Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

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Death has played a big part in your poetry, that you describe how when you read it out, you even surprise yourself at the gloominess of the theme of death repeated right through your poetry. How do you feel yourself about death? Have you had much of an encounter with it in your life? Tell us about the deaths you have known [Elizabeth Riddell laughs] and what effect they've had on you?

I suppose, now the nearest I've been to death that didn't affect me very much, but it was very dangerous. I drove my car up a tree. I was driving along the Pacific Highway and I came to the sign. I wanted to go down to Mallacoota. And it said, 'Twenty miles to Mallacoota', so I turned into the Blacktop Road. Just ... I think it may have been Boxing Day. I had been in Melbourne for Christmas and it was at Blacktop Road and I drove down. That's the last thing I remember. And when I woke up I was in Bega Hospital because I had driven my car up a tree. And I was there hanging in by a seat belt. And I was told later that a woman and her husband had been driving carefully down the road, saying nothing to each other, and she said, 'Oh, Joe, stop here. There's an accident. Somebody up a tree', I suppose she said. And he said, 'Oh, no, no. That car's always been there. That was last week, or a fortnight ago', or something. That real country feeling about cars off the road. Going off the gravel. I had turned from the left side from where I was driving, I'd turned completely across the road and up a tree on the right hand side. And anyway, Joe gave in because she said, 'No, no. We'll come and look at this car'. And he gave in to his wife's badgering and got me out of the car. And then they took me to Bega Hospital where they ... and then flew me back to Sydney to be fixed up. But the policeman couldn't find out why I had done this. And it later was said to be something to do with carbon monoxide coming from somewhere in the car. I don't know. Perhaps it was the automatic shift, I suppose. I don't understand all that. Anyway, the car of course was a write-off and the policeman could never find out why it happened.

And what about you? What effect did it have?

Oh, yes. I was damaged from the crown of my head to my ankles but I wasn't broken to pieces. And they stuck me back together at St. Lukes and I got over it very quickly. I then thought, 'Am I going to drive again?' So the weekend I came out I hired a car and secretly drove around in it all over Sydney and I could drive. It was all right.

When you say you were damaged from head to foot, what do you mean?

Well I had a broken arm, and various cracked bones. But, see my arm still ... my arm isn't straight now because the surgeon ... they put me together and then I would have had to have the arm broken again to straighten it up and he decided not to because it's a very strong arm. I can do anything with it. It never affected, the shape was wrong but the arm was strong. I can't straighten it, that's the only thing. [Laughs]

Do you remember your father dying?

I think I've only been told about it. I only remember him on ... on the fire brigade engine. That's the only thing I remember about him. He was a very good looking man. I used to have a picture of him. It's gone now. Good looking man he was. I don't remember him even talking to me. I don't remember a thing about it. He was a yachtsman and a lawyer and he had a lot of male friends, as I recall. I remember, we all called them ... I called them uncle, I suppose. I remember the maid and I remember my mother early. I've got a vague idea of what she looked liked. And I remember Bridget quite well. The Irish maid. I don't go back much beyond that.

So you don't have any memory of the sort of classic family life that you despise?

No, no memory of it. And I remember playing with some children whose mothers played bridge with my mother and they have turned up in my life since. One of them came over here and became a famous journalist. I seem to be hopelessly mixed up with journalists. He was a very well-known journalist. One of the children came over. Funny thing about it was, their name was Rodey and their father was a dentist and they were Jews, I suppose - New Zealand Jews. And I never thought or heard about Jews until I came to Australia. I didn't know there was a problem until I came to Australia. Everybody in my mother's family was ... didn't have any nasty things. Had nothing racist about them. And she had never ... I know, she said to me, and I know it's true, she had no class consciousness. She would tell you, what you can't say, such as you can't say serviette, you say napkin. That would be as far as it would go. She was not a snob and she didn't ... [INTERRUPTION]

Tell me about when Blue died?

Well when Blue wasn't ... wasn't ... He had this wonderful job where he worked if he wanted to. Played golf when he wanted to and read when he wanted to. And he was at home one morning and I'd gone to work. And I was on the Daily Mirror then. And somebody rang me up and said, 'I've just looked ...'. I had a very close neighbour. I mean her fence was close in Double Bay and she was very nice but if she was doing the washing up she would look onto my terrace and she rang me up and said, 'I'm worried about Blue. He's been sitting with his head in his hands and he doesn't look well'. And I said, 'Get the other neighbour', who was a doctor. And she got him at once. And I rushed back and he'd had a stroke and he must have had an indication of it. He'd had a stroke and they took him to the hospital and he had another massive stroke. A really big one. 'Cause he was not capable of speaking to me at any ... I spoke to him for the last time that morning when I said, 'Well goodbye, I'll see you tonight', or something. And then they put him onto a machine and he had a great friend he played golf with, who was a doctor. A great diagnostician. And the GP was very nice, who lived next to me. A very nice man. And he was looking after him in this private hospital and the diagnostician came in and said, 'Put him on ...', the machine, whatever that's called, that keeps you going. He sort of took over the case as if 'because I play golf with him, he's my patient'. He'd never been his patient. And when I went to see him ... that'd happened for a couple of days. I didn't know about it. And then, I went to the hospital one day and Ronnie, my doctor, said to me, 'I must tell you this. They've got Blue onto a machine', and so on. And I said, 'Well, they can't', and he said, 'But so and so has'. And I said, 'Well tell him to stop and let him die. He will not want to live if he's going to be in any way not his full roaring self'. And Ronnie understood this too. Anyway, in some trepidation, because it's not a thing you want to say to hotshot diagnosticians, she says that he's got to be taken off and let die. But he did it and the other one did what he said. And I was standing at the door of the hospital. I shouldn't have driven myself to hospital and I was crying so much standing at the hospital, when I was told he was dead. I was just standing there trying to pull myself together and thought, 'I'll either have to get a taxi or drive', and he passed me and didn't speak to me. This man was so angry that he'd been crossed with his patient. And this is I'm sure not an unusual story. Anyway, we then ... we buried him privately and I went to the funeral parlour and a couple of people came. I rang a couple of his fondest male friends to come up and be with me. But no women. And we stood and for the some sort of very small noncommittal service as he never went ... he had no religion. And they took him off to the crematorium and I didn't go. But the two men went. I didn't want to go, I thought that was the end of it. And I'll tell you something very strange about this. It was Kinselas as it use to be called, I think it is now called Kinselas and I've had dinner in that room since. I've sat around a table for a private dinner in that room. I've told people too. I mean, I told my neighbour at the meal. This is where ... that was the last time I saw him. And his ashes were scattered at the crematorium. So it was over you see. It was over.

And what did that ... where did that leave you?

Desperate. Absolutely desperate. I thought my life had ended and I thought I was going to be very poor. I don't know why I thought I was going to be very poor. And then, my editor, who was a marvellous editor called Zel Rabin, rang me up. No, he called in. He lived beyond me and he called in on his way ... on his way either home or from the office, and he said, 'You've got to come back to work'. And I said, 'I can't. I can't', and he said, 'Yes, you've got to come back to work. So, you've got to come back to work on Monday'. So this was Thursday, and the neighbouring doctor, Zel and I used to sit and have a drink and talk about Blue and then I went back to work. But he knew what the answer was: I must go back to work. But later on, when I was walking the dog and so on, I used to feel absolutely my life had ended. And I busied myself. That was why there was no poetry. You see there was no poetry for fifteen years. 1964 this was. That's what ... I think that's what stopped the poetry. And I became terribly [?]. I was busy with everything. I went abroad and I went out and I behaved like an idiot. I busied myself with everything to get over it and I wrote no poetry.

Was that because the part of you that related to the poetry, the part right inside, was in fact quite numb?

I'd had a terrible blow. Terrible blow. Must've. Must've. And then later on, I was beginning to think in poetry but not writing it. But I was beginning to think what I would write sometime and then I was sitting at a conference with Geoff Dutton at the Australia Council and he said to me, 'Oh, by the way, I'm doing ... I am doing a supplement for The Bulletin. I'd like something from you. What about a poem?' That's what he meant. Write me a poem. And I said, 'Well I've got one in my head'. And he said, 'Well I'll give you a deadline'. And that was my first poem. It wasn't The End of the Affair. I think it was the Elaine Haxton one. I think it was the Elaine Haxton one. Give a journalist a deadline and they'll do anything. Wasn't it funny? Geoff got me back and then another man, who used to be the owner and editor of Overland, said to me one day, at another of these literary occasions, at a dinner in Melbourne or somewhere, 'Are you writing any poetry?' and I said, 'No'. And he said, 'When you write it send it to us'. So I did. I started sending stuff to Overland. I still do. I'm still faithful to Overland now and again.

What makes a poem come into your mind? What kind of situation will create a poem in your head?

Anything. I'll write a poem about this. Anything will start me. Anything will start me and then it grows. And I know when I'm going to write the poem. I wrote a poem the other day. I was sitting at the bus stop, watching the pigeons who had appropriated the bus stop on the other side and then in came those sulphur-crested cockatoos and began hanging upside down in that ridiculous way on this unsuitable foreign tree, which is in European cemeteries. And they began behaving like Australians and I wrote a poem about that. And also, even what somebody says. Anything will start me. Now. Now, I'm really writing poetry.

You're writing more easily now than you ever had.

Much more.

Why do you think that is?

Because I don't care what anybody thinks about it. Or what anybody thinks. You see, all that is ... all that ... all your perceptions of what is the proper feeling, proper opinion to have, you can put those out the window. They don't matter anymore. When you get old you don't care what people think so you get very free. Very free.

So you've always had a reputation for truth telling but you think only now do you really deserve it?

Oh yes. But I don't know that I've always had this reputation for truth telling. Who gave it to me? Who was listening? I was shouting them down I suppose. [Laughs]

However you have valued truth haven't you? Truth has been a value to you?

Yes, I have. I've always valued truth. I'm not sure why. Perhaps it was the convent. I don't know why. But I think those nuns ... I mean those nuns were marvellous. When people talk about unhappy convent life, we didn't have it at our convent. It was a very good place. A very good place. And nuns encouraged you to talk about everything. There were one or two rather snappy ones but they'd take you into the dining room, I suppose, and then you'd forget them. They'd let you read. Very good library. I read a lot of people I wouldn't have read otherwise. Very good library.

You value truth. What ... what sorts of things have really irritated you? What kinds of qualities in people or public behaviour have really got on your nerves?

More and more - almost everything. I mean you can tell the lies coming. They're about to say, 'Quite ...'. You know, when anybody is about to say, 'Quite frankly', you know they are going to tell you a lie. And the human voice, the human voice on the radio and television spouting its opinions and bullying other people. And the newspapers! You can tell when somebody has done the sort of story that they practically invented. I don't like jargon of any sort. Gender speak. I realise why we have it. I realise what bad a time women have had. Like Christina Stead, I didn't know I was a feminist. I was pushing my way up and doing what the men did, but I didn't know that I was doing these things for that reason. I'm sure it was. I know the reason for all these things but I don't like to have it said like that. Well they've rewritten the Bible. That's bad enough. The New English Bible is a frightful thing.

With this background in the convent, and obviously caring about the authorised version of the Bible ...

Oh King James Bible. Wonderful literature.

Have you been ever religious?

I've been romantically religious. So it was all ... I tell you once. My chapel, the chapel at school, was so marvellous and the whole of the ritual was so good and I was allowed to sing, and I was romantic about it, and when on holiday once, I said to my mother or to myself, 'I think I'll go to mass'. And I went to the local church and I was so appalled by the statuary that I never went again. I'm a snob. So I'm not religious, no.

So you like religion as theatre but only as good theatre?

That's all. That's all.

And so you've never really had a feeling of any other spiritual influence in your life from a higher being? Some people who aren't actively Christian have ideas about ...

There must be something out there. No, never. Never. I'm not interested either in Eastern religion. I'm not interested in either Buddha or meditation or anything like that. I don't know how to meditate. I might do it if I knew how. I don't know. If I ... if I sit down then I'm thinking about something. You're supposed to make your mind blank I think.

And what about death? Do you think that's the end?

Oh, yes. I think it's the end. I'm afraid of hurting before I die, but I'm not afraid of death.

So after Blue went, you really knew he'd gone?

Oh, yes. But I still think about him. For years I used to say, 'Oh I must tell Blue', or 'I wonder if Blue knows." But that was because we were so close as friends. I still think about him quite a lot. Well, a lot of people think about that period of their lives.

What about your own death? Do you ever think of that?

Yes. Often. Intimations of my death. Very strong. A terrible fright I get sometimes. Here I go. I'm very healthy but I think, 'Here I go'. In the park sometimes I think, 'Oh, this is it'.

And that's frightening?

Oh, yes.


Because the whole world is going to go up in flames. I think it's going to go up in flames around me. That's what I think about. That's what frightens me. Not dying in bed, that'd be lovely. At least I wouldn't know. So how do I know whether it would be lovely? But I mean I don't want to be hurt. I don't want to have an illness that hurts me. I don't like pain. But I sometimes think the universe is going to finish in Centennial Park. It's going to go up in flames around me. I get a real feeling of that. But it only lasts a second.

And do you ever get the feeling that you are going to die in bed?

No. Oh, yes once. I got out of bed and put my clothes together neatly. Because I thought, how awful if people come in and here am I, pants hung all over my bedroom. I got up and packed and put them ... put them neatly.

The tidy housewife.

The tidy housewife, when I did that. [Laughs] I've only done that once.

You were talking about the position of women and how it's changed in your lifetime and how you didn't know you were a feminist and yet you intrigue me by saying that when Blue died you thought that that would be the end of your financial support?

Isn't that extraordinary.

And, do you think that's because you were so programmed to think that men took care of women?

Yes, I think so. And it's very New Zealand and Australian. Well, it's a very New Zealand thing too, and there were bits of that left in me you see. And I said to myself, 'My God, I won't have any money'. And I think I probably made more money than he did. But we never talked about money. We didn't share a bank account. He did what he wanted with his money and I did ... I suppose roughly he bought the liquor and paid the gas bill or something. But I bought everything I wanted for the house or myself or the food or travel or things. And then I thought, I must not spend as much. I remember walking my dog, Edward, named after Blue, early on. Edward, the dog, was a Maltese Terrier. I was walking the dog in the park and I thought, 'How can I save? I won't have any money. The house and all that. I thought, I'll give up my subscription to the New Yorker. And what's more I did. And I'd been taking it since 1947 and in 1964 I gave it up. And in 1965 I started again. I think, wasn't that weird. That's the breadwinner I suspect. The breadwinner had gone. A lot of nonsense.

What were some of the other changes that you've seen in relation to your position as a woman? Or didn't you notice them because in a way you'd been a sort of honorary male, hadn't you?

I had been an honorary male. But I've noticed, oh, marvellous changes. I ... I think they're wonderful. And people were brought up in journalism that hadn't been, like Margaret Jones for instance. She was produced. She's been ... She's been ... She's been their foreign correspondent. She's been in China, London, New York. She's interviewed everybody that was important. That would never have happened. That's come up. But in ordinary small ways, women in post offices and banks. It's very funny about the banks isn't it. They gave the jobs to the women that the men didn't want, like being a teller. [Laughs] That was cute of the men I thought. Still on that. Most the tellers are women or many of the tellers or men learning to be bankers.

So you think men are still managing things fairly well?

Of course. Of course. Terrific. I mean there are a lot of corporate women. I don't know what they're doing except wearing corporate clothes. I don't think ... I mean there is an awful lot of space in middle management. But it never got ... Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch got to us middle class people. Got to all of us. It never got to the working wives. Working women. And it didn't get to women brought in to work in factories. It was immigrant women who were brought in to work in factories. The last in got the worst job and it was the women who got the worst job. Working with water swirling round her feet canning fish somewhere. They've had ... they've had wins but their not nearly there yet.

Talking about you as a writer, when you write journalism and you write that way, it's very different from the kind of style that you would use for either fiction or for poetry. Do you think it's hard at all to switch between the two? Do you think that one of the reasons you are writing more poetry now is that you are writing so much less journalism?

That may be so. That may be so. I don't know. But I know I'm not ... I'm not any good at fiction. I can tell you that. Because I ... that's not my thing. Some people can write novels and I know I can't.

Could you say why? Could you say why you can write poetry and not novels? What is it about poetry that makes it easier for you to do than novels?

Because it's only what I think. You've got to write about other people with fiction. Also, I've got a severe disability with plot. I could write long boring novels about people's menopause but, no.

You present yourself as somebody who is fairly short on human compassion. You say that you can't be bothered with people who want to tell you their troubles and that you've got no time ...

Can't be bothered is not a phrase I'd ever use. I just dodge it. I think that's ... I don't think ... I would hesitate to say I can't be bothered, but I know that I dodge it. I can be bothered sometimes you see.

Has it occurred to you that you might be afraid of involvement with people?

Oh, yes. I'm sure of that.

Why do you think that is?

Don't want to be bothered. [Laughs] Uncommitted except in a few cases. Leave me alone, I'm all right and I don't want to get mixed up with you. I don't want to know about that. I don't want people to ring me up and tell me about their ailments and I will go and support them. That's another word I hate beyond anything. 'Supportive'. That's my least favourite word. I will go and support them, but it'll ... it really takes ... it really ruins me. I become very, very upset. Now I don't quite know what I mean by that either. We're going to use this word 'stress'. 'Stress' is what I've been lisping for. That's the word I think. Really, really tries me.

Do you think that if you'd had a family of your own and had to raise children, and have that kind of involvement that mothers are supposed to have with their children, though your mother didn't, but ... do you think that that would have also produced that kind of stress and the demand of another person's need upon you?

I would have been a bad mother. If that's the answer. I would have been a bad mother.

If you'd had children of your own and created a family of your own, you would've been required to be involved in that really deep way that you dodge. Do you think that might have had something to do with the decision not to have children?

I think ... I think my decision not to have children was selfish. But I think that after saying that, I don't have much trust in families, or faith in families. I don't believe that families are so good. Family life can be good or bad but I don't believe the family is the answer. And when people in politics talk about families and the way they are now, 'Australian families', they're all saying. It's Australian people. It's just one person really in the end. Families have ruined so many lives, haven't they? Those old Irish mothers who have to be stayed by the grown up sons who never get married and just take to whiskey and drink in grocery shops. That's family. I think families interfere. Now I've had a recent example of an interfering family in my own few relatives that I have. One of the family ... one of the family left her husband and she rang up another one of the family in New Zealand and said, 'I've left dogsbody'. And the family responded by saying, 'What did you do that for?' Not saying, 'Oh, dear I am sorry. I hope you're all right. May I send you a 1,000 dollars'. 'What did you do that for?' And then another one of the family rang up and said, 'Oh, did you have to? Did you really have too? Couldn't you stay?' I mean! She didn't offer a 1,000 dollars either for another flat. So I wrote to one of them and said, 'Now opt out of this. Just forget it. Don't interfere. Send her some money and forget it. It's not your business. It's hers. She will stumble along as we've all stumbled along'. Stumbled along. Because it's all accidental. I tried my theories on her. But see, that's what I mean by family.

And what do you mean by accidental?

Oh life's accidental. Nothing goes according to plan. It's an accident that you do anything. It's an accident you see your husband. Accident that you go into journalism. Look it was an accident. Some man in New Zealand told his owner - proprietor in Australia, 'Here's this clever girl writing poetry'. If that's not an accident, I've never seen one.

Do you think it's accidental what you make of it?

Yes. It's all an accident.

Is your poetry an accident?

Seeing that I'm an accident it is.

But when we get past the fact that you're an accident, did your poetry feel accidental or do you feel you create it, that you make it?

Oh, I make it. But I take something and make it. And that may be an accident. I happen to be at that bus stop. I happen to overhear that woman in the hospital saying that. 'Ah that was a good line', I say to myself. You hear them say, 'The bus is never coming. It never comes'. And it's coming. I see it coming. And this woman is speaking to her husband, 'The bus never comes. It's never coming'. Here is the bus approaching us. Then she says, 'It's going past us. You didn't wave your stick'. The bus has already stopped. Now there's a good line.

Do you think there is any sense in which we invent ourselves? Do you feel ...

Oh, yes. Lots of people. We invent ourselves. In a way we are invented. No you have to do it yourself. I know lots of people who invented themselves.

What about you?

Maybe I did, I don't know.

Thinking about the people who will come after you, and who will look back on your life, what would you like to have them think about you?

That I was a good poet and a good journalist. That I had a good career. I think that is something they should think about. Having a good time and a good career.

And what would horrify you to have them think about you?

That I was a boring old witch, shouting her opinions to defenceless television makers.

Have you always thought that being boring was the cardinal sin?

It's pretty bad. It's pretty bad. People repeating themselves. I know a woman who has told me the same story for twenty years. And she's awfully intelligent. And I know when it's coming. And I like her so nothing happens. But I know it. She's repeated this story almost word for word. Because it's got a certain interest ...

[end of tape]

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