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Non-fiction reviews


Germaine Greer - Daddy, We Hardly Knew You

8 April 1989

Daddy, We Hardly Knew You

Germaine Greer

Hamish Hamilton

Published in The Advertiser (Adelaide)

Interview with Dr Germaine Greer

Germaine Greer's late father, Reg, spent the latter part of his life as the Melbourne advertising rep for The Advertiser. Dr Greer's new book, Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, describes her harrowing attempt to discover the truth about her father's life before then.

Reg Greer had spun his wife and children a sketchy myth around his origins. Even this had been increasingly obscured by his anxiety neurosis, a legacy of the bombing of Malta in World War Two. Germaine Greer found, in the end, that her father's very identity was a fabrication. Her quest for the true "Reg Greer" is an international detective story of near-epic proportions, which frequently brought the author close to despair.

It was a much happier Germaine Greer I spoke to by phone in Cambridge - in this, her first Australian interview on the book. Her conversation was sprinkled with witty asides, earthy epithets and an enchanting laugh. I began by noting that researching the book seemed a really awful experience for her a lot of the time.

GREER: Oh it was. At one stage I wondered if I was going to come out of it sane. I was becoming obsessed. For example my obsession with dead animals by the side of the road. Whenever I'm getting run down and beginning to lose my grip on things, I start to be very aware of lumps on the road. I always think they're dead animals. Half the time, of course, they're just bits of rag and stuff. But I can't stop looking at them, and that's the sign, always, that I'm piling it on to myself a bit too thick.

Q: So the agonies you went through - not the least of which was the fear that you were making a complete fool of yourself - are justfied now that your quest has been resolved?

GREER: I think so. I think I'd rather know the truth, especially as I've come to terms with it. I hadn't come to terms with it by the time I finished the book. I mean, for a long time my father was...gone. I couldn't feel his presence, I couldn't feel any affection for him. I couldn't feel anything about him at all. And he's just begun to come back again. In rather odd ways: just occasionally I dream about him. He's usually complaining about me, but he's there.

Q: I had a walk along Hindley St today - past the Victoria Hotel, where he lived in the twenties. It's now an enormous garish disco.

GREER: Yes. Daddy had that corner room with the turret - you know, that round window. It looked so strange and seedy - I wondered if I shouldn't go in.

Q: You did come over to Adelaide? It wasn't clear from the book.

GREER: Oh yes, I did. In '87.

Q: You're regarded as a somewhat rebellious person. Yet your writing in recent times - not only this book, but the ones immediately before it - has also expressed respect for stable environments, and traditional values. Do you have any inner conflict about this, or do you think you have the two in some sort of balance?

GREER: I still expect this book to get right up people's noses. I haven't really stopped getting up people's noses. But I don't think people have ever been clear in their minds what I was getting up their noses about. I don't think it's changed that much. I still respect people who have a co-operative system, like the blacks, more than I respect bureaucratic society. I still respect societies which have women and children at the centre, much more than I respect a society where they are marginalised, and unimportant, and mostly invisible. And so I don't think there's anything inconsistent. It's just that people have been a bit confused by what I was trumpeting about. They thought I told them to go out and fuck - well I never did. And then they thought I told them to go out and stop fucking - and I never did that either. (LAUGHTER)

Q: Many intelligent Australians of the post-War era, like yourself, reject mother, father, what they were taught at school, and even the country of their birth. Often the reasons are quite sound. But we do find ourselves, in the last quarter of the twentieth century, without a heritage, and with an impaired sense of ourselves therefore. What do you reckon about this dilemma - and how to overcome it?

GREER: It depends what you think your heritage is. I feel very strongly that Australia is not my heritage - and I can't invent it. I especially can't invent a sort of lie - like the Bicentennial lie - and say, "This is who I am. I'm one of these valiant people who, against tremendous odds, tamed a country in the South Seas and turned it into Paradise on Earth." I just can't wear that. I really think there must be a punishment for talking in this way - it's a kind of blasphemy. I think I am Australian to the extent that the problem of the Aborigines is my problem... I've chosen a rather extreme way of coping with it: I won't come back to Australia unless I come back to black-owned land. Which is easy to do, because blacks are extremely reasonable people... I think that my heritage is probably right where I am. I went to Cambridge University; I now live quite close to Cambridge. And I'm making a little publishing company where I live. And I'm growing an orchard. I'm not really fond of roots. But such as they are I think I've probably got too many rather than too few.

Q: So you feel pretty comfortable with your "adopted heritage"?

GREER: If I suddenly set myself up as an Aboriginal, or a professional Australian, then that would be a phoney for me. Ever since I was a little girl I wanted to escape from where I was. I didn't want to be any more in Mentone. I dreamed of a different place where people were interested in different things, and where I wouldn't feel such a freak, and where I wouldn't be spoken of with such contempt... People know who I am in England, but they don't give me the sort of roasting that I get whenever I go to Australia. I mean, they don't write whatever they feel like about me in the paper.

Q: You're rubbished as a matter of course here, every fortnight or so. It's something of a national ritual.
GREER: Oh it's unbelievable. And I don't have to endure that. One of the things that gives one roots, I suppose, is being recognised by one's peers.

Q: Daddy, We Hardly Knew You has a kind of novelistic flavour at times, particularly in the descriptions of weather and flora and so on. And several characters - notably your mother perhaps - would also sit quite comfortably between the covers of a novel. (LAUGHTER) Do you think you might ever try your hand at fiction?

GREER: I cannot imagine that it would be an advantage to invent a story, because then I would have to make it probable. And the whole thing about Daddy is that it's improbable, but it's true. And I think I enjoy that more. I enjoy telling an improbable story that happens to be true, more than inventing a probable one that is a lie.

Q: Do you ever suspect that men may - because of your fame - treat you with a kind of artificial respect? In other words differently from the way they treat their wives and lovers and daughters, in the privacy of their own homes?

GREER: Well, I don't think so. Not really. Because there's such kudos for putting me down, you see. If you pick a fight with me in a bar, it doesn't really matter what I say, because you'll probably say that you won. I mean, I don't often put myself in those situations. At dinner parties I have to put up with "the speech I was going to give Germaine Greer" - I still get that. And generally I pretend - because my hostess doesn't want a knock-down, drag-out fight - that he might have a point or two, just so I won't have to talk to him for the rest of the evening. What offsets everything is becoming a middle-aged woman. Middle-aged women are mothers-in-law manquees - and everybody talks down to them.

Q: What challenges lie ahead now, for Germaine Greer?

GREER: I've got to write my book on ageing, which is called The Change... It's an attempt to celebrate growing old. And to give some help to people who are finding it difficult. It is jolly difficult, I find, to grow old. But there are tremendous advantages that one doesn't dream of when one is younger. When you're younger you think you couldn't bear to be getting stiff, or unable to ride a horse, or that you couldn't bear pain. And if you had arthritis like your grandmother you'd probably top yourself, and so on. But in fact there are some things about ageing that make all those things more bearable.

Q: Such as?

GREER: I want to talk about ageing in different cultures. The philosophy of ageing. The rites of passage. And all of that kind of thing. The usual stuff I talk about, essentially.

Q: How so?

GREER: First I talked about young sexually active women, then I talked about mothers - now I'm talking about grandmothers. It all follows a certain inevitability, really.

Q: Going back to what you said about coming back to Australia. Did you mean you won't even visit, until you can live on black-owned land? Just clarify that for me, if you could.

GREER: Even to visit. One of the black communities - the Alyawarre people - has had a struggle against a pastoral lease for access to their ancestral land, for many years. And they have written the story of their struggle. And instead of coming out to promote my book, I might come out to promote their book. This is all rather recent - because events have speeded up and I wasn't prepared for them, really. I didn't have any idea that the Daddy book was already in Australia. And so now I have to get back in touch with some people in Alice Springs, and tell them that there's no question of promoting my book. They don't know this yet. They may, indeed, find it out from the 'Tiser.

Q: We've got Writers' Week at the Adelaide Festival in early March next year...

GREER: Well, I've never been invited to the Adelaide Festival - unlike almost everybody else I know.

Q: It's a lovely week. Beautiful weather, usually.

GREER: I'd probably have to stay on one of the black lands near Adelaide if I did that. But that wouldn't be too bad... I haven't got any objections to making the reptiles of the press sleep out to have a look at me in such a place. It might actually increase their awareness of what's going on.

Q: Indeed it might. Well, that's actually the end of my questions.

GREER: It was much less harrowing than I expected.

Q: You sound a lot happier and more mellow than you came across as in the book. I saw you on the telly recently too, on the Clive James thing. You seemed happy and vital on that too. I was concerned that you hadn't resolved things enough, at the time you finished writing Daddy.

GREER: No I hadn't. But I must say that I think most people are only just managing. Most people are struggling to keep things on an even keel. I think life's hard. But - you don't get too depressed, when you find out your family's like most others: full of madness and criminality.

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