A Bonza Elisabeth Kirkby OAM

24 / 08 / 2015

When asked to reveal the secret to her long, doctor healthy and extravagantly-accomplished life, generic Elisabeth Kirkby responds with a shrug of her shoulders and flat “I don’t know”. Which is a bit of a shame really, because it’s clearly a cracker of a recipe.

At 94, Elisabeth is fit as a fiddle, wildly well-informed, witty, wise, whip-smart, a fabulous old leftie, agelessly beautiful and in possession of what Sheilas suspects is a natural born way with fashion. She is just now starting to take stock of nine decades on planet earth. To call hers a life rich in experience and accomplishment is to understate what she’s achieved so far – and the good news is that she’s not done yet. Last year Elisabeth became Australia’s oldest known PhD recipient. She played Lucy in the 1970s smash hit, Number 96. In 1981 she went to state parliament as a NSW Democrat, and became Australia’s longest serving Democrat Member of Parliament before retiring in 1998. She’s been a farmer, journalist, radio announcer, was married for thirty years (to 1970s women’s health warrior Derek Llewellyn-Jones, author of Everywoman), is a mother of three and was recently awarded an Order of Australia medal. She holds a ‘helicopter view’ of nine decades of human history, what’s more, across the UK and Asia and ultimately, Australia.

Sheilas co-editor Trish Pinto caught up with Elisabeth when she was in Melbourne recently for an Older and Bolder (in which she features) event in town. Many thanks to Renata Singer for her role in making this happen.

Trish Pinto (TP): What’s it like to bear witness to nine decades of human history?

Elisabeth Kirkby (EK): It’s only something I’m starting to think about now, as I get “very old”. When you’re younger, you’re absorbed in living your life, getting on with whatever you happen to be doing at the time. But as I get more reflective I also get more worried. As I look back now, through all the years of history I’ve seen, I’m more aware of the huge changes that have taken place. Yet in other ways, things haven’t changed almost enough, and that’s frustrating. What worries and frustrates me most of all though, is the feeling that we’re not learning the lessons of history. We’re repeating the mistakes of the past, over and over again. The seeds of World War Two were sown at the end of World War One with the Treaty of Versailles and reparations that resulted in such suffering among the German people in the 1920s. So why then is Angela Merkel so keen to impose punitive austerity measures upon Greece? The seeds of ISIS were sown in the Middle East after World War Two. The GFC had the same roots as the Great Depression – speculative stock market manipulations. We just don’t seem to learn!

TP: I’ve read that you found your social conscience early, as a young girl in the Great Depression. That your people were cotton manufacturers, and while your own background was relatively privileged, the suffering and poverty you witnessed were searing for you…

EK: Oh yes, absolutely. My family was quite well to do – they were cotton manufacturers in Lancashire and when the industry failed I saw unimaginable poverty and hardship among the workers particularly. Our own circumstances were much reduced and that was a shock too.

I remember that Ghandi toured Britain’s cotton mills in the early 1930s – you can imagine, this diminutive figure in his robes, with two minders in similar garb…they looked like they were from another planet! But he calmly explained to the cotton workers that his people were starving, that they desperately needed the jobs that they were at that time taking from Britain. And those workers, crippled themselves by the Depression, understood, and accepted the loss of their jobs to India. It was such a profound lesson, at the time, and still.

TP: You were in the entertainment division of the British Army in WW2. What stays with you from that time?

EK: Look, it was a hoot. I was a filing clerk in Winchester and not having a very exciting war. I’d worked with the Manchester Repertory Company before I was called up, so I jumped at the chance. Television started in Britain before WW2 and later I was in the first play to be presented by the BBC after the war. The entertainment industry held great allure and the filing, practically none.

I was part of the Stars in Battledress Entertainment Troupe and we performed Flare Path by Terence Rattigan at the Army training camps in Southern England. It was a play about a bomber pilot and a love triangle between himself, his wife and a Hollywood film star. It was fitted the times perfectly and the audiences lapped it up. And I adored the stage.

TP: What was it like being a star of Number 96? The slings and arrows of outrageous soapie fortune extracted a high toll on your character Lucy Sutcliffe. The moaning ne-er do well husband in Alf. The breast cancer scare that gripped a nation.  What was it like playing such a hugely popular character? Did you get recognised everywhere you went?

EK: It wasn’t at all like it is nowadays back then. I get recognised more now! Though I do remember coming down from Sydney with the rest of the cast, to attend The Logies. We took the Southern Aurora to Spencer Street and the plan was that we drive in a cavalcade of convertibles the length of Bourke Street. But it was so crowded the police called it off. It was too dangerous. We were sitting there in our convertibles with the crowd surging around us and a woman started screaming out to me, “Lucy, catch the baby. Catch the baby!” I remember thinking, well, if I miss, that baby’s in serious trouble. She was going to throw it at me!

It was a colourful time. My character Lucy had a breast cancer scare. Of course, in those days, breast cancer was still practically a death sentence. On the Friday night the episode ended on a classic cliffhanger. The doctor was about to deliver his diagnosis. Alf and I (as Lucy) were waiting with bated breath. Monday night’s episode achieved Australia’s highest rating everfor that episode. Lucy didn’t have breast cancer, which was a great relief – for the audience but also for my television career.

TP: You worked in radio in Malaysia after the war didn’t you? What was that like?

EK: It was an incredible time of course. My husband (Derek Llewellyn-Jones) was in the Colonial Medical Service and I worked in broadcasting, as a writer and director for Radio Malaya, later Radio Malaysia. It was propaganda initially as Malaya was fighting the communist insurgency. Later, I was directing radio plays and writing feature programs, as well as training Malaysian broadcasters; a tremendous experience. And there was a huge amount of work to be done in maternal health.  At that time, the local Indian and Malay women never thought of going to the doctor for anything to do with pregnancy or childbirth. The World Health Organisation (WHO) was active in the area too, and so Derek was part of a broader movement to improve maternal and infant health in the region. We stayed on after Independence. We loved it there and made some great friends – there were lots of Australians and Americans as well as us Brits. I guess we weren’t typical expats – we had lots of local friends too and felt very much part of the community.

Then Derek was offered a senior position at Sydney University and we were on the move again. I’d been to Sydney once before and enjoyed it. Though I was actually hoping to move to Melbourne because I had an aunt there and liked it better as a city.

TP: Why did you decide to go into politics? I’ve read you were pretty outraged by The Dismissal (and weren’t we all, Sheilas, or all of us old enough to remember?), did that contribute?

EK: The Dismissal was a memorable moment, certainly. I remember thinking, “what sort of country is this, where you can sack the Prime Minister?” (us too Elisabeth, us too). It was an outrage. I had been working at the Talks and Features Unit at the ABC, and the Head of Department was Colin Mason – later Senator Colin Mason. He invited me to join the Australian Democrats in 1977, and I agreed. I’d met Don Chipp socially and felt an affinity with his politics. It was the birth of a new party and new vision for Australian politics, and a very exciting time. We felt that change was possible. Iwas elected to the NSW Legislative Council in 1981. I became the NSW Leader and the Australian Democrats longest-serving Member of Parliament – retiring in 1998. Then took up wheat and sheep farming (as you do!).

TP: What inspired you to undertake a PhD? You’re quoted as it being a case of “use it or lose it” but it seems the topic remains close to your heart, after all these years gone by. It explores the Great Depression and the GFC and the links between the two. Can you tell us more about this? Is it a case of history repeating? And were you prepared for the media frenzy it precipitated?

EK: I’d always wanted to study more seriously but life got in the way. When I was at school I wanted to go down to Oxford and read history. But then World War Two broke out and it didn’t happen. I finally had the time and thought, why not? It was a wonderful experience. When I first arrived I think the other students thought “what’s this old lady doing in the class?” but I soon settled in and made friends. There were lots of international students, and that was good fun. It was a lot of work, an enormous amount of reading, but it was fascinating. I’ve learnt a great deal about economics particularly. And as I’ve said, our refusal to learn the lessons of history is something that concerns me greatly. I wrote (more than 100,000 words) on comparisons between the Great Depression and the GFC, both of which I recall. Both were based on greed and speculative manipulations, and caused such hardship.

And no, I wasn’t prepared for the media interest. Nor was the media manager at Sydney University. The phone rang off the hook for days. It was all very perplexing, but flattering nonetheless.

Image: Action Press

TP: Clearly, you’ve packed it in. While many of your vintage have passed away or settled in at the nursing home, you’re still gadding about, an exemplar of positive ageing? What’s your secret, and what’s next in the celebrated almost century long life of Elisabeth Kirkby? 

EK: I don’t know. I get asked this a lot! I’m lucky in that I’ve enjoyed reasonably good health. I’ve had my gallbladder taken out and some cataracts removed. But other than that, I’ve been fine. There is longevity in my family, so that’s probably a factor. My grandmother lived until her late 80s, which for her times was a grand old age. And she had a younger sister, my Auntie Lily, who lived to be almost 100. She was the one who lived in Melbourne. She came to Australia with her husband as war refugees in 1942. They’d be living in Estonia but because they were British, the Germans told them to leave. They had one suitcase between them. They were sent via Vladivostock to Melbourne.

As to what’s next; I’m thinking I might write a book.

TP: Just for a bit of fun, we ask all our Bonza Sheilas one standard question. If you could have three people to dinner, living or dead, who would they be? And what would you cook? Or order in perhaps?

EK: I’m a big fan of her detective stories so I think I’d have to include Agatha Christie. And I’ve become very interested in economics since undertaking my PhD, so maybe I’d invite John Maynard Keynes, who I believe had the right ideas about economics. As a third guest, Lady Astor, the first woman ever elected to British Parliament. I bet she’d have some stories to tell.

I’d serve oysters for entrée and fish for main course. I love fish and seafood. We’d have gelati for dessert.

*****

Ed’s note:

So no great reveal, no ten sure tips to achieve a long, healthy life littered with accolades and stunning achievements. Still, if you look to the fast moving, constantly changing, never stale or stuck, always surprising way Elisabeth has and twirled and pirouetted through nine decades on earth, perhaps hers is an especially stunning case of adapt or perish. Or of fortune favouring the brave. Also, she loves fish. So maybe the lesson is Sheilas, be brave, be audacious, and keep up the Omega Three.

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