Judith Buckrich

Author and Historian

Category: Media Release

Rediscovering Anne Elder: Poet and Dancer


The name Anne Elder (1918-1976) endures because of the poetry prize awarded annually in her name over the past forty years. However, little is known about Elder herself despite her many achievements, firstly as a soloist with the Borovansky Ballet, the forerunner of the Australian Ballet, and later as a poet.

This lack of recognition, so typical for women of her generation, is set to be rectified by the publication of The Heart’s Ground: A Life of Anne Elder by her niece Julia Hamer and The Bright and the Cold: Selected Poems of Anne Elder, compiled by her daughter Catherine Elder (both Lauranton Books).

One of the reasons for Elder’s neglect, according to fellow poet and friend Graham Rowlands, was that nearly all of the poems that would subsequently be published were written in one short burst, from 1967 to 1971, after which her deteriorating health had made writing difficult.

Elder was talented in whatever field of the arts she turned to: dance, writing, drawing, and music. She was a fascinating character, a brilliant talker, with an unusual sense of humour, keen imagination, a person who soaked up the details of experience, an iconoclastic thinker, and capable of great tenderness. She was also a person of contradictions, capable of lashing out when angry, sensitive to criticism, her individualism sitting alongside some conservative opinions.

As the biography details, “Anne was a child of the 1930s and 1940s in Australia, and a young woman in the 1950s, when women were still constrained in what they could say, do and write. Her circle, until she started to meet other poets, was not intellectual”. For most of her life she scribbled when the mood took her and, lacking a room of her own, would stand in front of the kitchen window cutting up dogs’ food in a desultory fashion, composing poems in her head.

Her daughter Cathie comments, “Meals would be dreadfully late. She would be standing there, mooning away at the sink.” It was only in her mid-forties as her children left home that she turned to writing in earnest.

Elder’s first collection of poetry, For the Record, was published by Hawthorn Press in 1972 and the second collection, Crazy Woman and Other Poems, was published by Angus & Robertson in 1976, not long after her death at the age of 58. It was highly commended in the National Book Council awards in 1977. Her poems were also published in a wide range of magazines and journals, including Meanjin, Overland, Southerly and Westerly, and newspapers such as The Age and The Australian.     

In the seventies her work attracted positive attention from many critics. The poet and novelist David Martin called Elder “one of the best poets writing in English”. Others tried to belittle or dismiss her work because of its alleged focus on domestic life and its avoidance of overtly political issues but as Rowlands observed, “for all Anne Elder’s tender lyricism, delicate shading and pastel mood, she holds in reserve, often for dramatic ending, the deadliness of a cobra”.

Elder was born Anne Chloe Mackintosh in Auckland, New Zealand, in January 1918. Her parents Norman and Rèna had married in 1917. After a short time together, Norman was sent to the front in France where he was wounded and returned to New Zealand in May 1918.

The family moved to Melbourne in 1921, shortly after the birth of their second daughter April, as Norman had been promoted to the post of Superintendent for Sun Insurance in Australia and New Zealand. Elder was a delicate child and she and her sister were schooled at home by governesses until Elder was eleven. Both girls were book worms, and fond of history and drawing. They led a rich cultural life, learning the piano, going to exhibitions and the theatre, going to the beach at Mentone and playing tennis and golf. In 1933, the family spent six months touring England and Scotland. Back home again, Anne had a special timetable drawn up by her enlightened headmistress to fit in ballet lessons and managed also to become dux of St Catherine’s.

Inspired by Anna Pavlova, her “goddess”, Elder had recommenced ballet lessons, painfully, at the very late age of sixteen, with Jennie Brenan. She went on to have an impressive career dancing with the Borovansky Ballet Company for whom she was a soloist, from 1940–1944. The company was formed in Melbourne in 1939 by Czech refugee Edouard Borovansky and his Russian-born wife Xenia. Edouard Borovansky was internationally celebrated, principally as a character dancer. An important fellow dancer for Elder was Laurel Martyn, herself an exquisite dancer and choreographer and later founder of the Ballet Guild.

The Borovanskys marked the true beginning of Australian ballet and Elder was there from the start. She was admired as a dancer for her classical, cool qualities. In 1940, she married lawyer John Elder but, like her mother, she was soon separated by war. John was posted first to the Middle East and later to North Queensland. All the dancers were unpaid at this time, and during the day Elder did secret work for the Dutch who were trying to retrieve Indonesia from the Japanese, and at night and in the weekends she danced. Elder’s tribute to Edouard Borovansky is included as an appendix to the biography.

In 1944 she was due to tour New Zealand with the company but John, newly returned from war, put his foot down. In any case she was pregnant and gave birth to their son David in early 1945; and their daughter Cathie followed in 1947. Her ballet career, which started relatively late in life, thus came to a premature end. It was only when her poetry began to be recognised that Elder could watch ballet without pain, and she became a knowledgeable critic of what she saw.

The Elder family built a modern house on The Eyrie at Eaglemont, then an outer northern suburb of Melbourne. Julia Hamer says that Elder’s “deepest feelings would with time flow from this house and garden and all the living things they contained. These above all were to be the basis of her poetry”.

Elder was unwell for much of her life and suffered heart problems at an early age. It was only just before her death that she was diagnosed with scleroderma, an autoimmune system disease. It was remarkable that in spite of this, and of the depression it produced, and in spite of her sensitivities, that she had the energy to write her complex, multi-layered poems, the production of which often saw her crouched over the fire until the early hours of the morning.

This finely wrought biography is rich in historical detail as it draws on four generations of letters and diaries and more recently on critical commentary and recollections.

The Bright and the Cold: Selected Poems of Anne Elder captures the extraordinary range and vibrancy of her poetry and includes a number of poems that did not appear in either of her previous collections.


Julia Hamer, The Heart’s Ground: A Life of Anne Elder (Lauranton Books, 2018) ISBN 978 0 9942507 3 5 RRP $40

The Bright and the Cold: Selected Poems of Anne Elder, compiled by Catherine Elder (Lauranton Books, 2018) 122pp ISBN 978 0 9942507 4 2 RRP: $25

Books are available from Lauranton Books

Lauranton Books: buckrich@bigpond.net.au; 0414 905 042; https://judithbuckrich.com.au/lauranton-books/

Media comment: Julia Hamer 0408 088 702; julia_hamer@yahoo.com.au

Media enquiries: Carmel Shute, Shute the Messenger 0412 569 356; carmel@shute-the-messenger.com




Media Release: The Political is Personal

Judith Buckrich, The Political is Personal: A 20th Century Memoir, Lauranton Books, 2016

Political is Personal Book Cover

The title of Judith Buckrich’s memoir, The Political is Personal, is a play on the rallying cry of the women’s liberation movement, “the personal is political”.

In Judith’s case, it is particularly apposite. The trajectory of her life has been shaped by the tumultuous events of the twentieth century – world war, revolution, the Holocaust, mass migration, the Vietnam War and the cultural, social and sexual movements spawned by that conflict.

Judith rode the waves that convulsed Australian society in the sixties and seventies, opposing the war, dropping in and out of university and becoming a cultural radical, feminist and sexual free spirit.

As a child, she witnessed the famous toppling of the gigantic bronze statue of Stalin during the Hungarian uprising in 1956. As an adult, she was in Budapest in 1989 when East German tourists who had refused to leave Hungary were allowed to cross to Austria, an action which precipitated the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Judith, who has made her living from writing plays and histories, was born in Hungary in 1950 of a communist father and Jewish mother. The book started life as a testament to her father, Antal Bukrics, known as Anti, but ended up as a personal memoir.

Born in 1911, Anti emigrated to the US in 1929, a month before the Wall Street Crash. Anti fell on his feet in the large Hungarian community in Cleveland. He found work and a cause, becoming an active member of the burgeoning Communist Party of the USA (CPUSA), writing for its publications and learning how to typeset. With the rewiring of American collective memory during the Cold War, the rich political and social lives enjoyed in communist immigrant communities in the US are all but forgotten.

Post-war, Anti came under the scrutiny of the infamous US House of Un-American Activities and in 1948 was named in a Senate hearing which might have resulted in his deportation had he not decided to join hundreds of other communist Hungarian Americans in going back home to build socialism. He advertised through the Hungarian Jewish Welfare newsletter for a wife and married Judith’s mother, Erika Rosenfeld, shortly after his return.

Erika survived the Auschwitz and Ravensbrück concentration camps and spent months recuperating at the end of the war. It was only when she reached 35 kgs that she was deemed fit enough to travel back to Budapest.

The family enjoyed a fairly well-to-do life in communist Hungary though the relationship between the parents proved difficult from the beginning. During the Hungarian uprising in 1956, the surge in nationalism was accompanied by an outpouring of anti-Semitism and Erika insisted the family leave.

Anti obtained passports through bribing officials and the family joined relatives in Melbourne in 1958. Judith’s second husband, a Hungarian called Gabor Hegyesi, always maintained that Anti must have agreed to be a ‘sleeper’ for the Hungarian government since passports, even with bribery, were simply impossible to obtain.

The Buckrichs, as they became known, settled into Caulfield. In many ways, they were the migrant success story. Both parents worked and they soon acquired a house and a car. Judith, always precocious intellectually, excelled at school and won a place at Mac.Rob, a selective state girls’ high school. She was a member of SKIF, a Jewish socialist youth group. The only blot on an otherwise happy life was her father’s alcoholism.

Partly because of her father, Judith was passionately interested in politics and world affairs. In the early days of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War, she was the only girl in her circle who was opposed to the war. The Aboriginal Freedom Rides in 1965 also stirred her passions and this was again something she shared with her father. In the US, he and other communists had tried to de-segregate a local swimming pool.

Judith took the first of her many lovers at the age of 17 and says: “I enjoyed sex a lot and I was very lucky to live in this new ‘permissive’ age. A young woman could have sexual relations with more than one young man without ‘losing her reputation’…”

Judith failed her first year at Monash University and ended up married at the age of 20. It lasted least than a year and Judith worked and travelled to the US to join her like-minded cousin and became a feminist before returning to Melbourne and completing a degree in drama and media studies at Rusden.

Judith readily embraced the women’s movement. She writes: “In a way, life for women had never been so full of contradictions. Trying to work out how we should behave was very difficult. Behind us, we only had the examples of our mothers, who were kept in line by rules about behaviour spoken and unspoken… The problems of men and women in intimate relationships were not so easy to explore… The circumstances were confused by the hippie idea that ‘love’ could solve every problem, and that individuals should not possess each other – a noble idea in theory, but one very open to abuse by men who ‘wanted to have their cake and eat it too’.”

From the late seventies, Judith started to write short stories and perform in her own plays at places like La Mama and the Adelaide Fringe Festival. One performance included a projected slide of her wearing nothing but a pair of silver boots and a silver strap. Some of these works were written on a farm at Koo-Wee-Rup outside Melbourne, where she lived with  Dick Prins, one of her former Rusden lecturers, for six years.

Judith spent much of the eighties travelling and working in short-term jobs such as arts officer for St Kilda Council. In 1987 her relationship with Gabor took her back to live in Hungary where they married.

Judith busied herself with different projects – translating, writing articles, setting up an Australian studies course and contributing to the Radio National program, The Europeans. She worked part-time at a newspaper where the journalists were often arguing the toss with the editors but no one suspected that this presaged the end of communism in the Eastern bloc, starting with Hungary in the summer of 1989.

1989 was the start of a new era for Hungary and a new era for Judith who gave birth to her daughter, Laura, in August that year. They returned with Gabor to Australia in early 1990. Gabor went back to Hungary but Judith chose to stay in Melbourne with her baby and embark on a career as a writer, completing a PhD on George Turner, leading Australian science fiction writer.

At the same time, a chance remark by a friend prompted Judith to write a history of St Kilda Road. This was the first of Judith’s many well-regarded histories of Melbourne. Other histories have focussed on Collins Street, the Port of Melbourne, Montefiore Homes, the Royal Victorian Institute of the Blind, Prahran Tech, and Melbourne University Boat Club. Her history of Ripponlea Village won the 2016 Victorian Community History Awards Local History – Small Publication Award.

Judith writes frankly about her life. After the birth of her daughter, she no longer had the same interest in sex, instead channelling her passion into writing and the work of International PEN, the world-wide Association of writers. She is currently working on history of Acland Street.

RRP $30. Available from Readings Carlton, Readings St Kilda (mail order: www.readings.com.au/books), Collected Works (Swanston Street Melbourne), the Prahran Mechanics Institute and The Avenue Bookstore (Glenhuntly Road, Elsternwick).

Interviews: Judith Buckrich on 0414 905 042; buckrich@bigpond.net.au

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