“I think it’s got a lot to do with not being afraid of living”
You can do an awful lot by the age of 95
Robin Dalton has been a writer, a literary agent, a film producer and a spy for the Thai government. Emerald Street talks to her about the secrets of an interesting life.
“What is average?” says Robin Dalton, when asked about her less-than-average life. “Mine has certainly been longer than most, let’s put it that way. People say to me sometimes: ‘How have you done so much?’ I say: ‘It’s easy, just live long enough.’”
Robin is now 95, but looks and moves as though she’s two decades younger, wearing a belted cobalt blue jumper and attractive turquoise jewellery. Her 1965 memoir, Aunts Up The Cross (£8.99, Text Classics) is about her childhood as part of an eccentric family in early 20th Century Sydney. In Australia, people think about it with the kind of fondness we in Britain have for Dodie Smith’s I Capture The Castle (£7.99, Penguin). It’s funny, charming and slightly cult: those who love it feel part of a select group.
Her family lived in Sydney’s Kings Cross (“absolutely wonderful then. It was Soho in its best years. Montmartre in its best years.”), in a rambling house filled with great aunts, the outlandish patients of her doctor father and one guest who stayed for 17 years.
Following World War II, she was the first female civilian to leave Australia, getting a last minute flight on a converted bomber. “I was very lucky and my parents were very brave to let me go. My father was a friend to the head of Qantas and Qantas were flying out all the bombers. There was no civilian travel just as the war ended. He managed to get me a seat. I was terribly excited. I was packed for weeks before.”
Why was she so keen to leave?
“It was the normal thing in the little world in which I grew up. The minute you finish school the next thing was you went to Europe and you went to finishing school in Lausanne or what have you. It was the normal thing to want to do to get out of Australia, whereas now, which I think is rather wonderful, Australians think theirs is the best country in the world.”
An amazing life followed, as a literary agent to some of the world’s best authors, including Arthur Miller and Iris Murdoch, a producer of three films (including 1997 romantic drama Oscar And Lucinda starring Cate Blanchett) and a mother to two children.
Then there was the period of being a Thai intelligence agent. “Everybody picks up on that. It was hilarious,” she says. “I came to be an intelligence agent because the Thai government were getting worried about communist infiltration into their country. One of my closest friends at the time was a man called Prince Chula of Thailand. He would have been king if he hadn’t married an English woman and turned it down. They asked his advice about getting somebody to influence the British press.
“I had this wonderful job, attached to the Embassy. My official title was press attaché and then they flew me and my husband out to Thailand. I had my own train and own my bodyguard of 30 soldiers with tommy guns on the roof of my train.
“It was absolutely incredible. And I got on terribly well with the then-Chief of Police. He said: 'we would actually like you to do another job for us,' which was an intelligence job.
“I don’t know if I was any good at it, but it was enormous fun. Quite by accident, that happened to me.”
Has her life been a series of happy accidents, or does she think it’s down to a personal quality?
“Well, please God, I don’t think about myself much.”
She offers more coffee. Her living room is full of beautiful patterned furniture, original art and potted orchids.
“I never think ahead,” she says. “I accept every day as it comes. That’s what is there. That’s what’s on offer. Grab it. Because it might not come again. You might be dead tomorrow.
“I think it’s got a lot to do with not being afraid of living. Not saying ‘no’ to anything that pops up.”
That’s good advice. What else would she say to younger women?
“The best thing is to be oneself. I’ve never thought about this before. The happiest thing is not to think about oneself. It teaches you to think about other people, not necessarily in a charitable or nice way. I don’t know what it is, for example, to be self-conscious. Maybe I should. It never occurred to me.”