Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

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You were also a great friend of Patrick White and important to him as somebody he gossiped with, so I'm told. Have you always enjoyed gossip?

Always enjoyed gossip. And I like being with gossips. I think gossip is very interesting. Now we mustn't say I was a great friend of Patrick White. I was a friend. He never talked to me about his work. He talked to me about his thing about the environment and when he said, 'There's going to be a demonstration in the park because somebody wanted to build something', I would go. I never walked with him in those anti-nuclear demonstrations. We rang each other up and I was interested. I went to his house to ... when he was in a fit state of health, which is a long time ago, to give dinner parties. I enjoyed those immensely and I enjoyed meeting his friends. Because he lived across the park from me but I met him first in 1956 when I reviewed his book, The Tree of Man. I went out to Castle Hill to interview him and although he didn't like talking to the press, he had enough sense to know that, when you write a book you publicise it. And he let me come out and talk to him where they lived on the farm. They were breeding the schnauzers and milking the cow, and all that stuff. And we got on. But we got on in a very slow way. It was a slow friendship. We didn't immediately become ... I don't suppose anybody did with Patrick. Maybe somebody he was in love with but he certainly wasn't in love with me. But he liked women. Patrick liked women very much, that's why he writes so well about them. And it was a long slow, developing friendship. When he went to literary gatherings they would be the same ones that I would go to, which I must say was about once a year. And we gradually got to know each other. And then he wanted to know a couple of good writers who were coming along and asked me if I knew them and I said, 'Yes'. And he said, 'Would you ask them for dinner', and I said,'Yes'. And I had them and had Patrick with them. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. But I think David Malouf and Patrick and I began our friendship, not in this house, but in another. And he liked food and drink, Patrick, which was nice. And I've known David Malouf for a long while. Now those are two people that I got to know by interviewing them. That was a success. But that doesn't happen very often. They forget you altogether. But we did. We did have an accord.

But those were two people who liked you and wanted to retain a friendship with you. What did Patrick like about you? Did he ever tell you?

Yes. Or he told David Marr. I don't know that he told me ever, ever. I think he sometimes told me how I was all right. He often told me what I was doing wrong.

What kind of things did he say?

Well for instance I had a couple of little books out and it was advertised in some Arts column in the paper, 'Elizabeth Riddell will read at the State Library', and Patrick will ring up and say, 'I see you're reading again'. He was very against all this literary reading and carrying on. And I'd say, 'Well Patrick, I've got to sell the book', and he would do things that he would not normally do because you don't want to write in the dark or a dungeon, you want people to read what you have written. Patrick wanted to be read. And most writers want to be read. But, there's a limit to how you do it. I perfectly agree with Patrick, you know. But now and again ...

So he rebuked you freely but he also told you ...

He rebuked me often in public and he rebuked me once very badly in public and I was very angry and we didn't have a fight. It was at a dinner and he told me to stop talking about a subject. He said, 'You mustn't say that in front of these people', and, I suppose, shut up and went on with my dinner and I was furious and I didn't talk to him for about a fortnight. He couldn't understand why I was annoyed. Because any opinion of his, he felt you could say. Now, I suppose, that's right and I suppose sometimes I'd do it but I felt this ... he'd gone over the limit.

But you only gave him a fortnight of silence?

That's right. He'd ring up on the telephone and I'd say, 'Patrick I'm still not talking to you'. Then he rang up one day and said, 'Are you talking to me?' and I said, 'Oh, yes, I suppose so'. So we did talk.

As a forthright person perhaps ...

He regarded me as sensible. And then, of course, we both loved dogs and cats, especially cats for my part. And for his part, he had wonderful dogs, pugs and various dogs, and he loved them. And that was a bond. Talking about the vet, that was a bond. We didn't talk about anything serious, except he would give me the occasional burst about politics.

And why did David Malouf like you?

I don't know. David once told me why he liked me but I didn't quite take it in or really believe it. At one Adelaide Festival he explained me to myself but I didn't really catch on.

Do you remember what he said?


Didn't he describe you as very original?

As very what?


Not to me I don't think. No, no. He was describing my life to people. He was describing me as a person and as a friend, not as a writer. I don't think David ... Oh David likes my poetry I think, if he ever reads any. I don't know. I like his poetry. But then I like everything about his. I don't know whether I like him more as a poet or as a novelist.

Who were some of the other people that have been very significant in your life?

The Halls. Both Hall. Rosemary Whiten. My oldest friends are the winemakers David Wynn and Patricia, his wife and his son, Adam, and their children. I'm very friendly with ... when I'm in England or away from Australia, I'm very friendly with Patricia Harwood, who was Patricia Smith. I'm very friendly with them. I'm very fond of them. I don't go and stay with people. I don't much like staying with people, you see.

Why's that?

I like my own bathroom and my own tea and toast in the morning. I didn't always, but I do now.

Has friendship been more important to you than family?

Oh much more. Most of my family, well they're all scattered. Now and again ... You see I've only been back to New Zealand once and then I felt I would never get out again. I only went back because I was sent on the Royal Tour and I stayed about a month. It was deadly. It was amusing too. But I saw some of them then but I used to have nightmares thinking I was not going to get out and I would wake fighting off blankets thinking, 'I'm never going to get out'. It's a beautiful place, but it's like Switzerland: it's a bore. I thought ... I've thought at times that I might go back and live in one of those beautiful bits of New Zealand like the Bay of Islands. I wouldn't go back and live in the place I was born, Napier. That's an awful town. But I've never done it. I think I'm an Australian. I really think Australian. And I was married to one and all my friends are thorough Australians.

Could you describe to me again, because we talked about it right at the very beginning of our talk and we didn't actually get it really fully fleshed out, could you sum up for me what struck you about Blue, about Ted Greatorex when you first met him, what kind of a person he was, what was attractive about him? What kind of things he did, and how he struck you as a whole person at the time?

He was entirely different from me, except that we were both journalist and wrote. I thought when I saw him, 'Here is this big beautiful man, who can do everything with a surfboard or a rugby ball. He can do anything. And he's got lots of friends, and he is very independent and he has a good time and is very funny', and then I discovered that he was a reader and a traveller and liked the same things. But I'm sure it was immediate sex appeal. Immediate. Incandescent is my word for these affairs that suddenly throw you.

Where do you think that comes from? What do you think it is?

I don't know but it is very apparent, isn't it? And it doesn't have anything to do with age, or occupation or race or anything. It's there, whatever it is. It's the spirit. I believe in the spirit. I really do believe in the spirit and only really in the spirit. Because I believe in love. That's what motivates you.

People mean such different things by the spirit and by love. Could you tell us more about what you mean when you use those words?

I would really only be able to tell you what I don't ... what doesn't appeal to me. I've gone on about looks, but it really has nothing. I like little cosy men too, just as much as I like big, beautiful men. And I don't mind ... I quite like bald men. I don't care about that sort of thing. But the spirit has got to be there. And you see, I don't know. I only know when they haven't got it. When a man is a stick or ... or a bigot or bossy or ... that's what I don't want. I don't want that. See it's a negative, one way. The other side. How can I tell you what a ... what a spirit is?

And then there's also the fact that these strong incandescent affairs don't last and that ... [INTERRUPTION] There is also the problem that these kind of affairs don't last.

Don't they? I stayed married.

Did it stay incandescent to the end?

Oh yes. I miss him terribly -- my best friend. It did stay. The others didn't. You were right about that. In one case, it might have stayed forever, but I was dumped, maybe is the word. This man, my first love affair, after I was married, this man dropped me. And I rang him up one day. He lived in Hunter's Hill at this time, and I rang him up and said, 'Why is it over?' And, he said, 'I can feel you trying to possess me on the other end of the telephone'. You see, I was too strong for him obviously. Too possessive. Too proprietary. I said, you know, I said, 'I can't stand it. I'm too jealous'. He said, 'Well read the bit in Proust called Swan's Way and read what he felt about jealousy'. He said, 'You'll get over it'. But I used to walk down the street crying. But I did get over it and we became friends. So, you can't win them all, can you? The other one ... the other one was over because I got bored.

You wrote a poem called The End of the Affair.

That was it. That was it. And Jim Hall said, 'He deserves equal space. He should answer you'. I don't know if he even saw it. But that was it. That was true. All those poems are true in the back of the book. I think they're true in the front too but there's, but Second Life in my selected poems, I could tell you everything. Nothing comes out of my navel. It all comes from observation and experience.

Except that, as a journalist, you wrote plainly, directly and you called it how it was. As a person you were known and appreciated for a certain witty cynicism, but in you poems there's deeper, deeper material, that makes one wonder whether or not there is a level at which you were living and thinking and experiencing, which you weren't acknowledging publicly?

I'm sure that's true. But do you know, I'm an optimist in my behaviour but I'm a pessimist by conviction. I believe there are no happy endings and that everything has ... it's the ... it's the ... everything has a sort of cancer.

Yes, your poetry does have a sort of pessimism. But also in say The End of the Affair, for example, seeing as we mentioned it, there was a sort of feeling of disgust with life as well?

Resentment. I suppose there was a sort of resentment that he was growing old and I was growing old. I didn't care for that. I didn't want him ... I didn't want this man to turn into a man who could say, 'If you move that it would go better there', or something. Or, 'I will find you a carpenter who would make you something or other'. I thought: I don't want that sort of advice thank you. And I ... He used to come and stay with me. He lived in Melbourne and he use to come and stay with me and I didn't ask him any more.

Can you remember the day that ...

Yes. And where we were sitting. I was standing and he was sitting drawing something on a piece of paper. 'This is what you need', he said. 'I'll draw if for you with the right calculations on it'. This many inches and this many feet. He was looking at a new bookshelf I wanted. Of course, I wanted the bookshelf but I didn't want him to design me a bookshelf.

Why do you think that was?

Too ordered. Too ordered a mind.

You really think life's pretty chaotic?

Pretty accidental.

Have there been accidental men in your life?

No. One. One one night stand. I can remember the man's name and the place and I've not idea why I did it except I suppose I was drunk. It was after a party in Washington. I suspect that. But that was all it was. I never saw him again. So it was like that for him too, I suspect. He was something to do with the Embassy. A military attaché or something. We waltzed off to my hotel. I remember his name but I don't remember what he looked liked. [Laughs] Glad I never saw him again.

When I asked you about, to describe Blue, when you first met him, we got off on another tack and I never got the nice clear description of all aspects of him that I know Frank [Frank Heimans -- program producer] is hoping for. So I'll ask you that question again. Could you tell me what Blue, Ted Greatorex was like and what it was about him that you found attractive.

No I can't tell you. Just the man. Looks, everything about him. Everything. He suited me perfectly. We suited each other perfectly. But I was adventurous. He was adventurous too, I think but that I don't know, you see, because he was clever enough not to ever tell me and I never pried into it. I'm sure. Well I'm not sure, but I was two or three years away in the war. We had a house in Sydney. He used to fill it with squadron leaders and people.

The resentment that you felt at times in ... and it was expressed in your poetry, did that start in you when you were quite young? Do you remember feeling resentful in the situation that you were in, as a small child, with your mother away and your sister being mean to you?

I was resentful in a sort of stubborn, closed in way. I was a broody ... I wasn't exactly sulky, but I was very closed in and I didn't express my feeling. I was just ... just myself. I just tightened up you know. I was a little fuzzy haired ... I wasn't cross, but I wasn't a ray of sunshine by any means.

It's hard to imagine you losing your capacity to speak, Elizabeth.

That was extraordinary, yes.

Could you tell us a bit more about that and how you got over it?

Yes. I ... I ... I did ... I began to stutter and that was because of my sister teasing. And I said earlier that she persecuted me. That's too strong a word. She teased me and manipulated me. We use to have cold baths for instance. She used to always make me go first to the cold bath. That meant I had to get up ten minutes before her. Now she did this by saying, 'If you go first to the cold bath, you can read my book about rabbits'. And I believed that this was the way life was. So I was continually put in a position of being the underdog. So I would get up and take a cold bath first, you see. And then I really did, go into a sort of baby nervous breakdown, I suppose. And then my mother came up to me, perhaps somebody wrote. My mother used to come for very short holidays occasionally. We were north of Auckland in the most wonderful, north island of New Zealand. The country is beautiful. And she used to come up for short holidays. And I couldn't ... my stutter was bad and I then got worse and I used to whisper to her. And once I started singing to her. And then she knew there was something wrong. So she took me back and sent my sister somewhere else. We left the country then. We left the countryside then. I've never lived in the country since then. But I've always thought, that's a wonderful place to live in. But I never have, which means I don't really want to, doesn't it?

How did you recover your ...

I recovered myself. I always stuttered badly and I didn't speak because I had this terrible stutter. And then when I went to school, to the convent, I found a nun, or she found me, and said she could ... could fix it. And as I was always reading poetry, you know, the right sort of poetry, Paul Graves' Golden Collection of Poetry or whatever it's called, she said, 'Go into the paddock'. The convent was on a farm. We had some cows and things. 'Go into the paddock and take your books of poetry and sit on a log and recite and don't worry about punctuation or commas or anything like that. Just keep reading poetry'. So I sat and read in a flat voice. I suppose I put some sort of rhythm into it because you can't help it. I used to do it once a day. She sent me out. And it cured me. You can still hear it in my voice. And when I pick up a telephone I have a hesitation before I say, 'Hello'. Or if I'm speaking I can say, there's a hesitation when I say, 'It's Elizabeth Riddell'. You can hear it, can't you? A little haunting sound. Lots of people have this. It may be because I had polio when I was little. That may have been one of the reasons. But I had that before we went to the country. I had that when I was about three, before my father died. It was a very mild case, I think. As I'm about to say, everybody had it. I was kept in a dark room and given barley water and I got over it.

Did you have a sense, when you were sent away to your relatives in the country, that there was no adult that was really taking responsibility for you, that you were at the mercy of your sister without an adult figure to interfere?

No I didn't think I was at the mercy of my sister but I knew I was at the mercy of grown-ups. They'd always ... I'd always been at the mercy of grown-ups. They'd fix what sort of clothes I wore. What I ate. They ... I knew that I was a victim but I didn't know that she was going to ... probably she teased me because she was bored stiff. She was very intelligent. She treated me like a ... as if I was a favourite mouse. [Laughs]

And when did you feel that you escaped this sense of being a victim and at the mercy of another's will?

Oh, long after I was in Australia. Somebody was always telling me what to do. Quite nicely. Somebody was always telling me what to do. Well, really, people have told me ... I mean, I've got away, but the situation has been, 'She will do this and that'. If you work for anybody, I mean if you work for a proprietor, I mean Ezra Norton sent me to New York, I could have said, 'No'. I don't know why I never said 'no' to any of these things. I just used to go and do it. I never felt there was any reason for me to say 'no'.

But escaping from that has been an important part of what you needed and wanted from life?

Well I'm a dodger. You know, you do escape. You escape from people who bore you, or tell you their troubles, or want to become part of your life. You gradually drop them off. You ring them once a fortnight, instead of once a week. It's a great ... great manipulating world, isn't it? Am I'm as bad as anyone else.

So you don't want to hear the troubles of others?

Don't want to hear them. And I will do it, but I don't really want to hear them. I don't like going to hospitals. I don't remember birthdays. I'm not committed. I was committed to Blue and I've been committed to poetry and that's it. Oh, a couple of men I've been committed to for a while.

Yet you've said in other places that you are not committed.

I'm not committed.

Yet you've shown you're committed to your journalism, you've been committed to poetry, you've been committed to Blue, you have shown quite a lot of commitment.

Journalism is a trade and it's a way to earn your living. A way to earn your living. Well paid sometimes. Not often. It gets you places. Look at the places its got me. When I was coming home from England one time, I was coming back to The Australian, I asked Rupert ... no, John Menadue, who was the managing director, may I come back through Greece and Iran and he said, 'Yes', and paid for it. Now that's worth having.

Do you think that cynicism is a great protector?

Well it protects me. I don't know why. That is why people are cynical. I suspect it is because the thing you mean doesn't have to be said. I must say that when I was writing my first poetry in Australia it was for the Red Page at The Bulletin. It had a great editor, Douglas Stewart, and the thing was to get onto the Red Page. Get your poem on the Red Page. Its the inside cover of the old Bulletin, which was twice the size as it is now and it was on newsprint. So it didn't have pictures in it. It was all text. It had cartoons and things. The Red Page. And he was discussing me in public once, or wrote about me, and he said, about the collection or the poetry, and he said, 'Her interest in death is an affectation. If you read the poems you'll see that death is there all the time. Death and disappointment is there the whole time'. He said it was an affectation. He could be right, I don't know. He was a nice man and liked what I wrote, but he saw that as being... I was going over the top, he thought. And yet if you read them aloud at places where you are asked to read your poetry it is a monotonous note. I always have to say, 'Well I can't go on reading this'. I can go on, but people can't go on listening to it.

He said that that was the affectation. Some might think that the witty cynicism was the real affectation and the disappointment was when you were actually that?

[Laughs] I don't know what Douglas thought about me really. I was always very respectful towards him. I mean, he was a lot older than I was and a very good ... a very good poet.

Talking of disappointment, in the early days of your poetry it wasn't very much acclaimed. It was later that people began to recognise more, that you were a good poet. Did that bother you when you were first publishing?

It must have and I'll tell you how I found out that, that it must have bothered me. I remember being told at one gathering by a very good poet, Vivian Smith, who's a very good poet ... he said to me one night ... we were all flown with wine, of course. It was one of these Premier's Awards thing. He said, 'Betty you're very underestimated'. And I thought, 'My God, you're right'. But I never did anything about it and then when I got this prize, the last one, I was so gratified. I was so pleased. And I think if I was as pleased as all that, I must have been waiting for it. And if anybody has read a poem I'm thrilled unless it's one they get set at primary school or something, when the teacher says, 'Write to Elizabeth Riddell and find out what she meant when she wrote'. And I write back and say, 'Your teacher is supposed to know what I meant'. Nasty letters back to pitiless, poor children.

So, but you had awards for journalism?

Yes. I have the great Walkley. Adrian Deamer sent me on a tour of breweries. That's a funny thing to send me on. It was ... I went everywhere, to Cascade, Perth and everywhere. And I got the Walkley Award for that. That was a great. But he picked me out to do that. He may have picked me for the education, but he also picked me for that. And I did one on great department store owners and their stores. That was ... that was really interesting. Because it's what life's about - department stores and breweries, isn't it?

Did the Walkley award mean as much to you as the poetry did?

No. They sent me to Perth to pick it up. And when I was going to Perth to pick up my Walkley, I said to the editor ... there was a photographer on this train who'd also got the award and we went off to Perth together and as I was ... as we were getting a brief and going where the pub was, the airline and everything, Adrian Deamer said, 'Oh and while you're there ... while you're there interview ...', somebody - a list of people from him. The woman who wrote, for instance, Kings in Grass Castles, Mary Durack. I was non-stop working when I was picking up the Walkley and so was the photographer. [Laughs] Barry Ward was the photographer. I must acknowledge him.

A great many people read and were influenced by your journalism. Very few read and were influenced by your poetry and yet the poetry means more to you. Why is that?

Means more ... It's what I'm about. You see, I can't explain these things. But one good line of poetry ... I've always said that is what I want to be remembered by if I'm remembered. To write one really barbed, you know ... That's the thing. Journalism is a trick in the trade but poetry's not. Poetry is art. Poetry is person to person, like a painting. You see you don't do poetry in the dark. You don't paint in the dark either. You're talking to somebody. But my poetry is very much influenced by my journalism. Some man in Melbourne, called Barry Reed, who's a very good ... who's quite a good poet and a very good editor and so on, and he said to me, 'Your poems are little novels'. But what he really meant I suppose they were little newspaper stories.

Now it is more usual for journalist to turn to novels. They say they've always got one in their drawer.

Yes, that's right.

And yet you turned to poetry. Was that because reading it out loud in a paddock or do you think ...


Have you ever thought of writing a novel?

I have written a novel and I entered it in a competition in New Zealand and I got it commended. I didn't know what to do about the novel, so I had my hero jump off a balcony. That got rid of it all. That finished the novel. I wrote it on a boat. On a ship. I took my ... I forget coming from where, but I had about six weeks or something where I didn't want to ... I suppose I didn't want to talk to everybody all day. And it was commended and somebody in that board of judges wrote to me and said that he personally ... Professor Somebody or other, he wrote to me and said that he personally had wanted to give it the prize. And he said it was like ... to him it seemed like Sentimental Education. That's Flaubert, isn't it? And I was terribly pleased with that and it was an awful novel. I suppose, perhaps the observation [and] the characterisation wasn't bad but the plot was frightful. So I ... nobody wanted to publish it. I didn't ask anybody to publish it. The competition was run by a friend of mine, who was also a journalist. He won the competition and came to live in Australia. And I put it away in the bottom drawer and never thought about it again and then threw it out in the garbage can. And I'm so pleased it was never published because it would hang about my neck forever. People's first novels should never be published. Or their second ones. Maybe their first one should be. Because one or two first things they do ... See, David's, David Malouf's first book was Johnno, but it didn't get published but when he had a success with the other one about Ovid, whatever it was called, he brought out Johnno, but it wasn't his second book either. They published it as his third book.

[end of tape]

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