Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

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So this period of entrepreneurial delinquency sounds very successful. Why did you stop?

Well, two or three things happened to us. First of all my godmother, the one whose husband had died, woke up one morning to find that all the flower beds outside her bedroom window were full of pansies. These were ones we hadn't sold after our town hall scoop. And so she gave us a talking to. Then there was a girl at school who saw us and said, ‘I seen you, I seen you. I'll tell the Head.’ And that really frightened us. And then we were in a garden picking a particularly choice plant when an elderly woman came out and she said, ‘I'm so glad you like my daphne.’ She said, ‘Would you like to come in and I'll show you the rest of my garden, and come and have some lemonade and biscuits?’ So with much trepidation, feeling very awkward about this, we did. And of course at the end of it she said, ‘Look I love to see children who love beautiful plants. So if ever you want anything again, do come and ask me.’ And we crept out feeling very small indeed. And we stopped after that.

Actually, what I reflected on, I remember afterwards, and even then it was beginning to dawn on me, that had we not been the children we were from a kind of okay refugee family, but a sort of middle-class family, had we been from the wrong side of the tracks and been caught, we probably could have been in quite severe trouble. As indeed can happen now. You know, if you get a whole lot of Aboriginal kids pinching the flower beds around somebody's town hall, ah ... there is this ... still this huge disparity in the way the law treats people.

How were you getting on at school?

Um ... well. Really well by then. I won a scholarship to Perth Modern School and that was a great excitement because it was then a selective high school. I think it was the only selective high school in Western Australia then, and ... I went there. I was in the same class as Rolf Harris, who even then was a funny boy, with knobbly knees and big ears, who sang songs and entertained us all. Hawke was in the year ahead, and ... he was kind of quite a glamour boy there. I remember him. And I remember recognising that I could no longer get by with my hair in a fringe like this, and persuading my mother to let me have it windswept. I found that I could actually swim quite well and I could play tennis well. So that was good. And then at the end of my first year there, ah ... I realised my parents were talking about going back to England. And I was devastated because I think I felt I had just begun to make a home there.

It was the end of the war, or towards the end of the war, and the British Government were offering to repatriate people if they wished to go, and I thought, that's it, I've got to start all over again, and I stopped trying. It was interesting that I actually stopped working. I felt powerless, I think, and again, I regret to say, I used my kind of ingenuity to give myself some sense of power. And I used to cheat for one term ... I did very little work ... I had the most elaborate cribs, and I cheated. I must have used some of my own resources, and I cheated and I used to come near the top. So I was kind of proving that I could beat the system against which I felt powerless, and my parents were part of that system. It was the adult world. And then the next term to prove to myself that I still could do pretty well, I wouldn't cheat, and I'd come near the top. And I think a lot of the kids in my class knew I was doing this, and I became quite anti-social. I played truant. I used to go and sit in the milkbar ... I just stopped kind of trying. I didn't join in the choir. Not that I was much good in the choir anyway. And I remember the principal of the school calling me in and telling me that unless I, you know, started performing better, I'd lose my scholarship. And I don't think I particularly minded about that.

It was a period I think I was probably quite depressed. And then the time came. We did leave Australia and on the ship ... I remember we went back on another troop ship in another convoy. We picked up a lot of soldiers in India, but as we left Australia and the ship pulled out, they had a concert and we all gathered on deck and we sang Waltzing Matilda. And I remember feeling very sad as Australia slipped away and I realised I was going to this new life. But all the same, because I think I tend to be somebody who doesn't look back, I started to pick up the excitement of what lay ahead, what was going to happen next.

Why did your parents decide ... why did your parents decide that Australia wasn't for them?

I think my father would have liked to stay. He actually had quite enjoyed his time in the army. He'd ... had a baby at the age of ... I don't know, nearly 60 or something, and he was made a great fuss of. Grand-dad's baby. Um ... he loved the bush. He responded to it. My mother, I think, was very homesick for England. She was a much more sophisticated kind of person. Ah ... and by that I mean in terms of ... she liked ... she liked cities. She liked urban life. Um ... my father was much more of a contemplative person. He was the reader. And I think she just wanted to go back, and probably he gave in because he thought we were going to have our fares paid, and if we wanted we could come back again somehow or other. But I was the only one who did that ... [I need a break] ...

What do you remember about the birth of your little brother?

That was a great excitement. It was a great shock when it happened, when we were told that my mother was having a baby. She was clearly not very pleased about it. Um ... I suspect she had tried to have an abortion and failed because it was impossible. Um ... and then I think she ... as the pregnancy increased she became more, you know, involved and more interested. But I was convinced that this baby was going to be black. And the reason I was convinced of this was I hadn't the faintest idea really how things happened. I felt that the father sowed the seed within the mother once. You know, that was it. You had one shot. And that seed lasted, and I felt by now the seed would surely have got a bit old and tired, and no more babies would be forthcoming. And I was 12 which, you know, now kids would know ... I hope, most kids would know. And um ... and so ... because all round us there was a Catalina airbase with a lot of American, black American servicemen, and all around us there were young white girls pushing prams with coffee-coloured babies that were the product of the union between the American servicemen and them I was sure, well my mother's done the same thing. Obviously we're going to have a black baby or a coffee-coloured baby, and I was very disappointed when we didn't ... [laughs] ... because I rather wanted it. I thought it was going to be exotic.

And I remember the excitement when she went off to hospital the first time. There was petrol rationing and they had these big gas cylinders on the back of taxi cabs. Ah ... and she went off in this and then they sent her home again. And then two weeks later she went off a second time. And this tiny little baby was born. He was a bit premature, and she brought him home and I made myself the guardian of the baby, and I looked after my mother. I remember washing these nappies in the copper and actually feeling sick at the whole process, but I was determined to do this. And I had a lot to do with bringing him up, as indeed did the whole household, this whole family of people, because all the other kids took part in this. And we were indeed still quite a close-knit bond of people, even though by then we'd split up and gone to different schools ... we still hung about together. And I remember when we first went to school, we all took off our shoes because we thought that's what Australian kids did, and we wanted to be Australian. And our Pommy accents disappeared very quickly ... and with the boys we could hardly understand what they were saying. But it was this determination to belong.

It was the war years. All the years that you were in Australia at that time was during the war. Did your perspective on the war become very different because you were in Australia viewing it from that aspect rather than the one you would have had had you remained in England and looked at it as an English child?

I think so because it was more complex, I think, in that in England ... there was this sense of unity that ... they were fighting the Germans. That they were all together in this ... whereas in Australia there was this awareness, however slight it might have been, that first of all it was the war in the Pacific, and then we had our soldiers in Africa as well. There was this sort of tug there. Um ... there was our insistence on bringing our troops home that we heard our parents discussing. And there was an awareness at the beginning that we were indeed very unpopular. A lot of English people were very unpopular and I think it was this generalised anti-English feeling, not just because of the colonial ‘now it's our turn to give you a bit of stick’. But it was also because so many young Australians were sent to Singapore at the last minute, and were either killed or captured there. So there was a lot of bitterness and you used to see notices outside houses saying, 'No Poms. Poms not wanted here.' And um ... people would deliberately not understand you. Bus conductors and people like that.

So it was ... it was a kind of feeling of trying to understand. And I remember our parents trying to explain to us and being much more aware of the complexity of what was happening. And then being aware that it was a shift from our dependence upon England, and our fervent patriotism ... our allegiance to England. This was a time when people did listen to the Queen after Christmas Day lunch, when people stood up for God and the National Anthem. And it was very strong. And then it started to shift because there was that seminal time after or around about Pearl Harbor when Curtin made it quite clear, that he said, you know, ‘I have no hesitation in turning towards America now, in spite of our allegiance to England.’ So it was a recognition that we couldn't simply depend upon England. That America was a very important part of our lives, and the American servicemen started arriving at that stage. There was all the hoo hah about how they'd bought silk stockings over with them and how they had captured all the girls. All this sort of gossip as a child I picked up.

And I remember three officers, American officers, young officers coming into a pet shop. We were in this pet shop and they came in and they said, ‘You can buy what you want, kids. What do you want? We'll buy it for you.’ And we came home with three nauseating little Pomeranian puppies, worm-ridden puppies, that our parents made us take back. But we got another dog instead. So it was Britain ... a time I suppose because I was growing older anyway, that I was more aware of the complexities ... Britain ... of that time. It was also ... it was being visibly manifested around me.

Now you were in your early teens and you went back to a post-war devastated blitzed Britain. How did you get on?

Well, that was another very soggy time. That was a down time, and I wondered often if my parents had regretted coming home, because there was my father who had left the Australian army, and suddenly he was a mid-50s rubber planter or, you know, a colonial officer, in the middle of an English winter and nobody wanted to employ him. He couldn't get a job. Unemployment was high anyway. And we had very little money ... he had a small amount of money that was some kind of war reparation, which I think came from the government. It took a while to come through. Ah ... we went to Brighton first to stay with some relatives, and then a cousin of my father's found him a job up in, near Sheffield, where he was supposed to sell John Brown tractors. And I remember thinking ... [laughs] ... that my father really couldn't sell anything, I mean, and I'm not denigrating my father, who actually I came to realise in later life was a delightful and very entertaining person when he chose to be. But he simply wasn't a salesman, and further more he knew nothing about tractors. And you know it was doomed from the start.

So we went into a succession of furnished houses, ultimately ending up in an unfurnished house ... in opencast coal mining in Chesterfield ... because he never sold any tractors. Again there was no money coming in. The last house, my mother furnished a great deal of it with a job lot of commode chairs that she bought cheap at an auction. And we used to sit on these commode chairs when we were having ... when we were eating. And my father went further and further afield. So he went from Sheffield to Manchester. He went all around the north of England trying to sell these blooming tractors, and staying in really crummy boarding houses, and getting very depressed. And my mother kind of battled on with this two-year-old baby she had then.

And Nanny came back. Nanny insisted on coming back and didn't want any money, which is sort of rather wonderful that she had this enormous loyalty to this family. And so she came and pitched in as well. And this time they did sell jam by the side of the road ... the house had orchards around it and then there were the coalmining fields. It was a very dilapidated house, but we used to pick the fruit and she used to sell ... my mother used to sell crab-apple jelly. And my mother then bought a sewing machine, and she'd always had this ability with her hands, and she started making loose covers for people's sofas and chairs and curtains, and selling these to make money. And I went to Sheffield High School where two things happened. One, for the first time in my life I wasn't ahead. I had slipped back because I had missed a lot of school when we first arrived in England. And this time I was in the class below my age. But what the school said was, we'll let you take your matric from that lower class because ... I had done nothing but science. Perth Modern School, if you were a girl and you could do science — it had just been discovered for girls. I did pure maths, applied maths, physics, biology, chemistry, which actually was all wrong for me. And I came to England and I needed French and Latin and history, English history.

And so I had a huge amount of catching up to do. The school was very helpful and the girls in England seemed much younger. The girls in Perth, we were all talking, you know, spinning the bottle and going out with our boyfriends, and much more ... getting much more mature in many ways. Whereas in England they were still skipping, and playing netball was where most of the energy went. And that took more adjustment for me to make. But by my final year in high school, again, I felt I belonged, but once again we had to shift because what happened was that ... this is a story I've told before, but one day my mother was in the bath and it fell through the floor. And this was ... the floorboards were rotten and at the same time the Polish landlord, who used to come to collect the rent, usually when he was drunk, turned up and ... walked into the bathroom demanding the rent, waving a riding crop. And my mother in this sort of bath that had half collapsed rose up and said, ‘How dare you. Get out of my house at once!’ And I remember giggling in the corner because I was old enough then to know it wasn't her house, and as we hadn't paid the rent for some time, you know, she was really pushing things. But he left because she was really quite formidable when she got going.

And was naked?

And was naked! And he left saying, ‘Very sorry madam, yes madam. Yes madam, I'll come back another time madam’, bowing as he walked out backwards. And ... and that was a turning point for her because she realised that unless she did something, that it wasn't my father's fault, you know, this was just going to get worse, not better. And I remember she sold the sewing machine and she bought a New Look suit. It was Christian Dior, a nipped in waist, long skirt and she bought this ... green New Look suit with a velvet collar, and she left David with me and a next door neighbour who moved in very kindly, and she said ‘I'm going to London, I've got to get a job.’ And she went to London on the train and she bluffed her way into another job. She got a job as a designer, a textile designer, with Jaqumar who were a well-known British textile firm, and she did this because she had been trying to design textiles and Christmas cards and all sorts of things for a way of making money. And she took her portfolio down with her, and she got the job. Then she came back and said, ‘We're moving.’

But it wasn't quite as simple as that because my father stayed on still trying to sell the tractors ... I was in my final year at high school, and at this point my parents had had to go and ask the school to take me for no fees because they couldn't pay the school fees ... I went and boarded with a friend and David, my two-year-old brother, went to stay with some cousins and an uncle and aunt of his who were social workers, who lived also in the north of England somewhere, for six months while we got ourselves settled. It was a kind of drastic upheaval of the whole family. Meantime my older brother had joined up in the army and was an officer cadet somewhere, and was sent out to Africa. So my father ... I used to meet my father about once every three weeks.

He used to come down and take me out while I was finishing my schooling up there ... my brother was in Africa. My mother was in London desperately trying to save money, and to get somewhere decent to live, and David was up with these cousins. And when he came back, came home again, he talked with a very north country accent. And I remember my father was up on a ladder at one stage. He had come back for a weekend. He was painting, and my little baby brother said, young brother said, ‘Hey God will laugh if thee falls down and breaks thy bones.’ So there was a huge sort of diaspora of the family yet again.

And against this sort of scattered, even shattered, background, you were doing your matriculation?

Yes ... I got it and I got a scholarship. A County of Middlesex scholarship. I got a scholarship to university ... but it wasn't the university I wanted to go to. I had wanted to go to Oxford. I wanted to do medicine, and I hadn't got good enough marks. And I thought that I could get them, and probably could have done if I took another year. And so my solution then was to get a job at the northern ... northern ... the Holloway Technical College ... and I worked as a lab assistant ... and I also was studying there. And that was a good idea in principle, but it didn't work out.

So, when you say you were studying at the Holloway Technical College, were you studying to do your matric again ... to do A-levels again? Were they A-levels in those days?

No, I did ... I had done matric and then it was the next level. I've forgotten what that's called. And I had got enough to get into university, university, but not to go to Oxford. I can't remember exactly, but I needed more ... I needed a scholarship, that was it, and I didn't get a scholarship to do medicine.

And could you get that with the course you were doing at Holloway Tech?

Um ... I could ... well what it ... no, not the course itself, but I was ... I could have improved my knowledge in order to pass an exam to take the Oxford entry exam to get in. That was the idea. Um ... however, what happened and perhaps it was fortunate, was that I just hated everything I was studying, and I used to go to English lectures. I used to go to London University English lectures as well. And um ...

What were you studying at Holloway?

Ah ... I was doing chemistry, physics, you know, all that kind of stuff, and ... it was clearly not working out for me because I never went near any of the lectures. I think ... I know, I've got muddled in this. I was actually working as a lab assistant at Holloway, which is where I was earning money, and I was studying at night at London University in order to get the points and the extra marks I needed to try and get into Oxford. And ... I was not doing anything very well. I wasn't working with much good grace, and nor was I studying anything really because I used to go to some of the English lectures. And I realised I had made a mistake. And furthermore, that I wasn't going to pass any exam, and that the best thing to do was get out quickly.

How did you like the work in the lab?

I didn't. Um ... I remember having to clean out the dogfish tank which hadn't been cleaned out for about 20 years or so it felt. I didn't, because it was an alien environment for me. It wasn't to do with people. I think medicine might have been alright for me. Um ... once I got on to the engagement with people, but science was not a good course for me. Um ... in those days and, you know, I realise now that science today has opened up hugely. And also my interests were more and more towards ... the arts. I was going to films and theatres and that was what was pulling me. And so I decided I had to stop, and do something else.

And what was that?

... [laughs] ... What was that! ... [laughs] ... And ... well, I went to the south of France to work as an au pair, looking after French children, because I thought I could start learning French or improve the little French that I had, and I did that for three months, and then I decided I had a good brain and that I should be using it and so I left there. I had an honourable end to that period with the children who were lovely. And I came back to England. I entered a scholarship for Vogue and I was a runner-up in that, which would have got me a job with Vogue. I was trying to get into writing. And I turned up at the interview having fallen in a puddle in total sort of chaos and didn't interview well, and decided I didn't want the job there. It was again an alien environment. I think I was more aware ... I was feeling my way towards what I wanted. I ... I decided I would try and get into university to do an arts degree. The only way I could get in was through a scholarship. Again, we go back to the fact that universities weren't free then, like now, but there was a period when they were.

And I got into the London School of Economics. Um ... and I only went for three days because I bought a scarf and I kind of looked at the syllabus and I moseyed around and I realised that that also wasn't right for me, and that what I was doing was trying to get into university and that was more important than actually looking at what it was that interested me. And at that point I went to bed for three months ... I did get up occasionally but I kind of became deeply depressed, and ... I more or less took to my bed at home. I was living at home. I put on a huge amount of weight. I weighed about 15 stone as it was then. I was very big ... my mother got desperate, but I remember in the end, and I don't ... whether this was deliberate on her part, and I'm simplifying it, obviously, but I remember her saying, ‘Why don't you go and work for a man with an interesting job,’ and then feeling suddenly I wanted to have the interesting job. And it certainly helped snap me out of that depression.

And I knew at this stage that I really wanted to be a journalist. To get into something where I was writing and I was also observing and investigating. My grandmother had been a journalist, and had been one of the first women to use the British Museum Reading Room. And the thing that had held me back always was that I was very shy, which might seem hard to accept and acknowledge now, but I was. I was painfully shy and I found it very hard at parties and things. I'd go and disappear outside ... but I realised I had to break through this and I remember writing to about 15 newspapers. I got one of the press guides all over England looking for a job, and I got two or three responses, and the first one that I went to for an interview was the Kensington News, in the Royal Borough of Kensington with a woman editor, and the ... the paper was ... the type was set at the back of the newspaper office in a place called Rabbit Row, and the forms used to be wheeled in by wheelbarrow, and there was only Barbara, the editor, and me.

So it was a most extraordinary and wonderful way of learning the craft of journalism at a time when there weren't any ... there were nothing like schools in journalism at all.

Now can we go back ...

Yeah.

... and pick something up here because you were going into writing, and that had had some sort of history for you, because you have mentioned in talking about your education that you were always good at the English subjects, and yet you had been streamed into science. So, can you tell us about your education in writing and where you discovered you were good at it, and how that had gone along for you up until that point?

I think it was more or less the fact that I really enjoyed it. So like a lot of children ... [interruption] ...

We'd better deal with it. They won't go away ... [interruption] ...

As a child, when did you first realise you were very good at writing?

I think it was more that I first realised that I really enjoyed it, and so from a very early age I used to write stories. I think Nanny, the redoubtable Nanny, sent one of them to a short story competition run by one of the newspapers ...

Excuse me, Leo's [the sound recordist] making faces ... [interruption] ...

So you ended up finding yourself writing. Had that had a history in your life?

Yes it had. Looking back, as a small child I wrote stories. You know, I wrote stories, I wrote poems ... at a time when that sort of thing wasn't particularly encouraged at school. Teaching was much more formal ... I remember the redoubtable Nanny sent a short story in to a newspaper competition and I won a prize. I remember telling, actually, my grandmother that I wanted to be a writer, and then I added crime writer, but I just wanted to shock her. And she was horrified even though she had been a writer herself. But there was a strong thread. My grandfather edited, owned and edited, the Yorkshire Post. There was a strong family thread right throughout. My father had this ... really looking back, quite amazing knowledge of English literature, and I'd kept that tucked away, but I think at Perth Modern School with, for very good intentions, it was sidetracked by putting me into the science course, and that was a sort of political thrust then that, you know, we wanted women scientists. And it's still happening I think. Even with my daughter, who did very well at school, ah ... the kind of career thrust was that she should be a doctor or a lawyer because she was capable of getting those points ... and not what you really want to do, which was writing. And probably doing a liberal arts degree.

So ... that was an interesting thread that stayed with me, and ... but it took a long time to germinate because all these other things intervened, and it really wasn't until I was at rock bottom, and lying in bed and getting fatter and fatter, that it dawned on me that this was what I really wanted to do, and I had better set about achieving it. And the interesting thing was that on my first day at work, where because it was Kensington, and in the middle of London, I was sent out to do all sorts of interesting things. But on that very first day when I came home that night, I ran, I sang, I jumped all the way home because I really was filled with sheer joy at what I was doing. And I think that was a joy and a pleasure that's remained with me. So throughout what's by now quite a long life and a long career, which has taken many different paths, every time I've moved off into an administrative kind of management role, or I've been involved in various commissions and committees of enquiry — which I've enjoyed immensely because it's exercising another part of my mind — I've always had to go back to writing or filming. I've felt deprived if I couldn't do that.

Before we launch you on your brilliant career and leave your formative years and education and childhood behind, looking back now at your childhood years, what would you say were the influences there, and the experiences that were most important to you that affected you for the rest of your life?

Well I think there was an initial ... [coughs] ... I think there was an initial injunction, you know, that you had to be not only good but you also had to be clever. And that was how people liked you. I think I remember Nanny even saying, you know, your mother only likes good and clever girls, which wasn't true at all. But it was very strong, that message. And that's been ... a sometimes quite a destructive driver. And then there was the fact that I had this very mollycoddled early life, where I never played with other children, when I was actually quite lonely ... where in a way I was a sort of social misfit, where I got bullied and so on and so on. And then there was the experience of coming to Australia which in many ways I think kind of saved me, in that ... the sense that it gave me a freedom. It liberated me from all those constraints of my early childhood. It gave me ... a sense of the environment that I never had. It gave me friendships that I hadn't enjoyed up until then. It gave me a feeling of independence. I was able to go out in the bush. I did a lot of horse riding ... I think it just changed me enormously and I had that robust community around me, those families that I think made me a very different person.

I think I was profoundly lucky to have had that experience. And then I went back to England and had another kind of experience, and in a way kind of finally fitted in. But it took a long time to get there. And it wasn’t really until my, I suppose, last year of school in a way that I felt I really fitted in, because in Australia I was still jockeying, and there was this feeling that we might be going back to England. Or our parents used to talk about ... our mothers used to talk about going east. If you were in the west of Australia you always talked about going east. So there was an uncertainty there. And even though the uncertainty continued, I think I was working my way through then into that realisation that ... what I needed to do was to write, and ... to spend my life in this way, talking about people, being involved with people, even though I was so shy.

In that last year at school, you said at last you felt you were fitting in. What were you fitting in to, do you think?

Well, I think the Sheffield High School was an interesting school. It was ... it had a whole mixture of kids from quite poor backgrounds and yet quite middle-class, quite well-off middle-class families. It was the north of England, not the south, which made it socially much freer than the south was ... and it was an academic school. And where I had very good teachers. Again, just as I had had a wonderful teacher in primary school, Sheffield High School, I had a chemistry teacher called Miss Stoppard and I remember writing about her because she ... she found mystery and excitement in everything. So that she'd give you a chemistry lesson but along the way you might embark into Shakespeare or an account of early feminism, you went all over the place. She was ... an extraordinary woman who really enabled me to pass my matric because she used to come and work at night with me. And she gave me a sense of adventure about learning. And I went back many, many years later, you know, 30 years later to try and find her and she had died about two days beforehand, which was sad because I owe her a great debt.

She aroused a sort of intellectual excitement in you?

Yes, yes.

And was that also true that fitting in happened socially for you? Did you find that having come from Australia, where you'd got on well with that group, that you were able to relate better to the girls?

Yeah, it was a struggle still. Probably that really didn't happen until I began working. I ... I was still a bit different, but they were more accepting. I think English schoolgirls were more polite than Australian, although I had that group around me in Australia ... so it was ... it was a gradual transition, a gradual coming out almost into ... into feeling I belonged ... and probably it was in my final year at high school where I ... became a prefect and I was the tennis captain, and ... and I was enjoying my work. So that even when my mother went south and the whole thing went up in the air again, I also ... I'm remembering something now. I also got angry again. So it wasn't an idyllic passage. It started at the beginning of that final year of feeling, you know, here I am, I've made it. I really do belong. And then ... the whole situation in terms of poverty ...

[end of tape]

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