Australian Biography

Elizabeth Riddell - full interview transcript

Tape of 7

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You've told us that one of your strong beliefs is that life is accidental. Does this make for a sort of fatalism? Do you think that society as a whole can change, and change other than accidentally? Do you think we have any capacity to deal with the problems that face us as a world?

Yes I think so. But the first thing you have to do is deal with yourself. And that's what I mean about the accident. You can't ... The accidents I mean are behaviour, behaviour accidents. To your personal life. Now that's your concern and you deal with them like that and you go somewhere and don't go somewhere or see some man or don't. But what you can do with the world is, of course, don't give in when people are doing the wrong thing with it. Don't give in. Keep fighting. Keep arguing. Protest. Argue. People say, 'It doesn't do any good'. 'Oh, well that's the way it is now'. To me language is so important and to me language, it face is the most terrible assault from gender speak and all those other things and from ... words lose their meaning. Now there is a word that everybody uses called 'hopefully' and it's used in the wrong way. What it is is a German word that has been used in the wrong way in translation and we take it from the Americans. We shouldn't speak ... we should take the good words the Americans invented and not their bad words.

So you care about language. What other kinds of things, what other kinds of social issues disturb you?

I care about pollution and I'm a keen believer in what the Green people are doing. I don't do it myself. I go out and clean up once a year, but that's all I do. I'd rather send the money for them to do ... spend it on things. But I think all those things are terribly important. I'm not scientifically knowledgeable about it at all. I don't want ... I suppose, the thing I really don't want is animals tortured and the animal life shall be ruined. And I'm not, I must say here, a vegetarian. But I don't want ... I don't want animals [harmed]. But we're doing it by taking up the places where they live. We're taking it up for us. Now, there you've got a real problem. You see I think there are too many people in the world and I mean that's a very catitudinous [?] thing to say. That's why I don't want people to keep on having children.

Do you think that's the biggest problem in the world? Population?

Population's the biggest problem, yes. Because population has got to fed. A woman who is going to feed her family is going to take firewood from a tree. Look at what's happened in Rajahstan. In Rajahstan. When I first went through Rajahstan there was forest. There's no forest now. It's been used for firewood. So then you get up ... get up into the area of fossil fuel and all these things and I don't understand all that.

Do you feel any sort of optimism about the ability to rein back now and bring these things under control?

No, but I wouldn't have felt any optimism if I had been a crusader or ... I mean that was bad. Everything is bad in the world at some period of history.

And how does the individual deal with that?

The best he or she can. Behave as well as you can. Don't be cruel to more people than you need to be. That's all. I can live without religion because I can live with this sort of Protestant ethic or the philosophy of Bertrand Russell. You don't need God if you behave yourself. And if you're cruel to animals you're going to be cruel to people, aren't you? I care more about the animals. That's the awful thing. I really care more about the animals than the ambition of women, who can't have babies, to have them. I think if you want to have a baby, adopt a child. I don't understand the position of it. I understand that a lot of childbearing is simply possession of an object. Here is my personal doll.

You said you were prepared to demonstrate for Green issues, but you didn't march with Patrick in his anti-nuclear stand. Was there any particular reason for that?

No reason. No reason at all. No reason at all. I admired Patrick marching with Tommy Readin [?] and I admired, but all those things, But there are certain things I do and certain things I don't do. I'm lazy I suppose. Uncommitted to some things. No, I never marched with Patrick about any of those things and I really wasn't interested in the Cold War, you know. I'm not interested in the nuclear family or the Cold War. I'm interested in what's happening near me. I pick up a piece of paper outside the house but I don't do anything more. I don't know. I'm trivial.

Do you think that it's in these microcosm that in the end the big picture will be helped?

I hope it's in them. But you know that I do find myself saying, to myself only, I'm now saying it to you, 'Well I won't be here to see it'. So not minding it as much. It concerns me, but surely it concerns people younger than me more. After I'll be deady bones soon, then I won't care, will I?

What do you think are going to be the worse things that you are going to miss out on seeing?

Oh nothing. I haven't missed a thing. Everything's been ... been written and composed. I mean the best things have all happened. Wonderful things. I wouldn't have minded living in the Nineteenth Century a bit. There it was all happening. Mozart and Robert Browning and then later on there were all these marvellous people. The poets, the scientists. Oh all the best poets are dead.

Do you think there is anything good coming up that you won't be around for?

I don't care. I don't care a bit. I don't want to see extraterrestrial things that are coming from ... If they find them, I don't want to see them.

Why not?

And they've ruined the moon in many ways by putting man on it. Oh I liked it. Look at the moon, it was so marvellous before they set foot on it. The poem I wrote after Lunar II, that's a really ... I got a lot of letters about that. Nobody wants to ... why should we ruin the moon or find ET or a gremlin? A green man. No, I don't want to look at a green man.

When you were a critic, did it ever bother you that you had a lot of power that you might use to the the detriment of the person whose work you were criticising?

Well I didn't have a lot of power because there's only this much you can do with your criticism. But I'll tell you this about criticism: if it's big enough in the magazine or newspaper, they don't mind, because bigness is supposed to equate with goodness so they don't mind. They think, 'Oh, it's been given a good run'. If its in a literary magazine, they mind terribly much so what I have done for many years is criticise people who are remote from me and my life. When I reviewed ballet there were people that would be criticised by much better critics than I was. I don't review Australian books. I've gone into gatherings where I've thought, My God, what did I say about that book? I've been thanked for criticism by people who thought I'd said they were good. They'd remembered vaguely that they'd had a critique and I'm sure it was a bad one. I remember this case very much of a woman who came up to me and said, 'Oh, thank you for reviewing my book', and I'd said it was rotten! They forget that you've said the bad thing. There are a few ... a few people who can't stand me. A few people who can't stand what I've said. But if you are reviewing novels from America or England you're all right. In England the same thing happens of course. There is a ... there is a school, always. People who pat each other on the back, or don't as the case may be.

How have you felt about other people criticising your work?

Very pleased to have it mentioned. Expected worse. I expected one review once and I really waited for that to absolutely clobber me, which she didn't. But what is the bad thing is being left out and never criticised. There were a couple of anthologies which were published lately of Australian poetry and there's been a real row about that. I've been left out of one of them and everybody talked about it at the last Adelaide Festival. I wasn't even in it they say. I wasn't even mentioned in the list of the people who should have been in it. This man ... I spoke to one Australian poet and he was raging. 'How dare they leave me out', he said. So that's the poet's push: poets who are postmodernist and poets who are not. And they are very ... very tough on each other.

Now when you look back over your ... your long life, is there anything that you really really regret?

Yes. Never going to Beirut. [INTERRUPTION]

Is there anything in your life you really regret?

Yes. Never going to Beirut. I always said, 'No, no. I'll do that next year'. But look at it. I've been to Dubrovnik, but I've never been to ... and they're finished. They're gone. There's other places, plenty of other places I haven't been, but I don't mind that. But Beirut.

Is there anything personally that you feel guilty about?

Oh my whole life I feel guilty about.


Because I've done so many stupid, irresponsible, stupid things.

What's the worst of them?

I don't know what's the worst. But you know a few that's happened now. I remember that one night stand. See, why is that in my mind? That was in 1943 in Washington. Why do I still remember it? I'm ... I'm guilty about that.


I don't know. I think I'm respectable you see, at heart.

Is there anything that wakes you up at night? You know, that shivering feeling that you get when you wake up and remember something that you've done and it's been embarrassing or that you feel bad about.

No. I've often woken up in fear sometimes, but I don't wake up embarrassed.

So, you feel guilty you say about almost everything you've ever done. Do you think that's a state of mind rather than a real ...

It's a pessimist state of mind. It's the belief that nothing is good at the heart. There are no happy endings. That's what ... that's it.

[end of interview]