I actually did down in Melbourne, I graduated then finally from Queensland University as a B.A. in '68. So it'd been a long time. These days, I probably wouldn't have been allowed to have a fourteen year course, but they were sympathetic, and I was lucky again. And having got that one, then I immediately started ... I then started teaching across the way here, and see my first teaching experience [was] down there in Sacred Heart College. Where again, I was very lucky, because I couldn't do that now without teacher training. In those days you could, at least, if you were lucky and had some support, land a teaching job in a private ... private school, without teacher training. I don't think you can now. So again, I was lucky that the times were right for me to sort of make that move into teaching, which I enjoyed tremendously. And again I was lucky in that single sex teaching seems to me - I may be wrong here ... is so much easier than co-ed. It doesn't require anything. If you're a male then you teach males. If you're a female, you teach females and that's it. Again, I was lucky in that I got that first blooding as a teacher with an all male school, which became co-ed, but then they started to expand the other institution out here, the technology place, the Institute of Technology into a CAE. But before that it became in Institute of Advanced Education. And I was [cough] again terribly lucky, because my selected edition was launched here in Toowoomba, and a chap, who was then already teaching - he was teaching history, out at the institute - happened to see me on the evening of the launch and said, 'Are you going to put in to that job out at the institute?' Well, I'd never even heard of the job, and if I had I wouldn't have thought of putting in for it, but he suggested that I should, and as they say, a nod's as good as a wink to a blind horse, so I thought well, here's a staff member telling me to put in for it, who knows? So I consulted with my wife and Gloria said, 'What have you got to lose?' which is always the way to go, of course. So I tried and I got a job as a lecturer in English and Drama. Now I'd been studying modern drama, so that helped me to get ... I'd taken up a postgraduate course in modern drama at University of New England. So that again helped me to ... plus I had references from Judith Wright and Alec Hope. And I don't know whether they knew either of them, but they sounded as though they knew what they were talking about, and between the lot of them, I landed the job. And that was the greatest thing that had happened to me in the ... in the job line, because I enjoyed the twenty-odd years I did teaching at what was an institute, then a college of advanced education, then a university college and now, in the final years I was there, a university. So there you are.

Yes, now can we take that apart. We've covered a lot of territory there. Let's go back, first of all, to ... to the more personal side. When did you first discover girls?

[Laughs] Well, I imagine fairly early on. I can remember being absolutely daffy about the daughter of a girlfriend of my brother's, when I was eleven. I do remember that. Real calf love, it was marvellous. And I can remember he used to give a ride ... It's mentioned in a poem called Kids' Stuff. He used to ride to Geelong on a motorbike and I'd ride on the pillion seat at the back and he'd be seeing her and I'd be sort of ... I'd not be seeing so much as sort of just quietly going silly over [laughs] ... over her daughter, who was a lovely girl. So that's, I suppose, basically when I discovered girls as a fascinating sort of experience, yeah.

And there was the girl at university that was very influential on you becoming a Catholic.

Yeah, but there were others in between. There was a girl that I knew for three years under my pen name. I never told her my real name, because it sounded so dumb and ordinary after ... I called myself ... I was crazy about Dylan Thomas and I called myself Llewellyn Rees, which is as Welsh as you can get. And she knew me always as Llewellyn. We didn't live close together and of course, neither I think of us had phones on so there was no way of checking. And I didn't like to disabuse her. At that stage, when I had hair and I was a lot leaner, I could have passed, I suppose, for a lanky Welshman, not that there were that many. But it's kind of part of the thing. I wasn't being dishonest, I was just trying to help her keep up her romantic image of another writer. She ... she used to write, and I met her through us both publishing, I think, poems in the Junior Age, the Melbourne paper.

So as a teenager, you published poems in Junior Age, under the pseudonym of Llewellyn Rees.

Yes, that's right.

And what kinds of poems were they?

Oh, I think reasonably competent poems for a bloke in mid-teen years. Formal ... Always formal poems. One about a captive lion I think. I can still ... I can't recall the poem, but I can still remember that as a subject matter. And various descriptive ones: sentimental, I imagine. But they called me in, in the end to come and meet them at the Age, which I did. So I'd showed some sort of promise I suppose then. [DOGS BARKING]

When you did get interested in girls, did you find that that ... When there was a girl around, did you find that you wanted to write poetry?

Oh, yes. Yeah. I mean that's a natural, I think. It's such a common experience now. As poetry editor to the Courier Mail, I get lots of poems from people that have just discovered a new love. It's a ... it goes with the territory I think, sure.

And how did you meet your wife?

Well, she was the switchboard operator at the air force base that I was posted to in Toowoomba. And I met her, of course, through being ... I was one of those guys who had to relieve on switch at weekends. I don't know that I was very good as a relief switch operator, but at least I kind of ... I met her then, and I liked her very much, and so that was how we met. And we kept pretty quiet while we were on base, but eventually decided to get married. Yeah. It was all in the first year, actually. And it's been, of course, a great thing because she's both a good critic and has been a wonderful wife and a wonderful mother to the kids, and they think the world of her too. So again, I've been terribly lucky. I mean one looks around and sees that it's not always the case. In fact, less and less the case. So there's nothing to say that I deserved any better than lots of other people who didn't get as good.

And is she the one in the family who manages things?

Oh yes, oh yes. She's the financial adviser and keeps things. Oh yes, I don't have any sense of money or finances or sense about those things. I never did have. I mean I didn't go round putting ads in the paper, 'Wanted, feminine financial adviser', but it turned out to be again one of those very lucky things that very often happens. I'm not alone in it. I'm very aware that many men think that women, especially when they often have to do a lot of the general accounting, are in a much better position to know what one should do with ... you know, with the money and the household. As long as there's grub on the table, most blokes don't care a great deal. I'm not a dress conscious person so that doesn't worry me. And she's always done a wonderful job.

Did you have any overseas postings while you were in the air force?

Malaysia for six months, is the only one I had overseas. And ...

What was that like?

Well, I found myself in a sort of ambiguous situation and I suppose that may be more a reflection on ...

Bruce, I'm going to ask you that question again, and could you - you're looking down quite a lot.

Well I found that a very ambiguous situation, because I'm not used to having servants for a start. And although, as a NCO, I only had one servant, as against the couple which officers are entitled to, I found that one was, as charming as the person was ... was something that just didn't sort of fit with either my own or my wife's sort of way of doing things. We didn't keep them at a distance but they would say ... It was actually a Chinese-Malay woman and her daughter ... sorry, her younger sister, who was actually being apprenticed, more or less, to learn the trade of being an amah, and the elder of the two would say, 'Oh, Mem, we're not used to this'. They felt uncomfortable, actually for us to be sitting in the kitchen having coffee with them. They would have rather that the distances were maintained. I can understand that, because if somebody has to then go on, like the younger sister, and find a living like that, it may be the wrong kind of upbringing. But we couldn't change our ways for that. And so it just reminded me of how sort of, how difficult the codes are. When you go ... and I don't think Australians are used to servants. It's not ... It doesn't come with our ... certainly not with our particular background, and certainly not the background of most Australians. We like to do our own things and we don't like to maintain those kind of distances which are often very necessary in those circumstances. So that was a kind ... that was one thing. The other thing was that I think even though we went as ambassadors of goodwill ... was the phrase used by the flight sergeant as we were ready to disembark from our boat, but even so you can become conscious in Asia that you are not Asian, in the sense that Asians are. And when you're going to and from, often on a ferry to the mainland and back again, and local people are standing separated from you, and watching you, you can't help but feel that you're the visitor there and that you've got a very transient role to play in their lives, and that they're the people that really count, and they have the history and the culture. And I was always very conscious of that. And I could understand how people - even though our relationship with Malaysia was of course a very friendly one - how ... you can guess what it might have been like in a much more potentially hostile situation, such as Vietnam.

Did you find the attitudes of your fellow servicemen there very like your own?

No, [laughs] not that much. I must say that many of them felt ... we were always being told that these other people had just come down out of the trees recently. They were noggies, of course, which is a derogatory term in itself. And I wasn't terribly impressed. Now I'm not blaming that on ... on those servicemen, because some of them were really nice guys. But that was the attitude which they very quickly acquired from others, a sort of attitude of the old timers who'd been there before them. I don't think they necessarily had those attitudes when they left Australia. They might have been dormant, but they certainly weren't active until they went there. But then, when you get spoilt - if that's the word - with servants, when you haven't had servants, when you get the kind of cheap accommodation and the way you could buy expensive things cheaper than you can get in places, either duty free or next door to it, then ... and you know ... then when you know how much you may be in fact, despite yourself, contributing to the national economy there, you can be ... you can understand why people take those kind of high faluting ideas a bit more seriously. We didn't take those at all, but as I was saying earlier, we ... that made us anomalous and perhaps not less ... not as amenable to local liking as we might have been, had we been a bit more sort of race conscious.

During the Vietnam War, your opposition was very public, very strongly articulated. How did that sit with your ... with the people that you were working with in the air force day by day?

Nobody ever worried a bit. I mean the air force, of the three services, is the most junior of course. And also, the most apolitical. It ... they didn't worry a continental. I ... I mean every RAAF library had copies of my books. There was an item in the Sydney Morning Herald once which said 'Anti-war poet goes to war', which wasn't true. I wasn't going to war, I was only going to Malaysia. They didn't worry a bit. Had it been the navy or the army, I would have probably been hauled over the coals. But no, no, they didn't take offence. I was winning a few prizes and so on, which helped to perhaps redeem me, but I don't think in most cases they read the poems. Or if they did, they thought well, you know, poetry being what it is, who else will read this anyway? So it never, in any way, reflected on my sort of relationship with either officers or other air force personnel.

What was the basis of your opposition to the war in Vietnam?

Well, I'd been reading about, and thinking, in so far as reading encourages thought - about the French Indo-China, when it was French Indo-China, and reading the books by Bernard Fall and Lacouture and others, the French men who'd written about the struggle of the Viet Minh against the French in North Vietnam, or in Northern China. And I was so impressed by their experience, and their perception of how in fact, difficult, if not impossible, it was for the French to hold on. That, with the fall of Dien Bien Phu. I came home from university that day. It was 1954, [and I] saw the headline and I thought, well that's the end of the French experience. And of course, eleven years later, when the Americans and the allies, the Australians to a lesser extent, got involved, I could only look on with dismay because the history of Vietnam is a history ... an anti-colonial history. They've ... they've opposed Chinese hegemony throughout their history, and some of their great heroes are histories of anti-Chinese resistance. So the temporary association of Indo-China, or Vietnam, with some communist take-over of South East Asia wasn't going to make sense historically to me at all. It was nonsense, and it was proved to be nonsense, because as soon as the Vietnam War was over, almost, the Chinese and Vietnamese were fighting on the border. There's no way that the history of Vietnam would allow Chinese hegemony or Chinese domination to be a very serious thing. So we really, I think, had been - because of the Cold War emphasis - worrying too much about some colossal take-over, fanned of course by the earlier Malayan Emergency, where there were communist terrorists in the jungles of Malaysia. But it was all a nonsense, and a very tragic one, to me, and I wrote out of that sense of the tragedy of it, which of course has been an enormous tragedy for the Americans. And every time I see shots of that wonderful Veterans' Memorial in Washington, I think again how disastrous. It's as though substitute sort of, you know thinking about history, but people do let political imperatives dominant, often, any historical vision they have. But Vietnam was certainly not ever going to be a Chinese lackey.

[end of tape]

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