|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: November 16, 1995
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Did any of your children ever get into trouble with the police?
Yes. Nob and David.
How did that happen? How did it start?
It may ... it mostly happened the times of the deaths of my kids. You know, my two kids?
When Billy died, Nobby was already in a home ... what was he in a home for?
Ah, that was the time they found that their school, their sports room open, and he and a whole heap of little school friends got in and had a field day with all the sporting stuff, wasn’t it? You know? They took the bats and balls and everything and hid 'em somewhere in a fort that they'd built. For goodness sake. It wasn't their fault, it was the teacher's that'd left the place unlocked anyhow. Anybody could have gone in there, but these bunch of kids did.
And they got sent away for it?
Oh yeah. Six months. For that.
For stealing sporting equipment ...
Sporting equipment from the school that the door wasn't locked anyhow.
Where was he sent?
I think it was ... it was not Yasmar ... Albion Street children's shelter. Nob never made it to ... to Yasmar, only David made it there. Yeah. The deaths of the two were hard on the kids.
Was Nobby very close to Billy?
Very close. They were the two who, you know, eldest boys. Well he's the eldest boy now, Nob, that Bill's gone.
Was Nobby about when Billy died?
Was Nobby about when Billy died?
Yes. Well he was, he was, he was at home and came in when I found Bill like this. He picked Bill's body up and put his body on the bed and he was only a big lump of a 13-year-old kid, I think he was, and put him on the bed and covered him up with a blanket and run out of the house. Never saw him for days, you know? Just in his grief.
When he was in the children's home being punished for stealing sporting equipment, I suppose he met a few characters that didn't ... weren't particularly good for him to be associated with ...
That's it. Yeah. I mean, it takes all sorts I suppose, but then like me, I suppose you could put it with my choice of men, they weren't too good, too good with their choice of friends. And which led them into trouble with the law.
Did Nobby continue to have trouble with the law?
Well, he never seemed to be able to break away from it. No matter how much ...
What kinds of things went wrong for him?
Well, mostly just the deaths of the kids and I guess me dragging the kids from pillar to post, too. Even though I'd had them all together, kept them together, wasn't a life for kids, and kids got funny way of hitting out, too, you know. Some places they could bring friends home because it was big enough to have friends come and stay or whatever, and then some places you couldn't even swing a cat around it was so small and pokey, you know. So, I sometimes feel a bit guilty about that because I thought I could've put them in the homes and maybe they'd've had better lives, but then again they wouldn't have had mother's love, you know what I mean? And there was quite a time that I put myself down for that, you know? And when I lost the kids, I drank terrible. I used to be able to drink my son-in-law under the table. You know. And today he'd leave me for dead.
And you ... and you think that while you were drinking, too, they were getting into trouble?
That's quite a common thing to happen, isn't it? Women with big families with nobody helping them ...
That's true. No, no father figure, you know? Somebody to look up to. Somebody to be stern enough to say, you know, if you're going to muck up I'm gonna kick your bloody arse for you or something like that, you know? It was hard being a mother and a father.
So what did Nobby do to get into big trouble?
Well, he did six years jail for something he never did to begin with. And he just did not get any better. From there on in.
What did he do it for?
He was supposed to've fired shots at police to escape a lawful apprehension, and attempted murder, and it wasn't he that was firing the shots, it was a 14-year-old girl in the back seat of the car. He was as drunk as a monkey in the front, next to the driver, because he had found his girlfriend with another fella. So he was going through throes about broken love affairs when this happened to him. Ironic, isn't it? ... [laughs] ... I'd like to sit down one day with a psychiatrist and talk all this out, maybe he could give me some answers. You know, but ...
And so he got put away ... what happened to the girl?
Well, the girl went crown's witness for the police under pretext that she'd get treated lenient, she went to girl's home, and another 16-year-old went to boy's homes, and my boy was 17 and a half in Long Bay Jail, charged with attempted murder. And he never even fired a shot. You know what I mean? I'm writing his life story. And it's called Haunted Past, Nobby's story and others, and I'm inserting six Aboriginal deaths in custody with that, too, because there's nothing written from our side of the fence and we're the most jailed people in this country. You know. We can't be the most bad, evil people here.
And did he serve the whole six years?
Did he get in to trouble again?
What sort of things has he got into trouble with?
Oh, let's see. I can't remember most of the charges unless I look 'em up, but there was charges of this and ... petty thievery, joy riding, this was when he was a teenager in cars, stealing cars, things like that. But nothing worse than, nobody was ... I mean, people have done less time in jail for murder. Nineteen years of my son's life is given to the jail systems in this country. You know, because he is a victim of circumstances, not a bad, evil man, and he's found his spirit. His real Aboriginal spirit. Yeah.
And how's that?
With the painting. That's the only thing that's saved him.
He's a painter?
Tell me about his art and how he discovered that.
Well, in our Koori way, we say he's had to go back time and time again to that place he calls a shithole, meaning jail, to find his true spirit. And he's always had an identity crisis because his father's white and I'm the only black connection to his culture that he's got. So we know why he's had to go back and back and back to that place to find this spirit, it comes out in the paintings. He can paint portraiture, and he can paint traditional stuff. And I mean he's never ever seen a traditional Aboriginal person in his whole damn life, you know. And I said to him, ‘Well, how do you paint? How do you paint these portraits of these ...’ and they're all Elders, see. He said, ‘They come to me in my dreams.’ So our old ones are talking to our kids. The spirit will never die, and it will just be passed on along, too, you see?
Did you bring your children up entirely in Redfern?
Not only in Redfern. I don't think there's a suburb around the city that I haven't been in. Redfern, Alexandria, Waterloo, Surry Hills, Newtown ...
So it was all in the inner city?
And did you ...
I waited 10 years for a home, a housing commission home.
And where was that?
So you moved to Green Valley when all the children were still pretty well at home?
Yeah. Yeah. 1972. I moved to Green Valley. And I was there right up 'til '78, which was the year that Nob came out. You know.
And that was your housing commission home?
So was that ... were there other Kooris around?
Ah, well, the housing commission estate there where we were was the government's policy of assimilation that Paul Hasluck legislated for in the 1940s, ‘50s, assimilate Aboriginal people as urban Kooris, you know, coming from the bush to the cities to look for work and that. Put us into these white housing estates in amongst white people so that we'd assimilate and integrate and become white in our thinking, give away culture. It was cultural genocide is what was practiced, well-documented what they wanted to do with our people, assimilate us so that there'd be no Aboriginal problem whatsoever. And it worked well in this respect: three of my daughters married white men and only one married an Aboriginal, you know. So ... and then this is what's happened to our people. And those housing estates, not only Green Valley, Mt Druitt the same, has something like 46,000 Aboriginal people. With the assimilation policies in Mt Druitt alone.
So, how did you feel when you went to this house ... when you first saw it, what did you imagine life was going to be like?
I cried. I cried, there was not even a light, I was looking at it with a torch ... [laughs] ...
Why did you cry?
Well, it was the first time I'd ever had a home for my kids. A real roof over their heads. There was no covering on the floor, it was only just polished pine, and it was just beautiful, four bedrooms, you know, running off a hall, and a big lounge and a dining room, kitchenette, a laundry and bath. Lovely. Had a garden and everything. But didn't last long.
You had nine kids ...
This was the first time you'd had four bedrooms ...
Yeah. Ever. We could swing 10 cats around there ... [laughs] ... Yeah.
And did you get a good welcome?
Well, the lady next door came and invited me over for a cup of tea and cake the next morning, saying that my kids would be going to school with her kids, it was just down the road, this Ashcroft High School was where Aileen and Ellen went, and Pauline and Jefferey were still at primary school, so ... but they eventually went to Ashcroft High School after that, but, I mean, if any one of your people come to visit and overstayed, or just stayed overnight, they'd be ringing up the commission and reporting you 'cause you're not allowed to have visitors unless you have permission from the housing commission. There were so many rules and regulations, I thought we got away from that when we were on the damn mission, you know? And here we were confronted with the same thing. People were controlling us and telling us what to do and running our lives for us.
So you started off well with the neighbours ...
Started off well and kids, yeah, and it ended up it was horrible.
What was horrible?
Oh, this is what I'm saying, they reported you for the least little thing. We had a dog, it was a barker and a yapper and we used to have it on a chain so it wouldn't be worrying anybody. Kids' pet. And if you let it off the chain it'd run chasing the cars. We had the poor dog taken and put down and that same woman next door who was reporting me, about the dog ... in her backyard there was a little dog wandering around that had no voicebox because she'd had it surgically removed, you know? I mean, these sort of people. Discriminating against me and making me send my dog away and yet here ... being so cruel and so unfeeling as to do that to an animal, you know? Disgusting. What do you reckon? ... [laughs] ...
What about your kids, did they feel ...
And the kids copped the same stuff but they made friends, the kids used to come over and kids sort of get together anyhow, and they had their little tiffs and ups and downs and it's gone and forgotten in next to no time. You don't take notice of kids fighting because the next day they could be best friends. You know it'd be a bit stupid, you'd become fighting all the time if you were to take notice of children. Besides that, they got on well, they liked ... there were some ... my young fella, Jeff, he was a football star, best and fairest in Green Valley. Undefeated premiers in Sadleir, and things like that. I was a football mum, you know, the football oval was just around the corner and that, we used to go of a weekend. It was lovely. For a while.
Then what went wrong?
Just too many rules and regulations that you had to put up with. Besides, all the kids grew up and went their own way in life and I didn't need a four-bedroom home just for me and Jefferey, did I? You know? So we moved back into town. And let the house go. Into Charles Street, Erskineville, but first we stayed with Dianne for a while in Eveleigh Street. And then we got this one-bedroom flat in Charles Street, Erskineville.
And what happened about your writing? When did you first get the idea to write?
Ah, look, you ask any of my kids, I've been saying for years and years, I'm gonna write a book, I'm going to write a book about us mob. And the reason why I wanted to write and always was, was, because I could.. I could see that the way ... how humour kept us going, with our laughter, about all the situations we found ourselves in, no matter how heavy it was, we could make a joke of it and laugh our way out of it, that's the only way. It's our survival mechanism, it's the thing that kept us going, you know? And this is why I wanted to write, so when there's only me and Jefferey then, in the little house in Pritchard Street, Marrickville, where I lived at the time, in 1984, and Jeff was doing ... what was he doing? His spraypainting course and, you know, working and then doing one day at tech, and so I picked up a pen and I started to write. And I haven't stopped since 1984. Oh, sure, a lot to pour out about the writing of the book, the first book took all the pressures from me and put it on the pages of that book, and I wrote it so that people would understand how difficult it is for us to survive and live between the two cultures, black and white in this country, and how we got no acknowledgment for any input, or anything in this country, you know? And well, that's basically why I wanted to write. And I haven't stopped.
What was the first time you ever wrote something that had actually earned you any money?
Well, I earned a guinea once in 19 ... this was the year Pauline was born, 1962, up in the bush tent on Gunnedah Hill. I wrote an essay for the NADOC week, Aboriginal ... National Aboriginal Day Observance week ... they have every year, and the essay was about what I'd best like to become if I could study, you know? And I wanted ... I said I'd like to be a doctor and I wrote about that and what I thought a doctor should be. You know? And I won the adult section for it and the prize was one guinea, and a few years after that happened, when things were opening up, guess what the prize was? This is the story of my life, eh? Not one guinea, it was an all-expenses paid trip overseas! ... [laughs] ... You know. Yeah, and the State Library, they hunted that up and found that it was in a Dawn magazine, one of the first Aboriginal magazines, you see? Yeah. One guinea ... [laughs] ... oh dear, it wouldn't even buy a loaf of bread today, I don't think ... [laughs] ...
People wouldn't even know now what a guinea was?
Your father's father, your grandfather, Anderson ... who was he?
He was Sam Anderson and he was born in a little place called Boonah, near Beaudesert, other side of the Queensland water in Queensland and when he was a youth, in his teens, he migrated down across the border into New South Wales and worked on one of the first squatter's homesteads called Main Camp for a fellow named ... by the name of Cunningham Henderson.
... [repeat of question] ... Tell me about your grandfather, your grandfather Anderson, who ... your father's father ... who was he?
... [interruption] ....
And what was your grandfather like?
He was a very tall man, tall rangy fella, they were ... all the Anderson men were six footers. And all the women were short and fat like me. Can't get away from your genes, can you? ... [laughs] ... My grandfather should've wore the green and gold of Australia in cricket, he scored over 100 centuries in his career of cricket ...
Who did he play for?
He's a legend on the north coast of New South Wales. Richmond, Tweed and all around there, where he was cricketing, Sam Anderson. He lived to see Donald Bradman for a duck in 1928, and there were only two Aboriginal cricketers to ever do that, and there was Grandfather Sam and Eddie Gilbert. But you won't find that in any Australian history books. Don Bradman called him a black bastard and Grandfather was going to hit him with the bat ... [laughs] ... I wrote a story about it called Tracing My Roots, and it was published in the Independent Monthly, and instead of them asking me for certification or proof that Grandfather had got him out for a duck, they got in touch with Sir Don, and he said ... his reply was, ‘Yes I do remember a game of cricket I played in Lismore in 1928, and it may well have been Sam Anderson who got me out.’ You know? But no, he was brought down here to teach Sydney University Students the game of cricket and they walked off the field and wouldn't play with an Aborigine. This is fact. But he was a legend. They called him the Prince of Darkness, Prince of Darkness or the Bungawalbin Crack. That was Grandfather. And I witnessed a game between him and his three sons, my father included, and he done 'em like a dinner ... [laughs] ... And they threw the bat in and they wouldn't play with him no more. And he just stood there throwing the ball up and saying, ‘Come on, goodfulla, come and play your father cricket, come on goodfulla.’ He always called everybody goodfulla. He used to give us kids these hot peppermint lollies, you know, good for your colds. When I was in high school for these two years, I'd find him waiting for me in the park and he'd get me to tear pages out of my exercise book and write a letter to Dad for some money. And he'd disappear and I'd meet him back in the park when he wanted me to write another letter. Because he used to be a drover, you know? And that's where they found him when he died, in a drover's shack. They were all horsemen, stockmen, they built up all those cattle hierarchies up there. For no acknowledgment whatsoever. They were the first pioneers.
Were both of his parents Aborigines?
Yes ... Yeah ...
He had no white blood in him ...
He was declared a half-caste in those days of caste, whatsaname, you know, with the Protection Board. It was stated that he was a half-caste, but I don't know where that part came from. Because Grannie was full-blood. Grandmothers on both sides were full-bloods. You see.
So maybe it was through his father's side?
Yeah. I don't know. I was never able to trace that back. Yeah. But he was a grand man, he was. He got me to speak, I was a real pouty child at the mission there, and I wouldn't talk, sit there with my lip like this, you know. ‘Come on, good fella, come on, talk to grandfather.’ Wouldn't talk. Picked me up like and put me in the saddle of Kangaroo, his stock horse, 17 hands high, I soon yelled out, ‘Get me down, Poppy, get me down, I want to get down!’ ... [laughs] ... It sure got me to talk. He was a lovely old man. When he used to come to visit he used to go to the ... the slaughter yards and come back with the innards of the bullocks, you know? The heart and liver and intestines and that. Wash 'em up and clean 'em up, roll in flour and fry 'em. We called it mugoi [sp?] in my language. Mugoi means ghost, white, you know? Here, come and have some mugoi.
How did it taste?
Good. You've had heart and liver, haven't you? It's much the same. The offal stuff, yeah,
Now coming back to your ... skipping over generations from your grandfather, your own children, now, how many of them did you finally raise to adult life?
I've got six of them left, and 21 grandchildren, last count. And two great-grandchildren, last count. Nob's my eldest son, now. And Dianne's my eldest — she's 42. Nob'll be 41 in May of next year.
And how did you lose David?
David died through a drug overdose when he was 28 years of age in 1984, because his white wife left him and took the little girl and left the boy. And someone shot him up with some dope and it killed him.
Was it ... did he, do you think arranged it, or was he using ... ?
No. He used to smoke grass, pot, whatever you call it, but somebody hit him with heavy stuff because it was heavy narcotics, you know? That killed him. And he had trouble with his breathing, too, anyhow. When I went to the place where they found him, it was a half-way house for prisoners that came out of jail, and I looked at them with all their misery, there, and they weren't even able to help themselves let alone help my son. For one of them could've taken him ... they were walking him around, so I believe, to try and keep him awake, instead of ringing an ambulance and he might have been still alive. And if they didn't want to get caught out because drugs were rampant on the place anyhow, it must've been. They could've taken him out in the street and got somebody else to call an ambulance, do something, but they did nothing. So my son's gone. And like with the mixed-bloods that are in my family alone, you got some fair ones and you got some ... Dave's dark like me. And I used to call him ‘my little black buck’. Yeah. Or Davy Crockett. Yeah. He was the only one of the kids that always needed to know that he was loved. Davy Crockett. Yeah. And he used to say to me, ‘Why couldn't you make me big and six foot like Nobby, instead of little and black?’ And I used to say, ‘There, there, I gotta have one of youse like me, I'm little and I'm black’ ... and he'd shut up then. And walk away smiling.
Looking back on the way that you lived while you were raising your kids, all the different places and the different men, most of whom didn't do much to help ... how is it different for you, from the life of a poor white person?
... [interruption] ...
Well, I don't remember reading anywhere about any poor white woman doing the work that I done. But my story, you must understand, is not just mine. I know there are poor white people that live in poverty, too, and don't have money to send their kids to the best schools and whatever. But my life story is not only mine. My life story is the story of every Aboriginal woman that's got jahjums — children — to raise in this society in Australia today. I'm only one. There are many more like me. But, because nobody's written their stories or told their stories, and this country knows nothing about us, there are many, many more. I'm only just one, and I want to stress that. I'm not super ... I'm not superwoman. I'm just one of the many.
And they have the same stories, too, that I have. Neddy's got the same sort of story as me. Nerida Pearl. Mostly all of hers are dead. Her kiddies. You know? I mean, this country looks at Aboriginal people and say they're all drunks and they're all no hopers, but they don't look at the thing that causes how people to be so distressed, so misplaced. Our dispossession in our own land is what's killing us like flies, and nobody gives a damn, that's what I find. Nobody gives a damn. Leave it up to multiculturalism right over our heads as if we weren't here and the country really was terra nullius, empty land, and I don't think our Indigenous people, big black warriors, they were, were bloody invisible, you know?
The women that share your story ... [interruption] ...
... were they the ones that used to help when you were down?
Of course. Neddy helped me. Tidda Gert helped me. Mum Rube helped me. Mother Nell helped me. They all had something to give me in this respect about life and show me. So, my story is their stories, too. You know? Mum Ruby for the childbearing one, Mother Nell for teaching me how to respect my elders, to sit at the table and eat, not have my arms out here and fly like a fowl, sit nice, and speak when you're spoken to. These things, you know what I mean? And if I used to whistle, she'd say to me, ‘Whistling maidens nor crowing hens are neither good to God or man.’ I used to think, ‘Gee, what the hell does that mean?’ ... [laughs] ... You know? And there was all this stuff used to come out and these people, they were good people, but Mother Nell had all that Victorian squattocracy stuff piled on here. They used to wear the dresses with the corsets, you know, that was so tight you'd have to pull 'em up here like that. High collars and pinched waists, all this stuff, you know. It was just like looking at ... people from England, there, at home. Because their attitudes were like that, and this is what the assimilation stuff did to my people. It denied us the rights to be our own damn selves, the real people we are, you know? Didn't wind me up too much ... [laughs] ...
[end of tape]