BROADCASTER, AUTHOR, HISTORIAN, EDITOR
10-1-1939 - 13-5-2013
For more than 20 years, ABC Radio National listeners heard the clear, deep tones of Jill Kitson's voice introducing one of her book programs, interviewing writers, or presenting shows such as Lingua Franca. She was a highly respected producer and broadcaster, whose insightful and informative Radio National programs attracted many loyal followers. She was a historian, editor and reviewer, passionate about books and their authors.
As she told the Adelaide Writers' Week audience in 2004: "Listeners love to hear stories told by writers. They love to hear the language of writers. And they love to hear writers talking about language." Kitson's passions extended to our need for historical truth, political integrity and honesty. To those lucky enough to know her personally, she was generous and funny — a woman who would spend days preparing delicious meals for her guests, then entertain them with witty and hilarious conversation.
Jill Middleton Cameron was born on January 10, 1939, in Sydney, the only child of Donald Cameron and his wife, Marjorie (nee Middleton). World War II put pressure on the Camerons' marriage and they divorced. For much of this time, Jill lived with her beloved "Aunty Hay", Marjorie's older sister. Jill and Marjorie went to live in Potts Point, from where she went to school at Ascham, eventually becoming school captain. Here she formed many lifelong friendships, particularly with her teacher, Isobel Marchment, and fellow students Leonie Star and Caroline Graham.
In 1956, Jill enrolled in an arts degree at the University of Sydney, majoring in history and political philosophy. In the three years there, she revealed not only her exceptional intellect but also an impressive thespian talent. She joined the Sydney University Dramatic Society and featured in revues with fellow students such as Anne and Leo Schofield, Maggie Blinco, Clive James, Mike Newman and Mungo McCallum.
After graduation, she worked as a researcher in the University of Sydney's Fisher Library. In 1961, she and her friend Mem embarked on the ship Fairsky, bound for Perugia to study Italian. From there, Jill went to London, where she lived for the next three years.
In London, she worked for Aldus publishing, where she met Michael Kitson (known as Kit). She was the editor of the Modern China Studies International Bulletin, working for noted sinologist Sir David Wilson. In 1964, she and Kit went to Christchurch, New Zealand, where they married and Jill became assistant lecturer in history at Canterbury University. The couple later moved to Japan, where they both worked in publishing, before returning to England in 1969. There Jill continued her work as historian and editor. Her book on the British migration to Australia, The British to the
Antipodes, was published in 1972.
In 1974, the Kitsons, now with two sons, returned to Australia and settled in Melbourne, into the Canterbury house that Jill loved, with its "glow of old wood and distinctive Jill style". Holidays always loomed large for her - holidays with her mother's relatives on sheep properties near Cooma and by the sea at Merimbula, where she, her sons and her animals have spent precious weeks in recent years.
In Melbourne, Jill worked as an editor for Penguin and McPhee Gribble, and taught at the Swinburne Institute of Technology. In 1982, Terry Lane interviewed her for the position of producer for his daily program on 3LO Melbourne. The interview turned into an argument about the historical accuracy of the film Gallipoli and convinced Lane that Jill had the knowledge and intellectual vitality for the job. Lane says he became utterly dependent on her as a source of ideas and
Jill gradually took on more work for ABC Radio National, presenting book shows such as First Edition then Book Talk, as well as producing and editing for other presenters. She travelled regularly to international book festivals in Cheltenham, Hay on Wye and Toronto, and interviewed many international writing stars. Anyone who recorded reviews for her various book shows on Radio National learnt that they were in the hands of a meticulous editor who would keep them up to the mark on pronunciation and good sense. Jill seemed to read everything, particularly history and politics, and she was interested in forgotten corners of the world. Australians' ignorance and neglect of South America led her to initiate the Americas program, and she learnt Spanish so she could be properly informed about events there. She visited South America in the 1990s and developed a passion for tango dancing.
In her hands, Book Talk became a place for the discussion of the history, politics, biography and philosophy she loved. She was able to call on her network of writer friends to produce memorable discussion programs, such as the series of dialogues about poetry she initiated between Clive James and Peter Porter. Another of her ideas became Lingua Franca, a program that pursued aspects of language. She was justly proud of Patriots Three, the six-part documentary series she researched, wrote and produced in 2004. This dramatised the relationship of Keith Murdoch, Billy Hughes and Lloyd George during World War I using their own words.
Jill was an active member of the panel of eminent Australians who advised the Keating government on its groundbreaking cultural policy, Creative Nation (1994). At various times, she judged the Vogel Literary Award, the Miles Franklin award, the Steele Rudd short story award, the Geraldine Pascall prize for reviewing, and several Premiers' awards. She was always prepared to take the flak that sometimes followed her opinions. During the controversy about the award of the Miles Franklin to Helen Darville (Demidenko) for The Hand That Signed the Paper, Jill was the judge who fronted the media and made the panel's case, and bore the brunt of the criticism.
Jill retired from the ABC in 2005 and moved back to Sydney, where she renewed many old friendships. After she moved to Wentworth Falls in 2009 she joined the board of Varuna Writers' Centre and over the past few years wrote book reviews for Inside Story. In recent years, she also conducted interviews for the Australian Generations oral history project.
From 1997, Jill indulged her passion for jazz every year at the Wangaratta Jazz Festival. That year the Chicago singer Kurt Elling was a featured performer, and Jill maintained her devotion to his singing for the rest of her life. Her energy and commitment to every one of her enthusiasms appeared endless. Every aspect of life mattered to her, from the right brand of ice-cream to the presidency of the US.
For the past eight months, Jill had divided her time between her Sydney home with Mem and Paul Gilchrist, and the place where she was happiest, her grand home in Wentworth Falls, where she spent weekends with her sons Michael and Max, and Max's partner, Janina.
Jill Kitson is survived by her family and many devoted friends and colleagues.
ABC Radio National will broadcast a tribute to Jill Kitson at 3pm tomorrow.