“My name is Cornish, not Italian, and the first member of my father’s family to come arrived in NSW in 1820 as a Wesleyan Missionary. So many people get very confused when I am not dark haired and curvy!”
Elizabeth Carvosso was on the Older Persons Consultative Committee when U3APP was founded. She joined U3A because she was keen on education, both for herself and for other people. At the time she had a lot of commitments in the city and so long as she wasn’t attending a concert or play she would go to the Saturday Seminars.
“They have been wonderful. The quality is getting better and better,” she said. “Our technical committee has been quite extraordinary; I have loved everything. And every time I look at the program there is something more wonderful – now Colin Macleod has another lovely program, on the constitution, but it’s on Wednesdays so I can’t go!” Elizabeth is a member of Melbourne University Graduate Union and goes there twice a month on Wednesdays. “Not that I am a Melbourne graduate,” she chuckles.
We are spoilt for choice, aren’t we?
Oh yes, the (U3APP) program is extraordinary. The quality of lectures – we are very lucky. I suppose it’s because Albert Park and surrounds are on the way to Monash (University) and on the tram (route) to Melbourne. Many in this area seem to be connected with those organisations and therefore are available now in their retirement.
In the early days of U3APP Joan Ashbolt one day appeared at Elizabeth’s front door and said she had not had a holiday for over a year. “Could you do the office for me?” Not many people rang, but she was there to answer the phone, send out enrolment forms and do other things. From her house, and then when they first were using the Mary Kehoe Centre, Joan had run the office pretty well on her own all that time. She really did need a break. I think it was only for a week – certainly not very long, nor very onerous.
Do you have any other memories of that era?
Carolyn Hutchins asked me if I would join the Older Persons committee. I had seen her about something the council wasn’t doing well – I always want to organise other people. She said, “You’re the sort of person we need on the Older Persons committee,” and I thought I’m pretty busy but if she thinks I should, I should. Then I discovered I had to be interviewed and approved. The man interviewing told me all the librarians he knew were back-room people and they didn’t like mixing with other people much. “Do you really think you would have anything to contribute to this committee?” I thought to myself, you must know a very limited number of librarians because I’ve been to a few parties with librarians and we always have a very good time. Big library conferences always came with parties as well as serious lectures. I always worked in areas where you had to mingle with people, reference and acquisitions work, publishers, and so on. Cataloguing is in the back room and is very important work. But most of us are in for a party when the time comes. I lasted on that committee for a couple of years; then U3A came on the scene.
I used to go to the (U3APP) AGM, because I know what it’s like to be on a committee when people don’t bother coming. I made a point of going, and to the Saturday Seminars, and then gradually more courses, after I gave up the pretty intense Italian course I had been doing in town.
This year I have been doing three things, and Saturdays, and anything extra that turns up. I’ve been doing Shakespeare with Helen (Vorrath), which of course is truly amazing. It feels good to go back to your university roots and be reminded of things you used to know, and then there are all the other plays you never did. Even at school or university you only ever cover a few, so it has been terrific. And I have been doing David’s films for quite a while too.
That is how I got an iPad, because my computer was so old. My great-nephew kindly bought me an iPad so I could join in the Zoom discussion. I have since got a new computer with a lovely big screen, although I still have my great-nephew on call for technical things. Of course I was born before the war, so I grew up, even in my library work, without computers. So what I know about computers I have partly taught myself. I didn’t have the iPad in the days when you could drop into U3A with problems. Some young people – because they grow up with it – don’t understand why we don’t understand.
So you were a librarian?
Yes. That’s how I came to live in Melbourne. I lived in London in the early sixties, like lots of Australians. I was having a wonderful time and didn’t want to come home because all we did then was go to concerts, plays and travel. Eventually I realised I had to get a proper job, settle down, stop mucking around. Some parents were writing to their kids saying how much they missed them, and how lonely they were, but my parents were so good, they didn’t do that to me. My mother wrote once a fortnight – as she had when I was in boarding school – but then suddenly my father said, “We think it’s time for you to come home now,” and so I did after just over two and a half years.
I am a Queenslander from the ‘deep north’. I grew up on the Darling Downs in Dalby, and so I went to Brisbane for a job at the State Library. I loved the work but it was so hot. The only parts of the original library in those days that were air-conditioned were the Rare Books, the upstairs administrative offices and the catalogue where the public came. But downstairs, where most of us worked, the heat was really getting to me. I found the humidity was difficult. So I started looking around and there was a job going at the new Essendon library based in Moonee Ponds. The librarian there had been writing really interesting articles in the journal about automation. There was nothing doing in Queensland and NSW public libraries – they were in a real mess at that time – so I went to see the man in charge of public libraries in Brisbane for some advice and he said, “That new library in Melbourne sounds like just the thing for you.”
I stayed there for a couple of years and then moved on to Melbourne University Baillieu for another couple of years – the main library for general students. Then I had a brief fling at the Department of Trade. Oh, I had impeccable timing because a week after I left there to go to CSIRO the Jim Cairns/Juni Morosi scandal broke and I missed it. I could have been in the building! (Laughing.) That was typical of me, and my decisions. But I stayed at CSIRO for something like fourteen years. I was in charge of ordering the journals for the whole of the CSIRO. It was funny because there were two jobs going, one at CSIRO and one at the Teachers’ College, and not knowing Melbourne terribly well, I got out my Melways and realised the CSIRO job was closer. Most sensible people would have applied for both to see what would happen; but it was different then.
I had always been interested in publishing and we handled all the journal ordering. There were over fifty individual divisions and they all had their own librarian. They ordered some of their own material. Anything that was complicated or identified-to-be-ordered from some obscure place, especially overseas, we did it for them in East Melbourne. The budget for serials at the time was over a million dollars – I am sure it is a lot more now. It has all changed since publishing became electronic. In those days of paper, journals were constantly getting lost and sent to the wrong place. The post office had an enormous collection of unclaimed journals. It was fascinating work because you had to liaise with the publishers a lot and that was what I enjoyed. I have always enjoyed meeting people outside my own work.
Some years ago, I was complaining to a friend that the National Book Council used to have lovely lunches with authors. The lunches weren’t anything to speak of but we had lots and lots of authors who came and spoke and sold some of their books. Inevitably, it got taken over and turned into a very expensive lunch at a hotel somewhere and then just faded out altogether. I missed those lunches and my friend said, “Why not join the Graduate Union? Any university graduate can join and they do have regular monthly lunches with really quite interesting speakers.” There was also a small group of women who met once a month and so I got involved in that, but sadly all the senior people organising it have died and I have rather got lumbered with it. I am praying that someone a bit younger will turn up who wants to organise it.
Did you write? Are you a writer?
No, but I wrote a manual on how to look after the journals in your library, and some journal articles. After I left CSIRO I went to work for a subscription agent. I had been at CSIRO a long time and that sort of specialisation was going out of fashion in libraries. They were tending to let clerical people do what I considered professional work. It was an American company based in Alabama with an office in Sydney and I was the Melbourne Office. This is how I came to Albert Park. I was working out of my flat and I needed a second bedroom as an office for my new job. Since I was not a Melbourne native I didn’t know Albert Park existed. I was living in Toorak and I didn’t really enjoy it there because I came from the country where you always knew your neighbours. Walking around Toorak there’s no way you could ring a doorbell and introduce your self. When I arrived here (in Albert Park) and saw all the verandas and things I decided this is where I wanted to live. I was lucky; it was 1981.
But unfortunately I got asthma in “Trendy Albert Park.” It was always called Trendy Albert Park. I said it’s not my fault it’s trendy, I certainly don’t add to it. Gradually my asthma got worse and worse and I had to retire. I lasted until I was sixty. Twenty-six years ago. I was representing Melbourne, Tasmania, South Australia – and because my family lived there, bits of Queensland too. The first couple of years after I retired I was sick a lot, but with new drugs it all settled down and I was able to pick up and start doing things again. I never move without a puffer. One lesson I have learned is to wear a mask to concerts and public places. Even if Covid-19 goes away completely I will always wear a mask now. And I am very conscientious with my preventers.
Did you give any classes at U3A?
No, there is so much volunteering involved in librarianship and I worked very long hours at CSIRO and then I was involved heavily with the Library Association. I do make an effort to join and attend things. I was in a lovely garden club here in Albert Park, which I think was one of the oldest garden clubs in the state, founded by Kevin Heinze and a man from the council at the time. We had our meetings in St Vincent Gardens. I remember being there and coming out one February night and you could smell the fires. Meetings were in some sort of hostel and the residents discovered that after a garden club meeting there was a nice supper available. Then the meetings went to the MKC.
You’ve seen some changes in the area then?
Three fruiterers were here when I moved in, now none. One was much better quality than the others. And we had butchers. And of course we had several banks. We don’t have any now. I will not on principle use that ATM near the chemist. Think of all those people whose pensions go into their bank accounts and every time they withdraw from that thing they are charged $2.50. It annoys me, so while I can go to Port I do. I could not believe they would close down the Commonwealth Bank. I’ve been with the CBA since I was about five or six. It was the CBA when you took your pennies and threepences to school in Queensland. And I worked for them in London. They were very good to us in London. We had winter jobs; they knew we weren’t going to stay. I never pretended that I would. And I always gave lots of notice and I worked in the bank right in the City of London – the Old Jewry.
What is that?
The City of London is separate from Westminster. It is where all the old banking institutions are still located. You will remember Prince Charles after he was originally proclaimed King had to go to the City and have a separate proclamation from Westminster. There are streets called Bread and Honey Lane and where the Commonwealth Bank was, it was called Old Jewry. The City has its own lord mayor.
It was a lovely experience in the City, and then they sent me to Australia House in The Strand. (All the states have a house.) It was right near St Clemens – I remember because if you were late for work you could hear the 9.00 am chimes of Oranges and Lemons. That was a great life – very careless. It was cheap in London then, theatre tickets were five shillings, seven and six for something extra special. I worked out, when I was sharing with some friends I had met there, it was cheaper to go out than to feed the gas meter. So we mostly went to concerts and plays. You didn’t stay home at night at all. I didn’t have a responsible job. I couldn’t have done that when I was at CSIRO where I worked until about 6.00-6.30 pm and then I needed to be home, with dinner and into bed, and back at work by half past eight the next morning. That is why having jobs that were fairly routine in London was just to give you sustenance. But you always got a midday meal with those London jobs, or a voucher to get yourself a midday meal. Of course that was 1960. The war wasn’t long over. There was still very much a sense of socialism looking after people who needed a meal. This silly woman who was the prime minister, believes in the trickle-down effect. It has been proven it doesn’t work and she wanted to go back to it. That’s when I became interested in politics, living in London, reading The Guardian, and The Sunday Times. Before Rupert owned The Sunday Times of course.
You are in one of the Current Affairs groups?
Yes, I’ve been in it for a long time. It’s very popular, which is why they’ve established the second group. It is interesting because at U3A all the people in the classes have interesting backgrounds, they all bring different experiences to the discussion. You find yourself in a class beside somebody whose life is very different from yours and you learn just from chatting. I’ve done a lot of interesting things at U3A but not as many as I would love to.
Elizabeth Carvosso was interviewed by Julie Butcher