The Melbourne Cup win by female jockey Michelle Payne has raised many of my old favorite questions and issues about the influences on our lives and the direction it follows. Is gender the defining aspect as our world would have us believe; initially surprised, stunned, and even shocked at the feat of a female jockey winning The Cup; only later to appreciate how she ‘outraced’ not only an-all male jockey field, but a male-dominated ‘chauvinistic’ industry. How tenacious, determined and dedicated was Michelle Payne to beat the boys at their own game in their own backyard is the underlying tenor of the plaudits, ignoring the reality that it was ‘boys’ who helped shape her self-belief and dedicated determination in the first place. Trainer Darren Weir and her father are being heralded as heroes in her story, yet, no one has realised, or verbally acknowledged, at least from what I’ve read and heard, that the people who stood behind her and with her along her rides on the racetrack were indeed male! What has hit the headlines is how sexist and against her most of the males in the industry were as she has voiced. We should be championing the males who supported her AS males just as much as declaring other males didn’t want to know her. Sardonically, it says more about their narrow attitudes and assumptions than about her as a woman in a man’s world. My experience however, is that some females have been as negative and uninterested in me as some males; gender was not, nor has it ever been, the pertinent issue from my perspective. Payne didn’t mention any outstanding influential females in her life, apart from her sisters. Were there any others and what was their attitude to her? As she berated the ‘chauvinism’ in the racing industry, it is male-focused, not whether other females were supportive or indifferent. As I certainly experienced, females too can be just as disparaging and denigrating of competitive women as males.
I’ve been reflecting on my own life in a way I haven’t actually thought about so much before as to what people actually ‘shaped’ my life in what I believed in, what I aspired to and moreover, how I chose, albeit consciously as well as unconsciously at times, to live my life. The interesting aspect about thinking about these influences is that they are both male and female; and apart from my parents and sisters, who I’ve written about in previous blogs, I’m now thinking about school teachers, friends, and a whole assortment of people I’ve encountered in my life; fortuitously who helped fashion my fantasies and fate. Irrespective of cold and calculated plans and dreams, many of which were never realised or implemented for a multitude of reasons; some gender biased, others not at all to do with being female, I lived as much as I could directing my own life as I wanted it. The positivity of some people is as relevant as the negativity of others, as understanding and really ‘hearing’ others’ negativity, and rejecting it, is as integral in maintaining self-belief and confidence as understanding, and/or appreciating positivity; gender irrelevant.
It is also significant who we actually talk with, listen to and overwhelming, ‘hear’ and then think about for ourselves, accepting some advice or suggestions and abandoning or disregarding others. Likewise what we read or hear on the media; especially as youngsters, as much of this we absorb like amoebas, demanding that we think about the myriad of media messages clearly, logically and rationally as to whether we adhere to these absorptions as we mature. Moreover, we need to analyse as much as we can these absorptions making what may be unconscious into a conscious understanding about who we really are and what we want to achieve, inspired by what we enjoy and derive pleasure from. It’s always an on-going and lifelong journey; we make one decision or choice at different times in different contexts for different reasons and then we can change our minds, direction and wants due to our experience. Fate is indeed what it’s about on some levels; out of our control sometimes, while on other levels, we can control our own destiny in some kind of relative reality.
My early memories at school are of a young, pretty, slim, female teacher in my second year at school while in year three my teacher was a much older, more matronly woman, with greying hair and spectacles. Both were unmarried. I enjoyed these years at school and have very happy recollections of those days. I can see them both of them so clearly, as if I took photos with my eyes, and they were so opposite in appearance and age that both these issues were irrelevant. I don’t remember anything about careers, or jobs or any discussion at all about me, except I did well at school, had mostly female girlfriends, and was happy. However, it was another female who was the infant headmistress that I remember most vividly for all the wrong reasons; she was an ugly spinster who physically assaulted me as a five-year-old by kicking me in my bottom because I’d been talking in class and was ejected from the classroom to stand alone outside the door. It was another female teacher (and I’ve got absolutely no recall what she looked like or how old she was) in Year One. I’ve always remembered that ‘assault’. Some females could be inimical to me as a little girl as much as others were warm and caring. My first conscious ‘lesson’ in gender irrelevant; not of course that I was even aware consciously of this issue at that age, but I certainly understood then that not all people were, for want of a better word, ‘amicable and/or ‘good’. Without brothers, and my father the only male in my family, I also enjoyed good friendships with many young boys who lived in my street as well as the sons of my parent’s friends. I was totally oblivious to gender significance.
In Years Four, Five and Six, I had male teachers and didn’t think anything about their ‘maleness’ at the time; they were just my teachers who happened to be male. It was in Year Five that my male teacher suggested being a journalist after I wrote a composition about our classroom. It stayed in my head very consciously, but I don’t believe that his gender was the relevant issue, certainly not for me at the young age of nine. Was it just a fortuitous comment or a more important recognition of some writing ability and power of observation he read in my words? The reality is I never forgot his suggestion, shaping my life completely and my ambitious, career aspiration. My teacher in Year Six the following year was also instrumental in another direction in my life; my passion for football, telling me he had played then VFL for Fitzroy. I was just beginning to embrace football, though I have no recollection as to whether he told the whole class for some reason, or whether it came up while I might have been talking to him about something else. In front of my classroom was a real life footballer (he never made it to the seniors but played in the reserves) and it was another lesson for me about talent and ability; I remember him saying he wasn’t good enough for the firsts, but that he enjoyed playing nonetheless. I’m completely unsure what I made of it at that time, but years later, I remembered his words. The next year I started attending football matches every Saturday afternoon, watching players to see whether they were really good enough or was it all about the coach? I still ponder on that one, fifty four years later.
At 14, in Year 10 at high school, my football team was languishing near the bottom of the 12-team competition in Melbourne. God knows where the idea came from (I was angry and believed I knew better- hm!) but I put pen to paper and wrote a letter to the team’s coach, criticising him and asking why he did not make the moves I claimed he should have after one particular game towards season’s end. The fact he answered me, and how he answered me – explaining in a two-page, handwritten exchange why he had done or didn’t do what I was lambasting him about, not only thrilled me, but inspired me with a great sense of confidence about my understanding or ‘reading’ of the game. He had taken the time and made the effort to reply to a 14-year-old girl who he didn’t know and had never heard of. It wasn’t about gender then for me either; he was male of course as all football personnel were at that time (it was 1964) but it helped shape my ambition to be a football reporter and one day, such was my grand dream, to be president of my club.
At 18, another male whose name I’ll never know also fortuitously and without knowing me on another level, fuelled my latent but conscious ambition to be a political reporter, too. I was already working as a cadet journalist on one newspaper, but wrote a ‘political’ letter to the editor of the opposition morning daily, the more highly regarded Age. Politics was also a teenage passion, but the reality of my letter’s publication in The Age helped boost my confidence that I did understand and appreciate political contradictions and knew something about the nature of politics. I have no idea who the letters’ editor of The Age was in 1968, but he (I’m now assuming gender; there were few females in the mainstream media in those days) unknowingly inspired me to start voicing my interest in reporting politics for the newspaper I worked for. Simultaneously I had already started my quest to report football matches, but was affectionately at least, laughed at, as you guessed it – for being female and wanting to cover football! The justifications I listened to for my rejection were irrational and illogical; suffice to say the most common one was – “You won’t be allowed into the rooms after the game so you won’t be able to talk to the players”, to which I replied “I can talk to them after their showers outside the rooms”. It wouldn’t have mattered what I said such was their entrenched chauvinism; it was my first lesson in gender relevance; where being female worked against what I not only wanted to do, but believed I knew I could do as well as the male reporters. My vehemence about that ‘dream’ abated somewhat (it resurfaced some 15 years later to no avail one again) as politics became more significant and I was aware enough quite consciously that football was a male-only domain. Trying to change it seemed futile, then, as while I was being rational, knowledgeable and polite invoicing my interest, they weren’t even listening. I wasn’t going to bang my head against a brick wall. I talked about games to whoever would listen, but I stopped trying to cover a match.
Getting to Parliament became my overwhelming passion. There were no female political role models to even attempt to emulate, let alone inspire me, but gender wasn’t an issue for me in that perspective as I was inspired by many male political journalists I read. Could I be as good and incisive as they were? For nearly twelve months, I started staking my claim to cover Parliament, my boss finally relenting (no doubt he’d run out of irrational excuses-my young age being the most repeated as well as mentioning there were no other females there). I’ve written just how disillusioning the experience was; suffice to say I’m not sure that being male would have made any difference to me. Certainly, my young and sexy appearance as a female in a 99 per cent male domain, ensured some of these men, both journos and politicians, ‘saw’ my gender first and foremost; my work irrelevant. That wasn’t the issue for me; it was the political debacle in Parliament that shattered my ideals about political reportage. I took satisfaction that I had persuaded my boss to let me cover it in the first place as well as confidence that I could do it (I was very junior in the press gallery), but the cynicism I was feeling crept all over me and I got out. I went overseas for nearly 10 months.
At the start of my first year in journalism, I was also enrolled at university part-time in two subjects; one a philosophy subject called Epistemology, Logic and Methodology. I had been reading philosophy books for more than four years, and thought it would be less taxing than another subject I knew nothing about. Despite some knowledge about the great philosophical thinkers and writers, this subject was a real joy to study; it was about knowledge per se and working in journalism was almost the ideal profession to try and understand why we needed to know and what ‘knowing’ was actually all about. I didn’t attend many tuts or even many lectures, but I read profusely and passed the exam at the end of the year. That was all I cared about and was completely stunned to receive a letter from the Professor of Philosophy congratulating me for my result in the exam (he didn’t include what mark I received), and suggesting I should do philosophy honours the next year (as a part-time student, I was not allowed to enrol in honours). I kept his letter for years among my memorabilia as I didn’t recall ever speaking to him or even meeting him during my study that year. His letter however was another boost to my intellectual confidence; ensuring me in some ways I was certainly a logical thinker who could appreciate and analyse the illogicality of others’ arguments.
Having watched many ‘war’ movies during my teens, another dream, desire or determination was to be a war correspondent, believing that if enough people read about the horrors and atrocities of war, pacifism would win. Movies were I believed more works of fiction than real life, and reporting from the front line would surely make people think and realise just how futile and fatal war really was. Moreover, TV news footage on the Vietnam War had started to seep across our TV screens, but while it graphically and horrifyingly revealed the atrocity of war, and its human cost, it still didn’t include many accounts of interviews with soldiers and how they coped with being part of it all. Indeed, for the regular soldiers, why they even wanted to go to war in the first place. Such was my 19-year-old ambition, albeit naivety, wanting to go to Vietnam which I had studied and protested about for the past few years. In Bangkok, where I travelled to first (en route I believed to Saigon later), I met a young, American GI on R & R staying at my hotel. My plan was to work in Bangkok for a while and then fly to Saigon, typewriter in tow. The GI, whose name I don’t remember, started talking to me late one night in the hotel restaurant, over a cup of iced tea in air-conditioned comfort. He was visibly on drugs; his speech drawled and slow, spaced out in another world. I began ‘interviewing’ him, wanting to know and learn everything I could about his experience. I didn’t take notes, just filed away his words in my head, horrified as he spoke about how not just him, but most of the allied soldiers, could only cope in the war with drugs; blocking out the insanity and depressing horror of their engagement. He was a regular, not a conscript, and he’d been in Vietnam for more than two years. He wanted out. We then adjourned to his room to smoke some dope. He did most of the talking; telling me personal anecdotes about his experience; my welcome to the real world. He also told me I’d be a fool or idiot or words to that effect if I went there. He was completely ‘fucked’ about what he’d had to do and what he’d seen; killing people when he wasn’t even sure they were the enemy; ordinary south Vietnamese civilians or Viet Cong sympathisers or guerrillas. Be they Americans, Australians or NZ forces, the soldiers couldn’t tell the difference. He didn’t make a pass at me and after about 90 minutes, I went to my room, thinking for hours about what he’d said. I couldn’t decide whether he was right and/or sensible about warning me not to go and was I just an ignorant, deluded young girl seeking ‘glory’ as a war correspondent or naively believing first-hand war reports would change the world? Pondering over it all in my lonely hotel room till the early hours of the morning, two young Thai males broke into my room, carrying a tray of drinks I hadn’t ordered. I’m not sure what they expected, let alone wanted, as I screamed loudly and they put the tray on a table and took off. An hour later, I was out of the hotel to stay with some Australian friends working in Bangkok, and a few days later, I was en route to Israel. No war games for me. I never forgot that GI and what he’d told me, and on a kibbutz in Israel, I met another ex-GI Vietnam soldier who was as fucked as the GI in Bangkok, all too depressed about talking ‘war’ and too depressing to listen to anymore. I flirted occasionally in my twenties with still being a war correspondent, but the reality I heard in my late teens stayed alive and thriving in my head. These males shaped yet another decision I made in my youth. I’ve never regretted my decision which was not because I was female per se, but because I had realised writing stories about war wouldn’t change anything. I didn’t know how it ever would. For many peoples in so many countries, peace was a fantasy never to be achieved because for some leaders, they just didn’t want it. I wanted no part of it.
Over the next decade, both back in Australia and the U.K., I met many people in my job as a journalist and researcher who enriched my life experience, both positively in affirming a ‘goodness’ about human nature, and at the same time, some people who were politically and economically, even socially bent on destroying the lives of ordinary people; or so it seemed to me in those days. Moreover, I was unable to reconcile exactly what benevolent benefit was to be achieved by ‘knowing’ anything. I’ve wrestled with the philosophical meaning of knowledge most of my life, considering all its manifest connotations and those less covert. The bottom line is that some people are a ‘real joy’ to know while others I choose to walk away from, when I can. These people were part of a tapestry of life; making me think and realise about ideas and realities I had never countenanced including some I didn’t want to. It made me appreciate the really good in people; genuine, sincere and altruistic inspired people who sought to achieve not just for themselves, but for others less fortunate, lucky or privileged as themselves. It was an ‘education’ no book or academic scholar could have ever taught me.
But in 1977, there was one story I researched and reported on for TV in London that was never broadcast. It had a big impact on my thinking; about the Jews in Israel, Britain and the rest of the world. It was the second anniversary of the UN Resolution ‘Zionism is Racism’ and I arranged for three young London Jewish students and three young Arab London students (they were all male as they were the only ones who agreed to take part) to engage in a discussion about the issue. The mediator was the female president of the National Union of Students in Britain. We were to film it, (not live to air) with me asking questions to initiate the discussion. The subject matter had interested me since I was a teenager; even more so after spending four months living, working and travelling in Israel, and I was really interested to hear other points of view. After about only five minutes, the discussion, if I can even call it that, became heated, angry and hostile; the Jewish students incapable or simply unwilling to even listen to what the young Arabs were saying. Trying to quell the storm, I failed miserably, the three Jewish students literally running out of the room never to be seen again. I sat in my chair stunned; disappointed and shocked. I don’t remember their names and wouldn’t want to anyway; it was a sad and tragic reality that they were the ones who didn’t want to engage as if they might have consciously, and/or also unconsciously realised that Israel was indeed racist in its basic premise and national ideology. They didn’t really have a cogent and rational argument to counter the Arabs’ perspective. I have no recollection if the three Arabs were actually Palestinians; or just of Middle East heritage, it was irrelevant. I have never forgotten that experience; shaping my own beliefs and understanding about Israel, even more so now when peace is just another fantasy never to be realised, at least in my lifetime. If young, intelligent people can’t sit and discuss these issues, what hope is there for others? It was a depressing occurrence in my life, and the UN rescinded the Resolution (I think) the next year. It’s also irrelevant to the reality.
I could continue writing about all the wonderful and not-so-wonderful people I’ve met in my life; but it’s sometimes fortuitous who we meet and who impacts on our minds and hearts. Gender is not the defining issue; neither is race, religion, or nationality, and I’ll end by paying tribute to Cat Stevens’ song ‘Wild World’; many ‘bad’ people out there, beware, and to John Lennon’s song ‘Give Me Some Truth’!