Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

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When you got to London, what kind of work did you do? Did you work or did you just go for a holiday?

I went to work. My ambition in life at that stage, never mind the poetry, was to get a job on the greatest newspaper in England, the Daily Express, which had revolutionised newspapers because it had understood design. Beaverbrook had it. And Christiansen was a great editor. And the face of newspapers changed. It's hard to believe now, but the value of white on the front page was understood. But anyway, I had some names of papers and editors. Blue was going to work for Reuters. He was all right. He was going to have a lovely time. But I wanted to work. And we took a flat without a bathroom and we didn't understand that some London flats didn't have bathrooms. Then we got another one with a bathroom. And I began my hike of interviews and I went to ... the first thing I went to was the News of the World, because ... I didn't try the Express first. The News of the World, because it was owned by Lord Riddell, who I think called it Riddle. He was from Carlisle, where the Riddells were originally from. And they gave me a job because of my name. The man on ... the news editor said, 'We'll give you a day's work', and they told how to get to someplace and interview some woman. You know, the sort of frightful paper that it was. And I did that and then the news editor said to me, 'Well I think you should pop over to Greece'. I didn't know how to pop over to Greece. Anyway, he told me and they paid for me to and I did an interview then. But that was casual work. And I went to the Sunday Graphic for the same reason and asked the editor for a job and he said, 'We'll give you a day's work on Friday'. And I had this sense to say to him, 'Why will you give me a day's work'. And he said, 'Because Australians can get into places. They're not afraid to get into places where polite English journalists won't go'. He said, 'Australians would never go to the tradesmen's entrance. They go to the front door and bang on it and tell the butler what they want'. So I worked for them, one day a week, the News of the World, one day a week and then there was a train smash at something, Garden City. Maybe it was just called Garden City. No, Welham or Welham Garden City. And they rang me on the Saturday to go out and cover it - help cover it. The Sunday Graphic or some paper. And we both went and covered it. And then I still thought, I want the Express. We bought a car for twelve pounds and Blue took that away on his Reuters job and left me in the flat and [said], 'Get some work. Find some work if that's what you want'. And I got in to see the editor of the Daily Express who said to me, 'No, I won't employ you. You're too experienced. I want somebody I can make into a great journalist'. And he only employed at the most, two women on the paper. One did police court news. Constance did police report news. And he had one on the paper and he'd lost one. He said, 'Yes, I've just lost my other female. But I want one I can mould. You've been moulded in Sydney'. So eventually he gave way and put me on. And I lasted ten weeks. I had by-lines, front page stuff, all sorts of things. I did very well. And one day, he said to me, 'I've found the girl I want. In Hull'. In Hull you see. And he found her and I got the sack. 'Cause it nearly killed me. I thought it was the worst thing that ever happened to me in my life. And Blue, to stop me crying, we went to a travel agent and I was still bawling I think, and Blue said, 'We want somewhere were we can swim and where it's sunny'. And they sent us to ... '... where it was cheap'. He'd finished his Reuters thing. Tossa De Mar on the Costa Brava in Spain, which was fishing village then, but it's now covered in hotels. I know that. It was a fishing village and we got the top floor of a fisherman's house and we stayed there until Franco. We went out over the border on a train after Franco. It was a communist village. The waiter at the only sort of hotel, which we sometimes had a meal, although it was too expensive for us, even at nothing. Brandy was four pence a glass - wonderful - and we could eat free, eat Tapas in the bar. You didn't need to have dinner. You could eat out of the antipasto and stuff. Anyway, we stayed there for all that time and there was one Englishman, who'd been an officer in an Indian regiment, who was there by himself, living. And we stayed in this top floor.

And the waiter?

The waiter was the leader of the Anarchist Party. How you can have an Anarchist Party when anarchists are one-man jobs, I don't know. Zedro. Zedro went to war immediately against Franco. So everything disappeared out of the village. In the meantime, while we'd been living in the village, I had ... we used to go down to Barcelona for weekends in the frightful bus covered in hens and turkeys and onions and people. And we used to take a room in a flea pit in Barcelona for the weekend with that terrible noise of radios. It was the noisiest city in the world. And go ... I hate to tell you this, but it's true, to the bullfights. A great animal lover like me, went to bullfights.

Was that your doing?

My doing. He didn't want to go. He use to put his head in his hands. Far too nice a man. I use to look at most of it. I was mad about it.


The theatrical experience. And we only went ... we went in the sun. Well there are two sides to an arena. Sombre and Sol. We went to Sol because it was the cheapest and I yelled along with the others. So, I've never been since.

And you had to leave in a hurry?

We had to leave in a hurry, yes. So we came out over the border, whatever it's called. I don't know which bit of border that is. And we took a train back. We spent a week in Paris I think, living again in some flea pit. And then back to London.

With a good story?

No. No. What did I do? 1936, that must have been. I don't know what I did. I never got back on the Express. I did casual work. We did casual work. We did casual work. And we travelled all over England and Scotland in the car. The twelve pound car that had wooden floorboards to the car and one used to slap up on our faces. When we left England we sold it for fifteen pounds. We made money on that car. A Morris with a funny nose. A Morris Oxford, I think. [Laughs]

Why did you leave England?

We'd taken two years leave and it was up. No, we'd taken a year's leave and it was then two years and we decided ... I don't know why we decided to go home.

Did you see the war coming?

No. We didn't. We went home for some reason that wasn't terribly sensible and we got on a refrigerated cargo ship, with a drunken captain, whose name was the Stuart Star. And we went round Africa. We went to Mozambique. We went right up the coast of Africa. Elizabeth, what ...

They've all changed their names.

But not the South African ones haven't changed their names. We went right up the coast of South Africa. There was a row in the crew and there was a police court case in ... what's that lovely one on the beach? Durban. Durban. We were days in Durban. Well the member of the crew or the carpenter was being prosecuted for hitting another crew member . We were out of money. We had no money. Then we got up eventually to a place that has certainly changed it's name. And I've forgotten it's name. It's now ... no, it's gone. And there we spent all our days ashore because by then we were not speaking to the captain. And the food was uneatable. We spent all our days ashore eating cheap ... eating fruit and lying on a beach. And then we got back on it and came back and we got off at Melbourne, the first port we touched because that was the quickest way off the ship. And as we ... when we got off the ship with our trunks and bags and suitcase and stuff, I could see it was getting ... Blue didn't want to be back in Australia.

Why not?

He didn't like it by then. He liked ... I don't know what he liked. He said to me, 'I can't stand this'. And I soothed him and said, 'It's going to be all right'. And we got on a train. We didn't have enough money to fly over or stay. We didn't want to stay on the ship till Sydney. God, it might of taken ten weeks to get there anyway. We got on a train and sat up all night back to Sydney. And my mother had got us a flat. And we had a flat to go to. She got us a furnished flat. We had a flat to go to, a place to open our bags, and we rang up our editors, who both gave us back our jobs. But we had day jobs. We were on morning papers. I forget. I forget. Different papers by then. I was on The Sun. I got a job on The Sun and Blue got a job on ... the Morning Mirror. I don't know. We both got jobs and then the war came. And then he went into the army first. Oh, I changed my job at the beginning of the war because I was offered more money. I think I went back ... I went back three times to the man who'd imported me. He always wanted me back, Ezra Norton. And it was more money and I went back. And Blue went into the army as a private with an application to the air force, although he was too old to fly by then. Mind you, he lied about his age. I don't know how old he was. He was ...

Have you always been truthful about your age?

Oh, no. I've told the most terrible lies. I don't even know what it is now. Except I'm over eighty.

You've confused yourself?

I've confused myself. I don't know whether I was born in 1910 or 1907. If I was born in 1907 I'm older. However ...

Blue lied about his age?

He lied about his age and he got into the army as a Sergeant, not as a private . A Sergeant - not much better. He was encamped at Ingleburn and ... but he had his application at the air force, which he again lied about his age, I suppose. And he got into the Eighth division that was lost on the Burma Road and he was pulled out into the air force or he would have been there.

And what happened to you in the war?

Well, I was working in the war doing general work. And Ezra Norton wanted to open a New York bureau and you couldn't send ... you could send a man out, a journalist or anybody out for a useful job, you were manpowered. He could get men to go as journalists, as correspondents, but he couldn't take one out to a soft job in a bureau in New York. So he took me. He picked me.

He would have preferred to send a man?

Oh, I think so. Doesn't everybody? And he was making arrangements to co-operate with the Japanese who were going to take us over because he had a cartoonist who drew the cricket match with a Japanese head used as the ball. And it went into the paper for one edition and Ezra ripped it out and he told me, he wasn't going to have that sort of thing in the paper because he might have to co-operate with the Japanese and he wasn't going to let his cartoonist shadow this arrangement in any way.

What did you say to him?

Nothing. Nothing. No, I didn't have any views. I didn't have any views about the Japanese or the war, or anything. I was just hoping to live in New York and get some good stories. [Laughs] I didn't have a political conscience. If I have one now, it's all developed since then. And then he sent me by Swedish ship across the Pacific. Another cargo ship. You see, I've never been on a decent ship. There were fifteen of us on the Goonawarra and it's a ship that takes nobody. And a very good Swedish captain and a wonderful bar and a lot of good stories. And we were blacked out at night. We were neutral, but we were blacked out at night. So we went slowly cross the Pacific to San Diego or San Francisco or somewhere, anyway. And then I got aboard a train and went across America. There was another correspondent with me on the ship, who was going for the Herald. A man named, Pitchard, who is now dead and who was quite a famous correspondent, and he and I use to sit on deck at night and drink Drambuie.

And when you got to New York and opened the Bureau, what was that like?

It was like nothing you'd ever hoped to see. It was a square room in the New York Mirror Building. The Hearst Building on the ninth floor underneath the Hearst News Service. There was a Hearst News Service that ran around the world. There was a Hearst paper, the Daily Mirrorand there were odd correspondents, there were odd bureaus from all around the world because it was very powerful. It was a good place to be. You got the news as it happened. And it was on ... down on 45th street on the East side. It was a bare room and I put my typewriter on the window ledge. And I'd been told, 'Oh, take your time. Look around. Find your feet'. And I got cables at once - the first day I was there, 'Send us, send us something or other'. And I at length got a table and chairs and other facilities such as a telephone. And later on I got a very good female assistant from a news service who was absolutely splendid.

Did you at any stage feel daunted when you were asked to do this sort of thing?

No. No, I never thought about it. It was the same thing that. I don't think this is relevant, but you know, women who that have affairs with married men. You know, we never think about the wives. You don't think. You don't think it's anything to do with you.

What kind of news were you sending back from New York?

I was ... I was sending what was being sent to New York from Greece and the European Front and everything. Hearst was getting it in. I was then sending it as quick as possible, because our datelines were all different. My datelines favoured an Australian afternoon paper and that was the Daily Mirror. They favoured it. I could get the news quicker from New York than they could get from Athens or Paris or wherever Germans were not at the moment. Because they had a big London Bureau too.

Was there any kind of news you didn't handle?

Oh no. The Americans never ... where the British and Australians, and so on, were fighting, the Americans only called them the Allies. The Americans never referred to them. When they were in New Guinea on the Kokoda Trail, the American news services only referred to the Allies.

Did you miss Blue?

Oh yes.

Did he miss you?

He never said.

So when ...

He had the house. He had the house. And people came to stayed in it out of the air force and all over the place came to stay in it and somebody would come and clean it. That was his base but he would be going around Australia and into New Guinea doing legal and ... Do you know that ... I suppose you do, that pilots from various places brought back ... smuggled back things.

What kind of things?

Some tiny thing that is in a cigarette lighter. We know they brought back nylons, chocolates and oranges and lemons and things, but they brought back eminently useful and saleable things and it was small. They brought millions of cigarettes from all over the place. Very heavy business in contraband in Australia. Well, in London and in Paris and everywhere. Everywhere there was a plane, there was contraband.

So he was busy with that during the war, did he ever see action?

Never. He never saw action. He was ... They were bombed at in New Guinea but he was too old for action. He was never allowed to see it. His great mentor and friend in the Air Force was a man called, Killer Caldwell, who had also faked his birth date, but he got into the action. He flew in Egypt and in New Guinea. In Palestine and New Guinea. Killer flew. He really flew.

So, when did you come back to Australia?

I came back to Australia after the European war. When I got into Cologne ... I'd been in Paris, and when ...

Why were you in Paris?

I was in Paris because I asked the boss if I could go to Paris. I didn't work ... you see Eric Baume was again Head of the Bureau. He changed papers too. He had a Bureau at the Savoy and the Reuters Building in Fleet Street. He had his flat at the Savoy and an office building. So did Packer's lot. So did Kerry Packer ... Sir Frank Packer. He had a building. He had a suite in the Savoy. It was always littered with the RAAF. They were always sleeping on the floor. But it was really for the conduct of the offices. It was Bureau too. And they had camp beds and so on.

Why did you ask to go there?

Well, America wasn't a good place to have the war in. It was too silly. It took it like a film. Sachs 5th Avenue had it's window decorated in purple ribbon and pictures of soldiers. People were learning to write letters and the whole thing got too awful for me. And I'd lived in London and I wanted to be back with my friends. And the blitz ... Well I got back. The blitz was over by the time I got there. 1942. Then we had the little blitz. Then they learned how to cope with that. Then we had the other thing that ...

The doodle bug.

The doodle bugs. I saw the doodle bugs go past my flat window. We didn't know what it was. And, then we had ... the thing I missed was the other bomb. The one that was sent from the Pays de Calais and came straight across Croydon and it was on a ... I don't know what it was called. The something bomb.

So what kind of stories, then, were you sending back from England to Australia?

Well, while I was waiting for the invasion ... well I sent back what people were like in bomb shelters and things. I just sent back everyday stories that every one wanted to read: what was on in the theatres, what was on everywhere. Then while I was waiting for the invasion, on which I was not booked onto anything on the invasion ... The men were all booked on things but not me, but I was accredited to the war office and had to wear a uniform. Ezra suggested that I find out what the people of England felt England would be like after the war. In fact, would they want to emigrate? And I did and I went to Scotland and the north of England, which had had terrible trouble. Coventry for instance. Anyway, they had decided, many of them ... there were no men, there were no men of military age or anything. I didn't go near them. I went to their bomb shelters and the big Town Halls and things, where they used to sleep at night, and they all wanted to get out, at least for a while. You see people thought that England would be ... the churches had been so marvellous and that England would be marvellous again, but a lot of people had had enough. I sent back a series of emigration stories and I enjoyed doing those no end. And they were all printed. And then I got ... Normandy had been invaded and Paris had been reclaimed, and I got to Paris, to the Scribe Hotel, the Press Hotel, the press camp, which was run by Americans. And there were four or five Australians there and we all had desks in the lobby. I suppose it was the lobby - the dining room in the Scribe. It had been a German press camp, so the concierge just ... he knew how to treat the press. He treated the German press exactly the same.

And what happened then in Europe? Did you go?

I went on things that were called sorties. Press people in the services would take people, a group of you, to say Brussels or somewhere that had been ... And I went to Brussels once. There were a lot of Canadians in Brussels and Lord Astor took us. He owned the Observer I suppose at the time or something. He took us to Brussels, about six of us. And in Brussels I met an Australian friend, Sam White, who was with the RAF - the RAF not the RAAF, and he'd been on the front pages everyday. Sam and I were old friends. When we were ... we were both living in London at one stage when I first went you know. I first ... our first night out in London was in Fitzrovieo [?] with Sam. Anyway he said, 'Oh, don't bother about Astor', he said, 'You'll be all right. I'll take you into Metz', which was occupied by Germans. Well half-occupied. The Germans were being pushed out. And he did. He had a ... he had a Manchester driver, he had a PR, who was a Czech, and we had a weapons carrier and we went everywhere we could go. We went into Metz. And we were souveniring things. The Czech was looting everything that had been looted from Prague. He was taking back everything the Germans had taken from them. He piled the back of the weapons carrier with sheets, and the Manchester driver had been told to get an iron for his wife in Manchester and send it home to Manchester.

So they were practical things, not works of art?

Oh no. Oh no. Take soap and everything, everything that poor Britain didn't have. The only country that didn't have everything. And I took a pair of ... Oh Sam told me not to touch anything. He was only looking for champagne. But I did touch something. A wonderful pair of ... I think the German name is Zeiss - wonderful racing glasses. Officer's observing glasses. And I took those.

Have you still got them?

No I gave them away to an actress friend of mine who lives in Bondi. [Laughs] I kept them for all those years. I brought them home to Blue. Wonderful glasses. He'd used them for years at the races. Nothing went off in my hand but it could have. Because the Germans were great ones, as you know, for leaving a little mine or something.

Did you encounter any Germans?

Oh yes. We looked right into their little faces if we hid. But we spent the night there in a farm house. But the Americans were there by then and they got on terribly well with everyone at Metz because they are the sort of people who love ... As you the know the Americans really love Germans. They would much rather be fighting with French. We then ... oh, then Sam took me back to Brussels where my party had left and gone back to London. And there was a message there for me from, I think, the Canadians. 'You're in trouble'. And I went to a headquarters. Sam took me to a Headquarters of somewhere and said, 'Well goodbye. You're on your own, I'm going back to the war', and, Lord Astor was found for me, at some stage, and called me, 'Here's my little lost lamb', he said. However, they were all right. He told me I would never get out of London again until I was properly accredited in Paris. So I went ... I'll tell you another place we went, it was where there was a German submarine place, perhaps it was Bordeaux, and I went on a bombing mission then. And they bombed that place till they were black in the face and it didn't hurt the submarines. They must have been so far down. That was very good. Everybody brought back stockings and oranges and bananas and things from that raid. Some place they stopped in. You see, some of it was free and some of it wasn't.

So the mentality of you at that time was ... it has the sound of adventure?

A junket. It was adventure and there were a lot of people who had a very good war. When you were not horrified, it was a very good war. If you could ... you could get black market food both in London and Paris. You could dance all night. If you were not being killed. And why not? I had a flat on the top floor of a building in Cliffords Inn Lane, opposite Reuters Building which was my base. It was on the sixth floor. But what did I care, because I was either going to be killed or I was going to go on having an exciting time. I think a lot of people must have felt like that. And there were men galore. Poles. And the very free French. And Canadians. And Australian air men.

And you took full of advantage of this?


So you were able to have a really good time when you weren't being horrified?


I know that you obviously decided then to concentrate on the good time part of it, but now what about the horrified part? What were the things that happened that you found it hard to put out of your mind?

Refugees of all sorts. The last horrifying thing that drove ... drove me back to Australia was German refugees. Always Germans who didn't know ... had never heard of Hitler, had never heard of a prison camp, had never heard of anything like that: 'Oh we didn't know about that'. People driven out of their own country then. A refugee is a ... is a ... and you know it was terrible to be on the winning side. I mean to have French people called 'wogs' by the Americans. To have them ... all that sort of thing is terribly bad for you. I felt I was getting as bad as the Germans. And when I went to Cologne and saw ... that was ... I could have gone back then with the army and kept going ... I felt it was bad for me.

To be a victor?

To be a victor is bad for you. We went down - another Australian, a Canadian and myself, and a driver took a jeep to a place where they fatten geese, Strasbourg. Strasbourg. We drove from Paris to Strasbourg and we got to another press camp in Nancy. And in Nancy the press was all there with their feet on their typewriters reading Lady Chatterley's Lover which was for sale in Paris. And they all bought them and they were going to read some dirt and they were all down there. And every day they were sending to their editors, 'Today we saw the death of the German Army'. You know, and they wrote that. The German Army was being pushed across the Rhine. We got to Strasbourg and the German Army was the ... the camp had been ...

[end of tape]

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