Australian Biography

Bruce Dawe - full interview transcript

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Could you describe to me what kind of a household you grew up in?

Well, bearing in mind that of course, we lived in various houses at various times, I think generally my memories are not the clearest ... are that my childhood was dominated by my mother, and not by my father. And I had a brother who stood in as a surrogate father very often, in my early years. But there are ... I can remember an early poem I wrote about my mother in an old brown dress, singing. And the songs were of course, sentimental songs of the time, and I think they were one way in which she dealt with what was often a troubled and unhappy sort of situation for her, because of father's absence, and the fact that they didn't ... they didn't see eye to eye that often.

Why was your father absent?

Well, sometimes he was looking for work, and sometimes I think he was just in a disagreeable sort of mode with, as far as mum was concerned. And again, there were all these things washed over me, because I was too young to ... too young to know, and in one sense, too young to care. But I realise, looking back on it, how much there must have been a lot of tension there, for this to happen so often. But brother was always there, and he was the other constant sort of fixed point in my early memories, along with mum, and my ... the younger two sisters.

So where did you come in the family?

I came fourth. So that was the end of ... that was the ... that was the end of the line. But I was in fact twenty plus years younger than my brother and sisters. So they stood as, more or less, aunts and uncle to me, and kindly ones at that. So I was very lucky. I didn't have any sibling rivalry, because I had no siblings in that sense. [Laughs]

Were you a lonely kid then?

I suppose I was. We lived mostly out of town, at places that are now in fact part of Melbourne, but they were bush towns then. Places like Springvale and Clayton and Noble Park, and all, I think now Melbourne suburbs. And Dandenong was a market town, whereas of course now it's an outer suburb of Melbourne. So ... and I remember playing long ... for days at a time with stick men. You know how you make stick men. You take a branch and you leave the top part for where the neck, and presumably head would be. And I would put the vertebrae from - well, whatever - ox tail soup or whatever, as heads, and then the arms would be twigs, those extended lateral twigs snapped off, and leave longer twigs later down on the branch, for the legs. And I would play wars with them. And I can remember talking to myself and going through in a kind of Caesar's commentary of the Gallic Wars, you know, and having great fun at it. And I think my own sort of identification with military history and so on was a romantic one, I must admit, [and] comes from those many days and many hours of playing on sandy loam soil on my own, with these little stick figures. And I'd project rocks from one side to the other as my kind of artillery barrages. And they were ... I've mentioned I think in one of my poems, too. And they were amongst my earliest memories. So when it came to the British Boys Book of Battles, and I read about Sandalwana and Roarke's Drift and the thin red line of British troops fighting against the Zulus, of course I was only re-enacting again, at a literate stage, what I'd already gone through as a younger child.

What kind of work did your father do?

He was a farm labourer, so given that I was born as the Depression started to deepen, in 1930, those years of my memory of him, of course, were the years when he was finding it hardest anyway, to find work. He was always a willing worker. He wasn't a slacker. In fact, it was sort of a tradition in our family of hard work. There were no slackers. And in fact, my feeling is that there were very few slackers around. We didn't have the welfare state to encourage people to be slackers and of course, it was a much harder world in that sense. So he went looking for work. And later on, then my brother went looking for work too, and brought home ... I don't know what my father did with the limited money he had, but my brother certainly didn't spend it on himself. He brought it home to keep the family going.

When you did see your father, which wasn't that often, but what was your relationship with him like?

Rather friendly as far as I know. I think he thought of me as a harmless little todger that, you know, as long as I didn't get in the way, and I'm sure I listened with great interest to his bush stories and so on. I'm not sure that they weren't embroidered, at least at the edges, in retelling. But at least ... and I'm sure he also knew bush ballads. So he really was ... As I came to realise much later in my own sort of adult life, he really was a man of the bush. And he knew bushcraft, and that was where he was, but of course it wasn't an easy time for people with those skills to find work.

And in the context of the family when you came along, he was really very much seen as somebody who ran when the going was difficult.

Yeah, that's right. And I think he also wanted to, like many people - I guess it's not necessarily an exclusively male thing - wanted to make decisions, even when the decisions were the wrong ones or uncertain ones. You know, the need was to be kind of positive and assertive, and I think he often, from my guesstimate, made those decisions without really consulting other people too much. And that must have borne very hardly on my mother, who had to put up the result of those decisions, with often I think very little notice that they were about to be made.

He had various enterprises too, didn't he?

Yeah, well they were kind of joint enterprises in a way. And you know, they planned at one stage to have a fox farm - breed foxes for their skins. In the end I think they got rid of the foxes anyway. But he had a fox cub which he kept as a pet. I guess perhaps a momento of another failed business enterprise. And he had it on the sort of chain and it used to ... there's a photo of him, it sitting on his shoulder. And they ... they, at a later stage, had a horse they'd invested in. I think a bit of a sort of sway back nag actually, but it was called Pink Lady, and they had great hopes for it winning back ... redeeming the family fortunes. It never did. So they went through a whole series. Then later on my mother had the Pekes. And this was when I was actually at work myself. And I did find it completely inappropriate. She didn't have the funds to set up a real Peke breeding programme so that when the house burned down ...

I am going to ask you about that and I want you to tell me that whole story.

So when that happened, of course, the Pekes were of primary consideration for her, because they were, I suppose, another hope that this way further, you know, damaged family fortunes would be further redeemed. But that wasn't how I saw it. And I used to, at that stage, be working with the Public Works Department as a labourer, and it meant walking down a bush track in ... outside of Boronia, outside of Melbourne, which is now I think another Melbourne suburb, to the station, catching the train into town, which is roughly thirty, forty-five minutes, then another train of about twenty minutes, out to Rosanna, and then about a half mile walk from the Rosanna Railway Station to the place where I was working. So all told it would take anything up to going on for two hours each way. And I was working as a pick and shovel person there, and so I'd come home late at night, and eventually it became one of those kind of situations where I put it to her that it was either me or the Pekinese, and she was very prompt in responding that it was going to be the Pekes. And I left for Melbourne the following morning.

Now, I'm going to ask you about your mother, and I'd like you to tell me the sort of story, the run through of her efforts to cope and include the Pekinese story in that. How did your mother cope with the fact that your father was away a lot, and what effect did that have on the unfolding of her life and your relationship with her?

Well, I suspect that it meant that it increased her sort of sentimental dreams of what have been and therefore those kind of memories of the sentimental songs, and the sentimental ballads which she used to recite to me, which she'd learnt as a child at school. And she went to school 'til she was twelve. ... Were part of her sort escape, or her sort of vicarious kind of realisation of romantic dreams of various kinds, and I think they were the way in which she tried to deal with a series of sort of disappointments in her own life. And I know that's a very familiar sort of pattern, which accounts for the popularity of Mills & Boon and other people today. So it was part of that sort of whole thing. Now as a young kid of course, I wasn't to know just how deeply if affected her, although looking back on it, I became keenly aware how much it must have affected her. One's regret often is, of course, that by the time you realise these things, it's often too late to do anything about it. And I've often thought how I'd like to have had the knowledge - and I know this is a universal wish - and the ... at a time when I could do something with it.

And as she got older, and you got older, you were the youngest living at home with her. How did she cope with life as time went on?

Oh, not very well. I think more and more she ... The term used to be that so-and-so was wandering. And I'm sure they wander into other happier times. Or if they're not, into times that seem even more threatening. So at times she accused me of trying to do her in, or other people trying to poison her. At other times she imagined I was being starved of food, and so there were a whole series of things like that, which I think I coped with as well as I could. But after all, I was a working person. So she was at home all day at this stage in her life. She was too old to work. And given her condition anyway, if the work had been there ... So it must have been very, very difficult for her. I did the best I could. But again, it might have been ... it might have been better. I felt, I suppose, as the unmarried child, that it was falling upon me rather more than I was able to justly manage it. But nevertheless, it was my responsibility, and others, as I've already mentioned, had taken their turn at the, you know ... at the wheel. So it was really my turn, and I did the best I could.

Now you were living in towns on the outskirts of Melbourne, and you were travelling a long way to work. How did that work out for you, with your mother at home?

Well, I think she ... This is where she had this dream of breeding Pekes, and she had Pekes to ...

Pekinese?

Pekinese dogs. And they ... which in those days, I think there weren't as many people in dog breeding. But at whatever stage dog breeding was at, you needed better facilities than she was able to accommodate, given that she didn't have much money. So she worked at this, and I'd come home very tired from work and expect to have a meal somewhere within cooee, and of course it wasn't very often. And in the end I gave her an ultimatum, and of course one of the consequences of ultimatums is that they do tend to provoke people into, you know, ultimate responses. And the ultimatum was, it's either me or the Pekes, and she very forthrightly declared for the Pekes. So I left the following morning for Melbourne, and I would ... It didn't sever the family in that sense. I used to go and visit her, so I didn't kind of ... I understood that that was, you know, that was definitive in that sense, that I had to then do something about it. So I did leave. But I used to come back and visit them. And so we ... it wasn't one of those cases of a son lost forever. I was still around the place. And so I regret, I suppose, having done it, but in the end, it was necessary for me too, because from that out of town position, I would have been stuck for life, and it would have been, I think, a much more frustrating experience. So I was lucky that I did make the break, and I don't think I could have done much more.

Tell me the story of the house burning down.

Well, my brother at that stage ...

My brother was living with us, and he was intent on breeding chickens, as the way people do, for sale, not just for keeping the family table spread. And he was ... had one of those incubators which has a sort of naked flames. It wasn't ... I don't ... As far as I know it wasn't electric. It may have been, but I'm not sure. Anyway, it caught fire one night and burnt the house down, and of course, the chickens with it. And so the only part of the house that was still left - and I had to be woken up actually to get out in time - was the bedroom I was in. So ... but it was so charred and burnt that I could always see starlight through the charred timbers, and instead of a full roof, I had a sheet of galvanised iron on four posts over the bed. And that was ... that was my kind of accommodation until such time as I left to go to Melbourne. It wasn't the limitations of the sort of, you know, sleeping environment, though, that made me leave. It was this particular episode over the Pekinese. But it was actually the second time we'd been burnt out. The first time was either when I was so young I didn't remember. But it comes up in my brother's record of his earlier life, when they had a fish shop in South Melbourne, and that took fires quite easy, you understand, with fish shops and all that fat. And they were burnt out there too. So it was in this case ... the real tragedy was that the fire brigade, local country fire brigade's hoses, didn't reach from the bottom of the paddock to the house. So there was no way the house could have been saved. So these things ... I mean people put up with it and it wasn't ... it was very limited resources. There was no television to, you know, explain and portray your plight to the nation. You got a few blankets from some wealthier source and that was about it, to replace everything you'd lost. So I suppose that also puts pressure on ... on the family. But the family didn't take to drink or anything like that. They did the best they could with those resources.

What were the circumstances around your mother's death in the end?

Well, she'd been ill off and on for some time, and I was with her in rooms in Carlton for some time. And I can't recall now, it would have been a year or two at least. And she was ... she found it very difficult and once when she was having delusions, she ... I took her to a hospital, and the doctor at the hospital suggested, asked me, in a very sort of matter of fact way, whether I'd ever thought of getting her committed. And I said, very quickly, 'No, I never thought of that'. And whatever they gave her as a sedative or a placebo or whatever, was the temporary sort of solution to the problem. But it's ... it's a common kind of experience again, and I did the best I could, until such time as her illness got to the point where she had to be taken to hospital. In fact, the landlady's curses, triumphant as they were, ringing in our ears as were bundled into a cab and off to hospital, and she never came out of hospital. So it wasn't the way one would have liked ... one thinks about, you know, dying, as an art. But often it becomes a sort of bit of an anticlimax, a bit of a farce, I suppose. And it's not the way I'd liked to have thought of it happening, because she deserved better, as most people do.

How old were you?

I'd have been about twenty I suppose, then. Or twenty-eight. I'm not sure. In the twenties. And in fact, it wasn't as though I was in the ... had a lot of experience of relatives, or loved ones sort of dying. So I certainly ... I certainly did feel it. And I thought also of how much of her life I had sort of ... I hadn't realised because she was an elderly person almost from the moment I was born, if you take my point. That she must have been pushing fifty. So I didn't have a sense of her as a younger person that many people have, whether their nearest and dearest die, or not. She was like a grandmother in that sense.

Was she ambitious for you?

Was she?

Ambitious for you?

I'm sure she was. I was the one person that had an education beyond primary school. Most of them didn't finish primary school. I don't think my brother finished primary school. They were pulled out of school, as so many people were, at an early age, because of the necessities of family finances. And so ... but being a person who was at school, my final English exam, the year before I left, took place on VJ Day. Not VP Day, VJ Day. And they ... While the rest of school celebrated, we tore along with our English exams at Northcote High School, in 1945. And that was my last full year of school, because I left in the following year. But I was still the person who had gone to high school, which is an enormous jump from people who hadn't finished primary school. And I was always very conscious of this, and I went to a high school that I think was a good high school. Good in the sense that I ... you know, it helped me. And I had a wonderful English teacher there. And that made an enormous difference. Those kind of bridges you don't realise how far they stretch across the abyss, of sort, of time. But they're often the ones that make all the difference. And although I left rather precipitately, something like the way in which I left rather precipitately from home at Boronia. At the same time it was right and fitting that I should. I'd lost my way in geometry and algebra. Maths were becoming more and more, you know, beyond my comprehension. And I was in a commercial stream rather than the professional stream. So I was guaranteed to find it more difficult than I should have. So that was ... that was school to me, and I left and started work at various jobs at that stage.

Which you also, from time to time, left rather precipitately. Did this ... did this, looking back at that pattern of sort of chucking it in, as it were, overnight, jumping before you were pushed, I think you've called it, where do you think that came from? Was that from your father?

Well, possibly, although sometimes I think it was because I didn't like the embarrassment of leaving and hanging around for a week, you know, especially with those kind of well-intentioned, but obviously untrue things about coming in to see us, 'Pop in and see us later on, and let us know how you're getting on'. When ... those are courteous ways to say we've had about enough of you and you've presumably had about enough of us, so don't bother. I understood what lay behind it was a courtesy. So I always found last weeks of a job, you're already ... they're looking already beyond you to some more promising sort of talent. So I think I preferred to spare them and me the embarrassment. Those were in times, after all, when if you did leave precipitately, it wasn't taken as a ultimate primal curse, whereas these days, of course, it's all bureaucratically designed to make you wish to hell you'd never worked there in the first place. [Laughs]

But have you ever thought about that, that your father actually, you know, when things weren't going well, just did a bunk?

[Laughs] Well, I must say I spent very little time trying to sort of pair up my own kind of shortcomings with dad's. It's as though I didn't know my dad terribly well, but what I did know, at that time, was so negatively geared that I wasn't likely to find it a favourable reflection on my sort of character, to look for comparisons. So I think I tended to sort of incline towards the younger sister, who was a saintly woman, and think that perhaps I had more of her in my own sort of make-up, than of dad. But later on, of course, I came to see dad in a different light and ... and realised that I'd been ... had not been generous or very fully informed about his own sort of situation.

When did he leave the family entirely?

Entirely?

I mean where you lost contact with him.

Well, in one sense, I never left them entirely. I mean I'm still ...

No, I'm talking about you father. Your father was coming and going for most of your childhood and then he went, didn't he?

Right ... I'm not sure, just to how it happened. I know I was at his bedside when he was dying, or had just died, and I felt very forlorn and out of it then. Because again, I think in the very process - and this happens I'm sure a lot - of growing up, you're not always taking account of what's happening to everybody else. You're so much caught up in what you see as the monumental disasters or promise of your own sort of future, that the rest is happening with a sort of a ... in a blurred way. And so you're only called back to the reality of your sort of family connections, at times like this. And I think that's a very kind of common experience. Suddenly you know, a voice from left field says, 'Hey, this has been going on while you've been busy, absorbed in your own sort of problems', and that's why it's almost as though I've been, you know, teleported in from outer space, to find myself at my father's bedside when he was dying, or had died. And I still have a fragment of a poem [in] which I wrote about that occasion. But that's what I say, there are huge gaps in time and sequence in my, sort of, life. It's too late for me to even attempt to sort of fill them in now, because most of ... my brother's the only immediate sort of relative around, and he's done the best he could with some of that, but those particular things: no, I can't really say.

There is that theory of creativity, which may or may not be true. I wonder what you think of it: that creativity comes from some sort of hidden pain.

Well I mean ... yeah, it's like the Tolstoy quote from the beginning of Anna Karenina, isn't it? That happy families are all the same, but unhappy families are all different. And I suppose it's ... I'm not altogether sure about that. I know that there doesn't seem to be any kind of simple explanation. People can have very unhappy lives, but they don't necessarily impinge upon them or have creative outcomes in their own experience later on, at all. And I ... I ... As I say I'm sufficiently foggy about other things that happened around, both painful and pleasant, as to not be sure whether I've got the full ... the full sum of ... a reasonable sum of pleasure or pain to know just what ... whether just how true that particularly proposition is in my own life.

Now you obviously were you know, clearly very poor through most of your early years. Is that got something to do with your anti-consumerism? [Bruce laughs] You've got a lot of anti-consumer poems, haven't you? Tell me about your anti-consumerism.

Well, I've never thought of myself as an anti-consumer. I mean I consume like everybody else, and I don't feel guilty about it. But it might be truer to say that ... that my sort of placing myself in the middle class has a lot to do with the restrictions on earlier life. And not only myself. I'm sure a great number of people in my generation, and perhaps the generation after, for whom the middle class wasn't something that was to be sort of pilloried in the way that Marx's theories suggested they should, as the kind of the bane of all human evil, but as something to be aspired to, and treasured and valued in many ways. And that's certainly the way I've always looked at it. I don't think you can find me as a trenchant critic of the middle class. I ... I think it's a place where so many people, if they find themselves there, should be darned grateful in a world like ours to be there, and be damn glad they're not somewhere else, because clearly, no class has a lien on happiness exclusive to the other classes. So ... but the anti-consumerism, well [laughs]. I watch a lot of television, which means that you are a kind of consumer of a lot of fibs and porks and porkies and so on, as well as other stuff. But, I mean, I'm sort of caught in the middle really. I can't say I'm anti-consumer when I consume just as cheerfully as most other people. I'm not crazy about some of the big fast food chains, but that's because I suspect, as other people have suspected, including those two brave people in England who took on one of them, that, you know, there are things that go with enormous enterprises that aren't very nice, and aren't always necessarily nice for their employers, or for the ... the economy that they do so well in. And in that sense, yes, I guess I'm a critic of ... of some aspects of the consumer society. I mean I think it's a kind of falsity to suggest, as ads do say blatantly, that the proposition of Descartes should have be rewritten to be 'I consume, therefore I am'. I think that's a kind of nonsense, and ... and I'm happy to kind of satirise that sort of stupidity whenever I get a chance to.

You've said that your religion is not the source of your positions: anti-abortion, anti-communism. That you held those anyway. Is there anything that you've got from being Catholic that means that who you are, how you are, and the sort of poetry you write, is different from what it would have been if you hadn't been?

I guess quite a few things. Although, again, I haven't spent much time thinking about what the specifics are. In the first place, I think some sort of view, or some transcendent view, which gives a special meaning to life. I've never been for example, one who was very rapt in the idea of Heaven. It seems to me to be not something that's not half as interesting or important as what happens in this world. And I don't always like the idea that ... and nor do other people who have no particular religious belief at all - the idea that, you know, you can be bought off by some future life, for either your own unpleasantness or your unpleasant experiences. So ... but on the other hand, I ... I'm always moved by the knowledge that, as in other ways, people can be saints without having a specific creed, but nevertheless, many people who have specific creeds, whether they're Sufi saints, or Buddhist saints or Christian saints, or Islamic saints - well, which is what Sufi saints would be anyway - but others besides the Sufi mystics - I think are wonderful. And I've always been kind of moved by people who live those kind of holy lives. And I think, you know, holy living and dying is an aspiration, an ideal. Most people, of course, fall short of it, but at least it's something to believe that has its own sort of value. And I've ... I know, I've been immensely moved by reading [about] the lives of the saints. But it's a bit like reading the lives of great military leaders, or of great reformers. These are sort of inspiring examples of what human beings can do in a world where, often enough, we're encouraged to think that there's nothing we can do. I mean, I can remember once with a class of secondary teacher trainees, where one of them saying, 'Well what can ...'. We'd just been discussing I think Animal Farm and 1984 and they said ... and we were raising those kind of general questions about well, what do you think it ... it may have been round about 1984 actually? Well what sort of a world have we got, and what can we make of it, and what are the implications? And I can remember one of the students saying 'Well, what can we do anyway?' and it always appalled me to think that of all people, trainee teachers should ask that sort of terrible question. If teachers have no role to play, and if they see no importance in looking at the world and having a critical view of their own role and their own possibilities in it, then you wonder what advantage their education has given them. And what a terrible kind ... what a terrible sort of role model they're going to be for younger people who are even more ... Seamus Heaney made a wonderful point in a conference that I wasn't at, but which I read about, [in] a report, where he said that he believed that cynicism is something that should be ... you know, people should have to earn, and that we shouldn't be in the process, as teachers, inculcating it in the young before they've had a chance to have any idealism to begin with. I think it's the most marvellously true thing. It also points out one of the great dangers of the kind of post-modernist view of the world.

Have you met many saints in suburbia?

Ah, I think I've met people who have lived good lives, there, as elsewhere. I mean, I think it's as full of saints as anywhere else. I don't have a kind of view that you have to be in a monastery to be a saint, though it's obviously not a bad sort of training place. The same as there are good sports people, who never make it to the top league teams. The other people, talented people, who have those kinds of skills and directions, who don't actually inhabit quite that same sort of arena. But, you know, I don't believe for example that suburbia's just full of crummy little people, who make love to their cars on Sunday morning. I think that's a crazy sort of view of life, and it's a simplistic left-wing view that I never did share. And as a person who never had a car, I suppose it might be easier for me to say, but I don't hold with those sort of derogatory sort of views of any class. I don't have, in one sense, a view that one class or another is by definition to be excluded from the human race. I think that sort of nonsense should have been left with Karl to worry about. I mean, I can appreciate that Karl Marx was a much more idealistic and important person than some of the people who took up his doctrines and used them for their own sort of sinister purposes.

[end of tape]

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