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A Desperate Passion: An Autobiography

A Desperate Passion: An Autobiography

by Helen Caldicott
A Desperate Passion: An Autobiography

A Desperate Passion: An Autobiography

by Helen Caldicott


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"She showed me what one set-on-fire human being can do to shift the consciousness of the world." —Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking

"Dr. Helen Caldicott," the Sunday San Francisco Chronicle declares, "is back on the scene." A Desperate Passion is Caldicott's engaging, inspiring memoir, chronicling her life both on and off the scene. Raised in Australia and trained as a physician, she first found her voice protesting French nuclear tests in the Pacific. Years later she rose to international prominence, founding Physicians for Social Responsibility, "which did perhaps more than any other group to thrust the nuclear issue under the public eye" (New York Times).

"Driven by intense passions, she seems to have adopted the world's population as her children. And all of us are probably better off as a result" (East Bay Express Books)—but Caldicott, wife and mother of three, found that her success did not come without cost. This is a personal story too, a candid, revealing self-portrait of a woman who has not relinquished her remarkable efforts to save the world.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393316803
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 11/17/1997
Pages: 380
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Helen Caldicott is an internationally recognized antinuclear activist, cofounder of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and founder of the Women’s Action for Nuclear Disarmament and the International Physicians to Save the Environment. She lives in Australia.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

When I was nineteen, I read a book that changed my life. It was a novel, barely read these days, called On the Beach, by the Australian writer Nevil Shute (later made into a popular film). It tells the story of the final months in the lives of five people living in a world doomed to be destroyed by radiation after a nuclear war that had begun by accident in the Northern Hemisphere.

"Couldn't anyone have stopped it?"

"I don't know.... Some kinds of silliness you just can't stop," he said. "I mean, if a couple of hundred million people all decide that their national honour requires them to drop cobalt bombs upon their neighbour, well, there's not much that you or I can do about it. The only possible hope would have been to educate them out of their silliness."

"But how could you have done that, Peter? I mean, they'd all left school."

"Newspapers," he said. "You could have done something with newspapers. We didn't do it, no nation did because we were all too silly. We liked our newspapers with pictures of beach girls and headlines of indecent assault, and no Government was wise enough to stop us having them that way. But something might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough."

Something might have been done with newspapers, if we'd been wise enough .

Shute's story haunted me. Millions of words have since been written about nuclear war and its consequences, and much of the literature is more horrific and emotive than anything Nevil Shute wrote or perhaps even imagined. But his novel was set in Melbourne, the city where I had grown up. It described placesI knew, devastated by nuclear catastrophe. Nowhere was safe. I felt so alone, so unprotected by the adults, who seemed to be unaware of the danger.

She passed the grammar school away on the left and came to shabby, industrial Corio, and so to Geelong, dominated by its cathedral. In the great tower the bells were ringing for some service. She slowed a little to pass through the city, but there was nothing on the road except deserted cars at the roadside. She saw only three people, all of them men.... At the end she turned left away from the golf links and the little house where so many happy hours of childhood had been spent, knowing now she would never see it again.

I had already decided to be a doctor, and I came from a family who encouraged me to believe that if I worked hard, I could do anything. But after reading On the Beach, I knew I wouldn't just go through medical school and settle into a nice, cosy, well-paid niche somewhere, as doctors in Australia were apt to do. I wanted a husband and a family, certainly, but somewhere in me was a conviction that I had other work to do as well.

When I read On the Beach, I started to realise what that work might be.

Nobody with Polish and Irish ancestry—as I have—has any right to expect a quiet, easy life. If I hadn't found that out for myself, I could have learned it by considering the lives of my forebears.

Gracius Jacob Broinowski, my great-grandfather on my father's side, was a Polish baron, born in 1837, who began his career by avoiding conscription in the Russian army. After escaping from his upstairs bedroom window in the Polish town of Weilun by the time-honoured method of tying sheets together to make a rope, he travelled to Germany and then to England. In about 1857 he came to Australia, where he eked out a living by painting landscapes and scenes of various towns as he travelled around the eastern side of the continent. He married a pretty girl named Jane Smith who smiled at him from her Melbourne window, and after some years they settled in Sydney with their six sons and daughter. Gracius taught painting to private pupils and at colleges, lectured on art, and exhibited at the Royal Art Society.

His greatest claim to fame, however, was as an artist of Australian native fauna. In the 1880s he supplied the school classrooms of New South Wales with pictures of Australian birds and mammals, and between 1887 and 1891 prepared a series of six volumes called The Birds of Australia, which have since become collector's items. His bird prints hang on the walls of my house to this day.

One of my great-grandmothers on my father's side, Mary Sanger Creed, was a forthright woman and an early feminist. The first woman to matriculate in Australia, she applied to enter medical school in Melbourne. In the 1870s the idea of a woman wanting to be a doctor was considered ridiculous enough to be featured on the front cover of the English satirical magazine Punch; the drawing shows the chancellor of the University of Melbourne holding up a grave, dismissive hand as my great-grandmother attempts to enter the sacred portals. (The first Australian woman to train in medicine didn't receive her degree until 1893, and even then it was from Edinburgh University.)

Mary married a progressive Anglican minister, the Reverend Jonathan Evans, and had four children. She hated being a minister's wife and living in the small Tasmanian town of Deloraine, and she turned to writing. Soon she became known as an excellent journalist, whose articles on a variety of topics appeared in local and national newspapers. When her children were still young, she end Jonathan Evans agreed to part, and he moved to the Riverina district of southwestern New South Wales. Obviously harbouring his own ambitions, he left Australia for England, where he became an actor, while the four children remained with their mother.

In the 1890s the irrepressible Mary and her children moved to a seventy-acre property near Wyong, north of Sydney, where she started a cooperative silk farm for other single women and their dependent children. All the families worked together, growing mulberry trees to feed the silkworms, spinning the silk and selling it. The silk farm was successful for a number of years.

My grandmother, Grace Creed Evans (whom for some reason we called Dais, short for Daisy), was the oldest of Mary's four children. A talented musician who played the violin and piano, she helped support the family by performing music on the ships that plied the cities on the eastern seaboard of Australia. Later she became a music teacher. Her youngest sister, Win, was an early Montessori governess who taught the children of Ethel Turner, author of Seven Little Australians and one of Australia's most famous early writers.

Grace married Gracius' son Robert Broinowski in Melbourne in 1905, where Robert was Usher of the Black Rod in federal Parliament for some years. It was not a happy marriage, as Bob was known to go on bushwalks with various women. He was a prickly, talented man, an amateur poet. Many of his own verses reflect his dalliances and affairs. Others, such as this one, highly descriptive of the Australia bush and its ubiquitous flies, show his irreverent sense of humour.

The road comes winding down the range Each moment bringing to my eyes Some point of beauty new and strange— Oh damn the flies . . Ten thousand furies blight the stinking swine Bright parrots flash with eerie cries; The lyrebird sings his chorus divine— Oh, flaming bastards . . . the flies.

Dais and Bob had two sons, my uncle Bob and my father, Theo Philip, who was born in 1910 and was called Philip. In 1927 Parliament moved from Melbourne to its permanent home in Canberra, Australia's brand-new federal capital and the site of a former sheep station about 300 kilometres southwest of Sydney. The move gave Bob the excuse he needed to leave Dais and the boys in Melbourne: he eventually married another piano teacher, and they had a daughter, Ruth. My grandfather became clerk of the Senate in Canberra and the designer of the Senate rose garden. His portrait hangs in Parliament House.

My father was about eleven when his parents separated, and he told me that every night he used to pray that they would be reconciled. The divorce was finalised when he was fourteen, leaving Dad bitter and disillusioned, never to believe in God again. When I was a child, Grandfather Broinowski hosted and presented a radio program called The Poet's Tongue on Australia's national network every Sunday evening, and Dad always turned the program off because he could not bear to hear his father's voice. Not until Grandfather was an old man were he and Dad reconciled at my mother's instigation. They were similar in many important ways: both had red hair, the long Broinowski nose, an irreverent sense of humour, and a bad temper.

Mum's side of the family were just as tumultuous. One of her great-grandfathers was a vitriolic Scot named William Kerr, who immigrated to Australia in 1832 and fourteen years later founded the Melbourne Argus. This twice-weekly broadsheet that mirrored Kerr's own independent views—he was a great opponent of convicts entering Melbourne from the state of Tasmania, where they were sent by the British penal system, for instance—became one of Melbourne's two morning daily newspapers (the other being the Age), and continued to be published until 1957. William Kerr was also Melbourne's second town clerk. My mother had a high regard for him.

As I write about this man, I realise that I am very like him in many ways. I have taken on the establishment in society, I tend to have independent views which are often not popular initially, and I am impelled to speak the truth with little regard for the prevailing norms of society. And I am known to be irascible from time to time.

Another great-grandfather was Henry Coffey, an Irish sea captain who arrived in Australia in the 1860s, met and married William's daughter Helen, and took her back to England. Henry was a passionate Anglophile, who unwisely persisted in wearing an orange buttonhole during St. Patrick's Day marches in Ireland. Their first child was born in London, and they then returned to Melbourne, where Helen gave birth to three more children, including mygrandfather James, the second son.

Soon after their fourth and last child, Wilhelmina, was born, Henry, who had invested a great deal of money in a shipbuilding firm in Williamstown, the old part of Melbourne, lost it after going guarantor for a builder whose business failed. This disaster was compounded when Henry and Helen, who shared a taste for Irish whiskey, were both carried off by it when their eldest child was only fourteen.

Despite his difficult childhood,James grew up to become a personable young man, well dressed and a member of the Walking Club of Melbourne, a society whose members were Melbourne's genteel—or would-be genteel—citizens. Social position being important to him, he became engaged to Ethyl Clarke, from a wealthy, established Melbourne family. Unfortunately, Ethyl's father wasn't any better with money than James' father had been. Charles Ernest Clarke started off as a wealthy sharebroker, and Ethyl was raised in the lap of luxury, but her father borrowed far beyond his means during the land boom of the 1890s, was ruined and jailed for almost five years. The scandal remained the skeleton in the family closet. Mum told me about it only once in hushed tones.

Ethyl had few skills that would enable her to support herself. She played the piano beautifully, as befitted a young lady of her social position, and even after her family fell on bad times, she continued to uphold certain standards of behaviour. She had a mop of beautiful auburn hair, about which she was very vain. Mum told me that Ethyl used to position herself under the light as she played the piano so her hair shone golden red and everybody could admire it.

But Ethyl's standards became increasingly difficult to maintain. Her mother died when she was only eighteen, leaving a family of five, including a baby boy. Ethyl stepped into her mother's warm shoes and raised this family single-handed. This young brother, of whom Ethyl was very fond, was later killed during the First World War.

Shortly after, Ethyl married James Coffey. He went to war as well in1914, returning without money or a trade. Like many other veterans,he thought he would become a farmer, and was allotted a soldier's settlement block in the scrub of northeast Victoria. Again like so many other returned soldiers, he failed as a farmer, forfeiting his farm at the end of the 1920s, and went back to Melbourne. He bought a house in the eastern suburbs with money borrowed from Ethyl's family. It was here that Ethyl bore and brought up six more children, the eldest of whom died of meningitis when he was only a year old.

James never succeeded in accruing money of his own, and in desperation he joined the Melbourne Tramways Department as a clerk. Poor old Pop, as we called him, was somewhat inadequate. He was considered by his wife to be a failure; he never helped Ethyl (whom we called Nanny) with the large family, and he suffered from asthma. When I was little, he spent hours in his room inhaling strange-smelling medications. But he wasn't beaten: I remember his sparkling Irish eyes and wicked sense of humour.

Nanny also could be very funny, even though she was so often exhausted. Her boys—Owen, Earle, Terence, and Selwyn—all slept at the back of the house in an outside screened porch. Every year on the 1st of April Nanny woke them at dawn, saying, with great excitement: "There's a ship on fire in the bay!" She persuaded them to scale the tallest tree in their pyjamas, just to look, and only when they reached the top did she announce: "April fools!" They never seemed to learn.

Mum, born Mary Mona Enyd Coffey in 1911, was the second youngest child in the family and the only girl. She was a pretty little thing, with Irish colouring, delicate features and bright blue eyes, dark hair, and a fair soft skin that you could hardly feel when you kissed her cheek, even as an adult. Like most parents of the time, her mother and father believed that a woman's place was in the home, and Mum often told me how resentful she used to feel, ironing her brothers' shirts while they went out on the town. Being Cinderella rarely turns women into saints, despite the fairy tales, and her frustration might have triggered the dark side of Mum's personality. She had a violent temper, and when we were kids, she was racked by inexplicable bouts of uncontrollable rage. I was the main target of these attacks, and I never knew when they would strike.

After Mum died in 1969, I asked her brothers whether they had been psychologically or physically abused as children: my medical training had taught me that the kind of fury Mum demonstrated can stem from child abuse. They adamantly denied any such thing. But a question mark remains at the back of my mind, and I've discussed Mum with my sister Susan, who is a psychologist. We'll never know the truth now, of course, but I suspect that Mum was abused in some fashion when she was a little girl.

Mum was one of the most intelligent women I ever knew. Her birthright was her enquiring mind and her hunger for information and knowledge. She was a brilliant student at University High School, Melbourne, and qualified for university entrance, an impressive achievement for an Australian woman in the 1920s. However, she did only one year at university without completing her degree—I never knew why. She had been promised a job as a journalist on the Argus (which, of course, had been founded by her great-grandfather). However, when she applied, she was informed that she would have to start at the bottom as a typist, which outraged her so much that she left in high dudgeon and got a job in a bank.

Even though her own career ambitions had received such a setback, she firmly believed that women could do whatever they set their minds to. She was, in fact, an early feminist before the word was coined. I grew up with these admonitions as an article of faith, and she frequently talked about women she admired. When I was a child, I heard a great deal about her friend and my godmother, Mary Holdsworth, who went to law school late in life and topped her year. Mary was one of Mum's role models and mine, too: others were the intrepid, strong Australian women who stepped into their men's shoes during the Second World War and did dangerous jobs such as driving buses around perilous country roads.

Mum read voraciously. She was fascinated by politics and history, and she kept abreast with everything. My first memory of her finely tuned political instincts goes back to when I was four and standing in the kitchen and she suddenly announced: "Hitler has turned on Russia—thank God, we're saved." She was right. Hitler couldn't win the war by fighting on two fronts simultaneously, but he could have beaten Britain if he'd not been tempted to attack Russia. Her political intuition was unerring; her analyses of events were rarely those in the newspapers or on radio, but in the long run she was almost always right. She had nightmares about Hitler killing the Jews in 1940 long before the world officially recognised the dreadful truth. Forty years ago she worried about the consequences of world overpopulation, and as early as 1960 she could see that computers would eventually put people out of work. Her perceptions were always sure, and from her I think I inherited my political intuition.

But she wasn't just interested in things intellectual. When I was very young, she retaught herself to play the piano—she had learned as a child—and I remember lying underneath the piano by the pedals on sunny mornings as she played Schumann's Scenes from Childhood. This music still evokes my own scenes from childhood. Because we were quite poor, she supplemented Dad's income by sewing. She smocked peasant blouses, which were popular in those days, and made the most delicate nightgowns and blouses from silk chiffon and inserts of the finest lace. Then she had another interest, which I imbibed at the time but didn't exhibit until later. I grew up with an intimate knowledge of plants and their botanical names. One of my passions as an adult is gardening, and another is music. She also taught me to sew: and at the tender age of ten I cut out my first dress on the back lawn.

And she was always reading. When we were kids, she took us shopping in central Melbourne every Friday, returning with a huge pile of library books. During the week she would tie a scarf around the bobby pins in her hair, vacuum the carpet or do whatever household tasks had to be done, then sit down for a cup of coffee with a cigarette and a book. I can still see her reading in the wooden chair that Dad made with maroon cushions that she made, the opalescent blue smoke swirling above her head, while we children played outside.

Mum met Dad in the 1930s because he played tennis with her brother Terence. Philip was tall, six feet two, with freckles and curly red hair, and in the time-honoured Australian tradition he was known as Blue (the same sardonic sense of humour that leads to men with black hair being called Snow). The family story is that he was standing in the Coffeys' living room when Mum, five feet two and looking very pretty, wandered in cradling a cat in her arms, and Dad fell in love with her immediately. He later took her to the theatre, and when he held her small hand in his big one, she immediately felt safe and knew that they would eventually be married.

Dad's life had not been easy either. He had to leave Scotch College, a private school at fourteen, when his parents divorced because his father had ceased to pay the bills, and he took whatever jobs he could get, including selling advertising for the Argus. This was a precious source of income during the depression, a brutal time in Australia's history. One particularly traumatic day the manager lined up all the salesmen arid pointed at those who were about to be dismissed. Dad was one of the few lucky ones: he stayed.

When he eventually left the Argus, he was offered a job with Mum's brothers, who ran a large lighting company called Kempthorne, named after one of their illustrious ancestors, Sir John Kempthorne, a vice admiral in the British navy. During the depression the boys, desperate to find work, started making outdoor lights out of kerosene cans in the back garage, and it grew into a thriving company. During the Second World War they won a contract with the Royal Australian Navy to make emergency lighting systems for warships, and they never looked back.

Dad had the bad temper typical of redheads (my hair has a tinge of red in it, too). An excellent tennis player, coached by Harry Hopman and considered at one point to be potential Davis Cup material, he was known to become so furious during a game that he would smash tennis balls miles out of court. On one famous occasion he hit a ball right over the golden statue of the Virgin on top of the Camberwell Catholic Church. But despite his temper he was always reliable, sweetly understanding, irreverently funny, and unassumingly shy. Like Mum, he was passionate about many things, read a great deal, and could be very persuasive. Prank Hardy, who later became a well-known Australian writer, acknowledged that during the 1930s Dad converted him from Catholicism to socialism during arguments they had over lunch in Melbourne.

Mum and Dad had a great deal in common. Both considered ideas, books, and music to be extremely important; both came from families who, though relatively poor, had had money and influence at one time. Like many Australians of their generation, my parents took their cues of "correct" behaviour from England, particularly the manners of the so-called upper classes. They both "spoke well" and were pretty savage if, for example, we children said "Ee-vonne" instead of "Ee-vonne" or "washerlady" instead of "washerwoman," or if we failed to hold our cutlery correctly, with our elbows in. Today they might be considered snobs, but they felt, I am sure, that they were simply teaching us how to behave in society.

Australia in those days was an interesting social study. Many people were descended from convicts who were exported from Britain and Ireland in large numbers for committing minor criminal offences or for being political prisoners. These people hated the ruling British bureaucracy, who tended to be arrogant and cruel; they were fiercely independent, egalitarian, and, by their very nature, socialists. Then there were the landed gentry, who grabbed large sections of land and who were descended from or modelled themselves on the British upper classes. They did not flaunt their wealth, but they lived very well. The depression had a profound effect upon many Australians, who became insecure and never forgot it. The bulk of society in the 1930s was working class; people lived in suburbia on their quarter-acre blocks, the men cut the lawns and cleaned the car in the weekend, and the women were classic housewives. Liberation in those days was never thought of.

Mum and Dad, agnostics, had a strong sense of social justice. They were in a way more progressive in their thinking at that time than most Australians. As I've said, -they read widely, and they especially liked the work of progressive social writers like George Bernard Shaw (I still have my mother's copy of What Every Woman Knows, inscribed by Dad). In their courting days they loved the theatre, and they also went to the opera, including Melbourne's rare productions of Wagner. When they married and had children, all this stopped: bringing up a family left little money or time for such luxuries. They were fairly poor, and making ends meet was not easy; the carpet in our house became so threadbare that my brother Richard would pull threads off the bare spots and use them for kite strings. We were given basic uninteresting, boring English-type food (mutton, boiled cabbage, and bread and butter pudding). I never saw a navel orange until I was an adolescent.

Interestingly, despite my parents' lack of religious persuasion, from a very early age I dressed myself in my best clothes on Sundays and took myself off to church in the morning, Sunday school in the afternoon, and church at night. Intuitively I knew there was some higher power or a God, but although I tried every neighbourhood denomination, I never found any evidence, so I gave up the search as a bad job at the age of seven.

In many ways my parents were extremely progressive. They told us about how babies were made at an early age, a thing never discussed in this still quite Victorian society, and I was not very popular when I saw it as my duty to educate the neighbourhood kids about the fundamentals of life. I had no idea that this was unacceptable behaviour until I told Judith Wiggerham and soon after her mother became quite cold and forbade her to play with me again. What had I done? This was one of the first of what were to be the many times in my life when I realised that I had said or done the wrong thing without knowing why—a very lonely feeling, which can occur to this day.

I was a much wanted and waited for baby. My parents had experienced difficulty conceiving and were thrilled when I appeared on the scene. But poor Dad ran out of petrol as he drove his labouring wife to hospital, on 7 August 1938, and he felt forever guilty.

My first eighteen months were blissfully happy as far as I can remember, despite the fact that Mum did not mother intuitively and fed me on the hour every four hours whether I needed it or not. She had attended a Truby King child care course to learn how to mother, which is surprising as she came from such a large family herself. One very hot summer afternoon old Mrs. Miller across the road heard me screaming at the top of my lungs. She knocked on the door and tentatively suggested to Mum that, schedule notwithstanding, I might be thirsty. Apparently I was: I gulped down a whole bottle of boiled water, much to Mum's astonishment.

But a very significant event occurred when I was eighteen months old. Mum was six months pregnant again with Richard, and because she was very tired Dad decided to take her away for a holiday, so they placed me in an institutional home that cared for babies. I vaguely remember that this place was cold, the nurses wore stiff white starched uniforms and high white hats, and my metal cot was pale green. I remained here for a fortnight—two weeks which were to have a profound effect on my life.

It has been difficult to reconstruct that time because memories are dim, but during a meditation I recalled being placed upon a cold metal table and being forcefully held down by a pair of huge hands covered in black hair as I struggled and screamed blue murder while they placed a cloth over my face and a ghastly smell filled my nose and lungs—chloroform. Years later when I became a paediatrician, I discovered that when a baby is suddenly abandoned by its parents, it screams for about two days to no avail and then gives up and sits in the corner of its cot, uncommunicative and severely depressed. It often takes months for the baby to forgive its parents, and it may never completely return to normality and a state of trust.

This is my story. At the end of two weeks when Mum and Dad came to collect me, I had developed severe otis media (middle ear infection). These were pre-penicillin days; I had a raging fever and could have died—indeed I believed I was about to die when I was on the operating table.

These events changed my life. From being a trusting, happy child, I put a wall around myself and never really trusted anybody again, and to this day I let very few past this barrier. I feel that I am basically alone in life and that I must handle everything myself, and I have a great and recurring fear of abandonment when I do decide to develop an intimate relationship. I also developed an intense and unreasonable fear of death, which has plagued me all my life. Clearly this is one of the reasons I decided to study medicine.

Of course, Mum and Dad had no idea what they had done to their daughter except that when they returned to find me so desperately ill, Mum was inconsolable, so to comfort her during my operation, Dad took her to the theatre, where they saw a film about a dying child being flown to hospital, and she wept throughout. Life is so unpredictable; a seemingly small event in the life of a child can have enormous consequences.

Richard was born when I was twenty-one months old. During Mum's confinement I stayed, happily, with Dais in her flat. Dais adored me because I was her first granddaughter. She let me wear her satin shoes with pointy toes and pencil-thin heels, and I staggered around pretending to be a grown-up. She had a wardrobe full of beautiful chiffon tunics glistening with bugle beads in the dressing room where I slept. She always left a perfect yellow banana, which I can still smell today, beside my pillow so I would wake up and eat it without disturbing her too early.

Dais had silver hair done in a bun at the nape of her neck and twinkly, quite wicked brown eyes. I lay in bed with her in the mornings snuggling into her large, soft cushiony body. She was about the only person with whom I felt relatively safe during my childhood. She gave me porridge for breakfast with cream that somehow magically looked pink to me, from the top of the milk bottle, and I was fascinated by the way she held a loaf of bread under her arm, buttered the end, then sawed the slice off with a breadknife. Sometimes she played the violin for me. Her style was passionate, the violin resonating with vibrato as she swayed to the strains of Air for the G String by Bach. She once played in a concert before Dame Nellie Melba, who told her that she performed beautifully. She lived on that memory until she died. My love of classical music surely came from Dais.

She also had an interest in the occult. She took part in seances, where people joined hands around a table in a darkened room. Sometimes the table elevated and spirits appeared and spoke to people present. When I was little, she read my tea leaves and my palm, and told me I would have a long, turbulent life that would be interrupted by a serious illness (the last part has certainly turned out to be accurate). Dais gave me a tin tea set, and I spent countless summer hours under the trees at the back of her flat, making mud pies and feeling very grown-up.

Her flat, in a large elegant building with red tiles and a terracotta dragon surmounting the roof, was in Kooyongkoot Road, Hawthorn. It was fronted by a bouncy buffalo grass lawn and a sweeping, curved drive with an old cabbage tree palm smack in the centre of the lawn. She played bridge, and when she proudly took me to visit friends for cards and afternoon tea, she wore a pink silk dress and a large hat covered with pink cabbage roses.

Judging by family photographs, my brother Richard commenced life as a chubby baby, but when he was fifteen months old and we went on holiday to Phillip Island in Bass Strait, the home of those beautiful fairy penguins that have always been a great tourist attraction in Victoria, he became very ill with diarrhoea. During this illness he became extremely thin, and he's been skinny ever since. I had little time for him as an infant because it was clear that although Mum was kind of liberated, she was thrilled that she had given birth to a boy, and my time in the sun was eclipsed. However, we became quite good mates in childhood; we fought a lot, but we also played together for hours. As he grew older, he developed a love for aeroplanes that has persisted. He would walk very slowly around the house for hours, holding a toy model aeroplane, imitating the sound of its engine in his very deep voice. Even though he is now a diplomat, his childhood passion persists and planes are still one of his loves.

Susan arrived twenty months after Richard, and Mum's life became, as she often told us, a round of household drudgery caring for three young children. Years later she told Susan that she had been a "populate or perish" baby, quoting a popular slogan in Australia during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Australia is a huge, isolated land mass, and in those days it had a very small population (less than ten million), and we felt vulnerable living adjacent to the "teeming millions" of Asia. Australian women were advised to increase the population as this would help to ensure our survival. Until recently the government awarded a sum of money called "child endowment" to each mother for every baby she delivered.

But this did not make Susan feel any better. She knew that Mum had her more by duty than desire. Susan was a good baby, she rarely cried, and I was very fond of her. She was shy during childhood, never asserting herself, instead remaining in the background. She didn't have the forceful personality that I must have displayed; Richard and I dominated the scene. She had light blonde hair which she wore in a fringe, and I remember thinking how pretty she looked when she wore a red tartan skirt and red jumper.

Fear of the "yellow peril" or "yellow hordes," not an admirable trait, has persisted in the Australian consciousness, but at one time in our history it was certainly vindicated. The Japanese bombed Hawaii's Pearl Harbor on the 7th of December 1941, when I was three, and immediately moved southward, closer and closer to Australia. This signalled a dreadfully anxious time: we had heard tales of Japanese cruelty in Burma and China. What if they invaded us? And how could we prevent their gaining access to our vast natural resources, our mineral wealth?

Panic really set in when Singapore fell in February 1942: nothing, Australians felt, could stop the Japanese from coming here. And in retrospect it seems there was every cause for fear. The Japanese repeatedly bombed the northern city of Darwin, and only three months after the fall of Singapore, on the 3 1st of May, their midget submarines actually entered Sydney Harbour.

Even though this attack failed, threat of the Japanese invaders continued to permeate our daily lives. Like all houses, ours had blackout blinds on the windows at night, so if enemy planes flew overhead, they would be unable to see the lights of Melbourne. Scary air raid sirens frequently sounded, and searchlights filled the sky. Dad dug an air raid shelter in the backyard, basically a big yellow clay pit that filled with water every time it rained, because they couldn't afford a better one. If the yaps, as we called them, had flown over, we would probably have drowned before they could shoot us. Whereas the Millers, a childless and relatively wealthy couple across the road, had a beautifully constructed dry shelter. This infuriated my parents, who illogically felt that because they had young children, they had a greater right to it.

Sometime during the war Dad was called up to serve in the army, but because he had lousy eyesight, he could not go overseas, so he worked in an ammunition depot at Keilor, a town located outside Melbourne. One afternoon he came home, having received a commission. His digger's hat had been replaced by a flat officer's hat. Mum met him at the front door with a look of enormous pride; she fell into his arms and they had a long passionate kiss. I must have been four years old as I watched, and I decided that that was what I was going to have when I grew up.

Petrol was in short supply for civilian use during the war, and the fuel was charcoal-burning gas producers, cumbersome tanks that people attached to the backs of their cars. They caused the engine to backfire, and on the evenings when Mum and Dad had parties, I hid under my blankets, afraid of the combination of loud, laughing voices which seemed out of control and the terrifying explosions of the gas producers.

Many Australian families were so worried about the impending Japanese invasion that they fled the coastal cities and headed inland. Several times towards the end of the war Mum took us to a country town called Horsham, about 200 miles from Melbourne, to stay with her mother's sister Auntie Selma and her lawyer husband Uncle Reg for weeks at a time. I never understood how the location of Horsham would help us escape the Japanese. The back fence of their house abutted the main railway line to Melbourne, and every day trains laden with tanks and other military equipment thundered up and down, pulled by enormous puffing steam engines. Clearly this transport route would have been a primary target. Several times as we climbed the fence to watch the steam engine, the train driver blew his terrifyingly loud whistle to surprise us, and Richard got such a shock he hid under the bed for hours.

Rationing was a way of life during the war. We all had ration books and never saw butter, chocolates, or other luxuries. But then, after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942 and the victory of the U.S. marines on Guadalcanal, greater numbers of Americans came to be stationed in Australia, training for the offensive in General Douglas MacArthur's "island-hopping" strategy against the Japanese.

Occasionally Dad took us for a drive to Port Melbourne, where we would board a gleaming grey U.S. warship. The sailors wore beautiful white uniforms—so different from the rather sloppy and sometimes ill-fitting clothes of their Australian counterparts—and the officers took us to their cabins. They were lonely for their families, so they showered us with treats: chocolate bars and chewing gum in long grey strips. We thought this was wonderful, and admired the Yanks greatly. Mum also benefitted from their generosity: they gave her silk stockings. These were impossible to buy in wartime, and, like many Australian women, Mum used to cover her legs with brown pigment or liquid makeup to achieve a similar "look." All this convinced us that the United States was an exotic land of plenty, inhabited by warm, kindly people.

I was four when I went to kindergarten at Strathcona private school. On hot days we sat under a weeping peppercorn tree, smelling its sweet herbal scent as we ate our lunches out of brown paper bags. The ground was dry and dusty, drilled full of cicada holes. We used to fill our lunch bags with water and pour it into these holes, and when these beautiful insects emerged shaking their lacy fairy wings, we carefully put them into matchboxes with air holes punched in the lid. One day some of us got into terrible trouble in class when the cicadas started their deafening scree scree. Now, whenever I hear cicadas, whose song someone has described as "the sound of heat made audible," I remember kindergarten and the smell of the peppercorn tree.

I was sitting in the classroom at my primary school in August 1945, just after my seventh birthday, when we suddenly heard the long wail of fire sirens.

"What does that noise mean?" asked our teacher, a pleased smile on her face.

I shot up my hand and said: "The war's over." And it was. How did I know? I suppose Mum had been talking about the war's end at home.

To celebrate, we were let out of school at lunchtime. I walked home through the sunny warmth of the early afternoon smelling all the flowers that hung over people's front fences and feeling very happy. Little did I know that the price of peace had been the explosion of two atomic bombs over Japan and the incineration of 350,000 people.

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