Canberra Writers Festival 2022: (My) Session 3, Germaine Greer in conversation with Rick Morton

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.

Anyhow, as I’ve done with the previous post, I’ll start with how the program described the session:

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

Elizabeth Kleinhenz in conversation with Chris Wallace – about Germaine Greer

Elizabeth Kleinhenz, Germaine GreerIt made for a busy night, given that the last Tuesday of the month is also my reading group night, but I had to go to this ANU Meet the Author event, because it involved Canberra academic/journalist (not to mention Germaine Greer biographer) Chris Wallace conversing with Elizabeth Kleinhenz, whose biography, Germaine: The life of Germaine Greer, has just been published.

MC Colin Steele commenced proceedings by introducing the participants, then noting that Germaine Greer’s archives had been bought a few years ago by the University of Melbourne for $3m! Not cheap, eh, but it is a significant collection about, as the back cover artwork says, “arguably one of the most significant and influential Australian women of her time.” Hmm, there are a lot of qualifications here – “arguably”, “one of the most”, “Australian”, “women” and “her time”. Whoever said this was not going out on a limb!

Anyhow, it was an excellent conversation – not just because it was about this fascinating woman, Germaine (b. 1939) but also because Chris Wallace led the conversation in a logically, but not rigidly, structured way and Elizabeth Kleinhenz was open and articulate in her responses. I’m glad I made the effort to attend.

First things first

To get things going, Wallace asked some general questions about the book itself. Its cover pic, for example. Kleinhenz responded that it was the publisher’s choice, though she was involved, I gather, in the discussion. They wanted a picture that would be attention-grabbing. And so it is.

Wallace, Steele and Kleinhenz,

Wallace, Steele and Kleinhenz, 2018, before the session

Wallace then asked about that back cover quote that I’ve already mentioned. It led to Kleinhenz talking about why she’d chosen Greer as her subject. She spoke about all the negative reactions she’d received on telling people that she was writing about Greer – comments like “that silly old bat”. But, Kleinhenz felt that Greer had made some significant contributions to women’s lives and that she’s an excellent scholar: she wanted to “set the record straight”.

She also said that Greer, despite her obvious impact on women’s lives, doesn’t like women (like me, for example) telling her that she’d changed their lives. “I didn’t change your life,” she apparently says, “you did.” Well yes, technically she’s right, but, without enlightenment from Greer, many of us may not have made the leaps we needed – or may have made them much more slowly – so I think our belief stands, whether or not Greer accepts it!

Anyhow, then, before getting into the nuts and bolts of the biography, Wallace asked Kleinhenz to say a little about her first biography on Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who is, apparently, another misunderstood woman. I won’t go into details, but Kleinhenz said she had always wondered why Kleinhenz, when offered a Professorship, had declined, saying she wasn’t good enough. She found the answer, she said, when researching Greer: it’s that women of Greer and Fitzpatrick’s generation were not brought up to be equal. Greer, said Kleinhenz, saw that women had to change themselves in order to move forward.

Wallace asked Kleinhenz how it was that we had moved from Fitzpatrick to Greer. Kleinhenz, born in the 1940s, related her own experience as a young women who, although she had a good job as a teacher, “just” wanted a house and family. However, when she got there she found it wasn’t enough. She realised, as Greer argues in The female eunuch, women could/should not blame men – doing so, in fact, cedes power to men – but must change ourselves. So, she did – she went back to work.

Early, mid and late Germaine

We then got into the guts of the conversation. With Greer now 80, how, asked Wallace, do we assess her? Kleinhenz felt that Wallace had got it right in her biography, Germaine Greer: Untamed shrew, recognising that Greer writes from where she’s at at the time. In that, said Kleinhenz, she is consistent!

However, later in her career, she said, it seems that Greer “went funny”. She is known to suffer depression. Maybe she wasn’t well. Her book, The boy (2003), about the beauty of young boys’ bodies, comes from, Kleinhenz feels, an unfortunate period in her life. But some years later, she bought the rainforest – which was in fact funded, I understand, from that sale of her archives. Kleinhenz suggested that this period marks her “return”.

Wallace, though, seemed not so sure, and asked Kleinhenz about Greer’s book On rape. Wallace is appalled by it, while Kleinhenz admitted to a “softer” response, one that she has also found amongst other women of her age. She admitted that Greer takes a very narrow definition of rape, but felt that Greer says some sensible things about the legal system, for example, and about the role of violence in rape.

Research and writing

The discussion then turned to biography writing. Wallace asked whether readers are surprised that people are, in fact, rounded, that is, not all good or all bad. Kleinhenz said that she tried not to be soft on Greer in her book, but she did find Greer an interesting woman. Greer has, in fact, a lot of friends – the implication being that she must have some good things going for her despite all her critics.

Wallace noted that Greer is charismatic, and wondered whether it’s been a problem that she has been too uncritically treated, here, rather than getting “energetic” Australian feedback. Kleinhenz agreed somewhat with this. There was some discussion, for example, about Greer’s taking a cultural relativist view towards female genital mutilation, rather than opposing it categorically. Kleinhenz suggested that Greer has been criticised in Australia – but “of the silly old bat” variety rather than more “critical” criticism, that is, serious analytical discussion of her ideas. Kleinhenz also said that it’s hard to dislike someone who makes you laugh. I understand that!

Wallace then moved onto a subject dear to my heart – the issue of the archives. Were they rich, she asked. Did they change Kleinhenz’s view? Kleinhenz, laughing, started by comparing Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s ordered 8-box collection with Germaine’s nearly 500 boxes that were not organised chronologically. She discussed her process – the role Wallace had played in her getting “more organised”, and how she handled the closing of the Greer archives for 12 months partway through her research. This turned out to be useful, because during this time she went to secondary sources and conducted interviews, so that when the archives opened again, she had a framework.

She shared some of the treasures, some of the things that stood out – such as letters from Clive James, Helen Garner, and a French girl who told a very personal story and to whom Greer wrote a personally revealing reply.

During the Q&A at the end, the issue of Greer keeping copies of the letters she wrote came up. Why did she – do some – people keep not only the letters they receive but copies of those they write? There’s no single answer of course. However, Kleinhenz did say that she believes Greer knows her “commercial” value. The words “no fee, no work” appear at the bottom of many of her letters. Wallace interjected here commenting that writers’ incomes are “lumpy”, so it’s quite likely that potential financial value drove her decision to keep her papers – and, Greer knew she was big. (However, it could also simply that she’s a hoarder, or, a historian who likes to keep her records? I can understand that.)

Kleinhenz also said that she suspects that Greer had probably removed some family-related material from the archives before she sold them. Also, there was not much “childhood stuff” in the archives, but the audio material is wonderful. Greer apparently records her thoughts, for example, as she goes for walks with her dogs.

Q & A

I’ve included some of the Q&A discussions above, because it seemed logical, but other issues were discussed, including:

  • Why did she choose Greer? Kleinhenz said she grew up with Greer. Greer is only three years older than she, but also lived in the same area of Melbourne, and they both went to Catholic schools. However, the main reason is that she felt Greer deserved it: she wanted, she reiterated, “to put record straight”.
  • What difference do her archives make to assessment of her? Kleinhenz answered that while they don’t contain much in terms of signficant new facts, they add a depth of understanding. Those letters she mentioned above, and other letters like those with John Atwood, whom she appeared to love at one stage in her life, helped here.
  • What impact did the birth control pill have? Kleinhenz said that Greer was highly aware of the pill and felt that women needed to think through the changes the pill brought, and how they would manage those changes, what they would do with them. This came out in the excellent notes she made for writing The female eunuch.

Kleinhenz added at this point, that Greer had felt a freak as a young person – she felt too tall, too noisy.

Closing the session

In closing the session, Colin Steele referred to the small Trailblazers book – accompanying Australia Post’s Australian Legends series – in which Greer says she’s not a tour operator, but wants to encourage people to think for themselves. This, in fact, perfectly sums up my attitude to Greer. She’s a bit (hmm, just a bit?!) of an iconoclast. I don’t always like – or perhaps, fully comprehend – what she says, but I love that she’s around saying it. She can always make me think – and sometimes, she makes me laugh!

I’d love to say more about Greer and some of the ideas generated by this conversation, but will, perhaps save them until I’ve read the biography.

Podcast: click this link to see if you think I’ve captured the conversation accurately enough!

ANU/The Canberra Times Meet the Author
MC: Colin Steele
Australian National University
30 October 2018