Australian Biography

Shirley Strickland de la Hunty - full interview transcript

Tape of 8

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Do you ever feel that sport plays too big a part in Australian life?

It certainly plays a major [part], and of course it's more than just a sport now, it's a major industry, so I guess economically it plays a major part. Whether it's too big a part I don't know. I don't think I would seek to reduce the role of sport. I think we should enhance perhaps some of the other aspects of sport. Certainly it's got a major contribution to health beyond the extremes that we sometimes see. But the influence of healthy advertising, such as we have in the West Australian Quit Campaign against tobacco, I've fought against tobacco smoking, and tobacco companies for years, for thirty years and it's a joy to me that that sort of control, such as it is, is now being put into sport, I think that's a good way. I think sport suffers a little bit and maybe contributes something because of its high profile in advertising - that's the elite level. But I think it's in the equation of health and the stability of the community, sport is a very important element, and it's just a matter of how it's handled.

But you yourself always believed in a balance between the mind and the body. And yet, you're always recognised much more for sporting achievements than the fact that, at the time that very few women did, you were an honours graduate in physics.


Does that - do you think shows a sort of emphasis on - too much on one side?

Well I'm not too sure whether that shows a community influence - I think perhaps that I was a graduate before I became a sports person - and I also didn't ever indulge in research, I just sort of fell into teaching and became a teacher, probably highlighted the later sporting career rather than my earlier achievements. And I was - wasn't until relatively recently when people started to ask me what did I do? Or, asking about myself, and I said, 'Well, actually I'm a nuclear physicist', that I saw people's eyes open and said, 'What?' And it was really, I mean, becoming a nuclear physicist is no more challenging than becoming any other type of graduate, it's just a matter of how you go about it. And I didn't have this apprehension because I probably grew up without any apprehensions instilled in me. But I would like to be remembered, if I am remembered - I'll certainly be remembered for sport because that's sort of put down in medals and history and the many, many sport histories that are written these days. And I'll tell you something Robin, I'[m] never going to write my - have anyone write my, or write my sporting memories. I'm never going to do that. But I'd like to perhaps be remembered where it matters, if being remembered is important - 'cause I won't be looking back at it - for someone who worked towards the environment and worked towards the betterment of, not only the human share of this environment, but the whole ecological system upon which we virtually depend. That's what I'd like to be remembered [for], and I'd like to not be remembered as that, but to have had some influence on it.

Why wouldn't you have your sporting memories written up?

Oh I wouldn't do it myself. No. I wouldn't want anyone to do it for me, either. It's just been written - I mean when people ring me or ask me for some either interviews on sport, I mean I do - a lot of children ring. They have to choose someone to write a project on, and a lot of students, older students also, select me as a project. And I say, 'Look, go and read these books, go and read that book'. 'Oh we can't find it.' I said, 'Yes you will. Ask for this one and that one. I mean don't ask me to repeat all that'. And I couldn't. I couldn't do it. It's pointless to go through that. If I did that I'm sure it would sell, you know, 50 copies. Ah, be then sold off for five dollars in the shops, and why am I doing this? Pointless.

Can you imagine ever retiring to doing very little?

Only if my body and my mind compel me to. It's pretty boring doing nothing. I ... sometimes in this house I have a day when there's nothing going to happen. I think, oh isn't that lovely. But I very soon get tired of that and think, why shouldn't I be going and doing X or Y or Z. You know, it can get very boring doing nothing, and sometimes the things I have to do are not terribly enjoyable. Be nice if I could just forget about environmental problems in the world, and just start having a ball. I envy people who can do that. I'd like to have a ball, but I don't think I ever [could] do that and forget that I'm ... my convictions about the future for my family, my children, my grandchildren, and for everybody's children really.

Would you ever marry again?

If I had the opportunity. I don't think I'm going to, Robin. It would have to be pretty good, and pretty nice, and there are great difficulties in forming another relationship with someone, someone new. I didn't think I could live on my own for the rest of my life, but I think I'm going to have to do that.

Now going right back again to the beginning - your life back on the farm. Could you describe how it was for your parents? How that farm household ran, and what it was like for those farmers out there in that region, pioneering the bush?

The problem with that particular area and many such areas, because it's a very large area, is that nobody knew anything about its potential. No-one knew anything about its long-term rainfall. Or, anything about the world El Niño, any of those world climatic conditions. So that those who dared to take up that particular country, did it in an ignorance and a belief that only by selecting the right parcel, which might be in a valley, or might be somewhere, and chopping down the trees and then no-one realised what was going to happen when the rabbits came - I think it's the ignorance of what - of the task that they confronted that made it so extremely difficult for those farmers. That ignorance isn't there any more, but I think that's what made it so difficult for my father and my mother, because they were starting a new life. It was land. Land was supposed to be a way in which you could get on, and get richer, bring up the next generation. Ah, they didn't have enough information.

What kind of difficulties did they face?

Just about anything you can mention. Initially the lack of labour because it was all hand labour. And lack of capital as well. But, drought, ah, not so much fire, but certainly floods, because when it floods as is happening in Australia at the moment, big floods, they take everything. It takes the sheep, takes the fences, takes everything you had. There weren't that many floods, but I do remember one particular flood. Ah, depression, lack of markets. The times when, through matters you couldn't control, like world markets, or monopolies on wheat bags, or the banks closing down, or all of those things which you couldn't control, those had an enormous depressing effect on farmers. Things you could control, like coming back next year and replanting, trying another crop, those sorts of things were not as depressing and demoralising as these matters you couldn't control, when you could produce a top wheat crop, beautiful grain, massive production, and you couldn't sell it. It wasn't worth the value of the bags to take - in the days when they had bags - to take it to the railway station and the transport. That is a terrible thing when you've got children to feed.

How do you remember a typical day on the farm?

In the days when I was there I was not aware too much of these trauma, I probably was aware implicitly, but I was either doing school, or my particular day would have been always collecting the eggs; if it was lamb time, feeding the lambs. If it was kangaroo time, chasing kangaroos, that sort of changing kaleidoscope that takes place all over the period of twelve months on the farm, and just being part of this team group, enjoying the meals my mother used to cook, and I was not aware of the difficulties. I became aware of them later, and through my mother's memories, and also through the records that we've got on the family of the tribulations, particularly when war intervened. Then of course labour shortage, my brother was running three farms as a very young man. Those are all the extreme difficulties. But in between, in the spring and the winter, it was beautiful country. The wild flowers, when they still existed, just flowered. The vegetables, you could put a vegetable seed in the ground and it would just go, boom. Beautifully rewarding times on the farm, but it did not carry you through. It didn't carry us through the summers when we couldn't even afford to come down for a holiday, and so we had - just had to sit out century heat, day after day, twelve hours of the day.

Under a corrugated iron roof?

Yes, but mostly we'd get out of that - that was hotter than outside. We would go into what we used to call the bush shed, the sheds that they built of scrub and thicket, that was where we used to live. We used to sleep there, we used to eat there. I've got pictures of big Christmas parties in the bush shed. Everybody had to have a bush shed, and a Coolgardie cooler later. That's the only way we survived.

You copied the Aborigines with a bush shed?

Yes we did.

Have you had a lot to do with Aborigines in Western Australia?

I'm having more to do with them now, through my experiences and my work with the foreshores. And I did not ever know nor in our area did I ever see any Aborigines. Nor did I ever in my wandering through the bush ever find any artefacts or any evidence of their presence, but apparently they were there. But they probably knew it was pretty impoverished country too. I don't think they ever stayed there, it was just they went through there. Sometimes to get ochre from the local hill that had ochre in it. But since - and I used to think that, like so many hundreds and thousands of people I suppose - that any problems with the Aborigines that might have developed in the past, were really nothing to do with me. I could do nothing about it, and I was sad about it. But now my experiences with meeting Aborigines and hearing their story, have now turned me into an Aboriginal activist, because I realise it wasn't just then, it is now, and a lot of what they are complaining about has taken place in my lifetime. And so I've become quite committed to that. I think Australia has a long way to go before its human rights, so-called human rights, responsibilities, and aspects that it adopts, [are] shown to have taken effect in Australia. So I am a committed one and I will probably be like that for the rest of my life. I mean, I understand the pressures they're under. I understand the way the white man's values are eroding some of their values and causing dissension between them as they see land rights in one aspect for preservation of their culture and in another as a way of becoming the white man's wealth, which they have a right to, as well as we do. I see the problems, and I'll probably be working on that for a very long time where I can be effective. But I'm not a spokesperson for Aboriginal people. I work where I can with those people and I respect what they're doing, and I have an enormous respect for their difficulties today.

[end of interview]