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Features & profiles


Germaine Greer interview

3 May 1991

Published in The Australian Book Review

Germaine Greer's late father spent the latter part of his life as the Melbourne advertising rep for Adelaide's Advertiser newspaper. 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 wartime bombing of Malta. 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.

This interview with Germaine Greer is a much longer version of that which appeared in the Advertiser on April 8. It began - in a sense - when I told the female operator that the call to Cambridge was "person-to-person to Germaine Greer". "My hero!" she shrieked. When the shrieking had stopped, the call went through in seconds, and I found myself talking to a much happier Germaine Greer than the often-tortured, and rather "exposed" one of the book. Her conversation was sprinkled with witty asides, earthy epithets and an enchanting laugh - despite the fact that she was situated in a "cupboard" at her printer's. I began by noting that the writing in Daddy was very raw - that it read like a first draft, in one sense. With its lack of writer's persona, did she feel over-exposed?


GREER: Well, I think it's quite impossible for a writer to reveal anything about himself or herself that he doesn't want revealed, because you control the medium. Even if you write in an "I" persona, you still select the aspects of that persona that you show.

Q: But it did seem like a really awful experience for you a lot of the time. I don't know if I'm reading too much into it...

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 depressed - I don't mean seriously, clinically depressed - but when I'm run down and beginning to lose my grip on things, I start to be very aware of lumps on the road. And I always think they're dead animals. Half the time, of course, they're not - 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 onto myself a bit too thick.

Q: Most books are probably hell to write. Do you think Daddy was the most difficult you've undertaken?

GREER: I wrote it while I was doing the search, and I really quite like wandering around looking at things. And writing about it when it's like that is not so difficult. I feel very sorry for people who do all their research first, and then shut themselves up for 6 months without the telephone to get the book written. I think that must be absolute hell.

Q: So do you feel the agonies you went through in the writing - not the least of which was the frequent fear that you were making a complete fool of yourself - are justfied now?

GREER: I think so. I think I'd rather know the truth, especially as I've come to terms with it. It took a while. 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: Despite your fundamental warmth, there's a strong strain of alienation in the book. Not only from your father, and mother, and from God's own country - but sometimes from the whole human farce in general. Was this just the harrowing time you had with this particular story, or is it a more recurring feature of your psyche?

GREER: Um... I don't know. I don't recognise that as being part of me. Except I think I do like the sort of people I was taught all my life not to like. I never liked the people whom I was supposed to have a lot in common with. I never wanted to join the tennis club. But I really loved other kinds of people. I love country people, and I love poor people. I loved living in India. And I love the people of Malta. Just ordinary people. Except to us they seem extraordinary, because we think the middle class is ordinary, and everything else is extraordinary. But in terms of the world it's the poor who are more to be encountered than we are. We're a kind of rarity.

Q: In that case, are you still a blues fan? In The Female Eunuch you talked about the blues.

GREER: I used to teach the blues as well, as women's poetry. But I don't listen to them any more. I've been listening to opera a lot lately - though I think I'm getting sick of that.

Q: Does it sometimes amaze you that Australia's post-War suburban wastelands have produced some quite prodigious talents, and some quite eminent thinkers?

GREER: It depends what view you take as talent. I don't really subscribe to the view of genius as something very special or unique. I don't actually think of myself as cleverer than any other member of my family, for example. I just think that by a concatenation of circumstances I had to rely on that part of myself. I burrowed into a book-bound culture, instead of moving outwards into suburban culture. And that's just a trick of personality perhaps. But I don't think that it's a genetic oddity that you get people like this. They're more likely to come from a deprived environment, in some ways, than from a perfectly balanced and satisfactory one. Because you do need the divine discontent, the striving, to get that part of you working. So it doesn't surprise me that Clive James comes from Kogarah, and I come from Mentone. I don't know that Clive James, or I, or Barry Humphries, are actually Wittgensteins, or Socrates, amongst the human race. I think we're just, you know, passing industrious and moderately talented.

Q: Do you think Reg Greer's problem, at least in part, was that of many Australian men - namely an unconsciousness of the feminine side of himself?

GREER: Well, my father was viewed by many people as being very courtly to women, and being actually more able to communicate with women than most men... But I think the gulf between the two cultures - the male and the female - is very wide in Australia. It's very difficult to bridge it - especially as our mothers got used to living in a kind of suburban dream world. My mother didn't even know how much money my father made. She had no idea what our family investments should be. That was all someone else's problem, and she wasn't supposed to trouble her pretty head about it.

Q: Terribly common here.

GREER: Is it still common? Oh dear.

Q: In that generation, anyway. Often a husband will die, and his widow will not be able to write a cheque, for example.

GREER: One of the things I hope is that my mother - who is possibly quite brilliant in a bizarre sort of way - is so annoyed by this book that she decides to write a book of her own. She's never done anything that requires discipline or endurance, which writing a book certainly does. If it meant that she suddenly tapped all that energy of hers which has been wasted all the time I've known her, it would be really brilliant. She'd certainly have a go at me - I'd stay well-bitched. (LAUGHTER) That would be alright. I could stand it.

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 expressed a 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 expect quite a bit of flak from Australians about the Daddy book, on the grounds that I've challenged the belief that it was better that British people inhabited Australia. And I have nothing but a jaundiced eye for the development, such as it is, of the Outback. And so on. 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 post-War children feel that there's something quite seriously wrong with the preceding generation. Chiefly, perhaps, the lack of honest introspection. Do post-War children underestimate, do you think, the impact the War had on our mothers and our fathers? Perhaps it shut down their emotional lives more than we can fathom, at our distance?

GREER: I think we probably do underestimate it... I think the War must have been a catastrophe for everbody who was touched by it. And I feel very sorry for the men who lost all their grip on the world, because they found out it was quite a different place from the one they thought they'd grown up in. I mean, Australians thought they were pretty tough - and then they went to a world where they couldn't believe how people had to suffer... I think it's very likely that people only got on in life by agreeing not to pick over the old sores, not to ask any questions... I think that's probably right. Generally speaking people just didn't talk about their feelings - didn't know really what their feelings were, and felt probably that half the feelings they had they shouldn't have had at all... But when it comes to the creation of a whole generation of women, who thought their job was to remain girlish, soppy, for an entire lifetime - I think probably the movies had more to do with it. The pulp culture that they went through. I mean, these girls used to line up in Woolworths to listen to the latest Frank Sinatra albums. That softened their brains a good deal.

Q: There was a certain amount of detail in Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, which didn't have an obvious bearing on the quest. The genealogical dead-ends, to some degree - and even the quotations that begin each chapter, from such worthies as Sylvia Plath and Sophocles - had far less meaning for me than your central dilemma, which was really quite rivetting. Why did you incorporate so much of this detail?

A: When I began the book I sometimes thought that Daddy would turn out to be like Moby Dick - and that I'd better have a good fund of digressions ready. Because the whale wasn't going to surface, and we were going to spend a lot of time on the water. So you did expect a paragraph on flying fish. It is at least partly a travelogue - and different travellers notice different things. And the people you meet are all part of it. It's meant to beguile the tedium of the quest. The long lists of things that are irrelevant are not meant to be read if they bore you - you're allowed to skip them. The thing is, of course, that I did write 1500 letters. And the Greers in all those places all have some sort of contact with this book, and it's a way of tipping my hat to them. Because I do like them. I think the Greers are a pretty good lot, really. I'm sorry not to be one.

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 - and 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?

A: 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, because it's the only way open to me I think: 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"?

A: I think if I suddenly set myself up as an Aboriginal, and 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. And 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.

A: Oh it's unbelievable. I can't do the right thing. If I give an interview I'm giving myself airs. If I refuse an interview I'm being a cunt. It's just impossible. I can't get any straightforward dealings. No-one treats me like a professional. 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: On your old subject for a moment. From my layman's point of view it seems that equality for women has become some part of the status quo here, at least among educated middle class Australians. Probably because of that, there seems to be less feminist rhetoric now, by women. In book reviews, for example, I find myself sometimes taking misogynist authors to the cleaners. But it's relatively rare - in fact almost unheard of now, in the mainstream press - for woman reviewers to do the same thing. Do you think there's now a reluctance in feminist women to appear strident, or dogmatic?

A: Well I don't know that they ever enjoyed appearing strident or dogmatic. I've never actually been able to find the stridency. I think stridency is one of those cliches which no-one ever really tests. It's like bra-burning: it never happened. You said to me before, remember, that there are still women who don't know how to write a cheque. And I'm very much concerned that what's happened in the last twenty years is not that women's lives have become easier, and that they're more in control - but that they've actually become more difficult, and that women are less in control than ever. Now if you're a woman you're supposed to have a job - a job that requires a qualification - if you're in your mid-twenties, say. You're supposed to be competitive in your job. You're supposed to be serious, and ready to fight the organisation man on his own ground. Even though we all know that takes more than forty hours a week: organisation men work day and night for the company, and women the same. You're also supposed to have a successful sexual relationship - to be both fuckable and willing. Then you're also supposed to be giving birth to whatever is the okay number of children - 1.3 or whatever - and bringing it up in the fear and love of Mammon. And keeping the needles out of its arm. And keeping it going to school. All of which is getting less and less possible. I think that women are actually crushed by more pressure, and more contradictory pressure, than they were when I wrote The Female Eunuch. I keep waiting for one of them to stand up and say, "Enough of this crap. I can't do it. I can't turn up at work every day in a tailored suit, and freshly ironed blouse, and freshly washed hair - and get a child to the day-school, and keep my husband's sexual interest. I can't do it, and what's more I don't have to do it - and bugger you all." But I don't see any sign of them doing that. The women are soldiering on bravely, pretending that they're doing it all. And the women's magazines are pretending that they're doing it all as well. But I suppose someone will put their foot through that fabric sooner or later.

Q: The next phase perhaps?

A: We'll see. The women who feel the pressure now - the women who've actually made a choice to live in a less stressed way, to live closer to their children, and to be maternal - have been saying, yes I've got six children, I'm a career mum - do you mind? Piss off. And they're just begining to be heard. It used to be instant contempt to say that you belonged to the Society for the Promotion of Breast-feeding. And I think that's probably changing a bit... And you'd think by now we'd have some role models who are living on welfare, seeing we've had a whole generation who are unemployed. But in fact we've had no new insights into lifestyles.

Q: From the welfare generation?

A: Yeah. Because of the weight of guilt and humiliation, and the yuppie crap going on around them, they haven't had the courage to come out and say, "Look, we've got quite a good lifestyle, thankyou. There are certain values we don't share with the yuppies, and we're not ashamed of ourselves. Go and jump in the lake." But again the attention has been so focussed on the yuppies, and the upwardly mobile generally, and on their consuming powers, the cars they drive, and so on - that how people live on the dole is not dealt with, really.

Q: Anathema to the media, I guess.

A: Anathema to the advertisers - that's the problem.

Q: You are Australia's, and possibly the world's, most famous feminist...

A: I don't think it's true, but go on.

Q: We'll let that one pass. But 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?

A: Well, I don't think so. Not really. Because there's such kudos for putting me down, you see. If you actually 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: This question's a bit melodramatic. Was the search for your father parallel with a search for yourself, or a greater part of yourself, or even something like God?

GREER: I don't think so, frankly. I think I was just interested in me Dad. I'm not terribly interested in myself. Self as far as I'm concerned is something which one is limited by, and not something that frees one. In fact probably the value of doing the book at all was that I understood my father better. I certainly understood not to project upon him my own vanity, and my own hero worship. I understood that he was a separate person, and that he'd had a life before I was born. And a good deal of suffering, and struggle, before I was born. And that I was only one episode - and probably not a very central or important episode - in his life. If anything the size of myself was reduced a bit.

Q: What challenges lie ahead for Germaine Greer?

GREER: Well, my immediate challenge for today - the reason I'm sitting in a cupboard at the printers - is that we've got to get out the uncollected verse of Aphra Benn. I've got to get it sold at a price at which people can afford to buy it... Then I've got to write my book on ageing, which is called The Change. And I've got to get my herb garden planted... And I've got to get my mower mended. I mean, one day at a time. I've got to get the parrot's wings organised, before he starts crashing into things again. And...like that.

Q: Tell me about your book on ageing.

GREER: Well, 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: Just going back to the book of poetry. You have actually become a publisher, am I to understand?

GREER: Yes I have. I edited with three other women an anthology of seventeenth century women's verse, that was published by Virago Press here. And in the course of publishing that, I thought to myself: I can do this myself. It will save money, and it will be cheaper for the people who need the texts, and it will be quite good fun - and I'm going to do it. So the first book comes out on the tercentenary of Aphra Benn's death, which is April 16th. It's The Uncollected Verse of Aphra Benn.

Q: And more ventures lying ahead in that particular enterprise?

GREER: We're going to try to publish three titles a year.

Q: Just to go back a bit, to what you said about coming back to Australia. Were you referring to not coming back to even visit, until you can live on black-owned land...? Just clarify that for me, if you could.

GREER: Even to visit. I've alreay written to the Central Lands Council asking if I can come in May, because I understood I was supposed to promote the Daddy book in May. And now it's coming out in April. One of the black communities - the Alyawarre people - have 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 what I may do is instead of coming out to promote my book, I might come out to promote their book.

Q: We've got 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. There's plenty of black areas to stay in... 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 list of questions.

GREER: It was much less harrowing than I expected.

Q: Good. What were you expecting?

GREER: I don't know - I'm sure I'm going to get one of those interviews which says, "Now who do think you are? Why should anyone care what you think? Why should anyone care about your father?" We've been through all that before, you see, with less annoying books than this one. So you've given me a goodie for the first one. I'll have more courage now for the others.

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 pretty happy and vital on that. The ordeal you went through in the book worried me - that you hadn't resolved it enough at the time you finished writing.

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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