My third choice of sessions was also somewhat sentimental, because, with Germaine Greer now in her 80s, I wasn’t sure how many more opportunities I’d get to see her in the flesh. But, I was disappointed because, the night before the event, the following email was sent out:
Sadly, Ms Greer has had a fall though now released from hospital. She says she is fine but doctor’s orders are that she is not to travel. Ms Greer said “I am so sorry to let everyone down, I so wanted to be there with you and I would have, except my doctor and family would not allow. Since when have I been told what to do and agreed? Please accept my sincere apologies and I hope this Zoom thing will make it up to you.”
That sounds so Germaine (if I can be so bold as to presume to know her and to use her first name)! The good thing for her is that she is ok, and for us that she was well enough to still do the session. And, in a way, it was great because via Zoom Greer appeared to us in full larger-than-life glory – as you can see from the pic. Poor Rick Morton was quite dwarfed.
Almost 90% of the direct care workforce in residential aged care are women, as are 70% of people who live in residential aged care. Germaine Greer speaks frankly about why aged care remains one of the most pressing feminist issues today.
That’s what the program said! What we got was more amorphous than that, something that kept both Rick Morton and us on our toes. Anyone who has read or seen Germaine Greer will understand what I mean. It’s hard to describe exactly what we got, but I think I’d describe it as a charming almost-ditziness crossed with an acute intelligence overlaid with a deep sense of humanity.
So, here goes. Rick Morton was clearly chosen for the interviewer role because of his work in covering our recent Royal Commission into Aged Care Quality and Safety, and Greer as interviewee because of her recent one-year experience in Aged Care in Murwillumbah. (I must say that I was a little stunned – and then sort of thrilled – when I read about this experience a few weeks ago. It makes her so real!)
Morton introduced Greer, who needed not introduction really, and then launched into the aged care issue. Here, the fun started because Greer rarely directly answered the question. She talked about how she has ended up living with her brother (in the suburbs), that she’s been diagnosed with PMR, and she shared that she’s “more trouble than she used to be”! Really?
She then talked about selling her rainforest property, on which she’d planted “zillions of trees” in a landscape regeneration project. (It’s the subject of her book, White beech.) Eventually, we got to her taking herself to that Aged Care place in Murwillumbah. Morton then referred to the story I had read about Greer blitzing word-bingo there, always putting her hand up first! (Funny that!) Greer said that she kept telling herself to shut up, but she also felt that she owed it to Dimity, who’d put such work into creating the puzzles, to kick it along. (Fair enough.)
At this point, there was discussion about her Huntsman (spider) phobia and loss of cooking skills, before we returned to Aged Care.
Morton suggested that a fundamental problem regarding Aged Care is our attitude to ageing and our attitude to the elderly, at which Greer quipped that ‘Yes, everyone calls you ‘love’ or ‘darling’ but I’m ”Professor Greer”‘.
Morton then said that in her book, The change, she had suggested that there are positive things about being “a scary old woman”. Greer, who is not afraid to change her mind, responded that now being 83, she’s reconsidering that positiveness!
However, she’s not about reassessing what she’s said in the past, she said. Instead, she’s focussing on trees and insects! She may not like spiders, but she does like snakes, which are “so sagacious and beautiful”. Morton suggested that this new passion for learning about trees and insects suggests she’s an autodidact. Is this a new phase in her life, he asked. She thought so, she said, until she found some old childhood papers which revealed an early interest in nature.
After this little interlude, Morton returned to Aged Care, this time asking for her impression of staffing. This gave Greer a platform for her feminist position on women’s role as carers: caring has always been woman’s job, and these jobs are gendered. She referred to the Renaissance Courts, describing them as structured like a family. There, too, serving jobs were gendered. Even where the worker is male, the treatment is feminised. Those who serve are spoken to/treated disparagingly, and are paid a “derisive amount of money”. We import “a bunch of people from elsewhere”, like Indonesia and Nepal, she said, and pay them at the bottom of the rung, with no chance of progression.
Morton said that we don’t regard the caring job as important, and we don’t regard the people being looked after as important.
Greer said that she thinks about these issues all the time, though at this point her response seemed a bit tangential, as she referenced Sir Thomas More’s belief that the best way of living was in a college – you have bed, food, and laundry. All this house-business is too labour-intensive!
Morton then asked whether we need an ageing revolution. After an entertaining description of ladies who, released from the daily grind, discover golf in their 6Os, she went on to say that when you are older, “the world becomes your oyster – only if you are well”, and, added Morton, “have money”.
And again, we returned to Aged Care. Are you getting a flavour of this, possibly-frustrating-to-Morton but nonetheless fascinating, conversation? There were so many asides and digressions – like a big baggy 19th century novel, where you realise at the end that those digressions meant something. You just have to go with it! So, here, she talked about the domestic staff in Aged Care. They tend to be older women and they are doing the heaviest work. (Then they become ill). The government is wasting the goodwill of these people.
Morton responded by asking how do we care for the people, many of them women in their 50s and 60s, who do the caring. Again, Greer’s response seemed tangential. It’s about how we live, she said, “there’s too much house”. Houses use up time and money. Think Thomas More, think more about communal dwelling – and she then shared some communal living experiments she knew of.
She also said, re “nursing homes”, that she doesn’t like the term “home”. There should be specialised housing for specific needs. And shared another example, this time a Welsh plan for single mums which involved women helping each other. They never last, she said, because a war or something happens and they are the first to go! That is, these social initiatives are always the lowest priority, even when they work. Can we think of ways where we don’t leave women struggling?
Morton noted that all this stems from our western individualist culture, but there are other more collectivist cultures. Greer agreed and returned to the Welsh example, where the men saw what was happening, and “felt left out” so they initiated a security group and patrolled the grounds. This, thought Greer, was rebuilding family in a different shape.
Then we turned to more a more traditional feminist stance – the need to get men away from the position where they can exert strength over weaker members of family because if they can they will.
Morton returned again to Aged Care asking her whether she’d go back to a residential aged care facility. Greer said she dreaded losing her mobility, and is enjoying the suburbs and getting to know her family, but knows it won’t last forever.
Morton asked her whether she thinks about death. She’s not afraid of death she said, she’s more afraid of living too long, and of not paying back! He asked her to assess how her life has unfolded. She said that she “spends a fair amount of time in a rage”. We are so mean to each other. But she doesn’t think in terms of mistakes. She’s a fatalist.
The Q&A was a bit wild like the interview, but I’ll try to dot point:
- On the younger generation re-discovering The female eunuch: She’s grateful, she said. She was lucky to be born at that time when all this was coming to the fore. She hopes we get better at looking after women’s health.
Then she threw in another idea, identity, which she says is a non-existent problem. Morton asked what it mattered to her if someone has an identity. She responded that there have been five biographies about her, and she’s never met any of those subjects in her life!
- On the sex vs gender debate being so toxic. Again, Greer answered her version of the question: she doesn’t get why domestic violence is sexualised, have we forgotten elder abuse, why are people’s lives as difficult as they are, and we haven’t got far with women!
She then returned to identity. Identity is not the issue that is causing the problem, she said. At this point I wrote in my notes that Greer was the portrait of a woman aways thinking, connecting, and questioning – and that she also had a lot of ideas she wanted to share.
Meanwhile, our questioner clarified her question, which concerned our inability to debate sex vs gender without toxicity, and people shutting down the debate? Greer responded that sex runs the planet, and that gender is fun, because you can make it up! Oh dear … she knew exactly what she was doing here, because she then said that “part of my job is to get hate mail”.
- On outliving one’s time, and being valued: she returned to the communal/village idea where old people have a place. People she said need places to get to know each other.
- On getting the balance right (re “having it all”): “buy 57 hectares of forest” she said.
- On where satisfaction comes from. She doesn’t know the answer, but suggested it’s when you find your work.
Then, she ended with:
Mistrust me if I present myself as having them [the answers, she meant].
As another attendee said, as we were leaving, “just when you think she’s a bit demented, she goes boom!” That’s Germaine!
Canberra Writers Festival, 2022
Germaine Greer in conversation with Rick Morton
Saturday 13 August 2022, 2-3pm