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ROBIN DALTON


SHE'S "in bed with breakfast and a cup of tea" when my call connects to her Biarritz holiday home. "I do all my work, all my thinking, everything before I get up in the morning, you know," she confides in Thatcherite-with-warmth tones. Robin Dalton is actually based in London, where she landed 52 years ago after an arduous flight in a converted bomber, "the first female civilian to get out of Australia after the war".

She'd grown up in the 20s and 30s amid a cacophony of elderly, idiosyncratic aunts and acquaintances in a ribaldly rambling house in Sydney's bohemian Kings Cross (a childhood lovingly - and wittily - recalled in her 1965 memoir, Aunts Up The Cross). The norm was larger than life. No surprise then that by her early 20s she'd survived a divorce from an "alcoholic sadist", a tabloid-splashed scandal in which he vindictively (and erroneously) named three co-respondents, although local legend grew that to 11, and had an ''interesting war" of sexual and social liberation. Australia in peacetime, however, promised a predictability of suburban restraint, anathema to her scattered sense of adventure.

Across the world, she flitted into London's hedonistic belle monde to the manor born, a Mitty-esque mixing with royalty, society and the artistic push. She was confidante to the powerful, the witty and the fast. Champagne and caviar territory, weekends at stately homes and close friendships with the Mountbattens, the Kennedy brothers and King Juan Carlos among myriad others, or in Paris dancing to the music of Charlie Parker or Stephane Grappelli. She married a brilliant doctor, became an "intelligence agent" for the Thai royal family ... Then her husband died at 33, leaving her with two children to raise alone.

She became a literary agent, turning a frail firm into one of the world's best, representing the famous and soon-to-be, authors and directors such as Tennesee Williams, Edna O'Brien, Arthur Miller, Iris Murdoch, Margaret Drabble, Peter Weir and Joan Collins among many. She married for a third time, to the author William Fairchild. Then, in her late 50s she gave the agency away and took up producing movies - naturally, high-profile and successful (try Madame Sousatzka and Oscar and Lucinda as examples). Now, in her 70s, she has returned to writing.

A novel is in the works, has been for years, but first cab off the literary rank is this week's release of An Incidental Memoir (Viking, rrp $29.95) - a candid, pacy pastiche of lustrous celebrities, ebullient characters and events both stellar and saddening that takes up where Aunts left off. It's a 'most of the names and quite a lot of the pack drill' expose, chattily charismatic yet speedily circumspect. And if many of the luminaries are now but historic footnotes and the cast list verges on the phone-bookish, there's gossip and insider intimacy enough to thrill its probably large readership.

THE skulking sun is signing off on a mean-spirited day in Sydney, but in Biarritz it's "very, very hot for 9am and very, very overcast". Dalton's had a place there for 27 years, and visits whenever she can because "it's the nearest I can find to Sydney in Europe. It has wonderful surf, beaches, wonderful climate, actually." You still surf? "Of course," she says what-a-silly-questionishly. "This is the international capital of world surfing, you know."

I change feet, slipping into something more comfortable. She's awaiting publication, she says, "with great trepidation. I represented some of the best writers in the world so I know what's good. And what's not - and I fear I wrote without much forethought. And I sometimes ask myself why on earth did I do it? And I suppose the real answer is that one enjoys writing and once you've done it, you can get talked into letting other people read it," she heh-hehs wryly.

A long time between book launches, I suggest, some 33 years since Aunts. "That was a diary, which I wrote in three weeks. This is more a series of jottings written over the years." It's certainly briskly no-nonsense, but when, I tease, are you going to give us the frank, unexpurgated version? "It is, it couldn't be much franker, could it?" she contraltos before recognising the irony with giggling recovery.

"Actually, I've had great contretemps with the publishers because I gather everyone was sent out the original ms, from which I've cut quite a lot because I thought it was unkind and sounded slightly bitter and victimish ..."

You've jotted it all down with a right time, right place dismissiveness but there's more to it than that ... "Yes," she agrees, then chortles softly. "Yes."

After a contemplative pause, I press the please explains. "Which bit are we talking about?" Let's start with the early days, after Aunts. That was was a memoir about growing up ... "Yes, but it wasn't really about me ... and that's why I was reluctant to write this one because I felt it might be pretentious, I've not done anything in my life."

Au contraire, I interpolate on cue, many thousands would disagree ... "Well, perhaps, but I don't feel I have anything to say - really it was meant to be about other people." There is a deMillean cast passing by. "Many lives, really." And your many lives too? "I suppose so." Perhaps it should be called An Accidental Memoir ... "That's what I wanted to call it, and I had such fights with my publishers over titles. This one was born of desperation, and compromise. But that's what it was, an accidental life ..."

And involved, intriguing and far from the suburban norm. "Well, you know what David Storey said, well you don't but I shall tell you, he said 'abroad is for people with no imagination'." And you agree? "I don't because I love going places, but I know exactly what he means. Just going somewhere doesn't change your interior." But it possibly exposes you to realising what is that interior ... "That's right, that's right," she approves in tones that timewarp me back into Sister Claire's Year Six clutches.

After the lively freedoms of Sydney's 'good war', it was probably a good move to miss the 50s in Australia, I change tack. "Probably, and I also missed the 60s, 70s - I didn't even visit for 35 years so when I first went back it was a real culture shock, I can tell you." And now? You sound very English ... "Well I'm not, I feel very Australian. In my heart I am totally Australian. But in one of the paragraphs I cut in the prologue because I thought 'oh golly that's just all about me', I talked about roots, and I said until I went back the first time with John Osborne, I had no idea I was rootless. I thought I was rooted in Europe, and that was it.

"The minute I returned it flooded over me how deeply Australian I was and how in some ways I regretted leaving because then you realise you are forever after torn in two. That's how I still feel - the major part of my life is in England - my home, my work, my husband, my children were born here - but since my son has emigrated to Australia and since I started making movies there, I feel deeply that I need to return every year."

Let's talk about your brilliant career ... "I am actually a fairly careless individual ..." A driven, careless individual? "What am I driven by?" To get the task done perhaps? "I hate ambition, I think it's one of the seven deadly sins, never had any in my entire life. But I do have the wish to do whatever I am doing well. Doesn't mean this is going to lead to that and that's want I want to be ... Can't bear that. But when you are doing something, it has to be interesting and you have to want to do it as well as you can."

So why give up the literary agency after 25 years? "It was always intense, often fun, sometimes creative - I did give some of my very famous clients ideas for plays and books. And doing the deals was wonderful, one was able to change people's lives and they nearly all became my best friends. (But) I was never outside the reach of a telephone - I could never take a holiday without guilt. And I very badly wanted to see one particular book made into a movie, Madame Sousatzka, which no one was taking up. I believed in it so much I thought 'I'm bloody well going to buy this myself'. That's what really pushed me into producing."

Looking back, you must feel lucky in the characters who have peopled your life ... "Oh yes, I am very, very, very lucky to have had the friends I've had - I really do think, gosh, what a wonderful life I've had. And I feel for all the people who haven't, and I wonder what have I done to deserve this. Nothing, really. If you believe in reincarnation, I must have been pretty good in my last life. And I'm terrified of what the next one will be.''

She laughs broadly. "Haven't been so good in this one."

That of course is a matter of judgement and incidental, especially when ''not so good'' makes such great copy.

This article was first published in The Weekend Australian.

Copyright Murray Waldren 1998

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