Australian Biography

Bob Santamaria - full interview transcript

Tape of 13

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Let's begin at the beginning, and I wonder if you could tell me ... just describe the kind of household you were born into: where it was, when it was, and what kind of a household it was.

Well, it won't mean very much to you, but the address was 219 Sydney Road, Brunswick. It was about three doors from the Brunswick Town Hall. It was a very small fruit shop. There were three rooms upstairs, so that physically describes the household. For the greater part of my life - well until I was married - the ... in those three rooms we used to have my father, my mother and I think there were about four of us before we left there.

And so how many brothers and sisters did you have?

I had ... now let me get this right. I had five: four brothers and one sister.

So there were five boys, and one girl, in the family.

Yes. Yes.

Now, where had your parents come from?

They came from a small group of islands north of Sicily, which are really ringing around the volcano of Stromboli. The central island is Lipari, and they came from the next island, which is known as Salina. I don't know whether you've read The Leopard by Lampedusa, have you? Well, you might remember that the hero was the Prince of Salina. We claim relationship, but I don't think it's really very authentic.

Why did they come?

They came because pretty well everybody on those islands were close to starving. It was the poorest part of Italy. It had been part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilys, under the ... originally the Spanish Bourbons. And the people on those islands were even poorer, I think, than the people of Naples on the mainland. And so the emigration was almost complete. I think that between the year 1900 and 1913, eight million Italians left Italy and pretty well all for the same reason and more than half of those came from the south. Well my parents were part of the southern migration.

What did your father do in Sicily?

Well he worked on the island only. They ... my father's family were fishermen, and he used to help his father with fishing lines and so on. When he was a young man - I don't know exactly at what age - he migrated with his brother to the United States but they found the situation of Italians in New York, and Brooklyn in particular, so bad: it was not only poor, but the beginning of criminality and so on, that they wouldn't take it and so they went back to the islands, and later on the whole of the family migrated to Australia.

But they had been fishermen for many generations before that?

Well, for some generations. I don't know how far back that went but they were traditionally fishermen.

And what about your mother? Where did she come from and what was her background?

My mother actually came from the same island. My father's family, being fishermen, of course, came from the part nearest the sea. Her family came from a part near the mountain, which was in the centre of the island and they had a very small vineyard. But although they were better off, it was still a pretty poor existence. While my father migrated to Australia with his family, she didn't. She didn't know my father in Italy at all. Her two brothers had come to Australia, and they had a shop in the Victorian country town of Maryborough, but they had nobody to look after them. And so at the age of - I think it must have been fourteen or fifteen, although I'm not quite sure - my mother had to come out with friends on her own to look after her brothers and she went to live in Maryborough, and it was through that that she met my father.

The Italian greengrocer is very much part of the history of Australia.


How was it that your father became a greengrocer?

I really can't answer that. When he came out, as a single man with his family, his father bought a greengrocery, also in Brunswick and I think then the normal thing was for the sons, as the ... two sons as they married - to go into the same line of business.

Now, for you growing up in that shop, did you have to help? What was life like there?

Well, there was no alternative but to help. The hours in that shop were on three mornings a week my father had to go to the market, and be in at the Victoria Market, at the latest, at three o'clock in the morning. So he had to get up at two o'clock. That meant then getting up at two, it meant preparing the horse and the cart. There were no cars as far as they were concerned. And then going in there and then he'd come back and unload the fruit and so on. Thereupon, late in the morning, my mother would look after the shop while my father had a rest and when I'd get home at about half past three - because the school was straight behind our shop - then it was my turn for a couple of hours to look after the shop. And then you'd go into the kitchen and do your homework.

Did you enjoy it? Did you enjoy the shop?


Why didn't you like it?

Well, I suppose I'm lazy. I don't like work, I never have. No, that's the only reason that I didn't like it. [Laughs] I never liked work.

So it wasn't just that you didn't like being in the fruit shop?

No, no that didn't affect me at all. Everybody, all my school friends and so on, were ... If it's possible to conceive of a lower social status than being a greengrocer, they were of lower social status. Their fathers worked in the railways and in foundries and so on. So we were all socially all of the same group. You would never think of the point that you've made.

Did you ... was there always enough food and so on in the family?


I mean where were you positioned in terms of money?

Well, we had not very much money at all, because the turnover in a very small fruit shop in an industrial suburb, the monetary turnover would be small. But of course, the time that I remember most was the time of the Depression. It was building up to the Depression in 1927-28 but of course, the Depression in full came from '29-'33. But although the money was very short, somehow we were never lacking food, and never lacking good food. We had Italian food and the good food was largely due to the fact that my mother could make good food out of anything. We were much better off than a lot of my companions at St. Ambrose's. I would think that about, during the Depression, forty per cent of the people in Brunswick were unemployed during the Depression, and I would think that among my friends at school, about a third would come to school every day without any lunch. And those who had lunch would have to share it with the others and I was one of the fortunate ones who had a lunch to share.

What kind of a person was your father? How would you describe him?

Well, my father was typical Italian peasant. He was strong physically. He had only four years of education, but he was very strong intellectually. He had a strong intellectual interest and was interested in foreign affairs, in ... in ... in politics in Australia, and so on, which was quite extraordinary for a person of his background. I don't know any Aeolian islander of the families in Brunswick - there would have been about twelve - who would have had the same interest. I hope that wherever he is, he won't mind my saying this. He was a person of very quick temper. But the most interesting thing about him was this, that he would always use the table to try to get my sister, who came after me, and myself, to discuss public matters with him, when we knew nothing about them. He would discuss foreign matters and so on and the interesting thing was that in the course of that discussion, his ... his ... his opinions would often vary very much from ours, because ours were worthless. But although he had a quick temper, I never knew him once, on those occasions, on which he had brought about a conversation, to use his parental authority. And I always regarded that as a very big thing to be said in my father's favour.

Did you have a sense that you got better at these discussions as time went on?

I can't say that, I don't know. I really don't know. I wouldn't have had any real knowledge, I think, until I was at St. Kevin's, when I was about thirteen or fourteen and then you started to pick up some knowledge of European history and so on. But without remembering any particular discussion, I would say that the standard of my knowledge would have been abysmal.

I was wondering whether or not this had a formative effect on you, the fact that your father did encourage these discussions.

I'm sure it did. I'm certain that it did.

And do you feel ... do you remember feeling motivated to please him by knowing more?

No. No, we were never that self conscious. It was just a relationship, if you like, of having a meal around the table. He'd ask you questions and you'd answer.

What sort of things made him lose his temper?

Generally my behaviour.

What kind of behaviour?

Well, I was pretty self-willed, and he thought I was rebellious, which I actually wasn't, and labouring under that misapprehension he could be pretty severe.

What form did that take?

Oh well, get a clip across the ears occasionally, which I don't think did you any harm. But it was nothing more than that and I don't want to give you any false impression. We were in fact a completely contented family. Like southern Italian families, there was a good deal of opera about it but, you know, fundamentally we knew how to get on with each other.

So, what do you remember from when you were a child thinking about your father?

Oh, I think ... I think that I remember his strength of character, and as I ... the fact that although in financial terms we were pretty poor, that he always was able to make a living for his family. He never failed in doing that. His readiness to take a risk, to take a gamble. That had its bad connotations as well as its good one. He was a terrible gambler.

What kind of a gambler?

Well he used to love betting on the horses, and when he used to go to the Italian Club, the Club Cavour, and insist on taking me with him, as I was growing up, he was a great poker player, a skill which he never handed on to me, unfortunately.

So did you have any interest in this? Have you got this gambling side to you?

Not really, no. I was very fond of playing poker when I was young, until the first wage I ever earned, which was five pounds, I was skinned one night, and I never played again.

Maybe your poker took a different form.

Well, I wouldn't like to blame the rest of my life on my poker instincts. [Laughs]

I'm just wondering, though, you have been a bit of a risk taker in some ways, haven't you?

Well, not consciously. I never look at things in that way. I mean the main thing is you try to make up your mind as to what has to be done, and you try to do it, and whether there's a risk or not a risk, doesn't make any difference.

You mother, how did she fit into the picture, as far as you were concerned as a child?

Admirably. Every one of us loved her, as we loved our father, intensely. She had had only one year's education. And she - I think in this thing that I wrote recently, a memoir - I pointed out that although she had only one year's education, I would rely on her judgement much more than an academic I ever met at the university. I look back and hypothesise about it. I mean, she had the peasant woman's fundamental good sense. And, of course, nobody would defend her family the way - anybody's family - the way she defended her's.

Did she share your father's interest in public affairs?

Not really. She wouldn't have known what they were all about. But she was not lacking in interest. But it was not her metier at all.

And what was her metier?

Her metier was to be, if I can use a rather corny phrase, a wife and a mother, and particularly a mother. Does that tell you?

She was very interested and understood well how human beings live and operate.

Very well, although I never realised it well. It was, you know, at ... the time that I realised it most was many years later, at the time of the Labor split. And you know, I left home in 1938 I think it was, and this was 1955 and she knew that there was something wrong. She couldn't read English. She could just barely read Italian and she used to see my name in the paper, and the connotations were never good. And so she'd ask me, and I'd tell her about it and she would offer an opinion and the opinion was always right as to how you should behave, so ... so that while she didn't have any real background in public affairs at all, her instincts were good judgements.

In the moral sense, in the ethical sense?

Always. That was never, never in question where she was concerned. But even in ... if you like, in the political sense, about whether you responded sharply or whether you took it moderately. She was generally right. Her great strength, which she shared with a person of much higher education, Archbishop Mannix, and they both said the same thing to me at different times, wildly different times: 'Never let yourself be provoked'.

Have you found that hard advice to take?

Well, I flatter myself that I haven't but some of my daughters think that that's a mistaken judgement.

They think that you can be provoked into losing your temper?

Yes, yes, that's right. One of my daughters told me the other night, when I said that I never shouted, she flatly denied that. But she had to go back twenty-five years to discover an incident.

Now, as a child yourself, living in this household, was there a very strong religious atmosphere?

Yes, yes there was. I'd have to say that. But you've got to understand it in the Italian way. There was never any doubt at all that we were Catholics, Catholics in the Italian manner. My mother would always go to mass. My father didn't, for many years, go to mass of a Sunday, but he had a very good reason because on Sunday morning, he had to do all the cleaning of the horses' stable and so on, so the reasons were completely understandable. But later on he did. So that all of the assumptions were Catholic assumptions and I grew up not thinking of anything else. The thinking about religion only came to me when I was about fourteen years of age and I was almost finished school by that time.

In thinking about who you were as a child, was the fact that you were an Italian, or the fact that you were a Catholic, the most salient feature of the way in which you could see yourself to be different from those around you?

No, they were indistinguishable. You were Italian and you were Catholic and you were a Catholic because you were Italian. [Laughs] It's not the other way around. But there is no doubt at all that your Catholicism went with your Italianness.

And that was how you saw it too?

In so far as I was conscious of it. I mean, you don't think about those things when you're young. But later on, looking back, I see that that is how I thought about it.

Do you remember becoming conscious of the fact that you were Italian and not everybody else around was?

Oh yes, yes, I remember that very well. I am greatly amused these days when I see people rushing to the Racial Discrimination Tribunal. We had plenty of reason to do that, but if it had existed, we would have despised having recourse to it. You could either defend yourself or you didn't want anybody else to.

And so what do you remember?

Oh well, I remember the unpalatable words, 'dago' and so on, being used very frequently. The ... you handled that as best you could.

How did you handle it?

Well, it all depended on the size of the person who used the phrase. [Laughs] I mean if you felt that you could handle him, you handled him. If you didn't, well you changed the subject.

Did you feel hurt?

Yes. Yes, but never ... I could take that. But never as hurt as when I heard my mother called that. I thought that was unforgivable. But I don't want to exaggerate that, because although that was not infrequent, the truth is that my mother was very well-known in Sydney Road, Brunswick. And I can see, I can still see her going into some of the shops, Love & Pollard and so on, and I could see from the way that the shop assistants spoke to her that she was highly respected. So the truth is that you wrap it all up together and it didn't matter very much and I hate to hear people talking about racial discrimination when somebody uses names about them. It's making a mountain out of a molehill.

So you were in no way scarred by this name calling?

Not at all. Not at all.

In relation to being Catholic, was that the ... were most people around you in Brunswick, that you knew, were they also Catholic?

Oh no, not most, but Brunswick had a fairly high Catholic component. But still, it was the typical Anglo-Saxon break up in the Melbourne suburbs. The majority were not Catholic.

What do you remember as the first experience that you had that you might call a spiritual experience? Do you remember as a child feeling and thinking thoughts about God?

I want to be very clear. People who say that they have spiritual experiences, I envy them, but I don't understand them. My life has been singularly bereft of spiritual experiences. [Laughs] But you naturally if you went to a school like St. Kevin's, which was only for the last two years of your scholastic life, and what we used to call Leaving and Leaving Honours, just the two years before university, one half hour each day was always devoted to religious instruction, as they called it, and part of the religious instruction was the philosophic foundations of your faith. And it was at that time - and I was already about fourteen - thirteen or fourteen - that I began to think autonomously if you like, about God and about religion. But as for spiritual experiences, I'm afraid I'm not given to them.

I suppose, I mean by that not necessarily something that was transfiguring or ...

Well nothing ever transfigured ...

... but do you remember praying? Did ... do you remember ...

Oh yes, I do.

... and having a relationship, as it were?

Well, my mother taught us always to say our prayers at night. You did it as fast as you could. And, you know, it was part of the normal life of the Catholic family. When I married myself, my wife and I would always say our prayers with the children at night time. So that was our normal routine. It didn't mark you off as being particularly pious.

Now when you went to school, what are your memories of the early days at school, the first school that you went to?

Well, the first school that I went to was just behind our shop. It was St. Ambrose's Christian Brothers. Well, the very first I went to was the Sisters of Mercy in Sydney Road, Brunswick. But that was only for a year. Then I went to the Christian Brothers. And what I remember about that was that it was a characteristically Christian Brothers school. We were all socially of the same group. I suppose that if you want to put it in class terms, it was a very working class area. The education that the Christian Brothers gave us, which depended a lot on discipline and hard work, which was often enforced, nevertheless was a very disciplined education, which laid the foundation very effectively for your university life later on. I can't say much more about it than that, except that you've heard a good deal to the detriment of the Christian Brothers in recent times. I can only say that in all of the years that I was at a Brothers' school, which was from the age of five until the age of fifteen, I never once came across the slightest suspicion of any of the incidents that we've heard about. Nor have I ever met any of our school mates, although there may be some who never spoke to me about it. My recollection of the Christian Brothers was entirely different. I saw a group of men who'd given their whole lives, and their life was a very hard life in every way, deprived of family and, you know, from the time that they were young boys really. And they sacrificed the whole of their lives to making sure that people like myself and my mates at school, whose foot was not even on the lowest rung of the social ladder, would get up to the first or the second step. So I look back on them with a sense of great responsibility.

Were you immediately good at school? Did it become apparent that you were a bright boy?

No, not really. I was no good at all until I got into the Fourth Grade, and then when I got into the Fifth Grade, suddenly five child ... boys finished equal first and somehow my name was there. Nobody got as much of a shock as I did. And after that I realised that I could do something. But I was not among the brightest at all.

Not at the beginning, but then you took your place near the top, and did you feel it was important to stay there, to do well?

I'd like to be able to answer that, but I don't really know what to say. It was important in this sense, and I knew that it was important: my father was always extremely determined that we'd go to university, but we didn't have the money and you had to win your way by scholarship. So I knew I had to do that. And therefore you had to work. And I know that some time ago you interviewed a friend of mine, Jim McClelland, and we went ... we were in the same year, and we went for the same scholarships, and both got them. But I would think that his impetus was the same as mine. That when you had no money, if you wanted to go to the university, you had to win your way.

And as you evolved, as you came up through the primary school, and then you went ... what were the succession of schools that you went to?

Well, the primary school only took you the Seventh or Eighth Grade. There was a certificate called the Merit Certificate. Then that took you on to two years at the North Melbourne Christian Brothers. That was to the Intermediate class. Then the Brothers had very wisely - long before I was there - worked out that the best thing that they could do for their pupils was to have a central school for those who'd passed their Intermediate. So the half dozen Christian Brothers colleges, like North Melbourne, would send those who wanted to go on to university to St. Kevin's and they had the best teachers that the Brothers had, for the last two years of your life. It was a very good, successful experiment.

This kind of selection, which used to also happen in government schools, became then subsequently very unfashionable, and opposed by many people interested in education: the notion of selecting out people who were destined for university ...

Well, they didn't select them. You were perfectly free to go on if you wanted to but if you wanted to go on, you had to go to St. Kevin's because there were no other later classes in the Christian Brothers schools. But it was not a matter of selecting those whom they thought was the best. It was your choice.

Right. So it really didn't matter if you weren't doing terribly well. If you wanted to go on, you still went there?

Yes. But at the end of the day you knew that unless you won what was known as a Senior Government Scholarship, of which there were only forty, you couldn't go on.

Did it ever cross your mind that you might like to join the Christian Brothers?

No. No. No, I never had any temptations to the religious life.

In any form?

Not really, no. I thought about it. I suppose that if you went to a Brothers school, with people speaking about the religious life and the necessity for enough people to embrace it, you had to think about it, but I can't say that it was ever a serious preoccupation.

Because it was also true, wasn't it, that a bright boy like yourself would be somebody who would have at least the possibility of that vocation drawn to his attention.

Oh, without any doubt. But that was everybody in the class. There was no particular approach to a person. It was simply that periodically, two or three times a year, a Christian Brother would come around, or a priest would come around, and talk about religious vocations, to the whole class. There was no point of discrimination between the bright and the less bright.

So why did you reject that idea?

I didn't reject it, I never pursued it. I never thought it was for me.

And what did you think then was for you?

I didn't think anything in particular. My father did the thinking. He had the idea that I was to become a lawyer and I ... I just went along with that. I had no particular enthusiasm for it, but I did go along with it.

Well then why didn't ... why did he see you as rebellious?

Oh well.

That sounds like a model of obedience.

Oh, it's ... you take it far too seriously. It just was the way it rolled on. No, it was rebellious in whether you obeyed or didn't obey in your ordinary domestic relationships. I think that happens in every home, doesn't it?

Yes, it does.


[Laughs] So you had decided to follow this line, because you had no particularly better idea yourself, I imagine ...

That's right.

... that you would do what your father wanted you to do and go to university.

Yes, I wasn't opposed to it. I just ... even from the time that I was very young he'd talk to me about the law. I didn't know what he was talking about in the very early stages but it became second nature to me, to think that that was where I was going to go.

And in the event, when you actually went to university and studied, first you studied Arts, didn't you?

Yes, I did. I did Arts and Law.

And then the law. Did you feel that you had in fact made the right decision, as you came to grips with the subjects as an undergraduate?

Well, I never thought that any other decision would have been better, I'll put it that way. I simply kept going down the same line but it seemed logical, and I seemed to be all right at it.

What, of the things that you studied officially at university, did you find most interesting?

Well the answer to that is ... depends partly on the subject and partly on the lecturer. I have always been a great devotee of history and I still think that history is one of the most essential disciplines. Perhaps the most essential. And what children today are being robbed of - and I see my grandchildren being robbed of it - is history. And I think that is theft. But the subject that I enjoyed most, basically because of the lecturer, was a thing that we used to call Modern Political Institutions. And the lecturer was McMahon Ball and he was the best lecturer I ever had and so he aroused a great deal of enthusiasm. He was flatly opposed to my views. He ... I won't tell you what he called me one day ...

Why not?

He himself was a left-wing socialist. But I must say this, I liked him and at the end of the year he gave me the exhibition in the subject, which I regarded as really generosity of the highest type. But it was the subject I enjoyed most but I think it was because of him.

What were the main points that you found yourself in conflict with him about?

Oh, he was a man of the Left, without any doubt, and I ... coming from an Italian family, and I was at the university, I went to the university in '32 I think it was. Mussolini was in power in Italy and I had done a lot of study of Italian history and I found that nobody knew anything about post-war Italian history here, and I don't see why they should have. But you see, between 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, and 1922, which was the year of Mussolini's march on Rome, Italy had no less than eleven governments and the country was just descending into total anarchy. There was fighting in the streets and so on, and in the first years after Mussolini came to power, he hadn't evolved, or rather he'd partly evolved the sort of political philosophy of fascism, which was never a political philosophy at all, and I admired what I regarded as the strength of government, that introduced superficially at least, a measure of social peace. So it was because of that that McMahon Bore was flatly opposed to me.

[end of tape]

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