Australian Biography

Rosalie Gascoigne - full interview transcript

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In summing up your whole childhood, that whole sort of period in New Zealand, what would you say were the main things that were inculcated in you as a child?

Well, I suppose, you wanted to do things right, to be acceptable. I would put it that way. And you had to do things properly. Well my sister could do them properly, but I couldn't really, really. And nobody - well I suppose too that we were brought up to look at adults as the enemy, you know. And I don't think we were often gently taken aside and told how to do things, really. This is going to sound very peculiar... We were just supposed to know how to do it.

Were you encouraged at all? Were you praised when you did good work?

No, certainly not.

So how did things work? Could you describe it in terms of getting on with things? How - were you criticised?

I don't, I don't, I don't think - you were criticised if you did anything wrong. You didn't - in a household such as ours there was work to be done, and my grandmother's health wasn't the greatest. And my mother was busy. And so you don't get a sense of anybody having much time for you really. And you went away and you played by yourself. And when adults came, you didn't raise your voice. And I remember once, I was about 14 I think, and we were at a beach cottage, and my mother knew some woman who had a child about our age. And they came and they sat in our cottage. And the girl raised her voice and had opinions. And we silently raised an eyebrow, thinking what boldness. How dare she have an opinion. And afterwards our mother said "I wish you children could come out and say things in adult company." We didn't ever do it. We were always covered up with another more suitable adult remark. And it was a sort of an eye-opener to me, because you wouldn't dare to talk to, or have an opinion.

You felt restricted.

Well, you just knew to be quiet. And you were quiet, you see, so you didn't say anything. And I used to be surprised when school friends when I was about 14 and they used to look at their hostesses in the eye and make a remark. I was always looking in the far corner, and the hostess was over there. I wouldn't dare to speak to her as if she were an equal or wanted to hear what I would say. Nothing.

So you didn't feel free to be yourself.

Well I suppose it was a restricted English background probably. And you had your peers amongst children, of course, and you were always a bit bold with them because you were a bit suppressed at home. Although I don't suppose you were really actively suppressed, but people were busy you see, and they didn't have the time. And...

From that early childhood, that very strict and ordered childhood that you've got, did you bring anything that you think has stood you in good stead? Was there anything valuable that you got out of that?

Well I suppose you get, in a way, after decades to sort of know yourself. And I think you realise that you sort of hope. And you certainly know your failings. You certainly know them. Where you don't measure up or whatever. I think you live the way you can, you know. You amass all your pros and you put aside all your cons, or try to rise above them. But I think that's about it.

What made you decide - now getting back to the sort of narrative, getting back to the narrative of that period - you'd met Ben, and Ben had gone off to England. What made you decide to get married?

Well, avenues of escape of course, narrowed. You might say that. And I knew I was always meant to get married, and that was my thing. I felt that, various people had gone off to war, various people had been killed, and it was possible, you see. And he had a good job in Australia, away from NZ - which wasn't a good idea, because I found it very hard to leave. Just that.

What year did you get married?

Oh dear, she asks me - '43 I think, '43. Because we had a child in the first year.

Why, why - did Ben go to the war?

No, no, he couldn't. Well, stammering as he did. His stammer was much worse than it was. He was in England and he came back.

How did he get back from England?

On a ship.

That was a bit difficult, wasn't it?

Well, it was difficult, it was wartime. Yes.

But he managed to get back to New Zealand.

He got back to New Zealand.

And what did married life mean for you? What did you have to do?

It meant a lot of hard work, and I wasn't very good at. It meant a lot of solitude. It meant leaving behind everything I'd known in New Zealand. It meant reassessing yourself, I think, probably. And - well, does one have to spell everything out?

Well I mean just describing - if you could just tell us for story purposes... [INTERRUPTION]

You have to remember that in wartime nobody is shooting at you, and so you can't complain about anything really, you can't. And there were other people a lot worse off. And when the Japanese were going to invade Australia, there was great panic of how they'd all take to the mountains, and Sir Richard Woolley, who was the director, was going to take to the mountains. What he was going to do with his wife I do not know. But...

So when you married Ben, where did you go to live?

Here, Stromlo. Came straight from Auckland to Stromlo.

And what was happening at Mount Stromlo?

Oh, the optics were happening. They were making optics. And a lot of the Canberra women were tying scarves round their heads and going up in the bus and making optics. You see, they loved to do that. Move their family out of domestic homes and into boarding houses and things. And did that. The war effort, you see. And we had a very big dry garden. The heat was - I remember the first summer - I was married in January, and the first summer, walking outside the kitchen door, and the sun hit you like a hammer. It was just amazing. It was a very hot summer. And this I got very - that was a shock, because Auckland isn't like that. And then I had a baby ten months after I was married. So I was struck with morning sickness.


So what happened when you married Ben, where did you go to live?

On the - in the same house that we - there was that big open cold 'built on the south side of the hill' house that we had, designed by someone who sat in London and thought Australia is a sunny place. It was cold. And the air hung purple like that, purple in the passages. And to get a handkerchief, to go down to the bedroom and get a handkerchief was more than you could bear. Stayed in the kitchen by the fuel fire. It was very, very cold. In winter. It was hot in summer of course.

And what was Ben doing there?

Well, he was doing optics for the war effort, you know. They turned Stromlo over into - it was a solar observatory, and they turned it over to making weapons for the - and optics - for the war, you see.

Right. But by this stage, he had moved into astronomy?

Oh yes, he wouldn't have got a job at the observatory if he hadn't been, you see. But they suddenly turned it over to munitions, and they made range-finders and things.

And did all - did other astronomers stay there... doing that work?

Oh yes, they did. They did. We had Cla Allen, we had Richard Woolley and all those people. And they were all contributing to the war effort. So they worked late hours, you know, six o'clock at night and things always. And people were very keen in Canberra.

And you arrived there in winter?

No, no, no, summer.

And what was it like when you arrived?

Well, it was hot. I mean the first, the first impression I got of the place was the colour, the colour. Because you had - the roofs of the houses were orange. And the pine trees were very, that pine green. And the colour. I couldn't get over the colour. And of course the skies were pretty clear. And I remember - but your first impressions fade very quickly. That's what you see first. I remember somebody asking me, and I was stunned with this colourful place, but it dries off, and the blue devil was out in the paddocks, that weed, that prickly weed. And we had never seen that in New Zealand of course.

And the big sky, was that...

Oh yes, huge sky. Lot of air.

And so, what did you think of the place visually when you were there?

That's what I thought. I thought, at first go I thought, well everything was different from New Zealand. The birds, the sparrows were the same. And the big birds, like the currawongs and the magpies, were toppling the bushes, like the fowls of the air, you know. And we didn't have those big birds in NZ, we had thrushes and blackbirds and stuff. But not big birds that sat on the bushes and the bushes squashed, you know... And parrots. Parrots.

So from the beginning, did you see what was attractive about the landscape? I mean were you attracted...

Well, it was new, you see. And I'd never been out of New Zealand before. And it was a very different place. And very isolated. There was a bachelor establishment which really saved my life, because I was sort of used to being in university sort of circles and things. And the housewives, the entrenched people, were mostly assorted. And there was a sort of - they say there's no such thing as a democratic - is that the word I want? - society. Because there were ranks, there were groundsmen you see, and they weren't in with the white-collar workers. It was just the established thing, you see. And you in a place like that made friends with everybody that was compatible, or what not. So you didn't really play the rules. I suppose right from the beginning I didn't play the rules.

So you came there, and where were you expected to fit? What was expected of you?

I wasn't expected to fit at all. I was a wife. The astronomy went on, you see. Nobody expected anything of you, except I think to be sort of docile. And the astronomy came first. And you had dinners, and you asked visiting astronomers or what not. They never knew who you were the next day, you know. But you served the establishment really, and it was expected of you. And I suppose that's what you did.

What about the other wives there?

Well there was, there was one New Zealand woman who welcomed my arrival with open arms. She needed female company. And she'd been brought up on a farm in New Zealand. And she had two small children when I was there, and I had a baby fairly quickly, and she was infinitely useful to me. Because I knew nothing, nothing at all. And - but one of her favourite expressions was 'I know I'm tactless but...' And you waited for it. And you got it, you certainly got it. Screamingly tactless. Yes, but anyway.

So you had your first baby quite quickly...


Without your mother or anybody there. Could you tell me about that? About the arrival of motherhood and how you coped in that isolation.

I can tell you about that all right. I had him in the Canberra Community Hospital and he had pyloric stenosis, which just means you vomit. And so I had a hideous doctor and a hideous matron. And it took me three days to have the baby. And immediately I sat up in my hospital bed, "You've got to take this baby to Sydney, he's got something wrong with it". And this was healthy stuff. And you got the Canberra train, and had to go down by train. And I was in this awful hospital. It was really very traumatic. And in the end they operated, because they had to. And he survived it, you see. So that was okay. But it certainly - I grew older in those years I can tell you.

How old were you when he was born?

I was 25 when I was married. So - and I didn't know anybody you see. We didn't know anybody who came. And it was fairly tough. But then other people were having it tough too.

And in those days the men didn't really participate all that much in that kind of thing.

No, definitely not. Having babies is a natural thing, you see, very natural. You just have it. You don't have morning sickness, because you're very, very well, you know, in the seventh month or something, you're walking around very jubilant. And if they've known people who were seven months pregnant, that's how you should be right from the start. Sick, I was as sick as a dog. But still you don't - everybody's got to find their way.

And so there was quite - quite a hard time for you then...

It was hard, it was hard.

... With that baby...yes... not being well.

No, oh well no, not having friends. This was hard. This was really hard. And except for that tactless woman over the road, she was marvellous to me really. And it was a help.

What were the other wives like?

Well, there was an English woman who was brought up English. And was a housebody. And there was a woman over the fence who came out for a year or so, who said, "You are an educated woman. You read books." Cut me out. And you know, it was very assorted, very assorted women. There weren't really a pair of people at all. And you used to find that, you know, everybody got lonely, and everybody was missing their families and everything else. So on one day you'd feel confessional and you'd tell this chum everything. Oh, dear. Well two weeks later you weren't great friends at all, something had happened. And she'd be passing it on to the neighbours. Just different. So in the end you got that sort of pattern that all small communities get. And I remember when I was leaving Stromlo - we'd been there 17 years, and somebody said "Will you write a script for the ABC, telling people what it's like to live in a small scientific community?" Ha! And so I said yes, but I'll tell it the way it was, and don't play it in Canberra. So I let forth, telling everything, everything. And in the end the ABC hadn't got scripts for Singapore I think it was - the army wives were up there - and so they said "Do you mind if we send your script up?" Well I said go ahead. And one of the army wives wrote back, and she said "It could have been any one of us." And every small community, with the best will in the world, I think gets that way. The children fall out with the tricycles. It's an isolated place. You've got no one to talk to. And so then the mothers fall out, of course, because their horrible child has done something to your dear little thing. And then the men fall out, you see. And the feuds always develop, they always develop. And I'm sure that the scientific communities are just the same as the army communities. It's what the colonel's wife says, you know, that counts. But I was grateful for this woman who - she must have been having a hard time in Singapore I think - she wrote back.

Did some women find it just too hard to...

Yes, they did. They did. There were two women who left. One of them was going to have a nervous breakdown and the husband got her out of it. And the other one really did go a bit peculiar. And I think you had to be sort of fairly strong to survive. And I was cursed with the fact that I was different. I didn't fit in. I always was slightly out of step, because I thought differently and I said things differently. And I think with the woman next door, well the fact that I had had an education was bad news. I read books too, that was the end of me.

What about the men, did you have much to do with the other men, apart from your husband?

Well you might want to. Being university trained you were used to men. But it looked as if you were a man-eater, you see. You wanted - I used to think just for an intelligent conversation, just for something that wasn't about sweeping the clinkers out of the stove, what washing powder you used - that sort of stuff went on all the time. And if you tried - the men were more emancipated than the women, by virtue of circumstance, and they were more interesting to talk to, because they talked about things and happenings. But you didn't do that too often. It was a bad mistake.

Because the other women would think you were after their husbands?

Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes. Oh, yes.

So when there was say a dinner where the men and the women were together...

Very rarely. Yes.

In those circumstances, it was that old thing of the women up one end...

It was that old thing, if you raised your voice and said what you really thought, you see - and university people do say what they really think. But no, it wasn't like that.

So how did you survive?

Well, you found something to survive with, I think. You know, I remember making a large patchwork quilt. It used to be my company at night when the children were in bed and Ben used to go up the observatory to do his work, I used to spread these coloured patches around the floor and put them together. And beg what scraps of material I could from anybody, because you couldn't even buy it, you see, in those days. And one woman - I will never forget her - she said - I said "Could I have a piece of that dress you're making?" and two weeks later, she said "Well, when I've finished wearing the dress you can have it." She wouldn't give it to me.

She didn't want to be in your quilt.

No, she didn't, no. It was like that. And everything I did was, you know, I expected the only answer was yes. Yes.

What else did you do to pass the time?

Ah, the washing. The clothes-line up on the windy hill. Stoking the fire, you know. Meals. All that sort of stuff. I didn't do anything really. There wasn't time. There was exhaustion at the end of the day. And there wasn't much offering really. And the only meeting place on the mountain was up at the observatory you see. And when the mail came in you could walk up and get the mail. And that was your big time of social contact.

Did you go for walks?

Yeah, I did. When, you see the baby was little, well I certainly, when I was tied to the house I didn't, but when the children got bigger, I used to walk out in the paddocks. And I always think if a snake bites me nobody will know where I am. And they wouldn't either. Used to walk - there was the Murrumbidgee flowing way down there, way back. And you'd be back in time for the school bus or whatever.

Did you like those walks?

Oh yes, I did.

What was it about the walks...

I liked finding things. I liked driftwood. I liked seeing places, new places. Streams and things.

And apart from the quilt, were there other things that you started doing that gave some sort of expression to your desire to make things?

I made a quilt. It did take 17 years. I did a quilt, and then when I roamed the mountain I used to find a lot of big dried Australian branches, you see. Different from New Zealand. And I started making dried arrangements. And I used to bring things in and put them on the mantelpiece. Not that there was much on the mantelpiece, because people didn't have any money to buy anything you see. So I used to put them there, people used to say "Get her. Look at that dirty thing she's got on the mantelpiece." That was me, you see. But I didn't want these things up on David Jones's escalator, and I certainly didn't want to polish my floor. Which a lot of them did want to do, did it. They were good housewives, you see.

And were you a good housewife?

No, I was a very bad housewife. And I hated it. You did it one week and then you had to do it the next week. Well, what was the use of that? None at all. I did try it. I tried the washing on Monday and the ironing on Tuesday bit. Two weeks and I was absolutely exhausted. All my time was mortgaged up. So Tuesday's no good, I can't go out, I can't do anything. I've got to do the ironing, you see. Well that lasted for about two weeks. And they kept their houses, some of them, very neat. And we had one ex-nurse, she was a noble woman, very noble. Told you too. And she used to say, "You know, that woman, she's got no idea. You see her washing hanging on the line, and there's her pyjama pants down there. Then there's a lot of tea towels. Then there's the pyjama coat". And I thought, I never knew people bothered about things like that. You put the darn things out to get dry and bring them in again. But you know, those were the sort of standards. And in the end, you get sort of cramped, because you really want them to like you. You want someone to like you, goodness knows. And so you find yourself sort of hiding or things, and conforming things. And if they should catch you with your dishes undone and your - well, it was bad.

And did they catch you?

Oh, often, often, often! Every time you opened the door, there was some woman there looking.

And you had to feel ashamed?

Yeah, I did. Oh, I did. Well I had plenty to be ashamed of, too. I didn't do it.

What about motherhood, did you enjoy it?

Well I had it, I had to have it, you see. This is, I really needed to have children, so I had them. I got very tired though, I really was very tired. And the house was a really a backbreaker, you know, it really was. You could never get finished, and I used to be so tired in the afternoon, I used to have to have a sleep. And bat down the wretched child, who wouldn't go to sleep. You know. And you used to, like many other mothers did in New Zealand, I believe, you'd sort of get out of bed in the morning and you'd pat the bed and think it's 12 hours before I can get back here again. You know, short of sleep, everybody was though. Except my tactless woman, who had five boys with no trouble at all it seemed to me. And was a good housekeeper.

But in relation to your children, you yourself had had a childhood in which you felt that to some extent you were neglected. You were...

Oh yes, I was.

What happened then when you had your own children?

Well, you see, you welcome your children. They are your company. You get them off the school bus and you expect them to chatter away. Of course, they don't want to see mother at all, mostly, when they get a bit older, about what happened at school today and what not. But they did come to be your company. They really were. You looked for them. And so we were a very close-knit family, really.

So you were much closer to your children than your mother had been to you?

Oh yes, I was, I was.

Do you think this was part of your need? Do you think that there was a little bit - when you say you needed to have children, what do you mean by that?

Oh, well, to satisfy me and to - I don't know what it was. But I knew that marriage without children would be hopeless for me, just hopeless. I suppose you need love, or something like that. And children's love is very undemanding.

I was wondering whether, perhaps unconsciously of course, that because you yourself had not really had that connection that you might have wanted as a child, that you wanted children to do it properly...

Well maybe you did. It probably was mixed up in everything. But I knew - I remember my mother looking at me doubtfully and thinking you better not have any more, it takes too much out of you. And it did take a lot out of me, and I worried, and sort of what not. But I certainly needed them, and I certainly - I had two boys and a girl you see - and I certainly wanted that girl.

And so your children in fact gave you a lot of pleasure.

Oh yes, they did, they did. Oh, it would be unthinkable not to have children, especially in a place like that, where all your focus was on - well, I suppose I wanted love, you know, that sort of closeness and things. And I think being a New Zealander made me an outsider. I think per se it does. We're different people you know. We were - well especially in those times, and you wanted your own people around you. But then I found that, well could I cope you see with a lot of other people's lives? Because I wasn't one of those people who were going to sink yourself for the sake of your children. You see. I think my daughter was shocked because she read in some interview I had the other day 'So having children wasn't enough for you, was it?' And I said no, it wasn't. It wasn't enough. You know, I had to have them but it wasn't enough.

There was another kind of love growing at this time though, wasn't there? And that was the love of that landscape.

Oh yes, that's - that's for sure. That was my, my - what will I say? - the thing I clung to. I really did. If I didn't have that I didn't have much, I thought at the time.

And so you had started the collecting part of things. You were bringing things home.

Oh yes, I was.

How did the part of it that was the selection - in a way the mastery of that landscape, the bringing together of the elements in it, how was that beginning to grow? Were you doing anything with what you brought home? Were you beginning to arrange?

Oh I certainly arranged it. I mean I didn't bring it home unless - unless it was something that was beautiful or irresistible or strange to me. And a discovery that I had to look hard because I remember thinking, as I pushed prams along the mountain, that I know every sort of stone and every sort of grass on this mountain. You can't bring me a piece of grass I wouldn't know what it was. And I used to look very keenly for differences. Pine trees, pushing prams, pine trees, you see. One of them's got to be different. One of them. And my afternoons used to be taken up with pushing a pram and one in the hand, and the neighbour's child with me. We'd walk along to the Oddie, which was the telescope there, and there'd be a big mud puddle. Okay, everybody can throw three stones into the big mud puddle, and then we can go home and afternoon tea, which is biscuits with cheese and tomato on them. You had to make a life out of nothing, really. There was nothing much there. That was women's things.

Where did you do your shopping?

Oh when you went down to Canberra, which was once a week, in an old rattly bus. Then some - some would use - there was a grocer there called J. B. Young's used to deliver. You used to ring up on the neighbour's telephone, because you didn't have one, and give your order in. Then they'd deliver it.

You were there in a place where the business was to look at the stars, and yet you were looking at the land.

Yeah, well, I couldn't look at the stars, because I didn't have any knowledge. And besides that was his business. And you don't want the ABC of your husband's subject. Just learn that, all women. You don't want to speak the ABC of your husband's subject when he's up to the XYZ. How boring can you get? I mean prattling away. And half of them didn't know which was Venus anyway, you know. They liked their little bit of sky, and the other fella's piece was a bit of rubbish. Very parochial, astronomers. And they had so many, so many nights on the telescope you see. And which they'd automatically go up, and it's not much fun, as I've said before, living with an astronomer who's got four cloudy nights, and the other fella, who's got a program that's not worth a row of beans, he's got four brilliant ones, you see. Oh, bad news. And also, if they do get a night on the telescope and they work 'til two or three or whenever it gets light, then they sleep in the morning, and you've got to keep the children quiet. More or less quiet. So you have this sort of uneasy timetable. And of course, if the night is bright on their good nights, everything else stops. It's that. You see, always that.

So among the women on the mountain, you found it hard to find a really close friend.

Yes, I did.

What about your time - and the men were barred to you anyway, weren't they?

Yeah, well they were all at work, yes.

What about Ben, did he spend a lot of time with you, or was he busy with his stars?

No, he was an astronomer. Astronomer comes first. And don't forget that he was used to New Zealand women. And in my day New Zealand women, perhaps, were mostly good housewives, and pushed their husbands' career. And in Canberra, though you might think it's a democratic place, it's very upwardly mobile, if you get my drift. And you entertained the people. Not at Stromlo you didn't because you were too far away. But you entertained the people who were good for your husband's job. You climbed social ladders.

And did you do that?

Well, I wasn't any good at it, was I? No, and I didn't. No. I wanted, I wanted to have friends, and you want people to like you, but those were the terms I think mostly. Unless you did good works. And joined the Red Cross, and joined the thing-o. It didn't satisfy me, you see.

So you were in a situation where you were pretty lonely.

Isolated. Oh, you were just plain isolated. I remember returning from New Zealand once and I used to go, when my parents were alive, and standing on the hillside and the air - I remember the air hanging from the heights of heaven down to the earth. Such a lot of air. And nothing was going to happen. I remember saying to myself, well nothing's going to happen and you might as well get used to it. And you did. And if a car came up that mountain, I bet every woman on the place was at the window trying to see who it was, who could be coming. It was very lonely. I mean there's no other word for it.

So how did you keep your sanity?

Just by doing jobs I had to. Always being behind with my jobs, my washing and my ironing and my housekeeping and my children and my things.

But again, you're in an environment in which you didn't really have the freedom just to do what you wanted to do, because there were those restrictions.

Didn't have time. You didn't have the time or the energy, you see. You just didn't. And I made a big garden in the end, you see, and I stayed home a lot. It was not much use going down to Canberra. And so I used to stay quite a lot up there. Used to garden a lot.

What kind of a garden did you make?

Big flower garden I had. We had a very big property. I think the men managed to keep horses in the backyard once. And it was very big. And I one day looked down the slope to the back gate, and there was one marigold growing. And the man before, who was Dr. Duffield, had tipped his rubbish down there - it was quite a long way from the house. And I thought, you can make a sloping garden there. And so I started moving things around, and I did in the end. And that was good.

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