Australian Biography

Dame Joan Hammond - full interview transcript

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What's the worst thing that's ever happened to you?

... [laughs] ... You do ... sort of think out some lovely questions, don't you? Very juicy question this one. The worst thing ever that happened, has happened to me, was the 1983 bushfire that raged along the coast and Lorne. I'd been up in Melbourne, I had lunch in Melbourne, it was a terrible day, and Melbourne was ... it was black, the sky was black and getting blacker. I was lunching with the director of the college [Victorian College of the Arts], we were talking about the future, and then we left and got back to Jumbunna, the name of our home there at Aireys Inlet, we got back at about half-past five or ten to six, and I ... the journey down was terrible. I mean, you have the cooling system in the car but nothing seemed to cool anything that day, and the wind was already pretty fierce, but we'd heard that the fire was along at Lorne, it had gone over through the mountains there above, and ... how fierce and dreadful it was, but it was not mentioned that it was coming along the coast at all, because the wind hadn't changed, so we just didn't give it a thought. But in the interim, by the time I got in, I said I'm going for a swim straightaway, and I was in the process of undressing and they came along and said ... well, I think we heard it on the air, the wind had changed and the fire was coming along the coast. But even then it didn't seem ... I mean, it was a long way between Aireys and Lorne, and then the phone went, and it was our local doctor. He said, ‘You'll have to go,’ and I said, ‘go where?,’ and he said, ‘You must leave the house,’ and I said, 'John, what, what are you talking about?' He said, 'The fire, the bushfire. It's coming along, it's coming very fast and you must leave the house.' So I and he knew by my voice that I wasn't taking any notice, and had no intention of going. Which was quite correct, I had no intention, and about 10 minutes later, he rang again, and I answered, and he said, 'Look you ... I really mean you must go,' He said, 'Haven't you heard, haven't the police spoken to you?' I said, 'No, only you,’ and the police had evidently gone up the hill and everywhere, but we couldn't hear them where we were, we were quite a distance from the nearest house, and they'd advised everyone else but not us. So he said, 'Well, I'm telling you now, you have to leave.’ I said, 'But John, the insurance company, everybody said our place is the one ... the best place for water, we've got all the dams, these huge three of them, and I and we were even told that we could stop a fire in Aireys.’ He said, 'This is a different fire,' and, you know how you ... oh well ... you don't think seriously and I'd never been ... yes I had in Tasmania, that was wrong, I had been caught in a fire when I was down there with the two pianists in my one of my first big engagements, going around from Adelaide and it was very hot in Adelaide, and there was a fire in from Launceston, and we had been out to see where all the little prisoners were, all the poor things sent out from England, the terrible conditions, and we'd got caught in one coming back. That was a nasty experience, and I said, ‘We're not going.’

He said, ‘Look, you've got to go.’ So we ... just put the phone down, I did, and I still made no effort, I went and got into an old pair of slacks and some comfy blouse, just any old thing, and I hadn't even taken my things out of the car, they were still in the car because I'd been away, a make-up box and things like that, and the next thing he was ... came up and around the drive to the front door and he said, 'You've got to get out, you've got to go now. And I mean now!' and he went off again. And it was in that moment that I went out into the courtyard, that I heard this terrible roar — oh, it was frightening, in fact I what I call froze. It had only happened to me a couple of times before, once when I was in the surf at Palm Beach and a shark, I saw the actual fin go by, and I froze. You think it's minutes but it's seconds, and I then of course was ... I galvanised into action, I called out, shouted out, 'Look, we've got to leave. We've got to leave.' So there was the man up in the cottage, I rang through straight away, and told him. He said, 'Yes I've heard,’ and he collected what he had to collect. We got into ... Lola got into one car, I got into the other, and when we got down to the gate we were going towards the fire, we had to get out of the property, and the road — it was an exodus — the road was packed. Everything, the cars piled up with this, that and the other. Of people fleeing from the fire, and of course they let us in, we infiltrated it, and that was ... I think it was then, possibly, the roar frightened me, yes, but I realised that it must be a very serious thing that was coming along the coast. So we went off and we came to Urquharts Bluff, and as a rule you can just turn off there and go down to the beach, and many had the same idea, and we did that, we turned in and thought well ... we'll go down to the beach, that'll be safe enough. We'd no longer got there ... all turning to go down the incline, when the police car came roaring along the road, and blaring its horn thing and saying, 'Get out! Get going! Get out!'

So of course, we all then turned back and had to get into the queue again to go along, and the next stop was Anglesea. Well it was just panic there, and I had to get petrol, I saw that I was low. The other car we knew was alright because we'd just come down from Melbourne in it. Then I pulled off into the garage place, and there were these poor devils that had come from trying to firefight, and they were putting buckets of ice on their head, and doing everything to try and cool themselves down, and they were just nodding their heads and saying, ‘it's ghastly,’ and their expressions of course are far more dramatic than that, and it all ... it hit me then what a dreadful thing was going on along the coast. So we then decided we'd go to ... Geelong for ... to try and get accommodation for the night, we had ... thank goodness, I did have six animals, and five had already [died of] old age. They were all strays, all animals that I'd saved from the time we'd arrived there, and I hadn't bought one, and ... really didn't want that many, knowing if I had to travel a lot, I didn't want them. But they ... five had already died, and there was the one, Kim, left, another stray, had a terrible beginning, so Kimmy didn't want to get in the car in the beginning, we had to push her in for once because she loved it, but she — we had to actually push her in. We went to a hotel and said about the dog ... oh, they didn't care, evidently every hotel and place in Geelong was full of people with their animals and ... that had come from the fire, and ... we turned the television on in that room and the first thing we saw was a plane going over and showing all the trail of disaster left behind, and Lolita said, 'I'm sure that's our balustrade there,' we still didn't think much about it, but it certainly looked like it, and we rang through to tell her family and a niece said, 'I've just seen a picture that shows up Jumbunna on the screen,' and she didn't say anything else, we thought right that must be it, and we had to order dinner up and couldn't eat it, ha, needless to say.

Well, it was a night of sort of sitting and thinking and listening to the ... they said there are only ... there are two places that don't exist anymore, one is Aireys Inlet, and the other up in the mountains ... Cockatoo, they said these two villages don't exist anymore. So we thought, well, we're out of Aireys, we're not in it. So we didn't even then give much thought to it. Next morning, of course, we set off to go back, go back home, and we'd been stopped at the top of the hill leading ... going down into Anglesea and ... we were asked whether we belonged here, and we said yes, and then we were told we could go, they were turning all ... everybody else down, all the people that wanted to go and see what had happened. At the base of the hill going ... leading up, that led out of Anglesea, another policeman stopped us and he recognised us and he said, 'Oh I've got bad news for you. Oh,' he said. 'Yes,' he said. 'You're burnt out, your home doesn't exist.' And I think even then ... one didn't have a full sort of feeling that it had gone, the whole house and everything. You felt, oh yes, perhaps burnt, you know, roundabout and all the trees and everything, the bush. So as we went along, of course the road was as bit ... oh everything was black, and things were smouldering, all logs and trees, and it was unrecognisable. Then when we came to Cutsias [sp?], the sand looked just like diamante, the whole thing was all sparkling. That fire had gone right down to the water's edge, and no-one would have survived, that alone would have snuffed us out, down on the beach. Then we turned the corner and I said, 'I had no idea there was a house up in there' ... I really looked and thought, fancy us not knowing that place was in the trees there, and it was the remains of ours. It was like a great big long log burning. So we went on and we got to the gates, and of course everything was gone, the gates, all the trees. And we turned in and it was hard to find our own driveway to get up to the house. And as we turned, where we normally got a full view of the place, then we knew that it had just — nothing was there. This big, big, long log, that seemed to go for miles.

We turned around and ... managed to ... the heat alone, under the tyres, everything was, it was ... quite something you would see possibly on a film and think, oh, they've exaggerated it, the smouldering, and as I say the heat still there in the ground. This was hours after it had gone through the night before. No sound. Not a bird, not an animal, not a sound. And it was a beautiful day, that following day, absolutely beautiful. It was still and ... as I say so quiet, and we just thought the sooner we can get out the better at the moment. Which we did. We had to think of what we were going to do — our life. It reminded me of one of the bombings in London, when I was at that stage in a muse cottage, and a bomb — a part of the shell of one — came through the ... the little bathroom muse window. It was up above the bathroom if, ha, you could call it that, but it was a nice little muse cottage, and it had come right through into the bath, and I'd been in that bath 10 minutes before and the bath had almost been cut in two, and I though, oh, hmmm, ha ha. You have these afterthoughts of ... of what you've just missed. But it was a similar sort of feeling. Then, that day I suppose, we were stunned you might say. You think of your toothbrush — the silliest things — everything: dusters, all things, brooms, anything at all, name it. But you forget that all your clothes have gone as well, and I was still in my old slacks that I'd bought, by the way, up in Alice Springs when I was there, because I didn't have any slacks when I got there, and I needed them for where we were going on our trek through ... and I was very attached to these pants, I've still got them by the way, I'll tell you that. They've been mended and mended but they're still intact ... and going into Melbourne ... dressed, ha, I mean I never thought ... I just hoped and prayed that no-one would see me, no no panic though, nothing, nothing.

But that wasn't the worst of what you'd lost, was it?

No, I'd lost my life almost, you could say that, I felt I'd never existed, because I had everything down there — of mine. There were a few things, a very few things were up in a small flat that Lolita had in Melbourne, and I had been out to a dinner prior to that, the night ... oh by, well, I suppose it must have been a week before, and I'd left some evening clothes up there, and it was a night that I had to wear medals, so my medals were up there, and ... I think I had a couple of dresses in her wardrobe, a few few things, fortunately, that I had there.

What about your photographs?

Oh they all ... I had nothing like that up at the flat, they were all down at Jumbunna, everything — everything went! All my music. I did have, by the grace of God — for the first time that Christmas I'd left some music at the college, but under lock and key, because normally I took it all away when the Christmas break came because it was the only thing to do We all knew that we ... anything you valued you didn't leave at the college for that holiday period. And ... I had decided that the music, it's so heavy, I only had my ... what I call my secondary scores then ... the things that I didn't treasure much at all; everything else I treasured was down at Jumbunna. And my Russian scores, my Russian records, everything that I really valued I didn't take to the college. But I ... was glad that I'd left some there, but ...

How did you ...

Oh my letters, my address book! And a lot of people ... took months and months to get ... because I couldn't contact them, and they thought that we were okay, because they'd rung from London, they'd rung from America on hearing where it was, at Aireys, and our phone was giving the answer signal, but it was burnt, it was gone, but the lines were underground, and they were still going tyum tyum, you know, tyum tyum as though the house was standing. There wasn't anything.

How did you deal with it?

I think I was rather, as I say, stunned at first. I just thought, well, we've got to get something to live in and we've got to start building again. It was slow, it was a very sort of slow coming together, and I did gradually feel that I had never ... never existed. If I could have had my passport, I think I would have got on a plane and gone back to England. But I had no passport, and that took weeks to get, it was unbelievably slow, in fact, everything, everything of value that you wanted, and had to do with the money, with the ... you can't imagine, and the number of times that I had to go up and have everything signed by Justice of the Peace, I think.

How did you deal with it emotionally because when you've had several times in your life where you've come very, very close to death, and you've been saved in extraordinary ways at the last minute, that's given you a lot of chances to think about death and what life means. What — how do you feel about death now?

Well, I know it's inevitable. And we all realise that. I also know there are times when I think I haven't completed what I'm here on earth for, I haven't got time left, I must hurry, I must — that's how I feel at this very moment, that I haven't completed what I want to do. That I've got to hurry. I've got to get things done. Can you understand that? And ... I think then when it all slowly sort of seeped through, when I began to realise just the enormity of it, of losing all those things, and you see I was mad on books. Just as so I was mad on music, but I was mad on books. I read a tremendous amount and I had a very lovely collection of books back from England. I mean, even today I can't pass a bookshop without going in ... I had a lovely library there, and the thought of it, and some ... some of the pages of a score of mine burnt ... and all burnt ... I've still got them, were found miles away from Aireys on a beach where the wind had taken them. Miles away, past Anglesea, and some kind person found them, and thought that they could only come from my fire, from our home there, and very sweetly posted them back to me. And the smell, you know, the burnt music, the ... but there was a biscuit packet of Arnott’s, I could see it, Arrowroot biscuits, they were ... I've got it, it's like it's just for ... it's iron, I think I even have it here, I could show you later, because it's amazing what that fire did, and the cellar, all the bottles had burst, but not the brandy, and everything, my wine ... whatever it was, they'd all burst, and that was a very, very, deep cellar, and thick cellar, well-built, constructed for that very reason, completely burnt, and the only thing that had of course not burnt and it was along in the funniest place, was the safe — in the bathroom, the number one bathroom, and I was the only person that knew how to open it. Someone said, you must have been a what-is-it when the thieves can open saves ... safes and have that touch, and I had it of course the ... my memory was good, I knew the number, and it was a couple of days later after the fire, when we were taken down. I think it was a Saturday. We'd thought we couldn't face it, we went down on a Saturday morning — the fire was on the Wednesday — and Lolita's brother came down with us. And two of my students had said if they could help they would come down to see if there's anything at all they could do, which they did, they arrived later, but they did come down, and Ronald, Lol's brother, helped me over all the ruins, the ... you know ... it ... everything collapsed, it was all in a terrible mess, and he got me up on the ... there it was sitting, the safe, let me tell you, completely burnt, the whole outside, but I could get to the face of it, and he wiped away all the dust, the mess, that was on it, and I fiddled around and at first I thought, no, there's not a hope, it's not going to answer to my call today, and then suddenly it moved and the door opened. And we got what was in there but there was very little there, because the bulk of it was in a safe up in Lolita's flat, and especially ... of course the passports were not in it, they'd been burnt. They were in it, but heat inside it had made them unbelievably illegible, you might say. The great heat that was in that safe, to see it when the door opened, what had been, it was incredible.

Did this experience alter your values at all, did you start thinking differently about ...

... Yes I did ...

... material possessions?

... and I swore to myself that I would never collect again, I wouldn't collect anything. That I had nothing, so I wanted to remain with nothing. I thought, no, all the furniture that I'd valued, all the wonderful gifts I'd been given and the china, all those lovely things, wonderful things, irreplaceable most of them. I said, no, this is a lesson, I'm not going to have anything cluttering around me again, I don't want anything, I'll travel with so little when I travel, and of course what happened, I had said in an interview that I'd lost all my records, and if ... but I wasn't talking of gramophonal records, as records of my existence and such as my passport ...

And your diaries ...

... and my diaries. I'd lost all that sort of thing, that's what I meant by my records, but people thought I meant my gramophone records, and they started pouring in ... [laughs] ... oh dear, I'd never received so many things, it was wonderful, the people and their thoughts, how quickly they reacted and started sending things, and of course, friends provided us with clothes, 'cause we had no underwear, no nighties, no nothing, and we were getting to go ... clothes and I must say the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Salvation Army were wonderful, they gave us sort of slips where we could go to shops and get certain things. And quite frankly I think I've been living on those articles of clothing and the blankets, sheets, all that sort of thing that you don't think about straightaway, had come through those organisations, they were wonderful, but the thoughts of the people, people you know, seen and met, all were so inexplicably great.

Can we stop there ...

For some of the time while you were living in Vienna, you moved out of the castle or the place where you were living with the Vienna Boys’ Choir, and into a house, a private house that had some boarders in it. Could you tell me about that household and who else was there at the time?

Those houses are very large, and really it was a ground floor flat, I ... we call it a flat, apartment, and it was considerably bigger than anything I know in our part of the world, and I think about three, four of us, different nationalities, and there were friends, it was a baroness that owned it, and she had a daughter and this daughter Vera — they were all very fluent in about I would say five or six languages — and there was a special friend that used to come and eat there on a Saturday and Sunday, and they would go along when we'd had our lunch, and we, the sort of paying guests (Pgs), went to our rooms or whatever, or out, but the baroness would go with her daughter and their friends, right along the other end of this apartment, but was more or less ... no, it was kept off, it was isolated from us in other words, and there ... I consider myself of course elevated and very, very honoured because I was asked along to have coffee on one occasion, and no-one I knew had been, none of us had anyhow. And they had ... they'd ... I drank for the first time in my life, Turkish coffee, which I liked, it was sweet though, but I also came into the conversation, it was all German, they never spoke anything else but German, although they were fluent in many languages including my own. I noticed on occasions the conversation would be hushed and lowered, and there were young men there, and one I called him the 'Count of No Account', because he was a count but his suit, the ends were frayed, and he looked as poor as could be, but he spoke beautifully as they all did, and there was this blonde girl that often came, her name was Maidi, and I think after about four or five visits, they accepted me and they became freer with their speech, and I noticed that they often spoke about the Nazis and the anti-Jewish. I just thought the ... the baroness was a Jewess, but I don't think she was at all, her name was Dijanovitz [sp?] and though a ... although she I think came from Yugoslavia, I'm not sure exactly what ... it were there ... there was a very sort of close family anyhow, but these young men, they started talking how they'd plastered the Nazi signs up on ... they saw them plastered up on walls, and how they would erase them, wash them off, and this of course intrigued me. They spoke a lot about politics, in fact, I realised then that the whole sort of gathering was rather political. I then went to London and said goodbye to them all and I was coming back, but not for some weeks, and I'd arrived in London, and I was standing at a bus stop at Hyde Park corner, and who did I see but the daughter Vera, whom I'd said goodbye to the day before. I thought, how extraordinary. And I called out, I said Vera, and she quickly looked at me, and then she hurried off, and that upset me, rather, I'd never had anybody sort of brush me off like that. I didn't think much about it, I was hurt at the time. I thought, oh well, I'll ask all about that when I get back. Then, I suppose it was only about three days later, there were headlines in the paper about the big spy setup in Paris, and I knew Maidi used to go backwards and forwards to Paris a lot. She travelled all the time, this blonde girl who spoke so many languages and very intelligent, and I ... that's what attracted one to her because you found you could speak on many subjects, and it had that she'd been shot. And I thought ... I saw the photo, and I thought good heavens, I've been embroiled in something that again I was in complete ignorance, and this was ... it was a political ... she was a spy evidently, a very well-known spy, and she'd used to have the officers and then entertain them lavishly and they spoke too much and too freely, and Maidi of course was the inbetween who passed on the information from one set to another, and that was her nasty grim end, which did affect me, very much so. Nothing had happened in my life like that, and I thank goodness nothing has since, but there was another little milestone.

Now to skip on to another sort of nasty bit, which was when you were in Africa and you were in Kenya, and you were giving a concert in Nairobi. Could you tell me about what it was like in Nairobi at that time?

Oh yes, the height of the sort of awful Mau Mau period, and the things ... I think they call them pangas or something, these big knives. Anyhow, the families ... the whites could not possibly leave their children or anybody in the household alone. Wherever they went the whole family went and if it was night-time the youngsters just slept, whether it was in a hotel or wherever, or at a concert. But what was the most interesting fact about the women and their clothes at the concert — beautifully gowned, beautifully gowned — but they had all carried belts, and they all carried revolvers, which will show you what that period was like for them living in Nairobi at that time, because they never knew, you see, when they were going to be attacked, or from where and how, and that ... standing on the platform, and looking down at these families and faces and ... beautifully groomed and then to see this sort of grim thing attached, made one think ... made me think, I know, jolted me in and I had to make myself concentrate on what I was doing, which was to sing and remember my words and music, and these sort of things are happening. It's like someone fainting in an audience. I see them, and those around the person that it's happened to, but the majority of the audience of course doesn't know what is going on, and I always made a point — it happened two or three times in concerts — that I went on singing, perhaps giving a bit more, singing forte, ha, the passage when it should have perhaps been piano in order to keep their attention and ... until they'd taken the person out. But these things from our point of view looking at you or ... it can be distracting and you've got to keep your wits on ... about you.

Another thing that I'd like to pick up with you is to go right back to a piece we missed, which was about when ... after you had ... I'll ask a question about it. When you had your bike accident, when you were 12 years old, and your hand was hurt in this, and you'd had the complicated operation to get it, your arm, operating, you had a problem with your fingers didn't you?

Oh that — that was a natural thing evidently because all the tendons in the arm and especially both bones being broken, it was ... it ... the fingers were jammed together, you might say, just like that, and they couldn't be moved. And it was several operations that I had upon this arm because it had to go into a blood bath, ooh for a time, and it then had to go into a salt bath — it's all very complicated and lengthy, but this part, to try and get the hand open again, I had ... they put a glove on it, they had to force it between my fingers, which was very painful, and they glued it then, and they had rings at the end of the fingertips, and those rings were attached to strings that went up to a sort of ... hmm, lines and pulleys and bags full of ... they were leadshots now I come to think about it, at each end of the bed. I was terrified quite frankly because they didn't tell me, they didn't explain what it was all about. They ... they were just doing it, and to get my arm round, had to be quite a business from this position, that took a long time, but I was strung up in these things ‘til gradually, oh, it was a long time it took to ... day after day, and then I became interested to see my hands strengthening.

[end of tape]

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