1910 - 1998 | NSW, New Zealand | Correspondent, arts journalist & poet
Elizabeth "Betty" Riddell came to Sydney from New Zealand in 1928 and joined Smith’s Weekly, where she won a Walkley award. She reported from London and New York during World War II before joining the Daily Mirror and, later, The Australian where she became a prolific interviewer and arts and literary critic, winning two more Walkleys for her polished and memorable feature writing. While journalism was always her bread and butter, Riddell was also an accomplished poet, with her first book of poems published in 1940, followed by several more highly acclaimed volumes.
Elizabeth Richmond Riddell always spoke about her career as if it had been spawned by a serendipitous marriage of luck and determination. When fortune came along, you grabbed it and did all that you could to make it work for you. When misfortune found you, you got on with things until it passed. Only in her poetry could you see anything of her insecurities or disappointments.
It was poetry that got her started as a writer and it remained her great love. Poetry was her passion, journalism her adventure.
It all began in New Zealand, her birthplace, in the 1920s when she was recruited by one of the staff of Ezra Norton’s Truth & Sportsman. By then, her poetry had been published in several magazines and journals, including The Bulletin, and on the strength of it, she was offered a job on Truth in Sydney. The company paid her fare and a month’s accommodation and she was “flung into journalism”, as she put it, proving a fast learner. She moved from Truth to Smith’s Weekly, where she worked with Kenneth Slessor and Colin Simpson.
In 1935, Riddell married Edward Neville ‘Blue’ Greatorex, a former Rugby player and fellow journalist, and they set off for London, where she scored a brief stint on The Daily Express. She had long dreamt of working on the paper, inspired by all she had heard of the Express’s famous editor, Arthur Christiansen, but she was unable to convince him that she should be taken on staff. So she and Blue went travelling in Europe before returning to Sydney and what was to be her career’s biggest adventure.
In 1939, with the outbreak of war, Norton decided to open a New York bureau to serve Truth and his new afternoon tabloid, The Daily Mirror. Manpower restrictions meant that he couldn’t hire a man to run it, so Riddell got the job. For the next four years, she lived in New York City. Then, eager to get closer to the action, she persuaded Norton that she would be better placed reporting from London.
Riddell settled into a flat on the top floor of a block in Clifford’s Inn Lane opposite the Reuters building and became accredited to the War Office, which meant being included in the small press groups taken on sorties into Europe. These were strictly supervised but on one of them, a fortuitous meeting with the correspondent Sam White, then working for Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, prompted her to take an independent line.
White had acquired a car and a driver and they headed for Aachen, where General Montgomery’s troops were advancing on the German frontier. It was the closest she would ever get to the frontline but she was not nervous, she later told ABC radio’s Tim Bowden: “Inquisitive, curious, detached...If someone offered you a ride anywhere near the war, you just went.”
Later, after the liberation of Paris, she and the Age correspondent Geoff Hutton set off on a second trip to Nancy and on to Strasbourg, where they could see German troops on the other side of the river. On their way back, they were disconcerted to find that the Allies had moved their Nancy base back 100 miles and they, themselves, were now behind the lines.
Thoughts of the Americans worried them most, she remembered. “They didn’t recognise anybody’s uniform but their own. We had British uniforms with correspondents’ flashes on the shoulder but we felt that the Americans might have fired first and asked questions afterwards.”
She also went to Bordeaux to talk to the French Resistance and, at the other political extreme, she visited the prison at Drancy. Here French collaborators were being held, among them Sascha Guitry and members of the Comedie Francaise, all of whom wanted to put their case to the foreign press.
The war’s effect on the French psyche was a subject that fascinated Riddell. “I wrote a lot of stories about the French people in their state of elation and guilt. I was interested in what was happening in France ... the tension and tenderness of everyone’s feelings.”
After the fall of Cologne, she decided that it was time to return to Australia. By then she had become accustomed to the refugees bombed out of their homes filing along European roads or sleeping rough in London. “Now I saw for the first time hordes of Germans in the role of refugees ... I felt that in a way ... it’s worse to be connected to a conquering army than a defeated army.... I’d had, in a way, a privileged run ... I’d been a spectator, an observer, not committed in any way, and it was time I got out.”
Back home, she resumed married life and her Sydney career, reporting, reviewing, appearing on a popular radio panel show and working for a short time as a magazine editor, cheerfully judging herself a failure at the job. Eventually, she returned to The Daily Mirror, relishing working for the paper’s charismatic young editor, Zell Rabin.
In 1968 Riddell transferred to The Australian, which had recently moved its headquarters from Canberra to Sydney. Adrian Deamer was editor and he and Riddell became close friends. She was one of the paper’s star feature writers and reviewers and later, its literary editor. She won the paper’s first Walkley with her feature writing and her relaxed, conversational style became the envy of many of her colleagues. The pretentious and the laboured were anathema to her - along with clichés and bad grammar.
In the 1970s, Riddell joined the Literature Board of the Australia Council. She had stopped writing poetry on Blue’s death in 1964. Now, after 15 years, she took it up again. Collections were published, incorporating old and new poems, and she began winning awards - the Kenneth Slessor Prize in 1992, the Gold Medal of the Australian Literary Society in 1993 and, in 1995, the annual award given in honour of her old friend Patrick White.
For years, Riddell and White had lived on opposite sides of Centennial Park, telephoning one another regularly to exchange gossip and views on anything they happened to feel strongly about. They were long and animated conversations.
When she died in 1998 at the age of 91, she was still reviewing books and making new friends. It was only in her poetry that she confessed to the inconveniences and indignities of growing old.
Sandra Hall is film critic for Fairfax Media, a former literary editor of The Australian and author of 'Tabloid Man: The Life and Times of Ezra Norton'.
Courtesy of Fairfax
'Elizabeth Riddell: war correspondent and poet', Interview with Tim Bowden, Replay, 1978
'Elizabeth Riddell', Australian Biography website, Film Australia, 1992
Selected Poems: Elizabeth Riddell, A&R Modern Poets, 1992.