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Letters to Lilburn interviews [AI Text]

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We are at, um, Victoria University, Wellington today, um, on this, on this 100th birthday. Um, and we are here to launch a book. For Douglass's Centenary, and also to give him something of a last hurrah because when we were, uh, when he died in August, 2020, no one could go to his funeral. He, he died completely. Uh, he was buried completely un [00:00:30] applauded, I suppose you'd say. So we thought that this might be a good opportunity. Um, I'm his biographer. Also his niece. Uh, in 2018, I published his, um, his biography and then realized that there was more work to do, um, describing paintings in public collections in New Zealand, which is what I've been doing for the last three years. And, um, and finding a way of, um, representing Douglass for his [00:01:00] centenary. So that's what we're doing today. Um, and the paintings that you see on the walls in the cafe, Milk and Honey Cafe where the launches being held are from the local Victoria University collection and they're part of the McDermots Andary Art Trail. And, and we should say that the, the reason why, um, there couldn't have been a, a, a larger funeral service, um, at the time of Douglas's passing was, was cause of Covid. Yeah. Yes, that's exactly right. Um, we were unable to fly at the [00:01:30] time, so no member of family could go. And in fact, poor Patrick was so distraught, um, about Douglas dying, even though, even though it was expected, um, that no one went to his funeral, um, therefore we felt it was appropriate among his many followers, his friends, um, his family, that there'd be an occasion for them to, um, to pay their respects, um, and to celebrate his life and his work. That must have been incredibly hard at the time not to be able to go to the funeral. It was awful. I [00:02:00] felt as if I was, I had lost a limb or an, an arm, or a leg as, as a result of him dying and not to be able to go and give d give Patrick a hug, um, uh, say or do something for him. And, um, at the distance, I, I live in Australia almost as far away as New Zealand. And, um, I felt down about it for months. Um, and that, Um, it stilled my resolve to do something now. Um, and I'm very glad that we've been able to, [00:02:30] to pull this off. Now that Covid has abated somewhat, I'm sure it's gonna be an, an amazing, uh, amazing launch. Can you tell me, uh, about the, the, the book? What, what, what's in it? The book is a, it's a collation of extracts from letters and poems that Douglas Mc Diod. Wrote to Douglass Lilburn when I was researching the book. And then afterwards when I started transcribing Douglass's handwritten [00:03:00] letters, which are all in the Alexander Turnbull library. Um, I realized that Douglass wrote to hundreds of people, um, in the course of his life, but the most candid set of letters, the most raw content where he talked about what he was thinking, what he was feeling, how well or badly things were going, um, were not to his parents. Walter, his brother, my, my father, um, these were quite beautiful letters, but Doug Douglas Lilburn, who was his first great love and his lifelong friend thereafter, [00:03:30] and they wrote to one another from 1944 through to 2001. Um, and then Lilburn died within months of the last letter. And so Douglas Luborn saved all those letters. Douglass saved both. Douglass saved all their letters and gave them to the Alexander Turnbull. I think believing that one day they would be important. Um, and, uh, they, they had codicils on those letters to say that they couldn't be used in their [00:04:00] lifetimes. Um, and even now they can't be used without the permission of the chief librarian there. So they're somewhat restricted still. But, um, their view was that, um, they wanted their story told, otherwise they wouldn't have put them in the collection. So in their lifetime was their love known about among a certain small number of friends. Douglass never told his family, [00:04:30] his, his parents, or his brother, or any immediate family. This is Douglas mcd. Douglas mcd, sorry, Douglas mcd. Douglas mcd will call Douglas. Lilburn will call Lilburn. It's easier. Um, so Douglas mcd did never, never discussed his sexuality with his parents. They died not knowing he was bisexual, which is very sad. Um, and, um, he had reasons for that. He wanted to protect them basically from, from knowledge that would be, that would be a burden to them, they [00:05:00] felt. And also he didn't want to be pressured into trying to be not gay. Um, one of the rea main reasons he left New Zealand was simply because, um, his relationship with Douglas, with Douglas Lilburn was, Just was a burning passion for him. Um, Lilburn was a little bit more, um, circumspect because he was old, he was seven years older. Um, Douglass just wanted them to be, to be in a relationship. Um, he came back from overseas after three years away hoping that would happen. They were [00:05:30] talking in the letters about maybe setting up a country house somewhere. Um, they both had that desire, but strangely enough, it almost sends through the years that they were. Better people, better, better co communicators when by letter than they were actually in person, often in person. It got complicated, it got messy. They had to be careful in the beginning when he, uh, the early letters, Douglass wasn't allowed to sort of mention how, how much he was in love with Lilburn, but [00:06:00] they had an old exercise book that they would exchange between one and the other. With the heartfelt things they wanted to say. Um, and, uh, I found this all very p um, at the time they lived 700 meters apart and Douglass is as, as we say in the book, used to slip little letters and little poems under Lil Burn's door. Um, and, and it's, it's, it's beautiful. It's a beautiful story. Um, and it's a story that of its day is not generally told. Um, there's, to me, there's very little written, [00:06:30] um, in its day about. Um, people who were deeply in love, who happened to have the same, the same sex. So I, I felt it was a story that needed to be told. And to me, those particular letters were some of the more lyrical letters of, of Douglass's. He wrote different sorts of letters to everybody. He wrote to, he wrote to about a hundred people constantly. Um, but to Lil Burn, he was always open and honest. There was a great trust between them. They helped [00:07:00] one another creatively, they helped one another emotionally. Um, and that went on through their lives. They had arguments, they had fallings out. Lilburn was notoriously prickly. Um, he'd take umbrage at something that he thought that Douglass had said, and then there'd be, there'd be quite a series of letters. I, I read them in the Alexander Turnbull library, um, where, Lil Burn would be reefing off about something or other. And there's a set of, there's one particular set and, uh, he's, [00:07:30] he's put them in a folder and he's headed them a particularly bad stretch with Mc Diod. They, he never sent those letters. He wrote them, he saved them, but he didn't send them. And likewise, Douglass sometimes wrote to, um, to Lilburn in, in, in his diary. And those were his heartfelt thoughts that he was hoping would, would, would somehow by radar, I suppose, be transmitted. Um, but he couldn't put it on paper, so, so what is the year range that that's covered in the [00:08:00] book, in the letters? Um, the year range is 1944 to 2001. It's that whole, that whole period. Now, there were periods when there were, there were maybe a year would pass, uh, particularly when, um, when Lilburn was, um, was having one of his, he Hesi fits. Um, Douglass couldn't really understand a lot of those. And as they, as they got older and Lilburn got into electronic music and Douglass painted more abstract, um, art, they had, [00:08:30] uh, they agreed to disagree because, um, Douglas. Mc Diod adored Lil Burn's, classical work and his piano work. He hated the electronic music. Lil Burn just simply couldn't understand anything that was abstract and said it had no meaning for him. Oh, it's a, it's a mishmash of colors. That's very nice, but I don't want to own it, sort of thing. And one of the paintings on the wall in inside actually belonged to Lilburn and still hangs in the house that, [00:09:00] that, um, uh, musicians. Stay in. Um, and that was actually Douglas Lewin's home, uh, Escot Terrace. Escot Street. Yeah. Escot Terrace, yes. Yeah. So I'm, I'm just thinking for, for a long period of, of, of, of, of that time with, over the course of those letters, uh, a lot of the time, uh, Homosexual activity in New Zealand would've been illegal. So to actually document, um, homosexual feelings, um, is quite remarkable. That that was [00:09:30] one of the reasons I felt it was important to document that these letters were there for a purpose. Um, and I did discuss it with Douglas before he died, and his view was, hasn't enough been written about Lil Ben and myself? And I said, well, no, not really, because this body of letters is. Is what you are saying to the one to the other. And it, you've always said that you hope that you could, you could be an example to other people to follow their bliss, to follow their passion. Um, and this is a way that you can demonstrate, um, that this can happen. So, [00:10:00] um, I think. I think the letters are meant to be seen now. Um, my concern was that, that, that I'm not a gay person and that maybe it would be inappropriate for me to be, to be dealing with the letters and I hope I've done so sensitively. Um, I, I believe I have, um, I haven't attempted to rewrite anything. It's purely as they speak. For you, as one of the family members, what was it like actually reading those letters for the first time? I was [00:10:30] in tears sometimes, literally in tears. Some of the, some of the poetry Douglass wrote is, is just beautiful. Other parts of it are not so beautiful. Um, some of, some of it was to me just a sort of an experimental word play. And in fact, there was one poem I really liked, um, that had two words in it that I just, I ju I just, I just couldn't bring myself to include the poem cuz he, he had mentioned, um, something like, um, Ah, what was it? Something to do with, with, [00:11:00] with Cula something or others? And it was an awful couple of words and I thought, Ooh, this is just icky. We're not having that. So, um, to that extent, I did edit and really the only import of mine in the book except to choose letters that followed the narrative because douglass's letters actually follow. The course of their relationship, um, and the depth of it. Um, now, and then I've just put a [00:11:30] sentence in to describe, to, to give it some, some context. But apart from that, it's just the letters extracts as they flow, as they flow on. Originally I thought maybe I would do both sets of letters, but, um, um, I mean that would've been another whole set of permissions that I don't think, think would've been a problem. But the problem was, Um, I had, I had given myself a deadline of this, this particular year for Douglass's hundredth and, um, Lil Burn's letters are like cat scratchings.[00:12:00] They are so hard to read. Um, I even took advice from Lil Burn's biographer to ask, is there a keys or a trick to, to, to understanding what he's saying? And he went, oh no. You just have to, you just have to read them as best you ha can and you'll get. You'll get words now and then, but there'll be a lot missing. And, and to me there was too much missing. I had enough trouble with, with, with mc Diamond's letters because Douglass lapses into, into, into Latin and Greek, [00:12:30] uh, um, into, um, Italian, into, into, into French, um, into acrylic, what, depending on what he's talking about. And also a tremendous amount of, of, of quite in-depth material that related to music opera. Um, chamber music about, which I knew very little, so I've, I tried to keep just the relationship and, and, uh, keep it fairly, fairly, um, free of all the other people they talked [00:13:00] about. Cause otherwise it would've been a Bible instead of a manageable little book. Just finally, what do you think Douglass would've thought of, of, of this publication? I think he would've been proud of it. Um, his, his, his drawing is on the cover. Um, he was, he was very proud of the biography. Um, and he, he, he, he trusted me to do what I wanted to do, what I felt should be done. Um, he gave me free range, so I think he would've said, [00:13:30] Good on you. I think that this is a good thing to be doing now. Um, and he over his lifetime was a mentor to quite a number of, of conflicted individuals, and he always said that he hoped the example of his life and his work and his relationships would be, would be, um, of, of assistance to other people, um, and would help them see the way that they had to take. My name's Sonya Kahill. I first met Patrick and Douglas in Paris in July of [00:14:00] 2009. We'd been living in Beijing at the time and decided we were halfway to France. So we'd go for a summer holiday in Europe and I'd meet this, this uncle that, um, I'd heard about, that I hadn't seen since I was a young child. And I'd written to him and, and, you know, told him that we'd come and visit. And he was more than accommodating about that. I. I turned up in Paris with no real, um, thoughts as to what his marital status may be. And, uh, knocked on the door [00:14:30] and was met by a warm embrace by another man. And that was Patrick, his partner. And from there was quite an insightful, uh, journey through what became, um, us as a family understanding who Douglass was and his, his. Uh, life in Paris. Um, I was there with my children who at the time were two and five, and my two year old sat down and started [00:15:00] drawing with, with Douglass as the artist, and as a little two year old, she told him off. For, for drawing the wrong way. No, you don't do it like that. He was quite taken aback and sat back in his seat like, oh, okay. Alright. So he sat back and simply observed the, the children drawing and seemed quite taken with, with their childish antics and, and how they colored. So yeah, it was, it was quite, it was. Quite a unique insight into the lives [00:15:30] of Douglass and Patrick as they lived in Paris. And, um, we brought the stories back to my family and so began the journey that, that became the biography. So Escher as a two year old, do you remember, do you remember that encounter? I think I only remember it through the photos that we have of like my sister and I like sitting with Douglas and painting and drawing with him, and that's how I have remembered him. And then when mom has told me like, you know, that I had told him how to draw, [00:16:00] even though he was a pretty famous artist. It just makes me realize like, yep, that was definitely me. And it's interesting to see how his personality was like watching me draw and just sitting back and letting me take control of everything is definitely pretty cool. Yeah. So what, what was his personality? I. I, I thought he would be a very serious character, but he was a far more relaxed person, particularly around the children. I went back with them, um, a [00:16:30] couple of years later. I was at a wedding in, in the UK for a friend of mine in 2011, and so the girls were then four and seven and we went back and I was traveling with them on my own. So I was frustrated and cranky and, you know, went and visited and I was really, really short-tempered and he kind of was like, Ugh. Just don't worry about it, feeding them ice cream for lunch and whatever else. So he was very relaxed with the kids and he seemed to really enjoy the company of young people. I dunno if he had that much, um, sort of, I guess at that [00:17:00] age, you know, in your eighties and nineties, whether you have that much exposure to two younger children. But he certainly enjoyed. Watching, um, watching the girls interact and just watching them at play and being themselves. And I, I have vivid memories of them in his, in his formal lounge room, which was surrounded by his artwork, simply playing and drawing. And, um, he really enjoyed that and, and seemed to thrive on that youthful energy. And, and Ashley, can you remember any, any of that kind of, um, feeling? [00:17:30] I don't think I do because I was so young, but I think I can just tell now looking back by like the way that people talk about him and the way like he's presented in his books and just through his art. I can just tell that that is who he was. Do you remember his apartment? Only through the photos, but I do remember it was full of art and it was just a classic painter's apartment with all the paint, paintbrushes, canvases everywhere. Yeah. [00:18:00] What must it have been like to walk into that apartment for the very first time? Oh, it was a bit of a shock because I, I don't think I thought that through. I was quite naive about just, you know, what I was doing and the likes and, um, yeah, I, I simply knocked on the door. I remember looking at the letterbox and um, downstairs and it's, Said it said Mc, diod and Patrick. And I remember saying to my husband, oh, maybe that's a pseudonym because, you know, he's very famous. Maybe, maybe he needs, you know, some sort of disguise that, you know, [00:18:30] and it didn't even dawn on me then that there was another person in his life. Um, and then yeah, knocked on the door, warm embrace, and sitting in the lounge room looking at my husband and I both going, what if we walked into, um, And that was quite a privilege I think, in the sense that he, he reserved that for those who did go and visit him in Paris, it was not something that he necessarily shared with our family at least.[00:19:00] Um, it was a story that I recounted to my mother not long after, uh, cause she rang and said, oh, how was the visit? And she'd never been to Paris at the time. And I told her about it. She then shared that with her father, Douglass's brother, who replied that he felt there'd always been someone there and there had been for many, many years, but had never visited. Therefore, he'd never had the privilege of being, of having that, that, um, relationship shared with him, I think. Yeah. Do you think it was, [00:19:30] uh, like Douglass not necessarily wanting to share that with the family that were overseas or was it the family not wanting to know? I don't know that it wasn't, I think the family would have wanted to know. Uh, I think it was probably a time and place, you know, and, and the relationship had begun. I. Far earlier at a time when it may not have been quite as acceptable as it is now. There's actually a painting of Patrick in the MCD [00:20:00] art book by Dr. Nelly Fanney from 1977. So the relationship had been there a long, long time. Uh, perhaps in 1977. It may not have been as accepted in New Zealand as it is in 2022, for example. So I think he may have kept that. To himself for, for, you know, his own self preservation at, at some point in time. But by the time we met him in 2009, um, you know, his relationship was not necessarily a guarded secret.[00:20:30] So it was, it was quite a privilege to, to see that. And then how did the, the family relationship, um, continue after 2009? Because I mean, I, I guess that bridge has really been built, isn't it? Yeah, I think it was certainly strengthened because we actually knew who he was. Uh, our first visit in 2009 was followed by a number of visits from a number of family members who, um, then felt, uh, they could visit as well. So I guess, His cousin [00:21:00] Stuart McDermot had been traveling back and forth for a long time, and Stuart's children had visited him, so they had had the relationship. Um, us visiting, uh, with the kids seemed to rekindle some relationship with his direct family. His brother, unfortunately never got to go and visit, but knew and learned of, of, um, of his happiness. And then mum. Anna wrote the biography, which I think was something that Douglass had probably always hoped for, [00:21:30] particularly with the Family connection. And, um, yeah, it was able to be published before he passed away. So that was something that we were able to, to sort of honor in terms of his legacy. And we've set up the McDot Arts Trust to preserve that creative, um, legacy. And that's, that's, um, They're quite an honor and a privilege to be able to do for a family member. And it's also a privilege for us, for my children, for my, my, my sister, for her children to be able to do with their grandmother as well for another family member. [00:22:00] When you read the new publication of, of Douglass's letters to Douglas Lilburn, is there anything that, um, like, like. Just changed your view of Douglass or, or did you see him in a different light? Do you know? My mother hasn't, let me read it. Read it yet. So the book was, was published basically within the last couple of weeks. It's just come off the printing press. I haven't had the privilege of reading it yet. I'm really looking forward to it. Asher was involved [00:22:30] in quite a bit of the, um, pre-work in terms of, um, um, Anna had visited Alexander Turnbull Library a number of times and had scanned, no, actually it was Covid. So she had received huge PDF files of scanned letters and stuff that she then had transcribed. And so, um, Asher had. Done a lot of work separating the files and things like that. So Ash's very interested in reading it just in terms of, cuz she's been involved in that research phase. Um, but I'm really looking forward to actually being [00:23:00] able to read it because I haven't had the chance yet. She's kept it all to herself. What do you think Douglass would've made of tonight's launch? Tonight's celebration of his life. Look, I hope he's happy and I hope he's proud of us. It was really unfortunate that no one was able to attend his funeral. Uh, it was August 27, uh, 2020, so obviously no one was traveling at the time because of the pandemic. And, um, I hope we've done him proud. You know, we've, we've come together, we've, uh, [00:23:30] produced two books now and we've been able to, uh, promote his legacy and his artwork, and I hope New Zealand embraces it and celebrates it. My career was spent as a veterinarian, but I ended up working in the international, international field and my work used to take me to Paris regularly to, um, the headquarters of the World Organization for Animal Health. [00:24:00] And I realized that I have a, had a cousin in Paris and I should find this person. And so, um, Through letters we arranged to meet and um, I went around his place one evening to meet him and that was in about 2001 and the relationship started then I went to Paris two to four times a year from then until I retired in [00:24:30] 2018. And, um, I would go there for two weeks at a time. So I would often see Douglass on three occasions. Each visit. So we, we developed a, a, a, a deep friendship. And I also had the pleasure of watching his work develop and evolve. And I was always looking forward to what new paintings he had done. And he told me at the beginning of our relationship that, uh, [00:25:00] there was no such thing as good or bad or not. It was, uh, if I liked it, it was good. If I didn't like it, it didn't matter. He wanted my opinions, but he didn't care whether I liked it or not. He just wanted to talk about them and my opinion. So, uh, yeah, we had a good, a really nice relationship. I've never had a relationship like that with someone. Can you describe for me what Douglas's apartment was like in Paris?[00:25:30] I'd been at two other apartments, so I didn't have a great lot of things to compare it about. It was a nice, nice place with, um, the main sort of living room. Um, very high ceilings, I would say. Uh, a sort of 11 foot stud with, um, ornate plaster work, uh, ceiling and. A big fireplace. I never, I don't think it was ever used. His, [00:26:00] um, studio was small but good, natural lighting and tidy. Um, not a lot of space in there. Um, the hallway, L-shaped hallway was, Very narrow. Um, which in later life when Douglass had real problems with balance, uh, it was good for him because he, he reached the point where he couldn't walk without supporting [00:26:30] himself on something. Uh, so long, narrow hallway. And then there were two bedrooms. There was Patrick's bedroom, um, looking out onto the street. Um, nice tall, open windows on. You know, the, the three rooms that face the street had big, tall windows that opened out onto narrow little balcony things. Uh, Douglass's bedroom was at the back, a small [00:27:00] spartan and, uh, a window looking out into a light well, um, and then a small tight kitchen. Oh, and a bathroom. What was it like watching Douglass work? Um, I never saw Douglass applying paint or drawings, but what would happen would, because I was visiting frequently, I would, he would show me, this is a painting [00:27:30] I'm starting. Um, then I would see how it developed. And sometimes a painting would be done between, you know, I'd visit him sort of three days apart and a painting would. Happened, it would be done. Other paintings took, you know, months to evolve. I also saw him attempt, you know, make a painting and be dissatisfied with it. And the next [00:28:00] time I went, he'd done it again. Another iteration of it, I saw 2, 2, 2 of the paintings that I have are paintings that. I didn't like the first one I saw. I didn't like the second one. And then the third one was, wow, that's, that's really nice. I really like that. I shouldn't say nice because it doesn't matter. It's what I like or, or the viewer likes or doesn't like. In, in terms of the, the kind of wider family, what was painting something that [00:28:30] happened within the, the larger McDermott family? I don't believe so. No. Um, I actually had very little to do with, with relatives growing up. Um, I dunno why that was. Um, it wasn't until my, I was 18 when my mother died and my father took me on a, a road trip around the North Island meeting relatives for the first time. Um, so I've, I've had [00:29:00] very little to do with other, other mc diamonds and. Yeah, so Douglas was certainly the first, first one. I, apart from my father's brother, Hugh, um, Douglass was the first McDermot that I got to know. How, how did other family members react to Douglass's painting? Well, my father told me that, you know, they were pretty dreadful. Um, you know, you've got a cousin Douglas who. Makes these paintings, but they're awful. You know, they [00:29:30] don't look like a real picture. So when I first went to meet him, I was thinking, you know, this cousin lives here making, he makes a living out of painting rubbish. Um, how do I, how do you have a conversation? So, I mean, I just said to him, um, you, you're a painter. Um, what is it that you do and what are you striving to achieve? And, um, Was just the right thing to, you know, to open a [00:30:00] conversation. And what was your first impression when, when you saw some of his work? Oh, um, I thought my father was wrong. Um, I think I really like about a third of his paintings. Um, and I have, I have several at home of Douglass's paintings, which, Uh, all ones. Most of 'em are ones I cho I chose because I really like them. There's [00:30:30] one he did for me as a gift, which I don't really like. Um, when I first went into his apartment, he said Any painting that you see is for sale except the except one. There was a painting of this wife Shalin, which it was a beautiful painting. Um, but that was, Earmarked for someone. I dunno the fate of that, but, um, sometimes I would see a painting and think, oh, I really, really [00:31:00] like that one. But, um, if I, you know, by the time I visited again, it had got a red dot on it showing that it'd been bought by someone else. And when you say like, you liked the painting, what, what, what, what did the paintings, how did the painting speak to you? I just had a, an emotional reaction to it. And wh when I said to him, what, why, why, what is it you trying to do? And he says, I see [00:31:30] something that triggers an, uh, an emotional reaction in me and I want to try to put that down on canvas and trigger. A reaction in somebody seeing it, and it doesn't matter whether they are having the same reaction that I did. Um, the meaning of the painting is what the viewer sees in it. And, um, I mean, I, I have one which [00:32:00] is, um, it's called Al with a number after it. And it's, uh, it's bright. Reds, uh, oranges and yellows, clearly sort of sun blasted landscape. And in the foreground, you're looking at the back of a woman with long hair and in the middle distance is a silhouette of a man with [00:32:30] his hand on his hip because they're silhouettes and that hard light. Um, He's got his back towards her, I'm sure. And I said, when I brought this painting home, I said to my daughter, look at that. She has lost him. And my daughter said, no, no, no, no, dad, he has lost her. The painting was actually triggered by a black and white photograph, which [00:33:00] Anna showed me. The woman in the foreground is not a woman at all. It's the shadow of Patrick who was taking the black and white photograph, and because it was so hot, sunny there, Patrick had draped a towel over his head, which meant the shadow sort of was a figure, but. You know, and it's just plain black. But Douglass interpreted that as a, turned that into a woman dressed in black, [00:33:30] but with brown hair. And um, so the story from the painting is mine. My daughter has a different story. I dunno what Douglass's story was, but Anna's got the black and white photograph and it's Patrick Shadow. What has Douglass taught you? I've never, I've never been in a relationship with a person, um, [00:34:00] who was so interested in what I had to say. And, uh, it's not that I would sit there and lecture him. I mean, it was always ping pong back and forth. But, uh, yeah, I've never had a, I've never had a relationship like that with somebody, a talking conversational relationship. Yeah, it, it's, I, I won't, I won't go back to Paris again. [00:34:30] Um, because, you know, I find it hard to go there and him not be there. I used to think, um, one day, this will be the last time I walk up the street and there was the last time.

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AI Text:September 2023