|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: February 14, 1994
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Were your parents happy for you to be an artist? Is that what they wanted for you?
I don't think they knew what an artist was really, and my mother was very helpful in that way, to the best she knew how. But my father, I think, all he wanted me to do was get a job in the railway workshops and add a steady wage to things. Understandable, I suppose, but not for me.
You mother wasn't too interested in a steady wage?
Oh she was interested in it but she was also more concerned at what I wanted. You see? So she would follow that. I think that was the determining thing with her.
Were they proud of you later?
Ah, well, it's the sort of thing I wouldn't observe actually because I was working in fairly radical areas in painting, treated as the usual screwball and weirdo, and I don't think that made them happy but they never said anything.
How did you meet John and Sunday Reed?
I met them very, very early, around 1937, '38, I think. I hope I've got it right. I might be contradicting myself because I'm awful on dates. But I met them and it became a slow relationship, you know, see them at long intervals and then, I think, with their own particular kind of ambitions they realised I had a role I could play in it. And so I was steadily fed into the Heidelberg thing, bit by bit as it were.
What were the ambitions? Could you explain how you saw them and what you felt they were doing and what their significance was for you.
Well the primary significance was that we could go out there and eat food that I'd never seen before in my life. That was a sort of primary one. And it was nice to have the journey. And then, of course, there were other deeper reasons that emerged as time went on. And the ... in fact it's only, really, in recent years that I've realised the full implications of what they did, which are very important because both John and Sunday came from wealthy families. And they were both overseas. Sunday went to a school over in France, and, I believe, in Switzerland. John went to Cambridge. They apparently met over there and they married. And they apparently decided in their ... after their time in Europe - I forget how long they were there, but for some time - but they apparently decided that Australia had unique qualities and that if they wanted to make any sense out of their life that they would do their best to promote and help them. And so this was a very good decision. They wanted to assist where they could in the development of an Australian culture. And so when they came back here ... I think it was around 1934 when they came back here. I may have that wrong too, I don't know, but that's a figure that leaps to mind. And from then on they slowly started getting mixed up in the art world here and what was going on and developed some sort of knowledge of it. And they slowly became more and more engrossed with it. And Sunday, who had a very good eye for paintings - she was the one, John knew nothing about it at the time - and she led John into it. And they were ... when I met them there, they [had] already pretty well committed themselves to this course and they were keeping their eye open for people they felt who would more or less help realise this ambition of theirs. And I just happened to be one of them, and Nolan, of course, is the other one. He was the main one, because to that he also developed, shall I say, a situation with Sunday where it developed an extra dimension, shall I say. And this ... and so Nolan finished up going out to live there and he lived there for seven years and so they did a heck of a lot for him in that time.
And John was happy to tolerate this?
Well John ... This one has to get into fairly intimate speculations that are best to get clear of I think because I was, in a sense, an outsider with all this sort of thing going on. I was still pretty innocent myself, at that point. And so I ... I let the thing ride, but I more or less learned ... learned the words menage a trois and that this was a sort of thing that can happen in certain circles in life. And so I just ignored it and let it roll as it were. And so that's how it went on. But of course it then developed another aspect to it where ... in Nolan's relationship with Sunday. But then again I have to speculate in a very intimate motivations with people, which I prefer not to do. But there was many problems, which later, were probably fairly fully expressed by Nolan in a book of poetry he produced called Paradise Garden and this gives a pretty, rather frightening and substantial account of his whole history out at Heide, which in itself now I'd say has become a very valuable document because it does fill in a whole aspect which is very important. Whereas I came in on another aspect of John, involving with the Contemporary Art Society and with Angry Penguins, when he started publishing that and all the events that took place around that. And I actually worked with Angry Penguins and this is how I earned my stipend as it were, which I was getting from them at the time. I also gave them occasional paintings and so in this way, you could say, I earned my way in the relationship. And John did ... I would say that John probably became fairly, pretty dependent on me as an idea man. See he ... he'd had limited experience of life. I'd experienced areas of life that he'd never encountered and so obviously I was able to contribute something from that area, which I did. And so the relationship sustained itself this way. I kept it ... it kept going and I'd say, while we had our clashes and battles from time to time, overall we continued in a ... in a, I'd say, a pretty fruitful way.
So your relationship was mainly with John?
I'd say mainly, yes. I never really got to know Sunday very well. She was always in a sense, a recessive figure. And, of course, we'd talk occasionally, we'd meet occasionally. But she also realised the role I was playing with John, which she was supporting. And when Joy came on the scene ... I don't know if I gave her full name before - Joy Hester. When she came on the scene and I introduced her into the Heidelberg thing, she got along famously with Sunday and so this made a rather a useful network and relationship. And so roughly that did occur that way: that Joy and Sunday got on well together. I and John, we got on well together. But there were battles all the way, you know, criss-crossing: Joy with Sunday, Sunday with Joy and [laughs] likewise with John. But it added up though to a ... you could say, a sustained and a fruitful relationship over quite a period of time.
What did you think of Sunday?
Sunday: she was, I'd say, a pretty, you know. I see this as a woman's question [laughs] and Sunday was, I'd say, a quite a unique and extraordinary woman. I'd have to give two or three sides to Sunday I think to try and give a full account of her. I won't ... I'll try to sum her up, shall I say. That she was ... First she was a spoiled little rich girl - utterly spoiled, utterly. And this was shown, for example, if ever we were in the front room of the library and any dispute arose, Sunday there would simply quietly drift out and go to bed. You see, it was back to the womb always, whenever trouble was brewing. She'd leave it to the boys to fight it out. And then John would go into the bedroom, and there'd be a long conversations and discussions and John would discuss the fruits of his discussion in the library with myself, Nolan or whoever it was in there. and then go and discuss it with Sunday. Then he would come out, with what you could say was the policy on this particular issue. And this happened ... this kind of thing happened repeatedly. So in that sense Sunday was ... while she was still the guiding finger, she was the poor little rich girl. But if you want to talk about her as a personality, I was not attracted to her in the sexual sense at all. She was a very thin woman and she ... but she did obviously have an attraction for certain males. There was no question about that. Which I always failed to see. [laughs] Which in a sense was a mistake on my part from the standpoint of Sunday. But the thing I think if I looked, if you want me to try and summarise Sunday's nature. She was a unique woman, in that I would tend to ... I mean I associate her - with certain reading I've done with all these things - with the say the Sumerian goddess Ishtar. I was put ... I'd make her as a sort of, something like Ishtar and you remember her relationship with Gilgamesh. I don't know if you've read that, but that's one of the fascinating historical accounts. But there was this quite ... quite extraordinary thing and she was ... did have ... Every time I think of Sunday I'd also think of Ishtar, after I read all about Ishtar. And on top of that, I'd add to that, that in part of the mix there, I'd say a substantial dose of Lady Macbeth, [laughs] and so that would, in one sense, sum up Sunday to me. But a very highly sensitive and intelligent woman and quite erudite. And of course, as I say, I would say the central finger, guiding finger, in everything that went on at Heidelberg at the time. And she was a superb manipulator, the way she could manipulate and handle people. She was superb at that oddly enough, but mainly the girls to girls situations. She'd always deal with a male through their women. Although she dealt with me, finally, in a rather disastrous way.
So who else did you meet in that circle at Heide?
Who else did you meet in the circle at Heide?
Well there was John Perceval was there. Mary Boyd would often go there. Joy was there all the time. Nolan was there, living there constantly. Michael Keon was a major figure there and I'll be having lunch with him on Wednesday. And he was a major figure. He was there at a key period, a climactic period in 1942, when I was in the army. And so between it all, and there was other odd people being fed into that core situation as it were, all the time. I took Yosl Bergner out there, and he was only out there once though. And Sunday made a comment on his manners in the sense that he stooped down and shovelled his spaghetti into [his mouth] like that and I remember Sunday making some comment like that. But Yosl there jumped up in the air, waved his arms around and said, 'What do you think I come out here for? I come out to get my vitamins'. [Laughs] And that was that.
So you went there for the food too?
Oh the food. Look I'd never seen a spoon stand up in a bowl of cream before in my life. And it fascinated me. They had baby carrots cooked in cream. This kind of thing, you know. And huge sides of lamb ... of ham. And then also all the very exotic varieties of salads and everything else. They lived ... they lived very well.
And they gave you a stipend ...
Yes, they did as I found with several people that they thought were of promise and worth.
How did you feel about that?
Well it was good, because I was paying back for it. I gave painting for it and I worked in the Contemporary Art Society for it and also on Angry Penguins so in a sense it was a form of employment. So I wasn't getting anything for nothing.
And what happened with the Angry Penguins? Was that an important part of that time for you?
Oh very important, yes. It was a climactic part of it, but as you know this brings us on a little further now to the Ern Malley episode, which I gather you know about, because you Sydney-siders are a bigger part in it than I realised at the time.
Tell us about the Ern Malley Affair from your point of view.
Well, let's see. This is ... I could go on all afternoon on that one.
Well perhaps let me ask another question.
Well I don't mind. I'm very happy to talk about Malley.
Maybe it's more important for us to talk about the Angry Penguins in a broader context.
You can't separate Malley from that because they were finally the executioners ... the executioners of Angry Penguins.
Yes, but it might be interesting, I'll ask you a question about your relationship to it. What did you get from your association with the Angry Penguins side of things and what did you think in the end of that whole episode and event in your life?
You mean including the Malley one? Well I think it was an extremely, the most courageous publishing ventures that's taken place in Australia. The most courageous and far reaching. It had a tremendous effect, far beyond what it did, because as I found later it had far reaching effects in both in England and in the United States. And what John and Sunday did with that is quite an accomplishment. An extraordinary accomplishment. But enormous publishing courage and the way they handled the Ern Malley Affair because as you know they were sent to ... You probably know the whole history of it, so I won't go into all that ...
Perhaps you could just summarise it fairly simply.
I'll do my best. They received this bundle of poetry from a woman named Ethel Malley, which was a fake letter of course, but we wouldn't know it at the time, of poetry by her brother, Ern Malley, who died of what they call Grave's Disease. And he'd left behind him some poetry and she didn't know anything about poetry and so she felt that, perhaps, that if it was the sort of thing there that Angry Penguins could advise her on. She thought it was the sort of magazine that he would be interested in, that would be interested in his kind of work. And she was asking their opinion. So when they saw it, particularly when Max Harris got his first copies of it there, he went bananas about it. Quite so. I didn't see it because I was having quite a row with both John and Sunday at the time because I demanded - because I was looking after their sociological section and they were reproducing paintings and all this sort of thing - I thought that since I was there all the time, that I should have ... be on the editorial board because John was on it, Sunday was on it, Nolan was on it, and Max was on it. So I thought I should be on it too, but I was excluded, kept out and kept in this storeroom where I was ... where I was given a spot to do my own work. Well later of course, when one assesses one's self in relation to these things, I could see what it was. I was always too difficult a character to get on with. I was more ... tended to be argumentative, always putting forward a point of view that was out of kilter with theirs. And they felt ... I don't doubt they felt I'd be a disruptive person on it, which to an extent they were correct. But to think I missed out on, I could have given a lot of information too, which would have, shall I say, compensated for that. But, so this ... this was going on. So that meant that I never ... they told me that they'd discovered an extraordinary new poet and so this was of course fascinating but I never saw the poetry until Angry Penguins was published because I think they were scared stiff that I might attack the poetry and make it more difficult for them. And so ... but anyhow, once I read the poetry I also went overboard for it, and I still am because I think their judgement was quite correct. They showed enormous courage in publishing it, particularly when ... when the ... when the thing came in the air there that it was a possible hoax. The Reeds scented ... scented this themselves, that this was a possibility, and they were trying to think around, but they couldn't think of any talent they knew in Australian writing that could write or reach some of the levels of writing that existed in that poetry. And so this had them buffaloed. And so they finally decided that, while there was a lot of the poetry they felt was obscure, could be a hoax, there was a lot of it there that had such sufficiently major merit there for them to take a punt on it and publish it,which they did. And so this ... this was, as I say, an extraordinarily courageous decision.
And in fact, in had been concocted by a couple of ...
By James McAuley and Harold Stewart. Now have you read this book of Michael Heywood's on the Ern Malley Affair? Well you'd have the background to it there. [coughs] Well this gave me a lot of information to it that I hadn't known before, particularly in McAuley's early history because I came out of reading there with a much higher regard for McAuley than I had earlier. Because, while McAuley was a very good poet and a traditional one, which I also had a high regard for, but once I read the Malley poems I realised that McAuley was really the author of it. And as this worked out and as Michael Heywood was able to point out, the ... that it was Harold Stewart who set up the provenance for the whole thing and organised this, shall I say, this deception at the time. And did it very skilfully. Did it very well. It was McAuley who was the ... I would say, the principal figure in the poetry. He may have, you know, bounced a ball of Stewart once in a while, I don't know, or off each other for that matter. But in the upshot of it was, it was unmistakably, it was McAuley that was the the ... to me, the author.
And his motivation was to attack modernism and I wonder what you thought of that from where you sat?
Well I was totally opposed to it, because he was attacking some of my own gods. For example, Eliot, and quaintly enough, oddly enough, later on McAuley came right around to Eliot, some years later. How long I don't know. But he was attacking what they called the Apocalyptic School and attacking Henry Reed and Reed was one of their targets, Henry Reed, because he was a populist. On a fairly serious level he was able to deal with questions of art and poetry on a pretty serious level and was also an able man ... a very able man himself in all these things and they regarded him as one of the people they wanted to get. Along with Max Harris. They were their targets. [Laughs] It was Max Harris who was target for tonight and also ... also a lot of the English apocalyptics: Dylan Thomas. They were after him too. And so they did actually a brilliant and highly sophisticated job emerged from it. More than they realised themselves, because their classical training stood them in good stead and their field of reference was of a very high order. It was very good. And they wrote some passages and they ... they made a marvellous, in a sense, an extremely and highly sophisticated game out of it. Playing chicken with their audience. Because they knew that all the people they were writing too, wouldn't have the slightest idea of who they were directing at or who they were talking too and would go along as long as they put the stamp on it: this is a hoax, so don't be taken in, which they had done. They ... they felt perfectly safe with what ... what went on with the audience. And so they anticipated all this with the audience, knowing the country they were in. The provincialism there was on a very high level at that time. And ...
What was the effect on the Angry Penguins project then? [INTERRUPTION]
What was the effect on the Angry Penguins group and the activity that you'd undertaken with that project?
Well the ultimate effect was to destroy Angry Penguins. That stopped that, which I think was one of the cultural crimes of the century, but they didn't know they were committing it. I'm not saying this was a deliberate thing but it did turn into, what I would call, a cultural crime because this is something that could have advanced the whole Australian cultural situation, far further ahead than it got. But as it did, it did a tremendous amount of good, and since I wasn't a poet, I mean this was a secondary ... would have been a secondary concern with me, one had to go along. But I joined in the objections to McAuley and Stewart and I have a very interesting encounter there. You see I'd never met them. In fact, to this day, I don't even know if ... if Nolan ever met them. I don't think he did. Max Harris hadn't met them until some ... some ... quite a long time later. And whether John had had any encounter with them, I even didn't know that. Because you see, as I said, I was in a state of warfare with them and all of a sudden it was taken up in the ... in dealing with the whole Ern Malley Affair, as they called it. And it's interesting to go back on that. It would perhaps take time to do it, and I'd need a copy of the Malley poems here, but I can pick out segments there, in it there, which are completely brilliant and which show where they played chicken with ... both with the Reeds and with everyone who would possibly read it and with a general audience. And they were very, very clever in the way they did it. They go right to the brink of revealing the hoax and then pulling back. For example, one little passage there they said, 'It is necessary to understand that a poet may not exist. That his writings are the incomplete circle and straight drop of a question mark'. [Laughs] Gives the story: absolutely brilliant. But then Ern Malley came to life, and this is the thing that caught them totally unawares, they created something that assumed an independent existence and then attacked them. This was a very fascinating phenomenon, which most people can't accommodate, but it would be known in you know, in the field of psychology and psychoanalytical fields, of how ... of how people can do this: how we can often create an entity to destroy ourselves. And this is what they succeeded in doing. And this came out in a thing there where they, in one passage in one other poem they said Nero and the botched tribe of imperial poets burn like the rafters, and the new men are cool as spreading fern. Now examine that passage. I mean, who were the imperial poets? McAuley and Stewart and they didn't know it. It was like my other thing saying about myself, this was right alongside, tapping them on the shoulder, and they didn't connect it. They didn't connect it with themselves because they were the imperial poets. There was no one else you could refer to. And then who were the ... who were the men, 'the new men as cool as cool as spreading fern'? No one else but the Angry Penguins, because they said that, you know, [coughs] there's one passage again - I don't remember completely how it goes there - but 'To the siegfried [?] like to renew the language', talking about that. See all these things. There were all these pointers all the way through the poetry which ... where they find themselves, as I said myself in one of my published accounts about this. I said that if you're a poet or got an artistic sensibility you cannot suspend its operation by an act of will. No matter what you say, you'll still do it in those terms and all they did was to disguise it from themselves by saying a piece of nonsense that turned out to be poetic nonsense.
What happened to the group at Heide after the Angry Penguins folded?
To ... to what?
What happened to the group at Heide after the Angry Penguins folded? What effect did it have?
Well they continued. They had to wind Angry Penguins up because they were just simply losing too much money over it. And that was very simply that. So then they transferred their interest into the Contemporary Art Society and at that point there the Communist Party moved in to try and take it over and turn it into a political weapon. They were not interested in art but they were interested in politics. And so then we spent the next phase, the next year or two, fighting them off and I played a major role in that.
How did you first get involved with the Communists?
Oh this was an early thing. In the thirties you must remember that we knew virtually nothing about the ... [INTERRUPTION]
How did you first get involved with the Communists?
This was ... one has to give a little context to this one. In the thirties, the Communists there were, it was quite a big thing. You know, the Spanish Civil War was a major thing too, that took place. That affected us very profoundly. A lot of the boys here went off to join the International Brigade, as they did in England. So it was period of idealism and ignorance. They knew nothing about what was happening in the Soviet Union. We had no news or information whatsoever. All we knew was that a great and tremendously important social experiment was taking place that would help relieve us of our burdens of survival and enable us to get on with being artists. This is the way I interpreted it. And [clears throat] ... and then I was having all these bad experiences in all the jobs that I was getting, where everyone was, you know, really underpaid and overworked and badly treated.
Exploited by the boss.
Yes, that's what it amounted to. It fitted ... it dovetailed in very nicely into the communist doctrinaire approach. And so I drifted leftwards with all this. And so I became a quasi sort of communist and this. And then, with all the things, and while I wasn't in the, you know, directly involved with it, slowly as the thirties went on and we got to the late thirties, I forget when it was. In fact I oddly enough forget exactly when this was. I think it would have been about '37 or '38. The communists then set to work and they organised what they called an artists' branch there to deal with the needs of artists. This, of course, I pricked up my ears. I wasn't having anything to do with the politics of it, because I knew that wasn't simply my métier, whether I agreed with them, or whether I didn't. But on the other hand the ... if they set up an artists' branch I thought there was something there where, perhaps, I could play a good role in helping them see the light about the true role of art. And so they set up this branch. It was really ... as I realised later, it was not a branch of the Party at all. It was a kind of antechamber where they were getting people in there that they could use to bring in, draw in people involved in culture, and all they wanted to draw them in for was to use them politically. That was their sole purpose. And so they set to work to do this. And ... but I was unaware of that at the time. I thought: Good, we'll have meetings and I can do this. So I joined the branch in order to see what enlightenment I could throw on the proceedings. Well very quickly I found out that it was ... you know, what it stood for, that all they were interested in was that you go out and see ... they were testing ... go out and distribute leaflets and go to the Party meeting. Go to this, that and the other. And I went to two or three of these things and I thought: To hell with this. I'm not interested in this nonsense. And I wouldn't have a bar of it. So then I started having rows with them, which I had. Until finally I had the final row with them. They had an interrogation. They called me in to talk at one of their things, headed by Counihan by the way, Noel Counihan, and they sat in one of these interrogations, which was purely on political questions. And I finally ... I just saw it like a red rag to a bull. I jumped up in a purple rage and told them all to go to hell and stormed out. And that was it. That was the end of it. And from then on, I attacked them publicly in Angry Penguins at that point. I wrote an article called Art, Myth and Society, which quaintly enough is still operative and is still read and still used and still effective, which is rather curious. And in this I tried to be as impersonal as possible and deal with the role of myth in relation to politics and art, and so, since this didn't follow Party line, it was then replied to vigorously by Counihan and Harry de Hartog and I was attacked violently as a fascist in the making, as a Trotskyite, as capitalist lickspittle - all these other glorious terms that they invented at the time: all this lunatic, provincial, brainless, psychotic nonsense, as I found, because they were there, as I found later on there, that murder and genocide was part of their political programme. So I was very rapidly out of that one. And now, let's see what next ...
On the personal front, you'd meantime gone off to Japan.
No, no, that was a bit after. That was later on in '47. On the personal thing. I wound up with the Contemporary Art Society. [coughs]. Excuse me. In which ... I was substantially responsible for the collapse of the Contemporary Art Society because then the communists moved in and they sent along all this stack of members to join up at half a crown a year and so on and get rid of Reed and Tucker and all these other anti-communist monsters. And so they worked hard at doing that and they stacked the meeting. The meeting was stacked, but before the meeting, one of their later recruits, Danila the Russian ... the Russian, Danila Vassilieff, who was a mentor and a friend of mine at the time. He had joined the Party a little time before, went to one or two meetings and fled in horror. He wouldn't have a bar of it. And so that was the end of that. But he ... they still sent him one of these notices and he came to me and he said, 'I thought you'd be interested in this', and he showed it to me. There it was calling on all communists to come along and get rid of Reed and Tucker.
Why do you think they were so keen as communists?
Why do you think as communists they were so keen to get rid of the Contemporary Art Society?
They didn't want to get rid of the Contemporary Art Society, they wanted to take it over. You see? That's what they were doing. We'd set it up. Reed, principally. And they simply wanted to take it over and make it a political tool of the Communist Party. And so I was forewarned, happily. And I happened to be president of it at that time. And so the general meeting came up. They were voting for secretary and what have you and the vote came there for John Reed fifty-one and for Vic O'Connor, who was the Communist nominee: fifty. There was just one vote difference. So instantly they screamed for a recount, so we had a recount and it came out the same way. And that was it. The Communists were defeated by a whisker. They went off and from then on we were monsters that ... anti-communist monsters and they were through with us, totally through with us. And so this had an interesting ... well there was an interesting aftermath but I won't go into that one there. It gets a little ... I'd be encroaching on someone else's territory with this one. That'll come out later.
So after your encounters with the Communists and the problems with the Contemporary Art Society, and the decline of the Angry Penguins and so on, what was the next major event for you in your development?
Oh for me, well the major event for me was that when I went to Japan in '47 with Roskolenko and when I ... when I got back ... All was well with my wife, Joy, when we left, but while I was away, all sorts of things developed. I was away for three months and so whilst I was away she developed an affair with someone else and when I came back I was confronted with this situation. And she ... she suddenly packed up and just took off. Like that. Without explanation, without anything. And left me sitting there with our son, Sweeney.
How old was he?
Sweeney was two years old at the time. Just a little over two. And ...
Do you remember the day she told you she was going?
The day? Well I don't remember the date. Everything was in great confusion ...
No. I mean do you remember what happened?
Oh yes. Well that was ... there was quite a little high drama there but that's a bit personal ... [INTERRUPTION]
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