Australian Biography

Albert Tucker - full interview transcript

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Albert, what kind of a world were you born into? What was happening in the world at the time that you were born?

Oh dear. It really takes me back, thousands of years, to 1914 to be precise, December 29. Also to my very first memories, I can remember seeing troops coming back from the First World War, and my father carrying me up the street on his back on Armistice Day. So there, that's going back. But the general view, take the general thing, the world I was in then, nothing could be more different to the world that I'm in now. It's as though I went to sleep in one country and woke up in another. So I have all these ... all these ... it's almost a culture shock in trying to adapt to the post-war Australia, because I was totally conditioned in the pre-war Australia and the great events of my life, of course, or shall I say the trauma producing events were the Depression and being put in the army. So with that again I'll race on too far ahead there.

You were born into a world of conflict, but did it seem like that to you, here in Melbourne?

Well probably I got the very first bit of it. I remember now the very first time I developed mobility and function on my own, that is crawling and toddling in the back yard of the house we were in and at that time we were in a house at Yarraville. And through ... right at the back was an enormous wide open green space which is of course now absolutely densely packed with housing but I remember crawling down the back yard to the back paling fence all on my own, very proud of myself in making this journey and I remember pulling myself up on the gate where it had one of those little semicircular holes in there for the latch in the gate. And I pulled myself up and I was just able to peer through it and the very first thing I saw in the distance were tents and squads of soldiers drilling. It was my first view of the outside world unaided so it probably set a key for things happening later on.

Images of war and conflict?

Yes, straight off, yes.

What were your parents like?

My parents, they were two very good people, I would say. But they were both ... My father was the son of my namesake, the Honourable Albert Lee Tucker, MLA, three times mayor of Fitzroy. So he was the notable figure in my background but he died long before I was born. And he ... when he died he left quite a bit of property. He became a wealthy man and this was split up with a very large family of a dozen children, of which my father was one. And even that amounted to a fair bit of money. So my father, he inherited a bit of money, and a stationer's business in Elizabeth Street. And so he had to run it at a stationery and then decided he didn't like it, shifted across the Exhibition Gardens into Nicholson Street to a shop that's still there, and he couldn't bear having to get up in the morning to deal with the newspaper kids taking out the newspapers. So he was quite upset at that. So finally they sold the shop and then he got a job in the Victorian Railways and stayed in that. In fact he stayed in it all his life. So that really put us, you could say, generally, into a working class income. But my mother, who came from a family - her father, my other grandfather, was a mining engineer and he'd come out and gone to Bendigo. And he was very successful there. And they finally came down to Melbourne and also moved to Yarraville, which was then, you know, just as a beginning ... early days of that district, in the middle ... late Nineteenth Century. It hadn't then become the full industrial suburb and area that it became later on. And with my mother she had five brothers, all older than she was. So now imagine what that will do to a young female. She was pampered and spoiled, looked after, had terrific security, and large brothers there to all look after her and do everything for her. So she was spoiled and she thought all men were the same as her brothers, which my father wasn't [laughs] because he was interested in the good life also. But he had to put up with being a ... working in the railways. And they both encountered then ... encountered reality as his money dwindled. They bought a house in East Malvern I remember then. My mother had aspirations to get into a middle class suburb, which she did. So this had the peculiar effect I think of, what I would say, declassing me. I didn't grow up on the north-west Melbourne working class area, but I did have the insight into a lot of it, because we were on that economic level. But then with my mother's ambitions, she then got this house in Malvern, near Central Park, and set about bringing us up in the ... what she thought to be, the right way, which in a sense it was, because I got the advantages of a middle class background, but on the other hand, I got the awful anxiety and tension of not enough money to sustain that lifestyle. And so my mother was endlessly in debt. Everything was on hire purchase. Everything was in debt. The house was finally mortgaged and then finally they sold and we went to Malvern, and taking the mortgage with us. And then finally, my father could no longer pay for that. And that was called in. The mortgagees called the property in. We had to leave there and from then on we rented properties for a time. But in those days, fortunately, old Victorian properties were looked on with contempt, because, you know, because of the awful facilities, and they were the cheapest form of accommodation on the market. So a lot of my early years were spent in old Victorian houses, which I appreciated and it has given me a deep and abiding affection for Victoriana.

So your parents were trying to maintain a middle class lifestyle on a working class income and it caught up with them.

It caught up with them, yes.

Now what were the consequences of that for you?

Well pretty awful because ... because psychology was unknown then of course and my mother never knew what she was doing really and while I was the youngest, for some reason, she confided everything in me and I ... in a curious way, I became the father of the family because my father had given up the ghost and become very negative and rather melancholic. And he did his job, that is he trudged off to work, trudged home, provided the keeping, kept food on the table all the way through, and one can't, I suppose, ask much more than that.

What kind of work did he do in the railways?

In the railways, he was at the North Melbourne railway workshops but I have no precise knowledge of exactly what he was up to. I think something to do with carriage under gears and so forth. He was something of an expert on that, but not enough to get into a higher wage bracket unfortunately.

But he worked with his hands?

He worked with his hands. Oh yes. Oh yes. And so it was a situation which then, unhappily, was reinforced by the Depression because I was in state school of course and I left state school when I was something around ... oh I left about fourteen or just before fourteen, then I went on to Swinburne Tech and that only lasted for most of that following year. So I left somewhere around fourteen and a half, fourteen and three quarters. But I had to because, as with my brother, we had to work then in order to help support the family so it finished up with both my father and my brother and myself working full time just to preserve a sustenance existence. We got enough food in bulk, but we didn't get food in quality. I remember we lived on semolina and sausage meat, potatoes, bread. These were the sort of kinds of food: bulk food, which ... which of course is short on a lot of important nutrients. And I put the fact that my own physique ... [INTERRUPTION]

What was life like for you growing up then, feeling a sense of responsibility for the family and with so little income?

Well I would say for me it was a kind of stark terror and anxiety, which has become the most formidable problem I've had to deal with in myself all my life. I can say I've got ... I don't know how far I've got over those things, but they certainly formed a whole pattern of anxiety and fear all my life, which again was reinforced by the, of course, the Depression full bore, and then we went through, straight into the thirties when Hitler was starting to rise, and everyone sensed and knew what it was going, how it was going to end, and of course they were right. Another war was on the way. And so when that came then, of course, I went into ... had to go into the army. I did my best to hold off as long as I could, but finally I had to go into the army and that was it. And so I had a session in there which introduced me, as my unfortunate parents did, in dealing with social life and survival. I encountered it on another level, which was rather grim. I didn't ... I was fortunate, very fortunate, in the sense that I never went off. I wasn't sent out and I didn't get involved in any warfare. But the thing that happened was that I was sent to training camp at Wangaratta and I was ... I remember, the first day, I still remember this, going and getting issued with what they called the dead meat tag to hang around my neck with a number on it and then we arrived in a truck at camp, the fellow who came up, the sergeant, he yelled to the back there, 'A dozen more bodies Fred'. [Laughs] So we were reduced to anonymous bodies and numbers straight away, which was something with my kind of temperament there - which was ... I already was painting and I was a determined individualist at all cost, come hell or high water - that was a hell situation for me. But anyhow I had to ... I realised that my very survival was involved and so I went along with it, looking for an opening if one would come, which it didn't. But it did, no I'm wrong there, because the very first morning I was in, we were called down and I was put on kitchen fatigue. So I remember - so were several others - and we were all strapping on our aprons when a runner came down from headquarters and said, 'Private Tucker?' 'Yes', and I thought, my god, they've got me, and I had to trot up to headquarters, which I did. Went in there. At the desk there was the Major sitting at the desk and I saluted and stood there at attention, waited to see what was coming next. And he said, 'Well Private Tucker, I see here on your papers that you've put yourself down, your occupation down as an artist', and I said, 'Yes sir', and he said, 'Well I'm very interested in that, because I have to give medical lectures to all the people who come in here. And', he said, 'all I've got is this wretched book with little tiny illustrations, about two or three inches square. And', he said, 'they're useless to use for demonstrations. So', he said, 'do you think it would be possible for you to do, you know, big ones, like this, which I could use in my lectures'. And I said, 'Yes, sir'. [Laughs] He said, 'Oh good'. He said, 'Excellent'. He said, 'Well look, you take the book', and he said, 'look, I'll give you a chit and you go down to Wangaratta and get all the materials you need', and he said, 'By the way', he said, 'do you think you could put it all together on a roller, so I could unroll them, when I'm talking'. And I said, 'Yes, sir'. [Laughs] Full of 'yes sirs' at that point because I realised that it was something that was possibly something that could save my skin was on the way, quite involuntarily.

In any case, it'd beat peeling potatoes.

Oh I never peeled a potato. I was on the brink of it. Right on the very brink of it. There was a mountain of potatoes you know. About two or three mountains. I had to feed two or three thousand men. And so they all had to be peeled, so they'd have a team there at work peeling potatoes every ... every morning. And so I was taken off that. And I went down to Wangaratta, got the materials, came back and then the CO came down there and asked me how I'd like to work. 'We've got the lecture hall here. All right'. He'll put all his packing cases up and make a little room for you and put in a table, which they did, a big table for me, and then checked that I had all the materials I wanted, left the book with me, and then told me which ones that he wanted to make big enlargements of and so I set to work. Well this went on - to cut a long story short - this went on for a good six months or more and so on. But as the three month training course was three months, I was then scheduled to be sent off to New Guinea and this was the Kokoda trail time so I was resigned to this. I thought: Well it's got to come to an end and off I'll go. And so the Warrant Officer would come around and he'd say, 'Private Tucker I've got you on the list. Report at headquarters with full equipment at eight o'clock tomorrow morning', and I said, 'Yes, sir', and I said, 'But by the way, have you cleared it with the CO because I'm working on some diagrams for him', and he said, 'I'll check it out'. So he checked it out and he came back and said, 'We'll take you off the list to go on'. Well to cut again a long story short, this went on several times for another three months. I was still drawing away and producing diagrams. Then the day came there when I was called up to headquarters and I thought, Oh well, this is it. It can't go on forever, so off I go, and I got there and the Major was in there and this is something that I didn't work out for years, until many years later, when I looked back and you get to know more about life and you look back and understand things that happened which you don't understand at the time. I thought I was just being lucky again. But the CO looked over ... over my ... was looking up my record and he said, 'Oh I see by your record that you've had some sessions in the camp hospital', which I had because we were near Mount Buffalo, there were gales pouring down. This is midwinter. The gales were coming down full force, right through the cattle pens we lived in and it was not very, very comfortable, you see, on our straw palliasses, and loaded up with greatcoats and army pullovers and the issue blanket, to keep ourselves warm. And that was the sort of roughest living I've had to do, which I suppose I consider myself lucky if that's the worst. And so ...

You'd had bouts of flu and so on.

Yes I was having flu. I was getting every flu, every wog under the sun: tonsillitis and heavy colds, flu and the whole thing. And they put me in ... and they'd keep it going by putting me in a tent in the hospital tent, then it would rain, and there was no fly over the tent. It was just the bald tent. You see they were very short of equipment then, scrambling for everything. And the rain would pelt down and it'd be broken up on the tent, and it'd all come through as a very fine spray and so the orderlies would come round and put ground sheets over us. Well, and so I remember lying in bed with a ground sheet and all hollows that were formed in the bed there filled with water and you're lying there in a bed of puddles. [Laughs] And you couldn't move because you'd spill it all.

It's a wonder you didn't get pneumonia.

Well I know. The chap next to me did and died with it. So you see the casualties sure happen in all sorts of areas when there's a war on. I mean malaria and all these - scrub typhus - all these diseases probably took off more soldiers than the actual fighting because after all, when you put thousands of troops all together in congested areas, without all sorts of facilities ... For example one of the ... one of the drawings I had to do was field sanitation equipment and so this was absolutely vital. And so, anyhow, the whole ... the whole thing went on like that and so the CO then looked up at me and said, 'Look', he said, 'I think you can ...'. I only realised the reason for all this long, long afterwards. Again, I thought I was being lucky. He looked up at me and he said, 'Look', he said, 'I think your ... you could use a rest'. He said, 'I think I'll send you down to Heidelberg for a couple of weeks or so, where you can get a good rest out of it and see how we go then'. Well the thing I didn't know is that he sent down a recommendation for my discharge. And why? Because he was immensely grateful to me for what I'd done. It had saved him a lot of trouble and been enormously useful to him and I never even thought of that aspect of it. But it was enormously useful. He used all this. It saved him a lot of headaches and hard work and he decided that ... as came out when I was later discharged, they decided that I'd be of more use in civilian life. And so I was put out. I went down to Heidelberg and I was there for five weeks. And I was there, put in a ... one of the units where they had a general grab bag unit with all sorts of people in. And all I was doing was wandering around all day. Then all sorts ... again these, shall I say, experiences on another level of life, revelatory experiences, then happened. All the things that happened there were rather terrifying because you became a witness for it. You'd see vans come in at midnight and they'd unload soldiers out of it, all of whom would be often half cuckoo and under armed guard, because they'd attacked their officers or attacked someone else and they were all, you know, a bit over the edge. And they'd bring them down and put them in the mental ward, which was across ... across a little way. And then other vans would come in, and they'd bring in prisoners of war. You see, when they were capturing Germans and Italians in North Africa, they had to get rid of them. So they put them all on the troop ships, at least on whatever ships they had that were empty, and they'd ship them straight out here to Australia into internment. So these ... these ambulances, trucks and so forth would arrive in the middle of the night and I'd go out and watch and see all the characters who came out. There'd be Nazis come out in full uniform, you know, majors, colonels, all in their full Nazi regalia, and also the Italians, you know, with their feathers in their hats. All the ... all the kind of uniform that the mountain troops wore, [that] they were using in North Africa. And so they were all ... they were all ... they'd put them all straight away, just simply an accommodation thing here, I think, in the mental ward because they had more room there. And of course a lot of them were screwball. And then all the sort of things that went on there gave me a, again, revelation after revelation. They were using very crude psychiatric techniques then at the time. They were in the early days of abreaction, for example. And they had a lot of troops there who ...

Did they practice abreaction therapy? How did they do it?

Oh well I'll tell you in a moment with that one because they ... we had a lot of troops, a lot of them in the mental ward and in other wards, whose nervous systems were shot to pieces. They had the ones who'd covered the British withdrawal from Greece. They used Australian troops. They were all bombed to smithereens. And a lot of them came out of it completely gaga. Their nervous systems shattered. Either they'd have all sorts of things there pulsing around in their necks or they're like that all the time. And I remember one who was in a bed opposite me there. When he'd get up in the night to go to the toilet, and then he'd stagger to my bed and grab hold of it, and then he'd shake like mad and nearly shake me out of bed. He couldn't control his shaking. Then he'd have that rest, and get onto the toilet, and then the same thing on the way back. You'd get all these awful things. Then another fellow sitting in a bed opposite me. I remember him just sitting, hands like this, looking into space. Then he'd have a nerve in his neck that was going like that. [POINTS TO HIS NECK AND PRODS IT SEVERAL TIMES] This sent me cuckoo just looking at it. [Laughs] I did a drawing of him, the drawing's in Canberra of a lot of these ... I call them psychos. And I got a lot of drawings out like that. Perhaps that's why I didn't twitch like them. [Laughs] And so the next thing that happened was that I was there and then I discovered the plastic surgery ward, where they had all the characters that had, again, been shot to smithereens.

Before we go to the plastic surgery ward, could you tell us about some of the treatments that you saw.

Some of the treatments ...

Some of the treatments that were offered to the soldiers.

Yes, I'm sorry. Yes, the abreaction one there. Well the one they used there was - I've never heard of it before or since. But what happened is that these people were shell-shocked and they went cuckoo when they heard an aeroplane or a loud noise or anything there. They scream, cry, crawl under beds, you know. They'd become totally ineffective in any kind of life. Their nerves were absolutely destroyed. And they brought over Royal Air Force planes, and they dived on the wards. They did this for over a week. They dived onto the wards, and then just flattened out, just above the ward and then took off, and zoom around, come back, dive down again. And you'd hear them all screaming inside. Screaming their heads off, and so on. And it seemed that they were all hiding under the beds in a terrible state. And they repeated this over, as far as I can recall it, over about a week there. This terrible performance. But slowly the screaming thing subsided because once they found that dreadful plane thing of a plane coming down on a bombing attack there, that nothing happened and no one was hurt there, they slowly subsided and then accepted the sound and they were able to cope with it. So you see it was very primitive, very crude, but very effective. Now they had other ones, I remember, in that one ward ... [INTERRUPTION]

So in effect, they deconditioned them.

Yeah, exactly.

What other kinds of things were they doing there?

Well the other one was where, I remember one ward that absolutely fascinated me. There were about forty of these bomb happies in them. I remember counting them. So the whole string of beds in the front part of the ward were full of these bomb happies. So they used to send in - again this is an early day when they used insulin, deep injections of insulin as a - they found it was beneficial. And this was a marvellous thing for people trying out all these new methods, because they had all the guinea pigs they really wanted, really. And they would send the WACS in, the girls would come in there in the morning. And they'd go from... First they'd tuck a serviette under the chins of them all. And I noticed that they were in, they'd all sit back, sit back, and make them comfortable in bed. Then they'd turn them over and give them a very deep injection in the buttock of insulin. Then they'd make them all nice and comfortable and they'd sit there and they'd slowly go into an insulin coma apparently. And I remember their faces. All their faces there would go snow white and wet looking, greasy, wet looking. Faces snow white. It was incredible to see all this large number of them like this. They'd do this every morning for a month. And it was quite incredible to see the improvement in so many of them. I remember one fellow he had a rattling jaw. He couldn't stop it. Rattle, rattle, rattle and also had lost about three stone in weight. In that month he put over, put on about two stone and all the jaw rattling stopped. And so that again was ... How primitive it would be considered now I don't know but again, it was a rough, ready and very effective treatment.

What was the serviette round the neck for?

Oh they dribbled. They salivated all the time. They were all ... when you went in there they were all lolling around like corpses and all dribbling right down on the serviette. And then the ... but come lunchtime, they'd start coming out of, apparently, our of this comatose state and then they'd bring around the special dishes of food there, which ... with a lot of glucose and things like that in it. They'd eat that and then they'd ... their enthusiasm would build up and they'd be as good as gold for a time you see. How long all this lasted ... I don't know what their ultimate fate would be, but again I was being introduced to life from ... on the hard side. But I got it even much more so when I discovered the plastic surgery ward. I was in the hospital for five weeks in all as it turned out. And ... but I had a pretty free run all that time. So I encountered all the horrors that took ... a lot of the horrors that took place. For example, every now and then I they would find someone in the trenches at the back, where they had these crosses along the top, and you'd find someone hanging in it by his pyjama cords and they'd occasionally bring bodies up from there. And this was right at the back of the hospital. It was still in process of being built. See, this is the side a civilian never gets. This is my advantage possibly is that I was, as I found at the War Memorial, I was able to give a view on the war, which they didn't get. They got the official views and all these official communiqués on it. Things like ... the things that went on in the hospitals, largely there was a veil drawn over it. It simply wasn't talked about. But in the plastic surgery unit I came on a few shocks there, with all the kind of mangled things. You'd see a whole line of them all bound up. And oddly enough they keep reminding me of Henry Moore's drawing of the underground shelters in England. You remember them all, he used that sort of form of them? And some of them had frightful injuries. I remember one had a free lobotomy. The whole front of his head smashed in. And they pieced it all together and then later on, he had a triangular patch in the middle of his forehead, growing hair. Where apparently they got the thing displaced. So he's probably got to shave for the rest of his life in the middle of his forehead. Another I remember, a young, a boy of nineteen his entire lower jaw gone. The whole lot of it. This is a frightening injury to see and what happened to that poor fellow, God knows. Again even how they fed him, I've no idea. And so ... [INJURIES]

Also tell me the one about the nose. [INTERRUPTION]

These were extraordinary images.

Oh they gave me images that I've fed on all my life. They appeared all later on. For example, see this one here, there's one. [TUCKER POINTS TO A PAINTING BEHIND HIM] I developed that in Italy: all the gashes on all the paintings of the Christian martyrs. San Sebastian. The Virgin with a thousand swords going through her. Or San Sebastian perforated with arrows. Grünewald's Crucifixion, where you had Christ in a state of decomposition and simply decomposing on the cross, an horrific image with every wound, every gash. And so on. And these one, instantly ... and again it's a curious thing you know with the human mind, because I saw these things as a new experience and they affected me, although I didn't know why they affected me. Do you know I didn't come back to the plastic surgery thing until Bob Hughes, later on interviewing me, made the connection for me. I mean it's rather quite ... quite extraordinary that how one: you'll section a thing off and repress it and then you'll have an almost, very similar experience that you put in next door to it without opening the door on the other experience. It's most peculiar the way the human mind works. I've come to respect the incredible variations [laughs] that can take place.

But through that wall that you shut off, there was incredible creative power coming through.

Oh well, I'd say this did happen because, you know, again, this is something that I've only found in retrospect. We don't understand what's happening to us at the time only too often. But later on in years, when things fall into place, you do discover the connections. And other people ... it often takes other people to point them out to you.

What was the most affecting image that you saw in the plastic surgery ward.

Probably one of the first ones, and this is the one that Bob Hughes got on to me, made the connection, that for some reason or other I was painting these wounded landscapes when I was in Italy. I was ... anything ... I was getting nostalgic memories of Australia, but the thing I was remembering were the splits on gum trees and the corroded earth and the cracks in the earth. All this kind of tactile images were coming up. And I put this down to the landscape. So then I formed a kind of human head that was half landscape...

[end of tape]

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