Australian Biography

Anne Deveson - full interview transcript

Tape of 15

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You were born in Malaya in 1930. Why were you born in Malaya?

... [laughs] ... My parents were there. I was born in Malaya, my father was a rubber planter, my mother was there. It was a second tour of duty in Malaya and she hated it, but that's where I was born and I was there for two years, with not very many memories, really, of that time, except I remember being told that I was born in the Men's Fever Hospital in Kuala Lumpur because my mother couldn't get to the maternity hospital in time. And I was a breech birth and my mother was in considerable pain and was told that she mustn't make a noise, and indeed a towel was put over her face because she might disturb the men who had a fever while she was having a baby. So ... you know, I remember from photographs looking back, and it was very much a colonial life then. I have pictures of my father with long white socks smoking a pipe, looking very debonair, and my mother in a 1930s dress looking rather beautiful, and an amah in the background — the obligatory amah. But it was probably a very protected life, and a very good start to life, because things were calm and ordered in those days.

How old were you when you went back to England?

I was two and, again, I don't remember any of that, except being told that when I arrived I was a very sickly baby then. I had um ... boils and dysentery and all sorts of nasty things. Um ... I had a brother who was three years older, and then I start to have memories. I remember we went and lived in London in Kensington Gardens, and my father at that stage had decided that he didn't want to go back to Malaya because he wanted to keep close to his children. And my mother had decided that she didn't want to go back to Malaya either, which was the reason for his making really quite a brave decision that he would stay in England and he would leave the rubber estate for which he worked, and um ... that he would open a hotel. Now as my father had no idea of business and had no idea how to run a hotel, and used to serve the guests lobster and strawberries, we very quickly went broke. And there I do have memories. I have memories of the monkey grinder ... an organ grinder with a monkey outside the hotel. I have memories of a housekeeper, Miss Hurditch, who used to sew the curtains. I remember ... I remember crawling up the stairs of the building — it was a very tall building — after my brother and sneaking into guest bedrooms, and then being told off by my mother or the nanny we had then because it was part of that, I suppose, middle-class life that you had a nanny and the boys went off to prep school when they were six or seven years old, and the girls didn't. Um ... but that was the life that went on for about six years, and then we moved to the country.

Now during those early formative years, what was the most significant relationship you remember?

I think it was probably with Nanny because it was Nanny I was with most of the time, and Nanny belonged to that kind of archetypal, almost, breed of English nanny. She didn't wear a uniform. She wore a grey skirt and ah ... a grey and white striped shirt. She had worked beforehand for Admiral Evans, who was Admiral of the Broke, and that was a very superior family to us. And, furthermore, we had a cane perambulator which Nanny was supposed to use to push me through Kensington Gardens, and she refused to go until my mother bought a proper, you know, fully sprung, shiny navy blue or black perambulator which was suitable, she thought, for one of her charges to be wheeled through Kensington Gardens. So Nanny was an enormous snob. I mean, far more than my parents, who weren't particularly snobby. But um ... Nanny, I remember, I slept in the same room with her. Um ... she was very consistent and very kind, but I was certainly reared on lots of Victorian maxims like ‘never a borrower nor lender be’, which was probably a bit useless, because I had nothing ... [laughs] ... to lend or borrow at about the age of three or four. Um ... she taught me to read at a very early age, and I think that was partly because she'd left school at the age of 12. She'd been told to put up her skirts and go and get a job, and so she had worked as a Tweeny maid in some big English estate, and ... and had never had an education, but she was obviously quite bright. And so she used to pour all her love and her desire, particularly to influence girls. She had always looked after girls primarily.

So by the age of about four I was reading away quite happily. And I was even reading headlines in The Times newspaper and this sort of thing. And that was Nanny's influence. My mother I recall as somebody who was quite beautiful and smelt wonderfully of French perfume, and of being taken down to see her in the afternoon. I'd see her in the morning. We'd have breakfast always together. But she was somebody I kind of played with. She was the ... not the business of living side of my life. My mother was the treat that came in the afternoon after 4 o'clock. And then she'd come up and say goodnight to us.

Those early years, would you describe them as secure?

Yes, I think they were. Um .. yes, they were secure. Probably almost too secure because again I was very disciplined. I recall being taken to dancing classes and it was always at the same time. Um ... I had always to look beautifully groomed because otherwise I would let Nanny down — it wasn't my parents. I had my hair put in curling rags every night. It was dead straight and very fine hair and it was the bane of my existence. Um ... the other message I got very strongly was that God only loves good girls and clever girls. And I think that was a very strong message that followed me, and has probably plagued me all my life, even though I know where it came from and that it's, you know, it's not true. Um ... but it still was ... it became probably one of my core beliefs ... I think the psycho-therapists would describe it as. Um ... but not from my parents. My father I don't remember all that well, except that he ... he was legs. I remember seeing him with these long, long legs in these ... in summer, long white socks ... you know, long white knee socks, and then ... and then my father going up the stairs. He was quite stern, and I think he didn't really know how to relate to children — except years and years later, in fact only about 10 years ago, I found a poem he had written to me.

It was 'To Anne', and he had written it when I was two years old, when he was struggling with this decision about whether he would stay as a rubber planter and stay in Malaya, which was where his career was, or whether he would take this punt and ... and stay in England. And it was about his little girl that he didn't want to leave behind. He didn't want to lose touch with. And I'd always thought he never was very interested in his little girl. And I remember sitting there with tears running down my cheeks from this. And the other thing of course was that he opened this hotel ... it was in the Depression. You know, you couldn't have picked a worse time to go into business especially if you knew nothing about it.

But he had run the rubber plantation. How did he come to be a rubber planter in Malaya?

I think it was a fairly long, circuitous route that he took. He'd ... my mother came from an upper-class-middle family and she was brought up in Hampstead Heath with carriages and servants and all the rest of it. My father's family were suburban bank managers and in England, which was very class-conscious in those days, um ... that really wasn't quite good enough for him to go ... to get where he wanted to go. He should have really gone to university. He was a very intelligent man. He had a prodigious knowledge of English literature, but his parents couldn't afford it. And so rather than be a clerk in a bank ... he had no aspirations clearly to being a suburban bank manager, he went to Africa first, where he got a job with the Africa Bank, and then he left and managed a banana plantation there, and he ... he gradually sort of worked his way through the colonial service, and then went out to Malaya, came back on leave and went out to Malaya. So yes, you're right. I mean, he must have had some kind of business acumen, but there were also business managers on these estates. So that he was quite clever in that he found himself an adventurous and really interesting life, but by a rather circuitous way.

He was also very unusual, my father, in that he had a very strong appreciation of the other cultures so unlike most people from England at that stage, he actually spoke very good Malay. He spoke Tamil. He knew a little Chinese. He knew some Japanese. Ah ... he had a deep knowledge and love of the kind of environment in which he lived and worked. And that was unusual. So, he was there but a much more shadowy figure for me. And then my brother went off to boarding school when he was seven, so I was only four then. So I lost my playmate and my brother, and life was a very regimented kind of ... quite strict life — but secure.

You said the family moved to the country ... where did they go and what were you doing?

Well, what happened then was that when I was six, my father had to pack it in. He had to face the fact ... that the hotel had gone broke. That he had lost his ... whatever the equivalent was of superannuation then, whatever money he'd put into the hotel, and he had to go back to Malaya. And he went back actually to a government job. He was a rubber restrictions officer, whatever that means. So he went ‘round inspecting the rubber estates to make sure that they were up to standard in every way. Um ... and we were separated. So we stayed on in England and my mother decided at this stage that we should be brought up with the benefit of country air, and she bought a house in Buckinghamshire. It was a Queen Anne farmhouse in a village called Bourne End which was near the river Thames. We could see the river and the fields. We were surrounded by fields. It was a lovely old house. And there I was parked with Nanny, and ... me. Mother used to come home probably about every fortnight. She then set up a business ... she was an enormously creative person, and she hated being dependent on anyone, and she had learnt how to make hats while she was in Malaya because she preferred doing that than playing mahjong with all the other women there. And so she would create these wonderful confections, these enormously creative and quite magical hats, which is probably why I've never worn a hat in my life since I grew up.

And she opened a business in Bond Street, which was extraordinary because she certainly had never run a business before, and one of her brothers came into the business with her, and they made hats, and they worked a lot for the British film industry. She worked for Korda and Stiebel ... [and um ... I'm not sure if that's right. We might have to go back on that one. So she worked for the British film industry] ... and she was very successful. So that period of my life then, in the country, was Nanny and I, and my brother at boarding school, and my mother coming home every weekend or every two weeks. And again, my memory was not one of being deprived because it was ... a lot of other people lived similar lives. No, they probably didn't actually, because their mothers didn't work. I mean, she was very unusual in that sense. Um ... but it was, when my mother came home, that was the time for play and for fun. And it was probably extremely hard on Nanny because my mother used to delight in taking us for walks when it poured with rain, and stepping in all the puddles, and eating buttered Brazil nut sweets, which went all against Nanny's injunctions, and generally playing. So that was life for me. I used to look forward to the ... you know, when my mother appeared, and meantime I went to school.

So your mother had the role that an awful lot of fathers had in those days?

Yeah. And my father came back on leave when I was nine, eight or nine. He ... he came back on leave for about three months, I think. Something like that. And of course, we didn't really know him very much then. He was a stranger. But he used to read us stories. I think, actually, he came back just after we settled in the country. So he came back twice on home leave. Um .. and then I have more playful memories of him because he probably wasn't nearly as harassed, and he used to play games with us and make up poetry and introduced us to Lear and all sorts of fantasy ... children's literature. And again, I had a pattern that to me was um ... quite secure. I went to school, which I hated. It was a little governor's school, and I actually ... thanks to Nanny, not only read and did sums ... at quite an advanced level for my age, but I couldn't stay in the class with kids of my own age, so I was with children who were about two years older than I was. Consequently, nobody really liked me because the ... the older children used to look down on me, and the younger children were resentful and bullied me. And I was a kind of fair cop for bullying. And my brother used to come home from boarding school and rescue me, and give me lessons on how not to be bullied.

Why do you think you were fair cop for being bullied?

Um ... I think it was because I was actually quite different. I think ... I think the fact that I was ... I didn't ... I was late going to school. I was about seven when I went. That I was with children who were older. It probably would have been better had I stayed with my own peer group because I wasn't as emotionally advanced or probably as resilient as the other children who had grown up with a cohort from that village and from roundabout. Um ... I think because I was no good at games. I was hopeless at anything. I remember um ... that I couldn't skip properly, and as for running into the skipping, which all little girls have to do, that used to frighten me and bewilder me, and I always used to fall over. And so I didn't quite fit in. Many, many years later, I also realised something else quite profound, which is about how we build our own memories of our lives in the way, often, that we would want them to be. So I had always imagined that I had had a very conventional childhood. I had always imagined that I had been brought up in the country, and that somehow or other, or although I never actually spelled it out, there was the mother and the father, and the home-made bread, and the home-made soup, and my brother, and there was a kind of ordinary family life that in actual fact most other children had ... because around me, in Buckinghamshire where we lived, there were families with the mother and the father, and sometimes a nanny, and there was this kind of domestic security that I imagined I'd had.

I had had security but it was a very different kind. And that revelation only came to me when, many, many, many years later in the 1970s, I was on a Royal Commission on Human Relationships, which was exploring a vast range of subjects, and one of them was about families. And we had been hearing a lot of evidence about families who were split asunder and who ... didn't have the normal sort of life that most people want to have ... whatever that is. And I remember crossing William Street in Kings Cross and thinking ‘aren't I lucky that I had a very normal sort of life.’ And as I went — I was half way across William Street — and I thought, ‘my God, I didn't!’ And I nearly got run over, I remember. And yet, had I been asked to sit down and write it out, and of course I wouldn't have written the fantasy, but somewhere or other I carried this fantasy with me.

Does your memory tell you that that fantasy went right back into your childhood? In other words, you said that you had no sense of being anything but completely secure and normal at the time. Is that the case or do you think the very fact that you put this sort of halo over that period, suggested that you didn't feel that everything was exactly as you would like it to be?

That's a very penetrating question ... [laughs] ... I think I had security in that I knew I was loved. I never had any question of that. I had security in that I knew we lived in a place that was agreeable and where things happened on time, and where I could predict what lay ahead of me. Um ... but what I think I didn't have was companionship. I actually think I was probably very lonely, and that I can look back to my early childhood and feeling very bereft when my brother went to boarding school, and when I was there with Nanny who, if I say she was harsh, that's probably not quite the right word, because she wasn't harsh in her treatment of me, she was very loving. But she was a woman who had not known any love. I think she had been kissed once by the under-footman, who was 15 when she was 14, and that was the only kind of demonstrative ... demonstrable affection she had had. And ... and I think that I longed for more companionship, more kids playing around me. Nanny wouldn't let me play with other kids because she thought they were too rough, or too this or too that. So that I wasn't very good at playing.

Now you asked me earlier about why I was bullied. I think because I wasn't very good at the rough and tumble of play. I just simply had never experienced it. So I think in that sense I was quite lonely, and I remember as a child, aged about three, I invented these characters, Mooney and Looney, and they lived ... I was still in a cot so maybe I was even a little younger. They lived in one corner of the room, and Mooney was red I think and Looney was yellow. And Mooney was quite kind. Mooney had one of those upturned mouths. They were like ... they were both like Cheshire cats. They kept disappearing. They were like big balloons, just faces. And Looney was mean, and the yellow sometimes turned to an acid green. And when we moved to the country I remember being very distressed that perhaps I couldn't bring Mooney and Looney with me, because they were my friends. And yet also I really didn't want to bring them with me because Looney was horrible. And so I had this dilemma. And they actually did disappear when we moved. They gradually faded away. But ... and I had forgotten all about them until, again, hundreds of years later, and they suddenly came back to me. Up there they were.

What did your brother teach you that helped you to stand up for yourself?

I think he ... the very fact that he came and cared about me, and supported me, was in itself very important. Then he said, ‘you have to hit back’, which of course is not what you should teach children now, but sometimes I think it's quite effective. You have to show them that you're not scared. And I remember the lavatories at the school, although it was a very expensive school, were outside. So we used to go out to play. There was a playground with a lot of grass around. It was a quite expensive, private ... little ‘governessy’ private school. And ... but the lavatories were outside and the older boys used to line ... hide behind the bushes and as I came out of the lavatory they'd give me the wet towel treatment. They'd have tea towels which they had soaked and then flick them at me. So it was quite brutalising stuff. And my brother said he would come and he would hide opposite them. He would get there before them. He must have been on holiday earlier, and he did, and as they started to do this, he came roaring out at them because he was quite tall, and big for his age, John. And he said, ‘Don't you dare touch my sister again!’ And he made me speak up for myself. And they stopped doing it after that. I think kids can smell fear in other children. Um ... and also I hadn't told anyone. I only told my brother that this was happening. So it was the beginning of a shift in looking after myself which took quite a long while because, throughout the earlier part of my schooling, ... I was always a little different. I never quite fitted in. I went to an enormous number of schools too.

What brought that phase in Buckinghamshire to an end?

Um ... the war. I remember the day that war was declared. My mother was working up in the north of England. Um ... she had closed down the business in Bond Street and she didn't work for a while. And then she had a position buying for a big departmental store. It was a chain of stores all over England. Again, she bluffed her way into that ... because she really didn't have much business acumen. You know, she was sort of hopeless at adding four and four, but she had enormous creativity, great vision and she was able to convince people that she could do anything that she felt she could. And she ... we needed more money. My father's salary in Malaya wasn't very big. My brother's schooling was quite expensive. My schooling was beginning to be expensive. And I think she was restless. So she had this job and she was in Scotland on the day that war was declared, I remember ... and she took a taxi from Edinburgh all the way down to Buckinghamshire in the south of England ... [laughs] ... because she was so worried about her children. ... . and Nanny was furious at such extravagance, such indulgence, Madam! And my mother wanted to stay on in England, and my father meantime in Malaya was fretting and was saying you must come out here, it's much safer here, dit dar de dar de dar ... little did he know. And my mother was refusing.

And then came the beginning of the bombing, and we had two little refugee boys, I remember, billeted on us in the country. Ah ... this Nanny found quite hard to accept because they came from the East End of London ... ‘and you have no idea what manners they might have, Madam.’ So these two poor little scraps I remember came and their families used to turn up every weekend because my mother, who again didn't have this kind of snobbishness, was a very generous and warm and open person, had said, you know, to their families, you must come down every weekend and whenever you want to ... which they kind of took literally, so hoards of people used to turn up and Nanny was left to look after them. I think we had a cook or something as well ... someone, as well. But um ... and I remember the little boys ... my mother had a piano. She played the piano beautifully. And Nanny used to feed these little boys porridge before they went off to school. Porridge and toast. And they obviously didn't like porridge very much, but they appeared to eat it up. And one day my mother sat down to play the piano and there was a terrible soggy sort of clonk, squelch ... and she opened the lid of the piano and it was full of porridge. So ... [laughs] ... and they went back. The refugees went back ... and they went back into the Battle of Britain. In the beginning, a lot of those kids were evacuated and stayed for a few months and then went back to London, just when the bombing got, you know, really severe. And so meantime the war was obviously hotting up and my father's letters became more and more persistent — telegrams he sent then.

Why did they go back just as it was hotting up?

Well, I think they didn't go back just as it was hotting up, but they went back because nothing very much was happening. There wasn't a lot of bombing in England ... London at the time, I think. And they felt it was all quite safe and they were homesick. I mean, it wasn't a generalised movement back to London, but a lot of kids did go back. And then had to come ... be sent away again. And so after the insistence of my father, my mother agreed in the end, and my brother and I and my mother set sail on a ... liner for Malaya in a troop convoy.

And what about Nanny?

And Nanny had her heyday in the war. Nanny said goodbye to us but not with great tears. I think she was very sad to see us go ... but she had decided to join the WRANS, and in the WRANS she became a Petty Officer cook, and she ... as a Petty Officer she had wonderful gold braid and brass buttons, and a cocked hat, and she was in charge of all these girls. And she had a great war. And by that I don't mean that she was impervious to the suffering of war, but she was someone. She had rank and she had status, and she had her own independence, and she was able to use her actually very good mind in a whole lot of administrative ways as well. And she was probably quite splendid in that position.

And what about you, how did you feel about saying goodbye to her?

Um ... I think we were so excited at the idea of going on a ship to Malaya, that I think we just sort of took it in our stride. I think I was, you know, sad to say goodbye, but I wasn't overcome with grief. And I remember again, looking back on that wartime period, and comparing it say now with my grandchildren, who are five, six, eight, nine. They're little. Their knowledge of what happens in wars is far more realistic — it's probably from television, and far more a part of their lives even though the war isn't in their own country, than mine was. I mean, I remember the day that war was declared, Nanny taking us for a picnic, and we were sitting on a hill eating Playmate Biscuits, and I can still remember the biscuits and they had chocolate and pink and lemon and white icing, with different ... I think they had rabbits on them and different animals on the front of them. And we overhead on a radio there ... [there can't have been portable radios, or we just heard] ... and it was all quite unreal. It was like quite exciting that something had happened in our lives, and Nanny was saying that it's not really very exciting, it's very serious, and we had a long lecture on Hitler and on the war, but how Britain was going to win. Nanny used to take us to every royal event that there was, like the Coronation, and everything that ever happened. Um ... but it wasn't very real for us.

And what about the ship journey?

The ship journey was fantastic! We had ... a troop convoy and there were about 17 ships in the convoy ... some of them were passenger ships and some were ... I don't know what else they were, but there were fighting ships. There was a whole mix .... we ... my brother and I had suddenly a lot of freedom. Um ... I had much more certainly than I had ever had ... and my mother was a very loving, but sort of quite indulgent mother. She was good. I mean, she didn't let us run wild. We were very well-mannered, very well-behaved. And um ... but I remember then the excitement of leaning over the side and watching the phosphorous in the water and watching dolphins and an albatross and all these strange smells and sounds and sights. And then the convoy was torpedoed but not anywhere near us. It was a long convoy and a ship was sunk either way back or way out front, I don't remember which, but I remember we had this news. And we used to have lifeboat drill, and ... we used to have icecream every day, and so again there was this inability to really comprehend what was happening, other than it was an adventure and I learnt to ... I learnt to swim on the ship. Again it was my brother who let down my swimming tyre. I had ... I had bathers with silver spots on them and I couldn't swim, and I was quite cowardly also about anything physical. And I had a rubber ring that eventually he got impatient with and let the air out, and I swam.

So my brother featured quite a lot in my life early on ... and then we arrived in Penang where we were met by my father who was really a complete stranger, he seemed to me, and who I rather resented because he took my mother's attention away from me, away from us. And he was also very awkward with us. Again, not because he didn't want to relate ... but because he simply found it very hard. He wasn't sure how to relate. And the father that I remember when I was about six years old, the father who used to tell nursery rhymes and cautionary tales and read to us, had kind of disappeared into this rather severe ... again, very good looking man. But who didn't know how to show affection. And I remember climbing on his knee when I was about nine, and I was only wearing a pair of knickers. It was ... we were in the tropics. And he pushed me off and said, ‘Don't you think you're a bit old for that sort of thing.’ And I remember being mortified, and the fact that I still remember it means it burnt itself in on my memory. It was a sense of rejection which certainly wasn't where he was coming from, inside, but it was that ... which was so typical I think of many men in that period, and indeed, many men still — but I think it's getting better — who find it very hard to relate emotionally ... because he'd never had very much to do with us. He had never had the kind of hands-on fathering that most younger men certainly have now.

What about other children, companions in Malaya?

Ah ... well, this was also not a very happy tale. It was interesting. We went back to the Kuala Pilah, which was outside Kuala Lumpur where my father lived on a rubber estate, or on the outskirts, and where we had Malay villages, kampongs around us, where ... where it was quite exotic. I remember the house had wonderful wide verandahs and my father used to play French songs like Plaisir d’Amour to my mother, and I remember they used to dance. It was quite a romantic getting together, obviously, for them then. And it was decided that I should go to boarding school because there was no boarding school suitable for young boys, for young male children in Malaya, because such was the racial discrimination and consciousness that you could not send a young English gentleman, a young English boy child, to school with Asiatics or, you know, of any colour, any description, any colour that wasn't white. And so ... and this was interesting because I think my father was ... I remember him fuming about it, but falling into line. So my brother didn't go to school. There was about six months when he didn't go to school.

But I was sent because I think my mother was worried that I would be kind of on my own or that it wasn't safe, or ... I don't know why I was sent. But I was sent to a convent boarding school in the Cameron Highlands of Malaya where various friends of my parents had daughters at this particular school. It was called the Pensionat Notre-Dame, and it was run by the Loreto nuns, and I hated every six months of it that I was there. I was extremely unhappy. The little governess school I quite enjoyed but this school, I was really very unhappy.


... [laughs] ... Again, I had never been away from home. Um ... I found it very strange. I had never seen nuns before. I listened to and elaborated and embroidered all the stories that we were told that nuns beat ... they beat themselves at night, which may or may not have been true, but probably in a teaching order, not. And that they all had shaven heads and you'd better not come upon one of them with a shaven head or you'll be beaten. Um ... I remember we went to bed the first night in a dormitory with rows and rows of mosquito nets, and they mirrored the shape ... they echoed the shape of the nuns’ black cowls. They wore heavy black, even though it was in the Highlands, but it was still pretty hot ... and white wimples. And we were told that we had to go to the lavatory before we went to sleep. Incidentally, my mother would never let me say toilet because it was considered common then. So we had to say lavatory.

We had to go to the lavatory before we went to sleep, and any little girl who had to get up in the middle of the night proved that she hadn't obeyed the injunction to go to the lavatory, and would be punished. And of course in the middle of the night, I desperately want to go to the lavatory, and I have no idea where it is, and eventually I have to get out of bed and crossing my legs and hopping and skipping in the darkened dormitory trying to find the lavatory, and hoping I didn't come across a bald nun who was whipping herself ... [laughs] ... I finally make the lavatory and then I get back to my bed and I find there's another child in my bed. And I know it's my bed because they were all numbered and I'd kind of left something there so I would know how to get back to it. And so I get into bed with this child and I think, well, maybe this is what happens in convent boarding schools, you have to double up. Maybe this is a child who came late at night and ... and poor thing, there wasn't a bed for her so they saw my empty bed and they put her in it. Um ... maybe it's there to test me, but I suppose I had better get into bed with her. So I get into bed with her and after about five minutes she starts to kind of heave around, and I suddenly get enraged with anger, and this often happens I think with very good people when they get angry, it can sort of surge up. And I thought, this is my bed. And so ... [interruption] ...

[end of tape]

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