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Conversation with Peter Cundall

Peter Cundall and Stephen Munro, National Museum of Australia, 3 April 2009

ADAM BLACKSHAW: Welcome everybody to the National Museum. I think we are in for a treat this morning. It is very good to see you here today. To my left is Stephen Munro, one of the Museum’s curators. Stephen is responsible for putting together the display on Peter down in the Eternity gallery. At the end of the session feel free to go downstairs and have a look at that. To the left of Stephen is someone that you know quite well, a man who knows a little bit about gardening but I suspect knows a lot about life. That’s why we have him here today.

We are recording the session. I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is if you have ever wanted to be Michael Parkinson or Andrew Denton here is your opportunity. We are not going to wait until the end of the session for questions; we are going to try to do it throughout the session, if we can get a word in edgeways. Stephen will be determining who gets to ask those questions of Peter. We will do that throughout the session. The bad news is he does know a lot about gardening but he has much more experience than that. So we may limit the nasturtium and gardenia type questions today. Please welcome Peter Cundall and Stephen Munro.

STEPHEN MUNRO: Thank you very much, Adam, and thanks for coming. We would have liked to have had Andrew Denton or George Negus here today but they weren’t available so you will have to put up with me. As Adam said I am in the Eternity section and I was fortunate enough to work on the story that we have just put together for Peter Cundall, which is downstairs [on display]. Please take the time to go and have a look at the Eternity gallery.

It became very obvious during the research for the story that Peter is more than just a gardener. We obviously know him well from his work on TV but just to give you a rundown on the sort of things that Peter has done throughout his life. He was born in Manchester on 1 April 1927 - so happy birthday. That’s no joke. He was 82 two days ago. Left school at 12 and conscripted in 1945. Worked as a paratrooper in the British Army and helped to liberate the concentration camps in southern Austria and guarded SS guards who ran those camps. He was accused of spying when he inadvertently crossed into enemy territory, becoming one of the earliest victims, I guess, of the Cold War. He was locked in solitary confinement as a result of that for almost six months. Saw active duty in Palestine. Enlisted in the Australian Army in England so he could migrate to Australia where he believed he would be working in a library on Bondi Beach, but instead was sent to Korea. Worked as a weapons instructor on his return to Australia and in his own words turned out hundreds of pacifists. Ran as a politician but didn’t even vote for himself. And, of course, a pioneer of Australian broadcasting and one of Australia’s most successful radio and television broadcasters and also a high-profile environmental activist. A wonderful life story so far, Peter.

PETER CUNDALL: I fell asleep while you were talking actually. I have had a weird life and I am glad that I have had a strange life. I have been around a fair bit. I have made some marvellous mistakes and I have learnt from them, because I have always believed that if you make a blunder and you don’t do something to correct it, you have made two blunders.

I find that being alive is wonderful. I am amazed that I am still alive the things I have done, the places I have gone and the things in which I have been involved. It’s a great life as far as I am concerned.

To be 82 years old, and there’s probably one or two of you here - I see the odd grey hair, bald head or whatever - it is good to be old. I can’t see anything wrong with it. There is always this great fear of becoming old. The driving force of my life has always been thinking to myself when I get old I would never like to be totally dependent on somebody else because of lack of health. So I have spent a great deal of my life making sure that I didn’t get sick and that I remained healthy all the time. That is one of the reasons among other things that I became involved in gardening, especially growing things and particularly growing the very best food you can eat, which is that you can grow yourself without chemicals or poisons.

It is great to be 82 years old in perfect health - and I am - with nothing wrong. People say, ‘God you’re lucky.’ It is nothing to do with luck; it is to do with determination to make sure you remain healthy.

During World War II as a soldier and like most other soldiers - a lot of people may remember this if they have been in the British army - every day you were issued with a round tin containing 50 cigarettes free. That was during the war. That was one of the things you got. I used to think you had to smoke them all. My fingers were so covered with nicotine that I used to peel off the skin because it would kill the skin. My teeth were so brown, like all the others, that I couldn’t get them clean. It was really weird.

Yet in 1955 in Australia - I couldn’t keep up with the 50; I used to give them away but you couldn’t resist getting them. ‘There’s your 50, Private Cundall, there’s your next 50.’ I used to just chuck away what I couldn’t smoke. In 1955 I was still smoking about 15-20 a day and thinking nothing of it. Then one day on ABC Radio I heard the very first broadcast about the link between smoking cigarettes and lung cancer. It was so convincing that not only did I instantly stop smoking but I enjoyed the cravings. It serves you right - suffer - and I have never smoked since. I have since found out that, if you smoke and you stop smoking, within half an hour of stopping you are already returning back to health. That is how marvellous the human body is.

STEPHEN MUNRO: You were born in Manchester and you grew up - in your own words - in quite a poverty stricken neighbourhood. Your family lived in poverty but you had a very happy childhood.

PETER CUNDALL: Yes. To a lot of people it seems almost like a contradiction. When I was born my parents didn’t have a home. They were homeless people. That wasn’t unusual so were millions of others. They would rent a room somewhere and then if they had no money they would flit at night to another room, and that was my early life. Yet as I was growing up it was an unbelievably happy time, because when a child is poor and hungry and doesn’t have things, you don’t miss what you have never had. Being hungry is just the same feeling as wearing clothes. That is a normal way to feel and not being able to get things is quite normal. So it was quite normal to look in a window and see sweets, fruit or whatever that you couldn’t get. There was no urging and thinking I wish I could get that. You would just look at it almost with wonder.

There is a marvellous story that I repeated recently when I was on a television program called First Tuesday which impressed me enormously. It is from the great book by John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. There is one incident in that great book about this poverty-stricken family that had been driven off a farm and they were travelling across America in the 1930s at times of great unemployment and there was also enormous drought in Oklahoma. These people had no money. They were in these old cars. It described an incident which brought me right back to being child. That was where this couple with their children in an old car stopped at one of these wayside coffee places to go inside. They didn’t have enough money to buy anything. He just wanted some water from the tap for his radiator. He also wanted not a loaf of bread but half a loaf because that is all he could afford.

When he went in there, the people in there were working-class people but tough and there were a couple of truck drivers there. These two little boys came in and they’re looking at some sweets, I think they were lollipops, and Steinbeck described the look in their faces of their looks - not as wanting it because they knew they couldn’t get it but just as an act of wonder, the same as we would look if you went into the Tower of London to look at the Crown jewels. The father saw them looking and said to this woman, ‘How much are they?’ She said, ‘Two a penny.’ He looked and said, ‘In that case yes and he passed it across.’ She took two and he gave them one each. The boys took them and they didn’t look at them. They were so excited. They just put them by their sides and just held them there stiffly and then both ran out and climbed back into the car. When the man left, one of the truckies said to this woman, ‘Look, you just sold those for two a penny but they are really a penny each,’ and she said, ‘Oh shut up.’ It was this kindness that does exist amongst poor people.

Poor people without question are the most generous people on earth. That is my experience. I think that is probably the reason why as a child it was such a happy childhood. I lived in a district where everybody was poor, where only one person in almost every street had a job. I thought as a child that a rich kid was a kid whose father had a job. That was wealth and I couldn’t think of anything beyond that.

One of the interesting things about poverty and men in particular who are feeling deprived or humiliated because they can’t get a job or because they have nothing to do is that in those days a lot of wife bashing went on. My father used to bash my mother, and quite often her face would be quite black and blue where he punched her. It was the frustration. You get it everywhere. You get it here amongst people in some of the Aboriginal communities or in some of the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Sydney and Launceston. Where you get men without work they take it out on their wives.

Where I lived no-one ever thought of calling the police. My mother was a woman of enormous strength - fortunately for me and our family with six kids - so much so that, even though she was beaten up and eventually my father disappeared, other women would often come to see her. You would see them walking into the house with their two black eyes and my mother would talk to them. My mother did something that was quite unusual that every woman here would appreciate. She said, ‘We can’t have this.’ So she went around to all the other women in the area, about 10 or 15 of them, and they were fairly big women and they took the woman - if the bloke had a job, they would take her to his work where he was sitting there having his lunch with his mates and say, ‘Look what he has done to her,’ and show him up. But not only that they would say to him, ‘And when you come home tonight we’ll be waiting.’ He knew it, and there was nothing he could do about it. He would come home and all these women were there, and they would belt him up. That was it. It stopped it. It really did.

My mother was an extraordinarily impressive lady. I remember saying to her when she was quite old, ‘Is it true that you were actually working in a factory when you were only eight years old?’ She was born in 1891. And she said, ‘Oh no, love.’ I said, ‘Well how old were you?’ She said, ‘Five’. I said, ‘What on earth would you be doing as a five-year-old?’ She said minding babies. She was given three or four babies of women who were working, a bottle containing some water and half a can of sticky condensed milk which when one of the babies cried she would give them the bottle to suck. She would have three or four babies and that was her job as a five-year-old. It gave her the most extraordinary experience and, above all, incredible compassion for people.

So from what she taught me, my brothers and sisters, was to never be afraid of asking people for things. If ever you’re lost she said ‘always ask a working bloke because you can trust them but you can’t trust the blokes in suits because you never know they might take you away somewhere’. And above all she taught us to have total opposition to any form of discrimination against women, against people of a different race, colour or whatever - that was the thing that I was raised on. That has been the driving force in my life.

Any form of discrimination is so unjust and so terrible. Sometimes in Australia, and I know you will have experienced it - or in Britain - quite often in a room of people somebody comes up and starts to tell one of these Aboriginal jokes which are a total disgrace because they humiliate Aboriginals as being fools or worthless or whatever. I always interrupt and say, ‘That is going to be a racist joke. I don’t think it’s funny.’ I spoil the party. I won’t allow it. What happens afterwards when this creep has gone - it’s usually a bloke - people come up to me and say, ‘I’m so glad you spoke up,’ and I say, ‘Why the bloody hell didn’t you? Why didn’t you speak up? You have to speak up.’ I get into a lot of trouble but I don’t care.

I must tell you this because it is interesting - you may not agree with what I am going to say but I don’t care because it’s a point of view. I came to Canberra on Australia Day because I was appointed Australian of the Year for Tasmania and one of the national finalists. They said among the things that you’ve got to do there will be to have morning tea with the Prime Minister. I thought, ‘Right. I want to have a word with this bloke.’ So we went to the Lodge. We’re there standing in a queue and I’m at the end. There is Kevin and Therese smiling away and shaking hands. I’m getting closer and I wanted to say to him, ‘We’ve just had a war in Gaza where 1500 people were killed. The overwhelming majority of them were women and children, and your government has said nothing about the slaughter of these people who have done nothing wrong. Why not?’ That was on my lips. So I got there and he looked at me. I opened my mouth to say it. He threw his arms around me and said, ‘Oh Peter, I just like you so much.’ I was totally disarmed and lost my nerve [laughter]. All I could do was look out at his lawn and roses and say, ‘What a disgrace! Where are your carrots, your tomatoes and your potatoes?’ To my astonishment he said, ‘I completely agree.’ His wife said, ‘We’d love to have a vegetable garden and an organic one.’ So I said, ‘I’ll come here and get one going for you, if you like,’ and they said, ‘We’ll be in that.’ I am going to push this one because now it’s started to ricochet off into other directions. I found out yesterday, for example, that they are having a competition. They’ve started at the American embassy and I think the British High Commission where they are setting up their own organic vegie patch. They’ve started to have a competition. Wouldn’t it be great if you have one in the Lodge as well?

I am trying to say to people, ‘I know what it’s like to go through a depression.’ Everybody is being a bit polite. Nobody knows what to do. They have never experienced what’s happening with the present economic crisis, but we are about to fall into an economic abyss that will make 1929 look like an afternoon tea party. It is happening. They’re meeting in London but they don’t know what to do. They will put out a communiqué that you will read and think: is that all? They are trying to overcome the problem by giving more money to the very people who made the mess. So I am saying to people, ‘Dig up your bloody lawn. Put some potatoes in. Plant carrots, parsnips, sweet corn, beans and peas and all these things. You can do it.’ You can do it anywhere in Australia as long as you have the water and you don’t need all that much water. It is amazing how little you need if you do it properly and if you do it organically. People say, ‘But you might be wrong. We might get out of this recession in three months.’ That’s bad news, isn’t it? There you are stuck with a brilliant vegie patch whereas before you had this useless lawn that you used to mow. Come on. It is win win, but what you get out of it is the greatest wealth of all - it’s the sheer joy of hard physical work. That sounds like a contradiction, but I mean it. The sheer total joy of going out and working the soil, planting, sowing, pruning and harvesting the greatest food of all. And what do you get? Bloody marvellous health. It is lovely to be healthy. I get out of the bed in the morning and can hardly wait to get out there and get stuck in it. I do this every day of the week, seven days, and I also knock out 1000 words a day for different articles and magazines I write for. I have just finished two books. It’s lovely to do that. If you’re sitting there and you think, ‘I’m sick of this,’ go out and start digging and pruning. It’s wonderful. I’m saying it to everyone. This is living. This is life. This is what it’s all about and this is what it’s like being 82. [applause]

STEPHEN MUNRO: Maybe it’s time to take a question from the audience.

QUESTION: Peter, I can’t resist this: it is so good to get you on the spot. I have tried before and not been able to. I have never had this opportunity. As one Mancunian to another, how did you manage to get out of school at that young age when I am older than you and when I was your age the legal leaving age was 14. So you must have been a bit of a wangler then, were you?

STEPHEN MUNRO: You left school at 12, is that right?

PETER CUNDALL: I started work at 11 but I still went to school. And then when the war broke out in 1939 I was 12. I was what they used to call a juvenile delinquent. It was lovely. I really was very bad. I was the naughtiest of all naughty boys. They would call the police out to me because I was on a roof somewhere. I once climbed up a chimney stack on the inside. They brought out the police and it was wartime police - what they called specials - because most of the police had been called up so they had these special policemen. I am on the top shouting out, ‘You’re only a bloody special. Bugger off.’ I ran wild because there was no school. When they evacuated the children in Britain they closed all the schools in the cities because all the kids were away. I only lasted two weeks where I was because I was such a naughty boy. I shouldn’t say that - I was a boy that did naughty things and there is a difference.

So when I came back I had the whole of Manchester to myself virtually, and I ran wild everywhere. My mother didn’t know what to do. My father had long since gone. He was in the army. I ran away from home. I wanted to join the navy at 12. I had a ball. And then somebody said ‘We better give him something to do,’ so they gave me a job as a milk boy. That meant I had a little bike with a basket on the front that was full of 12 pints of milk and three half pints. They used to deliver the milk with a little electric truck that was very quiet, and I had to go to places where the truck couldn’t get to. So I had all these to deliver. That was in the middle of winter. It’s interesting how you learn things because I will never forget - it was very, very cold in that winter in 1939. I would get up at 5.30 in the morning and deliver the milk and then I would spent hours washing bottles. And then in the evening I would knock off or sometimes in the day - if there was any school open - I would go to school for an hour. But mainly I was working for five shillings a week. That was my wage which I gave to my mother.

But on one morning - it is interesting - it had been snowing but then had started to melt and then froze. It was about four or five degrees below freezing and the road was like glass with frozen snow. I came out on my bike and I had to climb a hill. I am pushing this bike with a big load of bottles on the front and the front wheel slipped. I had previously dropped half a crate of milk, and the owner of the dairy then said, ‘That’s your wages gone for the week,’ so I was determined not to do it again. But the front wheel slipped. I had to take the whole weight of that basket and the bike and try and push it uphill. I will never forget this because it was as black as the ace of spades, it was very early in the morning quite dark and very cold. My feet were slipping, and I am pushing this huge weight uphill. I kept muttering to myself, ‘Never give in, never give in,’ until I got to the top of that hill, and then I went on and did the deliveries.

Since that time, no matter what I have been involved in - whether I have been involved in active service in the Korean War or in the Palestine war or in Europe and I have had something so strenuous to do that I think I may never be able to do it - that little boy’s voice comes into my head saying, ‘Never give in, never give in.’ I say that to kids and to everyone: you never give up; you never stop fighting for what you believe is right; you never give in.

STEPHEN MUNRO: Going back to the war in Europe there is this fascinating story of you crossing accidentally into enemy territory.

PETER CUNDALL: I am going to swear. I am going to say a terrible word that’s going to offend you and it begins with F and ends with K and I will say this word and you may feel like walking out and hiding. I once told this story to an audience full of very religious people and I said, ‘I know who you are yet I’m going to say this terrible word and I want to warn you.’ They all leaned forward.

But this is what happened. I am in Austria and I was guarding the SS. We had liberated the concentration camps. I spent hours with the people who had been the inmates of the camps. I learnt their stories. The stories they told were infinitely more terrible than anything you’ve ever read. They were simply so bad, so serious, so awful that you cannot repeat them. They told me these stories.

I was a 19-year-old virgin soldier, and we were all virgins. We used to pretend we weren’t - ‘Oh yes, it’s dead easy. Haven’t you ever had one?’ It never happened because there was no pill in those days, and the terror of young women was being made pregnant and the terror of young men was making someone pregnant. So oddly enough we treated young women, believe it or not, with great respect. But it didn’t stop that yearning.

One day I was in this place called St Paul, a little village in Austria. I had been guarding these SS people who were really low creatures. They were not men who had shiny hats and shiny boots; they were scruffy, cowardly little men because of the job they had in a concentration camp. If they didn’t like it they were sent to the Russian front or elsewhere, so they did that instead. They were the ultimate, absolute rubbish people. I was guarding them. But one day I was out in this old monastery at St Paul which had an orchard around it, and it was August. I see some apple trees so I am looking at the apple trees and trying the apples. Suddenly a voice behind me said, ‘Excuse me, but what is your name?’ It was a soft female voice. I turned around and there was a blue-eyed magnificent girl of such beauty that my heart almost stopped beating. She’s carrying a basket with some apples and she’d been picking them too. I said, ‘I beg your pardon.’ She said, ‘What is your name?’ I said Peter. ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Peter, I love the name Peter. Will you please take me for a walk?’ All my wet dreams had come to fruition.

She took me by this beautiful hand and led me away. I was crippled with passion. I couldn’t walk properly. I put my hand on my belt there to hide the wet patch that was appearing and that was embarrassing me. I told you it was going to be naughty. It gets worse. She led me - and I didn’t know that she was one of these people who were smuggling people from Croatia who were Fascists over the border, who were being smuggled to Rome so they could get out before they were put on trial. She needed a soldier with her so that people wouldn’t stop her. I didn’t know this. We were chatting away and it’s only a few miles to the border of Slovenia - or what was then part of Yugoslavia. I didn’t know it was a frontier because she said, ‘We’ll go across this little brook,’ a creek. We crossed it and then she said to me, ‘We’re now in Yugoslavia.’ What? She said, ‘Wait here and I’ll come back and take you back,’ and off she went. I never saw her again. And innocent Pete, I’m walking along feeling frustrated and still a virgin.

I came to a little road and started walking down the road, and suddenly there was a road block. It was a frontier road block with guards in strange uniforms looking at me. I spoke no language - the only words I could speak in German was Guten Morgen. So I said ‘Guten Morgen’, ducked under the bar and kept walking. All hell broke loose. They called out the guards and arrested me. They charged me with espionage. They put me in prison in Maribor and then into another prison at Ljubljana. I spent six months in solitary confinement. It did me no harm. When they threw me into that cell for the first time, I looked at this cell and thought to myself, ‘Amazing this is the first room of my own I’ve ever had.’ I’ve had had a rough life. It had my friends in there. It was full of lice and bugs. I had never seen lice. They got inside my belly button. I had this itch and I saw these things coming out. If you have a louse you can’t go like that and squash it. It’s like trying to squash a big grain of sand. If you try to squash it with your fingernail it hurts your nail and it’s still crawling around. I used to get the comb out of my pocket and crack it and I killed them. Then one day I felt an itch under my arm. You know sometimes we do it secretly but we all do it when you feel a bit of a scab. I felt a scab and I pulled it off. It had legs and was kicking. It was what they call a crab louse, and that was really hard to kill. So I had crabs, lice, fleas and bed bugs. It was an entertaining six months in many ways but it did me no harm.

When I came out eventually I did have a weird experience which I won’t repeat here. However, while still in prison a famous person came into my cell to look at me. By this time it was in the newspapers in Britain that this Peter Cundall was in prison in Yugoslavia and his mother had written to Winston Churchill, which she did. He wrote to Josip Broz Tito with whom he actually had a relationship. All I know is that I was released.

When I came out I was sent back to my unit. I’d been away for six months. We had a regimental sergeant major who was a ferocious man. He had blue veins all over his face - they looked like a net - a red nose and eyes that were icy blue and deadly. I was terrified of him. He said to me, ‘Tomorrow you’re going to be court martialled, lad. You’ve been absent without leave for six months. You’re going to go in the nick. I believe you were with a wench.’ I said, ‘I went over with a girl, sir.’ ‘Ah, you went over with a girl, did you? Tell me lad, did you get a foock?’ I said, ‘I beg your pardon, sir.’ I was embarrassed. He said, ‘You heard what I said did you get a foock, lad?’ I said, ‘no, sir.’ ‘You didn’t get a foock. My God, what’s the world coming to,’ he said.

The next day he was there at the court martial. I’m standing outside. ‘Get your hat off’ - you’re not allowed to wear a hat. ‘Left turn, quick march, mark time, left, right, left, right … halt. Stand still.’ I was standing there, five officers staring at me with utter contempt. They were the trial judges, and one of them said, ‘Private Cundall you really are a most wretched man, aren’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes, sir.’ He said, ‘What are you?’ I said, ‘A wretched man, sir.’ ‘Because that’s you are, a wretched man. You’ve been away for six months. We’ll have to fix him with this one,’ mutter, mutter. ‘We have decided to sentence you to’… Just then the sergeant major spoke up, ‘I would like to give evidence, sir, in support of this man sir.’ ‘Sergeant Major, this is most unusual - by all means - what do you want to say, Sergeant Major?’ He said, ‘I’d just like to point out, sir, that he was with a young woman never got a foock, sir.’ Consternation. ‘Is this true? Is this absolutely true?’ I said, ‘What, sir,’ because it’s embarrassing. ‘Is it true you never experienced carnal knowledge?’ I said, ‘Carnal what? I beg your pardon, sir?’ He said, ‘Did you or did you not experience carnal knowledge?’ I said, ‘Her name wasn’t Carmel sir it was Angela.’ They let me off on the grounds that I had suffered enough and I got six months back pay. [applause]

QUESTION: Peter, you forgot to tell us about how you used to wash while you were in solitary confinement.

PETER CUNDALL: You are saying that on purpose because I think you’ve heard something. I have to tell you this. When I first got put in the nick they turned up one day with my food for the day, which was half a loaf of bread. There was a jug of water on a little tiny table but they also gave me a bowl of rusty water to wash in. I didn’t like the smell of it. It was real rusty. So I washed my face and I could see this eye watching me as I washed my face. I didn’t want to get into trouble so I did under my arms. I didn’t like the smell but at least I was doing the right thing, and this went on for about a week. After a while the eye piece would slip over and then someone else would have a look. I thought they’re checking on me to see I am keeping myself clean. Then they said, ‘We’re now taking you down for interrogation,’ and marched me down. There were four men and a couple of women and they said, ‘We are very worried about you. You have done these strange things.’ I said, ‘Yes, I followed this girl.’ ‘No, not about that, we cannot understand your behaviour.’ I said, ‘When I wandered over the frontier…’ - ‘No, no, not that. What we cannot understand is why is it that every day you wash your face in our coffee.’ The story of my bloody life.

STEPHEN MUNRO: You came to Australia because you volunteered for the Australian Army while you were in England.

PETER CUNDALL: I was demobilised from the British Army in 1948. I had just come back from Palestine. There was a war in Palestine from 1945 to 48. No-one talks about the Palestine war. Some 230-odd British soldiers were killed in that war, and the enemy were the people who are now running Israel. I am sorry to say this but they were: their fathers and mothers were terrorists and they were killing people. I didn’t hate them. I had just come from the camps and had seen the way the Jewish people and others had been persecuted - socialists, Communists and all the others, I had met the lot of them and talked to them.

So when I came back to Britain and demobbed, I went back to being a bus conductor and doing a bit of gardening. To be a bus conductor is the most boring job but you had to do it because they said, ‘You’ve got to do it because that’s the way it’s working when you get demobbed, you must go back to your original job which I loathed.’ When you collect fares on the bus, when you’ve finished, they all get off and another lot get on and you have to start all over again. So I thought I have to get out of this.

One day I saw a little ad in the paper which said ‘volunteers wanted for the Australian Army’, so I thought I will answer this. They sent me a ticket to go to London to be interviewed, and down I went. There were a group of other blokes all fully trained. I was in the British parachute regiment fully trained. They asked me about myself this, that and the other - ‘yes, very good,’ blah blah, ‘No problem, sign you up. Before you do, what did you do in the British army?’ I said, ‘I was a librarian.’ They said, ‘That is exactly what we want.’ They said, ‘Have you ever heard of Bondi?’ I said, ‘No, what is it?’ They said, ‘Bondi is a beach in Sydney. We’ve got a military library there. It’s only open a couple of hours a day. You’d spend most of the time swimming. Sergeant’s rank.’ I couldn’t believe it.

On the boat coming out there was about 200 other blokes who had signed up. I said to one bloke, ‘What are you?’ He said, ‘I’m going as a surveyor, sergeant’s rank, nothing to do.’ I said, ‘Have you done it before?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I was in the infantry, same as you.’ Another bloke said that he’s going as an official military photographer. He had once had a brownie box. When we got to Melbourne they put the whole lot of us in the infantry and a couple of months later we’re in Korea and I was sitting behind a machine gun wondering what happened to me. What really happened was when the Korean War broke out in July 1950. Australians became involved but they had not enough trained troops. In those days it cost somewhere around £20,000 to £30,000 to train an infantry soldier. They were getting us out for the price of the passage fully trained, expert in everything - map reading, fieldcraft, every possible weapon.

So I finished up behind a machine gun in Korea. It was weird because while I was over there you’d meet people in the British Army and also part of the Commonwealth Division and they would say, ‘You’re in the Australian Army and you’re from Manchester. What’s it like in Australia?’ I don’t know. We never had a chance to stop.

It’s the best thing I ever did coming here. You have to move around. I went back a few times to Britain. I won a Winston Churchill Fellowship in 1974 which allowed me to go back - they paid my fare - I went through the United States to Britain and Africa as well. Poor little darling [baby crying].

One of the amazing things about being an old geezer, and I wonder if any old blokes here have the same thing. But if you are in a supermarket and see some little toddler crying, it makes me want to cry and I don’t know why. Don’t get me wrong - that’s different - but when they’re crying away. You see a little kid that’s so tired and they’re hanging on and the mother belts them because they are embarrassed - you see such cruelty in these places. You see some poor little kid crying away because they are so tired. The awful noise and the awful music in supermarkets and these revolting announcements - you can imagine all these rotten vibrations of total greed coming through - no wonder they get upset. You just want to put your arms around them and hold them. But you’re not allowed these days. I still do. I kneel down and I hold their little hot, sweaty hand and say, ‘Oh you poor little thing.’

It happened last week. I saw a little girl running around the supermarket - it’s so upsetting - and she was only four. She was crying and running around and carrying a carton of eggs. She was crying away with this carton of eggs running up and down. What can you do? I went and got my little loaf of bread and I’m leaving. I went around to get some money out of the automatic teller, and the woman is next to me shouting out, ‘Don’t go away or you’ll get into trouble again.’ I looked and there was this same little girl. The little girl still had the carton of eggs. I said, ‘Was that the little girl who was running around crying before?’ She said, ‘Yes, she keeps running away, getting lost and getting frightened.’ I said it broke my heart to see her. ‘It’s her own fault,’ she said. Young women are much harder than me.

It is one of the strange things about being old. One of the great tragedies about being men is that they spend their lives brimming with unshed tears or suppressed tears. But when you get older you can’t hold them back any more and it is so embarrassing. I say I’m in perfect health apart from - I was a machine gunner and it destroyed everything in here [indicating his ears]. So that is why I am getting Stephen to repeat the questions.

QUESTION: Peter, you’ve played a very prominent role in the campaign against the Gunns pulp mill on the Tamer. It seems that so many of our key environmental issues come out of Tasmania. Can you tell us what it’s like today being a prominent conservationist there? Has there been a personal cost for you?

STEPHEN MUNRO: The question is you have been involved in environmental issues in Tasmania a number of which are recent, the pulp mill and so forth. Can you tell us about how things are at the moment and has there been any personal cost to you?

PETER CUNDALL: In a way, yes. It’s a small place. Fortunately the environmental movement in Tasmania is supported very widely. It has an enormous number of people that support it. I have never met anyone, apart from those with a vested interest, that supports this dirty, rotten, stinking pulp mill they want to put in the Tamer Valley. I never call it a pulp mill; I always put the words ‘dirty, rotten, stinking’ in front of it just to make sure that they know exactly how I feel.

The ABC used to go out of their brain to try to and shut me up. But what can they do with an old geezer? Sack me. Big deal. They say, ‘Do you mind not getting involved.’ I said, ‘Why not? What’s wrong with being involved? What’s wrong with it?’ You have to do these things.

I have been involved in every campaign not only for the environment but against war. I have been a soldier in three wars. My first experience of war was as a 13- and 14-year-old in the Manchester blitz as a messenger boy running through the burning streets and seeing bodies everywhere. I saw the horrors of the concentration camp. I saw what happened in the horrors - and it was horrible - in the Palestine war. And in Korea, when I arrived there the hillsides were covered with dead bodies. It was covered with bodies rotting away with great masses of green grass around them. As they were rotting they were feeding the grass. There were bodies everywhere. I’ve seen it. So it’s turned me - you’ll never meet an old digger, an old soldier, that likes war. You don’t see it. You see old geezers from the First World War and they say ‘Never have a war’. They have been there.

Whenever I am publicly interviewed - not like this but on air, on television - and they ask me about these things I always say one thing which never ever goes to air. It is never repeated. That is why I always say it at a place like this. What I say is: have you ever noticed that the people who send young men and women to war are never the ones that go themselves. [applause] And that is always edited out . Why? I don’t know. But it is a fact of life that the people who send young people to war. If you read the newspapers, pick up the Australian and you see this extraordinary editorial policy they have now which is almost as if it comes straight out of the neo cons in the White House or from the Israeli embassy - that’s it; that’s their policy. Very, very Right, I’m talking about the Likudnik policy. That is what you get in there. You read these journalists that write ‘let’s have another war, let’s send our troops to Afghanistan, let’s send more of them.’ Greg Sheridan, he’s never seen a war in his life, he’s never been anywhere. There he was. These people are experts. They have never been anywhere; they’ve seen nothing; they’ve done nothing; and they are experts on everything. They have their columns in the paper. Andrew Bolt has never been anywhere, never seen anything, never done anything. But they love war as long as somebody else goes. I get angry about this and I say it if I meet them. But what I am saying is true. Read the columns if you can be bothered. So I am against war.

Sometimes in environmental battles I am fighting against those people - not the blokes working in the forests. They have a rotten job: they are covered in leeches; they’re cutting down trees in the pouring rain. But they think that people like me are their enemies. They want to beat me up or they want to come around and find out where I live so they can burn me out. Yes, that’s right. Why? Not because they are bad, but because of the work of any person involved in protecting the environment - it makes them think we’re taking away their livelihood. That we are attacking their families, their children, their wives. They feel that and they are defending what they think is theirs. Yet many of them are so poorly paid. If you’re driving around Tasmania you’ll see huge log trucks everywhere. The drivers get a terrible rate of pay. If they have an accident they get dumped.

One of my best mates was driving a log truck. It was top heavy, fell over and ripped off his ear completely, broke his arm and broke his ribs. He crawled out. Cars were going past. He’s bleeding away and couldn’t get anyone to stop. He eventually went into hospital, nobody came to see him. His so-called trade union official - and I am speaking as a bloke who joined a trade union in 1941 and proudly walked nine miles to a meeting and came back at 3 o’clock in the morning excited about what I’d done. I’ve been involved in this wonderful thing. Now you get trade union officials like the forestry union officials, they are so close to and are part of the boss and many rank and file blokes never see them. They just dump their own people. I get angry. I am full of passion against injustice of any kind: against war, against the destruction, and above all about the thing that drives the destruction of everything and the destruction of the environment and war - and that’s greed. Greed is a driving force and it has to be fought against. I’ll fight against it. [applause] You never expected to get anything like this, did you, from this rather nice gardener that shows you how to put carrots in.

QUESTION: Can we have an update as to what is happening at the dirty despicable Gunns proposed pulp mill proposal please?

PETER CUNDALL: It’s dead; it’s rotting in the water; but it won’t lie down. They are hoping to get finance, but their share value has slumped. It was about $3.50 to $4 three years ago. It’s now slumped down to 80 cents right now, but they keep saying, ‘We still have hope. We still hope to get the money.’ Who’s going to lend Gunns money? Here is the interesting thing. The politicians know it’s dead and but they daren’t say so. Do you know why? It is most interesting this, because I asked one of them. I said, ‘Why is it that you never say out that the thing is dead?’ They said Gunns are looking for a scapegoat because they can’t get the money. They have spent $100 million of their shareholders’ money fiddling around on this useless and destructive project and they’re trying to get that money back. It is no use suing Peter Cundall – I’ve got bugger all. But they are looking for a government. One government minister has only got to say, ‘I’m against that mill, it’s a waste of space,’ and they’ve done it. They say, ‘There it is. That is why we can’t get money. The government is stopping us. They have just destroyed our credibility. We will now sue you for $100 million.’ It happened. It was a brand new minister in Tasmania, a young woman. They asked her what do you think about the pulp mill and she said, ‘I think it is dead. I don’t think it will get off the ground.’ Instantly John Gay, the head of Gunns, got up and said, ‘That’s why we can’t get money.’ Immediately the Premier, the Treasurer and all the others said, ‘No, we support the mill. Don’t take any notice of her. The cabinet support the mill. She’s outvoted.’ That is what it’s all about. It will die a lingering death but it is already dead - and it’s bloody marvellous. [applause]

STEPHEN MUNRO: Believe it or not that’s actually an hour that we have been sitting here talking.

PETER CUNDALL: For those that fell asleep -

STEPHEN MUNRO: We have to thank Peter Cundall for taking the time to visit us and for giving us such wonderful stories. On behalf of the National Museum, thank you very much Peter, and please join me in thanking Peter once again. [applause] PETER CUNDALL: Thank you, it was a pleasure to come here. I do think that Canberra is one of the great elegant cities of the world. I really love it here. When I came back from the Korean War I was still in my summer uniform KDs. This is 1952 and I got in a bus to come to Melbourne and it stopped in Canberra in the second week in July at 2 o’clock in the morning. I got out and wandered around these strange deserted streets. I had just come back from the Korean War where the temperature was 30 degrees below freezing, but not at that time of the year. And I couldn’t believe that the cold could be so intense. I walked around and thought I don’t believe it. I don’t believe Australia could be so cold. But I love this place. I think it’s a marvellous place to be. Thank you so much. [applause]

Date published: 6 May 2009