LEG­GING IT

Au­thor, lit­er­ary agent and film­maker Robin Dal­ton is a great ad­ver­tise­ment for liv­ing an en­gaged life, writes He­len Trinca

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Robin Dal­ton puts it down to genes. And op­ti­mism. And never say­ing no. She’s talk­ing about be­ing a 96-yearold, one who ap­pears on this Satur­day morn­ing as buoy­ant as she must have when she ar­rived in Lon­don from Syd­ney more than 70 years ago. Dal­ton has had a big life by any­one’s stan­dards but she wears it lightly, not keen to re­flect or make too much of her ca­pac­ity for sur­vival.

As one in­ter­viewer wrote last year, Dal­ton is one of those “un­sink­able women of the wartime gen­er­a­tion whose ac­ci­den­tal lives are a per­ma­nent sur­prise”.

“I try not to think about my­self,” she says. “I’ve said in print that I never say no to ex­pe­ri­ence and I think if you ac­cept what’s on of­fer or what­ever hap­pens to you, then you learn a bit more about not turn­ing your back on life.”

The jour­nal­ist, au­thor, in­tel­li­gence agent, lit­er­ary agent and film pro­ducer could never be ac­cused of turn­ing away from life. Her mem­oir, One Leg Over, is a slice of so­cial his­tory mas­querad­ing as a romp that tells us as much about 20th-cen­tury shifts in gen­der as any aca­demic text.

From her youth in Syd­ney’s Kings Cross, through mar­riage, di­vorce, end­less suit­ors, meet­ing the love of her life, his early death, her re­cov­ery and re­mar­riage, Dal­ton races through the decades as if to slow down would be to in­vite a point­less re­view of the past.

She has no real re­grets: “I mean I couldn’t have re­grets be­cause I’ve had a won­der­ful life … but I do re­gret not hav­ing done some­thing a bit more se­ri­ous and a bit more use­ful with my life … I never took any­thing through to its log­i­cal con­clu­sion be­cause there was al­ways some­thing else beck­on­ing from be­hind it.” Her early years read like a pro­longed hol­i­day and “it’s only work I re­gret not hav­ing done, not play”.

Dal­ton is a great ad­ver­tise­ment for an en­gaged life. “There’s prac­ti­cally no­body alive as old as me,” she says as she apol­o­gises for the state of her kitchen. She had peo­ple to din­ner the night be­fore and col­lapsed into bed be­fore clear­ing up. And yes, she cooked the meal. Now she’s busy try­ing to work out her Skype con­nec­tion for an­other sched­uled in­ter­view but still man­ages to look chic and groomed by 10am.

Dal­ton has loved be­ing a woman, and as a nona­ge­nar­ian most misses be­ing in love. Of fem­i­nism, she says: “I don’t know what it’s all about ac­tu­ally … I think women have a lovely time. They can do ev­ery­thing a man can do.” But she is sad that ro­mance has been lost in the process.

Ro­mance be­gan early for Dal­ton, grow­ing up in the bo­hemian Cross with a doc­tor fa­ther and a warm fam­ily she recorded in her 1965 mem­oir Aunts up the Cross. She cut a dash through the “tiny but in­tense” Syd­ney so­cial world of the 1930s and 40s.

“It was ridicu­lous,” she says. “One was in the pa­per every day of one’s life and you couldn’t go out­side the door with­out ‘Robin came to Prince’s [night­club] last night’ and then de­scrib- ing one’s dress in de­tail … or ‘ Robin Eakin [her maiden name] was on Bondi Beach sur­rounded by two swains’.”

It left her at 20 a “sit­ting duck” when her brief mar­riage went wrong and Syd­ney pored over the sto­ries of her al­leged in­dis­cre­tions. It has made her ret­i­cent in in­ter­views even now: “I suf­fered so dread­fully from dread­ful pub­lic­ity in my youth be­cause my di­vorce was the big­gest scan­dal ever to hit Syd­ney.” The Oc­to­ber 26, 1941 spread in Truth was headed “Hus­band finds so­ci­ety wife’s love diary” along­side a pic­ture of Dal­ton show­ing a good deal of leg as she danced the conga at the Tro­cadero.

“Glam­orous as any movie queen, love­lier to look upon than most, there are few brighter stars in the glit­ter­ing fir­ma­ment,” the pa­per re­ported.

Af­ter the di­vorce and the war she landed in Lon­don, where peo­ple like her had their ra­tions de­liv­ered by Fort­num & Ma­son in “a sturdy lit­tle card­board box”. Even when the money stopped com­ing from Aus­tralia be­cause of re­stric­tions im­posed af­ter the war, Fort­num’s kept send­ing the egg and ba­con rasher, say­ing: “Madame, we are de­lighted to pro­vide for you un­til your dif­fi­cul­ties have ended.” A grate­ful Dal­ton has shopped at Fort­num’s ever since.

If it sounds priv­i­leged, it’s be­cause it was. But Dal­ton’s no snob and counts her­self lucky to have landed on her feet in Eng­land “know­ing prac­ti­cally no­body”. Still, her beau at the time was David Mount­bat­ten, the mar­quess of Mil­ford Haven, a cousin of Prince Philip and best man at his wed­ding.

Their re­la­tion­ship, be­gun in Aus­tralia, was never go­ing to sur­vive the fact Dal­ton was a di­vorcee — and one with­out much money to boot. But those were care­less years, when the cou­ple trav­elled to the Con­ti­nent and she met some of the gen­er­a­tion’s best and bright­est — peo­ple such as John F. Kennedy, with whose gang she hol­i­dayed in France in 1948, at one stage help­ing him write post­cards back home to po­ten­tial vot­ers.

“All Lon­don seemed gen­tle, and be­nign,” Dal­ton writes of that time. “There will never be an­other night­club like the 400, with its soft dreamy mu­sic, its en­velop­ing quiet in­ti­macy … One friend swears that she mar­ried her hus­band be­cause on their first evening there he man­aged to bone her kip­per in the gloom.”

As she says: “It was fri­vol­ity af­ter the war, pure fri­vol­ity.”

Her work in in­tel­li­gence in the 50s came about through know­ing Prince Chula of Thai­land and ap­peared to con­sist largely of putting the Thai gov­ern­ment in a good light. As a press at­tache in Lon­don, she wrote “earnest let­ters to The Times and the Guardian” and also man­aged the press for the first South­east Asia Treaty Or­gan­i­sa­tion con­fer­ence in 1955. Still it’s a neat ad­di­tion to the CV.

Af­ter the mar­quess, Dal­ton met a young Ir­ish doc­tor named Em­met Dal­ton. She writes mov­ingly of their mar­riage in 1953, the birth of their chil­dren and his pre­ma­ture death at 33, af­ter just a few years to­gether. By 1963, she was a lit­er­ary agent to writ­ers in­clud­ing Iris Mur­doch, Edna O’Brien, Ruth Prawer Jhab­vala, Mar­garet Drab­ble, Arthur Miller and Ten­nessee Wil­liams, and the kitchen-sink play­wrights John Os­borne and Arnold Wesker, whose rad­i­cal plays “broke the mould of West End plays”. She loved the nur­tur­ing el­e­ment of be­ing a lit­er­ary agent, but the film-pro­duc­ing that fol­lowed ( Os­car and Lucinda and Madame Sousatzka, among oth­ers) was also a buzz.

Aus­tralian au­thor Robin Dal­ton, and in her days as a Syd­ney so­cialite

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