Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

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You were irritated by the trivialising and dramatising of the war in New York and you decided you wanted to go to Europe where it was really at. How did you go about that, and when you got there, did you actually get into active reporting of the war itself?

I was irritated by the ... exactly by the trivialising of the war, how it was one great big Hollywood thing. And, I think one of the things that started me off was a picture in the paper of a fuzzy wuzzy bringing a man down - a famous picture - to the Kokoda Trail. He was bringing him back. This white-faced soldier. And the Americans put on it: Our Allies. They didn't even put Australian or New Guinea or anything on it. I think that annoyed me. Anyway, I asked my boss ... I asked Ezra Norton in Sydney, 'Could I go to London?' and I went over on a banana boat which took an awfully long time to cross the Atlantic and we didn't see a submarine or a plane the whole way and the sea was flat. I wasn't even seasick going over. We slept in our lifebelts. We were the relatives of soldiers, who'd been ... or sailors, who's been ... of servicemen who'd been on oil cargo vessels, which had burned at sea and they were at hospital in Britain and their female relatives were going over to see these poor men. So there we were, this ill-assorted lot on a banana boat that had only gone to Trinidad or somewhere. But when I got there, there was England at war and it wasn't a bit comfortable. And I got into the office and began sending stuff about England at war, and about rationing, and how you could go to a place and finagle something or rather. You could eat venison at the Savoy without your ration tickets, your coupons, as they were called. Anyway, I didn't get ... I used to go to ... I was accredited to the Foreign Office, to the War Office. I went to briefings. They would give a briefing possibly every afternoon in a department of some sort and you'd hear what was going on in the other theatres of war, how the bombing was going and then we would also hear the Mountbatten Operation. The Burma Operation. Because none of it ever got into the papers because the editors were only interested in what was happening on the Western Front. And I'd go back and send that stuff and I'd go back to send anything I could find to send. And then I went on an immigration story up to the north of England and Scotland and so on. But I only got into the war by being taken on sorties. That was the only way. You were taken and shown things by ... it was PR operation. You were taken in a little group to go and look at some place in Normandy or somewhere and brought straight back. And you should not ... not ... not go off the beaten track.

Was your situation different because you were a woman?

Well, yes it was because the men were with bomber squadrons. Or in ... at sea with the navy or with Monty or something like that. But we were not allowed to do that except some American women. Martha Gellhorn was with the bomber squadron with the Americans and would only turn up at the press camp in Scribe wearing her uniform under a fur coat and cowboy boots, looking absolutely wonderful. But they wouldn't take anybody from the War Office like that. She had some sort of special accreditation. I don't know whether she ever flew. But certainly, if you flew in a bomber, you were ... if you were taken prisoner ... if you were shot down and were dead, too bad. But if you were taken prisoner, you were put into prison camp as an officer class, a Major or a Captain. I think it was a Major or Colonel or something. You were not taken as a civilian spy, which you really were, of course, if you were sending stuff back.

After the Germans starting to be pushed back, and you started making these forays into Europe, and you found yourself horrified of being in the role of victor, did you get to see any of concentration camps?

I got to see ... I went down through France to see ... we wanted to find a man in the Voges, who was a writer, called Malraux and he was an assistant to De Gaulle. We got this idea in our heads - another Australian, a man on the Age, and a Canadian woman and I decided to go and find this man. Malraux had been a very good writer long before the war and was a very hot shot with De Gaulle. So we thought we'd go down to see Malraux. So we went down to France to the Vouge Mountains, in the snow. It was almost Christmas of, I suppose, 1944 or something. And we stopped on the way. We knew that Ravensbruch was above Strasbourg and we went up to Ravensbruch and found the Americans, who had reclaimed it. It had been a concentration camp and it was surrounded by lovely little farm houses. It had an electric fence. Electrified dogs - Alsatians. It had a red-hot camp. And when we went in, the first thing we saw was a heap ... a cairn shaped heap of teeth with gold on them, that had been taken out of the dead. It had been a gas chamber camp. They'd taken the teeth out and piled them neatly in heap. And there were bones in a heap. There were a few prisoners left, who were sort of trustees and they were still wearing prison garb. There were no Germans. The Germans had evacuated across the Rhine. They were sitting on the other side of the Rhine looking at us. And there was this awful place. And not ... We went from farmhouse to farmhouse, little chalet farmhouses: 'Oh, we didn't know anything. We didn't know it was a camp'. That's the sort of things that turns you off war. People will not admit there's a war going on. I never spoke to a German, except a rebel - I mean a revolutionary German of some sort, who got out and was fighting from the outside to get back. I never spoke to a guilty German. There's no such thing. That's a dreadful thing to say, isn't it? Awful. I take it back. They never knew. No German ever knew what was going on. They knew when they had to ... they knew when they were blitzed. They knew that. Poor things.

So when did you decide you wanted to go home?

Then. And I said, 'Can I come home?' and they said, 'Oh, yes'. He said, 'Oh, yes'. And then ...

That was Ezra Norton?

Ezra Norton. And then he instructed my editor, Eric Baume, to send me home at once, and the quickest and safest way, and I tried to get on a plane home, any sort of way. It would take me a fortnight in a plane or something, but I couldn't do it. And they put me on another ship from Liverpool. We sat in Liverpool Harbour for some reason for three days and then we started back home. Weeks and weeks and weeks on a cargo ship. A refrigerated ship taking meat to somewhere.

Were you at all worried that Blue wouldn't be there for you?

Indeed I was. I thought there'd be no light in the window. I thought. I knew he had ... I knew that women would like him. I knew that he liked women. I knew that he had always been a bachelor at heart and I've thought ... thought that probably that somebody was going to ... here's this empty place - they're going to occupy it. But maybe he thought I wouldn't come back. Anyway, it was a very awkward situation.

So what happened?

Well it's a very awkward situation. You don't know each other. But we eventually got to know each other again. We went ... I went to the same house. He kept the house on all the war. The houses along the waterfront in Sydney, people had left them all. You could buy one for 2,000 pounds or something. As a matter of fact we were renting. And once the war was over ... It was down on the water at Parsley Bay. On the Watson's Bay side.

So there was no rapturous reunion?

There was no rapturous reunion. We were very careful of each other. And he had a great friend here, who'd been a friend of mine, of course. And she had ... she was very good for him. She had been a good friend to him and really kept him ... she was a woman who liked the same books and pictures and had the same sense of humour and liked food and wine and she'd been very good with him. And he didn't give her up altogether. He didn't ask me to go out with them. If he was going to take her to dinner he didn't ask me. And once I asked myself along and got well snubbed. He said, 'No, you can't come'.

Did you feel no jealousy?

Oh, raging with jealousy. But I think that's so strange that you could be doing all sorts of things yourself and the moment somebody you love starts it, you're wild with jealousy. I made fearful scenes afterwards.

Did he ask you about what you'd been doing?

Never. He had too much sense. You see I didn't ask him, but I ... well I don't know yet what he was doing. But I think I know, but I never asked him. [Laughs] I think I know. I think people comforted him for his lack of a wife. Let's put it like that. And enjoyed themselves no end I bet.

But this continued throughout the whole very long period of your marriage, didn't it? That you had an understanding with each other about other relationships?

No. We had an understanding not to talk about other relationships. I don't know what he knew about me. And whether ... I don't know what he knew about me. I took very grave risks, very grave risks.

Why did you not ask him?

I didn't want to know. He might've told me. I don't think he would have told me. I was really very fond of staying. I mean, I was very fond of my way of life. We got on so well.

Were you afraid that if you had pressed in a more conventional way, if you had asked for an sort of fidelity, that he might have left you?

Oh, yes. I wouldn't have dreamed of doing that. He wasn't the sort of man to ... he's not the sort of man, that you say, that you ... I mean, that I'd got him was hard enough, I thought. And I'm not sure that I would have got him if they'd had let us ... if they had let him stay a bachelor and still his plans wouldn't have been ... You see he wanted to go with me on this. But he didn't necessarily want to marry me.

So you think he only married you because of the practical necessity of being together in the cabin?

We always thought it was that. I always thought it was that. I'm not sure. But he didn't marry anybody else, did he? And there he was around. There was something that made him marry me. He didn't go short of girls before he met me.

What ever was the reason for his marrying you, he stayed married to you for a long time ...

And he stayed married to me until he died. Happily married to me until he died. But whether he liked it all, I don't know. I think so because I ran my life in a great way. I did a great deal to suit him.

What kinds of things?

Things like never telling him, 'We're going to the so and so's." Never going anywhere without asking him in pairs, you know. Always saying, 'I'll have to ask Blue'. He didn't want me to ride a scooter. Or drive. He didn't want me to drive his car. I could get another one and drive it, but we had nowhere to put it. He taught me to drive at one stage and he had to give up. He used to say things to me like, 'You can't be as stupid as that', so he hired me a teacher. I did a lot of things his way, to suit him.

Did he do anything to suit you?

I don't doubt it. But he wouldn't say he was doing it to suit me. We had three sets of friends. We had his friends and my friends and our friends. Because he had ... he had a lot of racing and club friends. He played golf and raced and when he got to be the public relations boss for the wine trade he had a lot of new friends and they all became my friends. They are very nice people and I've kept those as friends. But some of our friends I haven't seen for a few years.

Now, you felt quite free in this marriage to have relationships with other men?

No not other men [?]. I had two big love affairs while I was married. Incandescent love affairs. But I kept them dark. I'd say to myself, 'He didn't know'. He had a job. He used to work... sometimes ... it was arranged. I never told him.

Do you think he knew?

I don't know. He never asked me. He never said ... when I brought a strange man home from somewhere or I went on a plane trip somewhere, around the Pacific or something, and I became friendly with a young English man and I said to Blue, 'Let's have him to dinner', and he came along and Blue made frightful fun of him. He never entered the house again. He got rid of him smartly. [Laughs]

So your love-affairs, who were they with and how did that happen?

How did that happen? I don't know how they happened. One was with an academic, who taught Greek. That went over two parts of my life. It went over ... there were two parts to my life. This man was teaching ... was a professor of Greek in New Zealand, a warden of a college and he heard that Blue died and he came over to see me and then he got himself a job back in Australia and we started up again. Now I think that's foolish to do. Because I got tired of that.

So you'd actually met him and he came ...

We had the love-affair and then he came back because I was around again, free. But he ... he was married with children. And the other one wasn't married. And he was ... he got tired of me. He got tired of me. And then we became friends later on.

You said that somebody once said to you, 'Why do women not mind, or not think of the wives when they get involved with married men'. Did you ever think of the wives?

No never. Never thought of the wives.

Why do you think that was?

I don't know. But I know other people who don't think of the wives too.

Do you think they should?

No. Should? What's should?

You tell me.

I never thought of them. Well look, that first man that introduced me to life and love wanted me to go and live with his wife and himself. I mean, the other face of the coin, isn't it?

Were you at all tempted by that proposition?

Not the slightest.


Because I liked to ... oh, I didn't want to be part of a family. Not at all. I didn't want a child around the house.

You never had children?

Never had children, never wanted to. I went to considerable trouble not to have any children. I became pregnant once and I was having an operation and I told the surgeon I was pregnant and he said, 'No you're not'. And I said, 'Yes I am'. And he said, 'Well all right, we'll give it the rabbit test', or whatever it is. And when he'd done the operation he came back and sat on my bed and said, 'You were', and I burst into tears. And he said, 'What are you crying for? You didn't want the child', and I said, 'That's true. I'll stop'. Why did I cry? Who knows. I had some near misses. I never wanted children. I wanted to have my own life and then I wanted my life with Blue. He was my ... he was my dangerous spot. He was my weak spot.

Your Achilles Heel?

He was my Achilles Heel. He really was. I was pretty careful with him, except for these other things.

Did he want children?

No, no. I said, 'Would you like to have ...'. I said, 'All right, would you like to have a child who could run around and be a great rugby player'. And he said, 'Oh, no. I'd just be jealous'. He didn't want children at all. He'd had a very unhappy childhood. He was the only child of two divorced people with children and they fought over him. His mother once shut him in a cupboard for about half a day so his father wouldn't find him. Of course, they didn't like him. They only wanted him as possession. And his father was a very rich man, who was ... who only ... he gave us money while Blue was alive. He cut me off immediately Blue died, because I hadn't had a child. Cut off immediately.

Do you every wish now that you had had a child?


Not for a moment?

Not for a second. I never have. I can genuinely say that. And when my relatives had children and sometimes bring them round, I say, 'Look I'll give them money, and when they're older, we'll talk', but their bored stiff and so am I.

You ... all through the period that you were working as a journalist, you continued to write poetry.


Could you tell me a little about what poetry has meant to you in your life? What part it's played for you?

The only thing I ever wanted to do was write poetry. First I cannibalised. I used to write poetry like everybody I admired. It was the worst stuff you've ever read. And then when I came to Australia I began gradually to have a voice of my own. And after the war I had a different voice. In my Selected Poems, there is one: First Life is divided. It's called First Life and Second Life. And my poetry has changed tremendously.

How would you categorise the difference between the two groups?

Well I don't know about the first. I can't altogether reconcile myself with them. The second one is me saying what I want to say and that's the thing you can do as you get old. You can say anything you like. And I don't care what people think of my poetry. I write it to please myself. When I got the book back from the publishers, I didn't read the front part. I went straight to read the back part and I said to myself, 'I don't remember writing that'. But it's the genuine article. The poet named Robert Gray, has been interesting to me on this subject. He's a fan of mine and always has been and he has analysed my sort of poetry. You see, the people who don't like my poetry ... It's not post-modern. It's not constructed, or its too much constructed or its something. They don't like it.

When Robert Gray says that he likes it, do you recognise what it is that he likes?

No. But I like him to like it.

[end of tape]

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