|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: July 9, 1997
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
You're well known for being someone who's been always prepared to take on authority, and yet, as a practising Catholic, you respect the authority of the church. And you ... Could you talk a little bit about your attitude to authority.
[Laughs] Well, I ... Let's put it this way, I suppose that in many cases I respect authorities that deserve respect, and if we lived in a time when Popes were villainous, like other times, I guess they'd be in my line of sights too. But we don't, and I've got a lot of time ... I mean, I think John Paul II has done a fantastic political job. And the destruction of the Iron Curtain has a lot to do with, in fact, the election of a Polish Pope, and the extent to which at that time, Polish nationalism was associated so much with Roman Catholicism. And I'm not, you know ... I'm not unaware of how different it might have been had their been a corrupt pope but we don't have too many of those in the Twentieth Century. So you know, he's not in my line of sights. I admire him tremendously. Other authorities in the church, in so far as I've ever had anything to do with them, would I think be fair game if I didn't like them. But I again, I tend to sort of work away from too close an association with the ecclesiastical authorities. It may be weariness, but there are enough kind of birds and clay pigeons, and so on, being shot into the air for anybody. I wrote a poem once about the problem with so many satirical targets is that, you know, many duck shooters go home. They can't decide which ones they should sort of spend their ammunition on. And Australia, I think, has been well supplied in that way. In fact, Stuart McRae, when he was the political cartoonist of the Courier Mail, on his retirement, which he celebrated in a pub appropriately enough, said that ... They asked him what he thought about being a political cartoonist in Queensland, and he laughed and said, 'It's a great place. There was more ratbags here than the rest of Australia put together'. So you know, a sort of an embarrassment of riches, as far as targets go, has been always something that I've rejoiced in. It's not quite as easy at the moment as it has been for me in past years, but except that of course, the National Party generally tends to throw up more than the average number of ... of likely subjects for this. And I think that's fair game. It seems to me that when people take on ... just as I myself, if I were an authoritative figure, would accept the fact that I'd be fair game for other people's satire and wit, and low cunning and so on. And I think other people should take the same thing. When you go public , then you must expect that not all the public will like you. They'll accept the opportunity, if they happen to have a you know ... a cream pie in hand, or a custard apple, or a ripe tomato, then that they'll let fly. That's what publics do when public figures appear. And it's the only way in which it seems to me public figures could possibly ever learn to respect publics. They at least learn to duck.
In the classroom, are you an authoritative figure?
In the classroom, when you're teaching.
Oh well, you know, born with a sort of grim and forbidding sort of face, I can sort of pretend to be for a while. But Brian Matthews, who's a ... said to me once ... told me about his experience. We first met at Melbourne University and he went on to become the R.G. Menzies scholar in London and the author of Louisa and a very fine person, and a great figure. And we were reasonably good pals, and I remember he said to me when he'd gone out teaching - because he finished his teaching training, whereas I dropped out after the first year. He taught first at a country high school in Victoria, and there was an older hand at the school, at the end of his first week of teaching, [who] took him down to the local pub, and said, 'Well, come and have a beer', and he said, 'I suppose your full of all that stuff they feed you up with in teacher trainer colleges. Look, there's only two rules in teaching: be a bastard 'til Easter, and kill your own snakes'. And I think they're absolutely critical rules of life, actually, not just in ... in relation to parenting, in relation to anything, [and that] is to establish some sort of presence first, not of the palsy-walsy kind. Al Capp once said, 'Don't be a pal to your son', and I think that's absolutely wonderful advice too, for many people. And I never ... I never tried to be a pal to students to begin with. Friendship comes in the wake of respect. It's rather hard to get the respect if you're too friendly, too soon, and you never effectively get it back. So that's, you know, flowing from the idea about authority, that's why I'm aware of how authority flows from having some kind of ... establishing some sort of presence, and some right to your convictions and to your taking on the role you ... you have as a teacher.
Are you very confident in your opinions, in the things that you believe in?
Sometimes. I'm - you know. [Laughs] If a had a better memory I'd be less confident, because I might look back over - often - S. J. Perelman once said he was extraordinarily talented in pointing out all the things that happened that never did. So he was a wonderful sort of weather indicator for showing which way the wind wasn't blowing, and I'm sometimes like that too. I make assertions about things and find out I've been dead wrong about it. I'll give you one example. At one stage I thought that once the church caught up with the contemporary vernacular, all its problems would be solved, and all the parishioners problems as well, of course. And I even, I think, pamphleted one particular church in Melbourne, under that mistaken sort of assumption. Of course, it was a foolish notion. When you've got everything down to the level of the common man, then it's too common to be believable, and it's not longer any transcendent belief, or form of ritual worship. So yeah, I've had to backtrack, and I'm pleased that in fact, nobody took any notice of the pamphlets that I used to slip into Catholic Church Society pamphlets, hoping I wouldn't be caught by a burly lay brother and belted up in the vestry. And I never was actually. [Laughs] But I did have the pleasure of going to speak at the monastery that the burly lay brothers came from sometime afterwards, thinking little do they know, that the pest who handed out those pamphlets was now speaking to them. In fact, I remember addressing them and reading the very sort of grandiose title of the talk and saying I thought after a title like that any talk would be an anticlimax. But so, no, I'm often wrong with things that - but at the time I behold them of course. I hold them as firmly as anybody else does but I'm prepared to sort of recognise that I'm very fallible.
What do you think's going to happen when you die?
[Laughs] Well, I mean it'll make no difference whatsoever to the world and I'm very relived at that. I never thought it would. [Laughs] I think I'll ... what happens to me, I don't know. I believe in a life after death. I haven't the faintest idea what it'll be like. [Laughs] It's not something that worries me in any way at all. This life is the one I'm preoccupied in ... in surviving in. Beyond that I don't have any kind of ... I don't have any visions. Nobody's come to me and told me what it's like and whether I should pack my bags or ... and I'm not like the Heaven's Gate cultists, who sort of pack their bags and prepare to hitch on to a you know, a mother ship, behind the Hale Bopp planet, or whatever it was: a meteor. No, I don't have ... I was very moved by that, and saddened by it, but I don't have their kind of clear but very sort of oddly Noddy-like notions about the afterlife.
Between now and then, what are ... what are you doing? What are you spending your time with?
Well I read. I still write poetry. And publish. And do things around the house, and pat the dog and raid the fridge. And on Thursdays, for three terms of the year - these are short terms in ... I teach in U3A. So I use some of my university material and interests with older students, very similar to the students at university, who are often mature age students. But I'm a mature age student myself, in a way, and one way in which teachers of course go on being students is by teaching, because it means that they do have to go over texts or reinvent new ones. And I do that and enjoy it every Thursday, for three or four parts of the year. And occasionally go visiting to ... to talk somewhere, or to speak to high school students if, for example, as in New South Wales, a text of mine is set, or poems of mine are set as parts of the HSC syllabus. And I enjoy that too. And it's a quick trip away, and I come back to live a kind of an ordinary existence here in Toowoomba.
Would you describe yourself as the complete suburban man?
[Laughs] I'm not sure that any person is complete, but I'm happy in that, in the general suburban environment. It seems to suit me. I mean I can appreciate the countryside, but I always keep thinking of what P.J. O'Rourke said. He said, 'If the out of doors was so great, how come the homeless don't enjoy it more?' There's a kind of way in which you can romanticise, and O'Rourke is one of my favourite sardonic essayists, [who] continually sort of disabuses people of romantic notions about, well, Amazonian rainforests or anywhere else, which are not quite as delightful in every respect, if you're sort of tramping through them, as it might seem from watching television wildlife documentaries.
[end of interview]