A modern woman

Karen Kissane profiles Jenny Macklin and finds a feminist with a fire in her belly for change but a considered approach to achieving it.

JENNY Macklin is cheerful with the people lining up for her autograph until one person mischievously asks her to sign herself “Jenny Macklin, Prime Minister”. The fact that she is the first woman to get within cooee of the title is part of the reason for the queue, but Macklin is quick to cut off this kind of talk, glancing at the reporter behind her. “Don’t say that in front of her,” she says firmly. Is this a sensitive issue, then? “Very sensitive.”
Yesterday Macklin, 47, was elected as the new deputy leader of the federal parliamentary Labor Party. She is the first woman to hold such a senior position on either side of Australian politics.

She didn’t get there without a firm grasp of the rules, which include “thou shalt not covet thy boss’s job”, and “never count your chickens before they’re hatched”. So, while her deal was stitched up before the book launch at which she was signing autographs last weekend, Macklin was taking no chances in the lead-up to the vote.

Wandering through a north Melbourne community garden during the launch, which was for a collection of life stories by elderly local people, Macklin did not stand on ceremony. She was quick to notice when someone frail needed help easing into a chair; she grabbed a camera and offered to take photos when the authors were gathered together. She was “Jenny” to everyone.

“She’s got a very natural quality,” says Brian Howe, a former deputy prime minister and one of Macklin’s old bosses. “She’s not trying to … be something she’s not … And she’s a very good operator at the grassroots level.”
Such warm ways may be winning with the locals, but Macklin called on sterner stuff to cut a swathe through the ALP’s factional bloodiness to leadership. She has been in Parliament only five years but has earned her colleagues’ respect and in some cases their dislike for her tenacity and reputedly masterful grasp of policy.

Macklin is an intelligent, left-wing feminist who has the social-justice fire in the belly of old-time Labor but less of its propensity for headkicking. The acerbic Simon Crean has chosen her for his running mate, one ALP insider says, “because he knows he needs her in terms of the community they’ve got very different skills”.

Shrewd and cautious, Macklin refuses to speculate publicly about her future. “I haven’t even started this [job] yet; let’s see how we go … I want to do well at what I’m putting up my hand for.” She says she wants to avoid hubris because it irritates colleagues and voters alike. “It’s not looked upon kindly in any politician … You can’t afford it, especially with Australians. [They] have got wonderful antennae for bulldust.”
The Labor Left women who make up her Praetorian Guard are more outspoken about their hopes for her. “First female prime minister? I hope so,” says the ACTU president, Sharan Burrow. “She’s a strong woman, she’s tenacious, she’s extremely articulate and her knowledge base is incredible. She’s also courageous in terms of speaking out on what she believes in.”
For some she has not been courageous enough. She publicly sells the party’s decision to support subsidies of private health insurance, even though her views that the money would be better spent directly on the public health system are well known. (She called the Liberals’ introduction of the subsidy “the worst piece of public policy ever seen in this Parliament”.)
One observer who has had dealings with Macklin says she sometimes thinks she knows more than she actually does. Some (anonymous) detractors in her own party have muttered that she is not tough enough, or pragmatic enough, to make hard decisions; others on Labor’s Right have warned that she is a closet radical whose leftie urges would be uncaged if ever she won
power. So are we to expect a wimp or a rabid ideologue?
Neither, laughs Macklin. “I think I’ve had to make some pretty tough decisions …you’ve got to take the decision that’s made and run with it … You’ve got to accept that you’ve got a place to argue it, which is inside the party forums. I’m not elected as an independent. I’m elected as a member of the Labor Party.”
As for being too far to the left: “I have a very strong sense of social justice … and I know that one of our big tasks in the Labor Party is to protect people… But I’ve been in the Labor Party for 20 years and I know that you’ve got to take people with you.”
But for all her team-player talk, Macklin has sometimes dared to go out on a limb. The former Victorian premier Joan Kirner says: “I … will never forget when Howard tried to split the Labor Party conference on the issue of an IVF amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act stopping IVF to lesbians and single women. Many of the blokes were dithering around. Jenny just went straight out to the media and went right to the heart of it; that this was not about IVF but about a proposed amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act. She said, `We introduced it and we won’t be amending it.’ And then Kim [Beazley] had to come in behind her, much to our relief, and then people had to back Kim, even though it was pretty hairy. So she won’t be afraid to take leadership.”
Macklin has her critics within the party, most of whom are of a gender and a faction other than her own. She antagonised some colleagues before the 1998 election by successfully resisting efforts to impose an economic rationalist approach on the party’s child-care policies. Others are aggrieved now because she beat them to the deputy’s job. But Macklin is not quite as nerveless with the media as she can be in the party room. Personal publicity makes her uneasy. For this interview in her Heidelberg electorate office she chooses to talk from behind her moat of a desk, arms folded in front of her, pleasant but wary.

Macklin makes a face when asked what strengths she will bring to her new job; self-promotion is really not her bag, she points out, before taking a deep breath and nominating her solid background in policy development and the fact that she is a fresh
face. “I think probably the most important thing is not having been a member of the government,” she says.

Macklin will head the party’s policy review but it is not yet clear whether she will be shadow treasurer. It’s been reported that she was pressed not to take the portfolio, even though it is the traditional entitlement of a deputy opposition leader. MPs Stephen Smith and Bob McMullan are also believed to want the job. Historically, not all deputies have taken treasury, but in Macklin’s case it would be a dilution of the feminist victory.

Macklin denies she is under pressure and says Crean has made it clear the decision is hers. “It’ll be up to me and my view is that I should choose basically where I think I could make the biggest contribution and where I’ll be the most use to the party.”
But there is also the question of whether experience in this senior portfolio would benefit Macklin and her career. “That is definitely an issue,” she acknowledges. “I’m thinking about that. One should never get stuck.”
She will be deputy to a man who the party’s own polling suggests is the most disliked figure in the federal parliamentary party, but Macklin says she has found Crean good to work with. “I’ve seen the other side of him a lot, particularly going back to before he was in the Parliament. He’s actually very inclusive. He’s the sort of person that tries to bring people with him … I think people will see that in a way that they haven’t been able to, particularly over the last three years when he’s really had the tough job [of shadow treasurer].”
What Macklin says about Crean is what others say about her. Rhonda Galbally, founding chief executive of the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation, watched her chair the national health strategy review. She was inclusive and took people with her because of her consultative style, Galbally says. “People felt as though their voices were being heard and as if they were being taken seriously.”
Professor Stephen Duckett, dean of health sciences at La Trobe University, worked with the Victorian Health Department and attended round-table meetings run by Macklin. He says she took the same approach to conflict: “She would try to understand why there was divergence of views, trying to clarify the conflict and work out what commonality there was.” At the same time, he says, her policies show she is no pushover: “There are a lot of pressures on shadow ministers to wheel things into policy. You’ve got to resist the blandishments of the lobby groups if they don’t fit where you want to go. And she does.”
What is most likely to trip her up? “She’s a woman, and the evidence is that when women stick their head above the mediocrity line, they become targets in the very blokey atmosphere of Parliament House.”
This is another line Macklin does not wish to pursue. “It’s been very tough for the women who’ve put themselves forward; I’d be foolish not to see it. But politics at the most senior level is tough for both men and women.” What keeps her there, she says, is the conviction that she can help drive change: “I’m an absolutely strong believer that you can make a difference.”


Born Brisbane, 1953.

Family Partner Ross and three children aged 25, 19 and 13.

Educated Wangaratta High School, then studied for Bachelor of Commerce (Honours), University of Melbourne.

Entered Parliament March 1996 as MP for Jagajaga, Victoria.

Labor Party career Opposition health spokeswoman and ALP senior vice-president.

Lives Ivanhoe, in Melbourne’s north-east.

First published in The Age.

Election 2001: The last post plays for Beazley


FLYING from Adelaide to Perth on election morning, would-be Prime Minister Kim Beazley and his wife, Susie Annus, still seemed buoyant. The ominous opinion polls of the previous couple of days had left the rest of his team a bit flattened, but Beazley cheerily chatted to journalists and joined their sweep on the election result. He tipped a Labor win by seven seats, with three independents.

He had more faith in Australians than they had in him.

The Beazley who went to Perth’s war memorial yesterday to lay a wreath for Remembrance Day was visibly bruised. He moved heavily. When he spoke to reporters, as briefly as could be managed without rudeness, his voice was so soft as to be barely audible. Earlier in the week his minders had said he would do a doorstop interview that day, win or lose. But it turned out to be one ordeal he couldn’t face.

He stood still in his black suit through the Last Post and the wail of bagpipes, those rituals for irrevocable loss. After laying a wreath he stepped back and briefly laid his right hand on his heart. Asked later what he had been thinking of during the service, he said: “I was thinking actually of service personnel, not politicians.”

His plans for this week? “I’m going to go to Canberra and clean out the office.”

Would he be taking Susie to Paris? (They had joked during the campaign that if he won, he would take her to Canberra, and if he lost, he would take her to Paris.) He barked a black laugh. “It’s back here for me.” And he stepped into his car and shut the door.

Beazley’s election loss on Saturday is one of Labor’s great tragedies, and not just because the party is sentenced to another three years in opposition. The defeat has also KO’d the leadership of a prince of the Labor tribe and ended a family dream.

Kim Beazley comes from a family of ALP stalwarts. His father, Kim senior, spent 32 years in Federal Parliament. Kim junior first “entered” parliament in 1949 as a baby in the arms of his mother, visiting his father.

He was captivated by politics from the age of 12, when his father used to leave him sitting in the speaker’s gallery on the floor of the Old Parliament House for hours at a time. “I used to imagine myself as part of the process,” he has said. “It seemed to be a place where things were done.”

Beazley was a Rhodes scholar and studied history at Oxford before returning to Australia with his first wife, Mary Paltridge, and the first of his three daughters. In 1980, at 32, he won the marginal Western Australian seat of Swan and became an MP. (He later switched seats and now holds Brand.)

He was marked for responsibility early. He was Australia’s youngest ever defence minister and served his apprenticeship in several other big portfolios, including education and finance, during which he oversaw the sale of public institutions including Qantas, CSL and the last half of the Commonwealth Bank.

In many ways he has been a highly successful party leader. As the new Opposition Leader in 1996, he prevented the party from collapsing into infighting after Paul Keating’s devastating election loss. At his first election as leader, in 1998, he won even though he lost, unexpectedly clawing back much of the 1996 landslide to the government.

He has intellectual depth, a flair for passionate oratory, few enemies and a reputation as a genuinely decent man. He was once described as the first Labor leader since Chifley not to have a major personality disorder. But unless he becomes Lazarus with a double bypass, his story, like his father’s, will end as one of unfulfilled political promise.

For Beazley senior, early hopes that he might one day be prime minister were dashed by the Labor schism over communism in the 1950s. Beazley junior has also been in part foiled by circumstance: he was ahead in the polls until the Tampa sailed over John Howard’s horizon and fate played the wild card of international terrorism.

Beazley’s efforts to keep domestic issues such as jobs, health, education and aged care at the top of the campaign agenda were repeatedly torpedoed as the war on terror and the controversy over asylum seekers continued to dominate the news.

After 1996, Beazley had decided that the party had to win back blue-collar men in their 40s and 50s who had deserted Labor because they were feeling insecure in the world. This time he hammered the same issues of job security and security of access to health and education, not just because the opinion polls showed that these were Labor’s strengths, but because, perhaps, he thought addressing these anxieties would help defuse the hostilities over refugees.

He hinted as much in his speech conceding defeat on Saturday: “As we look at security internationally, we look first at security in the hearts and minds of those around the kitchen table. Because there’s no doubt at all that a sense of generosity in the hearts of an average citizen often starts with a sense of security at home. And if they do not feel a sense of security, then their capacity to feel a generosity is often marred.”
Before the campaign started, Beazley had taken the advice of the public relations man for British Prime Minister Tony Blair, losing weight and making his sentences less wordy to help get his message across. He insisted that he wanted the job, attempting to defuse concerns that he wasn’t hungry for power and lacked “ticker” (a charge that had haunted him for years, to the point where he once told an interviewer with exasperation: “What do you want me to say? That I am a big enough prick?”).
But none of it was enough to get him over the line. Now his political legacy can be assessed much as his biographer, Peter FitzSimons, concluded in Beazley three years ago: “He could take some satisfaction when flying back to Australia – on an aviation system he helped to organise and to finance, through defence security zones he helped to set up, above regional alliances made with his guidance, at the hands of people he had a hand in educating and training, using telecommunications systems working on his own basic model … – that he had made a genuine impact on the life of the nation he was born to.”
But to this must now be added, in the eyes of many concerned about human rights, the grave demerit of his having supported the Howard Government’s stance on asylum seekers – a strategy that did not even have the saving grace of electoral success.

Beazley spoke on Saturday night of being 99per cent saddened by the result, but 1per cent pleased to have more time with his family. Before stepping off the podium after he conceded defeat, he and his wife and two older daughters embraced in a circle, for a moment shutting out the watching world.

How well he will cope with life on the political sidelines is another question. One of his spokesmen yesterday confirmed that Beazley would not stand for the leadership (despite many calls from party members to his electorate office begging him to reconsider) but will stand by his promise to serve out his term as MP for Brand.

Beazley has previously told of having had a black year in 1992, when portfolio changes after Keating seized the leadership from Hawke pushed Beazley from the centre of the government.

On the other hand, Beazley grew up above the political shop and learnt early of the life’s triumphs and brutalities. One hard lesson might stand him in good stead now. In November 1963, Kim Beazley senior had told his children that, at long last, their beloved Labor was about to win an election. The Beazley children cursed and wept when the party lost.

Beazley demanded that his father explain how such a terrible thing could happen. The answer was sad but firm. “That,” his father said, “is politics.”

First published in The Age.

The tyranny of history: Geoffrey Blainey

GEOFFREY Blainey is a more careful man these days. He edges around explosive topics such as race, wary of anything that might lead to “Blainey ignites debate” headlines. He screens his telephone callers with an answering machine and insists on being interviewed on what he calls “neutral ground”, away from his home. “Security problems,” he mutters cryptically.

He chooses the kiosk in the centre of the Fitzroy gardens and with old-world courtesy is there before the appointed time, sitting outside with the camellias and the birdsong, carrying a just-in-case umbrella for Melbourne’s spring weather. With his navy blazer, diffident manner and white-haired comb-over, he has the air of a retired country doctor or lawyer.

In fact, he is neither retired nor retiring. Australia’s most public and most controversial historian might be 70 but he has never been busier. He is chairing the national council for the centenary of Federation, writing an autobiography for Penguin, updating his classic The Tyranny of Distance and enjoying the success of his latest book, A Short History of the World, which is into its fourth reprint. Tomorrow he begins delivering the ABC’s prestigious Boyer lectures for 2001 on the theme “This land is all horizons: Australian fears and visions”.

“I think it’s a mixed blessing to give them,” he says, chuckling. “Your views may be picked up … ” And used against you? “Yes. I’m pleased to have been asked but some part of me thinks it would have been better if I hadn’t accepted them. One would like to set out one’s views in such lots as one thinks appropriate rather than in six Sundays in a row.”

The man, like his speech, is formal and reserved. He laughs, in a quiet, patrician sort of way, only when analysing how the world responds to him, like when he is asked if his lectures will be controversial: “That remains to be seen.

“I myself don’t go in for controversies. It sounds preposterous, I know, (but) I don’t go out of my way to say things that will arouse antagonism. It’s just that a lot of my views are different to other people’s views, and a lot of my views I’ve never expressed for fear of” – here comes that chuckle again – “widening the range of controversy. That’s one of the reasons I don’t talk about religion.”

There are two views on Blainey and controversy. For those who admire him as a standard-bearer of the new right, Blainey is a martyr to freedom of speech who was effectively forced out of his position as professor of history at Melbourne University in 1988 for telling unpalatable truths about race:
that multiculturalism divided and weakened society, that levels of Asian immigration were testing the limits of tolerance, that land rights for Aborigines would mean apartheid.

His critics, on the other hand, fear his remarks fueled racism and see him not as a victim of controversy but as its beneficiary. “It’s done him wonders,” says Henry Reynolds, now research professor in history at the University of Tasmania. Reynolds, who has written of the damage done to Aborigines by colonialism, holds what Blainey would call a “black armband” view of Australia’s history; Reynolds believes it better than a “white blindfold”.

Reynolds says controversy has made Blainey a household name. “He’s the darling of the right, he’s in high standing with the government, he’s been given an AC (Companion of the Order of Australia); why would anyone think it’s cost him?

“As I see it he’s highly respected and, as a member of the Melbourne Club, is a friend of many corporate leaders. He’s comfortably entrenched in the Melbourne establishment, and what better place could there be in Australia?”

Another historian, who did not wish to be named, was irritated by the suggestion that a symposium held in Blainey’s honor earlier this year could be seen as an attempt to bring him out of an intellectual gulag: “I didn’t know he was in one. He seems to me very well published, very well reviewed and to be given ample newspaper space whenever he wants it – if that’s `in the cold’…” There is no doubt, though, that in the eyes of many on the left he remains unshriven.

Blainey says that his decision to take early retirement was a good one because life on campus had become difficult and now he has more freedom to speak. Was he hurt? “I accept that if you’re standing by a hot fire you’re going to get singed.” If he had foreseen the consequences, would he have kept his mouth shut? “It’s impossible to answer, isn’t it? If I say `Yes, I wouldn’t have said anything’, you portray yourself as a coward, don’t you?”
`This land is all horizons’ is a quote from poet and journalist Mary Gilmore, who seems an unlikely hero for the conservative Blainey given that she was a socialist and a feminist. But she was also one of the most revered of the first generation of nationalist writers, and Blainey is a fervent nationalist.

He says many of the topics in his Boyer lectures, as in his books, are part-geographical. One is on the tension between conservation and earlier goals of population and national development: “In the 1950s and ’60s it was believed that we had to get a big population in order to defend the country and that the people should be widely spread to aid defence and development.

“I think the solution we’ve adopted in recent years as a nation is that large parts of tropical Australia have been almost quarantined from development by putting them as nature reserves or Aboriginal collectives. That may turn out to be a solution that the rest of the world may recognise; on the other hand, the rest of the world might say, `here’s all this space, and you’re not using it’. I’ve got another one on the divide between the city and the country … The economic grievances have been here for a long time but the cultural gap is more important. One of the gaps is that (country people) have got a different attitude to defence. The further away you live from the city the more you’re interested in defence.”

Blainey will also speak on nationalism and heroes. His lecture on the rise of the green movement (“though green is the wrong word for a country as brown as this”) has already caused some twitches at the ABC. Blainey will argue that today’s politicised greens were preceded by Australians such as the poet Dorothea Mackellar who first attempted to create widespread affection for the landscape among its European settlers.

“Someone in the ABC expressed concern before I’ve even given the lectures about my distinction between between `dark greens’ and `light greens’,” he says, “presumably because they’re dark greens and don’t like the word. I think they would prefer to think there’s one united green movement.”

He does share some common ground with greens in that he has a sense of awe about the natural world. In his Short History, he writes more than once of what it must have been like for generations of humans who slept outside under the stars. “I think a sense of wonder about the universe is a religious feeling,” he says.

“The dark greens … believe the world is in a state of crisis and that the green issues transcend any other issue. I think the dark greens are profoundly religious, in an unorthodox way in 19th-century terms, but they’ve got a belief that there is an inner harmony, and they may or they may not believe in the creator but they see (the world) as a wonderful task completed. I’m a light green; I’ve got a strong sense of the wonder of the universe.”

When he was recently in outback WA for centenary celebrations, his train stopped at a rail station in the middle of the night to watch an Aboriginal concert. “I wanted to get away from the lights and the train to see the stars, because the stars in the desert, it’s one of the great sights in the world.”

Blainey developed his feeling for landscape and space growing up in country Victoria – Leongatha, Geelong and Ballarat – as the second of four children of a non-conformist Methodist minister. He’s still religious, he says hesitantly, “without quite knowing what to do with it. I don’t find any denomination I wish to belong to”.

As a child he would use his father’s membership card to borrow travel books from the local mechanics’ institute to study how they were written. “I had a very strong desire to write when I was very young, without knowing it.” At 13 he won a scholarship to board at Wesley College and later did his PhD in history at Melbourne University.

He becomes vague when asked about his political development but confesses to an adolescent admiration for Chifley, the train driver who managed to become a Labor prime minister, and even a passing flirtation with socialism until he was 17, when the attempt to nationalise the banks jolted him out of it.

Blainey has always been known as a private man. The forces that shaped his personal history may or may not become documented in the autobiography he has partly written – to the age of 40 – and now set aside. He has several explanations for why he put it on hold: he thought he’d done enough; he wants to come back to it later to check if his recollection of events is accurate; he finds writing his own story boring. “When you’re writing a book about something else, you’re researching all the time and finding out things you didn’t know before, and it’s exciting. Your own life – your memory has sorted it out already, hasn’t it?”
Or perhaps, for someone whose writing has been preoccupied with the verifiable external world, the more internal landscape of autobiography is difficult. He says he is surprised to recognise, in the course of this interview, how his rural background and family’s views have strongly influenced his own politics: “You’ve given me this awful realisation that I’ve just been walking around in circles all these years. There’s the headline: `Blainey runs on spot: No progress!”‘

HE does hold firmly to ideas. He has written a new chapter for The Tyranny of Distance, defending his thesis from today’s idea that the tyrant is now dead, killed off by modern communications and travel.

“You could have put that argument in 1850 when the telegraph was invented; you could have said distance was dead when aeroplanes started to move across the world. But the main reason why Sydney has jumped ahead of Melbourne as the financial capital in the last 40 years is because Sydney is three hours nearer the outside world on most plane routes. I think distance is still very important.”

Blainey believes his professional strengths include the great variety of histories he has tackled and the clarity of his writing: “In fact, I wouldn’t be in much trouble if I wrote obscurely, would I? I could say what I liked and no one would take any notice.” Tom Stannage, professor of history at Western Australia’s Curtin University, disagreed with Blainey’s views on race and land rights but says: “It’s hard to think of a major issue in Australian life that he hasn’t touched on.”

Stannage says there have been times when reactions to his outspoken views have caused concern for Blainey’s personal safety, but Blainey never held grudges himself. Stannage contributed to a book that criticised Blainey, but Blainey later cheerfully agreed to lecture Stannage’s students on the public role of the historian. “He argued the case for the historian to engage with the central issues of the day and to interpret the past as it bore on them with as much integrity and control as you can muster.”

At the end of the interview, Blainey suggests taking a particular path out of the gardens because its flower borders are in bloom. Before parting he stops before a a bunya-bunya and launches into a dissertation on the way Aborigines used to gather around it for corroborees. Ever the pedagogue; ever the sense of history.

The 2001 Boyer Lectures will be broadcast over six consecutive Sundays starting tomorrow night, November 11 at 5pm on Radio National.


Geoffrey Blainey, historian

Born: Melbourne, 1930.

Educated: Melbourne University.

Career Highlights: The books The Tyranny of Distance, Triumph of the Nomads and A Short History of the World.

Lives: Melbourne, with his wife, biographer Ann Blainey.

First published in The Age.

Taking tea with Julia



JULIA BLAKE sits gracefully in her armchair, legs crossed demurely at the ankle, hands fluttering around her expressive face, recalling how she first learnt about orgasm. She says she was such an innocent, even after leaving university, that when the word cropped up in conversation she had to ask what it meant.“People fell about when I asked. I remember flushing and somebody saying, `You can’t be for real!’ But this bloke said, `You don’t know, do you?’ And he put on a scats vocal of Ella Fitzgerald and he said, `That is a musical orgasm.’

“And once I discovered what an orgasm was,” she says with amusement, “I then understood. It’s an incredible thing, where Ella almost goes into a sort of moaning” – the actress in her takes over, and Blake moves into soft, sensual cries of “aah, aaah, AAAH …”
Then she snaps back to herself. “It’s an incredible piece of music,” she says crisply. “I’m sure it’s still available, but at my time of life it would be more than I could bear to hear it, probably.” And she throws back her head and laughs.

Most actors are charming – they live by their ability to cast a spell – but Blake is utterly beguiling. Artlessly open, she lays her life out for this interview like a generous but distracted hostess preparing a sumptuous tea tray for a guest. The preparation may not be orderly, as she flits from one story to the next, but the result is a feast.

Blake, 64, grew up and trained as an actress in Britain but came to live in Australia in 1963 after marrying the then actor (and later state MP) Terry Norris. She arrived knowing little of the country but what she had learnt in Chips Rafferty films and Patrick White novels.

Now she is to play four roles in the world premiere of a play based on the The Aunt’s Story, White’s favorite among his own works. The tale of a spinster’s emotionally deprived life and slide into madness will star Helen Morse as Theodora Goodman (the aunt) and has been adapted and directed for the stage by Adam Cook for this year’s Melbourne Festival.

Blake met White once, under circumstances that still cause her to rail at her ability to fumble a big moment. It was 1988 and she was acting in a play called Ghosts in Sydney. White, who was just out of hospital and very frail, asked to see her after the show to congratulate her on her performance.

An awed Blake found herself stranded in the dressing room part in and part out of a corset, unable to free her arm from its strings and with no one to help untangle her. “So I grabbed something and flung it round my shoulders and ran through in my underclothing with my breasts hanging out and he was walking out and I called `Mr White! Please Mr White!’

“And he stopped and he turned around and he looked me up and down and he just got this little twinkle. And I said, `I’m so sorry, as you can see I’m sort of …’ And he said, `Excellent work.’ And walked off. He died not terribly long after, but he had this incredible face, with piercing eyes, blazing intelligence and the look of a disapproving eagle.

“I felt terrible, and I still do now. I thought, `What is it about me that always messes things up? What is it about me that always has an accident?’ My great moment, and this writer whom I’d admired for years and years and of whom I was terrified, and I’d got my bloody arms in the strings of a corset!”

This view of herself as a tragi-comic incompetent is not shared by others. In Australian film and theatre, she is seen as highly professional and accomplished: director Richard Franklin dubbed her “One-take Blake”, and her cultured British accents and luminous delivery keep her in steady demand.

Paul Cox has directed her in several movies including Man of Flowers and his latest film, Innocence, the tale of two elderly lovers who meet again after many years apart and resume their affair. He says: “She’s one of our finest actresses. She’s always played minor parts in the past but now she’s finally being seen in the light she deserves.”

Her strengths? “She’s real. She feels what she says, she breathes it, it becomes part of her skin. She’s like a very delicate Stradivarius violin, something so deep and perfect, it’s a delight to work with her. She has dignity and pride. She really carries (Innocence); without her it wouldn’t have had the same impact.”

Blake lives in just the kind of house one imagines she would have; a pretty timber home that has a verandah complete with pots of lacy flowers, an old cane couch and a snoozing cat.

Terry Norris, tall and gravelly-voiced, appears briefly with an offer of tea. “You’re a darling,” Blake tells him. Then she explains: “I gave up my career for years and looked after the (three) kids and just as I was about to come back to the industry, in 1980, he was preselected for Parliament. So that was quite difficult, but he’s made up for it since.

“In the last few years, he does most of the cooking and a lot of the cleaning. I just swan around and read” – she giggles with delight – “and I’ve taken to handpainting little boxes and things.”

There are stories behind those little boxes; the first about her childhood, and the second – perhaps linked to the first – about the nervous breakdown that kept Blake out of the industry for three years from 1991 and almost saw her permanently retired.

“I started (painting boxes) as therapy because of depression. My father died. He was an artist and I wanted to be an artist when I was young, but because my father used to pick holes in my work the whole time, I swore that I would not paint any more. So at the age of 14, I stopped.

“I had this urge to do it in the last couple of years of my father’s life and bought paints and just could not do anything. It was an absolute block. I was even nervous about unscrewing the tops off the paint tubes. I would hyperventilate.”

Then her father died in England, and a week later she found herself smearing ultramarine paint with her fingers, like a child, along the side of a box that was to hold a present for a friend.

“I thought, `Oh, that’s lovely, the color itself is so pleasurable!’ And then I thought it was a bit Matissey so I did a little mock Matisse on it. Then I did a Japanese hiroshiga thing and then I did a Van Gogh self-portrait on the other side, and so on.”

And now she has bright stacks of small hand-painted boxes sitting on shelves in her living room.

This happened as she dropped out of the theatre, unable to cope emotionally partly, she thinks, as a result of the stress of rarely having Norris home during his years in Parliament (he finally retired in 1992). “It was a combination of things,” says Blake, looking back. “I’d done so much work I was burnt out.

“Also … I didn’t like being so well known. I would go to work and see my photograph in the theatre in Sydney and – I dunno, it was my own stupid fault. I’d allowed myself to get trapped by worrying about people’s expectations.

“I worried that I wasn’t going to give them value for money or that I wasn’t going to be able to do the performance. I just felt exposed.

“I became very unhealthy. It was all totally negative thinking, all the hangovers from my childhood of my father being a perfectionist and wanting me to come top of the class.”

She says she had been feeling for a long time before this that she was on the edge of a precipice, “And in fact I was: the precipice was the breakdown. And when I was ill, I think my body was saying, `Rest’. But I made the fatal mistake of thinking I didn’t want to act any more.

“I didn’t want the exposure, I didn’t want to be up there in front of people. But when I dropped out, it actually got worse because I had nothing to channel my energies into … and I suppose I started to think of myself as filling in time before the grave, `Well, these are my final years, and there aren’t going to be many roles anyway.”‘

She was pulled out of it by a canny Scotsman, Alan Madden, who was determined to cast her in his first film, Mushrooms. “He was Scottish enough to be entirely obdurate,” she says fondly.

When she insisted she had left the industry, he insisted on sending her the script for critique. She thought the role wonderful and hasn’t looked back since.

Blake, the oldest of three children, has been acting in one form or another since she was three. Her parents were church-minded and she remembers being given the chance to preach a sermon when she was so small that she had to stand on a box to reach the lectern. “I loved it,” she says. “I think what I liked most was the sense of power it gave you.

“I used to sing sometimes and I used to register myself for talent competitions and win books. And I would organise – God help me, I must have been a terrible child – performances in the backyard and force my brothers to sit and listen.”

Her mother died last year, “still struggling with mental health problems; chronic depression, manic depressive, although I don’t know what her formal diagnosis was”.

“She would swing from one extreme to the other; she either wouldn’t go anywhere, or we’d hear her running up the street with heavy shopping, everything in a rush. And I have that in me as well, so I understand her; just exuberant, then exhausted. A lot of actors are like that.”

Blake would skive off from school to catch French movies at the local cinema and later studied drama at university, but says she never would have become an actor had the Bristol Old Vic theatre and its troupers, not been a big part of the city’s life.

“The Bristol Old Vic theatre was the best theatre outside London, so people from the theatre would come up and see me. Peter O’Toole came up to see me, though he wasn’t a star then.” Did he hit on her? “He did, he did! And I said no,” she says with amused regret. “I was so nervous of him. I was really conditioned by my religious background at the time.”

Theatre is still her first love; she has a more ambivalent relationship with film. “I’m passionately addicted to theatre, and I don’t care if I never do another screen thing. (It’s) the lack of creative control. People cut your performance to ribbons, and once it’s there it can never be altered. “In theatre, it’s re-lived every night, and you still have that … relationship with a given audience.”

BUT she is full of excitement about her roles in The Aunt’s Story and brings out the exercise books in which she has scrawled notes from White’s novel to help her characterisations. She will play Theodora’s mother, “that dreadful, damaging mother”; the schoolteacher, Miss Spofforth – “She’s intellectual, she’s astute”; an American country woman; and a vulgar American tourist called Elsie Rapallo.

“I’m just so excited. What a lovely thing to be able to do. It’s sort of a mystery, theatre. People will pay a lot of money to go along and see a group of grown-up people dressing up, pretending to be somebody else. “It’s an ancient ritual that appears to be necessary for society.”

It is clearly necessary to Blake. “The work sort of eats me up and I give myself up to it willingly and I get burnt out and I worry over it and I will sometimes fling myself on the floor and weep because I think I’m not getting it right. But I love the sort of pain/pleasure of the artistic process. I really do.”
The Aunt’s Story is at the Playhouse from October 25 to November 10.


Julia Blake, actor

Born: England, 1937

Educated: Bristol University and Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.

Career Highlights: “(The film) Innocence, because it broke down all those perceptions about age and love affairs. In the theatre, Ghosts for Neil Armfield, and Hannie Rayson’s Life After George.”

Lives: Kensington, with husband Terry Norris.

First published in The Age.

Inside the world of a cinephile


ADRIAN Martin has a great yarn about a childhood portent of his adult obsession with film. “When I was seven, I dreamt, with hyper-real clarity, three scenes from an extremely fanciful science-fiction type story. A year later, I nearly jumped out of my parents’ car barrelling down the highway when I saw a billboard advertising a new film: it was The Planet of the Apes.“Demanding to see this film the next day, I saw there the three scenes I had dreamed in precise detail, showing a race of apes rounding up and imprisoning human men and women. A friend of mine reckons, from this evidence, that I was obviously destined to be a cinephile, since for her this is the very definition of cinephilia: a desire for cinema so strong that you dream films before you even see them.”

Martin swears the story is true. A downmarket twist on Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious, perhaps? He laughs. “I don’t know that Planet of the Apes counts as a Jungian archetype, but perhaps it should.”

Today, Martin is one of only a handful of full-time critics in Australia, and one of an even smaller subgroup: Australian film critics with an international profile. This year he has spoken at the University of Paris, the Tate Gallery in London and the Buenos Aires film festival. Next month, he goes to the Vancouver International Film Festival where he will be one of three judges for the prestigious Tigers and Dragons Award for Asian Cinema. He will also speak on “Does Film Criticism Exist?”

Martin has written two books: Phantasms, (McPhee Gribble) in 1994 and, as part of a series for the British Film Institute in 1998, Once Upon a Time in America.

He has been commissioned to write three more: The Films of Terrence Malick (also for the BFI), The Films of Brian De Palma (for Illinois University Press) and Mad Max (for Australia’s Currency press).

In his home town, though, he is best known for his radio and newspaper film reviews – not always fondly. Last year, he suffered a drive-by character assassination following his enthusiastic reception of a Yahoo Serious film, Mr Accident: “I saw it with an audience of five-year-old kids at the Jam Factory and I became a five-year-old watching that movie. I wrote a very enthusiastic review saying it was the best Australian movie of the year.”

Later, waiting at a tram stop in Flinders Street, he was accosted by four well-dressed men – “South Yarra types, they looked like advertising executives” – in a car stopped at traffic lights. “One guy puts his head out and says, `Are you Adrian Martin?’ And I go, `Yep’. And then they talk.

“And then another guy puts out his head and goes, `Did you give four stars to Mr Accident?’ And I go, `Yep’.

“And then a third guy goes, `You should f—ing resign!’

“And with that, the car burned off from the lights with all these guys yelling and swearing at me, totally exploding. And I thought, `Boy, that review got a response’.” He finishes the story with the smile of an ingenuous child; no offence taken.

Martin’s a bit of a cool dude. He presents for this interview in de rigueur black with a lime green shirt and has chosen as the venue a Richmond cafe called The Groove Train. (He lives with his elderly father, who is unwell, so he keeps visitors to the house to a minimum.)

He is just as protective of his own privacy. He talks animatedly for hours about films but is reduced to monosyllables when asked about his life outside of them. For the record, he is 41, no longer married and child-free. “I have an open mind on (marriage); who knows what tomorrow will bring. But at the moment I feel very happy with my life, I must say.”

It leaves him time to roam the world of the imagination, his preferred terrain since boyhood. Martin was a shy, introverted, intense sort of child. He had two older brothers, a father who was a carpenter and a mother who was impatient with all forms of fiction. She died in 1985.

“I was very close to my mother, and she was a very passionate, curious and driven sort of person,” Martin says. “I think some of my enthusiasm comes from her. But she didn’t like make-believe. She disliked the fantasy element; she regarded it as a distraction from facts, from things that you had to understand about the world.”

Martin, on the other hand, devoured fiction. “When I was younger than 10, I was into books like The Pilgrim’s Progress. The more alien the world the better; the more distant, different, foreign from me the better.”

By his early teens he was addicted to sci-fi novels and subscribed to a fan magazine in which reviewers listed their favorite sci-fi films. Orderly and perfectionistic, he made lists of the films and hassled his father into driving him to the University of Melbourne for after-hours screenings of obscure classics such as Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Godard’s Alphaville.

“I was so excited by these films that I gave up science fiction almost overnight and then I was into film,” he says. Which led to further lists, this time of the 100 greatest films, as culled from coffee-table books. “I would tick them off as I saw them one by one. I was obsessive and I still am.”

Now he gets all the storytelling he needs from cinema and can no longer finish novels. “In life one must make choices; there’s limited time. I’ve sometimes been accused of somehow perverting the course of western civilisation by not reading novels, but I don’t believe it.”

It is the newest of literary forms, cyberwriting, that most unexpectedly led to Martin becoming known overseas. He was initially reluctant to publish on the Internet. “Basically, why do I want to give my work away for free? And I didn’t think the Internet was a real form of communication.”

But it is work on Internet publications that drew the attention of overseas festival directors, who then used cyberspace to search for more of his work. “I hadn’t realised its international(ising) effect,” he says.

After leaving school, Martin flirted briefly with the idea of teaching – “I thought, `I need a good, secure job”‘ – but became so absorbed by his college’s unit in film and media studies that he dropped out of the course. “I still, to this point, don’t have a university degree.”

Two years later, he was publishing in movie magazines and had part-time work lecturing on film thanks to one of his teachers, Tom Ryan, who is now the movie critic for The Sunday Age.

RYAN still remembers Martin’s first essay at Melbourne State College, on a director called Frank Tashlin. “My first reaction was, `Oh bloody hell! I’ve got another student who’s just nicked an essay out of Screen (magazine)’. Then I realised it hadn’t been plagiarised at all. In fact, I realised there was a lot of stuff I would have to read in order to do justice to this essay. It just blew me out of the water.”

Ryan says he is still amazed by the breadth of Martin’s reading and by the number of films he sees. “And his memory for detail is remarkable – he taught himself to remember things. He actually trained himself to remember with little exercises.”

It’s no wonder Martin knows so much about film; he does little else. When pushed, he admits to listening to music and reading non-fiction, but his real idea of time out is hiring half a dozen videos and ploughing through them with omnivorously like-minded friends. He pursues cinema with the kind of zeal others reserve for religion.

Ryan says Martin has dislikes that have become “bees in his bonnet”. “European art films, the old-fashioned ones that used to be shown at film festivals, and anything that bears the brand name of Sundance (an American film festival for independent film makers). They’re full of good taste, and good taste is something he reacts against on instinct, although he often comes around to saying they’re worthy of interest.”

Martin acknowledges that he dislikes “people thinking that there’s a rigid system of values of good and bad. That’s a very defensive thing; it’s sort of the anxiety of taste. You know, `I’m a quality person, I will go for a quality movie … (and it says something) about what I exclude and what I include’. It seems to me that the moment you start breaking down or escaping from your own prison of taste, you open yourself up to new experiences.

“Hitchcock films were once considered trash; now we think of them as the highest art.”

Martin has a testy relationship with the Australian film industry. Rick Thompson, senior lecturer in cinema studies at LaTrobe University, says Martin helps keep film culture alive in Australia. “He appears at conferences and public forums and panel discussions and is very generous about going out to universities and talking to young people interested in film and film-writing.”

But it is rare for Martin to greet an Australian film with enthusiasm. “I think Australian movies don’t go far enough, or lack intensity,” he says. “They often lack energy.”

He puts it down to lack of groundwork. “They’re not real film buffs. I don’t think they’re watching enough films … because when they go to make an action film or a mystery or a comedy, it’s like some part of their brain shuts off and they’re starting from scratch. They’re trying to rediscover the rules for how to make a film like this.

“Whereas my advice would always be, `Watch 100 movies of that sort, and then do something different if you want to, but at least know the rules’.”

A cinema critic, like a journalist or a therapist, has a vicarious professional life; he feeds off the stories of others. Does Martin ever feel that he ends up living in a half-light, with the world of cinema more real – or at least more satisfying – than the world outside?

“I’ve had a few melancholic moments of that sort,” he admits, “but not many. No, I honestly feel that cinema is something that can illuminate life and not deaden it, not cloak it in darkness.

“I do find it a completely fulfilling thing. I’m often suspicious of people who – they may write about film or music or whatever it is – but when you get to know them, you realise that their real passion is skiing or cricket or something else. It seems to me a little dissociated or inauthentic.

“But that’s how a lot of people function; they have their work in one part of their life, and their pleasure or their relaxation in another. As it turns out, I don’t need to, and I don’t want to.”

Adrian Martin, film critic

Born: Melbourne, 1959.

Educated: St Joseph’s College, West Melbourne.

Career: Lectured in film studies before becoming a full-time writer. Won the Byron Kennedy Award (Australian Film Institute, 1993) and the Pascall Prize for Critical Writing (1997). Written two books on film with three more commissioned. Movie critic for The Age since 1995.

Lives: Richmond, with his father John.

First published in The Age.

The original popstar: Judith Durham

Long before Kylie, there was Judith Durham. Karen Kissane talks to the woman
who sang those Seekers songs …

Judith Durham doesn’t swing down the street so fancy free these days. She limps, just a little, the stiffness at her hip belying her youthful figure. She has the husky voice and throaty cough of a lifelong smoker even though she’s not one; it’s due to a chronic lung condition. And she has a face that matches her years; genuine, but thinner and more worn than that of the girl whose voice first put Australian pop music on the world map.

Then, just as you resign yourself to the looming reality check, Durham smiles. The world’s largest dimples traverse both cheeks. She beams irresistible cheerful rays of openness and warmth. Hey there, Georgie girl.

Durham is about to do a national tour to celebrate her 40th year in show business. It’s billed as a series of solo concerts but the three men who made up the Seekers with her – Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger – feature as guests. This is how Durham has resolved the long-running tensions between her ambition for a solo identity and the need to keep happy both her nostalgic fans and “the boys”, who were such a big part of the sound that produced her greatest commercial successes.

She has come to terms with the fact that any major concert must feature Seekers songs, those sweet evocations of an age in which optimism got more air time. When she left the group in the ’60s, she says, she had no idea of the staying power of their hits. “I knew that they were nice songs, but I thought there were plenty of nice songs around. I didn’t understand how few songs last for 30 years.

“How many fans follow an artist and play their music on a daily basis to their children, to their grandchildren for the next 25 years? How many artists have fans who want to come to their 10th anniversary concert or their 20th?”

It’s not just daggy parents who still rock their babies to sleep with the Seekers’ mellow classics. Durham tells of composing with Paul Kelly several years ago. He took her into his children’s bedroom at tuck-in time and had them sing her Morningtown Ride. “Paul was brought up on Seekers music himself, so even though he’s now moved on and is creating his own music, it’s still a love that he wanted to pass on.”

Durham began life in Essendon, Melbourne, as Judith Mavis Cock (a widening exposure to the vernacular when she started singing with jazz musicians alerted her that her mother’s maiden name might look better in lights). She was the product of sensible stock (her parents insisted she do secretarial studies in case the night job never took off) and middle-class schooling (Ruyton Girls School in Kew).

By her own account, she was earnest and innocent. Her biography tells us that the first boy with whom she played postman’s knock complained that kissing her was like kissing his sister. At 16, she wanted to exchange her birthday present of mascara for sheet music.

In her 20s, she had a smash tour of England with the Seekers and in 1965 knocked the Rolling Stones from No.1 with what became her signature ballad, The Carnival is Over. Others might have celebrated such youthful success with youthful excess. Australia’s sweetheart continued to cut her own fringe and make her own frocks, travelling with her sewing machine on tour.

Durham is still unabashedly earnest about the need for musical goodness and niceness. She says her world view was shaped by the sheet music lyrics she used to sing growing up. “A lot of my philosophies came from sheet music. Some Day My Prince Will Come, or Blue Skies Smiling at Me – they were very uplifting, wholesome lyrics, and I really believed those words when I sang them.”

She believes each generation’s outlook is shaped by its music and says she wanted the earlier Seekers’ reunion partly because “music out there was becoming quite negative and there weren’t those positive influences for young people. It’s important to do good in the world and I saw that as a way of doing it.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Durham believes “for sure in my heart” in the law of karma (she has followed the teachings of an Indian guru for many years and is a strict vegan). She says her belief that all positive and negative events are the result of her own good or bad actions earlier in life, or in a previous life, has helped her accept misfortunes. There have been quite a few of those.

In 1974 she lost all the money she took with her when the Seekers folded (about $80,000) in the financial collapse of a Swiss bank. In 1990 a car smash in country Victoria left her seriously injured and facing months of rehabilitation. In 1994 she lost her husband and musical colleague of 25 years, pianist Ron Edgeworth, to motor neurone disease.

Four years later she took much-publicised legal action to end stalking and harassment by the former president of her fan club. And last year she was forced to sing from a wheelchair at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Paralympics – not the big gig forecast in John Clarke’s satire on the Games, but an international spotlight nonetheless – because she had broken her hip in a
fall at home.

“I used to worry a lot and regret a lot before I took on this whole concept of karma,” she says. “But now [I understand] that destiny is what it’s all about. I still push ahead and look forward to achieving certain goals but I try not to lay up expectations that they have to happen.”

In interviews, she focuses on the positives. The hand injured in the car accident recovered enough mobility to play her beloved piano again; for most of her adult life she had that rare phenomenon, a happy show-business marriage.

And, while she has not had big commercial success in her solo career, she feels she would not have developed personally or professionally if she had not gone out on her own. “It wasn’t conceivable to keep the group going and still be able to develop as a human being and find out what it was life had in store,” she says.

Many fans have never forgiven her decision. But what they did not know at the time was the depth of her private misery. In England, she developed uncontrollable crying jags and became so depressed that she was hospitalised for several weeks. “I was very troubled,” she says of that time. “When I left the Seekers it was because I was unhappy. I wouldn’t have left if I’d been happy.”

It is almost a celebrity cliche now, but Durham might have been the first to develop “Diana syndrome”: anxiety and depression about weight and appearance as a result of being thrust into the public spotlight. She hated her face – too pudgy, eyes too small – and her well-fleshed body, which one British newspaper said made her look “more like Queen’s Pudding than Kings Road”. The arrival of Twiggy cemented the obsession.

“I didn’t feel I could talk to anybody about it,” Durham says now. “I was just consumed by it. You could go to a doctor then and ask for diet pills, but I don’t know if there was anybody I could have talked to who could have changed inside my head, who could have convinced me, ‘It’s all right to look like this’.”

Even after she lost 16 kilograms her self-esteem was so low that she still felt fat. “I remember being on a set of scales and reading the scales as a stone heavier than they actually were. It happens with plastic surgery when people change their nose and still see the old nose.”

Then there were the tensions in her working life. Reading between the lines of her biography, Colours of My Life, it seems that at times the male Seekers found Durham a tiresome princess (she admits to being bossy and perfectionist, but puts it down to professionalism), while she sometimes chafed against what she felt was their dominance and cliquey-ness (they had played together for some time before they invited Durham on board).

“It is true that back in the ’60s I was quite frustrated that I never got a chance to speak or be interviewed,” she says. “I think one element is strength in numbers with them. I mean, men like to stick together a bit, and back then I didn’t understand the male-female thing at all. I thought that if I didn’t get my point of view across to them that that was a failing in me rather than something that could have happened to many women at that time.

“I’m fascinated by that now. I often, if I’m in a confrontation, try and think, ‘Now hang on a minute, is this simply because I’m a woman trying to say this? Would it be an acceptable thing if I was a guy?’”

The final line of the gender divide was drawn when Durham discovered from an outsider that the man she had been seeing had been having relationships with other women behind her back – and that her colleagues had known.

“It certainly made me realise this was more of a professional situation; it put things on a different level,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that it happened. I’ve always questioned that situation ever since in the sense that you often hear people discussing ‘Would you tell your best friend?’ Do you do that? It’s a big question mark. In my mind, I believed that there had been a disloyalty there. It was a real shock.”

She had already made her decision to leave, though, and it is possible the Seekers had already passed their commercial prime. Their star waned after they stopped working with songwriter Tom Springfield (brother of Dusty).

Singing together now “feels like I’ve slightly gone back in time; it’s always just like picking up where we left off. It’s like not being a complete person but part of something. It’s a weird thing, really. But it’s lovely to see how they’ve grown up and matured. They’ve had families and Keith’s a grandfather now, a couple of times over.”

Durham had no children, by choice. So it is not grandchildren she wants to see grow and thrive as her legacy, but her music. “Paintings pass from hand to hand and people appreciate them through the generations,” she says passionately, the carefully ordered calm of her interview style cracking for the first and only time. “But a record, unless it keeps getting played, and keeps getting revitalised in a new format – it’ll be gone.”

She was surprised and pleased when the 1993 Seekers reunion tour resulted in the production of boxed CD sets of their albums and the reissue of some of her solo jazz recordings. “If we hadn’t had the reunion, gradually all those tracks would have disappeared,” she says.

She knows that her voice will eventually go. She has bronchiectasis, which fills her lungs with mucus that is difficult to clear and leaves her breathless. She tries to control it with her diet, avoiding cereal and dairy foods, “But it’s a chronic condition. It’s getting worse. That’s really why I’m treasuring this tour, because you just don’t know how long you’re going to be able to do a two-hour concert.” There’s a wistful pause.

Judith Durham’s 40th Anniversary Celebration with guests, the Seekers, is at the Sydney Opera House next Saturday. Inquiries, 9250 7777.



Born July 3, 1943

Training RMIT
(secretarial studies) and the Melbourne Conservatorium (classical piano).

Career highlights The Seekers were the first Australian group to hit No. 1 internationally. They also hold the Australian record for size of audience at a concert (200,000 people – then one-tenth of Melbourne’s population – at the Myer Music Bowl in 1966).

First published in The Age.

Body language: Robert Winston

NEVER mind the bravura of his lolly-pink shirt. Professor Lord Robert Winston’s trademark ebullience has fizzled into the flatness of jet-lag. It could be a metaphor for the way he views many of modern medicine’s exciting but controversial breakthroughs.

IVF? Overused and the cause of lazy medicine, with doctors now rarely trying to treat the underlying causes of infertility. Donor eggs? The trade in genetic material is morally risky. Gene therapy? Might change what it means to be human.

Winston, a fertility authority best known as the genial, inquiring face of the hit BBC documentary series The Human Body, was in Melbourne last weekend for the Alfred Deakin Lecture series, part of the Federation Festival, speaking on the topic ‘Will
we still be human at the end of the 21st century?’
The short answer is yes. Winston has no doubt that key traits will persist: ‘We will still have the same emotions. We will hate and fear and love as … in the 20th Century. In that sense, we will still be the same as we were 10,000 years ago.’

The question he wants to raise is not about physical or mental evolution so much as human philosophical response to the issues raised by new technologies such as gene therapy.

‘If you alter an individual person’s genetic structure, you alter their children’s structure. If you alter the genome line, you have altered people ever after.

‘I think it’s very problematic. It’s a long way into the future … but we haven’t had the real debate, which is about making transgenic humans; humans who have genes in them that are not actually their own.’

Of particular concern is the temptation, if science makes it possible, to ‘modify our genetics to enhance certain characteristics that we see as valuable: intelligence and strength and grace and beauty and so on. And, if you change the DNA structure to make people more intelligent … you have changed the genome that will be passed on. It will be heritable.

‘You define a species by its genetic make-up. The human species is essentially built into the recipe of its DNA. You change the DNA, you’ve changed the recipe. If you’ve changed the recipe, it’s a different kind of dish.’

If living things are defined by their assemblage of genes as human, chimpanzee, mouse, yeast and tree, and those genes are changed, one has to ask if they would still be human, chimpanzee, mouse and so on, he says.

‘That’s an interesting question because of our central belief that holds the moral structure of our society together, which is that we believe in the sanctity, above all, of human life. We believe in the sanctity of human life mainly because we see ourselves built in the image of God. If we change that image, are we still human? And if we’re not human, how do we view those who are human? Are humans still sacrosanct?

‘When the Nazis destroyed gypsies, Jews and imbeciles in the 1930s, it was because they thought they were subhuman, not truly human. Essentially, it isn’t so different; the difference is they didn’t have the knowledge to understand what we have today.’

The worry is that if we create ‘superhumans’, will they then regard ordinary humans as subhuman?
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying.’
Winston’s concern for human rights underlies his analysis of other hot topics. He supports, for example, lesbian women having access to IVF but not women past menopause using the technique. The latter is ‘morally risky’ because it requires donor eggs, and ‘my impression of most donors is that they wouldn’t out of preference want to give their eggs to a 62-year-old woman’.

But he sees Victoria’s laws banning lesbian access to IVF and artificial insemination as a ‘primitive … legal situation’. Such a stance would have to be based either on religious principles – ‘and everybody’s different religiously’ – or the fear that children would suffer. British research has found that children of lesbian couples do at least as well as children from heterosexual families, he says.

‘It seems to me that legislation that is social essentially should be based on proper evidence, and not to do so is pure prejudice.’

Winston, so affable on screen, can be more caustic when unscripted. When Prince Charles criticised genetically modified food and waxed lyrical about his organically grown vegetables, Winston retorted that HRH ‘is one of the most genetically modified individuals on the planet’.

The paradox still makes Winston laugh.

‘It’s ludicrous to have a diatribe about genetically modified food when the corn that we eat has been genetically modified by selective breeding, which is what the Royal Family’s been doing with arranged marriages for centuries.’

So what does this Labour lord, appointed six years ago by a Conservative government, think of the monarchy?
He finds the question mildly alarming: ‘Oh, my goodness! I’m a Labour peer. I’m not this reincarnation of Stalin, red of tooth and claw and with a pickaxe. I was talking to Princess Anne yesterday. I think they’re rather nice, actually.

‘This isn’t an issue I want to discuss in Australia because you have different views about the Royal Family – quite reasonably because you want, by and large, to re-evaluate your position in the world as a republic. And so you should.

‘For us in Britain, whether you’re Labour or Conservative, the general view is that the monarchy is still a useful political figurehead, which works rather better than a presidency would do. I think the Royal Family hold certain aspects of British tradition together rather well.’

Winston has spent most of his professional life working with life, creating embryos and successfully screening them for genetic defects before implanting them to grow as babies. He has also explored death. In one of his television documentaries, he filmed the natural dying of an old man and used technology to track the disappearance of the last sign of life from his body.

Does Winston, so preoccupied with the big questions, believe in life after death? Again he is startled and a bit irritated.

‘Oh no. God knows. Do I believe …? Does it matter? No journalist’s ever asked me a question like that before. I don’t really have a fear of death except for the things I’ll leave unfinished. Life after death doesn’t really have a meaning for me.’

He continues to muse, off balance at the rare experience of being asked a question to which he has no ready answer.

‘It’s a bit like Lennox Lewis. Lennox Lewis went into the ring not expecting to be knocked out – and he was. And I feel like I’ve been knocked out.’

He roars with laughter, his good humour restored.

First published in The Age.

An accidental author

Word of mouth has made Rosalie Ham’s first book a best seller. She talks to Karen Kissane.

THE TOWN policeman is a cross-dresser with a sense of theatre; Priscilla meets Blue Heelers. The local madwoman’s false teeth are green with neglect. The puritanical chemist puts White Lily into vaginal cream destined for an adulterous itch. Welcome to Dungatar, Rosalie Ham’s warm and nasty vision of rural Australia.

Ham’s book The Dressmaker is a kind of Lord of the Flies in frocks. Blurbed as “an Australian gothic novel of love, hate and haute-couture”, it has become a slow-burn best seller since its release last year.

Its fame has spread not through marketing campaigns but by word of mouth. Readers love its eccentric mix of pathos and black humor, potboiler plot and writerly insight, cruelty and compassion. So do movie makers, and Ham’s publishers are now choosing between five offers to convert the book to a film.

Ham, of course, is pleased. Few first-time novelists find themselves sitting so pretty. But success has come late -she is 46 – and has not yet brought with it enough money to transform her life. She is still in her simple weatherboard house, still squeezing her writing into three or four days a week, still making a living nursing old people.

“I’ve always done aged-care work, on and off, since I left school,” she says comfortably, sitting at her kitchen table. (We briefly canvassed sitting on the couch but she’s a kitchen-table kind of person, she says.) “I’ve done a lot of things, and a bit of travelling, but that kind of work’s always kept me alive and paid the bills. I really like it.”

It isn’t depressing? “No. The old people are lovely. They’re incontinent or they might be demented or whatever but they still have personalities. If I give them a shower and make them happy and comfortable and comb their hair and pop in with a cup of tea and a biscuit, it makes their day. I just like old people. And it also feels incredibly normal to me now to have conversations with people with dementia.”

One of the most vividly drawn characters in Ham’s book, Molly, is a neglected old woman with dementia who is shunned partly because of her craziness. Her paranoia makes her hilariously vicious but another side of her appears after her daughter, a dressmaker, returns to Dungatar to care for her. All of that came from Ham’s day job.

“As hydration and nutrition seeped into Molly’s body her faculties came back. That happens,” she says.

“Often people come into a nursing home and they’ve been eating bread and jam and a cup of tea for years and years so they’re malnourished and dehydrated and confused. After a while they improve because they’re forcefed love and attention and kindness and people around them care for them and take them to singing … They’re not cured, but they are better.”
Ham has a nurse’s brisk cheeriness and an understated, dry humor. She has a short, easy-care haircut, a direct manner, and an equally pragmatic approach to life’s big questions.

When her heroine Tilly, distraught with grief, can find no consolation in a Bible, Ham has her stab it. “I’m a bit dubious about religion,” Ham acknowledges cautiously. “Having a country upbringing, the cycle of life and death becomes somewhat matter of fact, as it does being an aged-care nurse.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife. And I’m fairly brutal about that. You were born, you live for a certain amount of time, and then you die. That’s just the way it is. There’s no point to suffering at all. Terrible things just happen to people.”

But she denies that any have ever happened to her. Ham, who was born and raised in the southern New South Wales town of Jerilderie, lays claim to a happy childhood in a caring community that functioned like an extended family for her.

“My experience in my home town was the absolute contrary (to Dungatar),” she says firmly. “I never felt any kind of animosity about anything I’d ever done. Small country towns are enormously supportive and very protective. That’s wherein lies the irony, because if you do the wrong thing, really the wrong thing, you can be ostracised by a country town and (their disapproval) will bind them together.” She grins. “So you just don’t do anything wrong.”
There are some hints that country life was not quite as uncomplicated as all that. When she was 10, her farmer parents divorced. When she was a young woman, she came back from an interstate holiday to false rumors that she had left town because she was pregnant. Perhaps neither event scarred her, but they did help sow in her imagination the seeds for the book that one reviewer called “a feral Seachange”.

The book was an accident; the product of serendipity. Ham had written three plays (“which not a lot of people outside my friends and family came to see, I must say”) and decided she wanted to learn more about performance writing. She enrolled in the appropriate course at RMIT but arrived on the day to find that subject was already full.

As she was leaving, she was waylaid by novelist Antoni Jach, a part-time teacher in fiction in the course, who insisted she try the novel unit instead. Ham reluctantly agreed. She expected to study great literature but was appalled in the first lesson to be asked for a 500-word synopsis of her book. She had landed in a novel-writing course.

She recovered quickly. “I had an idea and started writing it. Then you had to hand in 3000 words, and then you had to hand in 10,000 words, and I had 30,000 words. It was only three weeks before I realised that this was the best `accident’ that had ever occurred to me.”

Says Jach, “Rosalie’s a very talented writer and very hard-working. She went through a long process of finding her voice as a novelist.

“A lot of apprentice writers start writing in a very formal way … and it’s when they use their own voice the writing comes to life. Rosalie’s got a terrific command of the vernacular and she’s very lively as a person. She was one of those people who is very, very funny in the cafeteria. I said, `Put that energy and creativeness into your writing; put that touch of blackness in the novel’.”

Three years after she began the course, Ham had a book. It was refused by several publishers before she sent it to Duffy and Snellgrove, where its first 60 pages hit the desk of editor Gail MacCallum. “I started when I got home and got to the end of it without even having noticed,” MacCallum recalls. “I had to wait in this lather for 12 hours before I could ring her and say `Is there any more of it?”‘

MacCallum was struck by the strength of the characters and the narrative pace, “which is unusual, I think, sadly. In Australia there seems to be this gap between high literature and the more general mass market, and I think this book fills it”.

MacCallum was also struck by the book’s startling mix of kindness and venom. Ham is gentle with the broken or fragile parts of her characters, the pathetic, tawdry tragedies of the everyday. But she has a penetrating and pitiless eye for human cruelties.

The dressmaker offers the town’s small-minded women the chance to transform themselves externally but they are unable to transform their mean and petty internal selves. As a result, the book ends on a note of apocalyptic vengefulness.

It is hard to know whether Ham is exceptionally compassionate or exceptionally unforgiving. “Both,” she says without hesitation. “I do know that I am capable of great compassion and I know that I can be unforgiving; people have told me that. When I was much younger, I was a lot more caustic and sarcasm was a big thing and I had to learn to squash it down. And now I’m very good at holding my tongue.”
Her current project is a novel set in country Victoria in 1895. “My main character is in a confined, oppressive sort of environment, being rural Victoria at that time, which is a couple of years behind everybody else. But, at the same time, things are moving. Women are not wanting to wear corsets any more and they’re wanting to ride bicycles and she’s in the middle and she’s torn … And it’s all laced with humor.

“I thought I might see if I could write a more `literary’ novel, but if it doesn’t work I’ll just go back and write what I’ve always written, and that’s a cross between black comedy and something macabre and something sad. Good ingredients for a good read.”

The Dressmaker, by Rosalie Ham, Duffy and Snellgrove, $18.95.

Rosalie Ham, author and aged care nurse

Born: Jerilderie, NSW, 1955.

Educated: Rusden, Bachelor of Education in drama and literature; currently completing advanced diploma in professional writing and editing at RMIT.

Career: Three plays performed; first novel, The Dressmaker, published last year. Currently short listed for the booksellers’ choice for best book for 2000. Works part-time as an aged care nurse.

Lives: Brunswick, with her husband (set and props facilitator Ian McLay) and stepson (Morgan).

First published in The Age.

Portrait of the artist as a mother

DEBORAH CONWAY’S second daughter, Alma delRay, is floating about in a pink cotton frock and burnished curls, talking shyly about her third birthday party. As the adult conversation resumes, she lays herself tummy down on mummy’s lap and waves her arms and legs enchantingly. The discussion turns to the deliciousness of childlike spontaneity.

And then Alma, perhaps tired of having to share her significant other with this stranger, makes a grab for Conway’s breast under her T-shirt and begins to knead the flesh. Conway keeps talking and wrestles the hand away.

She is partway through a description of her recent performance in chorales at the Sydney Opera House when Alma resumes her less-than-tender ministrations, this time moving up from a knead to a wrench. Conway squeals. “What is this? Some kind of schoolyard torture? A nipple twister?” Alma gurgles with delight.

A half-amused, half-embarrassed Conway sweeps the child into her arms and into the house, her voice admonishing. Rock’n’roll motherhood, it seems, requires the same sort of juggling act as working motherhood in any other trade, and rock’n’roll babies are just as jealous of mother’s attempts to keep a toehold in the outside world.

The beautiful, bolshie, singer-songwriter, Deborah Conway, burst onto the Australian music scene in 1991 with a hit album, String of Pearls. It sold around 100,000 copies and gave her a No.1 single – It’s Only the Beginning – that will forever be her signature song.

Her subsequent career has not quite lived up to the song’s buoyant optimism. Her later albums received positive reviews but were not picked up for radio airplay to the same extent and, while Conway has a loyal following and the respect of aficionados, Pearls remains her only big commercial success.

That does not mean, she points out tartly, that her more recent music is no good; just that it does not fit the current radio formula. “And if you don’t have something that’s being played on the radio it’s just impossible to make any headway … I think in a different kind of marketplace there would be a niche (for my music). It’s just about the size of our market.”

Her early success she attributes entirely to It’s Only the Beginning: “It was a huge song that tapped into exactly the kind of thing that radio loved. It was a feel-good song, there was an anthemic chorus, and I was the nice fresh `It Girl’ at the time.”

She was also the Cool Charm girl, the BigM Girl and the Southern Comfort girl, among others. In her 20s, Conway worked as a model. A feminist, she irritated employers because she refused to shave her legs or armpits or pluck the strong eyebrows that help give her face its arresting quality. But her sculpted cheekbones, sensual mouth and intransigent gaze still won her work.

Conway had no qualms about modelling itself as long as it was on her terms: “Six bucks an hour for waitressing and 60 bucks an hour for modelling; where’s the problem? And who’s exploiting me – me?”

It was her bare derriere displayed in ads for Bluegrass jeans that featured the letters “Bluegr” followed by a pair of buttocks. More recently, the cover for her album Epic Bitch featured her nude torso smeared in chocolate spread. Her mother suggested a little more mystery might be a good thing.

Conway says: “It never particularly occurred to me at the time that what I was doing was appearing naked dressed only in Nutella. What struck me more about the photo was that I was all mouth and covered in chocolate, rather than if you look really close you can see a tiny bit of nipple.

“We have all got them, after all. And as I’ve discovered now, it’s much more fun to actually throw them around when you can, as opposed to after three kids.” She says, with some regret: “The compass now points pure due south.”
Conway and her partner, Willy Zygier, live in a pair of converted grocers’ shops, full of space and light and family clutter, with their three small daughters. The girls have names like ’40s noir movie stars. Syd Dolores (named after airline baggage tags and Nabokov’s Lolita) is nearly six; the baby, Hetty Ira, is 13 months (“Hetty is after my grandmother, and Ira is because when I had her I knew I’d never have a boy, and if I’d had a boy he would have been Ira”).

And Alma? “Alma Ray is a cleaning company who’s card came through our door one time – no, I named her after Alma Mahler, who was married to Gustav Mahler. Alma means `soul’.” The glint returns to her eyes: “And it’s a fine road in St Kilda.”

Conway says motherhood has made her calmer and more patient – “People will disagree with me!” – and a “real mushbucket”: “Terrible stories about children – I can’t even listen to them.” But while she loves the children, she is hungry to get back to the writing she has had to put on hold since Hetty’s birth. “If I don’t start writing soon, I’ll go insane.”

The solution, she has somewhat reluctantly decided, was to “institutionalise” the children; the oldest is at school, and the two youngest are now in creche three days a week. Conway worries about missing out on some of Hetty’s babyhood, but finding the peace for creative work amid life with young children would otherwise be impossible.

For instance, the only way the Age interview can be completed is for the journalist to hitch a ride with the family as Conway drives Willy and the girls to appointments across town.

`WAS it George Bernard Shaw or Philip Larkin who said `The pram in the hallway is the enemy of art’?” she asks. “Absolutely true. It’s the mess and the lack of sleep and the lack of space to do nothing; just time to stare at the wall, or at a blank piece of paper.”

Conway has a reputation for waspishness, if not belligerence, an image she feels is undeserved. “Well, I suppose that if you have a vision as an artist that conflicts with the visions of the people around you, then obviously people are going to accuse you of being headstrong and difficult. If you’re a woman on top of that, it definitely compounds the problem.”

But she obviously enjoys the occasional joust with bourgeois sensibilities, and she has certainly had her moments. One of them came when a member of the audience at one of her concerts sat on the stage with his back to her and refused her request to move. “They said later that I spat but I didn’t spit,” she says defensively. “I just did this,” and she mimes pushing out her jaw, working languidly to develop a puddle of saliva, and then drooling. “They were upsetting me,” she says sweetly. Right.

But Conway has had to learn to be tough. She says she never made a cent from the record sales of String of Pearls because her contract entitled her only to publishing rights: “I’ve just made my first money for selling records, even though (my last album) sold a fraction of the amount of copies.”

She seems to have little fear of controversy. Heroin should be legalised, she argues, and it’s only the hypocrisy of vote-seeking politicians that stands in the way of it. “Alcohol does a lot more damage than the occasional recreational use of a tab of acid.”

Her own parents had been terrified that she would use drugs; her lawyer father (she grew up in Toorak) sent her to a psychiatrist when she first joined a rock band because he assumed it would lead to drug use.

And did it? She gives a slightly embarrassed laugh. “No, no, no. Like many children of the era, I experimented with all kinds of drugs and had great fun with them but they never took me over. It was just always fun and recreational and experimental in a purely scientific way: `What will this one do, I wonder?’.”

And she has probably always been impatient with what she sees as foolishness or pretension. She brushes aside questions about which career highlights should go in her CV. “Career highlights are always the best gigs, the ones that you know have been brilliant; the audience loved every moment, everything that came out of your mouth has been either in tune or funny or pertinent and you’ve played guitar really well and jelled with the band. When you’ve played music, really; when you’ve just been completely in the moment.”

Right now, though, a wriggly Hetty wants her next breast-feed.

Deborah Conway and her band will perform at a Valentine’s Day weekend concert at Eyton on Yarra Winery in Coldstream tonight at 7.30pm. Inquiries to 1800 622 726 or 5962 2119.

Deborah Conway, singer

Born: Melbourne, 1959.

Educated: Lauriston, Melbourne.

Career: Aria award for best female performer for the hit album String of Pearls in 1991. Subsequent albums include Bitch Epic and Exquisite Stereo.

Lives: Williamstown, with her partner and musical collaborator, Willy Zygier, and their three daughters.

First published in The Age.

The gaze of Aphrodite


Karen Kissane

WHEN artist Rosemary Valadon decided to paint noted Australian women as classical archetypes, she chose Germaine Greer as Artemis, Blanche d’Alpuget as Athena and artist Annette Bezor as Aphrodite, goddess of love.Valadon had been taken with a Bezor painting entitled So Glad You Came: “It was orgasmic: a woman’s face with the mouth half open in bliss, and she was surrounded by all this patterning. It was a woman’s experience of desire and sexuality.”

And, having met Bezor, Valadon knew her appearance also lent itself to the theme: “Her skin was soft and full, she had blonde hair, and there was a lightness to her, but she was a strong-looking woman as well … She’s very spirited and self-assured.”

Today, Bezor is vaguely embarrassed about having agreed to pose. “I think my ego got the better of me, and my narcissism. I wanted to see what someone else would do with me.

“We had this South Australian `Living Artist’ breakfast a couple of years ago, and they had all these people voting for things, categories, and I actually won the sexiest artist. And of course I was mortified. Being painted as Aphrodite is a bit like that; it’s double-edged: `By the way, she makes great paintings, doesn’t she?’

“Looking back, I should have gone up to the microphone at that breakfast and said, `Would everyone who voted for me please leave their telephone number at the door?”‘ She laughs, her good humor restored.

The problematic aspects of female beauty and desire and the gaze of others have long been themes in Bezor’s painting and in her life. Her large, lush, sensual canvasses are often filled with female forms erotically draped across different backgrounds: landscapes, flowers, brilliantly patterned fabrics or swirls of cloud.

Enigmatic female faces gaze half-submerged through textured layers of haze; Intercourse I and Intercourse II are merely a smudge of an inward-looking eye and a mouth.

In Wrestling with the Cherubim, a voluptuously naked Bezor wrestles with other versions of herself in a tangle of limbs while attacked by a flock of chubby cherubim, the struggle set against the deep ochre of an Australian desert at dusk.

Bezor has always been unashamedly unfashionable: a figurative artist in a time when abstraction is the go; a purveyor of color and beauty in an era when grittiness, if not ugliness, is thought to have more power.

Melbourne gallery owner Robert Lindsay, who will exhibit Bezor’s next show early next year, says: “She would be one of the first female artists that focused on the feminine rather than on being a feminist. She’s less concerned with the politics and status of women than she is with society’s enduring mystique of female beauty … Hers is not a butch gaze; it’s a beguiling gaze.”

Richard Grayson is a fellow artist, curator and writer, and a former director of Adelaide’s Experimental Art Foundation. He is author of a newly published monograph on Bezor’s work (the lavishly illustrated A Passionate Gaze). “I think she’s one of the pre-eminent figurative painters,” he says. “She’s made a very large contribution to Australian art, and she’s not hit a plateau; she’s still evolving.”

He sees Bezor as a “desert island painter”: “She’d carry on painting even if stuck on a desert island with no audience. She’s impelled by something within herself.”

The girl who left school at 14 to work in a hairdressing salon has come a long way. Even then, however, Bezor was struggling with the dark side of desirability. She left school early because boys gave her a hard time about her pretty face and well-developed body.

The hairdressing job offered no relief from unwanted attentions: “We had a male manager and he’d pat my bum as he’d go past, or pinch my waist, and say, `You’ve got a bit of puppy fat’. They would cut my hair and say, `You’ve got to wear makeup because you look too young’.

“I was constantly being manipulated. So I became anorexic for four years. Then I managed a salon when I was 19. I hated it. I had a nervous breakdown.” She lost her virginity, found herself pregnant, miscarried, then got more hateful work selling sewing machines door-to-door. The first of her two short-lived marriages, at 21, was followed by two confused years of “goofing off”, living on the dole in a shared house and experimenting with drugs.

“I applied for art school because that’s what people around me were doing,” says Bezor. But she floundered so badly for her first couple of years that one lecturer told her she shouldn’t be there. Her mutinousness kicked in and she was determined to prove him wrong.

She says her refusal to be cowed has stood her in good stead in the years since: “… if you’re going to get crushed easily then you can’t be an artist.”

Her creativity might never have been unleashed had it not been for a trauma that left her a wounded Aphrodite. In a quiet, matter-of-fact voice, she says, “I was raped in fourth year – and quite brutally, the man was sent to jail for five years … But I couldn’t work at art school in my final year because I couldn’t relate to people.

“The reason I’m telling you this is because it’s what caused the breakthrough. I stayed in the house where I was raped; I was raped in my bedroom. I took my easels and paints home and I painted (in that room) the whole of my fourth year. There was something about being alone and not having people watch me and say I wasn’t any good; I painted some amazing figures. I won a prize that year.

“Being left alone had other negative aspects in terms of my emotional wellbeing, but in terms of my creativity it was what I needed.”

She can talk about the rape coolly but her voice wavers when she recalls her most vivid memory of that solitary time: an injured bird.

“It’s one of those things that haunts me forever. I tried to save it and I couldn’t, so then I tried to chloroform it. I put it in a box and surrounded it with pillows and put cotton wool in there and thought, `Now it will be peaceful’. Eight hours later I took the pillows from around this box and it was still alive and looking at me, so I took it outside and let it go. It would have died, or a cat would have got it or something.”

She takes a deep, steadying breath.”I didn’t know what to do. I’d become a child again, in some way.”
Bezor must have regained her confidence by 1981 when she painted one of her most loved works, The snake is dead. A buxom, dark-haired woman lolls naked at a modern-day bush picnic, full of cheerful insouciance. Around her are eucalypts; above her a bird carries a dead snake. This is a triumphant Australian Eve, saucily unashamed.

Bezor says, “I was surrounded by the most amazing women at that time, and they were doing all these classes to rid themselves of any guilt about their bodies … They used to go along and take all their clothes off and tell each other how wonderful they were, basically.

“I got to see some things that most people don’t see as long as they live. People made love in front of me; I was invited along to watch various couplings, which I did with great gusto … because I am a voyeur. (They invited me) to prove to themselves that they were these wonderfully free and open people, and … they did have a sexual, sensual freedom that I don’t think a lot of women feel these days.”

Today Bezor is working on two series of paintings. In one she Asianises the features of faces from classic paintings: “It talks about the accident of birth, the superficiality of the surface, and how we regard Asians.” In the other she paints the faces of young women in soft porn magazines.

While she has spent most of her life wrestling with the superficiality of beauty, ageing has increased the preoccupation. “I realise as I get older that you do have to have a different kind of power … If your power has resided in your attractiveness, you’re going to be in a very lost space. My work is a huge thing for me because a lot of respect is accorded to me. I don’t get asked, `Why haven’t you had children? Why aren’t you in a relationship?’ People just look at what you do and how hard you work at it …”

Next year Bezor is off to Los Angeles; soon she will return to her beloved Paris. She used to spend half her time there but decided recently that superannuation was a priority: “I have to stop throwing money into the Seine.” Aphrodite, it seems, has developed some of Athena’s hard-headedness. “I don’t want to be old and poor. Bugger that.”

Annette Bezor: A Passionate Gaze, by Richard Grayson, Wakefield Press, $35.

Annette Bezor, artist

Born: Adelaide.

Educated: Degree in Fine Art at the South Australian School of Art, 1974-77; residency at the Power Studio, Cite Internationale des Arts, Paris, 1996.

Career: 19 solo exhibitions in Adelaide, Sydney and Melbourne; numerous group exhibitions; awarded Australia Council Fellowship in 1990 and represented at the ARCO International Art Fair in Madrid in 1996 and 1998; represented in the collections of all major Australian state galleries; painted the official portrait of former Premier Joan Kirner.

Lives: Adelaide and Paris

First published in The Age.