Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

Tape of 7

Tape 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

Could you start by telling me when you were born, what kind of a family you were born into and where it was, what kind of a situation it was?

I was born in New Zealand, in Napier, to a sort of middle-class family, who thought they were upper-class, and they had been missionaries and settlers. I think in Marsden's time, Samuel Marsden's time, and they were a mixture of Welsh, English, Irish, and there's a Tolstoy in the family. That's the only one I claim to really. And I went to a boarding school for ten years. Was brought up in the country way in the north and ... but wasn't a farm child because it was run like a squire-archy. It was a sort of farm with a pig stud, a sheep stud, a horse stud. It was very, you know, we didn't do anything about it. We simply were brought up there. And when I came ... I went down to this boarding school and I stayed there all that time, and was going to matriculate and then my mother told me ... She was a widow. My mother told me, 'I haven't any money to send you to University'. So I stopped doing any work at all and just read books for my last year at school. And then she said, 'Oh, I've got enough money, you can go to university now'. So I did my matriculation and failed. So then I was then at my last term at school and Ezra Norton, who was the newspaper proprietor in Sydney, hired me from New Zealand, because one of his flunkies in New Zealand had read some poetry by me, awful poetry, and it was the custom of newspaper owners to hire people from New Zealand because they thought the education was better than Australia. They used to go over and buy people in New Zealand. And I came over and he paid my fare and my accommodation for a month and flung me into journalism.

Can we go back and go over a little more detail about your family. Who was your father, and what was he like and who was your mother, and could you tell us a little about the family circumstance?

My father was born in Richmond, Virginia - an American. They were a family from ... of engineers from Carlisle, who [was] the sort of engineer who went all over the world and built a bridge or a tunnel or something. And he happened ... his father happened to settle in New Zealand and build a tunnel and go away again and left my father, Sidney John Richmond Riddell - Richmond after the town he was born in. And my mother was from this sort of middle-class family and I had grandparents in Napier and I never seemed to see them. And my father was a solicitor, who was also a yachtsman, so I never saw him. And my mother just entertained for him and played bridge. And then he had a bad ... one day the yacht was in trouble and they were in the water too long and he got pneumonia and died. We were then found to be deeply in debt. So I don't remember him, except once I saw him riding on a fire-engine because the house in the street was burning. And he was in pyjamas. He's gone to give the call. That's all I remember about my father. You see I was about five or something and I was put into a boarding school almost immediately. I was the smallest child in the boarding school. And then it was all with other people, because my mother was incapable of ... she'd never been trained to do anything. So she went to work, collecting insurance from poor people. She went around working people and got their shilling a week or something for their premiums, and then she got a job in advertising and she was terribly good at that. You don't need any training for advertising, of course. She was very good.

Why do you think she was good at it? What was it ...

Personality. She had no idea. She had no idea. She'd never been trained for anything. But I suppose she went and talked to them, talked people into things. And she had very good jobs. She had fur coats, and went to the races, and had lots of boyfriends, and had a good time. And so I was in boarding school, my sister was in another boarding school.

Why was that?

Because we quarrelled. My sister persecuted me.

In what way?

She told me my mother didn't love me. And she persecuted me in quite a nice way into stuttering. I couldn't speak for a while. I couldn't speak at all. I use to whisper to people. I couldn't speak properly. And she used to ... I'll tell you one episode that was interesting. I had found on the housekeeper's shelf, a book called Confessions of a Court Modiste. It had a pink cover and a black figure on it and it was, I think, a naughty novel. Anyway, as I was trying to read at six, well above my years, I took it down. And then one aunt came to see if we tidied our beds. They built us an annexe in the country with child-size furniture, and she came in every morning to see if we'd had our baths and tidied our beds, then we would go for two days at school or something. And then she found this book and took it away and said, 'You naughty girl. You mustn't read that'. And then the next day, she came in again and it was under my mattress and my sister had put it there: a trick on me. My sister was only two years older than me but she was an absolute expert, at that age even. So we went to separate boarding schools, of course.

And did you believe her when she told you your mother didn't love you?

Yes. I believed everything I was told. I believed everything. I was a very solemn, believing child.

Looking back now, do you think your mother did love you?

Sort of. My mother wasn't meant to be a mother, any more than I would have been. I wouldn't have been a good mother. And my mother wasn't meant to be a mother. She was quite a good mother, but she wasn't terribly interested in it. And the whole ... whole family had children and they were none of them, very interested in their children. They had them as a matter of course. They wanted their children to be clever and make good marriages, but that's all they wanted.

Did your sister make you feel that it was your fault that your mother didn't love you?

Yes. Everything was my fault. Everything was my fault that happened, and I use to lie in bed and look up at the hillside, where there was a great ... the pohutukawa tree, that's that New Zealand tree with the beautiful green leaves and the red flowers. And I would look up at that and make up stories and pretend stories, but they were never about New Zealand. They were always about ... they were always fairy tale stories about England.

Did you ever make up with your sister or has she remained the rival and enemy?

Well, yes. We are now on good terms because we are in different countries and we write 'Dearest Betty ...'. You know, we don't mean any of this. She lived an entirely different life to mine. She had land. She stayed in New Zealand, and married and she had land. And then I came over here you see, at eighteen. And she came once to Australia. She went on a tour of Japan and South East Asia and she came once to Australia and she said, 'Oh, I like it here. I think I'll stay', and I said, 'No you won't'. And she went home. Well, people shouldn't come and land on, you know ... I couldn't have entertained or looked after her because I don't play bridge or go to the races or do any of those fascinating things. [Laughs]

So you went to boarding school and did you continue to have this problem of not being able to speak?

No. The nuns made me ... I had a bad stutter. I got better away from my sister very quickly. Before I went to boarding school I went to a small church school. That was the time when I wasn't interested in learning anything and I use to wag it from school. I used to not go. My mother would see me off out of the boarding house that we were temporarily living in. It was a very fashionable boarding house and I was told to shut up and keep quiet, because Mrs. Somebody didn't like people around the place. Anyway, I would be put off to school every morning and then I would leave school and go to the library or go into a department store and steal to make my mother love me. I stole things for her. I stole beautiful things. She caught on, of course, immediately. So she went to see my teacher and my teacher said, 'Oh she doesn't come much to school'. And then she thought: boarding school. Well she took the things back, I suppose.

Did you think you were sent off to boarding school as a punishment?

I suppose so. I didn't think much about anything, except myself and my fairy story-inside-my-head life. I didn't make friends. I was sort of such a self-interested, abstracted child. And that continued. I didn't make friends at school either. I feel in love with a nun, but that's not making friends, is it? A handsome young nun.

Were you a Catholic?

No, I wasn't a Catholic. There were about ten Anglicans in my school and we had to all the same things as the Catholic girls. We had to get up at 6.30 and make our beds. We only had a bath once a week. We had to get up and wash and make our beds, and go to Mass and the Anglicans took their Bible. They were told to take their Bibles with them and read the Bible. And some of us could join the choir. But, of course, we couldn't go to confession or to communion. And the nuns ... It was a beautiful chapel, and a visiting priest every morning in the most beautiful vestments. I was very romantic about Catholicism but never joined. I was very romantic about it because I was a romantic child.

What was it about the nun that drew you.

Oh, she was beauty. And her father had been at Gallipoli and she was young. And she was ... the wimple, you know, her beautiful face. I use to watch her praying in the chapel. I can't remember her name now, of course. And she went over the wall later on and she came to Australia and she came to see me. And she was so uninteresting when she wasn't in her ... whatever they call it, habit. [Laughs]

So did she like you a lot too? Was this the ...

Yes. But she wasn't a lesbian. She liked me as a child because I think we liked the same things. We liked the same books. There was a good library at the school. She liked me.

And was this ... And did this give you the attention that maybe you'd been looking for?

Perhaps it did. I didn't ask of it from any of the girls. Of course, we were all ages from secondary school age or lower. We were all ages. There was nuns from all over the world there. And there was a Chinese nun, a Japanese nun, a nun from England and a French nun and so on. I liked the nuns very much. I had a wonderful time with the nuns. One or two of them were nasty.

What about the girls?

I didn't care about the girls.

You made no friendships?

I didn't really make any friendships. I was competitive. I had a competitor but she wasn't a very great friend. I did see her in the holidays from school. Kara. I did see her. She and I competed for the prizes. Even in Christian Doctrine as they call it. Christian Doctrine, which would be what? Religion, I suppose. And the nuns were horrified when I won the Christian Doctrine prizes. Here's this Protestant winning the Christian Doctrine prize. [Laughs] But it was only another lesson.

So you did well academically?

Very well at school in the things I liked. But I didn't do well in science or maths, which you had to have to matriculate.

So in the end you didn't matriculate?

No. No. Didn't go to university. I would've liked the life. I wouldn't live the lectures, but I would've liked the life. Because they were small of course. New Zealand had one university with colleges in different capital cities or the provinces. Four all together. And I would've gone to the Wellington one. Victoria College I would've gone to. And I know I would have loved being there. But I didn't get there. I got over to Sydney instead.

At any stage of your life, did you ever get close to your mother again -- or ever get close to your mother?

She would ring up and ask me where ... she would wait for me to come in in the evening if I'd been somewhere. I must have had some friends because I went out. And I would come home and she would say, 'What time is it?' She would've got home sometime and she would say, 'What time is it?' And it would be one o'clock and I would say it was eleven. I lied a lot to my mother about what I was doing, where I was going and who I was seeing. But I wasn't seeing boys. So what, I don't know what I was doing in my holidays. You see only in holidays in those days. Because my after school life was over here and I was working.

Did she hesitate about allowing you to go off to Australia?

No. She was absolutely marvellous. All her sisters and relatives said, 'Don't let Betty go to Australia. It's a terrible country', you know, that thing about 'It's a wicked city', and my mother said, 'Well what's she going to do if she stays in New Zealand?' and I would've become part of the typing pool because there were no women journalist and you don't live on poetry. I'd have become part of the typing pool. My mother said, 'I'm going to let her go'. And she had her life. She didn't mind me going.

It didn't occur to you that maybe she was glad to get rid of you?

No, it didn't occur to me. It's never occurred to me, that. It's never occurred to me. What a funny thought, that she wanted me out of the way. But then she came to live in Australia later, against my will. I think she did that for me. I think that was a genuine thing she did for me: 'I'll give her a chance'. Because she'd been left with no skill, no trade, no profession, no university degree, nothing. Not even a diploma. She was a good cook, fancy cook. You know, rich trifles. That's all she could do. And play bridge and go to the races.

But she actually made quite a lot of money at her job?

Oh, she made bags of money by selling advertising. But then that came to an end.

So, when you were selected, it was on the basis of poems that you said ...

Bad poems.

How do you think that was? Why do you think that Ezra Norton thought that bad poems ...

He didn't think it. It was his man, Henry Bates in New Zealand. It was his New Zealand editor who'd been watching these precocious ... precocious poems. But I never asked Henry Bates why he did it. You see I don't make those sort of contacts. My belief is that life is accidental, so let it happen. I don't pry behind why a thing happens. It's self-interest I think. I'm only interested in it happening to me, but not why it happens. Do you think that makes sense?

I think it does but it seems an attitude which is unusual in a journalist because part of journalism is to pry and to find out why something is happening. Maybe you are more ...

But that is a fact of life. That is not a philosophical view of somebody, why do they think that way, is it? I mustn't argue with you.

No, no. But sometimes motivation is an interesting...

Yeah. Isn't that funny about my mother. I never thought she wanted to get rid of me. One thing she said to me was, 'Now don't drink brandy. Brandy is the wicked drink. You'll become ...'. She drank whisky and brandy and anything she felt like and she made me drink whisky and I said, 'That horrible stuff'. And didn't drink it again ever. She put make-up on and I was disgusted with the idea of her putting make-up on me. I was a really prim child. But as I was leaving she said, 'Now don't get addicted to brandy. It's a wicked drink'. She used to drink brandy limes, you see. Of course I drank brandy if I felt like it. She had all those fetishes and things about how you conduct your life. She told me, 'Never become fond of a man with no back to his head'. How do you like that one? [Laughs] No back to his head. Head goes straight down. [Laughs]

So these were pearls of motherly wisdom?

These were pearls of motherly instruction. She never told me anything about sex. She barely fixed me up for the rites of passage. Barely. Didn't tell me anything. She was having love affairs. I knew about that. And I once saw people in a park so I knew what went on. The country didn't mean much to me. I'd seen animals cohabiting in the country, but I though only cows did that but when I saw the people I knew that ... what was on. She didn't tell me. I don't think ... don't think people told their children.

Did the nuns tell you anything?

Not a word. And the girls didn't tell me. The prefects didn't tell me. And I never saw a boy the whole time I was at school. Never went out with a boy. Never got out of the convent to learn swimming even. And then we came ... we got a train and then we crossed the straits on a ferry to Wellington where my mother was based. And we were chaperoned and looked after the whole way.

So all of this protection had made you very ripe for wicked Sydney.


What did you think of wicked Sydney when you arrived?

Oh, I adored it. I loved it. But what I loved was the journalism and the writing and being thrown into it, because it was hot metal and you had compositors and they were simply wonderful.

So you had a direct relationship with the printers?

I did. They gave me a page to run. I use to do theatre reviews, ballet reviews. Knew nothing about anything. I knew a bit about ballet because my mother would take me to see the travelling ballets and operas and things, but I didn't have any critical facility whatever.

Why do you think there's been this tradition on newspapers on giving the least experienced, youngest journalist in the place, the job of the Arts coverage?

I think it's so funny. They take you off the hospital round or the financial pages or the meat prices, and make you a ballet critic. I don't know why they do it. Because journalist have to know a bit about everything. Not much about everything. Just a little bit about most things. And that's why all the mistakes are made.

How did you get on, starting like this, at the deep end?

I just went in. I spent my first ... I wasn't a cadet. He paid me properly. He paid me what a fourth grade journalist would get now. He paid me straight away. And I spent my first week's wages on a coat that I liked. And I found myself with no money. I had to borrow to pay the rent. I had no idea of money, but I soon learnt.

How old were you?

Oh, about eighteen I think.

Where did you live? Did you have anybody to stay with?

I had accommodation for a month, then I had a flat, and a flatmate: a very clever girl who was married to a journalist and used to do some writing. Iris Dexter. And the Dexters were a great family in journalism when I came over. One covered swimming, one covered something else. And I flatted with her because she'd left her husband. In, of course, Macleay Street. Where else?

So as a result of being such a young girl, away from home, in a new job and with nobody keeping an eye on you, did you run into any problems or difficulties, or did you cope with that all very well?

I coped. And then I ... What happened? I fell in love with a man of forty-seven. An editor. A very travelled and experienced married man with a child. And I just disregarded everything and I think we got a flat together eventually. He wanted me to come and live with his wife and child. He would then have two of us in the house. But I rejected that. I had enough sense for that. And he taught me a tremendous amount about the world, not about journalism so much. Because he'd lived in America and Russia and knew a lot about the world and he was radical. The Hat, they called him. He used to wear a big black hat. So he was very romantic and I stuck around with him for quite a long time until I saw the man I married. In fact, this man went away. He got a good job in Fleet Street again running a thing for Frank Packer. A very good job. Head of Bureau. Very nice. And took his wife and child and went off and said, 'You'll come won't you?' And yes, 'Yes', I said, 'Yes'. And then I put all his photographs away and relaxed. And didn't go.

You knew it was over?

I knew it was over but he didn't know it was over and I didn't tell him. It's the mean thing that people do.

So how did he find out?

Because I didn't turn up. He kept sending me cables, 'Why aren't you coming? Why aren't you coming?' And I kept not answering. I suppose eventually I answered him. By that time I'd settled on my new great love.

And how did you meet him?

On the beach. Bondi. Saw him. He was journalist and a rugby player. Blue Greatorex. He was the best thing I'd ever seen. So I stuck around and thought this will do nicely thank you. He never meant to marry me. What happened was that we went away, shared a cabin and they made us. Well they said, 'You can't have a cabin, You can't share a cabin unless you're married'. But we'd lived together before that in a flat in a good suburb. I don't know why I did all these things.

What drew you to him? Do you remember that? What was it about him?

Oh his looks.

Was that all?

No. A reader. He liked all the things I did. Funny. Terribly funny. Had been to England already. Very funny man. We used to read with our meals. That's the sort of man he was. Now that's good, isn't it? When you read with your meals. When they let you read with your meals. And, oh, he was a very interesting man. And he let me do ... he didn't want me to be a homebody. He kept pushing me in my job and kept saying, 'Do that. Do that'.

What was happening in your career at this time?

My career was my paper. Two morning papers were merged, so there were two of everybody. If you had a sort of series you were doing, or a round as they were called, you would have an opposition. With two papers and one set of journalists, they had to compete which lot was going to get in. He got his. And I didn't get mine because I was doing casual jobs. I didn't have a regular round. But every week I expected the sack but with a bit of luck I came up with something. You see he won his bit, whatever it was. He was the winner on that side, but I wasn't. But I hung on in there, I hung on and then I went to the ... then I accepted a job with somebody else. One used to change jobs then for another. Would be the equivalent of ten dollars a week. You moved.

You moved for money, not better opportunity?

You moved for money. Well no, you moved for money. You see there was no women journalist except me doing general work. Because I'd been lucky.

Now most women journalist at that time were side-tracked into women's issues, in women's work, with women's pages ...

Social reporting it was called. The women's pages. I never did it.

Why was that?

Well there was an editor, a very famous editor in Sydney called Eric Baume. A real operator. A New Zealander with political connections and other connections and he thought that he would invent 'the sob sister'. They had them in America. That if somebody ... the sort of thing that is now in the tabloids, but wasn't then. You'd do an interview somebody whose wife has just been murdered or something. Television does it now, what I did then. And he produced me. And when all the male journalist where playing billiards, pool or in the pub, there was I. So he sent me out on the good jobs. Good jobs. You know, jockey's being killed or married. That sort of job. Jobs that you got into the paper. Not as ... it was a tabloid in a sense, but nothing like they are now. Nothing. We never said to anybody, 'How do you feel?' which they say incessantly now. 'How do you feel?'

What things did you say instead?

I can't remember now. And we didn't steal photographs from people. We asked for them occasionally. We didn't steal them. But we didn't say to a woman, whose child is lying dead at her feet, 'How do you feel?' We were not as stupid as that.

Now what ... what ... did you continue in this relationship with Blue, you said until you went overseas. What took you overseas?

I wanted to go and he'd been. And I wanted to go. And we found a German cargo ship that would take us for forty pounds each. They would give us the radio officer's cabin. But they wouldn't give it to us unless we were married. It was taking back some Germans who'd been ... been in wool. You see, it was 1935. Hitler was around in 1933. After all, Europe was going to go up in flames and I thought, we'd better get there. And Germans in good jobs were be repatriated. There was a German governess and a German wool buyer on this ship with us. They also had officer's cabins. I think the Germans wanted the money for the ... for the ship. I can't remember what it was called. No, I've forgotten. We were going to Bremen. It would take us a long time. And it sure did. We went round North Africa. We went to places we would never ... we went to Dachau [?]. I would never have gone to these places if I'd gone on P & O, and we came us into the the Girondes in France. We went back down to Bremen, we came back to Southampton, and I think the whole thing took about ten weeks. We saw all these places. And a wonderful, captain who'd been sailing to the Philippines and back. And the bosun was the Nazi, was the Nazi leader on it. And as I did my morning hike with the captain up and down the deck, the bosun would go past us and put his hand up and say, 'Heil Hitler'. And the captain would say, 'Heil Hitler' [mumbling]. He never did the full salute. But the bosun was in charge of that ship and the crew. You see, they were Nazi's.

What did you make of it? The Nazis on board?

Nothing. Oh one said to me that if I lived in Germany that I would have my head cut off. I didn't make much of him. This was one of the wool buyers.

Why did he say that?

Because I was being opinionated.

In what way? What were your own views at the time?

Oh, the Nazis were terrible. He was, I suppose, giving me Nazi propaganda and I was saying, 'What a lot of rot'. And he said, 'If you were in Germany now, you'd have your head cut off'. It put me off the Germans. My husband got along with them better because he was a more amiable man than I am. I mean, I've got a short fuse. But he would just think, 'Oh, well, who cares'.

[end of tape]

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