The Australian Women's Weekly
MY WONDERFUL LIFE: chatting with author Blanche d’Alpuget
As she releases the third instalment in her passionate series of historical novels, Blanche d’Alpuget talks to Juliet Rieden about men, her many lives and how love has grown sweeter with age.
Every weekday around 9.20am Blanche d’Alpuget climbs into her car, drives seven minutes down the road from the Sydney home she shares with husband Bob Hawke, and sits alone in
“an ugly little flat”.
“I’m completely locked away. I have a blank wall in front of me with lots of notes on it. I won’t answer phone calls unless I can see it’s somebody important and every hour I get up and do a few minutes of stretches,” she reveals.
This is Blanche’s writing studio where for a minimum of four hours, five days a week, for some years now, she’s been delving into a past life. It’s a world of lusty, fascinating, powerful men meeting their match in an independent fun-loving woman; a mighty nation with a smart, egotistic leader who falls head over heels in love with an alpha female loaded with charm. Sound familiar?
No, Blanche is not writing her autobiography. The five-part rollicking tale of sex and power she has been conjuring, is not about Bob and Blanche, it’s about King Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, though yes, between the lines, there is a whiff, a dash and a dot of the former Prime Minister, who turns 90 in December.
This is Blanche’s me-time when she indulges her first love, writing, while Bob puts his feet up at home.
“I’ve been interested in the 12th century since I was a kid. In my 20s I started, for no good reason that I can understand, collecting little books about pharmacopoeias, bestiaries, weaponries, clothing, manners, mores, etc. There was a wonderful lane in Sydney which has now vanished called Rowe Street and it had a bookshop with all of these funny little books. You can’t get them now and they’re not even in libraries. Fortunately, I kept them.”
Blanche’s passion was aroused in the pages of her growing library and she couldn’t stop reading. “We also, back in the arrogance of youth, had a wonderful expression, ‘Oh one of the great minds of the 12th century’ which was anybody over the age of 30 obviously!” she says arching her eyebrow, a mannerism that is pure Blanche – part sighing wisdom, part humour. “I thought to myself, I don’t know anything about the
12th century; what am I saying this for? So, I started reading and the two characters who leapt out, for Europe anyway, were Henry and Eleanor.”
While it may be the 12th century, there is a contemporary frisson about Blanche’s writing that is addictive. The latest page-turner, The Lions’ Torment, is number three and all about the plot to murder Thomas Becket. Blanche has already written books four and five, but their release is being staggered to tease readers. Film rights have also been optioned, so it’s fair to say Blanche is on to something.
True royal tales – ancient and current – are having a moment and Blanche’s books have the added appeal of a healthy dose of sizzling sex that blows away the archival dustiness that can cramp the style of historical fiction. “It was a sexier period then than now,” says Blanche, her eyes sparkling. “They didn’t have a fear of sex, for a very good reason. There were no sexually transmitted diseases. Syphilis had died out with the Roman Empire. The Church was not as intrusive into sex as it became later and also things that are now terribly shocking, like pederasty, were neither here nor there back then.”
Mention of pederasty – the famous Greek love between an older man and an adolescent boy – reminds me of Blanche’s earlier piece of writing On Lust, first published in 1993 and re-released last year, in which she sensationally revealed the affair she’d had as a 12-year-old girl with a grey-haired judge, a pillar of the community and friend of her parents.
The furtive, completely clandestine relationship continued for some years and as Blanche describes it, feels like the sort of youthful sexual awakening that was a mainstay of French movies of the era. “Nowadays, by definition it’s child abuse. Back then it wasn’t,” says Blanche who, even with hindsight, sees the experience as more a rite of passage which ultimately left her very much in control, than a molestation.
“I intuitively understood his weakness. I didn’t intellectually understand, but emotionally I knew that I had the stronger hand,” explains Blanche, adding that “old-fashioned lust” was her judge’s weakness. For Blanche, this was her first love.
Our sense of morality has altered in the decades since she was a girl, she continues. “We’re moving to much more conservative attitudes, which is a reaction to the wild libertarianism of the ’60s and ’70s. I was a 1970s feminist and we were all about empowering women. I get quite upset now when
I see the sense of disempowerment of young women. I think it’s something that has to be addressed because it seems to be getting worse – young women’s feeling of being disempowered vis-a-vis men.
“The way to empower women is not to disempower men. It’s to open women’s eyes to their own power. Back in the 1970s we called it ‘consciousness raising’. I think we need consciousness raising again, reframed for the 21st century.”
Blanche, who back in the day was a member of Women’s Electoral Lobby, applauds the #MeToo movement and the way it offers a community and sense of “we’re all in this together”, but where it’s falling down, she says, is in its attitude to men. “Women are colonising new areas in work, and so they’re kind of out there in crocodile country. I think #MeToo is very good for that, but it has to be aware of not over-emphasising the power of men and that’s where I think it can start to get the wobbles, by emphasising how strong men are and how weak women are in comparison. No. No. Men might be strong; women are strong, too.”
Blanche has certainly never believed herself to be the weaker sex – emotionally, intellectually or physically. “In my generation we felt empowered vis-a-vis men and in my own case I had
a very good back-up from my father, who in many other ways was a terrible misogynist and violent and frightening, but he taught me the basics of unarmed combat at the age of nine.”
Blanche’s journalist, yachtsman and one-time champion boxer dad, Lou d’Alpuget, whom she frequently battled, but today says she “adored”, taught his daughter a nifty move involving plunging her fingers into an assailant’s eyes with a knee-jerk to the genitals and a head-butt to the jaw. “And later I learned karate,” adds Blanche, smiling.
“I would love to see more girls being given the self-confidence of knowing that if they’re attacked by a more powerful person, a more physically powerful person, they can defend themselves and completely escape injury. That’s not happening. In fact, the reverse: kids are being bullied all the time and it’s dreadful.”
I ask Blanche how she thinks men are faring as the battle lines between the sexes strive to find a more even playing field. “Very poorly,” she harrumphs. “They’re exceptionally confused, as they were in the ’70s. They [men] absolutely don’t know [what to do]. Back then it was ‘Will I open the door for her or won’t I?’. Now it’s ‘if I touch her arm is that assault?’. It’s kind of pathetic. It’s got a lot of sorting out to do.”
But don’t be fooled, Blanche is squarely on the side of women and all for quotas to enforce equality, “because I’ve seen it work in the Labor Party,” she argues. “I remember when quotas came in, the men went berserk, but it’s worked. The Libs haven’t brought it in yet and now they’re suffering the consequences. All change is objectionable initially. Except to those who want the change.”
We are sitting at a corner table in the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney. Blanche is sipping hot water and lemon, and the waiter, who she recognises from another place, another time, is clearly captivated. At 75, Blanche, the steely journalist turned author who famously won the heart of Prime Minister Bob Hawke, is still turning heads and it’s no wonder. She is a beguiling mix of razor-sharp intelligence, petite beauty, earthy humour and something else, a sense of assured mysticism, that makes you feel she’s operating on another level entirely. Blanche has always followed her heart, but as I listen to her today, I also get a glimpse of the deep thought and honest self-analysis that also drives her.
Back when she was a teenager she ran away from home following a row with her dad to embark on an unsuitable romance with an older man – not as old as the judge – and didn’t return until she was 30. I ask Blanche what she thinks she learned from that experience. “That I had been very headstrong and foolish,” she laughs. “I had this wonderful moment of reality when I was 17 and I had absolutely no money and nowhere to live and I didn’t know how I was going to eat that day. I was standing in Potts Point [Sydney] and I thought, I did this. Nobody is to blame but me for this. That’s been my attitude ever since – that it’s not somebody else’s fault. If I’ve fallen down a manhole it’s because I wasn’t looking where I was walking.”
She put that experience behind her pretty swiftly and at 22 married Australian diplomat Tony Pratt and
moved to Indonesia. The political situation was dicey, to say the least, but Blanche found it incredibly exciting. “It was absolutely wonderful, a marvellous time. There’d just been an abortive communist coup and a military takeover. If you were on the street after 10pm you could be legally shot. There were no road rules except one: that was give way to the army.”
Blanche says she wasn’t scared at all, just exhilarated. She had her first and only child, Louis, with Tony. “I knew from a very young age that as a mother my greatest period of love and affection would be when he was older, and that’s what’s proved to be the case,” she says of Louis’ early years.
“But he and I had a huge fight when he was 13 or 14.” This was when Blanche and Tony divorced and Louis went to live with his dad. But today mother and son are very close. “We got over that,” says Blanche.
Louis, now in his mid-40s and an artist, gets on “enormously well” with Bob and at one time lived with them. “He doesn’t still,” explains Blanche. “He’s getting married on May 11th. It is exciting. He said: ‘Mum, all my friends who got married in their 20s are now divorced’ … He’s going to do it once and right … I adore the girl, the ‘wife in training’ as she’s known. She is a gorgeous young woman.”
Blanche is talking about Brianna Roberts, the media liaison officer for the Australia Council for the Arts, and a former SBS journalist. “She’s beautiful, extremely intelligent and totally undomesticated,” Blanche quips. “Fortunately, Louis is very domesticated. He’s used to looking after himself and he loves looking after her so it works perfectly.”
And so we come to Bob. Blanche didn’t want this interview to be all about the love of her life, but we can’t help discussing him a little. She says the reports of Bob’s illness “are overblown. He’s fine and is not about to die. But his mobility is very bad but that comes from an injury to his spine when he was 15. He’s had a bad back his whole life.”
Blanche says “Bob has lots of visitors. The Premier of Queensland is coming over tomorrow. He doesn’t like going out. He doesn’t like leaving the house because he can’t walk and he doesn’t like being in a wheelchair, which is very reasonable. He loves sitting at home on the balcony smoking and doing cryptic crosswords. Smoking cigars.”
Despite their numerous differences Blanche and Bob clicked from the moment they met back in the ’70s. “I didn’t have a clue who he was. He was just a bloke. I met him in Jakarta. I really liked talking to him and he really liked talking to me. I didn’t know his lustful thoughts in those days,” she jokes. Lust aside, she
“It was pivotal, so intense for Bob.”
says it was an intellectual attraction “and it stayed that way”. Their on-off affair famously bubbled for more than two decades until they finally married in 1995.
“It’s my great love and his great love, too. It was before we were married, but only probably about six months before, I think,” she muses and recalls the moment she realised the depth of Bob’s devotion. “I was in a light plane crash in the Whitsundays and we were able to make one phone call and I rang the man who was our go-between in those days and said ‘I’ve been in a plane crash but I’m okay, would you please ring Bob and tell him.’ He rang and his first words were: ‘Blanche has been in a plane crash’. Bob said he felt himself die. The go-between then continued, ‘but don’t worry, she’s all right’. It was a pivotal moment. It was so intense for Bob.”
Has their love changed over the years? “Love is something that changes, in my experience. Sometimes it goes sour, it goes off; other times it develops a great deal of added depth and sweetness, which is what’s happened, very fortunately, with us.”
While Blanche underlines Bob’s death really is not imminent, she has planned his funeral. “I’d be very foolish if I didn’t,” she explains. “I don’t think of death as something horrendous and Bob has no fear of death. It’s part of the life process, and just as birth is to be welcomed, so is death when it comes.”
Nevertheless, Blanche knows that she will miss Bob “intensely”, which is when her deep spiritual beliefs will kick in. “I’m now at a very calm space. I still have a spiritual practice which I follow and I have a very deep faith. I believe in the goodness of life and I also believe in the goodness of death. Clairvoyants have told me that we’ve had many lifetimes together.
“I think with trauma you don’t really know how you’ll respond until the trauma is upon you. I hope after a period I expect I’ll be able to cope and go on writing … And I would expect – I would hope – that as a result of that my writing would be enriched and more intuitive.”
The Lions’ Torment by Blanche d’Alpuget (Ventura Press), is available from April 1.