Bet Briggs
[ Issue 31 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Bet Briggs' many fans

Bikwil is proud to feature Bet Briggs

Bet Briggs

This is the first of our occasional Meet a Quiet Enthusiast articles.  Here we get to know long-time Bikwil contributor Bet Briggs.

When I first heard Debussyís Clair de Lune, for example, I was ironing and listening to the radio and on came Andre Kostelanetzí orchestra playing this beautiful piece. I stood as though pinned to the floor, hardly breathing, my scalp prickling at those delicious lush sounds of strings and horns cascading. It was like standing in falling moonlight.

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Meet a Quiet Enthusiast

[ No. 1: A Conversation with Bet Briggs ]


Tony Rogers: You have been a contributor to Bikwil since its inception, Bet. What attracted you to the idea of writing for Bikwil?

Bet Briggs: Thatís easy to answer, Tony. Being encouraged to write about my enthusiasms and to have an outlet for expressing them appealed to me. I remember a day in 1996 you and Ellie visited me, and over lunch or afternoon tea we talked excitedly about having a little magazine where we could express our interests and enthusiasms ó our eccentricities if you like ó and invite others to do the same. I donít think the name Bikwil was born that day. But we did discuss the notion of encouraging ďquiet enthusiasmsĒ. I think we talked about the essay, too, as an excellent form for exploring ideas and all the topics of interest to us, and one we could feature in the magazine. My contribution to the first issue, however, wasnít an essay. Instead, I wrote the small poem Go, Little Bikwil as a send-off for our modest creation. Iíve been pleased and privileged to be a contributor of both poetry and prose ever since and hope to continue now weíre starting our sixth year.

TR: Much of your work for Bikwil is poetry. How long have you been writing poetry?

BB: Close to sixty years. Iíve kept some of my juvenile poems and the first of them Iíve noted as my ďfirst poem written 1943Ē. In May that year I was 12. I was dabbling with stories and poetry before that, though. When I got the urge to write the poem and how long it took me I canít say precisely. I couldíve started it and finished it in a day or two or taken much longer. Thatís the way Iíve always worked, get an idea, work on it while itís fresh and create a poem in a short time, or take weeks or months. Sometimes years. Itís important to write down an idea quickly when it comes or I lose it. You know what I mean, Tony. That ďfirst fine careless raptureĒ can be lost if attention isnít paid to it. Too often Iíve failed to be ďthe wise thrushĒ. I always have a notebook and pen with me. Any old scrap of paper comes in handy, too. Iíve got manila folders full of dated jottings. I donít know when or whether any of them will grow into a poem or simply end up as compost for something to grow in the garden.

TR: Speaking of gardens, many of your poems have been about the natural world, havenít they? You obviously have an affinity with nature, particularly trees.

BB: Yes, the natural world inspires me. That first poem of mine was called Nightfall. It was an imagined response to the coming of night in the bush. I didnít write it from experience. If I have an affinity with nature it hasnít come from a background of living intimately with it. I was born and grew up in Newcastle. In my young years it was a smoky, grubby industrial city because of the Steel Works. Not that that troubled me much. Newcastle was home and the world to me then. Not far from our house in New Lambton was The Park as we called it. It was more like a chain of big paddocks and a few horses grazed there. The ocean was a tram ride away and Newcastleís beaches and coastal scenery were, still are spectacular and beautiful. Sometimes on a Sunday Dad would take us for a drive into the Hunter Valley, up round the coal towns and the dairy farms and vineyards. Once we went to Watagan Mountain near Cessnock and drove through the rain forest, probably my first experience of one. Some early poems came out of my experiences of those Sunday drives. The valley landscape was so beautiful and awesome. It nourished my sense of wonder which Iím pleased to say Iíve never lost. I left Newcastle in 1964 and came to work and live in Sydney. Iíve seen more of Australia and the world since and love the beauty and grandeur of it all. Sometimes I try for a poem. Sometimes it comes.

For as long as I can remember Iíve loved trees. Just the look of them in groups or a forest or one alone is awe-inspiring.

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree . . .

I love that poem and the song. I grew up hearing John Charles Thomas singing Trees. Dad sang it well, too. He had a lovely voice and Mum accompanied him on the piano. Come to think of it, Iíve written quite a few poems about trees. The second poem in my folder of juvenile poems was called Trees in Winter. That was written in 1944. While I was in hospital in 1947 I used to observe a tree outside the ward window. It was a great comfort to me to see its daily moods and I wrote To a Tree in praise. Iíll go on writing poems about them and praising them.

TR: Where else has your poetry or prose been published?

BB: Apart from Bikwil I contributed a few articles and poems to the Sydney Jazz Clubís Quarterly Rag from 1988 to 1994 and a book review to Jazzchord in 1997. Then a couple of years ago I was invited to contribute an essay to a book in honour of Dame Leonie Kramer. I was her research assistant from 1972 to 1986 during her time as Professor of Australian Literature, so I wrote about my experiences of working with her and the projects we shared. I called my essay A Serious Game: Reflections on Being a Literary Sleuth. The book came out in May last year.

Iím a late starter in the publishing stakes, Tony, on a regular basis, that is. When I was younger I was reluctant to push my work, not confident enough, to be honest, to put it to the test. I did dare on a few occasions. I could count the number of times and the number of successes or failures on one hand. In 1949 I sent a story to The Sun, got it back some months later in 1950, with a rejection slip and a handwritten note. I appreciated the note. It was encouraging and I learned from it. Maybe in an odd way it even boosted my confidence. I never stopped writing. The first piece I actually had published was a poem called The Open Road in The Masonic Club Journal in 1950. Nothing more till 1962 when I was an undergraduate at Newcastle University College. I contributed a short story called Spring Tide to the first issue of Nimrod, the Studentsí Association literary magazine. Years later again, in 1975 while working for Prof., I wrote a light-hearted account of my work with her, a forerunner, but unlike it in tone, of that most recent essay. I called my first effort Notes from a Literary Sleuthís Casebook. It was published in the first issue of a small magazine originating in the English Department at Sydney University: new literature review.

These days I enjoy being a regular contributor to Bikwil. It gives me confidence to see my work in print and makes me try harder to be a better writer.

TR: How important is music and its affect on you?

BB: Youíre a music lover and musician, Tony, so you'll understand when I say if I had to live without music Iíd feel very deprived and diminished. Music has always been part of my life. As I said before, Mum and Dad were musical. Dad played sax and clarinet professionally and he sang beautifully. Mum played the piano well and was a very good accompanist. My sister Carolyn inherited those skills, developed both by study and experience, and, today, sheís a talented pianist.

I always wanted to play the violin but I never did learn. I started on piano when I was 12. I love the piano but I never became proficient enough. Too many stops and starts in my learning over the years. In the 1950s though, while I was working as a laundress at Newcastle Hospital I went to the Conservatorium for three years for piano lessons and also studied harmony and form and history of music. But I let it slip away from me again. I regret that. Still, it wasnít all lost. It helped me to understand and appreciate more fully what Iím hearing. There have been many times when Iíve been profoundly moved. I think I could write a book of ďMemorable MomentsĒ. When I first heard Debussyís Clair de Lune, for example, I was ironing and listening to the radio and on came Andre Kostelanetzí orchestra playing this beautiful piece. I stood as though pinned to the floor, hardly breathing, my scalp prickling at those delicious lush sounds of strings and horns cascading. It was like standing in falling moonlight. When I found out later it was written for piano I bought a copy and tried to play it. Not very successfully. Technically I wasnít good enough. But it was a pleasure to try to reproduce the chords and notes accurately and to hear those lovely progressions of harmony. And I can always hear it played by a good pianist. Recently, earlier this year I heard it played solo by a Japanese harpist. It was beautiful! I still have the Kostelanetz LP, too.

Whenever I feel that prickle of my scalp, the shiver up my spine, the lump in my throat and tears in my eyes, and the hairs on my arms standing up, I know Iím hearing something special. Music is a great comfort in my life and an inspiration for writing poetry. I couldnít be without either.

TR: You have worked in various jobs, havenít you? Could you tell our readers something more about your career?

BB: Iíve had six jobs in my working life. When I left Newcastle Girlsí High School prematurely at 15, I went to business college to learn typing, shorthand and bookkeeping so I could get an office job. I only lasted a month at the college. I couldnít stand it. I learned enough of typing to get me by, but not to get a job.

My working life actually began on my 17th birthday. I started as a probationer nurse at Wallsend Hospital. Just six months after Iíd been there as a patient. But I only lasted one year. It counted for nothing had I gone on. Training actually started at 18 so Iíd have had to start all over again. I realised I wasnít cut out for the job so that was the end of my Nightingale experiment. I left the lamp behind and went home to Mum and Dad.

After that I was a spinner in a cotton mill, a pretty awful job, noisy, monotonous, walking up and down tending this monster of a machine and getting fine fluff in my hair and throat and up my nose. I had enough after 18 months. In 1953 I began working in the laundry at Royal Newcastle Hospital. I stuck that for about six years. It was hard physical work, didnít do much for the mind, but I managed to get my stimulation by taking up music again. I was keen, too. I used to pedal from the hospital to the Con., about ten minutes away, in my lunch hour. How I ever expected to play the piano properly after gripping the handlebars of my bike and racing through the traffic to get there and back to work on time, Iíve wondered about often. I must have been nuts. If I didnít go far with the playing I did complete the theoretical study. So there was gain as well as loss when I gave it away again. And I gave it up because I decided to go back to school in 1959, to night school five nights a week to get the Leaving Certificate. I finally gave the laundry up, too, not long before the exam. When I got the Leaving with a modest pass in five subjects I knew I couldnít stop there. I was 28 with no job prospects at that level of education. So I went on to university and did a Bachelor of Arts Degree. After graduation I began what I could call me professional career when I came to Sydney in 1964 to work at the State Library. I was there for four years, learned some new skills, like indexing and doing research for people who sent in requests for information on all sorts of topics. I liked that very much and the indexing, too. It fitted me for my next job.

In 1969 I became an editorial assistant in a publishing firm (CCH Australia). I learned copy holding, proofreading and more indexing skills. This time it was tax and business law I had to index, a daunting task for someone without the slightest bit of knowledge of law in any form. Somehow I managed it for three years.

Finally I got the job, my longest and my last, as Prof. K.ís research assistant for 14 years until I retired in 1986. Things Iíd learned in some of my other jobs were good groundwork for my job with Prof. I compiled bibliographies, indexed some books, maintained a huge card index on literary and other subjects and researched enquiries people sent in to Prof. I worked with her on so many interesting literary subjects for talks, conference papers, lectures, essays and books she was engaged in. For me it was a further education and it helped me to become a seasoned literary sleuth.

Bikwil has played an important part as well.

[ This interview will be concluded in the next issue. ]

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