Australian Biography

Barbara Holborow - full interview transcript

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You've told us that sometimes people got quite angry with you about your judgements. Did that ever get serious? Were you ever in any danger?

Yes. A few times I was. One incident was I suppose a home invasion when I was home alone here on a Saturday night and these boys came down the hallway, two boys, big boys. I just knew instinctively there was something very wrong by their demeanour, their whole manner. [INTERRUPTION]

So I ran out the back and then the blue heeler, she knew immediately something was wrong. I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and held her, she was on her hind legs and her teeth, honestly these fangs grew to this length, and this kid - the two of them were backing off - and they said, "Are you going to let her go?" And I said, "Yes, and she'll rip your throat out when I do". And the border collie had gone around the side and she'd grabbed this boy by the trouser leg, the jean, the end of his jeans, and she bit the other one. So they went and that was pretty unnerving.

Were they boys you knew from...

Yes, yes, they were. On another occasion, we went out the front door - I went out to get the papers in the morning - and there was our cat Pumpkin, on the door mat, and someone had run a fish hook through her paw up through her mouth and out the side, and the cat was in shock. I really didn't - so I rang the police and this sergeant came with an offsider, a young fellow with a gun and I said, "For God's sake put that out of sight. This is the family cat". And Jacob and Mary were just - couldn't believe what they were seeing because it was our family cat. And so they rang for help from the Rescue Squad and they came with all the proper paraphernalia and snip, snip and pulled it out very quickly, and the officer said to me, "Do you think you could have enemies?" And I said, "Well I think it's pretty obvious that I do". And he said, "What sort of work do you do?" And I said, "I'm a magistrate in the Children's Court". And he said,"Oh well, say no more". The cat survived. The cat took a little while but she got over it. And there was another occasion in retrospect which is very funny. Jacob and I were walking up the main street of Burwood to buy him a pair of cricket boots. Before we crossed over the road, I said to Jay, "There are a couple of boys behind us". He said, "Yes, I've seen them". I said, "One of them I thought was inside, he must have been released". So we kept going, and this boy called out, "Hey". And I turned round, and I said, "Yep". He said, "Why did you lock me up?" I said, "No wait a minute, I didn't lock you up, you locked yourself up. I gave you three chances and you were getting no more". So he was quite threatening and he went to step forward and I thought, "Oh my God, he's going to punch me", and I had a large amethyst ring that I wore on my left hand, and I remembered everything that my foster kids had ever told me, never if you're going to throw a punch put your thumb under your fingers because you'll break it. So I switched the amethyst ring onto my right hand, made sure my thumb was outside my fist and thought "Well, if he hits me I'll get one in too". But just as I was thinking these ridiculous thoughts, a police car came zooming down, nothing to do with me of course, but these kids must have thought that I had a Dick Tracy telephone or something and they thought they were coming for them and they just scooted off. And I said to Jacob, "Come on, we'll go and get your boots now". And he said, "No, we're going to Newtown where Jeff Fenech trains. If you want to fight in the street, go and learn how to do it". So, in - that was funny, but I was a bit scared for a while though. That's about it.

Did you feel at all deterred by this? I mean were you, for example, worried about the kids, that something might happen to them, not just the cat? Did you - did it worry you?

No, I don't think so. No, I don't think so, they, they knew the drill, that if ever they felt threatened or frightened they went into the first house, because everybody knows them around here, we've lived - go into the first house and ring the police. I was more frightened once by a parent who stalked me before the stalking laws were in. He terrified me, I was really and truly was almost a gibbering idiot. I was shaking, I couldn't stop shaking and yet he never said a word, he was just always there. I'd be driving in my car and he'd pull his car up beside me at the lights and just look at me and smile. Oh God I was frightened.

How did that resolve itself?

He won Lotto [laughs] and left the country. I was just so lucky.

Why was he angry with you?

Oh because he knew he was going to lose his three little girls and it was, it was - he was an awful man. He was an evil man and he used to hang around the court when there was no need for him to be there, and just sit and watch me. He'd be asked to move on but we had no authority. He was doing nothing. You know the police used to say to me, "We'll patrol the street, put extra patrols on for you, but there's nothing we can do". So I was glad for other people when that stalking law came in because believe me it's a terrifying experience.

Because of the fear of the unknown?

Yes. Be far better if you could have a confrontation but just this unknown, and not knowing when he was going to appear or where and you're looking for him to appear when it's an absolutely ridiculous - that he couldn't possibly appear but you're sure he's going to.

Now, talking about training with Jeff Fenech to defend yourself, you've had quite a lot of difficulty with your body in the course of your life, haven't you? Tell me about that, tell me about the problems you've had with your health and particularly about how you've dealt with that, how you've - what your attitude has been to your body and to your problems health-wise?

Well, I've taken the attitude with my diabetes that it's my body, I'm in control of it, not my diabetes. I'm very sensible. I don't go out on binge eating because I've been a diabetic since I was 13 so it really was self-discipline from that moment on, and I feel very sorry for diabetics who in later life are suddenly restricted in everything that they eat. They find it almost impossible, where I wouldn't give you tuppence for, you know, a cake or - I just don't like them. My problem has been I've broken my left leg twice. The first time I came running through the front door and tripped over Jacob's school bag and broke my tib and fib, and I got over that, that was okay, that was just a double break. But then in '96, I fell and fractured my femur in ten places and that was pretty traumatic. It was three months in rehab trying to get it to work but the muscles lagged on the bone and we just can't get them off. It's too late now, won't happen, and of course it's shrunk.

Was that the same leg that you'd broken before...


So how does that restrict you, Barbara?

Um, well, it does restrict me. I travel a lot - and of course the moment I hit a, an airport I'm into a wheelchair - but it means I'm dependent on people which for me is just - I hate it. I can't carry anything and I've got to ask for assistance and this is where Jacob is just so wonderful, and very understanding about it.

Did you ever have to sit in court in a wheelchair?

Yeah. Yes, I did and we had a very funny incident with me in a wheelchair in court. They used to push me in under the bench and then take me out for morning tea and push me back. [INTERRUPTION]

It was Friday afternoon, it was extremely hot. My leg was paining. I had two barristers droning on and on, and I thought, I can't come back to this on Monday. So I explained to them that I was going to sit until it finished that day, and I thought this will jolly them along they're all - will have somewhere to go, but no they didn't, they just droned on. And through the door came two very young policemen with this big strapping 17 year old who was angry. He was sort of pushing them off and I, I was just as angry, and I said, "What's this?" And they said, "Oh, it's a breach of bail, ma'am", and I looked at the boy and I said, "Ey? I gave you bail on Tuesday, what's this? Friday and you've breached it already. Well, you're in for the weekend, I'm busy here", and he said, "Well, don't I get a chance to say something?" And I said, "Well, there's no solicitor here for you", and he said, "Well can I say?" And I said, "Yes, alright. Say something make it quick". And he said, "Well I don't think it's fair that you're going to lock me up for the weekend. You're a magistrate, you're rich, you'll be out wining and dining tonight. You won't give a tuppence about me stuck up there with all the ankle-biters. I'm not allowed to smoke, lights out at nine o'clock. And I had a party to go to tonight, and I'm playing soccer tomorrow, and I was taking my girlfriend to the pictures tomorrow night, but you don't care, you won't think about me, and on Sunday I was going to a barbecue with my football mates". And I said, "Oh really? Is there anything else you'd like to say of interest to me?" And he said, "No, except that I really don't think it's fair. You don't think about kids like us". I said, "Oh, well come down here to the bench". So very reluctantly these two young policemen let him go, and he came down. And I said, "Have a look what I'm sitting in". And he said, "Oh fuck, you're a cripple". Now I only locked him up for 24 hours because I thought any kid that could say the magic four letter word to a magistrate deserved a break [laughs], so I locked him up till Saturday, yep. They were the wonderful highlights of kids.

You were particularly interested in the problems of 18 year olds who had committed their crimes when they were still juveniles. Could you tell me about that campaign and where it came from and what success you had with it?

Well, it was successful. We had a riot, a couple of riots, at Minda. At first I refused to transfer these young people to adult prison - which was Long Bay Jail where they would go - but it came - I could see that I had to with a couple of them, I had to send them because, for their own safety, I just didn't know that they'd be treated within the detention centre because they were so disliked. They knew they were disliked. They disliked the prison persons as much as they disliked them and it was a very bad situation. I thought if I separate them we may all be able to have a different look at it. So I sent three for a week to Long Bay Jail. It broke two of them, it absolutely broke them. These tough kids came back and they were crying and there were pleas and I thought, "Oh God, why did I do it?" The other one he was a tough nut and, and he was a kid really it was all written, I knew his days were going to be in jail, and he'd handle it. He'd object to being locked up but it held no fear for them. The other two were - so it happened again and - not with these two - but it happened again with riots and so I thought what we need is a jail for first offenders, adult first offenders, but a jail for a transition from 18 to 25 because - or 18 to 21 but we extended it to 25 - because to send these kids to Long Bay Jail, to Parramatta Jail, to Goulburn Jail, to Berrima Jail, wasn't on. It was, it was too much, it really was. Um and...

What happened to them there?

Well, then, then Parklea was designed to take that type of prisoner.

Why were they so afraid of Long Bay?

Of being raped, of being bullied, of being bashed, of being threatened, and it was the threats - it was like being stalked - it was the threats that went on even though prisoners couldn't get at them, there were these verbal threats that they heard all through the night. They lived in fear.

They were picked on because of their youth?

Yeah, and they were pretty boys. Terrible.

So what was the situation? They'd committed the crime...

Serious crime.

Could you explain that to me?

Right. Well, they'd committed a serious crime whilst they were under - before they were turned 18 - and they might have five years to serve, four years, three years, eight years and the one that turned 18, they were transferred to an adult jail. Now it was changed in two ways. If it was a model prisoner, they could stay on till they turned 21 and this happened to a boy who had murdered the Greek Consulate [sic], Andrew. And Andrew was brought out to Minda when he was 18. Now Andrew had had a horrific background of homosexuality, of living on the streets, etcetera. He became a gardener, a trustee, and in the morning I'd drive in and there'd be Andrew - big good looking boy - he'd be gardening away or sitting up on the lawn-mower and doing a fine job, under the guidance of our gardener who was a lovely man in his late 50s. I was always getting a bunch of flowers from Andrew and he never overstepped the mark but he was really a lovely - growing into a lovely kid. Now he was allowed to visit a relation - I can't remember which relation it was and I think it was a birthday party or a wedding - and the two escorts, because they trusted him, left him in a motor car while they went into a hotel to have a drink. And some newspaper knew who he was and the photographer was there and photographed him. Hit the headlines. Now that happened on the Sunday morning or the Saturday morning, one or the other, that night, in the middle of the night, nobody knew anything, Andrew went, Andrew was taken to an adult jail. And yet that kid had done nothing except develop - and that's what I'm talking about, he was being educated and rehabilitated - and about six weeks later he hanged himself. My God I cried for Andrew, I acted for him when I was a solicitor when the very first day he was brought in, I was on duty and I acted for him, then a private solicitor took over, but I knew the kid. And that, that really did put yet another track in my face. Thhat was so unnecessary. Some, you know, photographer got a cheap shot, "Is this what we want?"

So what was the outcome of your campaign to try to get somewhere for these boys? What, what was the result?

Well, they were being transferred to Russell Lea.

Could you explain what that offered?

They were all young and first offenders and you didn't have the old - the old lags as they're called - there, it was far more conducive to youth than Long Bay.

How did you conduct your campaign to get that result?

Oh same way as I always did. Media, paper, TV, radio, yep.

You have a slightly ambivalent attitude to the media, don't you? On the one hand you really are almost a media - well, you are now a media personality yourself - and you've used the media. Would you talk to me a little bit and explain what your attitude to the media actually is, how you've used it, and what you feel about all of that?

We use each other. I don't use them any more than they use me. I get phone calls. I love to sleep in, okay. I get phone calls at quarter past six in the morning, "Have you seen the paper?" "Seen the paper, I haven't even opened my eyes." "Would you be prepared to comment at seven o'clock?" I never say no because I think it's important that if I'm able to give the right interpretation or another view, I think that's important. So I will go out and get the newspaper, and make a cup of tea and read it, and I'm ready to go at seven. Now there's no financial reward for that, I don't get a thank you letter, so I think it's tit for tat. I'm good to them and they're pretty good to me.

Is there also an aspect that you sort of enjoy about it too?

Oh I love radio, I really love radio. I think you can bounce off people on radio. TVs - I don't find TV daunting but I feel restricted with, with TV. I mean I can't, I can't talk if I don't throw my hands around and you can't, I mean I can do that on radio, I can, and I'm always running my hand through my hair and I mean I can do that, and when I'm doing that I'm expressing myself but I can't do that on TV.

How do you feel about limelight, about being the centre of attention?

Oh, I don't think I am, I don't think I am. I, I lead an incredibly quiet life, very quiet life. I only go to the homes of friends who I, I mean I really know, and if I'm going to a new person's home, I, I need to know about them before I go. When I became a magistrate I gave up going to a lot of sporting fixtures because I didn't know who I'd be sitting next to, who'd be sitting behind me and I didn't want to be photographed with somebody who's notorious and without my knowledge and - as some magistrates were. So I had to be very careful about that.

And to be media savvy. To know what was required of you from the media and what were the dangers of that perhaps too.

Well, you get a good producer you don't have to move, you know a good producer will guide you into everything, it's like being on radio. I made a statement that you're only - on radio you're only as good as your producer and radio 2BL 702 were going to have T-shirts printed, You're only as good as your producer. [laughs]

One of the things that you've been very interested in - and that has really emerged now as the sort of major theme of the work that you are doing - is parenting.


What is a good parent, how to be a better parent, the problems associated with being a really bad parent and so on, these have been interests of yours. Can we go back now and look at your own parents because you've described your childhood to us but I'm interested given that they had, in a sense, given up on your education and vocation because of your diabetes, what did they think of how your career developed?

They weren't thinking of my career. Oh, no look. My dad and mum were born in 1888 and 1890 respectively. My mother never worked in her life, in fact she didn't go to school, she had a governess. My father went to school but they didn't think much about women having a career, no.

So when you did have one - they were still alive, they saw it develop - how did they react to that?

They were proud but that beginning and end of it didn't blow them away. I know that I'd be studying and had all my books spread over the table and when you're studying law you've got reference books everywhere and Mum would come out and say, "Dad and I are going to have lunch now, darling, could you just move your books?" Get your priorities right, but that was Mum and Dad. I had no angst about that. I knew that. And I knew that they, they would never be, they'd be very, very proud of what I've done but they'd never be boastful about it and so in their own - they were just quietly proud, they didn't tell me much, but I knew they were.

And what did they think of your outspokenness?

I - they did not want to know, they did not want to know about that. For my father that was, that was, you know, "Really do you think you should be doing this sort of thing?"

They didn't like their little girl making herself so prominent in the public eye...

Well, now - no they didn't. They, they would have liked me to have had a gentle role where I did things very quietly but not go like I do, all gung-ho and bull at a gate, and yet my father should have understood because I'm as stubborn as he is, and I will not let go, and that was him. Except I, I hope that I do let go when I know I'm wrong which he could never do even if he was wrong, he was right.

You were an only child, you relied on their support when you were raising your own child, so you were close, very sort of intermingled with them.

I was very dependent.

What happened when they died?

Oh it was terrible. The only thing that saved me was that they had been in that convalescent home so that there'd been that separation. But you know when they went into that home, into that convalescent home, where they both shared the same room, I had to hunt to find a place that would take both of them because they would have died if they'd have been separated - even then one night - now there was never alcohol in this house, never, except my mother would have a sherry at Christmas. And one Christmas somehow she drank two and neighbours up the road came down to have a sherry and a piece of Christmas cake as you did in those days, and their name was Adcock and when they came into the house, into the room, my mother said to other people, "May I introduce our neighbours, this is after two sherries, the Oddcacks". Well, there was nothing you could do [laughs] about that, I mean nothing she could do, she'd said it, and I was, I was just burst out laughing. She was embarrassed, we didn't see her for the rest of the morning tea. But anyway when they'd gone to this convalescent home and I was sitting one night watching TV and it was when I smoked - and I never smoked before the two of them - I was having a wine and I was just overcome with guilt, absolute guilt that I was doing this in their home, took me a while. They were a big influence in my life.

So when did they die?

I can't even tell you the day, the date. I know they both died in the early mornings of a Sunday. Dad died in '78 and Mum died in, er, '77 and '79, they died.

Close together.

Yes, Mum lived on for about 15 months I think.

And what were your feelings at the time because you were at a very busy time of your life then?

I don't know how I did what I did, looking back I get tired thinking of it because I would visit them every day of course and do some little shopping for little things, treats that they would like. I had foster kids, I had, yeah [laughs], I had Jacob. It was busy.

Things have really changed for women more dramatically in the course of your lifetime than really any other lifetime there's ever been, the changes for women have been immense. What have you observed from where you sit about that? What experiences have you had that have really brought it home to you how those changes have occurred?

Well, Law School for one. I was the only one in my year. Now there are more women than men doing - studying law. And I look at these young women and I'm just overwhelmed with their ability. They're talking about aspects of law I've never, never heard of, intellectual property [laughs] and I suppose, you know, I deal with an aspect of law that they think, well, really are you dealing in law, isn't it more social studies than law. I think women are very clever. I have one objection - this is a big objection, and upsets a few of my professional friends - but I think if you've made a decision to have a child, you write off - not write off your career because you now can work from home - but you certainly write off going out of that house for the first 18 months. That's got to be the time and don't talk quality time to me, I hate that expression, every moment you spend with your kids should be quality time, not half an hour at night when you're overtired and you're peeling the potatoes. Every moment you spend with your kids should be quality time. But I think that they should say, "Okay, my career is not on hold for 18 months, but for 18 months there's going to be a change. I'm going to work from home, this is going to be my number one priority". And if it can't be, let your husband, let your partner, put his on hold, and let him do it. Doesn't have to be the woman. But someone's got to be there so that we've got a whole rounded, little individual by the time they leave home and go off into the world to go to school. And I am appalled, absolutely appalled at some young women with - who are lawyers, I can really only speak about lawyers - who share a nanny between three of them and their babies are a month old, please. Terrible. What do you want? Somebody else for your baby to be attached to, to be bonded to? Surely to God you want your own child to be attached and bonded to you, and if you're going to put your baby into a crèche every day, well when your child eventually has to go to a detention centre it really won't matter because he's been, or she's been in one ever since they were 12 months old, so it won't matter to them. That's how I feel about it.

[end of tape]

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