Australian Biography

Margaret Fulton - full interview transcript

Tape of 10

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At school, in those days, did you learn how to cook?

Yes, and it the dread of my father that I'd cook something for him. I can remember saying, 'Now dad, you know ... Mum I'm going to cook dad's breakfast', and she would sort of look a bit dazed at me. And I'd say, 'Now, we're going to have...', and poor dad would come in and I'd do this ... whatever it was. When I was doing invalid cookery it was awful because I learned to make brains in white sauce and I think father thought he'd never tasted anything like it in his life because mother used to do brains in a little butter. And she even knew then about black butter sauce, and you know, mum's brains were certainly weren't anything like my brains. I really don't know how I ever thought about food, from the food I learnt to cook at school. I learnt to make doorstops, you know, which would have been a loaf of bread intended, but you could have used it as a doorstop. Mad things ... mad things they taught us. For my final ... when I was doing my Higher School Certificate, or Leaving Certificate, you know, to leave school, I was presented with a big twelve foot damask table cloth, which I had to iron with the flat iron. And this was part of an exam. Now, if you're learning to iron damask, a little napkin would do. You know, you've got to get it damp. But you couldn't do this stupid thing, you know. I think the Education Department has a lot to answer for, for my period of education. It was just ... I mean there must have been good teachers, and there must have been other ways of doing things. I think they were just like treating us like we were kids in reform schools, and had to be taught a lesson and the lessons weren't very sensible. I learnt to cook so badly, and I learned what could have been, you know, cooking really awful food. I remember we were taught how to make soup and you made stock and you just put the vegetables in. And I saw this carrot going in with a clod of dirt on it. And I said to the teacher, 'Do you ever wash the carrots first?' 'Oh, if you're very fussy', I'm told and I'm looking at this big clod of oh, it's best forgotten ... best forgotten.

So did you take notice of it at the time, or did you just learn to cook from your mother?

Well, when you're the youngest of a family of six and dinner's coming along, and say for a dessert you're having a custard, that custard has to be stirred. So guess who gets the job of stirring the custard? The youngest member of the family, who can just sit there and stir away. And you know you knew not to let it get curdled, and you knew not to ... you know, all of those things. I was taught to care, and watch, and, you know, everything like that. Mother would sometimes send me down to the greengrocer to get some tomatoes, and if I bought back a squashy tomato, I had to take it back because, you know, you can't ... you can;t use that. 'Go back, Margaret, and learn to watch what you're doing', so at a very young age, I learnt that the first thing you had to do was to have good ingredients, to shop carefully, and to be ... to be careful. If I went to the butcher, and he cut a piece of steak thick that side, ... you know, that thick and then it went down to that thick, I would have to go back with that. 'Watch what you're buying, Margaret. It's good money that's going into this. Now it's got to be the same thickness right through'. So basically, I learnt there. And then when the food was ... when the food was being being prepared for the family, yes, I ... I would be part of it. I also learned an important thing from Mother. We'd be sitting down and eating and we'd all be saying, 'What happened, you know, during the day?' and Mother would sort of get rather stony faced, and we'd think oh, what's the matter with mother? She's not ... you know, she's not a part of this and then we'd realise we hadn't said anything about the food. We were talking about us, our exciting days, and what the teacher did and what somebody else did and then somebody would wake up: 'Oh mother, this is lovely. Where did you get the recipe?' and then she'd beam and she'd say, 'Well, I was listening to the radio today and this came over the radio. This would be from Inverell. And they said...', and she would tell us what ... what the recipe was and she was part of it. And I think all of these things make a mealtime a happy time. And it also makes you ... being a bit careful about watching what the reaction of somebody, and being aware that somebody's feeling left out of it. So we were being taught manners, as well as the joy of the food, the joy of the family together, you know. In ... in my very first book I write about the importance of a family dinner ... dinner table and how a good day, you know, turned into a celebration when you could go home and tell the family what had happened. And then a bad day didn't seem so bad when you shared it with the family because it was one of the things that I always felt, that you went out into the world and things happened to you, and things didn't happen to you, you know, a whole lot of good and bad, but when you share it with the family, and I learned later, when you share it with a friend, a good day does turn into a celebration, and a bad day doesn't seem so bad. So it was a lovely memories of my childhood and my meals and things.

Now you came to Australia in the late twenties, which was about when the Depression was hitting Australia. Did that affect your household at all?

It was very interesting, my early memories in Glen Innes, because being on the New England Highway, I hadn't realised, but there was always ... Dad would be sending someone up to the house from the shop: 'Oh, would you like some wood chopped', or, 'Would you like some...', 'Mr. Fulton sent me up to say could I do something in the garden?', or do somethingand I was aware of these people, who, you know, I would wonder where they slept last night, or where they were going to sleep and sometimes they were allowed to sleep in a sort of an area we had. Food was always plentiful in my home and things seemed to be rolling on. But I began to realise that we had this passing parade of strangers, who had a look of desperation in their faces, which isn't lost on a ... you know, when you're the youngest of a family of six and you're used to looking and watching people, I could tell that these men had a very, very different look in their faces. The Depression went on and we still had food to eat, and clothes to wear but I remember when one of my brothers left school and went up ... he went on the road. And I hadn't realised what this meant but one day mother got a postcard from Cairns, which is you know, the northern ... northern Queensland, and this postcard had a funny looking fellow looking dazed, and a coconut had dropped on his head and I thought it looked a little bit like John. That was my brother's name. And when the other side was turned and mother read it and John said, 'Things are going fine. The food drops from Heaven in this part of the world', and mother looked at it and burst into tears and it was one of the few times I saw mother cry. But I suppose the thought of one of her sons, you know, waiting for something to drop on his head from Heaven ... It was very touching. And it hit home to me that gosh, John's like these people that pass by and come to chop wood and that was my brother.

So he'd left school, didn't have a job, and instead of staying around and eating the food of the household, decided that it was important for him to find his own way.

Well I think, he was always a terrible scamp, and I think he thought it was, you know, going to be fun, [laughs]oing up there. I don't think he thought of it as a tragedy that it happened to him, which you don't know that it's going to be a tragedy. Because when you've come from my kind of home, you think this is adventure. I'm going off in search of adventure. He wouldn't be the first boy that had left home to search for adventure so that was what he did. But mother, of course, saw it differently, as any woman ... I suppose as any mother would.

So watching these people during the Depression having that struggle, has that left any kind of impression on you in the rest of your life?

Oh yes. If you ... if you can't see that ... people ... I'd heard the expression 'It's not fair, it's not fair', and I know that it's not fair. Yes, it's ... you see it and you see it and you see it again and again. No, it's not ... it's got nothing to do with fairness. And it's awful. I don't know how people ... everyone can be equal. I've tried ... you know, I've tried to do things that are going to make things equal for people. Or ... but I remember a few years ago in Cairo, we'd gone to a mosque, and there was a little kitten running around playing with things. You know how ... little tiny weeny little kitten. And it was playing and it was so happy and then there was another little kitten [which] had been run over by a cart, and it's back had been broken and it was crawling ... crawling around and it was again a reminder: it's not fair. It's awful that things can happen to some people and some animals and some things, and not to others. Not that it ... yes, it's just not fair.

Now, back there in Glen Innes, you were at ... at school. You finished high school.


What stage did you leave?

Oh, I went to ... in those days it was called my Leaving Certificate. It was also an interesting time when the government was realising that they needed to know more about nutrition and I was ... I was given a scholarship to go to Sydney University, specifically to study nutrition. I don't think it ... it was considered in my family circle a great ... 'Oh, Margaret's made it to a university', which surprised everyone but I think it was because they were looking for the right kind of people for ... to ... to make a study of nutrition. But yes, I finished, and I came down to Sydney, from Glen Innes, at this time.

Intending to take up this exhibition, this scholarship?

No, I wasn't intending to take up any scholarship, or ... or ... it wasn't ... no, I was more excited about ... I wanted to be a dress designer. But of course, during that time, you couldn't be a dress designer. You had to work in Turner's parachute factory. It was all essential industry so you had to do something essential so ...

So by this time the war had started?

The war was on. They were making parachutes so that we could jump out of aeroplanes and we were also sending planes up into the air that were falling apart in the air and my sister felt that I should be doing something instead of this playing around that I did, or I looked like I was going to do, I ... she made me apply for a job at Commonwealth ... Commonwealth something Laboratories, where I became a radiographer because I'd done science, or had done ... you know, they were pushing people into the silliest ... putting ... making daft decisions, except they were ... they wanted somebody to x-ray these nuts and bolts. And I used to ...

Why were they x-raying nuts and bolts?

Because the aircraft were falling ... the aircraft were falling apart in the air and they had a suspicion that it was the nuts and bolts [that were] deficient. You know, there were a lot of deficient things made during the war and these aeroplanes were falling apart. So I just used to ... yes, nuts and bolts was ... that was my job, x-raying them for ... for defective ... and of course they were finding that a lot of them were very defective. And it did put a halt to this ... this terrible thing that was happening to our airmen. But after a while I began to hate it and I didn't think it at all a worthy ... you know, I knew it was worthy, but I felt somebody else could do the worthy bit. I got out of that job by telling a lie. I said I was pregnant. And ... they said, 'You can't leave, this is essential industry. You've got to stay here'. I said, 'Well, I'm not going to be able to come for much longer, because I'm pregnant', and they were terribly shocked at this and there was great silence all around, because in those days girls didn't get pregnant. Or if they did, they didn't talk about it. And here was this perfectly nice little young person, boasting ... not boasting, but you know, making a statement, 'I'm pregnant', and so they said, 'Oh well, we'll have to let you go'. But what I'd got my mind on was a job ... I'd decided that or I'd been told that what would be very good ... there's going to be three big things after the war, for women. There's going to be cosmetics, there's going to be the energy. I didn't know what energy was. I thought it was something you had in you. But ... or there's going to be food. And I thought, food is the thing. I had a vocational guidance test that said I was ... I had got maximum marks for colour, design, form and I was good at English. I could write twenty words if I had to write twenty. And I thought I wanted to get into food and in advertising was the place to be. And to get into advertising, I had to know more about food - food advertising. And I went to the gas company. I got a job ... because it was an essential industry, I could work in the office. And so I'd sit in this office doing, looking at ledgers and things, and somebody gave me a tip: 'Margaret, if you really want to progress, just don't fall asleep after lunch'. I used to fall asleep after lunch. So I'd have to remember, oh don't fall asleep, because I was so bored. But then they did move me to the cookery ... where we had cookery classes. And then I became ... I didn't fall asleep ever again at work because I just ... I just loved it.

What were the cookery classes like at the gas company, compared with what you'd been learning at school?

Well, they were a degree better. What you did get is terribly good at making scones. You got very good at making little patty cakes. You got very good at making sponges. And you got all right at making ... you got good at making pastry. Because in those days they were wanting people to use ... cook with gas, and also they were trying to say that gas was better than electricity and that it could produce these beautiful results. And they're still the things that show a person's skill at baking, or a good oven, or a good thing like that. I got terribly good at doing those things, because I did them, you know, four times a day, every day of the week.

How long were you there, in the gas company, in this sort of training period?

Well long enough. One of the things I ... I progressed pretty quickly and they ... one of the interesting things I did at that time, [was] The Blind Society. They were thinking, if people who were blind could learn to cook ... And I was the first person to teach blind people to cook. And it was lovely, because these people came to my class, and I said, 'Well, I don't know how it is to be blind, but I'll teach you ... I'll tell you what I'm doing and you can tell me if you're getting the message or not', and it was just lovely, because at that period, if you were blind, people ... your family hid you. They didn't want anyone to know that they had a blind daughter or a blind son. You weren't allowed to go out in the street. You weren't allowed to do anything. You weren't allowed to touch anything. From these blind people, I also learned how awful it is to be dysfunctional in any way. And you were made to feel that. So what happened with the cooking classes, I entered ... I sort of entered into this like, well, 'Let's go', and off we were. And they ... they were telling me, 'It's just been marvellous. She's made us feel like, you know, you're a bit dysfunctional ...' - we didn't use the word dysfunctional, because it wasn't around in those days - 'But, you know, you're making it feel that we're learning from you and you're learning from us', and I'd say, 'Now, this is what you've got to get: a cup of flour. This is how you do it', and they'd feel around and feel for the cup of flour. 'And then you've got to get a cup of water. Now you've got these little ridges', or whatever it was, milk. And it was lovely. And then when ... when I'd say, 'Now you can feel that dough', and they'd all be feeling the dough. And then I'd show them how you patted it into a shape and made cut-outs with these scones and they thought it was marvellous. And then I'd put it on the tray, and 'How do you know the oven's hot? You do this, and put your hand in and don't burn yourself'. All of the lovely things. And then when they came out of the oven, I said, 'Now, I know they're cooked, because I can tell. They're golden brown on the top, they're this', and I'd tap them. And they said, 'Yes, we can hear ... we can hear that sound', and then they said, 'Yes, and they've got a smell'. So it was a lovely experience, because I learnt from them and they learnt from me, and also it helped take them out of their selves, being told they couldn't do anything. And it also taught me to actually express what I was doing, so that anyone could understand it. It was a ... it was a big ... a big turning point in my life, because I learnt what teaching is, what it can be.

And so how long were you there for, at the gas company?

Oh, too long. Very soon I was offered a job ... or I was offered a job when after the war, when we started making pressure cookers. And Sir John Storey, who had been the head of the aircraft corporation, he got a whole lot of women to give their saucepans for the war and that was for making aeroplanes. And then he was left with all these scrap saucepans, and he ... they learnt about pressure cooking. And so he made pressure cookers, and he wanted somebody to be the home economist, as we were called, for these ... these pressure cookers. So I went into the company as the home economist for these ... telling people how to use these pressure cookers. Anyway, he met ... he was very impressed with what I did, and he said ... somebody had got the sack, and they were looking for a new sales manager for New South Wales, and all of the salesman were saying who was going to get the job and then Margaret Fulton got the job. And I said, 'I can't sell', and Sir John Storey said, 'Yes, you can. You've sold me'. So I got the job of selling pressure cookers to retail stores and I was so naive. I was told if we could get orders six months ahead, it would help them with the supply of aluminium. So in all innocence I went off to, you know, leading retailers, and said, 'Look, if you can give me an order for six months it would be such a help', and of course, these men who'd missed out on the job, were laughing at this silly girl thinking she could get six month orders. And I got the six month orders and I came back. And said, 'Yes, well they've done it'. It ... it is amazing what, when somebody believes in you, what can happen, you know. You just need somebody to believe in you, and I had Sir John Storey. And then he'd say to me, 'You're not spending enough, Margaret, on ... you've got to entertain these ...'. I sai, 'How I can take this pompous businessman out to lunch and pay the bill?' because it was so against anything that ... he said, 'Of course you can', so I learnt to pay the bill. And I learnt to ... all of the things that you have to do in business.

But I did actually meet my Waterloo, when I went to Canberra, when I had to see a man who was the secretary to the ... the Treasury, you know. He was ... because we were wanting to get to buy raw ingot aluminium from America and from Canada and so we were having a meeting in Canberra. And this was big time. We had dinner one evening with the head of the Melbourne Stock Exchange and we ... it was very nice. There was Sir Percy Nette and this man and myself. However, they wanted to talk further, and I went to bed and about two o'clock I got a telephone call, telling me, 'We don't have that sort of thing in the hotel, Miss Fulton. You'll have to get out tomorrow, you know. This is ... we don't ...', and I said, 'What sort of thing?' I was in a deep sleep. 'Entertaining men in your bedroom', and I said, 'There's no man in my bedroom'. 'No, he's gone', says this night watchman. However, I phoned Sir Percy Nette in the morning and said, 'Look, a terrible thing's happened', and I told him and he got the head of the Melbourne Stock Exchange, and we had a confrontation with the ... with the manager of the hotel, who quite ... he wasn't giving any ground. 'No, we don't have this in the hotel. We don't have these kind of women', and here I was doing a big deal and getting ... getting a sort of a ration for big industry. And I came back to ... There was no apology at all and I came back to Sydney and my sort of boyfriend met me at the airport with a bunch of flowers. He said, 'What's the matter?' and I told him what had happened and he said, 'Oh, look, I'll take you away from this. We'll get married', and I said, 'Good', and he gave me a bunch of flowers. So we got married and that was the last bunch of flowers I got. And you know, yes, it was ... It was a very interesting thing, because I ... it was just hopeless trying to be a business woman. You could do it, as ... you know, they had confidence in me, and everything I did I was successful in, except the established attitude of people to women in business.

And you got married to get out of it?

I got married. Well, when somebody says let me take you away from all of this, it seems a nice thought.

Who was he?

Trevor Wilfred Price. I'd met him. He was a soldier who'd passed through the town on his way up north. He was ... the ... the wonderful thing that of course did happen out of the marriage is I thought I'd leave him, but I left him with ... I left him, really, with a surprise package. I was going to England. My mother had died and I was going to Scotland with my father, because I had planned to go with my mother, but of course when she died I went off with my father and I ... travelling through the Great Australian Bight, on a big ship, I thought I was seasick. And I thought was still seasick when I got to Colombo, went through. When I arrived in London, I was still seasick, and then I found that I was pregnant. But I'd really left him. I left him well and truly. I think I got careless and sloppy and didn't think about that he ... what he was leaving me with. So I got to England, and I'd been offered a marvellous job in England. But when I realised that Australia was the place to ... just as my father thought that Scotland was a place to have - Nairn was a place to have children - I thought Sydney ... I'd go back to Sydney. And I had my only daughter, Suzanne. So although it seemed like tragedy at the time, it ended up being, you know, wonderful, because I got the most wonderful daughter who ... you know, who's given me great happiness. But, you know, even then, it was awful, because in hospital she had a little face that was just like my husband's and he said, 'How do I know she's mine?' because I'd gone off. He said, 'How do I know she's mine?' and I thought, 'You cad! You nasty person'. I hadn't realised that ... that all in the animal kingdom, the animal world, of which I'm part, that a child will look like the father, they know who the mother is because they've come from a mother, but there has to be this identification, so that the male does know that it is his child. And what ... what I thought was amazing that she had his blue eyes and square jaw and blonde hair, instead of my black ... black hair and brown eyes. But I sort of ... it was the beginning of the end when a father, you know, saying he doesn't want to recognise his child. And I left soon after that.

So you ... she was really ... from the moment she was born, you were a single mother?

Very soon after, yes. Because it be ... be ... bcomes impossible. When you've got strong instincts about people's rights and I thought how can a child go through life with a father that really wanted to deny that ... you know, that she was his child?

But in any case, the marriage had been over before you realised ...

Oh, it had got ... my marriage was over.


I mean, there was I in bed with him, dreaming of what I was going to do in Scotland and England and I should have been dreaming about what I was doing right there and then. But sometimes, you know, bed's bed, and sex is sex. I don't think the sex bit was all that big in my mind. It was just how long ... how soon can I get out of this situation that I don't like at all.

And how had you been drawn to him in the first place? What sort of a person was he?

Oh, well he played a guitar and he sang. And, oh, for a country girl, you know, to have somebody that can strum away and say ... sing 'moonlight becomes you, goes with your hair', it was just lovely, you know. You know, I ... just the whole thing of you know, a good song and a good strum, and a good ... yes, and someone from another world. It was just ... seemed exciting. It was silly as anything.

And was that ... and why was it silly? I mean in the sense that, you know, what ... what was missing for you? This was a young girl who made a decision because he could sing and play the guitar.

Reason. Reason was missing. You know, any kind of sensible approach to life was missing on my part. ni, it was just reason. It was the silliest reason for marrying. If I'd ... when you go through life, and life's a bit of a ball, you don't ... and you haven't really had any hitches, you don't think there's going to be a hitch in your life. You just think it's something you do and it was something I did.

Sometimes people marry for very bad reasons, and then discover that it's okay and they can make a go of it. What was actually wrong with the marriage itself?

I think first of all that he ... he was a mummy's boy. His mother adored him. He was shielded from everything. He ... he had no good ... apart from the fact that he could play a guitar, he had no ... no moral strength. He just had nothing. He had a pretty face, and a body that worked for me and, you know, he ... he could hold a tune. That was all. But you know, if ... that is pretty heady stuff when you're a country girl. It's pretty heady stuff. And you know, you can't ... it doesn't last for any length of time, of course. And my young nephew ... my sister was absolutely distraught at this, and my mother was distraught. Everyone was distraught. And this little fellow, Billy, who was ten, said, 'Look, she'll get a divorce. Don't get so excited. She'll get a divorce'. And this is this little thing of ten, when divorce wasn't all that common in those days. But he could see that it wasn't, it wasn't really a great tragedy. It's not the end of the world. Because mating, you know, we ... unfortunately he didn't have long legs, so my daughter's a little wee short thing like me. And, I mean, if I'd been thinking genetically, and for a whole lot of other reasons I wouldn't have married him anyway. He wasn't a good ... he wasn't a good .... except that ... that she's ... she's got nice things about both of us.

And so after you did divorce him, you were really bringing up your daughter without a father. Was that difficult at the beginning, for you?

No, it wasn't, because my sister was married to an author, William Hatfield, who'd written some lovely books, Sheep Mates, Australia Through The Windscreen, so it was a literary household and they had a tiny, tiny wee cottage on the Hawkesbury River and they said, 'Come up and live with us'. And I shared a bedroom. You know, it was a tiny, tiny wee bedroom, that could just squeeze between two single beds, and my daughter's cot ... Suzanne's cot went into the ... into the space. But it was just a lovely, lovely period because my sister loved food. She loved ... she loved ... She had ducks that stayed up underneath certain pens. We had ... we used to do deals with the local fisherman. They would give us fish and we'd give them oranges from our orange trees and we used to ... My daughter, Suzie, was brought up, you know, on oysters from the foreshores and then what we used to call spinach and asparagus that used to grow wild. Food that used to grow on the foreshores. We used to go out in our little boat and row around and ... and do things and in the evening, we had a little gas light. And I ... I had got a job and there was a book sale at Angus & Robertson's, and I bought a book, The Way Of All Flesh for a shilling - one shilling and ten cents, you know - and I came back with this prize. Because what I used to do, I used to scale trains and use tickets that ... oh, because we had no money. We had absolutely no money. But I used to get off and I used to hitchhike up on ... from Mooney Mooney, which is near Brooklyn, down to Sydney and I'd hitchhike. And a funny thing happened recently. I was going to buy my granddaughter a car, and she wanted a black car and I said, 'No, you're not getting a black car', and she said, 'Oh, but ...'. My daughter said, 'But Mum, it's nice and it's black', and I said, 'No', because one time when I'd been hitching ... I hitched ... put my hand up for a hitch, and this big black car ... and it had a hearse in the back. It had a dead body in the back, and I thought, oh, my gosh, what have you come to, Margaret Fulton, going up and down the highways with a ... a dead body.

You hitchhiked in a hearse and they stopped for you?

Yes, they did. But I also learnt that it comes in fives or sevens, so this was the fifth thing. I learnt a lot about, you know, burying your dead at that time. At any rate, I wouldn't ... I wouldn't buy my granddaughter this black car. So she got a dark navy blue one. But they all thought, 'Oh mum, that's not like you to be superstitious', and I said, 'No but the memory ... the memory of that was awful'. But I've gone ... I've gone off track.

No, no, no. I'm just fascinated at this young girl who managed to get a hearse to stop for her and give her a lift. [Laughs]

Well I was a very ... you see, I was a very pretty young girl, and ...

[end of tape]

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