Caroline Baum In Conversation
Talks / Lecture
Only is a painfully honest and entertaining story of an unconventional childhood. Caroline Baum's moving and gripping memoir is for anyone who has felt the pressure of being at the fulcrum of a seesaw, the focus of all eyes and expectations - torn between love and fear, obedience and rebellion, duty and the longing to escape.
In association with Allen and Unwin
Speakers: Margy Burn (M), Nikki Anderson (N), Caroline Baum (C)
Location: National Library of Australia
Typist’s notes: inaudible caused by distance from mike
M: Good evening and thank you so much for coming out on what’s been – we’re having a strange patch of weather in Canberra at the moment. So it’s wonderful to have you here after all the rain of today. I’m Margy Burn and I’m the Assistant Director General responsible for the Library’s Australian Collections and Reader Services and that means that I’m responsible for our marvellous collections of oral history, of manuscripts, pictures amongst other things. And so I’m often asked to be the corporate host at Australian literary events.
I’ve recently returned from a short visit to Alice Springs and Uluru and I was lured there as so many Australians are at the moment who’ve always intended to get to Uluru but never quite made it by that magic field of light installation but apart from going there for that what really struck me again as it has on previous visits to central Australia is the power of the landscape. And even looking out from a hotel window in Alice Springs you’re looking straight out onto the MacDonnell Ranges with the dry bed of the Todd River in between. And so you very strongly feel that you’re on Aboriginal land and I also feel that having lived in a number of cities for most of my life in Australia that Canberra is a rare city in that it is the bush capital and if we have the eyes to see it we can also be conscious that we’re living and working on Aboriginal land. The landscape still has the strong presence that it always has done long before we were here.
So let me acknowledge with sincerity and honour the traditional custodians of this land and thank elders past and present for caring for it so that we can now enjoy it and see the land in the ways that they have done for generations.
This evening we’re going to hear from Caroline Baum, a respected journalist and high profile presenter of memorable radio and TV programs and a facilitator of wonderful conversations and panels at literary events great and small and I was thinking, Caroline, it must be quite funny to be the interviewed -
C: It’s really nice.
M: - rather than the interviewer. Caroline has created a career around books and reading and so it is a bit difficult to believe that Only - A Singular Memoir is her first book. She’s had a very interesting and diverse career working for the BBC, ABC, Time-Life Books, Vogue Australia and the UK. She was the founding editor of Good Reading magazine and Editorial Director of Booktopia. She’s in demand as a presenter at writers’ festivals across Australia and she’s interviewed many of the world’s most celebrated authors and some of the world’s most difficult. And she’s also been a literary judge of many awards.
Since 2015 I’m really pleased to say that Caroline has been doing oral history interviews with some important figures in literature for the Library’s oral history collection, interviewing amongst others Robin Dalton, the author of the much loved Aunts Up The Cross who did very much more in her life, Di Morrissey who of course needs no introduction and Clive James and the recording with Clive James was beautiful and poignant and he only did it because of his fondness for Caroline and his great affection for Peter Porter and he read with great difficulty a beautiful eulogic poem he had written on hearing of Peter’s death.
Caroline writes about all sorts of subjects, books, of course but food, travel, the arts and all sorts of aspects of contemporary life. She was the recipient in 2015 of the Hazel Rowley Fellowship which is not quite as well-known as it should be but it exists to support preferably biographical research and writing. Hazel was a really fine biographer and this gift supported by her sister, Della, and other of Hazel’s friends and supporters is a really wonderful legacy to Hazel following her really tragically early death and Hazel’s papers are also here in the manuscripts collection at the National Library.
Joining Caroline tonight to discuss Only childhood and families is Nikki Anderson who is Co-Chair of the Feminist Writers’ Festival and also a great friend of the Library. I had the pleasure of hearing Caroline talk at the recent Adelaide Writers’ Week – my life is just you know one – this was a holiday – and she was sharing the stage with Catherine de Saint Phalle who’s the author of On Brunswick Ground and it transpired they had shared some similar experiences in having unusual childhoods including French parents. It was a really marvellous session and it inspired me to buy both books. I started with Caroline’s Singular Memoir and I literally couldn’t put it down, finishing it in bed, only stopping to sort of hastily eat my dinner which someone else had cooked for me and falling asleep much later than I had really intended. It is a really wonderful read and I commend it to you and after this you will definitely want to go and buy a copy in the bookshop but enough from me, please join me in welcoming Caroline and Nikki and enjoying their conversation.
N: Thank you, Margy, for that generous introduction. I think we could have an excellent session on your travels. We are here indeed to talk about Caroline’s marvellous memoir which yes, will be for sale later and I’m sure Caroline will be happy to do some signing as well. It’s a really forensic look at a family and an unflinching look at Caroline’s childhood, her upbringing and her partners and really no one is drawn in a better light than they perhaps ought to be apart from your husband, your current husband –
C: Ah –
N: - he sounds like an absolute angel and we’d love to meet him at some point.
C: Yes, he does come out of it very well. People keep saying to me oh my god, you’re so lucky, where did you find him?
N: Absolutely, it’s worth it just for the descriptions of him. No. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time giving a precis of the book because Caroline’s going to start off with a little reading for us just to sort of set the scene and then we will discuss it all but I fear there may be spoilers so we will you know that’s a warning for you right there.
C: Okay. Thank you all for coming tonight ‘cause I know the weather is foul and I know that I’ve brought it with me sort of because it’s been raining for four weeks in Sydney and I’m very sorry about that. So the prologue of Only’s called Triangle and that sort of sets up the shape and the dynamic for the book so I thought I would read that to you.
There are supposed to be two sides to every story but in my case there are three, his, hers, mine, two parents, one child, our personal geometry triangulated. The shape of our family, a tricorne hat, is worn by gentlemen, pirates and highway robbers. Together we form a wedge of cheese, a piece of cake, a segment of a pie chart. There’s something uncomfortable about a triangle, it’s all elbows, suggesting awkward unease, sharp edges, not like the gentle symmetry of a square or the harmonious flow of a circle. Isosceles, equilateral, scalene, the words themselves sound pointy and acute. A triangle is easily distorted, pulled in one of several directions. Although its three sides are supposed to represent the most stable of forms making it the preferred design for medieval fortresses its shape rarely felt balanced to me, more often teetering, a warped and lopsided trivet that would not lie flat. Countering the story of the three wise men and fairytales granting three wishes superstition suggests that bad things come in threes, from Macbeth’s witches to plane crashes. Roadside danger signs are framed in a triangle, it is the outline of alarm. In the orchestra it is the percussive voice of warning.
When I visualise a triangle I see the jumbo size Toblerone chocolate mountains my father would consume, nougat-studded, peak by peak, breaking off two or three from the whole sweet row of Swiss alps they represent. Then these mountains melt, replaced by real whipped cream snowy summits like the ones we used to visit during annual winter ski holidays. Mostly my father is at the apex, dominant and domineering looking down on us from a lofty altitude. Occasionally I imagine myself at the top with my parents at the base, each tugging me towards their corner of the valley with more or less persuasion or force, that was our dynamic. My mother never challenged either of us for the highest spot, the air up there was too thin. She preferred to let us slug it out. You two are so alike, she would say with a Gallic shrug.
Three barely felt like a family, it felt like it didn’t count, like we were unfinished, incomplete. There was always a gap at the table, room to set places for others but visitors were few and far between. Mostly there was only me.
N: Do you think the mythology around only children or the perception of only children has changed since you were an only child and you still are an only child –
C: Since you’re an only child, yes.
N: - a girl?
C: You know, Nikki, no, I think I was really interested – the book is not me campaigning for the rights of the only child and for the only child to be rehabilitated in society but I’ve got to say that at the same time I do think we have an image problem. How many people in this audience are only children, just out of curiosity? Oh okay, only – not too many of you. Well it’s lovely to have you here – it’s especially lovely to have you here. So you know we do have an image problem, we do need a makeover. We are more common now than we used to be because people are having families later and also children are more expensive to raise and so people decide that if they’re going to have a child they would perhaps just like to have one and give it all the advantages that they possibly can. The first psychologist to write about an only child wrote about them in the 1898 – and described us as deviants and in fact said to parents that if they were thinking of having – that having one child, they’d be better of having none.
And then again after world war one and after world war two when there were very big social programs of repopulating after the losses of war, again there was a feeling that having one child just was not enough and that you were not making a valid contribution to society and so I do think that the stereotype around the child as being maladjusted, lonely, poorly socialised, unable to share has persisted and the word that I suppose is the most loaded word for me, the one that I think I probably dislike the most is the word spoilt. Because when you say spoilt it sounds like you’ve been ruined, that you’re not fit for life you know sort of spoilt like milk that’s gone off and I think that the misunderstanding that I wanted to explore a little bit about being described as spoilt is that as you would know from reading the book I had a very materially comfortable life, I had a lot of things, I had all the presents under the Christmas tree but the expectations that go with privilege are what I wanted to explore. There’s always a deal, there’s always a contract when you are privileged. When you are given things there are conditions that come with that. If you behave this way you will get these things, you get to keep your comfort if you conform to our prescribed values and codes. And I thought that that was fertile ground to explore.
N: Yeah, absolutely and I mean I think we often – I have an only child and friends who also have only children, we do sort of – and I think also parents of this sort of generation – talk about that hothousing of particularly only children and the pressure and you talk about that a lot in the book, the pressure from your parents, being the meat in the parental sandwich, having no one else to sort of compare yourself with, no siblings that would then allow you to distinguish yourself and sort of set up your own personality in a way.
C: No and you realise later on – and in fact that perfect husband of mine – one of the points he did make to me early on was that he thought that I took teasing very literally because you know I hadn’t been teased at home so I hadn’t had any of that sort of joshing and sort of push and pull of siblings. And so I probably have been quite sort of quick to rise to offence all of my life and you realise very quickly that you’re useless at team sports, that you know you’ve never played in any kind of relay thing, you don’t know how to grab the baton, you drop it when someone hands it to you. You don’t know how to shuffle cards, you’ve never played board games and in fact I was talking about this with Robert de Say, who’s another only child - a very, very only child - and he was saying the whole notion of competition was completely foreign and alien to him. And I suddenly had an absolutely lightbulb moment that when I – I learned to play tennis, and I liked tennis, but I never played to win, I was always a sort of hit and giggle kind of player because I just thought who cares? Let’s just have some fun.
N: Have you become more competitive, do you think?
C: I think -
N: Or competitive at all?
C: I’ve always competed against myself professionally, I’ve been very ambitious in my life. I think I’ve been ambitious without being competitive but I do think that other only children that I’ve spoken to have said to me that competition is quite a sort of foreign notion to them and then of course you know there are lots of things about – that are probably quite beneficial in terms of nurturing a child that – being the centre of attention but equally the fact that you do spend a lot of time on your own and so you learn to be comfortable with your solitude which I think is an important quality for life. I’ve always been rather suspicious of people who don’t enjoy their own company and of course only children are usually very early readers and I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve chosen to spend my life with books because books were my first friends.
N: What about the loneliness as well? You do talk a lot about being very, painfully lonely as a child.
C: Well the holidays were long, the holidays stretched out and were long and because my parents were strict I wasn’t allowed to go and have sleepovers for a very long time. I longed for a sleepover but because my parents both suffered from anxiety as a result of having traumatic childhoods where they – they were ripped away from the security of a normal family, my mother at the age of five and my father at the age of 10 – they – their motto, their modus operandi for life was trust no one and the idea of letting their precious daughter out into other people’s homes was just completely not on.
N: Well you were the only one they had.
C: Exactly and they kept saying you are the only one we’ve got and I was always made to feel like an asset and – as if they were always looking for a return on their investment and that – particularly with my father who was a businessman and who valued money – I love that chuckle from the second row, I recognise some kindred spirit there – so I did always feel a kind of material currency of being a possession, of being owned. And so I really wanted to go out into the world, I wanted to trust people, I didn’t want to imagine the worst. I think that people who don’t have siblings take friendship extremely seriously, they make their friends into sort of pseudosiblings but of course with all the material comfort of the fact that I had my bedroom and I had my playroom and I had my own bathroom, when I did finally get to go for a sleepover I hadn’t reckoned on what got shared and after dinner at this particular house with my best friend, Antonia, and her sister, Karen, they invited me to get into the bath with them and I took one look at the water and I said to the parents can I go and use the phone please? And I rang my parents and I said within everybody’s hearing, come and get me, they’re dirty. You know so there were some things that it was okay to share and other things I really didn’t want to ever share.
N: Fair enough, I think –
C: I think fair enough, yes.
N: I think fair call, sounds quite sensible. So it was a childhood sort of rich in material wealth and privilege but very bereft of emotion – well of emotional resilience perhaps, there were plenty of emotions –
C: There was a lot of emotion, wasn’t there?
N: The house.
C: Yes, you’re right, the emotion was very charged and a lot of things were not explained so there were these very weighty silences and like all children who are incredible with these incredible antennae and radar, I knew that there was stuff, there were no-go areas, there were seemingly simple things that could trigger you know cascades of emotion so coming home from school like every child probably would and being asked to draw a family tree you know my father broke down and sobbed and I had absolutely no idea why he couldn’t draw even the first branch of the tree. So there were emotions but they were very stifled or repressed.
N: Very hard for a child to negotiate in that – I mean anyway but in that situation. So that leads us into you know the family and it’s obviously not just a story about being an only child, it’s a story about the parents that you had and the trauma that they had experienced and how that you know very typically goes down to the next generation and beyond. So I mean this sense of being an only child was compounded by your having no other family so at what point did the penny drop in that, going hang on, we really only are three?
C: Well – but not only did the penny sort of drop but it dropped in the sort of wrong – in a wrong way in that you know I eventually added two and two and I got six so I realised by going to other people’s houses that they had another generation often who were at the table, who gave cuddles, who told stories and these were things called grandparents. Well I didn’t have any of those and I was quite intrigued by the fact that they were often a quite benign presence that could sort of act as a buffer and help you to negotiate things that you could get through the grandparents that you couldn’t get from parents. I was very intrigued by them, I thought gee, they’d be handy.
N: Speaking of assets –
C: Yes and didn’t have any aunts or uncles but what we did have at home was we had a very large prominent bust of President Kennedy and we had lots and lots of photographs of him and on Sunday mornings my father would listen to recordings of him to give him ideas for speeches that he was going to give at conferences and things so he would listen to the oratory of Churchill and he would listen to the oratory of Kennedy and in 1963, on the 22nd of November 1963 when my mother came to pick me up at school she was crying and I hadn’t seen her cry before and I noticed that all the other mothers in the courtyard of my French school were crying too and that was pretty alarming. And I said to my mother is today the end of the world? And she said yes and she didn’t elaborate, she just said yes. And then we drove home and I remember as she was driving me home crying I thought I must look at everything because the world’s going to end tomorrow. And I don’t know why I thought I was going to survive but anyway. And then my father came home and this is before I’d made him cry with the family tree so he came home and he was crying and I thought wow, never seen him cry before, terrifying. And nobody explained anything so in my mind I decided that President Kennedy was a member of our family and that that’s why they were so upset and I then set about spying on my parents to determine how I had been wrenched from the family of President Kennedy and ended up in Wimbledon. That took a few years.
N: It’s a good thing to do.
C: And it had consequences.
N: Indeed. So I mean I’ve just – I found – okay, we probably need to give a little bit of background about your parents so your father was an Austrian Jew, he was part of the first wave of children taken with the Kindertransport to Britain, posted into a host family who you only found out about I think when you were 30, is that right?
C: I found out dribs and drabs about them earlier so that the way my father told me the Kindertransport story – how many of you here know what Kindertransport is? So yes, most of you do but for those of you that don’t, just a sort of quick little precis, kinder transport was a relief rescue operation of 10,000 children that started in December 1938 and it was organised by the Red Cross and it took these children out of Australia, Czechoslovakia and Hungary and brought them into families in the UK where they were fostered. Amazingly, amazingly they were fostered into families where there’d been no vetting at all and it is remarkable – one of the many remarkable things about Kindertransport is that very, very few children suffered any kind of abuse at the hands of the families that took them in. It is a remarkable success story by and large. The flipside of that, the tragedy, the statistical tragedy that I should tell you is that 90% of kinder who were sent on this journey by their families never saw – the families were never reunited, 90% of the children never saw that parents again so that is a terrible statistic.
But the thing that my father did, when he told me little bits of the story so one year we went to Bath and as we were driving into Bath he started to tell me a story about how as a child he’d been fostered into a house in Bath and we went driving looking for this ivy-coloured mansion on the edges of town which he couldn’t find and he told me the story of how he had lived there with a Mrs Tanner who took my father and his elder sister in and basically thought that she was getting slave labour so this is one of the few examples of a bad fostering experience. And she didn’t feed the children, she left them in a sort of garret with rats and the children were terrified and cold and lonely and she was completely barking mad. She wore only a sort of silk negligee, she had three grand pianos on three different floors of the house and she just spent her entire day wafting up and down the grand staircase playing spectacular bits of Rachmaninov and Chopin, breaking off into a maniacal giggle and then floating up to the next floor. And the children watched all of this, getting increasingly hungry and cold and eventually they ran away, they ran back to the holding camp where all the other kinder were, they explained the situation, they begged to be repatriated to another family and they did eventually come to a family who were the salt of the earth in Yorkshire.
But when my father started to tell me the story in the car in Bath about Mrs Tanner he characterised her as a kind of Miss Haversham and he made the story funny whereas it was not funny in reality, it was terrifying and my father had a way of disguising the whole thing so that even when he tells the story of going to Yorkshire and finding this wonderful Quaker family that he lived with he absolutely did not tell me how frantic he was to try and contact his parents, to lobby anyone, any adult whom he came into contact with. He would beg them to try and get his parents out of Vienna so he minimised the whole thing and told it to me as a series of jolly jaunts. And it was only when we were reunited – when I was in my 30s my father took me to York to meet the still living members of the Hughes family and he broke down completely and it was again you know one of those cascading waterfalls where he had organised a lunch for us to meet this family and he started to cry and we all thought he would never be able to stop, it was really overwhelming. So he was holding a lot in and he was not given to introspection but he was a good storyteller but he had to always make it entertaining.
N: Yeah. As opposed to your mother who again sort of gave you snippets of her very traumatic childhood but it was a bit more sort of fairytale and you know very sort of like witchlike you know wicked stepmothers and things like that.
C: Yes. Well in her case a wicked aunt so my mother’s father, my grandfather, was a very jealous man. My grandmother had my mother when she was very young, when she was 17, she was not really equipped for motherhood. I think my mother was an accident and my grandmother was not very interested in spending much time raising a child. My grandfather became convinced that my grandmother had been unfaithful. One day he went to her workplace on the Avenue De La Conde Da Mae, one of the great spokes of the Etoile and –
N: In Paris.
C: In Paris. Yes, thank you for reminding me of that. And he shot my grandmother in broad daylight and turned the gun on himself. He died instantly at the spot, at the scene. My grandmother took three days to die of her wounds in hospital and was able to give a statement to the police on her deathbed and I was able to read her testimony on the front page of a Paris newspaper when I eventually got to the bottom of all of this. Yeah.
N: And your mother was how old when that happened? There was some contestation in her memory wasn’t there about –
C: Yes, there’s a chapter in the book called Googling a Murder where my mother comes out for her 80th birthday to stay with me here in Australia. And we investigate the real details of the circumstances of her parents’ death together, and we use Google Earth to zoom in on the exact corner of the – what was then the Avenue De La Conde Da Mae – and see the building where the crime happened, and then a few months later we’d go to Paris and we passed the spot. So, I write about that then and the extraordinary thing that we discover together in that chapter is that she had always said to me that she believed that her parents had died when she was two, she’d been told that they had died in a car accident when she was two. When she was 18, she was told the truth but - that they had not died in a car accident, that this has been a murder-suicide – but it was only when we read the newspaper dated 1933 that my mother was amazed to discover that she was not two when her parents died, she was five. Now at five a traumatised child could in theory, still remember what their parents looked like or sounded like or smelt like. My mother had so completely blocked them out that she remembered absolutely nothing of them, and to see in the paper that she was in fact five when they died was really shocking.
N: And I mean she must have witnessed horrible – I mean horrible things before that incident.
C: That’s very perceptive of you to say that. I had not thought about that, Nikki, but a therapist said to me that a murder-suicide like that does not occur out of the blue, that usually there is a continuum that leads to an episode like that and so it is highly probable that my mother up to the age of five would have seen my grandfather strike my grandmother and certainly the day before the shooting happened the neighbours had heard raised voices, a fight and sounds of what sounded like a physical scuffle, so I think my mother did witness all of that.
N: And then she had a really rough childhood from there, she was sort of passed around, wasn’t she? From – amongst the family. She had a lovely time with her grandfather but then yeah.
C: Tragedy struck there and she then was passed around like a parcel. She was fostered multiple times, her schooling was disrupted as she was moved from one side of Paris to the other so she never completed her education and then to kind of add insult to injury – I mean this was a child in utter turmoil with no love in her life – her family didn’t want to keep her because they considered her the fruit of a damned marriage. They were Calvinists, they were extremely scandalised that this violence in the family had made the newspapers so they sent her off to be fostered to a series of strangers. So not only did she feel unloved, not only did she lose any kind of comfort from family but to add insult to injury, when she reached her most turbulent years of adolescence the Nazis arrived and so the enemy invaded, she was forced to learn German and I think - she hasn’t spoken to me a great deal about that time but I think that that collision of adolescence and enemy invasion and that feeling of being unwanted must have been you know I think it’s just extraordinary that she did not end up completely and utterly delinquent.
N: Absolutely, I had similar thoughts like how does a person – and as flawed as she was how does she even get to that point of being able to love someone? Falling in love with your father, having a child, loving her as best she could from what had happened to her and then to have the couple, such frac - you know such damaged people come together.
C: Absolutely and not only did she you know manage to marry and have a child but she educated herself so that she became the most well read person that I know, in five languages. She became a late – a mature-age student. She enrolled to study Russian at university in London. By the time she finished she had become an accomplished Russian literary translator. She reads Chekhov and Dostoevsky and Gogol in the original you know she – the quotes at the dinner table - my father had learnt Shakespeare and could recite it in reams. My mother could recite [Carnet, Assine, Mollier] 34:51 you know these were two incredibly literate people, absolutely self-taught. I… you know, I’m dazzled by her, really.
N: And you know the descriptions of your family dinners sound amazing. I mean yes, there was all the conflict but just you know the references, the people, the food as well and –
C: The food, the food. My mother says – I didn’t know this until recently but my mother who is also as well as being the most well read person I know, the best home cook I know, said that growing up in France there were no such things as cookbooks. It was presumed that you learnt how to cook from your mother and from your grandmother and of course she did neither. But cookbooks as such didn’t exist. They do now in France, France has borrowed the cookbook tradition from England in fact, ironically and America and everywhere else but recipes in France were passed down from mother to daughter.
N: Now I feel like we could pick apart so many little bits of this book but I would really – we’re running out of time and I’d love to go sort of you know fast-forward to the writing life. I mean you have had a life full of books and journalism, fabulous anecdotes about working for people like Melvyn Bragg and on Parkinson and – your first stint at Vogue when you were 16 or something, I mean it’s slightly ridiculous but you came to writing about yourself quite late. I think maybe there was – that came – something that came out of the Hazel – the biography fellowship was a piece in the beautiful anthology called Rebellious Daughters, I think, so this was all sort of about you know dealing with you know being a good daughter and coming to terms with that. So I just wonder was it at that time that you first started thinking about writing your story? I mean had it never really occurred –
C: I’d written a little bit so I’d written the Kennedy story as a short piece for the Good Weekend magazine and I knew – there’s a crucial part of the book about a Russian invasion that takes place at home where my mother unwittingly started – well she found herself running a safe house for Soviet defectors. Anyway –
N: It’s hilarious.
C: It’s too complicated to explain but anyway that’s what she did. And I knew that one day I would want to write about that because it was so utterly bonkers, it really was bonkers.
N: And beautiful as well ‘cause your mother was coming into her own, I mean that’s the bit I loved about it.
C: Yes but we did have MI5 parked on one side of the street and the KGB on the other side of the street and that wasn’t normal, obviously. So I knew – I was saving that up for something but I didn’t know what and then I think when my father got sick and then died two years ago that gave me the arc of a story to tell about being a good daughter and being a bad daughter so I was estranged from my parents for three years and during those three years I had to make peace with myself – I had to accept the idea that I might never see them again and obviously for all of that time I felt like a very bad daughter. And then my father’s illness allowed me to come back into good daughter land and now I’m back in bad daughter territory ‘cause I’ve written this book.
N: That was going to be one of my questions as well, yeah.
C: Yes so my mother said to me when I sent her the book a few months before it was published, because you don’t lob this on an 88 year old, especially one who’s coming to live with you this year.
N: That’s lovely.
C: Yeah. So I sent her the book and she – her first remark to me was so you waited for your father to die but you’re not waiting for me. And she doesn’t like the book, she feels that I have violated her privacy and that I have judged her and that I have exploited stories that she thinks are not there to be exploited. And I think that she belongs to the generation of people in their 80s who have a particular view about privacy, and about what gets spoken about in terms of marital secrets and infidelities - my father was a philanderer -- and then you have millennials at the other end of the spectrum, who are giving away their privacy every second without even knowing they’re doing it, and I think for them and for us, really, now the concept is more or less lost.
And then you have me in the middle, and I’m kind of a foot in each camp, you know, I mean as a journalist and with the degree of ruthlessness required to write a memoir which – it is an ingredient you know if you're going to do this for your grandchildren you don’t have to be ruthless. If you’re going to do this for publication - I always think about Nora and Delia Ephron’s mother who on her deathbed sat up and said to both of her daughters take notes, this is material. She was a writer too so she knew, she knew that everything is material so I am in the middle of negotiating a truce with my mother prior to her arrival and the best we can do at the moment is that she likes the cover because she took the picture. The dedication to her hasn’t helped. But she does like the trailer so there’s a little trailer on YouTube which is something that was made by Allen and Unwin for which I supplied the photographs and there are some beautiful photographs of my parents because they were quite a glamorous couple.
C: And so she went on to YouTube and she found that by herself and she says she likes the trailer.
N: That’s something.
C: It’s good enough for me.
N: I wonder on the sort of sharing and not sharing, like you say you have to be ruthless but I know there are sort of lots of discussions in feminist writing groups and with memoirists about how much gender plays a role in this sort of writing and I mean obviously you’ve struggled with you know the good daughter, bad daughter thing but have you had any pressure about how much to disclose or not or either you know from yourself or from your publisher or has it even entered into the thought process?
C: I think people who know me say I’m very blunt and so I think that the book reflects a certain bluntness and a certain all or nothing attitude that I have that if you’re going to do this then you’ve got to do it 100%. I haven’t protected myself, I mean I don’t come out of this looking good a lot of the time and I accept that and so for me if I’m going to do that to my parents then I have to be equally scrupulous about myself. And I think one of the things that I discovered in writing the book was often the impetus for writing is an ugly feeling, that’s where the energy and the fuel is that gets you to write the stuff that has the emotional charge to connect hopefully with readers, that you know if you sit around waiting for your finer feelings to kick in before you write a memoir you’re never going to do it. Whereas if you can harness jealousy, regret, envy you know these are powerful emotions that drive you forward, they have momentum whereas the other kind of emotions often you know you might think about it but you’ll be too polite, you’ll be too safe, you won’t go as far as you need to go so my publisher did ask me for more of a bit of this and a bit of that.
One thing that I haven’t done is I have kept most of my working life out of the book quite deliberately. The reason that I write about Michael Parkinson and Melvyn Bragg is because – that they were men like my father, they were men with explosive tempers, they were judgmental men, they were men that I was absolutely desperate to please. I’m not so much kind of name-dropping about the fact that I worked for two famous men, it’s more about the continuum of a particular kind of man that I needed to get out of my system and I quarantine some of the working life that I’ve had because in the way I want to tackle biography and the way I’m going to write about Lucy Dreyfuss, I’m going to be looking at her but I’m also going to be looking at the state of biography from the perspective of a journalist who started her career by writing short profiles and is now trying to go to the marathon version.
N: Oh that’s fascinating. And what about humour as well? You know people say oh you have to laugh or you’ll cry and you know there’s a hu – heap of humour in the book –
C: Oh good.
N: - and – well – but I think it’s more your turns of phrase, the way you describe things. I mean there’s something hilarious about the way you’re dressed and I mean - at some point and your mother dresses you until you were of quite an age but there’s a hilarious observation about you know you looking like a – oh I should find the quote ‘cause it is great.
C: Oh an Estonian – someone who’d raided an Estonian folk dancer’s cupboard or some – or crossed with a Cornish milkmaid, yes.
N: That’s the one, the Cornish milkmaid. I mean – but there are so many turns of phrase like that which are sort of equally biting and humorous and I just wonder again that was a conscious thing and whether you also approach your life with humour ‘cause you –
C: I do, I think, I think you need to. I think actually the people who baffle me the most in life in interview situations are people with no sense of humour. When you're faced with someone who doesn’t laugh at anything, who is completely literal about everything, you do think whoa, okay, this is going to be hard work. Whether it’s on stage with a writer or whether you’re doing a profile of someone but it’s funny that you mention the clothes. My mother made most of my clothes, laid them out for me until I was about 15 or 16 and even when I went to work at Vogue for the year that I went in my gap year, from school to university I went to work at British Vogue in this hopelessly glamorous environment at a time when everyone was wearing the new romantics and they were sort of wearing vintage cascades of lace from their sleeves which got caught in their typewriter carriages but never mind, they looked incredibly stylish while they were doing it.
And I went to Vogue like a jeune fille tressage you know a very bourgeois little girl still with my hair in little berets wearing these tidy little outfits that my mother had made for me. I was so uncool at Vogue, it was absolutely excruciating. And the strange thing is, Nikki, that just last week the editor that I worked for and took phone messages for at Vogue, Joan Juliet Buck, published her own memoir which is called the price of illusion and Joan was this hopelessly glamorous and decadent person in my orbit and I absolutely worshipped her. And I just started reading her memoir yesterday and it’s extraordinary, we have – went to the same school 10 years apart, I never knew. Our mothers wore the same perfume, never discussed that. We both had the same favourite French book as children, a book that you know nobody who didn’t grow up in a French school or a French home would know. We’ve got so many things in common, I’m just racing through the book to the bit where I worked for her. Of course I won’t be in there, I know I’m not in there but I was just so excited to get to that bit.
N: Or there’ll be some sort of mortifying anecdote.
C: Reference to the girl in the corner wearing those hopeless outfits.
N: But maybe you were so uncool it was actually cool you know that –
C: Ooh I doubt it.
N: No? Well I would say next edition more photos of the clothing, just you know there was talk of dirndls, there’s –
C: Dirndls, dirndls.
N: - I mean there’s furs, it’s – and your father’s and his cravats and you’re getting to choose –
C: My father had 122 Hermes ties, 122. I still have them, I still have them and yes, the obsession with the dirndl so after everything that had happened to him, after the Nazis, after being completely riven with loathing for that regime he bought my mother a dirndl and he bought me a little miniature version and we’d wear our little puffy sleeves and our little aprons – what was that about?
N: No wonder humour was required and you’ve you know developed in that way. Now we have about five minutes for questions so raise your hand.
C: Sorry, sorry, I shouldn’t have gabbled on.
N: No, no, wonderful gabbling.
M: Yes, if you do want to ask a question please raise your hand and we’ll bring you a microphone for the people who might be needing the hearing loop and there’s one down here, thank you, Stuart.
Au: Thank you for a very nice second talk, I was in Adelaide as well.
C: Wow but then you’ve heard a lot of it before. Oh –
N: Should have given us a tipoff.
Au: And so I’ve really enjoyed the second talk as much as I did the first one.
C: Oh thank you.
Au: So – but – well I had a huge number of comments but one is I hope you’ve thought of taking your book to China, lot of singles – only children, you ought to do very well in China.
C: Well I mean, thank you, that’s a lovely tip and funnily enough you are not the first person to say this, there is a writer called Michael Horton who writes really terrific books about raising children and he’s just published his parenting books into the tiniest market and he wrote to me last week and said I think you should try. But there is a book by May Fong about only children in Ch – the one child policy in China and I think that my book has such a European sensibility and is so specifically European in its peculiarities that I cannot see how the Chinese would relate to it but you know maybe - maybe I’m wrong.
Au: But I think – sorry, I’m a therapist – parentified children are rife in China as well and they have the same pressures. Anyway so that’s another big discussion but I also wanted to ask if you know having all those emotions driving the writing of the book where are you at the end of that writing?
C: Oh that’s such a nice question especially from a therapist. Well I feel better, I feel lighter. I feel like you know there’s a lot of emphasis in life at the moment about decluttering, everybody’s got to declutter their wardrobes and their pantries and you know the garage and the everything. This is decluttering, this is letting go of stories I don’t want to carry around, I have got to this point in my life in my 50s where I want to travel lighter and I think in all honesty that it’s also a way of preparing to receive my mother, it’s a bit like knowing a tsunami is coming. She’s 88, she’s very vinegary, she’s got all her marbles but you know in order for me to make space in my heart and in my life for my mother I had to do this. She may not like the fact that this is my decluttering but I do think that it has opened out space.
Au: <inaudible> 50:51.
N: Surely it will free up your relationship with her as well to you know that you’re not going to have to unburden, ask her a million questions and – you can just be -
Au: No, no, that’s all done now.
M: Another one? Anyone else?
Au: That was a great presentation, thank you very much and somebody who had a very eccentric mother myself I kind of have a sense of camaraderie with you.
C: Thank you.
Au: But my question is really a more practical one, how did you approach writing such a complex personal memoir? What was the process? How did you go about doing the actual physical writing of it?
C: That’s a great question, thank you. It took about five years on and off because of course I had to earn a living in the meantime and so it was very slow. If I’d been writing fulltime I think I could have done it in two years but emotionally it was very draining so I did write a lot of it in tears. I wrote most of the last third of the book in tears so it was quite a harrowing book. There were other bits of the book, probably about three chapters which I wrote in a sort of elated euphoric sense where it’s really just flying and you’re channelling it and you’re feeling it coming through your fingers and you’re just you know it’s cooking, it’s really cooking. I had over 300 letters that my father had written me from the time I went to university which as I say in the book I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t read thoroughly at the time but I had them, I kept them. I had my diaries from when I was eight so I remembered how ghoulish I was as an eight-year-old, I was very preoccupied with disaster. And I collected the figures from any catastrophe that was mentioned on the news like plane crashes and body counts.
So I had quite an archive and in fact one of the things that I learnt from working for Michael Parkinson and Melvyn Bragg was to value archives because whenever I went to interview people who were subjects for those two half the job was rootling around through people’s photographs and letters and diaries and if they didn’t have them you just thought oh my god you know how are we going to do this? So I had been trained to know that going back through old letters and papers was valuable and so that helped plug in a lot of holes and then stealthily without my telling my mother why I often asked her things and then you know she realised three months ago why I was doing that.
M: We’re going to have to leave it there and it’s awful to bring the questions to a close ‘cause I’m sure there are many of you who would like to join in this conversation but I hope after my introductory remarks you’ve really been elated by what you’ve heard and really interested in what is a really beautiful book and very, very interesting to read and to reflect on. So thank you to both Caroline and to Nicki for your conversation tonight.
We have got time for you to join us downstairs in the foyer where there are some refreshments and Caroline will sign books and the bookshop will happily sell them to you and tonight you can also get a 10% discount and we do thank Allen and Unwin, Caroline’s publisher, for making it possible for Caroline to be here tonight and for supporting our events program throughout the year. I’ll just take one quick opportunity to say that on Sunday at 2 we’ll be exploring the life and work of another interesting family relationship and that is Hans and Nora Heysen and Lou Klepac who was a great supporter and – of Nora and of course a well known art writer and curator has just delivered his last promise to Nora that he would write a book about her father whom she had a very interesting and complex relationship with and so the Canberra launch of that book will be here and that is also a book which very much explores the life of - the complicated life of families as well as the place that researchers and libraries play in managing an artistic afterlife.
So finally a thank you to all of you for coming, I’m sure you will feel you are glad you made the effort despite the weather and please now do go downstairs to the foyer and enjoy the rest of the evening. Thank you.
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