Australian Biography - Elizabeth Riddell

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Articles about and books by Elizabeth, pan right

FX: Typewriter


Elizabeth's fingers typing


Elizabeth's face as she types

Elizabeth v/o: "I do not forgive you your old age.


Elizabeth typing

Elizabeth v/o: I have liked lavishness, a splurge so I do not forgive caution nor


Elizabeth's fingers typing

Elizabeth v/o: the desire blurred, scribbled


Elizabeth typing

Dissolve to:

Elizabeth v/o: over, half erased, nor the corner of the mouth turned down as if dragged by an aching critical tooth.


Elizabeth reading, zoom in to book

Super: Elizabeth Riddell
Born 1910
Poet & Journalist

Dissolve to:

Elizabeth sync: I do not forgive the tufts, the patches, the stained skin. Not your fault of course but still unforgivable to go russet from red and white to dark in so few years, to lose the spring, the stretch, the hair, the glistening eye. Most of all I do not forgive your tolerance when I reject you, it is no substitute for rage and most of all I do not forgive myself, mirror image of your decay, the soon shredded flesh. Give me this, do not sleep through the cavatina and I will stay awake for you for the last time."



Photo: Elizabeth as a baby

Elizabeth v/o: I was born in New Zealand in Napier to a sort of middle class family who thought they were upper class.



Elizabeth sync: My father was born in Richmond, Virginia, an American. They were a family from -- of engineers from Carlisle, who -- the sort of engineer who went all over the world and built a bridge or a tunnel or something. And he happened, his father happened to settle in New Zealand and build a tunnel and then go away again and left


Photo: Elizabeth's father

Elizabeth v/o: my father, Sidney John Richmond Riddell. Richmond after the town he was born in. And


Elizabeth, zoom in to BCU

Elizabeth sync: I had grandparents in Napier and I never seemed to see them. And my father was a solicitor who was also a yachtsman, so I never saw him. And my mother just entertained for him and played bridge. And then he had a bad -- one day the yacht was in trouble and they were in the water too long and he got pneumonia and died. And the house -- we were then found to be deeply in debt. So I don't remember him. except once I saw him riding on a fire engine, because the house in the street was burning and he was in pyjamas, because he has gone to give the call, that's all I remember about my father. See, I was about five or something, and I was put into a boarding school almost immediately. I was the smallest child in the boarding school. and then it was all with other people. because my mother was incapable of -- she'd never been trained to do anything,


Photo: Elizabeth's mother

Elizabeth v/o: so she went to work collecting insurance from poor people. She went round



Elizabeth sync: working people and got their shilling a week or something for their premiums and then she got a job in advertising and she was terribly good at that. You don't need any training for advertising, of course.


Photo: Elizabeth's mother

Elizabeth v/o: She was very good, talked people into things. And she had very good jobs;



Elizabeth sync: she had fur coats and went to the races and had lots of boyfriends and had a good time. And so I was in boarding school, my sister was in another boarding school.

Interviewer o/s: Why was that?

Elizabeth sync: Because we quarrelled.


Photo: Elizabeth and her sister, zoom in

Elizabeth v/o: My sister persecuted me, she told me mother didn't love me and she persecuted me in quite a nice way, into stuttering I couldn't speak for a while.


Elizabeth, zoom out to CU

Elizabeth sync: My sister was only two years older than me, but she was an absolute expert at that age even. So we went to separate boarding schools, of course.

Interviewer o/s: And did you believe her when she told you that your mother didn't love you?

Elizabeth sync: Yes, I believed everything I was told. I believed everything I was a very solemn, believing child.

Interviewer o/s: Looking back to now do you think that your mother did love you?

Elizabeth sync: Sort of. My mother wasn't meant to be a mother, any more than I would have been, I wouldn't have been a good mother and my mother wasn't meant to be a mother. She was quite a good mother, but she wasn't terribly interested in us. And the whole, the family all had children and they were none of them very interested in their children. They had them as a matter of course. They wanted their children to be clever and make good marriages, but that's all they wanted.

Interviewer o/s: Did your sister make you feel that it was your fault that your mother didn't love you?

Elizabeth sync: Yes, everything was my fault.


Photo: Elizabeth and her sister

Interviewer o/s: Did you ever make up with your sister?

Elizabeth v/o: Yes.



Elizabeth sync: We're now on good terms, because we're in different countries and we write, "Dearest Betty", you know, we don't mean any of this. She lived this entirely different life to mine, she was on, she had land. She stayed in New Zealand and married and she had land, and then I came over here, you see, at 18. And she came once to Australia; she went on a tour of Japan and South East Asia and she came once to Australia and she said, "Oh, I like it here, I think I'll stay." And I said, "No, you won't." And she went home. Well it's a bad, people shouldn't come and land on, you know, I couldn't have entertained her or looked after her, because I don't play bridge or go to the races or do any of those fascinating things.



Elizabeth sync: So then I was at my last term at school and Ezra Norton who was a newspaper


Photo: Ezra Norton

Elizabeth v/o: proprietor in Sydney hired me from New Zealand, because



Elizabeth sync: one of his flunkies in New Zealand had read some poetry by me -- awful poetry -- and it was the custom of newspaper owners to hire people from New Zealand because they thought the education was better than Australia. They used to go over and buy people in New Zealand and I came over and he paid my fare and my accommodation for a month and flung me into journalism.


Photo: Elizabeth as a young woman

Interviewer o/s: How did your mother feel about allowing you to go of to Australia?

Elizabeth v/o: No, she was absolutely marvellous.


Elizabeth, zoom in to CU

Elizabeth sync: All her sisters and relatives said "Don't let Betty go to Australia, it's a terrible country, they're frightful." You know that thing about it's a wicked city, and my mother said, "Well, what's she going to do if stays in New Zealand." And I would have become part of the typing pool, because there were no woman journalists, and you don't live on poetry. I'd have become part of the typing pool and my mother said, "I'm going to let her go" She had her life, she didn't mind me going.

Interviewer o/s: It didn't occur to you that maybe she was glad to get rid of you?

Elizabeth sync: No, it didn't occur to me, it's never occurred to me that. It's never occurred to me. What a funny thought. That she wanted me out of the way, but then she came to live in Australia later, against my will. I think she did that for me, I think that was a genuine thing she did for me, I'll give her a chance.


Archival footage: Sydney street

Super: Sydney 1928



Archival footage: Sydney street



Archival footage: Aerial shot Sydney street


Interviewer o/s: What did you think of wicked Sydney when you arrived?

Elizabeth v/o: I adored it,


Elizabeth, zoom out to CU

Elizabeth sync: I loved it, but what I liked was the journalism and the writing and being thrown into it, because it was hot metal, and you had compositors


Photo: Printers at work

Elizabeth v/o: and they were simply wonderful.

Interviewer o/s: So you had a direct relationship with the printers?

Elizabeth v/o: I



Elizabeth sync: did. They gave me a page to run. I used to do theatre reviews, ballet reviews, knew nothing about anything. I knew a bit about ballet because my mother did take me to see the travelling ballets and operas and things, but I didn't have any critical facility whatever.


Newspaper, zoom in to Whats On column

Interviewer o/s: Now most women journalists at that time, were sidetracked into women's issues, women's work with the women's pages.

Elizabeth v/o: Social reporting



Elizabeth sync: it was called, the women's pages. I never did it.

Interviewer o/s: Why was that?

Elizabeth sync: Well, there was an editor, a very famous editor in Sydney called Eric Baum,


Photo: Eric Baum

Elizabeth v/o: a real operator and he thought he would invent The Sob Sister.



Elizabeth sync: They had them in America, that if somebody -- the sort of thing that is now in the tabloids, but wasn't then. You go and interview somebody whose wife's just been murdered or something, television does it now,


Photo: Elizabeth in her twenties

Elizabeth v/o: what I did then. And he produced me.

Interviewer o/s: How did you get on, starting like this at the deep end?



Elizabeth sync: I coped, and then I -- what happened -- I fell in love with a man of 47,


Photo: Elizabeth's lover

Elizabeth v/o: an editor, a very travelled and experienced married man with a child.


Elizabeth, zoom in to CU

Elizabeth sync: And I just disregarded everything, and I think we got a flat together, eventually. He wanted me to come and live with his wife and child, he would then have two of us in the house, but I rejected that. I had enough sense for that. And he taught me a tremendous amount, about the world, not about journalism so much because, he'd lived in America and Russia and he knew a lot about the world. And he was a radical, radical. 'The Hat', they called him, he used to wear a big, black hat. So he was very romantic, and I stuck around with him for quite a long time until I saw


Photo: Blue Greatorex

Elizabeth v/o: the man I married.

Interviewer o/s: And how did you meet him?

Elizabeth v/o: On the beach


Elizabeth, zoom in to BCU

Elizabeth sync: at Bondi. Saw him, he was a journalist and a rugby player, Blue Greatorex. And he was the best thing I'd ever seen.


Photo: Elizabeth as younger woman

Elizabeth v/o: So I stuck around and I thought this will do me nicely thank you.



Elizabeth sync: He didn't mean, he never meant to marry me, what happened was that we went away, and shared a cabin and they made us -- well they said, you can't have a cabin, you can't share a cabin unless you're married. But we lived together before that in a flat, in a good suburb.


Photo: Blue Greatorex

Elizabeth v/o: Oh, he was a very interesting man.

Interviewer o/s: You never had children?


Elizabeth, zoom in to BCU

Elizabeth sync: Never had children, never wanted children. I went to considerable trouble not to have any children. I became pregnant once, but I and I told the, I was having an operation and I told the surgeon I was pregnant, and he said "No you're not." And I said "Yes I am." And he said "all right, we'll give it the rabbit test" or whatever it is. And when he'd done the operation he came back and sat on my bed and said "You were." And I burst into tears and he said "What are you crying for, you didn't want the child." And I said "That's true, I'll stop." Why did I cry, who knows.


Elizabeth in her lounge room, reading, zoom in to MLS

Elizabeth v/o: I was working the war, during general work and Ezra Norton wanted to open a New York bureau and you couldn't send, you could send a man out, a journalist, well anybody out for a useful job, or you were man powered. And he couldn't get, he could get men to go as journalists, correspondents,



Elizabeth sync: but he couldn't take one out to a soft job in a bureau in New York so he took me, he picked me.

Interviewer o/s: He would have preferred to send a man?

Elizabeth sync: Oh, I think so, doesn't everybody.


Photo: Elizabeth with pearls

Interviewer o/s: What kind of news were you sending back from New York?



Elizabeth sync: I was, I was sending what was being sent to New York, from Greece and the European front, everything. Hearst was getting it in, I was then sending it as quick as possible because of our datelines were all different. My datelines favoured an Australian afternoon paper and that was the Daily Mirror, they favoured it. I could get them news quicker from New York than they could get from Athens or Paris or wherever the Germans were not at the moment.


Photo: Blue Greatorex in his uniform

Interviewer o/s: Did you miss Blue?

Elizabeth v/o: Oh yes.

Interviewer o/s: Did he miss you?

Elizabeth v/o: He never said.



Elizabeth sync: I was irritated by the, exactly by the trivialisation of the war, how it was one great big Hollywood thing. And I think that one of the things that started me off, there was a picture in the paper


Photo: A Papuan assisting an injured Australian, tilt up

Elizabeth v/o: of a fuzzy wuzzy bringing a man down to -- a famous picture, the Kokoda Trail -- he was bringing him back,



Elizabeth sync: this white faced soldier and the Americans put on it, "our allies." They didn't even put Australian or New Guinea or anything on it, and I think that annoyed me. Anyway I asked my boss, I asked Ezra Norton in Sydney, could I go to London, and I went over on a banana boat that took an awfully long time to cross the Atlantic, and we didn't see a submarine or a plane the whole way. And the sea was flat. I wasn't even seasick going over. We slept in our life belts.


Archival footage: A street after a bomb has been dropped

Elizabeth v/o: But when I got there,


Archival footage: Three men and a fire hose

Elizabeth v/o: there was England at war


Archival footage: A building falling down

Elizabeth v/o: and it wasn't a bit comfortable.


Archival footage: A building on fire, after a bomb has hit it

Elizabeth v/o: I was accredited to the War Office. I went to


Archival footage: A man briefing some others

Elizabeth v/o: briefings and I'd go back and send that stuff and I'd go



Elizabeth sync: back and send anything I could find to send, and then I went on an immigration story up to the north of England and Scotland and so on. But I only got into the war by being taken on sorties


Archival footage: A plane flying in the sky, zoom back to WS

Elizabeth v/o: and we went everywhere we could go. We went into mets [?]. I went --


Archival footage: A bomb exploding at night time

Elizabeth v/o: I'll tell you another place we went was


Archival footage: Soldiers firing canons

Elizabeth v/o: where



Elizabeth sync: there was a German submarine base


Archival footage: Bombs exploding

Elizabeth v/o: and I


Archival footage: A pilot

Elizabeth v/o: went on a bombing mission


Archival footage: Aerial view of bomb being dropped

Elizabeth v/o: then. And they bombed that place until they were black in the face and it didn't hurt the submarines.


Elizabeth, zoom in to BCU

Elizabeth sync: They must have been so far down. That was good, everybody brought back stockings and oranges and bananas and things from that raid. From some place they stopped in. See some of it was free and some of it wasn't.

Interviewer o/s: So the mentality for you at that time was, it has a sound of adventure?

Elizabeth sync: A junket. It was adventure, and there were a lot of people who had a very good war. When you were not horrified, it was a very good war. You could, you could get black market food, both in London and Paris. You could dance all night, if you were not being killed -- and why not. I had a flat on the top floor of a building in Clifford's Inn lane, opposite Reuters building which was my base, it was on the sixth floor. But what did I care because I was either going to be killed or I was going to go on having an exciting time. I think a lot of people must have felt like that. And there were men galore -- Poles, and the very free French and Canadians, and Australian airmen.

Interviewer o/s: And you took full advantage of this?

Elizabeth sync: Yes.


Archival footage: People celebrating in Martin Place

Super: Martin Place, Sydney, August 1945



Archival footage: A horse drags a carriage full of people down the street as a crowd stands on the footpath



Archival footage: Women and children waving



Archival footage: A sea of soldiers returning from war

Interviewer o/s: When you got to Sydney



Interviewer o/s: were you at all worried that Blue wouldn't be there for you?

Elizabeth sync: Indeed, I was. I thought there'd be no light in the window. I thought, I knew he had, I knew that he had, I knew that women would like him, I knew he liked women, I knew he'd always been a bachelor at heart and I thought that probably somebody was going to, here's this empty place, they're going to occupy it. But maybe he thought I wouldn't come back.


Photo: Blue getting into a car

Elizabeth v/o: Anyway it was a very awkward situation. We were very careful of each other,


Elizabeth, zoom in to ECU

Elizabeth sync: and he had a great friend here who'd been a friend of mine of course and she had, she was very good for him. She had been a good friend to him and really kept him; she was a woman that liked the same books, and pictures, and had the same sense of humour and liked food and wine, and she'd been very good with him. And he didn't give her up altogether, he didn't ask me to go out with them, if he was going to take her to dinner he didn't ask me. And once I asked myself along and got well snubbed. He said "No, you can't come."

Interviewer o/s: Did you feel no jealousy?

Elizabeth sync: Oh, raging with jealousy but, you see, I think that's so strange that you can be doing all sorts of things yourself and the moment somebody you love starts it, you're wild with jealously. I made fearful scenes afterwards.

Interviewer o/s: Did he ask you about what you'd been doing?

Elizabeth sync: Never, he had too much sense. See I didn't ask him but I -- well I don't know yet what he was doing. But I think I know, but I never asked him. I think I know. I think people comforted him for his lack of a wife, let's put it like that. I think they did, and enjoyed themselves no end I bet.



Interviewer o/s: Tell me about when Blue died?

Elizabeth sync: Well when -- Blue wasn't, wasn't, he had this wonderful job where he worked when he wanted to and played golf when he wanted to and read when he wanted to. And he was at home one morning and I'd gone to work. I was on the Daily Mirror then and somebody rang me up and said I've just looked -- I had a very close neighbour, I mean her fence was close in Double Bay and she was very nice and, but if she was doing the washing up, she would look onto my terrace -- and she rang me up and said "I'm worried about Blue, he's been sitting with his head in his hands and he doesn't look well." And I said "Get the other neighbour," who was a doctor. And she got him at once and I rushed back and he'd had a stroke and he must have had an indication of it, he'd had a stroke and they took him to the hospital and he had another massive stroke, a really big one. And



Elizabeth sync: so it was over you see, it was over.

Interviewer o/s: And where did that leave you?

Elizabeth sync: Desperate, absolutely desperate. I thought my life had ended and I thought I was going to be very poor. I don't know why I thought I was going to be very poor. And then my editor, who was a marvellous editor called Zel Rabin, rang me up and said -- no he called in. He lived beyond me and he called in on his way, on his way either home or from the office and he said "You've got to come back to work." And I said "I can't, I can't" and he sad "Yes, you've got to come back to work." So, "you've got to come back to work on Monday." So this was Thursday and the neighbouring doctor and Zel and I used to sit and have a drink and talk about Blue, and then I went back to work. But he knew what the answer was; I was to go back to work. But later on when I was walking the dog and so on I used to feel, absolutely my life had ended and I busied myself, that's why there was no poetry, see there was no poetry for 15 years.


A pot of flowers, pan left to Elizabeth sitting at a table writing

Elizabeth v/o: 1964 this was.

Interviewer o/s: What makes a poem come into your mind, what kind of situation will create a poem in your head?

Elizabeth v/o: Anything, I'll write a poem about this. Anything will start me, anything will start me and then it grows and I know when I'm going to write a poem. I wrote a poem the other day, I was sitting at the bus stop, watching the pigeons who have appropriated the



Elizabeth sync: bus stop on the other side and then in came those sulphur crested cockatoos and began hanging upside down in that ridiculous way on this unsuitable, foreign tree which is in European cemeteries. And they began behaving like Australians, and I wrote a poem about that. And also even what somebody says, anything will start me now. Now I'm really writing poetry.

Interviewer o/s: You're writing more easily now than you ever have?

Elizabeth sync: Much more.


Elizabeth sitting a a table writing

Interviewer o/s: Why do you think that is?

Elizabeth v/o: Because I don't care what anybody thinks about it. When you get old you don't care what people think, so you get very free, very free.

Interviewer o/s: A great many



Interviewer o/s: people read and were influenced by your journalism. Very few read and are influenced by your poetry, and yet the poetry means more to you, why is that?

Elizabeth sync: Means more, it's what I'm about. See I can't explain these things, but one good line of poetry. I've always said that's what I want to be remembered by if I'm remembered. To write one really -- that's the thing. Journalism is a trick and a trade, but poetry's not. Poetry's art, poetry is person to person, like a painting.


Elizabeth's hand writing poetry

Elizabeth v/o: My belief is that life is accidental, so let it happen. Nothing goes according to plan.



Elizabeth sync: It's an accident that you do anything, it's an accident you see your husband, accident that you go into journalism, look it was an accident. Some man in New Zealand said, told his owner proprietor in Australia, here's this clever girl writing poetry.


Elizabeth's hand writing poetry

Elizabeth v/o: That's -- if that's not an accident I've never seen one.

Interviewer o/s: Is your poetry an accident?

Elizabeth v/o: Seeing that I am an accident, it is.



Interviewer o/s: But when we get past the fact that you're an accident, does your poetry feel accidental, or do you feel that you create it, that you make it?

Elizabeth sync: Oh, I make it, but I take something and make it and that may be an accident. I happened to be at that bus stop. I happened to overhear that woman in the hospital saying that. Ah that was a good line, I say to myself. You here them say , "The bus is never coming, it never comes." And it's coming, I see it coming and this woman is speaking to her husband, "The bus never comes, it's never coming." Here is the bus approaching us, then she says, "It's going past us, you didn't wave your stick." The bus has already stopped. Now there's a good line.

Interviewer o/s: Do you think there's any sense in which we invent ourselves?

Elizabeth sync: Oh, yes. Lots of people, we invent ourselves. In a way we're invented, no you have to do it yourself. I know lots of people who've invented themselves.

Interviewer o/s: What about you?

Elizabeth sync: Maybe I did, I don't know.


Elizabeth writing poetry

Interviewer o/s: Is there anything personally that you feel guilty about?

Elizabeth v/o: Oh, my whole life I feel guilty about.

Interviewer o/s: Why?



Elizabeth sync: Because I've done so many stupid, irresponsible silly things.

Interviewer o/s: What's the worst of them?

Elizabeth sync: I don't know what's the worst, but I see, you know, I've remembered a few things, haven't I. I remembered that one night stand, see why is that in my mind, that was in 1943 in Washington, why do I still remember it. I'm guilty about that.

Interviewer o/s: Why?

Elizabeth sync: I don't know, I think I'm respectable you see, at heart.


MS Elizabeth with black masking under the credits:

Interviewer: Robin Hughes

Research: Graham Shirley
Frank Heimans

Camera: Andre Lada
Paul Ree



MS Elizabeth with black masking under the credits cont.:

Sound Recording: Tim Parratt

Sound Mixing: Robert Sullivan

Production Manager: Kim Anning

Production Coordinator: Joanne Holliman

Production Accountant: Megan Gilmour


MS Elizabeth with black masking under the credits cont.:

Film Australia would like to thank:

Elizabeth Riddell
John Fairfax Library
State Library of NSW
Australian War Memorial

Producer/Director/Writer/Editor Frank Heimans

Supervising Producer: Sharon Connolly

Executive Producer: Ron Saunders

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