I was fortunate enough to be stuck in the same airport terminal with Germaine Greer. So we got to talking, about rape, about gender and about giving up.
Doing as best I could to return home to Melbourne after a fortnight in London, circumstances had me holed up at Heathrow airport for the better part of a day while the airline tried to find the keys to the plane. They couldn’t; it took 18 hours. In the interim, I happened upon Germaine Greer, stuck in similar circumstances. With time on our side and the airline lounge offering free-flowing food and drink, we started chatting. Her new book, On Rape, was off-limits as a topic of conversation given contractual obligations to other outlets, but everything else was on the table.
Nearby, one of our fellow travellers was having a cocktail with an ice cube made of Aperol. Germaine thought it was a good laxative based on the Italian origins of the word. Our fellow traveller disagreed. That’s where the conversation began. It went on from there.
Sunday, September 2nd, 2018. In the Qantas lounge. What does “Aperol” mean?
(Laughing) I think it means “laxative”.
What makes you say that?
It “opens” you. You see, in Italy there’s a thing about eating and drinking various things after meals. They’re not bitters. The Germans do it too. In most European countries they have herbal distillations…what do they call them? I used to make them…tinctures. And so, these are drunk, “Fernet-Branca”, there are moments that you hanker for a friendly Fernet-Branca, which cleans out your system, gets rid of the half-digested food and whatnot. That’s the idea. And Aperol is one of these.
I’m not sure. Limoncello is a bit odd, in that I know it’s only sold to tourists. It might still have beneficial properties.
It’s my understanding that if you’re not sure you’re going to have a hangover but want to guarantee one? Have some Limoncello.
That, and the creamy ones. You order a cocksucking cowboy, that’ll guarantee a hangover.
A “cocksucking cowboy”?
I had one about 20 years ago and haven’t had one since.
And it went through you like a dose of salts.
Not really, just gave me an all-time Top 5 hangover. It’s butterscotch schnapps and Baileys. When you get to that point of the evening where someone’s ordering them…
Things have gotten off the rails. Now in Italy, normally, you’d take an aperitif before dinner. And that would be Martini Blanco, or whatever, and that was meant to sharpen your appetite, the assumption being that you were jaded and tired and bored, and the assumption being that it would “wake up” your taste buds and make you more interested in dinner. Then when you get to the end of dinner, you’d have your bitters, your digestivo. And my friend Barry Humphries used to put a note on the lavatory door for people who were staying with him, “There are moments when you hanker for a friendly Fernet-Branca”. That was when he was still drinking.
It’s been a while, hasn’t it?
A very long time ago. Now he’s really dreadful, in that you tell him you’re having trouble with alcohol and he’s on your doorstep. And he’ll take you through the 12 steps. Because he thinks it saved him from an ignominious extinction of drunk.
It didn’t save him from speaking his mind, though. He’s found himself amid some online outrage from his statement about Caitlyn Jenner. (Humphries gave a recent interview where he said that Caitlyn Jenner was nothing more than “a mutilated man”.)
(Laughs) Well, yes, but that’s no biggie. I mean, Caitlyn Jenner is no more of a woman than you are. I did a show with her recently. She came in to the make up room, and there she is, head and shoulders above everyone else in the room. She’s huge. Great big hands, great big feet. She’s huge. Big shoes.
I have big hands, big feet. Large shoes.
Well, that’s proper. That’s what you grew because you have…
Good Irish stock.
…an XY chromosome.
Yes, that old thing. But it was quite funny. I like her because she’s tough an funny. But she’s also destructive and bitter. I don’t think she needed to hurt Kris as much as she did. Saying their life was fake. I mean, why? Why do that?
You don’t get publicity by saying everything’s fine.
Yes, but how much publicity does she need? And all these grim performances where she shows up with the hair extensions and the false eye lashes. It’s grotesque. If you met her in the toilet as a girl, you’d scream.
I saw a photo of her at an awards ceremony with what the publicist is saying is her girlfriend, and this girl was 21 or something. I just…
So she’s not only a woman, she’s a gay woman?
Well, why stop there? Why not… I’m not interested. I don’t care. I’m quite interested in the Kardashians, but from an odd angle, they are Armenian. That’s a very interesting inheritance. Their father, Robert, the lawyer, they are very Armenian, in terms of their body types and the way they come across. And they are expert retailers, that’s what they can do. They can sell anything. They’ll sell shit and get it for a winning price.
They can, and do. World-class fellatrices as far as I can tell, as well.
I’m interested in how they stay one step ahead of the market.
I saw an interview with the actress Jameela Jamil; she took umbrage with the Kardashians saying they were “double agents of the patriarchy”. Her concern was they were selling this fake image of what an aspirational figure should be for young girls and women, the endorsement deals they get which apparently include these lollypops with are supposedly appetite suppressants, and the message this kind of thing is sending to the legion of young girls who seem to follow their every move. Now, I don’t have enough wattage to comment, I don’t pay close enough attention to it all.
Neither do I. I do watch Kris Jenner, because what was dealt out to her by Caitlyn Jenner was shocking. And the daughters were angry. And they never got through to him. I mean, her. What I mean is, was it necessary to strip her like that? Where does the anger come from?
I think it’s all for show.
I don’t think it’s all for show. When she came into that makeup room, she demanded that she have the room to herself and have the makeup done all over again.
Probably hadn’t shaved that morning.
Well, that’s mean. I don’t think there was any five o’clock shadow. But it was insecure and weird. What was off was that they’d paid all this money for her to be there; they’d paid a little bit of money for me to be there. So that meant I couldn’t say anything.
What was the event?
It was a sort of love-in between the transgender, inter gender, fuck gender… All that. And I was coming along as someone who thinks that women are real. That their lives are difficult. And that they (trans women) are just cancelling that out, that it’s optional, which they bloody aren’t! When you start bleeding as a 12-year old, there it is. That’s who you are. It doesn’t smell nice, it doesn’t feel nice, and it hurts a lot of the time. Why does it hurt? We don’t know. Why don’t we know? Because we don’t care. If we really wanted to know why so many women struggle with menstruation, we’d have found out. We’ve now found out to cure AIDS, how to keep people alive. We’d found these things out within weeks of being shown that there was this new kind of disease. But when it comes to women losing babies in the seventh month of pregnancy, when they die in utero? No answers! Try again, darling. One of these days a woman’s going to shoot one of these people who says “Never mind, darling, you’re producing more eggs, just have another one.” I’ve been pregnant for seven months, and here you’ve given me my baby, and it’s a corpse. What can you do to make that up to me? “Oh, nothing, just try again.”
If men could get pregnant, this wouldn’t be an issue?
How stupid do you think men are?
Oh, we can get there.
But they’re not going to want to get pregnant. They haven’t made a move in that direction. They’re prepared to adopt. They’re prepared to send their semen in all directions, but they always were. But there’s nothing new about that. But are they really going to go through with all of it? Are they going to push it out between their legs? No…
I think there are some impediments there to making it happen.
Not many. I think there are a few cartilages in the way, but you can get rid of them. It’s all crackers, really. We haven’t made being a woman rewarding enough, to be entitled now to ditch it and say men can do it now. And I say, of course, men make better women than women do. It was always their idea. Wanted people who didn’t menstruate, yay, there they are. They wanted broader shoulders to hold up the designer clothes, and that’s what they’ve got. They’ve got their own shoulders. Everything else is doable. They understand men’s sexuality. They know what it is men want. We’ve been told that again and again. Prostitutes in South America have cocks and tits. Great, if that’s what gets you rolling. But when it comes to being a woman, you’re actually listening to a completely different… mood. A different throb to your life. And you’re trying to keep it clean. Motherhood is a completely absorbing relationship, but you can’t want to fuck your kid.
Best not to.
Not even “best not to”. You actually don’t. You love this child and you fear for this child. And here I am fighting my cause about rape. You’ve got all these men who you want to send away for 10 years, they’ve got mothers. This, for them, is heartbreak. Mothers are in love with their sons in a way they’re not with their daughters. This is miserable, we’d rather it was not the case, but women are more heterosexual than men. Men like men better than women like women. Just a fact. We may get over it, we may get better at it, we may become more interested in each other, but right now, we’re not. And then you learn that your son has gone to a May Ball, got pissed, ended up in bed with a girl, and she’s said he raped her. He’s not even sure he’s had sex with her. He was pissed as a newt. And so was she. 10 years? Nine years? They never serve the whole sentence because it’s obviously ridiculous. My mother, she was quite a character. My brother was accused of being the father of the child of some adolescent girl in the neighbourhood. My mother went straight down to the police station and made their lives such hell they forgot the whole thing. She wouldn’t let her son get drawn in to all that.
How long ago was all this?
Well, I’m 80; my brother’s 70, so that’s how long ago that was. You know how it was, they can say he was a bit young a bit stupid, we can say this happened. But then, in came Peggy Greer, and the whole thing fell in a heap. She wasn’t having that happen to her son. She just wasn’t going to. She told a lot of lies about her son, like it was her first orgasm giving birth to him. Yada yada, yes mum.
(Pause) That’s a lot to take in.
Well, it’s the mess we’re in, sexually. We don’t know what we’re doing. Why do 46% of women – these aren’t my figures, by the way – why do they say they fake orgasm every time they have sex?
It’s to get it over with. Otherwise he’s going to keep plugging away til he can get you off. And it’s not going to happen because you’ve been bored since the first five minutes. So what’s he thinking of doing? Some thing new, something different? No! He knows what he’s doing, he’s been doing it since he was 12. And in this case he’s doing it inside you. Well, thanks a lot. We’re in a mess. And the more we make our culture a sexual culture, the worse it’s going to get.
How do we upend that?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t know; I don’t have that answer. If we’re going to agree… this is what’s hard: the Istanbul Convention, which was partly drafted by the British participants in the conference – years ago now, 2014 or so – said that “all non-consensual sex is rape”. Now, if you’re going to promulgate that as being true, then you’re up shit creek without a paddle. Because most of the sex being had in our suburban streets is non-consensual. No-one’s asking…
It’s relented to?
Oh, let me go to sleep, I’ve got the kids to get up in the morning. And if I don’t let you fall about, tomorrow, you’ll be so ill-tempered, I’d not dare speak to you. Relationships are made like that. He’s got the power, he’s got the desire, and you’re tired. And this way, it’s like, all right, at least I’ll get some sleep before I’ve got to get up, get the kids ready, blah blah blah, you wonder why people get married, have children… And one of the things that suffers is their sexual attraction to one another. I can’t believe people are still having babies. It’s so courageous and so mad. You really are buying into the unknown. Imagine experiencing more pain than you ever thought possible. I have a member of my family who has an inherited syndrome, we think, and he was I believe high on the autistic spectrum. And he became a danger to himself and others, and I can remember saying to my sister, “Has anyone ever made you suffer more than he has?” and the tears just rained down her face. She had done everything for him. The interesting thing is she won, he’s not in jail, he hasn’t killed anyone. He’s got a son who’s exactly like him, has this genetic syndrome, and is out of jail. But when I think about how she’s suffered, it breaks my heart.
But she has another son, who is the complete opposite. And he has this girlfriend who he’s had since they were 16; he’s Dan and she’s Dani. And they’re in their thirties now and only just realised that they’re not good for each other, so they think, “Oh fuck we’re going to have to do something, let’s get married.”
Doesn’t sound like the smartest move.
She works for a very famous firm. And she wanted to make him jealous, so she fucked her boss. And that was the end of it. She’s now had a baby to the boss. The difference there is that the boss is over the moon, he never thought he’d be a parent.
I’m ill-prepared coming into this interview, so no background research, but…do you have children?
No. I thought I’d like a child once, and then I realised I was probably becoming neurotic about it. And when IVF came up, I thought, there’s a marker that says, “From here in, that’s crazy.” Stop. And my godchild, Hannah, lost a baby in the seventh month, which was dreadful. She and her husband struggled for years to have a baby. Seven years, it took them.
I saw on the ABC a special you did where you went back to Cambridge. I went to a university in Perth that was designed and built in the 1960s in the brutalist school. So it was interesting to recently visit the Kings College Cathedral, which was commissioned by Henry IV. Did you like being part of that history?
I’ve always described Cambridge as a clergyman’s wet dream. None of it is genuine, it’s s all fake. All the gothic architecture is fake, it’s from the 19th century. I remember the great quote someone said when they were being shown around Kings College, “C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas la gare”, meaning, “It’s very beautiful, but it’s not the station.” Do I love Cambridge? No. Do I love academe? No. They’re some of the worst people I’ve ever met. They’re the most envious, the most craven, the most negative. Envious of their own students, insecure. Short-dicked, fat-arsed white men. I love what we do, what we did. But there was this ridiculous behaviour. When I was first at Cambridge as an undergraduate, you meet the same people over, and over again. The next day, in the street, they don’t recognise you. And you really begin to think, “I am a faceless nobody.” Then you get a part in the Footlights Review, and suddenly people you’ve never met are saying hello. What is wrong with people that they’re so insincere, that they can be so cloying and eager for a position in the spotlight? Fuck off, go away.
I’m reading a couple of books at the moment, that have similar overall themes. One’s about John Belushi, the other is about Peter Cook. The thesis there is that here we have a couple of guys who peaked too soon. Were you friendly, familiar with Peter Cook?
We were never on the same show at the same time, but we were friends. And we had the odd ridiculous banter. But Peter was a genius.
Yes, I’m quite convinced of that. I was at dinner the other night and showed everyone the “Birds and the Bees” sketch with Dudley Moore from Not Only But Also. And it’s a perfectly timed thing. But that’s the big takeaway from this book, that after 1971 there was not a lot for him to put his name on.
He was a drunk. He was self-deceiving to a certain degree. I respected him as a comic genius. He was metaphysical, and his humour was totally mad. His work crossed every conceivable boundary. Every conceptual safety lock, he undid and mixed things all up together. So you had the mad CD of Derek and Clive. It’s obscenity taken to a pure art form. I find it absolutely exciting and invigorating. I was there when the police raided it. We were filming in Soho and the police came, there was the stuff with the blow up dolls. It was a mockery of sexual myopia, really. That sex is really important? It isn’t. Love might be important. A love affair is important. A great love affair is important. Passion is important. The love of your children is important. But fucking? Surely, it’s totally banal. And the only way to make it interesting is to dress up – it would appear, after Fifty Shades of Gray, that it’s become even greyer – I’m not fuckin’ dressing up, I’ve been working all day! Dress up yourself. Fuck yourself, if it comes to that.
I’ve not read any of them. From what I’ve heard, they’re total arse gravy.
Yes, but you see, this is the problem, really. One of my problems in talking about rape is going to be, “What is sex, exactly?” Why are certain activities sexual activities and other activities aren’t? How do you work it out? I think doing it with your cock is a pretty good indicator. Involving the genitals of someone else is another good indicator.
That’s a good baseline to start with.
What about doing it with a bottle?
I’d rather not.
What about a broom handle?
Again, not really, but to each their own.
But at what point does assault become sexual assault? Because then the rules change. At some point, you might find yourself in some hopelessly fucked up encounter with a woman and you find yourself in court, you don’t even know what they’re going to charge you with. They have these new categories; “sexual assault without penetration”, what’s that? What was I doing then? So then we have “sexual assault *with* penetration”. So it was before and after my finger went in. What? It’s all rubbish! And when you think the lawyers sit around and make up these ridiculous categories, you just want them to stop. Stop that now. But we have to work it out, because it’s damaging. There are dangerous men out there and we’re not catching them. We’re not stopping them. We don’t make any attempt to find them. We’ve got all these unexamined rape kits. If we examined them all, and recorded where the DNA is identical, we’d know we had a group of predators, some of who are responsible for three, six, eight, nine offences – find them! You’ve got what you need, get going, because they will continue to offend, they’ll do a lot of damage, psychologically and in every other way, and they may end up being murderers, because the way they work, they’re misogynist to the point where it becomes pathological. And you should be scared of them. But they – and this is where the feminists come screaming in my face – I was raped by a man who was trying very hard to hurt me. And I was thinking, “What happened to your sexology? What makes you think you can use your cock this way? What do you think you’re doing? You poor bastard” And I thought they treated him like a mad dog, because he was so out of control. But I couldn’t do it because I was a runaway from home, I was living in a house with four men, and they would have ripped me to pieces. He was a private school boy, a rugby player…and I still think we should have stopped him. He would have done more damage. But to me, and this is where feminists want to rip my head off, to me it was very clear, that he had been badly damaged. For you to be that far removed from your own sexual impulses… Horrible.
I wasn’t even frightened. This stupid bloody Naomi Woolf today getting stuck into me. Very funny, I’m told she said about me “She’s never had a thought that was her own.” Yes, yes, carry on, Naomi. But her idea that we should be hunting the offender, and nailing him to the mast; that we shouldn’t feel sorry for the offender? We shouldn’t feel sorry for the rapist? As long as we think in punitive terms, we’ll get nowhere. Because they won’t work. They’ve failed. And they’ve failed for a very simple reason: he, the defendant in the dock up there, he has to believe, that you consented. He may not believe it, but he can go on saying it, and there’s no one to dispute it.
You referred to feminists like it was “they”. I’d have thought it’s a mantle you’d embrace.
No, I’m a feminist.
Of course. But you speak of feminists as though they’re a “they”.
If I was Irish I could refer to the Irish as “them”.
OK. So you’re not riding the third wave?
It’s a stupid wave. I just want to engage with the problem. There’s a thing in the United States I find very interesting called “The Innocence Project”. And that has been joined by a young man who was involved in a horrible case. There was a group of basketball players who had a party, and they invited these two prostitutes who were already high on a combination of this, that and the other. It got a bit nasty, and they got done, and it split in half: so there’s a bunch who believe that the women are innocent, and another bunch who believe that the men are innocent. One of them, who was probably doing law, joined this Innocence Project, and their self-imposed task is to find out how many men have been wrongfully convicted in the United States. If you look them up online, it’s a great, long list and it’s all documented there. They found an extraordinary number of cases where a sexual assault element was in the case, then wrongfully convicted, even with wrong DNA, wrong details, wrong fingerprints. And they looked back on it and discovered that 70% of the men wrongfully convicted of sexual assault came from racial minorities. Quelle surprise. If you’re a white man with a decent education, there’s no way you’ll get done for it. No way in the world. But if you’re an illegal migrant, you are homeless, living in Ramsgate, which is what happened in a recent case, and you grab a girl, it’s 2am and there are no street lights on… She screams and screams and people come out of their houses a few yards away. She then turns up at home – her mother’s a magistrate, which is the luck of the draw, I guess – she says, “No, you’re off to the police, here we go,” and she’s got the work done, is scraped. And he pleads guilty. This is so terrible. He pleads guilty to attempted rape, and he’s also done for sexual assault without penetration, as well as sexual assault with penetration. And if he understands that, he’s a better man than I am because I don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. What’s he supposed to have done? And she took a video of it. She showed him the camera, saying “Look! Look! Look!” As he kept on doing whatever it was he was doing. And she said, “I decided he was a nutter,” which is correct, probably. But why did nobody pay attention to that? You’re not supposed to go to jail if you’re insane. This man is a homeless migrant. Been here for 11 years, only had a permit for one. He’d been working as a delivery man for Bangladeshi shop owners, so what do you think the chances are we’ve got an issue with slavery here? What do you reckon? Does anybody ask? Does anybody care?
What are the chances that this man grabbed her because he was sleeping probably on a dirty mat in the restaurant under the sink? Then he thinks, I know what I’ll do, I just grab someone. Then I’ll get their attention, and then I’ll have a roof over my head, and some medical treatment. How about that? Then he’ll have someone look after him. The piece of video she shot was 90 seconds long. And you know what he got? He got nine years. Plus four and a half years on license, after that, and deportation to Bangladesh. I cannot believe that it is not a gross miscarriage of justice. Is anybody working on it? Does anybody give a shit?
Now, in the case of the man who raped me, all I could think was, “Somebody’s done something to him when he was a little boy, otherwise why is he using his cock, which is an object of pleasure to him and conceivably to me, why is this happening?” I did think they’d kill him. I knew he’d offend again because of the way he’d offended with me. And he did offend again, and I was going to give evidence in court and say that this man was a repeat offender, he needs help and if you don’t help him he’s going to be a danger. But what happened was that the woman in the case, I was asked to give evidence where an engaged girl had gone to a party with her fiancee, and they needed booze. So the boyfriend went to get the booze and so this other guy took her to the party. And he’s so out of it, he raped her on the way to the party. There was no way he’d get away with it, and they came to me and said, “Will you give evidence?” and I said of course, because it should be known that this man was a repeat offender and was very dangerous. She couldn’t go through with it. They were going to get married and it was all too much.
But it goes back to this stupid Beauty Myth person (Naomi Woolf) today. She said that she was raped when she was seven. The babysitter. Excuse me, but hard cases make bad law. We can’t make a sexual system of ethics based on hard cases of dreadful, simply awful behaviour. They’re too hard, I mean of course, she was only a baby. And he was the babysitter. You’d want to take the parents out and bang their heads together. Why would you have a teenage boy looking after a 7-year old girl? Anyway, she said she was afraid that he would kill her. Really? I knew when it happened to me I wasn’t getting killed, I was getting raped. You can’t kill me with your cock. It’s a bit hard. I’m trying to twist this whole thing and turn it on its head. There’s a disjunct between what’s going on and this dreadful crime committed by these dreadful people. I would argue that yes, there are dangerous people out there, and you should be finding them, they generally leave a pretty wide trail. You should be able to find them. For example, when you have young women putting their rape narratives into college websites, that gives you what you need – now get going! Find them and treat them. Now, in the old days, in the ’50s and ’60s, we did talk about treating rapists. We wanted to find out what was wrong. What had actually gone on to turn it into a weapon, and an instrument of bitter misogyny? How do we walk into that? What have we done?
It baffles me, the act itself. I’m not a criminologist.
You don’t even have to be one. Misogyny is real. There are lots of men who hate women. And there are lots of men who hate their own sexuality.
Deep exhale. Things got a trifle grim for a quiet afternoon in the lounge.
So. Been to the movies lately?
I don’t go. They make me watch things I don’t want to have in my head.
Like females’ bodies melting and catching fire. Skeletons appearing. Well, even from Le Chien Andalou, the cutting the eyeball in half. Think I gave up around about then, really.
You gave up in the ’20s?
Wrong topic, then.
No, I can’t be doing that. When I was little, I remember being in town with my grandmother, and somebody ran over a pedestrian. My grandmother beetled across Swanston Street, with me saying, “Where are you going?” And she said, “To see the accident!” And I said “Yes, you don’t want to see that, do you? You want that in your head?” And I’m pulling her back to the pavement. She would have thought, what a wimp of a grandchild I’ve got. I just didn’t want the imagery. I don’t want the imagery of Star Wars, or any of it. I think it’s all shit.
The conversation turned to animals, and how I missed my cat, and how she preferred dogs. And how she managed to do herself some damage by falling down some stairs, rendering her literally black and blue. The flight delay caused her to miss the first stage appearance in promotion of her book, but she was seemingly unperturbed by the seriousness of the injuries she’d suffered.
Later, we all got shuffled into an airport hotel and a restaurant with poor quality food and no drinks. The plane took off 18 hours later, and when we eventually parted company, she wished me a pleasant onward journey.
I didn’t ask her why she misspelled “unique” on her first book title. Maybe next time…