“After my mother enlisted me in the Burmese Army”: A Story That Just Had to Be Told

“I am not a writer.”

Andrea Palmer sits across from me at a table in Canvas Restaurant and fixes me with her level gaze. “It was just that I found a story that had to be told.”

Plum Andrea Palmer

Andrea lives in Gundowring, in North East Victoria, but she was born in Phoenix, Arizona. In the 1980s, at a cocktail party on Russian Hill in San Francisco, she met Plum Rutherford Haet, then aged 55. Plum was inquisitive, analytical and unconventional, with clear blue eyes and high cheekbones. She belonged to no apparent social class and had a refined accent that was impossible to place.

Andrea was immediately captivated.

“Plum had a very matter of fact view of life. She never succumbed to self-pity even though she had every reason to do so. She was extremely polite, with impeccable manners and yet was fearless in putting forward radical ideas and challenging the status quo.”

She was also inclined to drop “one-liners” into conversations.

“When I worked for Ava Garnder …”

“After my mother enlisted me in the Burmese Army …”

“You know I was arrested in Spain during the Franco regime …”

(from Author’s Note, Plum, p3)

Plum in Mill Valley June 2005 (2)

Andrea knew straight away that Plum was a type of woman she had never encountered before.

“Plum changed my life completely — and there are many others who would echo that.”

A Long and Difficult Process

Andrea did not begin writing Plum’s story for many years, but she remained fascinated. Then, in 2008, she decided it was time. She began a long and arduous process, interviewing and researching, gathering concrete details and colourful anecdotes and then — putting aside her self-doubt — writing. The result is a comprehensive, meticulous and carefully-composed biography.

It took seven years to create.

“There were a number of reasons for this: I am not an author. I did not fully understand the questions I needed to ask … I had to be confident that everything I wrote was true.”

Even after successfully producing a beautiful book, Andrea claims to have no confidence in herself as a writer. She speaks of creative angst, and humbly attributes her success to the assistance of others. In a note to me, she says, “You always wonder – are you good enough?”

So what was it that spurred her on? Who was this woman, Plum, who inspired such a dedicated effort?

A Remarkable Woman

“A remarkable woman, who chose not to succumb to the expected social mores of Melbourne society … a very intelligent woman with a large, diverse group of friends. She loved ’causes’, political or otherwise… She was generous beyond bounds.”

(Sue Tweddell, back cover of Plum.)

Plum in Burma
Plum (far right) in the Women’s Auxiliary Service, Burma.

Plum was christened Rhonda Lillian Rutherford. She was the daughter of Sir Thomas Rutherford, Governor of Bihar, India. Her mother, née Audrey Dickenson, was the spoilt child of a privileged Melbourne family and had no instinct for mothering. Plum spent the first years of her life in India, where she “would have had servants running for her every need” (Plum, p43).

Thomas called his daughter his “little sugarplum”, soon shortened to “Plum”, and the name stayed with her.

With her mother caught up in endless social commitments, Plum was raised under the watchful eye of her amah, Poona. At 5 years of age, she was sent to boarding school in England. “This gave her a feeling of being “dumped”, and she carried this feeling all her life.” (Lady June Porter, Foreword to Plum). When war broke out in 1939, Plum was sent to Clyde Girls’ School at Woodend, Victoria.

“Her early years away from her family helped Plum develop a stoic strength that flourished throughout her teens and early twenties.”

(Andrea Palmer, private communication)

Andrea’s book follows Plum’s life through the strangeness of India and Burma, years spent in the upper levels of Melbourne society, travels in London and Europe, jobs in the film industry, the sexual revolution of the 1960s, a whirlwind romance and marriage, the birth of children, ensuing tragedy, study and lectureships. It is a life of constant travel and movement.

“She did not believe there would ever be any permanence in her life.”

(Plum, p106)

Plum and Sam
Plum and Sam Rose, 2001.

“Can You Believe That?!”

Plum’s story makes a fascinating read. It is filled with wealth and opulence and populated with colourful characters. It moves through exotic locations, yet it is always anchored by the presence of this enigmatic, strong and lively woman.

“Plum often showed astonishment at her actions, by finishing her recount with the phrase, “Can you believe that??”

The Thrill of Research

Like her writing, Andrea Palmer is collected, composed and elegant. Refreshingly, in a world where authors and artists are constantly examining their own emotions and innermost motivations, she is not given to self-exploration. Andrea’s interest lies not in herself, but in the material she has to work with. Despite my attempts to turn the conversation to writing, inspiration and process, I found we talked mostly about research.

For Andrea, this was thrilling and fascinating. She interviewed Plum and countless people who had known her.

“I have dozens and dozens of interviewees and hundreds of hours of taped conversation. I would often have to go back to the same person to clarify facts.”

Very quickly, Andrea became drawn in. She embarked on extensive searches for background historical information. It was necessary to hire researchers to find details in the archives of the British Library. Andrea worked in Australian libraries and investigated collections of personal papers. The extent of her research is evidenced in the long list of thank yous in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the book.

Andrea at Kalyani Foundation
Andrea at Kalyani Foundation, Darbhanga. In foreground is a unique but battered photograph album of Plum’s parents’ visit in 1944.

One of the most memorable aspects of the research was a trip to India, undertaken with a friend, Sue Tweddell, with the intention of directly experiencing the environment of Plum’s early years. The two women went to Darbhanga in Bihar, India, visited often by Plum’s parents in the 1940s. The Maharajah of Darbhanga had built The Lady Willingdon Hospital and a child welfare centre which he named after Plum’s mother, Lady Rutherford. Andrea found Darbhanga to be a chaotic and frustrating place. The town has many beautiful old buildings which she believes could form the basis of a tourist industry, but which are being left to crumble.

Lady Willingdon Hospital today a campground
Lady Willingdon Hospital, today a campground.

Armed only with a photo, Andrea and Sue began asking people on the street if they knew the welfare centre. They were confidently given directions, with each person sending them to a different place. But eventually they found The Lady Rutherford Child Welfare Centre. Sadly, while still operating, it is now dirty and neglected, with verandahs filled with garbage and broken windows.

But in a way the experience provided Andrea with some insight into the exoticism of Plum’s itinerant life and gave her a new respect for this adventurous woman.

A Beautiful Book

Andrea’s writing is flowing and unobtrusive, making it easy for the reader to become absorbed in the life of this extraordinary woman.

Plum

 

The physical book itself is of the highest quality. The cover was designed by Andrea’s sister, Melissa Boyack, who is a graphic designer, and features a painting by their artist father. The paper is heavy and silky to the touch. This is a beautiful object.

 

Like the writing, the process of producing and marketing a book was challenging.

“Without mentors, I would never have completed this gargantuan project. It is one thing to have a good idea, but quite another to bring it to fruition. So many people supported me; I could not have done it without them. … I cannot thank Judith Doughty from Dymocks in Albury enough. The support they give to local authors is just incredible.”

And Now?

After following that huge project through to its conclusion as a finished book … after all the work, the self doubt, the struggles of writing … after proclaiming herself still not a writer … how might Andrea be filling in her time now?

“Against my better judgement, I have started another book.”

Andrea is currently working on the story of her great, great grandmother and her life in Nashville, Tennessee during the American Civil War.

“I guess I just can’t let a good story go.”

 

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