Barry Lyons (1928-2015)
Born in 1928 in Burnie Tasmania, Barry Lyons is a surviving son of Joseph and Enid Lyons, and was 86 at the time of interview. Joseph Lyons was Prime Minister of Australia from 1932 to 1939 when he died in office. Dame Enid Lyons was the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. She served from 1943 to 1951.
Interview with Barry Lyons part 1
B York: This is an interview with Mr Barry Lyons. He will be speaking with me Barry York for the Oral History Program of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House. On behalf of the director of the museum Barry thank you so much for this. Do you understand that the commonwealth owns copyright in the interview material but disclosure is subject to any restrictions you might impose on the Rights Agreement that I sent you. Is that okay with you?
B Lyons: Yes
B York: Also can we have permission to make a transcript or a summary of the interview if we decide to make one?
B Lyons: Yes.
B York: Thanks again. The interview is taking place today which is the 19th March 2014 and we are at Home Hill, Devonport, Tasmania. Just to begin, can you tell me when and where were you born?
B Lyons: In Burnie, which is a town not far along the coast from here, in 1928.
B York: Can you tell me, let’s start talking about your father, the former Prime Minister Joseph Lyons because of the remaining family members you are the one really with — who knew him the longest time. I believe you were eleven or twelve when he passed away.
B Lyons: Yes.
B York: What would you like to tell me about him. What was he like as a person?
B Lyons: He was a lovely person, always friendly, always interested in what we’d done at school, no matter how busy he had been in parliament. He was really interested in what we’d done [inaudible]. I might point out Canberra was a very small place then. Most of our friends seemed to be the children of his cabinet members and senior staff, but I think that was two reasons for that, one is that the Catholic school system seemed to produce more Commonwealth public servants than any other. Don’t ask me why, I can’t exactly see why, but it happened. All parties and everything seemed to be the same group of kids.
B York: With that period, with your father in Canberra, can you tell me when were you here in Tasmania and when were you in Canberra. Did you have most of the time in Canberra with him or …
B Lyons: Well, after I’d been in the hospital in Sydney for about six months, dad decided that it was a waste of money, a waste of time anyway, and he hauled me out. He was the only one still left on the mainland, or in Canberra, mum was over here with most of the young kids and the rest of them were at boarding school at various places. It was a big family and so it took a lot of managing. So that when I finished up at the hospital in Sydney he decided I might as well stay in Canberra until he came home for Christmas, December 1939, which was the time. He — pardon me if I grimace a bit but it hurts now and again [referring to pain in his legs]…
B York: Okay, shall we pause? Do you want to pause?
B Lyons: No, I’m right … where was I?
B York: You were telling me about the time in the Lodge, effectively, how long did you live there with him?
B Lyons: Well about six months I was there, on my own virtually with him. He would be away, of course, quite a bit, Melbourne and Sydney particularly. You know how they travel now but of course, now they ring up while we’re half way through the toast and say, I’d like you to be in Sydney by ten o’clock Harry. So Harry would trot out the old bus down there and he’d be down in Sydney at ten o’clock. Those days it would be a day’s planning, to get the plane off the ground to get everyone up to Sydney, and then come back again and have dinner at the Lodge at night. So I saw quite a lot of him. Of course being the only one in the Lodge, living there, I saw quite a lot of him which was tremendous because it gave me an opportunity to get to know him. Get to know the lovely bloke he was, because he was. He was very kindly, friendly, very interested in anything that I’d done or not done.
B York: Where did you go to school in Canberra?
B Lyons: St Christopher’s which is the Catholic Convent school right in the heart of Civic centre, right in the heart of … we need to verify that.
B York: It’s Manuka I think isn’t it?
B Lyons: Manuka, yes …
B York: I know the church there.
B Lyons: …you are quite right.
B York: Can you tell me what would be your typical daily routine while you were there … not at church, I mean in the Lodge with your father. When would you get up? How would you have breakfast?
B Lyons: Yes, we’d get up at seven o’clock or something like that, normal time. The bus went past the front door so we used to board the school bus which serves all the schools in Canberra at that time, and come home in the evening in the same bus. There was an occasional exception, of course, where you’re picked up in the prime ministerial car because you had to be home for some special reason. You know somebody might be visiting but that was fairly standard day. I mean to us there was nothing unusual about any of it.
B York: Who would wake you up?
B Lyons: I was thinking about this very thing the other day. I think the staff, the kitchen and dining room staff seemed to get us dressed and off to school in the middle of their other duties. We did also have a nurse, a full-time mothercraft nurse, I think they were called in those days, to look after us, because there were five of us under school age. We sort of grew up with them, in fact they were almost our mothers, until we finally all got to St Christopher’s and they were just ordinary school days. You’d arrive home at night, get off the bus, walk up the drive way to the — yes to the Lodge. Otherwise the day was very much like anyone else, I think.
B York: Do you remember the names of any of the mothercraft people who were there?
B Lyons: They weren’t mothercraft, I think they were just — I was going to say ordinary but I don’t like that word. They were just sort of house maids, kitchen maids, dining room attendants, whatever, but they just sort of filled in by looking after us.
B York: Were any of them special to you, like that you had a special affection for?
B Lyons: Yes there were.
B York: Do you remember the names by any chance?
B Lyons: I remember Elsie, Elsie — I might think of her name before the finish, but I’ll try. Anyway, she took me to her house a couple of long weekends. We’d get the bus out to Yass from Canberra rather to somewhere near…
B York: Not Queanbeyan?
B Lyons: No the other way…
B York: Yass, Hall…
B Lyons: Hall was the place, only a very small country town, farming town. I spent a few weekends up there with them. So she was sort of special, but the whole lot of them were very good to me.
B York: Now with five kids in the Lodge, how were they organised, in terms of room space and sleeping accommodation?
B Lyons: When we first got there it was a bit of a problem and you, sort of, went wherever you could go. But then, about twelve months later, it was decided it was just too crowded and over and above the garage, which was a two car garage, and Humbers at that, it was a fairly large space, we’re talking about. Up above they turned it into a sort of a nursery area. There were about three or four bedrooms for kids and then there was a sort of a dining, eating room, yes that’s about it. We’d do our homework and all that sort of stuff there. We, also when dad and mum were in England, we had a mothercraft nurse, I think they call them, which we decided she was there only for babies. She had no authority over us and I think we made life hell. I really do [laughs] you imagine boys of fourteen, thirteen, twelve and a girl eleven being bossed around by a mothercraft nurse. You know, you’ve got to eat your pumpkin — like the hell we’d eat our pumpkin [laughs] that sort of thing — they were very good.
B York: Now, back to the daily routine during the week. You’ve told me you’d go to school and that was a fairly standard school day…
B Lyons: Yes, it would be, every kid in Australia.
B York: …and then you got back, walked up to the Lodge. Who would greet you at the Lodge, or would you let yourself in?
B Lyons: I was thinking the other day about that — did you say greet them?
B York: Yes, or meet you, who would be home for you?
B Lyons: There was always one or two of them there. They would always have some bread and butter, or bread and jam, or something, because for most kids when they go home from school did have something to eat. They still do, don’t they?
B York: Yes.
B Lyons: So life was pretty good. We’d play around for an hour or two and have tea and go to bed.
B York: When would you see your father, like I guess …
B Lyons: Very often not until the weekend. See if he was tied up at Parliament — Prime Minister’s offices were all in Parliament House. If you wanted to talk to a Minister, they were all available at Parliament House, so we could go in there and visit him. I mean obviously not for long, you’d soon get hunted out, that was how that worked.
B York: Was your mother at the Lodge at that time?
B Lyons: A lot of it. A lot of it she was travelling Australia. They needed her voice for publicity, if you like to call it that, now-a-days. She did quite a bit of speaking for the United Australia Party which was the conservative party at that time. She’d be travelling Australia when dad was in Canberra, for a lot of it, depending on what crisis was on. The fact that there was no television doesn’t mean there wasn’t a crisis every three minutes. Australian politics have never been exactly quiet and peaceful.
B York: Who would you say, you were closer to during that period of your life, those first twelve years of your life, your mother or your father?
B Lyons: A bit hard, pretty much the same, except father was a bit — what’s the word I want. I don’t mean he was a disciplinarian, but I mean, fathers — and he was taller of course, that always has an impression on kids. He — yes, and he was older, he was about seventeen years older than mum, I think. But he was still very approachable, very warm, there is nothing you couldn’t talk to him about. But, I suppose, mum was the one. Well mum was the one whose shoulder you cried on, which might be true of most kids, I think.
B York: And did that happen with you and her, where you’d go to her…
B Lyons: Yes, I don’t think it was anything extra special, but it was special. You do have a special relationship with your mother because it’s somewhat, it’s a warmer, closer relationship.
B York: How do you think they were as a couple. Were they a well suited couple?
B Lyons: Oh yes, very much so. I think the impression you get from mum’s books, even from some of the children’s books, Brendan for instance wrote a biography of mum. Quite a few writings like that. I think they demonstrate that pretty clearly, they were very close. And, of course, you realize that when dad died mum was only — what, thirty-four, thirty-five or something, pretty young, with ten children. That’s a fair load.
B York: It sure is.
B Lyons: But, no they got on extremely well.
B York: Did you see them together much, like, in the family as a mother and father together?
B Lyons: Yes, we did at Christmas. Christmas was always a great time because we had a piano in the middle room, as we came through, you might have — I’m not sure if the piano is there or not now. We used to have singing around the piano every night during the Christmas holidays, whether we were at school or whether we were still not at school, but getting that way.
B York: Were there other family regular activities where you were all together?
B Lyons: Well we used to sing around the piano every night, without fail, practically. We’d also go out to the beach during the summer, go down there, we used to get out of town a bit if possible, so that we could get a bit of privacy. Because naturally eleven kids and two parents and a couple of chauffeurs and a secretary or two to take the urgent messages to Canberra and back; hardly a small crowd for a summer holiday and that used to fill the beach up. We used to play games, cricket, tennis, you know the ordinary beach games that everyone else played.
B York: Would your father participate? Would you be playing with him in those games? Would your dad be playing the games with you?
B Lyons: Oh yes. He had a broken leg which meant his right leg, if I can think of it, yes it was his right leg, had been broken in a train accident when he was quite a bit younger. He could never use it properly but he used to play to the extent he could. He enjoyed the games, particularly with the older boys.
B York: Was there a particular beach that you would go to Barry, was there a favourite?
B Lyons: There was, it’s a funny thing but we called it ‘our beach’. In fact we still call it our beach when we drive past it. It’s about half way between Penguin and Ulverston.
B York: Oh yes Ulverston.
B Lyons: It’s down a little, sort of, alcove, room enough for us and not many — everybody didn’t have cars in those times, but we could go there and all enjoy a whole day at the beach, some swimming, some playing games.
B York: Did your mother enjoy that type of activity?
B Lyons: Oh yes, with the cricket she’d run out of steam a bit earlier. I don’t know why she only had eleven children [laughs].
B York: What’s your earliest memory of your father?
B Lyons: Well he was always there. He was always there to talk to about anything. He would bring himself down from the heights to — among the — the bottom half of the family and the top half of the family are about the same sizes. You know six boys and five girls, each collection, we’d sort of — a lot of subjects would be covered particularly those from school where you’d talk about the sports that they were playing. We’d argue about the cricket and whether a proper decision had been made and all those things when I’m with those families. I remember Bradman not that I was — I didn’t spend the whole weekend with Bradman or anything but I can remember talking to him, speaking to him. Of course, naturally, whenever the English teams came out, and they were really the only team that came out they would always go to the Lodge usually for lunch as well as anything else, but they’d also come there during the day. There was always a match between Canberrra, or the Prime Minister’s ‘eleven’ I think they called it. That meant they all came to the Lodge and had afternoon tea, or lunch and whatever.
B York: I suppose in those days the radio would have been important, was it?
B Lyons: Oh my word. Yes, I can remember lying on the floor in the billiard room listening to the radio and how I wasn’t electrocuted I don’t know because nobody worried too much about electrical plugs and the like, you know two wires and you shoved them in the holes and you had radio contact from Sydney. Not advisable you know.
B York: No.
B Lyons: It didn’t kill me but I do remember one shock I got, put them in and got a bang and you’d think, oh that was a bit severe but you didn’t seem to worry [laughs].
B York: You didn’t do it again … and that’s in the Lodge we’re talking about?
B Lyons: Yes.
B York: What things did you listen to on the radio?
B Lyons: Well all I can remember, certainly the cricket then the various radio shows, like, you’ve probably heard of the Lux Radio Theatre?
B York: Yes.
B Lyons: That was a series of hour long plays on the Sunday night and they — we’d discuss the moral issues of the play, things of that sort, we got a lot of education that way I think. Then, of course, when dad died in 1939 most of the family were still at school. They all were still at school and so it was at that level, debating that went on.
B York: When you would listen to say, the Lux radio show, was that with your parents there?
B Lyons: Usually.
B York: And so you’d talk, discuss the moral issue of the program…
B Lyons: A lot of those would come up.
B York: …with your dad and mum?
B Lyons: Yes, mainly dad, mum tended to — she’d probably kill me for saying this, tended to take the old fashioned approach of — mum’s there to support and she’d never disagree with him.
B York: Very interesting, yes. When you would see your father after school or whatever, how would you address him?
B Lyons: Dad.
B York: And the mother?
B Lyons: Mum.
B York: Okay, just thought I’d ask, that’s the standard, the normal thing to do but it does vary sometimes.
B Lyons: Yes, interesting to know, yes, that’s right.
B York: Now he was one of the — well he was the first person to use — travel by air in an election campaign I believe, your father…
B Lyons: He would have been.
B York: …did you travel with him at all?
B Lyons: A couple of times but things were a bit busy and the flying was very early and very late, the hours would be hardly an hour would go but yes, I remember doing it.
B York: So you went in an aeroplane with him?
B Lyons: Yes, I remember the first time I flew out of Canberra. I mean I was just awestruck. You get into this plane which was — the size of this room, which for a Canberra arrangement sitting on the ground in front of you, it was a pretty big plane. There are no photos up there are there?
A Teasdeale: No.
B Lyons: I had a couple of beautiful photographs of that but they seemed to have vanished. I suspect some member of the family has knocked them off. They’ll die before they die [laughs].
B York: Yes, so how old would you have been then Barry, when you first had an aeroplane trip?
B Lyons: Born in ’28, it would have been 1938 I think. I would be about ten. And because Charlie Ulm who was flying it told dad that my questions were more intelligent than most adults. Well that may have been for my benefit, I’m not sure, but it sounded good at the time [laughs].
B York: Mentioning Charlie Ulm I mean that’s a part of history too isn’t it…
B Lyons: Isn’t he.
B York: …yes, so you’ve met him, you’ve met Bradman.
B Lyons: The whole team.
B York: Did you meet any of the other Prime Ministers at all Barry, or former Prime Ministers?
B Lyons: Oh yes, Mr Hughes, Stanley Bruce, I’m trying to think — it’s interesting that — there’s a photo of the federal Cabinet, the first year dad was in Canberra. The Cabinet are seated around a table, as they often are now. You see hundreds of them. Those days there were five in the photo, five members of Cabinet, Lord.
B York: When you met Hughes and Bruce did you have any interaction with them, like, is there any memory you’d like to share about meeting them?
B Lyons: No, Billy Hughes was more friendly, much more friendly than Bruce. He treated us like he’d treat the children of a friend of his. If you can follow the difference. Whereas Bruce tended to treat us like the Queen’s lackeys, children yes, a bit like Wodehouse.
B York: I get it [laughs] that’s a good way to explain it.
B Lyons: [laughs]
B York: Did your father ever tell you stories about his parents and his background?
B Lyons: Not really, we got most of that from mum later. I mean he died in ’39 and I was what eleven, eleven it’s a bit young to remember a lot of this stuff.
B York: Yes, it would be difficult to remember the detail.
B Lyons: And it must have been busy. I mean when I say that there were five members of cabinet, you can imagine the workload.
B York: Oh yes.
B Lyons: Because it means that a bit of paper would be signed for every department, at least every day wouldn’t it.
B York: Yes, oh sure.
B Lyons: It would have been murderously heavy work, and then of course, if there was a problem in Perth you had to spend two days in planning it and another two days in getting there and back and a month is nearly gone just to go to Perth and back. These days you go over there for breakfast.
B York: Oh yes. Did you go to the provisional Parliament House much? Did you actually go to the Parliament House and see your father in the debates, or for other reasons?
B Lyons: Oh yes, of course when you say provisional house, that was Parliament House, whereas it’s the…
B York: And how did that come about, would you like to share a story about an occasion on which you went there and saw him?
B Lyons: No, I can’t recall any events going on while I was there. I was only a boy of course, but I sound like an old man the way I’m going on now.
B York: Did you visit him in his office at all at parliament?
B Lyons: Yes, we did, the first air conditioning I had ever seen. He had these big — about the size of that television set, or whatever it is. I’m nearly blind incidentally which doesn’t help. But anyway, the air conditioner would be about that size and quite noisy but my word that made a difference in Canberra which can be a bit hot as you know.
B York: Yes, either very hot or very cold.
B Lyons: Very cold.
B York: When you saw him, who would have taken you into the parliament? How did you get in? Did you need an attendant?
B Lyons: Oh probably a chauffeur, would have brought us in. See the chauffeur, some days he would be flat out, the chauffeur, whereas the next day he might have nothing to do because he’d dropped dad off at the airport to go to Sydney and wouldn’t be picking him up until ten o’clock at night or something like that. Well that’s a fairly dull day for a chauffeur.
B York: And would your visits be just to see him and then you’d go or would you spend some time in the building?
B Lyons: Oh spent some time but, of course, don’t forget living at home with him, normally you’d only had to get the thing done, that you had to get done, like get five shillings for sister so that she can get your teeth looked at, things like that. Somebody has to do that. Are we turning up are we?
B York: Oh no, is it okay to keep going Barry, are you feeling okay?
B Lyons: As far as I’m concerned, yes.
B York: Great, thank you, it’s really good, thank you again for this.
B Lyons: You’ll find, I think, that I’m — of the three people you’ll see today. I’m the eldest and have the best recall so we may disagree on a few points but you’d expect that wouldn’t you.
B York: Oh yes, I know you were very young but did your father ever talk politics with you at all?
B Lyons: Not really, he’d sometimes talk to mum and we’d overhear it, not so much overhear, that sounds as if we were eavesdropping but it wasn’t, we were part of the conversation but a lot of it would be way above us. Who was Mussolini, we didn’t know.
B York: Right, I was going to ask whether he ever talked about meeting some of the international figures, like Churchill and Mussolini…
B Lyons: He did, but not — he was probably trying to tone down his conversations to suit us too, as well as anything else.
B York: Did you ever feel that you were being treated differently by other people because you were the son of a Prime Minister?
B Lyons: No, I don’t. I think I got more attention because I was only three foot tall or something.
B York: Were you very aware of being the son of a Prime Minister? Were you conscious of that? Was it important to you at the time?
B Lyons: It wasn’t important but I was conscious of it.
B York: Yes, I suppose living in the Lodge would have — that alone would have made you aware of being the son of a Prime Minister, that was different.
B Lyons: Not really, it will seem strange but we got a bit of abuse. Politics have always been pretty rough in Australia. ‘Oh well your father will lose his seat on Saturday, won’t he?’ I thought, well that’s a nice greeting for a seven year old boy [laughs] but you could understand it, that’s the Australian way.
B York: Yes. Did he ever comment on Stanley Bruce, did he indicate an attitude to the former Prime Minister Bruce?
B Lyons: He was a friend of Bruce. He appointed him to the Australian High Commission…
Interview with Barry Lyons part 2
B Lyons: …Commissioner in London. He appointed him to a few of the pre-war meetings, boards that were set up, because war was coming, everyone knew that. He had a fair bit of contact with him. I only saw them together two or three times and they certainly appeared to be friendly.
B York: Okay.
B Lyons: But Bruce was a funny bugger. He was an Englishman. How he became an Australian I don’t know because his whole approach and his attitude was English.
B York: What about Scullin, did your father ever mention Scullin?
B Lyons: He got on very well with Scullin, in fact all of those blokes, Scullin, Curtin there was quite a bit — well there’s mum’s book, which mentions those, Brendan’s book, my brother Brendan, although I think Brendan might have had very high regard for Curtin, rather than dad himself. You know how you start writing biographies you’ve got to be very, very careful because you write your own thoughts not the bloke whose life you’re writing about.
B York: Yes. Did your father influence your own outlook on life? I mean in terms of religion or politics or other ways?
B Lyons: Only in what I say the normal sort of way. I was probably more conservative than he was. Well he’d been a member of the Labor Party. I had never sunk so low as that [laughs].
B York: Okay. But what about values, what about it in terms — were there values that you think he conveyed to you?
B Lyons: Yes well, I would hope I have his values, well I believe I did essentially. A few issues, no doubt, I would have disagreed on. Some of it would be hard to remember because I was only what — ten when he died and you don’t have too many set ideas by that stage.
B York: No, but I think children can learn values from the way their parents related, or the way the father related to you as a son. I meant like that, do you think he influenced you in that way?
B Lyons: I think he did. I think he had a sort of a — how can I express it? His attitude to women was probably ahead of most people, that would be mother, a lot of it. He was no feminist but he believed in equality, like husbands and wives, he believed were equals and a lot of things flow from that. You needn’t think that I’m influenced, or over influenced by mother in that because she and I used to argue quite a lot which I enjoyed arguing with mum. I mean that was still going on when she died whereas dad, of course, was long gone from the scene.
B York: What would you argue with your mother about?
B Lyons: Practically anything, like Germaine Greer. She was much more sympathetic to Germaine Greer than I was. As far as women’s role was concerned I was fairly right-wing, I was. Well mum certainly wasn’t. I suspect dad wasn’t either, although we never got into that, that much.
B York: Another question about your father Barry. I was wondering, to what extent, if at all, was your father Irish, you know, had the Irish culture, or identification with Ireland?
B Lyons: Getting a bit deeply philosophical. He tried to maintain a balance on the Irish question which was very hard to do. I mean there were Englishmen shooting Irishmen or vice versa all over the place.
B York: I know that early on he supported Home Rule for Ireland and — that was in the early period. I know that just from reading but I wondered if he ever indicated an affection for Ireland or an awareness of having an Irish ancestry.
B Lyons: He certainly had that. I mean Ireland to him was home, England wasn’t. Now I think I know what you mean, yes he did, he had an affection for Ireland and Irishmen. Used to have some violent arguments with some old Irish friends of his, like Father O’Donnell whose name you’ll probably come across. He was dad’s parish priest and then later became mum’s Catholic — what’s the word?
B York: Mentor?
B Lyons: Yes, I’d say so.
B York: And what would they argue about? You said that he would have arguments with Father O’Donnell about Ireland.
B Lyons: He would often argue with Father O’Donnell, yes.
B York: About Ireland was it?
B Lyons: I don’t think so. I think just generally, religion, anything.
B York: I’ve always had the impression that the Catholic faith was very important to your father was that right?
B Lyons: It was, yes, it was a very Catholic family he was brought up in. Well, the fact that he became, very early a close friend of Father O’Donnell. I mean Catholic priests used to associate with Catholic priests but dad got involved very early, O’Donnell was quite a character.
B York: Did your father have any hobbies outside of his political and family life?
B Lyons: That’s an interesting question, never heard it before, as far as dad’s concerned I mean. I would say no, general appreciation of art, without — the average Australians attitude to art, you know what you like and you know what you don’t like which doesn’t answer your question in the least.
B York: Well, it kind of does. You can’t recall him having any hobbies it would seem.
B Lyons: No.
B York: What about books, was he a reader of books?
B Lyons: An avid book reader, yes. This place is full of books, hundreds have been stolen by members of the family. Most of them would disagree with my word ‘stolen’ but I don’t know what they would call it.
B York: Did he have favourite books and favourite authors?
B Lyons: Yes, he liked the Australian women authors and some of the men too, but yes he liked all that.
B York: What about musicians and music, was he musical at all?
B Lyons: He loved music but he wasn’t a musician. Mum used to play the piano, of course, every night. If there was nothing else to be done she’d play the piano and, of course, something else to be done, it would depend a bit on what it was as to the priorities, but night after night we’d sing around the piano.
B York: A nice memory, yes. With your father did he have particular musical tastes?
B Lyons: No, fairly general. He was — I was going to say Gilbert and Sullivan but I don’t mean them but I mean that style of music he used to enjoy immensely. A lot of the musicals, you know like — what would I say, but the Gilbert and Sullivan, yes. Remember there was a whole batch of English musicals written about that time, there was My Fair Lady, that was a bit after his time, but music of that level, if you follow me.
B York: Yes, sure. What about sporting interests, was he a sporting type of man?
B Lyons: He liked playing golf, tried to play golf as much as he could, but because of his broken leg that was a bit of a battle, but he used to enjoy it. He became captain of the Canberra Golf Club, whether that was because of his enthusiasm for golf or whether that was because they were pretty happy to have a Prime Minister as a member of the club, which would be, I suppose, worth having wouldn’t it.
B York: It would indeed yes.
B Lyons: We used to like that because he would invariably come home on a Friday night with a packet of jaffas, remember the orange lollies with the chocolate inside, he would always come home with them. We used to tend to associate golf with jaffas.
B York: Did he follow particular sports. I mean you’ve mentioned cricket were there other?
B Lyons: Football.
B York: Is that rugby, you mean, or AFL?
B Lyons: That would be Australian Rules.
B York: Did he have a team Barry, did he support a particular team?
B Lyons: That I don’t know although I suspect Richmond might have been. I’ve got no evidence for that, it’s just a feeling.
B York: What about other things like boxing and wrestling?
B Lyons: No, he wasn’t — he liked boxing about as much as I did, I think, revolting sport. You gave me a drink didn’t you, this is it, which is now cold [laughs], sorry about that.
B York: I was wondering Barry if he had any — like did he have a motto in life, you know, saying and proverbs that he would often use?
B Lyons: Not that I recall.
B York: Okay.
B Lyons: I hope I’ve been of some help.
B York: Yes, is there time for a couple more questions? Are you okay for a couple more?
B Lyons: I’m in your hands.
B York: Okay, thank you. In the home with so many children did everyone pitch in together to help with the home tasks?
B Lyons: Pretty well, yes, it wasn’t a bad family from that point of view. There would be a few always that would suddenly disappear when the washing up was about to begin, but all families do that. Some of them would get a bit — not me of course, a bit stroppy and refuse to help [laughs].
B York: But you never did?
B Lyons: Lord no [laughs].
B York: Did you have set tasks in the house?
B Lyons: No, it was just to generally help. I mean was expected to wipe up when the rest were doing the washing up, but because of my height, my contribution wasn’t always great, but they would give me hell for it and that would be it. You get over those things. I can always beat them at the English which is a good thing to have, to be on top of, in a family like that. You can come back with the repost that you want, that sits them down.
B York: So you were good at that were you? [laughs]
B Lyons: Brilliant. I would also, every so often, get nasty, and then I could really screw it in. You’ve got to laugh. It was a good life, really good life.
B York: I’d like to ask about your father’s death, if I may?
B Lyons: Yes.
B York: You were old enough to be very aware of his decline.
B Lyons: Yes, I was about ten or eleven or something.
B York: Do you remember how the news was broken to you?
B Lyons: I do, exactly. We were at school at Kostka Hall which is at the Xavier Preparatory School down at Brighton beach in Melbourne. This particular Easter Saturday it must have been, the Headmaster of the Preparatory school calls in and says, ‘Before you go’, we were getting a plane back to Tasmania for Easter, ‘there is something I should tell you’ and that’s one of the few occasions where I’ve had this roaring in my ears. I can remember it now. I knew there was something pretty horrible was coming. So he said, ‘Did your father ever tell you to be brave?’. We said, ‘Yes’, of course, he said ‘Well, he wants you to be brave now’ and he told us that dad had just died a few minutes before. That was an absolute shock and knocked me around. It’s one of the occasions in my life that I really remember. Death when you’re ten or eleven or nine, whatever age it was, it’s almost unheard of without coming close to you like that, like your own father, but we got through it I suppose.
B York: And did you attend the funeral Barry?
B Lyons: Yes, we came over to here. We were booked on the plane to come over. If we hadn’t been talking to Father Costello we would have by that stage have been in the taxi to go to the airport to come over here, that’s how close it was.
B York: Yes. Did it take a long time to recover. I mean I suppose you never recover from the loss of a father but…
B Lyons: No, you never recover, but it did take a long, long time. I recall one of the priests at the school, when we went back there, we stayed over here for about two or three weeks and then we went back to school. Two or three times I remember the priest was wandering the dormitories. There were only a few. There were only thirty boarders, so it was only a small school. He heard me crying and he got me up and talked to me for a couple of hours I think, just talked about anything I wanted to talk about, which I think was pretty good, pretty good whatever the word is. It certainly settled me down. It helped enormously.
B York: Were there ways in which you took after your father, like, if people sometimes say, gee, he takes after his father, or no he takes after his mother.
B Lyons: I don’t — probably they’d say mum rather than dad.
B York: Alright, why is that Barry, in what way?
B Lyons: I don’t know. I don’t.
B York: Yes, okay. Yes, but people, that’s the perception is it, that other people would tend to say that you’re more like your mother than father?
B Lyons: Well I think, yes, probably.
B York: Just to finish off I would like to ask about your mother. I mean, how would you sum her up, looking back on your life, how was she as a mother and as a woman in public life?
B Lyons: I agreed mostly with her, with what she had to say, she was an ardent feminist without quite knowing what she was talking about. I wouldn’t want to say that in Melbourne Town Hall on an afternoon tea, afternoon. Generally I got on well with her, very good. Yes, when I say get on well, I mean agreed with her point of view, generally, but now and again I didn’t. As I say Germaine Greer I was talking about, she thought Germaine had a point. I didn’t think Germaine had many points at all.
B York: But as a mother, your relationship with her as her son, how was she as a mother, how do you remember?
B Lyons: Very, very good. There were a couple of times there when I was — it wasn’t long after dad had died and I was sort of [inaudible] — somebody said something which tipped me over and I could feel the tears coming and she just put her arm around me. She knew exactly what was wrong and certainly helped to get through it. But we didn’t always talk closely about those things, although we did do a lot.
B York: I’m wondering is there anything else you’d like to say about your mother, in particular, but also your father?
B Lyons: One thing, she was always anxious to get a balance with people, in other words to present their point of view. I’ve come home and I’d be steamed up about something and she would try to gently take me through.
Are these people coming? When?
B York: Yes, I think the taxi is coming is it – not until twelve – about an hour or so Barry. You’ve got an hour. Just under an hour. There is more that I can ask Barry. You’ve done pretty well, we’ve been going for over an hour, are you okay to keep going?
B Lyons: I’m happy.
B York: Okay, you’ve got good stamina, Barry. I’m happy to keep asking, believe me, because I appreciate the replies that you are giving.
B Lyons: Some of it is probably a bit disjointed.
B York: Well, it’s like a conversation that we’re recording.
B Lyons: That’s right — it jumps all over the place and you suddenly say, what was that the answer to.
B York: I’ll ask the question I asked about your father, regarding your mother though, do you have an earliest memory of her?
B Lyons: She was always very young, mum. I mean in appearance and in her attitudes. I don’t know why I said that.
B York: Well she was certainly ahead of her time in a way, wasn’t she with her confidence that she could be in parliament and all her other activities.
B Lyons: Yes, she had no intention of doing that when dad was alive.
B York: Did she ever consider re-marrying after your father died?
B Lyons: As a vague possibility I think yes, but as a real possibility I think not. I’ve known a lot of women like that. They’ve thought of getting married again, yes they could live with it, and for the right bloke and all that, but the thought of actually stepping off down the aisle, I think, no. I think that mum was a bit that way too.
B York: Did she ever have suitors, men who had shown interest in her, who were…
B Lyons: She had a few blokes, a few blokes, but I’m not going to tell you about them [laughs].
B York: Okay, alright, just when it was getting [laughs] I thought we were going to get some gossip.
B Lyons: No, there was no real gossip.
B York: How long were you living with your mother after your father died?
B Lyons: He died in ’39. I finished school in ’45, boarding school, university for a couple of years. I suppose from then on. I didn’t always stay in Devonport. I worked here for a few years and then I went to a couple of local factories and worked. Ended up with the Archbishop of Hobart, Dr Young, as an accountant with him, until I fell out with him, which is something I should write about sometime. Because I think I was badly treated, but I don’t think it was his fault. I think he was badly advised by one of his offsiders and what his problem was I don’t know. This has got nothing whatever to do with what we were talking about before but it certainly has affected my attitude to life.
B York: What do you mean, gee, so it was profound in its effect on you?
B Lyons: Devastating. Well I think broadly speaking I was accused of appropriating money, church money, which as you know is one of the serious sins and while serious sin mightn’t mean a great deal to you, it means a great deal to people who were brought up as orthodox Catholics as I was.
B York: Of course.
B Lyons: I haven’t even been game really to talk about, or to write about it, or do anything because I am afraid I’d do an injustice to this bloke who did it. I get too nervous about — the confidence in myself is lacking to a large extent, and if it is, it is very hard to argue a point.
B York: I’m sorry to hear about that Barry, that sounds very unfortunate.
B Lyons: It’s a long time ago now, but it’s there.
B York: Perhaps if you write about it, it’s a way of coming to terms more with it.
B Lyons: I know, I’ve thought of that.
B York: Just write it for yourself even, not for publication but just to put in black and white and keep it somewhere for whenever.
B Lyons: Also something that I could hand to someone else like you, for instance.
B York: Yes.
B Lyons: Without having to sort of discuss it, just to put it on the table.
B York: Yes. Now can I go back, ask a bit more about your mother please? How would you …
B Lyons: I thought we’d run out of conversation about three minutes, this morning.
B York: Look, you’re amazing. I’m hope I’m like you when I’m your age, I tell you, your memory is very good, I think.
B Lyons: I think it is but I do worry a little that your personal prejudices can have a bit of a bearing on this can’t they.
B York: Well, of course, but that applies to each person who is interviewed, so you’re getting different prejudices, different points of view. For example, how would you describe your mother’s personality? What would be your view of that? How would you describe her as a person?
B Lyons: I’d find it difficult. Generally speaking very good, treated other people extremely well, too judgemental on her own children. I’ve never been able to work out why, although I did read some book about parents talking about the children that they are afraid they had — not the ones they had. In other words they were afraid they’d be badly let down by their own children. I don’t think that was possible with the group mum had. I mean in minor matters it might but — so I don’t know. I might give a bit more thought to that.
B York: Do you think she was proud of the children?
B Lyons: She expected more, which I think was a bit unfair, for instance, my sister Rosemary, who died only a couple of years ago, she was a bit of an actress. You know what they’re like in a family, they disrupt it. She was full of drama, this is Rosemary, mum too to a degree. She believed it when she was centre stage that there was only one centre stage and mum was probably a bit of a contestant for the role as well and that didn’t help. I think it didn’t help mum’s judgement of Rosemary… but she and I used to talk a lot about a million things. I think sometimes you learn more about people. I don’t know. You can hear in everything I say, that I’m not very secure in my thoughts on this matter. I’m trying not to be judgemental but am managing to do so.
B York: Do you think that your mother’s attitude to the children, as you’ve described it a moment ago, a judgemental aspect, or wanting more from them, did that reflect her own childhood in any way, do you think?
B Lyons: I think her own childhood was pretty good. She had a mother who was very strict…
Interview with Barry Lyons part 3
B Lyons: …Anglican I suppose you’d call that, maybe Presbyterian and Anglican. I am trying to describe what she was rather than what she called herself.
B York: Yes.
B Lyons: Very strict in some areas. We’ve been invaded have we?
B York: Some people coming I think, yes.
B Lyons: They were meant to get ten bob from her [laughs].
B York: You and me are the only two who know what a ‘bob’ is probably. You’d be too young; ten cents.
B Lyons: It would be easy if just said ‘Could we have ten shillings’. I’m sure you’d get it from most people. Maybe that’s why they don’t let me loose here.
B York: Did your mother ever talk about her parents and her upbringing, would she refer back to them?
B Lyons: Yes, she wrote a couple of books, mum, there’s a lot of it in there.
B York: I know that she was very much a book person, wasn’t she?
B Lyons: Yes.
B York: Did she have a favourite author, or favourite book?
B Lyons: As I said, I think, a bit earlier that the women writers, it was the eighteenth century I suppose, like Brontes…
B York: Oh yes, and Jane Austen.
B Lyons: Jane Austen, that whole group, I remember there was dozens of them. You could read them for ever and not run out. I don’t mean run out in the sense of you’ve read enough but I mean it’s there to be read if you want to read it.
B York: Yes, and so she liked those writers?
B Lyons: Yes. But dad was a reader too but, of course, once he got into parliament at about eighteen, nineteen or twenty or something, that’s about the end of that unless you’re really interested, because you haven’t got time.
B York: With your mother’s ill health…
B Lyons: She had a lot of that.
B York: …were you very aware of that happening?
B Lyons: I wasn’t aware of how bad it was, but certainly aware that she spent a lot of time, for a few years there, after dad died, in the Mercy Hospital in Melbourne. In fact the special surgeon then was a doctor, can’t think. But he was convinced that she wouldn’t live through it but she did it.
B York: Would she tell the children about her illness, would she keep you informed?
B Lyons: Yes, but not as bad as she was, I don’t think. I think there were several times she went close to death, which she didn’t tell us about, said she’d been very ill which was true but the other I just don’t know.
B York: Would you visit her in hospital Barry?
B Lyons: When we were in Melbourne we did, of course, and when she was in Melbourne we were in Melbourne too. I think she probably told the hospital people not to tell us too much about the whole proceeding. What are they doing?
B York: I think they might be here for you. I’m not sure.
B Lyons: Why would they be wandering through the trees? All I can see, my eyesights not good. I can see shrubs and things and I can see bodies moving between them.
B York: To finish off, I’d like to ask, as I asked about your father, the eventual decline and passing, were you there. Was the family around your mother when she died? How were you informed of her death?
B Lyons: No, mum was — she was going downhill fairly rapidly over about six months. They had her in the Wynyard Hospital. Why Wynyard I’m not sure. I’m hanged if I know.
B York: Is that Wynyard in Sydney or here?
B Lyons: No here. Wynyard Hospital here is about the size of this house, at most, probably less.
B York: I was asking about her decline and visiting her in hospital and then her decline, in health, and then her passing and you were saying that she ended up in Wynyard Hospital and her health had been declining for about six months, you said.
B Lyons: Yes.
B York: And then what happened Barry? Did she die in hospital?
B Lyons: Yes. She always liked to be fighting when she went down. She was going to fight until the end. I’m not sure how you do that but no doubt I’ll find out in a year or two. That’s a joke [laughs].
B York: They’re jokes I don’t find funny. Yes, so she wanted to hang on I take it.
B Lyons: Without a doubt, and didn’t want people to know that she was going downhill, certainly not as downhill as fast as she was.
B York: When you’d visit her what would she say to you? What would you talk about?
B Lyons: I didn’t get to visit her. I was in Sydney or Brisbane or somewhere all that period and the next minute the phone rings and mum’s gone. But there was nothing unexpected about it so I can’t blame the family for not telling me. I think they were telling me but I might not have known what they were talking about.
B York: Yes, well it was a steady decline, and as you say you were expecting it, very different to what happened with your father. And then there was the funeral, was it a state funeral for your mother?
B Lyons: She had a state funeral, yes. What was it that you were…
B York: Were you at the funeral, did you go to the funeral?
B Lyons: Yes, I came back, but it was a bit there that — you weren’t sure that she was dying. You’re in Sydney, she’s in Wynyard and you think to yourself, if I go down now I’ll certainly be there when she’s alive still, but if I don’t she may die like that, over night. It’s a difficult period.
B York: Yes.
B Lyons: You don’t know whether to go home or whether to stay away. No matter what you do someone will regard it as poor.
B York: Alright, well look, is there anything that you would like to say as a closing word for the interview?
B Lyons: No, I don’t think so. That period I spent with my father, in the six months before he died, in Canberra, with no one else there, no other members of the family, I’ve been forever grateful for. I think I got to know him better. I think I got to know the world better. I think I grew up and it’s left me with some enormous memories. I could go on for hours.
B York: Well if there is any additional memories of that period you’d like to record please do them now. I am happy to keep the tape running and keep recording. Is there anything else you’d like to share?
B Lyons: I don’t think so. There is so much.
B York: Okay, well look, thanks very much Barry for today. Appreciate it very much. We’ll send you a CD copy of the interview, well thank you.
B Lyons: Yes, thanks very much.
This history has multiple parts.1 2 3
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