Australian Biography

Elizabeth Durack - full interview transcript

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Could you tell me, when and where you were born?

I was born not so very far from this place in the suburb of Claremont, in 1915. I was the third baby of the family, and ... and my mother and father thought we'd better have a town house, and came down. [I] was born in the house in Goldsmith Road Claremont. It's still standing - the same house.

You were the third in the family. Who were your brothers and sisters?

My eldest brother was Reg. He was born in 1911. And my older sister Mary was born in ... in 1913, and then the three other boys followed on from there, in more or less orderly succession.

And the family were based in the north. Where were they based?

Well, the - we were ... we were the lessees of a big block of station properties: Ivanhoe, Argyle, Newry, Auvergne and Bullita, that stretched across a big area of land in the north, across the West Australian-Northern Territory border, in the east Kimberley region of Western Australia, and the head station was Argyle, and so the flow was between the north and the south all the time. And our father was managing director of the company and he went north every year, so that's how the arrangement was. And of course, in those days, there was the ... the contact between the north and the south was all by boat. Aeroplanes didn't come in until the early thirties and this in the nineteen teens, and 1920s.

So, your family - your mother - was living in Perth with the children at the time?

She went up occasionally though. We also had a very fine English nurse that helped a lot in the ... in our upbringing. But there were, of course, no educational facilities in the bush at the time and education, like for anyone with a family, was a first ... was a first priority.

And especially in your family, that was the case, wasn't it? There was a great deal of value placed upon education.

Very much so, yes, with its Irish origins.

How did that come about?

I think with its Irish origins and the high value that was put on education that was hard to come by in the original country, and then, when they came to Australia, they went to ... well my father and Uncle Jack, when we had the Queensland properties ... the original property, or one of the original properties in Queensland was Thylungra, a well known place, and his mother and father, my grandmother and father, they travelled down by ... by ... overland, to take the boys to school at Goulburn College and my sister Mary kept a link with the college for years after that.

So let's put this now in its proper consecutive story. When did your ancestors come from Ireland? How did that come about, and what was the story of their arrival in Australia?

Well, I think there were a couple of earlier Duracks that came out as convicts but they didn't have any ... any family. The branch that we belong to, the Durack branch, came out in the 1840s and settled in New South Wales. They were ... as free settlers and they took up land there. That was our great grandfather and then ... that was the beginning of the family here in Australia.

And how did they get from settling in New South Wales to owning, or leasing, a huge tract of land up in ... in the north of Western Australia?

Well, one thing led to another. They got into land and early exploration of the north-west of New South Wales and further, all of it very well documented in my sister's well known book, Kings in Grass Castles and from there, by the ... Thylungra was established in the 1860s and then by the late 1870s, the area of Kimberley was surveyed by Alexander Forrest and declared valuable, or possibly valuable pastoral country, and that was opened up for the division of leases. And with the big family of boys again, my grandfather wanted to take up land on the Ord but there was a ... Forrest was in a big hurry getting across the Kimberley, because he had sickness in the camp ... to get to the overland telegraph line, also a very well known story in this country, and he didn't ever find out where the mouth of the Ord was. So my great uncle, Uncle Stumpy Michael, he went up on a separately organised expedition, helped ... to be financed by Emmanuel, who was a wealthy man in Goulburn and they ... they came in on the west side of Cambridge Gulf, and discovered the five ... the mouths of the five rivers, including the Ord River. And that was then ... then they established and had a look at the land. I mean grandfather wasn't going to take out a lease. It was pig in a poke, and they got it, and it was the pick of the Kimberley country too.

And so it was your grandfather who settled there, and then your father was managing that whole area when you were born. Growing up as a small child, do you remember how the family related to that area?

Very much so. In my case, it was ... because our dad, when he came down at the end of the year, at the end of the working year in the north, he'd usually have one or two Aboriginals with him and they'd stay with us at the house in Claremont. And one I particularly remember was Argyle Boxer - [he] came down one year. They didn't stay very long, because we had another property, sheep growing property outside Wagin, Ben Ord, and they'd often go down there, and it was a great experience for them. The blacks that came down with dad used to dine out ever after on their trip to the city.

And you remember that as a small child?

Very well. Yes, very well.

Also, when you were little, do you remember the first time you can remember drawing?

Ah, yes. Yes, I can.

Can you tell us about that?

I can remember that being younger than my brother, Reg, and Mary ... They were scampering around and they went up a tree in the garden and I somehow got myself up into a branch of the tree. Then they hopped down, and went somewhere else, and when I looked ahead of me, I saw a great big frog and it was blinking its eyes at me like that [BLINKS HER EYES] and I was absolutely terrified, but it was my first moment of intense seeing because I can remember when I eventually howled my way down from the fork of the tree, drawing the frog. And I would have been about two, I suppose, at the time. So I can remember that I started ... the feeling that I had between me and the frog, and then sort of a feeling, well perhaps it's frightened of me, too, you know. It was a sort of a empathetic feeling between us.

And that strong seeing that you experienced, just as it were, ran down your arm, and made you want to draw ...

It did, yes.

Does that still happen?

Oh yes, it does. The eye and the hand often move quite automatically.

And, so you continued. How often did you go up north when you were small?

Not often. Not often. But the contact was always there and the year was punctuated by our father's leaving for the north and coming down from the north, with all the ... the ... the geological specimens that he brought with him, and the crocodile skins. And it was ... but ... and some wonderful artefacts made by the blacks, too, and boab nuts and all sorts. Big ... mother had a big collection. And that's how we sort of lived between the two worlds. And then when Reg left school - he was a very scholarly boy, really - but Dad thought that he'd ... it might be an idea for him to go north and to see what he made of the country. And of course, of all of us I think the north hooked my brother, Reg, more than anyone. He was the one that hung on to the land longer than the rest ... any of us.

And what about you and your schooling? You were in Perth because your parents valued that.

Yes.

Could you tell me how you went at school, and what it was like for you.

Well, when we got that bit older, we moved from the suburb of Claremont to the heart of the city of Perth and we had a town house on the corner of ... of Victoria Avenue and Adelaide Terrace. It was taken down in 1984, and it's rebuilt with a very big commercial building. There might be a chance to show you while you're over in Perth, Robin. And it's called the Durack Centre, because we had it for many years there. So, it was from there ... It was an ideal location. We were only two or three doors from Loreto Convent, where Mary and I went to school, and across the road was the old Christian Brothers College, where my brothers went to school so that ... that was where the schooling went on.

And how did you do at school?

Mary was always very bright. Very, very bright. I wasn't hopeless, but I was pretty hopeless at maths. [Laughs]

And were you a little bit in Mary's shadow?

Yes, I think so. Yes, because Mary's gifts expressed themselves very early and I can recall that when she was about eleven or twelve, I think it was, she had already been writing poetry, which was quite remarkable, and of course dad and mother were thrilled about it and they brought out a little self-published book called Little Poems of Sunshine, and ... and then a lot of people would say to Mother, 'Oh, well of course ... well now Mary will have a wonderful career and ... and what will Bet do?' I was usually called Bet as a little girl. And mother would say, "Oh, Bet'll be at home with mother', and I remember thinking: no, I'm not going to do that. I love you, mother, but I'm not ... if Mary's having a career, I'd like to be out there too, having that. [Laughs] But the older sister was always there, in a very benign way, too. I mean, Mary was always very helpful and supportive of me but there was the older sister-younger sister relationship. What's more, I probably imposed on Mary a lot, you know. If we'd go to a little party together, it'd be Mary that'd write the thank-you note, it'd be ... you know, Mary usually did it all. But I know, I was drawing a lot and I remember ... I do remember thinking when Mary's little book, Poems of Sunshine came out, I wish someone would put a little book of ... of drawings for me, but the drawing wasn't thought of as much as the writing, I don't think. Although I think the work ... my work, probably showed quite a lot of originality very young.

But that wasn't recognised by your parents.

They used to sort of half ... they ... I also had an irreverent streak in me. I had a terrific gift for caricaturing, and I could see someone's face, and then go into a corner and draw it perfectly. You know, exaggeratedly. I had ... had that gift. And I'd show them to mother and she'd laugh, and she'd say, 'Oh, you naughty girl, you naughty girl'. You know, so that it would ... but that ... that was a innate gift that I had of being able to remember people's faces and reproduce them. I've done that all my life.

What other things were you drawing as a child?

Well, of course, at school it was the conventional banana and orange on a plate in pastels and things like that. But at the same time there was always the home activity, which ... which revolved a great deal around ... around drawing. And also, while our dad was away, my sister, Mary, and I brought out our first little joint book, and we called it Kookaburra and Kangaroo. I was kookaburra. It was my first nom de plume. And within that, I had a lot of drawings and little sketches and essays and Mary also really started on the theme of the family story there. I think she called it Lost in the Australian Wilds or something. Or Finding the Australian Outback, or something like that, which ran on a serial through them.

So how old were you when you started doing these stories and drawings?

Ah, quite young: eight, nine, ten. It went on for quite a while.

And you were actually sort of self publishing a little ...

Oh, we weren't publishing. They were just put together on little bits of paper. I've still got two or three of them and then mother would just send them up on the boat to dad. And because we'd have the ... Mary was the editor. That's right, she was the editor, and she'd have editor's notes on all the family and the comings and goings. And we seemed to always be working on Kookaburra and Kangaroo after school, and ... It went on for quite a long time.

From the formal point of view, what you were learning about art at school, it sounds as if you didn't find that a lot of use to you.

Not much, no, not much, but I could always pass, you know. That's just one subject I excelled in. If you want a rare deed [?], it'd always be for art.

And there was not anybody at the school who recognised your talent?

Yes. There was, as a matter of fact. There was a wonderful old nun, quite elderly, who taught us Latin. And as usual, I wasn't listening quite so hard to the Latin, as drawing the children in the ... my fellow students around the room. I was drawing them all, and had them all lined up on a sheet of paper. And I can remember Mother Dominica saying, 'What are you doing there, Betty?' And I said, 'I'm just drawing'. She said, 'Show it to me. Show it to me', and I thought oh, isn't this terrible. Here am I going to get into a most dreadful row. And she looked at it and she smiled. She was a wonderful old nun. And she said, 'Would you let me keep this as a souvenir?' and I was thrilled. It was the first compliment I'd ever been paid so I've never forgotten it. That would be seventy-odd years ago.

When you finished school, what was it planned that you should do?

Well, Mary had gone north just ahead of me, and of course, I was just dying to go north and when I went north, then I began to see even more clearly, and got on to the black and white drawings that I've ... that illustrated our first books together. That's going right back to the early thirties now.

So you finished school, and you and Mary went ... travelled north.

Yes.

With your father?

No we went up and ... Dad had gone up a bit earlier. I remember the first time we went up with mother and backwards and forwards then and it's been backwards and forwards ever since. Except, as I say, those journeys were made by boat which was lovely. It was a beautiful boat trip. It took two weeks to get from Fremantle to Darwin, and turned around and back and so it was a month that you could spend on the boat, and that was the beginning of tourism for the north, because to get away from the cold, bleak Perth winter, people would go up on that boat. But now they don't do that, you know. The boat doesn't run taking passengers.

And when you went with Mary north, what was it to do?

Well at first we weren't doing anything very much. You know, we were just looking around the stations and doing ... Mary was doing her writings and I was doing my drawings. It was later on that we sort of settled in more, and stayed through, because we used to come down for the ... for the summer, you see. We'd come down about ... again at the end of the cattle working year. We'd come down about October or November, and then the season opened again in May, and it was later that we stayed on through the wet. Not too many people stayed on through the wet and we just loved it. And of course that came on to the time when we were looking after Ivanhoe station.

Could you tell me how old you were, and how that happened, and the story of you and Mary going to Ivanhoe station.

Yes, well, I think it had a beginning in the fact one of the cooks died. And I think it was my idea to say that well perhaps we could do the cooking, Mary, and then we did, and we stayed on through the wet. And we were also saving some money too, because we had the idea of going to ... going away. Our father was never very keen on us being in the north, actually. The ambition of most of the men of dad's generation was to sell out and re ... reposition yourself in the city so the stations were always for sale, but it was not an easy saleable proposition: Connor Doherty & Durack. It was a very big block of land. There was a uniform brand right through and so it was ... but it was always loosely for sale. [Laughs]

So really, your father's idea was to make his fortune with this land ...

Yes.

... And then spend it on gentlemanly things in the city.

Yes. Or safer, more secure properties further south. The north was in a very bad state of Depression, too, right through this time. If cattle had have been booming, perhaps we would never had gone north, you know. But the Depression was right over Australia in the late ... by the late twenties, early thirties and I think that worried dad. He thought we might get caught in not being able to be more mobile. So to a large extent, he liked the idea of our getting right away from the north.

What did he want you and Mary to do?

Well, he was terribly responsive to the idea of doing the books and he was terribly thrilled when the first little publication came out in 1934, I think it was. And it was called All About and it was about the Argyle station. And he loved that, you know. He loved that and was always immensely encouraging, very much so.

How did it actually get published?

We sent it first to Angus & Robertson and then Angus & Robertson knew somebody who was in charge of Endeavour Press at The Bulletin, and they thought it would be more suitable for that. And it went to Endeavour Press and they published it. They published All About and they published the second one, Chunuma, and the third one, I think, too, yes. So that ... that ... we had sort of set on that ... that path by that time.

During the time that you and Mary were in charge of the property at Ivanhoe, what did you have to do? What was your daily life like?

Well, we had the store, the store keys, and we were in charge of the kitchen and there was quite a big group of Aboriginal people there, of course. During the wet they went on their walkabout but they never all went at the one time. There would be groups who'd go one ... for one fortnight and they'd interchange like that. But it was just a full routine of station life, really. Although, again, during the wet season, it was fairly quiet, and our brother, Reg, was managing Argyle, the adjoining station and he was sort of ... between us we were all working.

So the image we have of these two late teenage girls running the property, which is quite an astonishing one, didn't seem so amazing to you.

Not really, no. No.

You were well supported.

Yes, yes.

Could you tell me about what was happening during that time, about your interaction with the Aboriginal people ...

Well, that was the time that we were able to get the firmest bridge into it, because we were literally, for months on our complete own: just two girls, with Aboriginals there. And then, in their ever accommodating way, it was they that drew us into their families, you see. So we became the sisters to the women, and their children were our children and there was very much of an interfamily relationship. And ... and this was when I did a great body of work too, which later was distilled down to the first children's book that Mary and I did, called The Way of the Whirlwind and it was during that time that we did get deeply into it, although probably not as deeply in as when I was up there as a more mature woman with my own studio. But that was in the middle 1940s, after the war.

And during this time that you were a young girl, up there with the Aboriginal people, what sorts of things did you do with them?

Well, the running of the place was done between us, you see. There were always plenty of ... the days were ... it's hard to ... hard to recapitulate the quietness of the days really. Although it didn't seem quiet at ... at the time. But the day took on its pattern of the ... they'd come up and sweep the house right through and set the table, and do all the things that were quietly done on stations all over Australia. And then, if there was stock activity, there'd be a head stockman who we'd talk to and say what he was going to do for that day. And then during the wet there was always the problem of keeping the beef up, because it was often so wet, that you couldn't ... couldn't get ... go out to get a killer. And that's why we used to kill goats for meat. There was a large herd of goats at Ivanhoe. And all these activities, they were largely both domestic and ... and again, a sort of a interrelationship. It was the starting of long walks that I went for with it ... No cars of course. And the horses were always too precious to use.

What was ... what was the purpose of the walks? The walks you went on with the Aboriginal people.

Just because it was so lovely to go walking with them and to learn about the bush, and the way they'd tell you about the bush. And find all the ... classify the plants for you, and show you their different methods of the way they might have done it before the white man came because there'd always be casual food collected on the way. You know, we'd always kill a few lizards. And they'd have dogs and we'd probably hunt ... they'd hunt a kangaroo and that sort of thing. And then there were lovely walks from Ivanhoe to the ... to the Carr Boyd Ranges that were just near there, about eight or nine old miles away, which made a nice walk. And at the edge of the ranges, there were beautiful rock pools all along, so you could spend the morning getting to the rock pool and you could refresh yourself at the rock pool and boil the billy and all this sort of thing, and then quietly get back to the station by ... by dark, having absorbed unconsciously a good deal of knowledge in the meantime.

Were you drawing them?

Yes, yes always drawing. Always drawing, yes.

What did they think of that?

They loved it. They loved me drawing them. For ... for a while I used to ... they used to come up and I'd sometimes do ... as I've still got quite a lot of them ... careful portraits. And they'd sit as still as possible. They wouldn't ... wouldn't blink an eye. They'd ... and then they'd look at it afterwards, and always be ... they were always thrilled about it.

Did you see any of their art work?

They weren't doing very much art work at all. No, the Kimberley natives didn't do bark drawings. Kimberleys renowned for its great rock paintings and galleries. And of course, we went to those with dad. We went to those. He ... Dad was always interested in their old life and he ... some of the older blacks ... we did go riding then into some fantastic places. It was a really very strong emotional experience to come out of the bright glare into an overhanging rock and see it springing to life with ancient totemic creatures depicted there. The Lightning Brothers, or the Rainbow Serpent scrawled across a huge surface [had] immense effect upon ... upon a young person raised in a conventional convent education.

Did they teach you much about their beliefs and their practices?

We were learning. We were learning all the time, yes. There was the knowledge of it there. We were sort of absorbing it. It was there, and you know ...

You'd been raised in a convent. Were you conscious of a different form of spirituality that they were practising among themselves?

Yes, yes, I'd say definitely we were. Yes, particularly so.

So were you ever asked to any of their ceremonies?

Oh, the women would ask us quite often. They'd let us know that they ... one form of their art that was ... there'd be a time of the year that they'd be doing a special dance or something like, and they'd tell us all about that and so that we'd go down to their camp. And yes we were ... oh, and of course on the station it was just routine to go down to the corroborees when the camp came in. That was just routine. When the camp had been out mustering cattle for perhaps two or three months, they'd come in and a party atmosphere then existed within the ... within the Aboriginal camps. And they'd tell us quite excited that there was going to be real corroboree that night. We'd come down, you know ... 'Come down with it', and so we'd pad down to the river with one of the old girls carrying a hurricane lamp, and we'd ... and they'd have their corroboree and that was quite a routine, two or three times a year with the camp coming in. It was wonderful too. The real corroboree, the real corroboree.

Were there any of them that were secret, that you weren't allowed to go to?

I'm sure. But they wouldn't have said, 'Now, this is secret, you mustn't come'. They'd invite you to something that was open, you see. It wasn't anything ... in fact, probably by that time, the more complex ceremonies had already died out, you see. The more elaborate ones had died out with the breakdown of their old culture, you see. It was ... it was becoming fragmentary, but it was still there, and ... and sort of viable as supporting them.

When you were young there, experiencing it just as part of life, did you have any sense as a young girl that there was something that was disappearing?

Oh, very much so. Oh yes, you could tell. Yes, yes. They'd tell you ... they'd tell you themselves. They'd say, 'That's where we been having big camp there, and it all finished now. All finished now. We don't go'. And you see it was - it was the terrific logic of it. A big part of the Aboriginal life is to ... is to have their degrees of rites of increase. There are degrees of it, from small ones to big ceremonies. I never saw any big ceremonies, but sometimes you would be walking with them, and they'd do a small, almost casual ceremony for the increase of ... could be an insect, could be a sugar bee, you see. It could be something like that. They'd just tell you. But they were already getting casual, and the big ceremonies were long over, yes.

Your parents weren't at all worried about their two young daughters being up there alone in that situation. Why do you think that was?

Well, I suppose they trusted us, and trusted the blacks and I don't think they worried. We wrote every month. [Laughs]

It does, in fact, show quite a lot of trust in that whole community up there, to take care of you.

The whole thing was built on trust, yes.

And you say that they drew you in and made you members of their family.

Yes.

How did that work?

Just because it set up a nice easy-going relationship, I think. Yes. And it's still there. I saw my classificatory son the other day. He's the ... he was the lead witness for the Mirriawong-Gajerrong land claim, that's over that direct area, proceeding right now in courts held under a coolabah tree. You might have read of it in your Sydney press, have you?

Yes, and he's your son ... How did that come about? Can you explain it?

Because he was a little boy - the model of many of the early books. This is Jeffery Chunuma. And it was ... that was ... he always tells everyone that I grew him up, that I was his mum. And when we meet, as we did only the other day, he just puts his arms out and says, 'Mum', you know. So that was a rather thing that happened, oh, two or three years ago in Kununurra. Now, they have the big Warringarri Centre, you know, with a big staff, and oh, a very big Aboriginal Centre there in Kununurra. And I hadn't let anyone know I was going, and I went out and there was the ... it was staffed by ... in this case there were several white people there and I remember saying, 'Well, is Jeffery Chunuma in town, is he anywhere round?' and they sort of looked me up and down a bit and they thought, what's this old relic from ancient colonial days or something. And I said, 'Oh, I'd just like to see him', and they were a little bit guarded. And then ... I could tell they sort of wondered what was what, you see, and then ambling along across the flat comes Jeff Chunuma, you see, and I could tell these were very, very politically correct young men behind the counter of the Warringarri office, if you know what I mean. And then along comes Jeff. Because Jeff's the one, although he's not literate, he is signing the cheques at Warringarri. And he writes 'Jeff' ... takes a minute to write 'Jeff'. And of course, when he saw me, his face just lit up ... lit up, and we just embraced each other as we always did. 'Mummy! My mummy', this sort of ... and the young men behind the counter: 'Now we've seen everything. What's this?' ...[Laughs] It was not without its humour. So it was much the same the other day when I was there, you see, after all the rumpus and being so ...

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