Australian Biography: Donald Horne
Professor Donald Horne (1921–2005) was one of Australia's foremost academics, historians and philosophers.
He was the author of The Lucky Country, an evaluation of Australian society published in 1964 that questioned many traditional attitudes.
A staunch republican, he was the editor of The Bulletin magazine in the early 1960s and was made a professor in political science at the University of New South Wales.
He was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1992.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 16, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
I think one of the most formative things in my early life was living in Muswellbrook, which we didn't think was little - it was three and a half thousand: pretty big by the standards at that stage, and one gift given to me from that is something that I simply wouldn't have got I think by being brought up in a suburb, and that was a sense of a whole society. I think it came to me partly through ah my mother's social membranes as it were. She was very sensitive to snubs and insults and so forth, but I had a society at which the big landholders - the Whites - Patrick White's cousins and others were on top, and at the very bottom were people who lived on the common and their ... and their children went to school without shoes, and then all of the intervening parts of that: middle class, lower middle class, upper lower middle class and all of these things so that the ... I described it in The Education of Young Donald and it ... just in a few paragraphs I think, it it really is a microcosmic world. It's the kind of reason I think why I would always like to have written a Nineteenth Century novel. I didn't know the words I'd like to have written ... were kind of rather tedious novels of sensibility that many people write now ... are just to once again have that sense of all of these people having these social relations to each other.
In the hierarchy of Muswellbrook my family was I think put exactly like this: I remember when I was writing The Education of Young Donald, I looked up the Muswellbrook Chronicle over a period of years to see who was invited to the different balls in the town, and the big top ball was the Picnic Races Ball, and school teachers weren't allowed to go to that. Bank managers were for obvious reasons because they were keeping the whole racket going. We were in the next top one, which was the Golf Club Ball, and the golf club ... Some of the big landed families played golf when nobody else was there, but school teachers were just about as low as you could get, I think, at the golf club. Then, after that something that nobody else worried about was the Anglican Ball and they'd look at the Catholic Ball as pretty well near the bottom because Catholics were not seen as really being part of the ordinary human existence.
I think some of the ways in which the home shaped me was that my father brought me a thing called Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge and somehow or other I don't know whether 'encourage' is the right word but [he] was certainly complacent about my buying books of my own which I would save out of money, you know, got from selling newspapers and things of that kind: old newspapers not new ones, to butchers, and ... oh, it was Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge and these things. I had this great desire that I really would like to know everything, kind of view, which some people woulld say of me still, I suppose, and there were times when I really wish I, you know, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could live for a thousand years, except that of course we all know by that stage all of that knowledge would have become rather obsolescent so that the ... It wasn't a scholarly house in any way. The books they had were about four different books, but I had this whole shelf, you know, five mere books and I don't whether the word is 'encouragement' or simply their toleration of my odd habits, but certainly that was being ... there was also, looking back on it, memories of belief, which in our case made entirely secular. Anzac Day was very big in our house. My father would put on his medals and they'd all walk down the street to and then they'd put biofacate - the non-Catholics would go off to the Church of England, and the Catholics would go off to their mass, which seemed a pretty un-Australian thing to do, and their specific ceremony. The School Empire Day was big. I still have a copy of the speech I made for School Empire Day in ...
The shadow of the Great War hung very ... well shadow's not quite the right word because it was also seen as redemptive in some ways, but the memories of the Great War were very big in our house. I remember, once, at night we went to the ... the movies had come to Muswellbrook - and we went to see some movie about pacifists, and when we got home we sat down in the kitchen, as we normally did after going to the movies, and my mother made cups of tea and we sat around having cups of tea and biscuits and my father - he's looking at me very anxiously and then he suddenly says, 'You'd serve wouldn't you if there was another war?' as though we were in some ways getting ready for the next war.
I would have then been I suppose in about fourth class or third class, yes, but I was being signed up.
I expressed idealistic sentiments about the Empire in my great speech, as a great brotherhood of nations, you know all that kind of thing, and ultimately even the natives, you know, a few hundred years from now perhaps ... That was one of the lines of Empire Day.
I don't think ... I mean there was no doubt ah that at that period people got an imperialist view of human existence and Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge certainly presented natives as different from the rest of us. In Muswellbrook we didn't have any multiculturals apart from Greeks. There were the Greeks who ran the ... you know, the steak and eggs place, the cafe, and that was it. There were no Aborigines. Looking up the census returns there were a few ... I think a few Armenians and a few others, but it was an entirely an English speaking society divided most bitterly by the most important division known to human kind: the difference between Protestants and Catholics.
People, now who talk about a divided society, have made a considerable error as they're speaking of the difference between Aboriginal Australians and others, and that is, we now have a complex multi-ethnic society but at that period there was a divided society. The difference between Catholic and Protestant went through most forms of life. I myself believe that Catholics were not really part of the human species like the rest of us. They had distinctive physical characteristics ah which made them different from us, although there were all those individual exceptions, and as we know ... there were ... most business houses were Masonic and anti-Catholic and within government departments there were some Catholic, some Protestant ones. The police were bitterly divided. These were ... it was a divided society of the kind Australia, perhaps, will never be again.
Religion didn't matter much to us. The Church of England were seeing ... we belonged to the Anglo-Presbyterian Ascendancy in the sense that my father was born a Presbyterian but switched over to Anglicanism when he married my mother, and the Church of England - we went to it once a year, for Anzac Day. But we knew we'd been baptised in it - actually I didn't get around to being confirmed - and that we'd be buried in it, and it was there for that kind of purpose.
We the ... The Anglican Ball was not such ... of such significance to us as the Golf Ball - if I might use that expression, but we did know that the Catholics were different: anti-British, superstitious, priests drinking whisky all day, although my school teacher, who had me for about four years, was a Catholic. Of course he was different, and the boy and girl next door, the Cheese family, who ... with whom I used to play, they were quite different. Individual Catholics were human beings, but the idea of it being Catholic was pretty repellent.
Yes well my mother and father represented two, I think, you know, one always doesn't know whether one's just writing this off again as one's own memories, but my father had a nervous breakdown during my adolescence and that changed my attitude to him entirely because he a bit - seemed to me frankly was a bit of a washout for me as an adolescent, but before then, I don't think I distinguished between my likings for them, but my mother was and continued to be a - until she died at the age of ninety-two - a very outward, in some ways rather superficial, but extremely generous and a lively kind of person, who felt that there should always be some fun going on in life. Her house used to be a great centre of playing pianolas, playing bridge, playing tennis - doing all of those things. Whereas my father had a somewhat more systematic view of life. I used to get sometimes beaten by a slither because I'd broken one of the elements of this system.
Oh giving cheek to a shop keeper I remember on one of those occasions - not very often but on one occasion I wrote 'shit' in an indelible pencil on a chocolate box and got a pretty fair hiding from that. I think the indelible pencil made it ... made it worse. He all ... On the other hand he used to be funny. He thought that one of the things in life one had to do, I think, was to do what we would think as wise cracks and make jokes and so forth and I suppose that had some effect on me.
Ah no, he ... I think his funny relationship was just him. He ... he would be funny, we would laugh at him ... but it certainly - I came from a household in which it seemed appropriate that one should make little jokes, which is something I suppose I've continued and tried to do.
I don't know. I used to feel a bit guilty about being an only child because it was spoken about, you know, like one of those menaces: diphtheria, cancer and things like that that people spoke about privately, and one could hear them discussing at night when I was in bed. I was simply self conscious as an only child. I've got not the faintest idea. One theory is this, isn't it, that only children or sometimes the first born have a certain extra confidence. I don't know whether that's true or not, but I wasn't unconfident at that stage.
I used to play mainly with the kids next door, and otherwise my great playmate was actually my female cousin, Elaine, but I ... she was available only on holidays and we developed a very close friendship, and elaborate systems of games and what we'd do every time we met, which was most days on holidays. We'd go down to Sydney for school holidays and we had these great lists of things that we'd might do, and we'd settle that and then do some of them, so that she would have been my greatest friend, although somewhat limited because it was only in school holidays.
I think it would have been just one of those relationships in which we'd known each other for a long time. I mean from the beginning rather. Some of my earliest memories are actually of her. And in which we'd developed conventions of common interest. I mean those words of course, wouldn't have meant anything to children of age four or five, but we'd done that so we had a pattern of common behaviour. We used to have rows that ... I remember once pulling her hair.
I doubt whether that would apply. I think that probably this was a co-operative relationship. I mean honestly I think that very business of working out lists and bargaining about what we were going to do next doesn't sound like ... doesn't sound very dominant.
I spent a fair bit of time alone when I was home, and I developed this habit of ... of reading and of ... I used to, you know, play around by myself sometimes [with] toy trains which I didn't find very ... I found pretty boring. My great experience with toy trains once was just smashing them all up. I remember when I was very young having a Noah's Ark. I didn't have many toys, of course. In those days people didn't. I had a few toys which were kept in a big packing case, and ...
I was the kind of cleverer boy in Muswellbrook District Rural School, I suppose. I remember when I was in second class one of the school teachers - and of course my father being a school teacher, we used to meet them at home - came down to second class and asked me to read to her class which was a fifth class, just to show them how stupid they were: here was a second class boy - what a terrible thing to happen - who could read better ... you know, better than they could so I was a kind of smart ...
I'm not quite sure whether I enjoyed it but I was appalled once when I didn't come top in arithmetic. Throughout my whole period from third class to sixth class, there used to be monthly tests and the results were all put up on the wall, they would perish there until the next year, and I came top in everything. Except that on this particular occasion I think I came fourth in arithmetic and that seemed quite ... quite strange. I might say this kind of know-all, smart character disappeared later in high school but ...
I don't know. I first went to Maitland Boys High School and continued to ... I think I was number three in the Hunter Valley and I ... at the end of the year I'd become number one or something, and then going to Parramatta High School it was associated partly with my father going through this nervous breakdown, through differences between city and country, and other kinds of ways, and to my absolute amazement in my first half yearly exam results in second year at Parramatta High School I failed in French. I never imagined I'd fail in anything. I think that I had a kind of disturbance of some kind, which to some extent impeded or held up my kind of natural cleverness, so there's a ... it's just possible if I'd stayed on at the St. Ann [?] Maitland High School I would have ended up with say four first class honours in the Leaving, rather than two.
I don't know that my troubled adolescence did me any good at all. I think that it took me ... I think it would have been ... I think I might have been a more useful productive person if I had not had a troubled adolescence.
Well my father being a school teacher was moved. There was a great thing in my life called the Ed ... called the Department. It sounds like something out of a Nineteenth Century Russian novel, and mysteriously the Department would intervene in our lives. Once a year it sent somebody called the Inspector, and the Inspector would arrive at Muswellbrook and school teachers whole future would depend on the Inspector. I remember once - I used to put on plays when I was at Muswellbrook - I put on some plays and my teacher got an improved teaching mark from the Inspector because of these plays, and then suddenly the Department decided that my father would move to Sydney. In terms of the Department - it would decide that.
Yes, I was going along well at Maitland. Yes.
I don't know what caused my father's nervous breakdown, but he had it. It didn't matter to me much what had caused it and really that was the end of his existence. He retired from the Education Department and ... and went on to a retirement pension from then, and also one from the Repatriation Department. It was decided that it had some connection with his war service. If that's true or not, I don't know, and that was the end of that really, from there, regard to fathers ...
Well it was eventful in the sense that I simply became somebody else, I think, for quite a period. I was still kind of only ... I was partially clever. There was some subjects in which I was going to be clever and others in which I wasn't. But in my whole period at Parramatta I didn't go to ... have any school companions really apart from ... when I met people at school. I think that was partly because of the uneasiness of our household and all of the people coming along - a big part of that.
In ... yes that's right. In third year, year what? Something or other under the new system - Year Nine if I can ... my sister, Janet, was born, and I wasn't quite sure whether my mother was intelligent enough to have a baby so I read all of the ... you know, the mother craft books and then I got a sister through that process, and ...
Well I just ... yes that was ... yes. We had big discussions also. Once Janet had a dummy. There was a big ... dummy's were really much out at that stage, and there was something called the 'truby king' or 'ruby tring' or something or other. We had big discussions about how she was to be ... go through her early period and you ...
If the processes more or less followed my instructions! My mother's milk dried up and that wasn't allowed for but, you know, there's nothing you can do about that .
I ... I wasn't in charge of it. It's just that we talked about it intelligently like two members of a family.
Yes, well my father was going out of the scene, then in the next year he was out. He ... he was still, at that stage, really tense and difficult to get on with but became even more so.
Yes I was a student so, you know, reading backwards: yes.
I don't know. I mean that's an obvious question. I don't know. All I can say is that the combination of his going around the bend for a while and my being transported to a suburban high school and suburban area seemed to have a ... an unusually large disruptive effect on my life.
Oh that's right yes. Well he wasn't actually he was but found innocent of ...
He wasn't charged, no.
After you came down from Muswellbrook to Parramatta, there was quite a lot of trouble started happening in your whole life, big changes and events: your sister was born, your father got into difficulties too.
Yes well my father began to show signs of nervous disorder when I was in sixth class at Primary School. He ... in fact he took I think two months off and went down to Bondi and I spent a couple of months at Bondi Public School, and he continued. He became more and more prone to anxiety - not so much suspicions, but it was evidencing general quite high neurotic conduct, so that runs through from what we now describe as Years Six, Seven, Eight, Nine. In Year Ten I suddenly discovered that he ... at the school he was at it was suggested that he had I think put his hand on the thigh of one of the pupils. And by this stage he's in an almost state of collapse. Nobody knew whether that was true or not, but he was then declared to have a nervous breakdown and for a while he spent a bit of time at Callan Park which was the ... as we used to say in those days: lunatic asylum. I can remember with this great feeling of my mother's that one should always cheer people up, you know, we'd go there once a week and cheer him up. And then he ... this is the kind of moment interviewers hope, you know, when you finally get your tears ... then he would ... he got better, but he was never much good. He'd been emptied out and he was living on a couple of pensions, and ... I think ... I don't know if that had such an effect on me as the deterioration of the whole family atmosphere running over, what, four and a half years I think, yes ... say.
Yes, well, I seemed to go through some changes over that period but I ... I think it was the ... the drama, actually, of his nervous breakdown was one in which my mother used to say this almost to the day she died: you know, I kind of took over and helped and she had to write things about his condition, and I remember I was going through that period, you know, in which you had inverted sentences, so she had to write this report on him, [and] I was beginning sentences with 'never have I known a man so agitated' and this ... so that she could describe my father's condition to the ... somebody called the Master in Lunacy, I think, at that period. Yeah.
He wasn't ... he wasn't in Callan Park for long. He showed very good progress. He was out of the stone building and they have huts - some huts one to six. It was a bit like the Muswellbrook School when you moved from First Class around the playground: you know, first, second, third, fourth, fifth and in no time at all actually he was a good boy and got into hut six and then was discharged. It was only a period of, I think, about three months or so. He used to say, in his joking manner, that he was actually one of those people who had a certificate saying, 'you're sane'. In those days if you passed out they wrote a thing saying you were sane again, but he was never the same again.
Yes well he was entirely, pretty well, an empty shell by then.
He ... I ... I not only saw it happen before my eyes, but I became, you know, a player in the thing - helping my mother establish these pensions, fighting for pensions, one way or the other, and in general sustaining ourselves.
So your father had been a strong coherent figure in your early childhood, and at a fairly early stage of your adolescent ... adolescence you actually almost swapped roles with him. You had to take on the role of the person who helped you mother with the new baby and you organised things.
Oh it was, I suppose, to some extent like that. Yes.
Or worse things could happen. I was reading, actually, this biography of Dickens and there was this appalling moment of Dickens when he was suddenly sent off to the blacking factory, which had such a shattering effect on him that it then became one of the great Victorian problems it seems. I mean lots of ... lots of ... lots of people's parents were killed at Auschwitz and so forth. I mean the ... there were enormous ranges of human tragedy.
Yes well they were part of it. What I was trying to recall then, also, was the kind of poignancy of the kind of ... kind of cavalier attempt to make fun of everything and keep [things] going as applied to these ... by conventional standards rather tragic circumstances. You know, we go along, have a talk about what was happening and he'd tell us ....
We'd go along to talk about what was happening and he'd give us a bit of gossip from Ward Six or whatever it might be. We'd have a joke, yeah.
I'm ... It's another of those questions which I feel almost as if I'm kind of boasting about this and I have never before in my life thought of ... of it in that kind of way, but I certainly didn't sink anyway.
I didn't like Parramatta High much. I was once invited there a few years ago to give a Speech Day address and I explained ... a Speech Day Address is one of the highest forms ... hardest forms of oratory, so I said to the students, 'I didn't like Parramatta High much', and at once they gave out this universal cheer. I had them. I then moved to Canterbury High School because we shifted house again and there I recovered, actually, a bit of spirit. It was a school which was devoted to only one thing and that was getting good marks in the Leaving Certificate. Yet on the whole I seemed to respond to that, and also my secondary education on the whole was a washout really ... nothing much, but we ... I there found under a history master, who ... a history teacher who tried to interest us in social change, economic change, little bits of Marxism - things of this kind, which represented, I think, the greatest, most intelligent thing that happened to me in my high school days.
Yes, that and also at the school they had a school library. I don't think Parramatta had run one. I can remember picking up the Oxford Book of Modern Verse and reading Elliot's The Hollow Men which seemed a bit odd, and they actually had a selection of ... from The Wasteland and elsewhere, so I started reading away. And I also used to go into town, as we used to call the central business district back in those days, oh pretty regularly about once a month I think, and I'd go to the Municipal Library and get whatever the total number of books was - I forget - from that, and my father, as a teacher, also belonged to the Teacher's Federation Library, so I'd get another stack of books from that, then I'd go back through all these trams and trains and trolley buses carrying this enormous stack of books which I would try to get through.
I had no interest in playing sport. I used to play tennis when I was in primary school because we had a tennis court. After that I played nothing. I ... I tried to go ... there was cricket for a season at Maitland so that frightened me. I didn't quite understand why the ball wouldn't hit me, and otherwise in the summer I used to be ... used to go swimming which was quite easy to swim - swam around. And in the winter I used to try to avoid football by ... at Parramatta there was a cinema near the high school. It's still there I think. It was quite easy to sneak off there Wednesday afternoons.
At Parramatta High I just led this reclusive life because of our deteriorating home situation. At Canterbury I actually did develop some friends, yes. I started having friends again, and I remember one great occasion for me was ... a liberation after all that anxiety - was that I went off with one of these friends to a boarding house in Kurrajong Heights and had a good time for a couple of [hours with] school girls there and some other people and so forth so I ... I began to feel that, you know, my great problems were over. In fact I had diary in which I confided the fact that things were going to get better now.
I felt like some new kind of human being, I suppose, yeah.
Yes, when I went to the University the ... possib ... my imagination burst with all the enormous changes that occurred to me at Sydney University. And it is my experience of people at universities on the whole that it doesn't necessarily produce all that many changes. In my case it did. In one year I had acquired a knowledge of French Symbolist Poetry. I'd met Jim McAuley and Harold Stewart and others who told me about that. The famous exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings had come to Sydney, so I'd go along and see that every Saturday. I passed rapidly from Marxism to Trotskyism to Anarchism, which was my ideal position at the end of the age of seventeen, and I was trying to read my way through all the great Victorian novels. And, oh, I was also, of course, entirely familiar with, say, page one of the Freud's The Pscyhopathology of Everyday Life, and had read Ulysses.
And this broader interest in the ideas ... the politics of ideas, the ideas of politics and society generally ... in general, was given some practical expression in your own involvement in the politics of university life.
Yes I ... I ... I'd just like to make a little point before answering that. It often occurred to me when I was, you know, lecturing at the University of New South Wales that student ... good students there simply couldn't have had the kind of education I've had. When I was there I didn't turn up at lectures much. I had to ... you had to do the essays and you sat for an exam and the exam was a 100 per cent of the mark, no tutorials and so forth, and this gave me the opportunity to do this enormous amount of reading in my spare time at Sydney University. I educated myself in the modern movement in literature, in painting, and in certain areas of philosophy and so forth, which is not available in the ordinary courses. I sometimes ... I ... I'm sure universities I think are miles better now than they were then, but that kind of university suited me better.
No, well very few - about two people then as now. Universities were mainly places where you got a degree so you'd get a job. They used to call Melbourne University 'the shop'. It was the place where you bought a degree and, of course, most of them were bought. There were ... at Sydney University I think there were two hundred people on exhibitions [sic] who didn't have to pay their fees and the rest were there because their parents could buy them university educations.
I was there on a teachers' college scholarship actually, which much to my shame. It's not shame but disgust.
Well the teachers' college scholarship had attached to it forty pounds a year. It was pretty good money then, and it was the only way in which I could get through the university.
Yeah, a living allowance of forty pounds per year plus books. I ... I used to work in the vacations mainly in book shops. I remember working at Dymocks, finally, and there I was promoted from the basement to selling, and I spent several weeks selling books and as I was leaving on Christmas Eve, it was the ge ... general manager whatever he was, is there saying good night to us all and thank you for a good season, and he says to me - I'm ... this is at the age of seventeen, and I'm about to go to university - and he says, 'Goodnight Mr Horne', as he called me. He said, 'I think there might be a career for you in books'.
Do you think there was any reason why you were able to use the freedom and time that university offered to extend your education when many other people there just found the lack of compulsory lessons an excuse for doing very little?
I think I'm one of nature's autodidacts in the sense that I believe really the only education that thoroughly matters is the stuff you teach yourself. That can mean of course following a conventional course, but having a critical interest in it, and I don't know I suppose it goes back to sitting there reading Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge from front to back and then all over again, hoping I could know everything. [INTERRUPTION]
I think I'm a natural autodidact. That is to say I teach myself. That's ... that's a process that can occur in formal education. It means that people handle the material critically and so forth, but I seem to have done it mainly outside formal education. It may go back to that period when I was reading Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge thinking I might know everything. It was also prompted, of course, in my first year at Sydney University by the fact that some of the people I met, all of whom were older than I were, opened up new doors. So it was an accident that the ... this great impressionist, post impressionist exhibition of paintings arrived that year. It was an accident I met Jim McCauley, who introduced me to Mallarmé, Baudelaire, Lafourge and so forth. It was an accident that I met other people who introduced me to Trotskyism, Leninism, Marxism, Anarchism - God knows what, and there was also ... there were Alec Hope. A.D. Hope was another of the people that ... whose acquaintance I've acquired, although I was much younger than he was at that stage, so there were people suggesting extra things I might do. And there was John Anderson and he ... he controlled something amongst other things ... the then Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University and a famous free thinker. He had a special little library which was meant to offset the conservatism of the official library, and I was able to whip through that, or part of it during the year. And then Anderson himself was one of those rare things: a university teacher who really can change people's ways. He had disciples. He was ... the word 'charismatic' is almost always wrongly used, but he did have a kind of semi-charismatic intellectual appeal, in which you felt that out of this Scottish mouth, with this Glaswegian accent, was coming the absolute truth in ethics, aesthetics, in general philosophy, in what we would now describe as sociology and psychology. He had an a ... an overall view like Hegel that a Philosopher knew everything which probably appealed to me too, and that was very useful because the kind of interest I've been trying to show, I suppose, in some ways in public intellectual life in Australia many years later is based on the fundamental belief that it's an error to imagine that human activity can be divided into economics, sociology, politics, anthropology and so forth, that humans don't exist in that kind of way, and you see it whole.
I think Anderson on the whole had a bad impact on me as a person because although a free thinker, he was actually extremely authoritarian. For example, a characteristic Anderson lecture: he would come in, and in five minutes he'd ad lib about what he'd spoken about in the previous lecture, then for forty minutes he would dictate a lecture, at dictation speed, and in the next five minutes he was telling you what was going to happen in the next episode, and although a free thinker he had all kinds of certainties: this is aesthetics, this is ethics and so forth, which took me years to get rid of.
Yes I ... I didn't really need assistance from anybody to make me too certain but he ... and it ... it had on me and other people different things. It had a kind of desiccating effect. He was, of course, very useful in one field and that is having left the Communist Party himself several years before I arrived there, he enabled people of my generation to know all of those truths about Stalinism and what was happening in the Soviet Union, generations before people finally all admitted that was what was so. So I didn't have to go through a Communist period.
You were always pretty critical of everything you encountered. Did this critical faculty get applied in your assessment of the effect he was having on you at the time? Were you conscious of the things that you now see were wrong with him then? Or did you have a fairly uncritical regard for him?
I had ... I had my own selection of Andersonianism which I have a high regard for. Ander ... I never really had an entirely a high regard - unqualified for anybody or anything and certainly not myself, and for example in ... I think in 1941, he was President of this Literary Society, I explained to him it was time that he moved over and I simply said it was time he got off the Literary Society. He agreed and then when we came to the Annual General Meeting, somebody who didn't like me nominated him, and he said, oh well he had to accept nomination, and then we had a vote and he was defeated.
Yes I hadn't ... well my period at Muswellbrook had given me, as it were, a sense of society. I didn't have any sense at all of politics until I was at Sydney University, and that came about partly through pushiness. I thought the first issue I read of the University Faculty of Arts Literary Journal called Arna was so dreadful that I had to write to Honi Soit and explain to everybody how dreadful it was, and I applied some Andersonianism here too. It shouldn't be in the hands of managers but of the artists themselves because that was a kind of good anarchist [principle]. Subsequently [that became] part of the basis of belief of the peer group that formed the Australia Council, so I wrote this letter which was under the heading Arna - Pleiade or Cabal? a heading I was rather proud of because I'd only recently learnt the ... the meanings of those two words. I had ... a 'Pleiade' actually being a constellation of artists and others who were governing their own affairs, and a 'Cabal' being secret conspirers in the Arts Faculty bureaucracy and producing this magazine, so I kind of butted it in, and I remember that irritated people, who wrote letters making fun of what I'd said. And we formed a society ... There was one history lecturer who got on our nerves a bit. He was an extreme patriot and we formed something called the Anglo-Saxon Society. He was always talking about Anglo-Saxon civilisation, so we formed an Anglo-Saxon Society, which made fun of Anglo-Saxon civilisation. My big breakthrough occurred [when] my friend, Bill Pritchard, who later became, towards the end of his career, head of the Defence Department, became editor of Honi Soit. He'd gone to the Shore ... the Sydney Church of England Grammar School, and at that stage only people who'd been to GPS schools of that kind were likely to become editor of Honi Soit or anything, and we'd become very friendly and I went in with him too, and then I entered student affairs almost full time. I abandoned most of my studies, replaced him during the year, got mixed up in all that business about the Student Representative Council, the National Union of Australian Students and ... and so forth and began to philosophise about politics. By that stage I felt ... by the end of the year I felt I knew really all that need be known about interpersonal politics. I may've been right. [INTERRUPTION]
Yes I have been thinking about that lately, and I think that even when I was editing Honi Soit I had this idea that there's more to life just than very very careful and thorough statements, that you arouse people's interest, and you do that particularly by giving them a big shot or by a loaded phrase, whatever it might be. That that I ... I regard life as hypothetical, in a sense. I mean it's all a theory about what existence is, and in some ways you can help people think by setting them something, and I seemed to in Honi Soit, I think, looking back on it, I hadn't really thought about it before you asked that question as early as that. It was beginning to ... to describe it as technique is slightly wrong I think, because it wasn't something ... I didn't sit down and think now this is the way in which you encourage discussion. I think I just did it.
I certainly enjoyed the whole idea of experimenting and mucking around. Of course you get pretty frightened too at times. You think God I might be sent down, I might be expelled, I might get the sack or whatever, so that you you bear that in mind as well, but there can certainly ... it's it would be wrong just to imagine that it's just getting your enjoyment out of irritating people, although at that stage it might have been true. You can also get enjoyment out of people actually responding to what you're saying but there certainly is an excess of excitement. But I don't want to overdo it but I think there's also a sense of intellectual excitement, you know. I may be wrong, I may be right, and I ... I believe in people making very positive statements and that's one way of finding out if you really believe what you're saying.
Well, there's an enormous difference, isn't there, between the stuff that comes out of our mouths or that we put into paintings or whatever it is, and what's going on inside. There's no necessary relation at all. Inside, if anybody just thinks about it for a few seconds, they realise that it's a mess, it's conflicts, you're thinking of ten different things at once, you're hearing the clock ticking, you're wondering [about] all kinds of matters which are happening all over the place. Nobody ever thinks, unless they start using words inside their heads, along a rational line of discourse, so you've got all that stuff there, and then out comes something. You know, all these characters, you know, who write so very carefully ... I ... I'm not deriding anybody in what they write, but they're not writing about how people think either, and what I ... I now am ready to do, is out of all of these conflicting thoughts that one has, interruptions and so forth, is to bring out something or other, and at least present this bit, you know: you have a look at that. But I think you've ... it's an enormously important question. One of the really important things, I think, talking about human communication, is it doesn't exist. I can't communicate to you. That would require taking out my brain and putting it inside your brain, perhaps, [and it's] unlikely to work anyway. Nobody can ever express himself or herself. That's a terrible mistake that people make at schools I think. What we do is to learn various techniques of talking, of writing, if we're talented enough of film making or ... which of course is all a contrivance, isn't it, even more so. We have these techniques and then there's all this stuff going on in my head and out of my mouth comes something or other, which is a verbal technique, and into your head it goes, amongst all those other things you've got in your head as well. You make something of it which maybe related to what I've said. On the other hand it may be the opposite, or it may give you a new thought and you forget what I have said and you've got your own thought. That's not really communication, is it?
I think that I have always had, as well as being an autodidact, a didactic approach. I think that I really feel that people should be given the light where it is available and I'd like to help ... help them. I'm sounding patronising. Of course that is patronising but, oh, heavens what would you do without people like that? Nobody would ever think about anything.
One, yes, certainly, although I now understand that there's nothing wrong with that, and that it also has been my experience that I sometimes express things very forcibly and got reactions and then changed my own mind. Setting the cat amongst the pigeons and so forth is a kind of sideline, which still exists. I mean that can exist as well, and I don't think it's an antithesis. It's not either or. You can have the desire to illuminate people by letting them know the great thoughts you've just had yourself, [and] you can be aware of the fact that you didn't really just have that great thought, you had about ten others, and this is one that you picked out of your head and ... and showed them, and at the same time - yes you can certainly get a certain excitement. Though, I think excitement rather than enjoyment - that may be a better word in looking at the reactions. But the reactions do include the pleasure of some people actually being interested in what you're saying and not simply [being] affronted by it.
Yes well the most notable one, the one that ... in which there were threats of sending me down, was that I wrote an editorial about sex - about which I didn't know all that much actually at the time - under the heading Sex, isn't it dreadful? and this caused an enormous stir, and then in what ...
I should really look it up to be quite sure. I think it was nothing much more really than people were to talk about it a bit more freely. At one stage there, especially the one thing that especially irritated people, was that I said that really for lots of people the only written communication they have about sex is what they read on lavatory walls, and that caused an affront, and then suddenly there was this great descent of letters complaining, all complaining, and so I said, 'Oh gee that's good. I've got next week's headline', and I can remember it was in sixty point metro bold caps, 'Sex Leader Causes Big Stir' and I think that filled up a couple of pages of Honi Soit. The ... the women's groups and Temperance Union went to the Vice Chancellor and complained and he took me to afternoon tea and explained this that he told them, really, it wasn't his business. And I said, 'What didn't they like about me?' and he said, 'Oh you know, they think you've got a dirty mind'.
No I used to rather despise the idea of journalism. I actually became the university correspondent for the Daily Telegraph when I was there. Three pounds a week for God's sake and here was I [existing] on forty pounds per year. But I just ... I just regarded that as a way of just getting three pounds a week. It meant I could pay for my own drinks, which I hadn't been always able to do previously. I became a journalist entirely by accident.
The Daily Telegraph ... this is something that some people simply can't believe but I've looked back and checked that in 1936 when I was doing what they used to call then the Intermediate Certificate, the Daily Telegraph was taken over by Packer with a very talented editor, Syd Deamer, as its editor and a full crew of liberal humanists, and they had a programme, which was roughly speaking being successful apart from world peace and a few other odds and ends like that, but all the other stuff you know getting away with censorship, drinking wine with meals, having an Australian film industry and so forth and the ... this was a great illumination to me. I didn't know other people who knew all of that, and it was so different from the Herald, which I considered to be a very conservative and reactionary paper. And the Telegraph continued to have that note about it, although acquiring other characteristics as well, for about ten years.
I was sacked as university correspondent because it ... I ... there was a big fuss at the end of the year when I brought a special issue of Honi Soit. They were challenging the appointment of a couple of professors that were believed to be anti-Semitic and also, you know, law professional closed shop grounds. And I brought out this special issue, and I actually dropped it into the Telegraph Office so that they could have a scoop, and I was feeling a bit off and I woke up the next morning and I had chicken pox and they'd lost the proofs and then they rang me up and said I was sacked because I'd missed this big story. So I pointed out that actually I'd given it to them but I was going to the army the next day I think. Anyway so that was the ... the first of the end of my career in journalism.
But that was brought about by your entry into the army which provided a whole other episode in your life. Before we leave the university and Honi, I wanted to ask you about whether or not at that stage you were conscious of a pattern emerging, in which authority had to always be questioned.
Yes certainly. Well of course Anderson - John Anderson - was a ... a great exponent of that: all authorities had to be questioned apart from his own, and that was certainly, by that stage, become[ing] crystallised, and ideologised as it were - the idea of criticism.
Or even earlier. My ... my father before he fell to bits used to say, you know, 'You should think for yourself', and so on. I suppose lots of fathers say that to their children but I seemed to be responsive to that idea so that I think, somewhere or other in those mysteries of personality development, even before my father went around the bend, I had acquired a certain kind of critical spirit. The ... his collapse and other factors: I had a kind of alienated adolescence ... may have got behind it further but the few school teachers I had, especially the history teacher, cultivated it, and then at the university, of course, it's all there in books, you know: criticism's good. That's what you should do. 'The unexamined life', says Socrates, 'is not worth living'. I don't want to condemn other people's lives but I certainly apply that to my own.
You found yourself at university also for the first ... first time in your life, having a sort of substance and style in your life to attract enemies, to attract people who were on your side, and people who opposed you. I get a sense out of your autobiographical writings that you really relished this.
Yes well I think that I probably relished, when I was at the university, more enemies than friends. In fact I didn't have much option towards the end. I'd pretty well run out of friends. I would no longer be in that position at all, in any way, but it does ... it has made me aware of the fact that one can tolerate enemies. I mean that one can't expect that ... one can't imagine that you're always going to be universally liked and as we know even people, who have no public realm at all, in their ordinary lives, they walk out of a room and people start talking about them behind their back and it's characteristic of human behaviour, that we're all criticising each other. And it's very disappointing but never the less there.
I think you've got to harden your skin, yes. I ... I must say that there were some reviews of things that I've done that had infuriated me but I think, on the whole, for each instance you shouldn't whinge about that. One can ... can get examples of Australian writers who reach the top of success, by our terms, who still act quite childishly, in resenting the fact that not every individual single critic has said that David Williamson's a great dramatist.
I think actually I've been more hurt later. I think by that stage it both infuriated me and in a sense excited and delighted me as well: how right I must have been with all these idiots who are attacking me. I was very hurt when my first letter ... I ... Of course in these things you have to understand, which some people don't normally do, if you dish it out you're supposed to have been able to take it. In my first Honi Soit letter I'd written this letter dishing it out, but I got terribly hurt that anybody ... so some people had a go at me. But I think after several years of that I did become ... begin to understand that equation better.
Well I hadn't actually, but I had alienated a number of them by that stage. I seemed to be acquiring new ones.
What do you think ... did you learn anything from that? Did that experience stay with you? Because you say that you can perfectly well do with enemies, but some people find it harder to do without friends.
Yes well by the time I'd left the university I ... in fact I wrote two farewell poems to the university which expressed my feelings about it. Then I was thrown into the army, where one develops a different idea of friendship. You know you develop ... your being talked to and pass the time with ... and so on. The army was dreadfully boring for me. I didn't understand the army. I didn't get much out of it. But you could always find people with whom you can ... one can share experiences. So that I passed from this highly febrile university relationship, a bit like a Dostoyevskian novel played fast for laughs, into the more traditional ... not mateship - I don't know that mateship exists quite that way - but those relations between people thrown into similar circumstances, who can find some accommodation with each other.
I think pleasure would be going too far because they weren't exactly the kinds of friendships I wanted, which would always have in them, I think, a certain intellectual quality, but I got kind of, you know, solace out of them. They kind of helped get through ...
Well not really tough when you think of the millions of people who ... who were having much tougher times like being killed or tortured or wounded, one way and the other ... were having their whole life destroyed. It was a relatively easy time. It was for me, in the army, mainly a bit boring and also, of course, highly artificial in the sense that pretending that I was gunner and this would be true of lots of my companions as well - pretending to do a role, that I wasn't ... it wasn't me.
At the time I certainly saw intellectual activity and also politics as some kind of fun: had enormous ups and downs and reverses and I was actually writing it up in my head at the same time and imagining that I was learning all about the relations between people from these, in fact, not all that usual circumstances, but one can overdo the element of fun. It'd be a useful superficial approach to ... I go on about things I suppose. And ...
I ... I ... I do believe actually in not ... in trying to avoid too much public whingeing, and I think that even if things aren't going so well I think it might be better to put an optimistic and ironic face on them.
My mother ... I would certainly have learnt that from my mother. That's right yes. Yeah. My father wasn't exactly a whinger but he was a little bit of a whinger inside I think.
Girls played a very active part in my life at primary school, both with my cousin and also with friends because, you know, mixed schools they were ... Since I was not having any friends at all through most of my high school period, that included females as well as males. At the university this was something that some young people can't understand. There were already a number of women - not many maybe, but a number of women who were ... had achieved a certain equality, certainly in intellectual matters and so forth with men, so that this ... these groups in which I were mixing, women and men were seen as intellectual equals, so over that period I had a ... an experience that still perhaps hasn't reached some people in Australia. In the early ... of course girls were rather not especially noted for their presence.
I'd ... I'd had some kind of, you know, sexual episodes, but in a way not uncharacteristic of people at that time. None of them could be described as mature.
In relation to friendship generally, you say that there'd been a progression and a period of really quite intense loneliness it sounds like, in which you were operating quite separately from any intimate companion.
Yes well I was at secondary school - high school - I was very lonely yes. At the university I was intensely preoccupied with my relations between people, whether they were enemies or friends is not ... doesn't matter much in that, does it? But I mean I was living ... as well as reading all this stuff and looking at all these paintings and things, I was living a series of interlocking and intense personal relationships with people, some of which may have been friendly, some enemies, some others - nothing very boring about it all, but of course into the army one has the ... this rather boring life in which one ... it is a question of a special accommodation of getting on with people.
I'm ... the important part that friendship has played for me, I think, has been that of intellectual experience and I can talk about it ... the kinds of things we talk about in ways that we mightn't be able to do with other people around. And I can't think of any friendships I've had with people that haven't had to some extent that element in them.
In the ... I'm sorry, do you mind asking that question again. I missed the end bit of it.
I missed the last word. You said that ...
I think there's a word: I lend myself out in various bits to various people. There are a whole lot of things that I don't consider all that confidential about myself so I wouldn't any longer have all that much in the way I think of secrets, apart from those inner things that one hasn't even thought about oneself, which ... some of which you may only be bringing out now ... The questions about loyalty and so forth, those are more related, to my mind anyway, in kind of not occupational, but just in kind ... of various kinds of practical situations that are extremely important if you're engaging in something. But I ... I don't live in a world in which I have some sense that I'm defined and depend on the loyalty or lack of loyalty of friends. I don't, in a sense, want to use them that way.
I suppose the question I'm really asking is that it's obvious that you have friends that you use for intellectual exchange, for stimulation to ... to kick around ideas with. There's another sort of level of friendship that has to do with an emotional relationship with somebody.
Yes, well I think what I was saying is in my case the first is essential and the second might also exist. They're not contradictory.
I ... I don't know that I ... I ... that would be I think ... I just wouldn't like to specify names I think ...
Well I don't know. I mean I'd have to ... it would be ... it really ... I mean I never thought about it myself. I don't want to work out a list, and I might improvise something there, which I'd later regret since this is going on to a ... to ...
Returning now to women, you've ... after this sort of initial period as you say where the relationships with ... with women were in some ways different from the way people might have expected you to be, and you had some women among your friends, when did you first form a relationship with a woman in the adult sense?
Well ... if there ... if ... that's presupposing the question that one ... is adult ... well I think in ... I described that in one of my autobiographical books that at about the end of 1944 - '45 women, as it were, entered my life and the ... I think it's worth pointing out that even there these questions of ... I ... I know one can overdo the idea of equality ... existed because this was in the area of the kind of Kings Cross bohemian intellectual life, and also journalists - which were both areas in which women were all ... already to some extent allowed to be there, and almost every field in which I've worked since then has been one in which women haven't been seen as curiosities, although they may sometimes not have got as well on ... as well as males, but they've been ... haven't been exceptional ... and ... As I get older I seem to actually have more women ... mean more friends who are female rather than male, connected I think with this ... you were talking about using them intellectually. I would like to imagine that it would be mutual use.
I got married first in 1948. It was an English woman with whom I'd been living part of that ... for a while, and went over to her in England in 1949. I have described some of this in [the] second of my autobiographical trilogy, where I'd intended to live in England for the rest of my life, where I was on the way to becoming I think, even a conservative Member of Parliament. I was hoping to become ... Lived in a country village and then worked in London, and built up a whole life that seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what had preceded it. And when I wrote that autobiographical trilogy I intended it to remain ... have certain enigmatic qualities about it. Why did that happen? Well the reason why I left it enigmatic is I ... I don't know. I ... I think people can be over clever about giving the reasons for why this, that or any of the other happened. In some cases my father going around the bend and things like that you can see there's possibly a relationship. Why this happened, I don't know. It was quite amazing, and when I wrote the book I just hoped that people would be amazed by that and, like me, think I wonder why that happened and then ... and then not know about it. Anyway ...
You practically prepared to be ... your word 'over clever' in putting constructs on public things, on your attitudes and beliefs about the world around you, but you do have this reluctance, which is apparent in your writing, and even as we talk now, in putting similar constructs on your personal and private feelings, thoughts and relationships.
I think there should be several reasons for that: one is, of course, that sometimes they affect other people, and it's a question of getting them, as well as oneself, to come into it, and second is that I frankly believe that a great deal of this self revelation is not altogether honest for the very reason that I said: that we live [and] our minds are such a muddle with so many conflicts. People reveal themselves. Now they're making something up, which may not be as full, which may seem a much more rational explanation than has actually occurred. When talking about myself I don't mind talking about the public stuff in that in some ways that's more verifiable and there's something that you can feel there's been some evidence because that happened outside all this internal stuff. So that I don't especially want to be enigmatic. I hadn't even thought of myself much like that, but if that's the way it is, okay that ... And certainly that was how I decided to write this autobiographical series. I've ... I don't ... Another reason is I think that I was concerned in that with myself in one sense, although it's kind of egocentric - it's all about me, it's also I think in a relatively modest in the sense that I don't imagine that human beings have all that much control over what happens to them, and I wanted to have this simple character, you know, reflecting social changes and social accidents, and I wanted attention to be pinned on that. But if you suddenly start going into great romantic episodes or febrile acts or one thing or another, they can have such ... we ... we all know I mean writing now, those are the big bits. When you've got a movie you show some ... some woman's breasts or something that may occur for half a second but that gets people into a cinema, and I didn't want to distract from that.
Sometimes, of course, hindsight allows you to see patterns of your own behaviour emerging so that when you're asked to question about the way you've behaved in relationships, with friendships or whatever over the years, you can sometimes see, say, we've already agreed a certain anti-authoritarian streak, which as you say doesn't sit well with looking as if you're going to run as a Conservative MP.
Well my becoming a Conservative MP was for later. I don't think I can compress this very quickly, but having been an anarchist at Sydney University, I continued to be what I would describe as a small 'l' liberal. I mean, I've always believed in abortion on demand, no censorship, the entire packet of works, so I used to worry about whether people should be allowed to masturbate publicly and I decided if they want to do it there could be special streets where they could do it, that people be warned about. I mean, I was at that kind of limit, so I had no doubt about being that kind of liberal. But I was also fervently anti-Stalinist, which in those days for intellectuals was sometimes a rather risky business, because you were usually seen then as therefore a fascist. But I also was firmly anti-planner - the kinds of things Hayek and others, now seen as great authorities by the economic fundamentalists. I read all them in the mid 1940s. I was never an economic fundamentalist to the extent that some of these people are now.
Yes. I use economic fundamentalist because I think economic rationalist gives rationalism a bad name and anyway, there's a rational element in all economics. It's a based on the idea of rational decision making, which is a bit of a fantasy that can be useful, but, so that in a sense amongst intellectuals, I was a bit anti-authoritarian because I had become anti-planning and anti-progressive in political terms, so that my becoming a ... almost becoming a Conservative candidate I ... I moved into it, as it usually happened with me [clicks fingers] just through impulsion and some accident. I started a Conservative Party in France and one thing led to the other. For me that was an act of defiance of most of my friends. So I'm glad you asked that question, that one has to go back to those days to understand how to be conservative. That some ... somebody like me could be ... to be anti the authority of the peer group general approach.
That makes me sound like somebody who's changing clothes all day. [INTERRUPTION]
Oh well to begin with I decided I was going to be a great novelist, and I'd saved some money. I'd a ... as well as working I ... I was a ... which is not very difficult [as] a successful young journalist and the top of the earning rate I think and I earned some extra money as well, and so that for about eighteen months we lived on that and I wrote a novel, which was published many years later under another title, and then started to write another one - borrowed some money and nobody was interested in the second one, and then after whatever that is, about two and a half years I think, had to descend to actually working again as a journalist on a newspaper.
I think I probably learnt all that had to be learnt about working as a journalist in the few years that I'd done it in Australia. I don't know that journalism is something in which you continue to acquire all that much and in that they are techniques. You may extend your range of interests and so forth, but it's necessarily limited to a few devices.
However there's a great difference in the quality of journalism that you get from some journalists as opposed to others. Do you have any particular thoughts on that aspect of your life? What do you feel about journalism? What do you think makes good journalism?
My ... my own experience is that I think I was probably most useful as a journalist when I started to become an editor and that was partly just in the range of relatively small publications. I did a thing called The Observer. I was working for Frank Packer and actually producing about a tenth rate magazine at the same time and as compensation I was given The Observer, and it was the ... With the help of a couple of people on the staff we were able in that to help people have a bit of a new think about Australia I think. I think that would probably have been the way in which I can see myself as being most useful as a journalist. Even when I was working in Sydney on the Daily Telegraph under a very tough editor, the articles that I liked best were those feature articles of the kind that might ... this was amongst the ordinary people, not just one's intellectual mates - you know, that might make them have a bit of a think. Now that is not all journalism by any means, but that happens to be the bit of journalism that I've been most personally interested in and that I have any talents in, it's that I felt that I've been best at.
I think that for the moment I would like the Parliamentary Press Gallery to imagine that there's more to life than the possible political effects of the latest economic indicator. I think the journalists have a enormous responsibility amongst themselves to set a very diverse agenda, and while it's true that ownership shouldn't be too concentrated, that's only the beginning of the story. Sometimes journalists themselves have a monopoly of approach, and that's been characteristic I think of the Australian media: television news, current affairs programmes and the newspapers, although perhaps newspapers to a less extent, of Australia over the late 1980s and early 1990s, that what mattered in the world was limited really just to Parliamentary ... Parliament House gossip, how people performed at question time, what would be the effect of the latest economic indicators and the leadership struggle within the Liberal or Labor Party, who are the greatest ranging business activities simply by the money that people have earned or not earned or stolen or borrowed, but this has been I think in Australia ... Australian journalism over this period a rather degrading and debilitating period. It's an extraordinary period in world history: [with] no cold war, the old style economics doesn't work, the old style political divisions no longer work. Australia, itself, needs all kinds of new definitions and unfortunately the kind of news treatments and feature treatments don't sufficiently, I think, take that into account.
I think that in Australia, this has happened just by an accident. There was a new lot of people got into the press gallery a decade or a generation ago who were pretty good, and changed things and then they'd become an engine without control. Those kind of the journalists in a situation like that don't like to do anything the others aren't doing. You get a kind of a common agenda and they tend to stick to it, so that several times over that period ... I don't write many articles any longer but I sometimes try to write ones which might be entirely different from what the prevailing wisdom amongst journalists is.
Pure chance. I became the university correspondent of Honi Soit by accident and then I left the army to become a diplomatic cadet, and I left that mainly because I had ... was going through a very demanding love affair, which meant that I had to be in Sydney, not in Canberra, so I gave up diplomacy and as it turned out I was able to get a job ... Anybody could get a job in journalism in those days. I got a job in journalism and ironically was then sent back to Canberra. So it was by accident.
Yes that's right.
Yes. Yes, yes, oh yes. I think also perhaps I wouldn't have made a very good diplomat at that stage. I'd could probably make a good one now, but I was too ... a bit too wild so you've got at last a little bit of romance!
Well, I don't think that I ... I'd imagined that I would end up being a writer, yes. And so that what was happening this month or next month, I was quite young. You know, people don't go around having all that many hopes. It was just some fill- in. There was an occasion I found in a school boy diary of mine, and I said, 'What should I like to become?' This is when I'm fifth year at high school I think: 'A university teacher? A writer?', which I became.
Well I think that one has to recognise that people ... some people ... people write because they like it to begin with. That doesn't mean that they necessarily get physical pleasure out of it. Lots of people like long distance running, and it can be pretty hard and distressing but you can become obsessed by it. And ... and one of the ... to me one of the great delights of writing itself, is that it can give you a sense of freedom, which is something we don't have all that much in our lives. If you happen to be a formula writer, who's hit something, which means you make a fair bit of money out of it, you lose that freedom because you've just got to produce the same stuff, but you're sitting there and you're wondering, you know, what [do] I think? I wonder what I might do next? So I changed this and certainly some of the books I've written they've been enormously interesting that way because I've discovered what I might possibly think, as distinguished from all this stuff going on in the head. You know, how one might possibly put it down, and there's also, you know, pleasure with [the] handling of words in a great number of ways so that that's, I think, why all writers write, apart from, perhaps, the formula addicts. Then you think, what would be the possible effects of this? Now lots of them don't go ... of course think about that, at all. They just believe. They've got ... everybody ought to buy it or admire it or whatever it may be. In my case I would certainly think to some extent of its effect. You can overdo it and you can sometimes underestimate the possible intelligence and reactions of people. The first book of mine that was published, although it wasn't the first one that I wrote, was that thing The Lucky Country, and I had imagined with that, that that would make people have a bit of a think. And of course it ended up as a great commercial success and was photocopied in schools and all over the place. It had various kinds of ... of effects and it reached a much wider audience than anybody at all would have anticipated. In a much smaller sense, when I started this little thing, The Observer, which only sold about 10,000 copies an issue, I didn't know who was going to buy it but it was putting up some new ideas about how one might see Australia in the world, and there were 10,000 people buying it. God knows who they were, but in ... in both of these cases what was happening, I think, was that I and The Observer generally were articulating to people something that was already in their heads. I think that if ... in so far as writing is influential, it's always influential because it's telling people something they half knew or want to know. It may sometimes simply be confirming them in old stuff of course, or it may be leading them on to a new kind of realisation. So I think I like writing because I like writing. It doesn't mean that it's a breeze, but also in writing I've got to have a certain didactic ... I must confess a normal - I don't know whether confession's the right word - feeling that this might give people something to think about.
As a journalist you said your best contribution was as an editor. Were the ... obviously there's an obvious difference between that and writing books, in that you were dependent on the writings of other people. Did this ever irritate you as an editor that you couldn't write ...
[over Robin] Not much ...
No. Yes sometimes. Not much. I used to sometimes in the sense that I was a very ... how I wasn't bad at briefing people and also [I was] pretty quick at rewriting stuff ...
I ... really, I can't quite remember.
I ... well in that sense I ... that to my mind I ... I wish there were a few more editors like that now. I mean, I think that a thing like a magazine - it's a ... it's a thing like producing a movie. It's more limited than a movie because it's got to be roughly the same each week. Of course many movies are formulas also, so you've got all that stuff, and a lot of it's wasted. You're trying stuff out, but in a ... in a movie finally somebody or other kind of creates it - yes? And an editor I think should be doing that.
[Sighs] This is ... I'm ... I'm struck by my first case of false modesty here I think. I ... I think that it can sometimes be useful if you're fulfilling a role like that to be an interesting personality. The people can hate you but nevertheless be interested in what you are doing, and I suppose in some ways that this is terrible to say, isn't it? But I probably put a little bit of a turn in throwing copy out the window, or ... and also praising people. I used ... I used to hire all kinds of people nobody else would hire, some of whom, of course, have managed to survive, [and they] rather respected my judgement.
'Happy' is not quite the word, but at least they became ...
... willing and excited or ... I couldn't bear people on the staff - just to make an honest statement, who had no interest in being ...
Yes, well, I'm ... I'm egocentric without doubt, in the sense that I look at myself all the time and I've even, you know, written about myself. I actually know many people who are a great deal more egocentric than I am, who may appear to be more modest. I mean some of it's sending yourself up. I don't really take myself all that seriously. Like lots of people I have enormous elements of contemplating my failures and disasters and absurdities. I think there is a very big difference between egocentric, which means being concerned about who you are, and being egotistical, which means that the world shines out of you ... out of you.
As an editor your approach was to draw people into your vision of how the newspaper or magazine was supposed to be, and to get them as it were to march to ... to your beat. Do you feel that that really arose partly out of those certainties that you had admired in Anderson, and that you tried to exemplify, perhaps, yourself?
I sometimes wonder about that. I think the big impression on me as an editor was Brian Penton who was an intellectual who, as they say, sold out and became editor of the Daily Telegraph, which at that stage still had many of these liberal humanist qualities, and Penton really did put on a great show. He was a ... a real ... a great bastard. Didn't do ... I mean I didn't do some of the awful things he used to do, but at the same time he had a great belief and his shared nastiness and theatrical gestures and so forth, used to interest people in the Telegraph. They'd talk about nothing else. And at that stage oddly enough the Telegraph had quite ... quite serious aims like trying to interest ordinary people in their affairs, which is something most prominent papers don't have, because the very period when he was breaking all the rules, it was the only time it really sold very well, so I think that ... I might have done it anyway, but I think that kind of gave me an idea that was how editors behaved.
That would make it too calculating and rational. You can do these things partly ... but I seem to have spent a large part of my life thinking on and off about personality and leadership of a certain kind. When the last war - the big war - was finished, there ... a lot of books came out about the Nazis and, of course, that was an interesting lesson in leadership and the strange tricks of Stalin and in a number of other ways ... and I think that one type of leadership is that you put on an exciting show for people. It can be good or bad. I mean, this is ... it doesn't have to be Hitler. Lenin, obviously, also turned out a disaster and he was another example of this. Ghandi was another example.
The word 'charismatic' would be one of the, you know, most misused words one can find in Australia. A really charismatic leader is somebody in whose personality people become so absorbed that they break all of the previous rules. Well we haven't had any of those in Australia, but, you know, there are people who are kind of demi, semi charismatic.
I used to feel that Frank Packer, whom I found the most absorbing character, had demi, semi charismatic qualities, that people would develop an extraordinary interest in him and that really they would have followed him doing almost anything. I don't think I got as far as that. I think I was partly just an entertainer as well I think. I've been having ... running funny conferences. you know, cracking jokes, being not by device but I act a bit unpredictable so you don't know which way it's going to go: changing your mind, suggesting a new thing. That's more kind of entertainment, I think, than the charis ...
I think that my joke cracking comes from ... in so far as I do it and they're any good - comes partly sometimes just from an internal monologue. I mean sometimes you think, Jesus they both ... I had a wonderful joke there and these ... and these people have moved on the conversation, so that 'Hey! Bring the conversation back. Put it there, I've got this joke', you know but other times it's part of ... I remember once, some years ago, spending a wonderful dinner in Paris when the Whitlams were ... when Whitlam was there as ambassador, and of course he's a great wisecracker, and Margaret Whitlam is a great humorist, and my wife's an anecdote spinner and I try to be funny at times, and it one of the kind of great successful dinner parties I had because we were all ... all doing it together. I ... I believe ... I believe that ah irony and joking are essential in getting through life. I think that life is so unpredictable, so mysterious, so implacable in its absurdities, that unless you can laugh and be ironic you're limited in what you can do. I mean if only Hitler had learned laughter he might have had a more successful career.
It makes it bearable and also by the way, I think speaking of somebody who began life as an anarchist and then as a liberal conservative and then as now whatever I am ...
Well whatever it might be: 'X', I've ... I haven't followed the normal thing which people get more conservative as they get older, but I would strongly recommend to young people who see themselves as progressive, as they should develop a sense of irony and a sense of humour, because whatever their great ambitions are, they're not going to be achieved easily, nor exactly in the way in which they'd like to be achieved, and if you get a bit of a laugh at the funny things that happen on the way to the millennium, well, you're more likely to last the distance I think than somebody who still believes that reform is possible. In the period of the late ... early 1990s in Australia, the country seemed to be subsumed by gloom. People make statements such as, you know, 'The worst recession since the Depression', which is just straight self important whingeing. It's almost as if there was a huge trail ... rail crash near Auschwitz and somebody said, 'This is the greatest destruction of human beings since the Holocaust'. There are ... there are differences of degree here and it is quite I think disgusting for people to overdo their misfortunes.
Yes, although I think that the 'front line wit' is an expression used in the Great War is rather important if you were living under those terrible and degrading circumstances which were another of the human disasters along with the concentration camps in the Second World War, but if you could ... that can be of some assistance. And I think that if you are trying to achieve things, it's essential because if you try to achieve things they will never come out exactly as you want them to, so you should build that into your approach.
Yes, well that was by the way something that wasn't sufficiently understood about Whitlam during his period. I mean a lot of that stuff of Whitlam's was just send up you see but ...
There's another paradox in you. You're very strong in your egalitarian position and you talk a great deal about a fair go and equality, and yet you're also something of an elitist in that you have very little time for people you regard as stupid.
I don't think egal ... that ... I have a considerable regard for their right to be stupid as it were. I don't think 'egalitarianism' means 'do you want everyone to be the same'. If it does I'm out of it. I ... I believe in toleration, which is the word I use now, and that is in a liberal society, and I would describe myself certainly, amongst other things, as a what we think of as a small 'l' liberal and also as a humanist, and also as a person who believes that optimism or ideas of progress make as much sense or more than pessimism, I believe that what we're talking about is that in a liberal society: a. you don't have the government deciding everything and b. you don't expect everybody to be the ... to be the same. So if 'egalitarian' means everybody is the same I'm not an egalitarian. If it means, that I believe, that in our kinds of liberal democratic societies an essential characteristic of them is that diversity of beliefs and values and ways of behaving in which we may abominate but nevertheless tolerate, what all these idiots, we don't agree with, are doing, well then that's okay. Yes sure.
Yes I find it very disappointing when people are stupid. By that I don't mean that I'm always right, of course, but ... and this is just ...
[Interrupting] So you don't think you're ... I mean another accusation, seeing as we're in the areas of the rude words you've been called, is that ... is that you're self satisfied and even smug about your own positions.
Well self satisfied I'm certainly not. I mean I wake up in the middle of the night, 3.30 every night, thinking what an idiot I am, how I've mucked everything up. Not every night, but sometimes I wake up and I think: what'll I worry about this time? you know. No I'm not self satisfied and smug, in fact, in any way whatsoever. But at the same time I don't think one has to go through life saying, 'Look at me I'm an idiot', you know.
Well ... no, it's just that I think that ... one doesn't ... you know, in those things you don't have to make one declaration or the other really.
Not necessarily. I have worry lists. If I can't worry about my own inadequacies in areas, I worry about the general state of humanity, but it's usually that first. If it's a bad night in which I really can't think of anything absurd that I've done over the last twenty-four hours, I might worry about our species.
Right. I'm ... I just got a enough out of that one. [Both laugh] Talking about an illustration of sending yourself up. Let's face it. Right well we'll change tack and get back to your life I think now, on the on the rest of this. We ... I think we actually left our biographical stream with you in England I think ... was about when we departed from it. Yes.
Oh that's right yes. I came back from England yes ...
I came back to Australia as usual by accident on an impulse. Frank Packer wanted to start a rather rubbishy magazine which was going to be called Weekend, and in a ... in a period of desperation in London when I had no money left at all, I worked on a similar thing in London, and I heard about this. I went along to the interview and said, 'Why are you sending these other people to do that? I know more about that than they do', and he said, 'Okay off you go', so I came out here to start this thing. It was quite a, you know, kind of buccaneer's adventure really. It was the equivalent of deliberately making a bad movie. You know how people deliberately make bad, low budget movies? It was like that, no better and no worse. It wasn't pretending to be a newspaper. It was just rubbish.
No I only left for six months. I was going to go back after that, and then by various accidents and disillusion with my marriage and the fact that having started the thing I felt that, you know, we should continue and stayed on. I was one of those people, when I left England in 19 ... left Australia in 1949, I was never going to have the dust of Australia on my heels again. I was one of the, you know, expatriates who despised the country: it's philistinism, all that stuff. And I began to live in England, and when I came back in '54 to start this rubbishy magazine, which was a great, as I say, buccaneer's adventure, you know, the ... there was a ... a week production period and we moved the desks in about half an hour after the staff, and then a week later we'd actually produced the magazine. I just felt that ... I just got carried on by it without intending that at all. And then ultimately I got out of Packer this intellectual fortnightly, The Observer, as part of my recompense.
In 1958. It started in 1958 and then several ... a few months later, Tom Fitzgerald of the Sydney Morning Herald started another journal called The Nation and it used to come out the alternate fortnights ... weeks.
So you'd come back to Australia, which was different, a little, from the one that you'd left, and you came back to it with the eyes of someone who had been away, living a very very different life, and you had to analyse and write about this society. What were the main characteristics that struck you?
Well I didn't do any serious writing about Australia. For four years I was producing this rubbishy magazine, and I came back to Australia still rather despising it, but by 1958, of course, that was the period when the cultural cringe was beginning to disappear and when there were movements in painting and some movements in the theatre ...
You came back from England in the mid fifties ... early fifties and joined an Australian society that was a little bit different from the one you left, and where there were a lot of possibilities for participation and development of ideas. Could you tell us a little bit about how your career shaped itself and how you related and fitted into Australian society on your return.
Yes, well in the 1950s I was bringing out this ... primarily bringing out this rubbishy magazine that was the equivalent of a B-grade movie, which I didn't see. Sometimes people wonder about, you know, who they are. What I knew fundamentally was I wasn't quite sure who I was, but I knew I wasn't that, and anyway it made me very unhappy and frustrated and so forth and I managed to then become ... launch this publication The Observer, but this was a period when the cultural desert was beginning to not bloom, you know, but was getting a few desert flowers. There were an increasing number of quarterly intellectual magazines developing. The theatre was developing, as what we now think of as a primitive form. At least there was something called the Phillip Street Review in Sydney and it was satirical and so forth. It was the period when Patrick White's books were getting praise and that cheered up other people, and in no time at all there was a line which began, 'We have writers like Patrick White, Hal Porter, Randolf Stow', and then people kind of look around thinking who else they might put in, and it was also the period when the universities were beginning to make some contributions to intellectual life. A lot of it was rather skimpy but it was a different kind of Australia from the one I'd been a student in, which I'd seen as almost entirely a cultural wilderness. And in starting The Observer we were one of the little flowers, or a cacti, perhaps, a little part of that movement in our previous cultural wilderness.
What happened with The Observer was that it died of indigestion. It acquired The Bulletin. Frank Packer had been tipped off that Rupert Murdoch was going to buy a women's magazine they had called New Idea, so he went down to The Bulletin and bought New Idea, and then he rang me from a public telephone box for some reason, and said, 'I just bought New Idea', and he said, 'They own a paper called The Bulletin. He said, 'Do you want to decide: do you want to kill The Bulletin or kill The Observer?', and I said, 'I suppose we'll have to kill The Observer'. So The Observer took over The Bulletin, and incidentally not only did I take off its masthead, 'Australia for the White Man', but within about four or five weeks I think I just changed the magazine altogether. Rather risky because all of it's existing eighty-seven-year old racist readers might have stopped buying it without anybody else subscribing, and also the entire staff went. There were two or three of them. One. No two - I would have liked to have kept. The others had to go, partly because some of them were racists, but mainly because they'd been in captivity for so long, that they were so used to whingeing, so used to saying, 'Why can't we do this, that and the other', then we arrived and we said, 'What would you like to do?' and, of course, you know, they just wanted to go on whingeing.
It was obvious to me. It was a bit like Whitlam crashing through when Hawke... you know... I had to do it quickly and it was an easy operation. I didn't really trust the ability of the Packers to support my changes. I knew there'd be complaints all over the place, and of course there was an enormous kind of gutter protest: carefully signed pieces of lavatory paper and that kind of thing that went on and all kinds of people trying to bring pressure on them, but I just had to change it irrevocably [loud thump] in no time at all.
Yes, there were whole ... a couple of generations of Australians now who don't realise that one of our really great and successful stories in Australia in the last few decades was that having ... from having been one of the most declaredly bigoted societies in the world - White Australia - that we've stopped doing that in about ten or fifteen years. But The Bulletin had 'Australia for the White Man'. When I took that off I didn't ask Packer or anything, I just took it off. I went down to the composing room, and I said to the head compositor, 'Would you take that off', and I can still remember seeing it, you know. It was in metal. He puts his tweezers down and he pulls it out: 'Australia for the White Man', and I said, 'Would you melt it down'. You know, of course, that's what they do with type, and then the managing director, who himself left a few weeks later, said, 'That's been The Bulletin's slogan ever since it started', and I said, 'No it hasn't. To begin with it wasn't there and then they had one called 'Australia for the White Men and China for the Chow', and of course, 'Australia for the White Man', was a somewhat a kinder way of putting it.
I enjoyed my stay at The Bulletin. I got the sack at the end of it, which was inevitable, I think, because I really kicked up such a stir that I put myself at entire risk, but by that stage it was unreturnable. Nobody could put it back to where it was before. I ... I didn't enjoy the fact that I was also bringing out this rubbishy thing, Weekend, which was a great time of difficulty and strain I suppose, although it was helped by the fact that it was the period ... period over which I got married a second time, and that certainly provided a ... a great assistance, but I enjoyed, really, indeed, destroying what I think was one of the most evil publications in Australia, which is what The Bulletin had become by that stage, and trying to turn it into something that could encourage a bit of public intellectual life in Australia, at that period that included jokes and short stories, as well as the comment.
I never quite found out. I have some theories about it. I think it was simply, partly, Packer had been in a very expansionary mood. He had the tendency to put his money on the table and gamble, for lots of times and cut his losses. And he was going I think through a weekly or daily financeable paper, and his New I ... the New Idea would ... not New Idea, Women's Mirror, wasn't working very well. I think he decided just to cut everything down, and somewhere or other I think that was a ...
That's right, yes.
Well yes in his own way. In a place like that there's no point being too paranoid or indeed inquiring too much. I thought a few people ... I had enemies and so on, you know, as people do and I thought they may have finally succeeded in having a go at me. I explained to Packer I therefore resigned, although I'd spent, oh, I think a year trying to fix up this other magazine, and then when my resignation time came, I got a long cable from him characteristically from Honolulu saying ... beginning, 'Dear Donald, after our long and fruitful association and so forth, I do wish you'd reconsider your decision to resign'. So I went to see him when he came back, and I said, 'What would you do with me?' and he'd put in Peter Hastings as the editor of The Bulletin and Peter had walked out as I walked in. I said, 'You haven't got any jobs for me anyway'. He said, 'Oh', pointing to Hastings's departing back, 'you can have his job'. He was suggesting I should go back to The Bulletin.
No, I have bits and clues and so forth, but as I say, really I think in those kind of sit ... Those places are a bit like a court, you know, with courtiers in and out and so on and I just assumed some people had niked me but it didn't matter much who did it, did it?
You've always had a pattern of articulating a certain suspicion and contempt for authority, and it would be difficult to think of a more absolute authority than Frank Packer in those ... in those circumstances. Do you think there'd been a bit of insubordination as well?
See, I had a very strange relationship with Packer. Packer, of course, saw himself in lots of ways as somebody who bucked authority. He had a ... he had a gentlemanly feel about himself, but also a larrikin feel and he wasn't ... fortunately he wasn't very interested in the things that I was doing. The Observer and The Bulletin were far from central to his concerns, and I'd maintained a kind of working distance from him, which I don't know, somehow it worked. It never stopped working.
Yes well the ... About a week after we started The Observer, Michael Baume, who was a member of its staff and is now a Liberal Senator, had a party connected with The Observer, and I met somebody called Mifanwe Gollin, at this party, and it just occurred to me ... I think a week later I proposed.
Apparently yes, although successfully in this case. At that stage I wasn't divorced, so that produced a delay of a couple of years I think, one way and the other.
Well Mifanwe and subsequently our son and daughter, Nicholas and Julia, make up, for me, the essential part of my life.
Yes, well I mean obviously if something happened ... I mean, I can't imagine their not being around. Yes.
I'm not quite sure about that. I ... actually I think I'm somebody who doesn't necessarily always require a great deal of emotional support, unlike lots of husbands and fathers. There've been all kinds of worries I have in the office that I don't bring home. I think other kinds of human support, I think ... I mean not ... not support in all this ... out ... outside stuff, that ... that's my ... my reason, I think, on a whole, apart from occasional ... not breakdown but shout. But human support. I think that the four of us are, on the whole, I think, very great companions. You know, we can still go away on holidays together and things like that.
I mean companionship and you know trust, familiarity, affection and so on.
Yes it has. Yes. Well it's been central to me in so far as human relationships are concerned.
Yes, well, Mifanwe's a very good critic, and so ... Nicholas and Julia have been quite good too. In fact Nic has a tendency to ... now to think of titles of books that's ... for the books that I write, and with some of them she's gone through them with a pretty fine tooth comb. Others not.
I don't know. I mean like most people, I suppose, I explode now and again. I believe, I don't really apologise. I'd sooner have an exploder than a brooder, and I think [in] all human relationships people sometimes explode, and I would do that sometimes at home, even more when travelling, of course. I mean travelling is a great ... Somebody should write a book sometime about all the awful traumas of travel.
I've got better at it. I've got better at it.
Yes I mean not to begin with. Not earlier in my life.
I don't believe in holding grudges. There are one or two people I decided I'd never, you know, speak to again. One of them was John Kerr, whom I would now have a very small possibility of speaking to again. A couple of others, and that's it. But I ... I think, in a way, in relations with people, you know, you sometimes ... there may be some quite bitter relationship, and then later you've shuffled the cards again, you have different hands [and] you find other sides of people.
I went into exile in advertising. The advertising agency, who handled The Bulletin was ... seemed to have developed some kind of regard for me. On the great occasion this rubbishy magazine Weekend ... we had to put the price up from threepence to fourpence, and I had evolved a heading saying, 'Here's wonderful news for you', and they liked the idea for price relations, and they watched me later and when I resigned from The Bulletin I had no idea what I was going to do, just as when I resigned from at ... again, in my second round I had no idea what I was going to do. On the second occasion the University of New South Wales offered me a position. On the first occasion this advertising agency offered me a position, and fairly soon afterwards ... It was at that stage called Jackson Wayne and [it was] at that stage the third largest advertising agency in Australia, and shortly afterwards I became its creative director, and operated in that role. I think my success was Leo Schofield I think. Media lord shortly after. I didn't like advertising because I didn't really care whether product A was better than product B. As everybody knows these differences are usually quite fictitious, and ...
I don't know. Well I was good, I think, at helping get new business, and I think I was also good at kind of conceptualising clients' problems, so they ended up appointing another creative director as well, and I was the one who worked with the managing director on trouble spots.
Well in that analytical sense I was good at it I think, but really I found ... I mean, I was ... until I went to the University of New South Wales I really had very considerable problems with all of the jobs I had. They were all rather unsatisfactory. Even the editing jobs were great in certain ways but having to handle Packer was a continuing concern as well. Advertising I would have liked a great deal less than some of the others.
I ... I don't know that I've finally given it yet. But ah I'm told that ... Humphrey McQueen, for whom I have very great regard, read through all of the Bulletins and Observers that I edited and he tells me that I'd been working out that book The Lucky Country in the course of editing those. I actually wrote it in six weeks. It was when I was at this advertising agency. It was over the Christmas - New Year period, when all of the executives are off having ... they're playing golf and so forth, and I wrote a lot of it there, [and] the rest of it at home, and I was able to write it so quickly because I'd virtually thought it all out anyway.
The publication of The Lucky Country really brought you very much into prominence in the public eye as somebody who was interpreting Australia, analysing and really emerging as an intellectual leader. What do you think its primary significance was at the time?
I think the primary significance of The Lucky Country was that it articulated a number of things, which a number of people ah half believed or were ready to believe when I said them. For example, the criticisms of the White Australia Policy. For example, the criticism of our treatment of Aborigines. For example, the presence of people in this country who weren't of what we now describe as of English speaking background. For example, the inadequacies of political life. For example, the somewhat over subservient approaches we had to both the British and the United States and ... and all of that ... and also, for example, the fact that our traditional puritanism and oppressiveness was an undesirable characteristic. All of those things have actually changed. The ... the other example, unfortunately, is one which is still, I think, on the agenda, and that was the unsatisfactory and highly derivative and non-innovative nature of Australian businesses. So all of those things were kind of talking points for people, and they also had ... they were used in schools. One should remember that there wasn't a book ... a useful book on Australia then. The Lucky Country was a kind of very successful literary creation I think. It really is, in some ways, a series of essays held together by a last minute final thought about what it was all about. But it was photocopied in tens of thousands, and given to kids in classrooms, either as English expression, or as what we now describe as Australian Studies.
Almost everything that it called for, analysed and criticised, has been responded to in the intervening period, until now, and as you say, one of the significant exceptions was the aspect of the critique of business. Why do you think there's been a lack of response in that area?
I think that the Australian business management had a colonial frame of mind, that the [most] important original thing Australia did was to bung commodities out into other countries and be very good at it, which Australians were, but they didn't really have to have a good banking system because the British provided that. The banks had to be good for farmers and miners - that was good enough. And also they didn't have to be all that good at manufacturing because in the first place the British were good at that and then, secondly, when we started having our own manufacturing, we just had other people's ideas and used them. That was what I meant by 'Lucky Country': a place which grabs other people's ideas and converts them and at a very considerable cost, so that the ... This is one of the reasons why I've taken symbolic representations of Australia's independence as being of enormous significance, because I think we still need to quick start Australian business managements - it's getting pretty late now - to the understanding that when you talk about the factors of production, you're not just talking about raw materials. That doesn't mean much. You're not just talking about labour, and you're not just talking about capital. You're also talking about knowledge, skills, ideas. This is one reason why I think that despite the many attacks on him, John Dawkins has been very useful because he has understood that much more important than macro-economic policy, whatever that is, is to have a highly educated and lively people, who can learn to do new things. And it's ... it's still a problem. It's a cultural problem. I mean the ... the ... the Australian banking system proved itself to be quite a disaster in the late 1980s. It was unregulated and they all went mad. They lent money to speculators and to property developers, and we now have this enormous debt with an enormous interest bill on it, so that somewhere or other we've got a much harder job in exporting more and impor ... and importing less than we would have had otherwise, and that was because it was simply a rather childish banking system.
But other areas of the community that were criticised in that book, and where other people criticise, there's been dramatic change, as you say. People ... we've changed from being a racist society into being a society that's recognised internationally as being remarkable tolerant, so why were the businessmen so slow to learn?
Well that's a question I would ... I think Australians should have spent more attention thinking about, or more important, how could they be quick started out of it?
Yes the ... you can't exp ... You can't expect scientists finally to take over business. If you do you could get the CSIRO, the great scientific organisation, to issue shares in itself, and it could run Australian business. It's up to business finally to sit there thinking about innovation, which is a different matter. To think about ... A lot of the scientific discoveries maybe we can't use but some of them we can use, and others ... You're thinking all the time, how can I make this a bit better? What kinds of markets can I find for this? And that that requires enterprise, knowledge, imagination and the kind of cleverness that Hawke called for rather than absentmindedly in the last election. I did ... Enormous harm is being done in Australia, throughout, by people talking about something called macro-economic policy, which nobody understands the meaning of, by talking about economics in a most narrow sense, which is one, of course, that mostly good economists don't share, and never looking at this great puzzle. Why generation after generation has Australian business management been one of the least innovative of the modern industrial societies? That is the basic problem. It's not trade unions, [although] there are things wrong with them of course. It's not banking policy. It's not interest rates for God's sake. It is ... what on earth is wrong with these people? Now there is evidence that something is going better there. A bit hard to find out though, because the people who control the media just don't seem to be able to go much beyond, you know, the latest economic indicator, the meaning of which they may not understand, to telling us what is actually happening in the good businesses. The ... I remember in the 1980s people were saying our role models should be Alan Bond and Elliott and all these people who went broke. Our role models should have been innovative business managements. At the time when the America's Cup was won by Australia II - a national disaster I think because it was interpreted as meaning that we were technologically a great society - we over did that. Later, a Tasmanian innovator produced a catamaran which made a record crossing of the Atlantic Ocean, and that's now turned into efficient production. He didn't become a hero. We are supposed to celebrate Bondy. I think that one of the most humiliating episodes which ever any Australian Prime Minister's ever participated in was Hawke sitting there in that souvenir shirt with the champagne corks popping, getting excited because we'd won the America's Cup.
Well you're allowed to raise that question with me. I sometimes really get extremely angry with silly people on the radio who ring me up and say, 'My first question is, is it still the lucky country?' and I say, you know, 'I've heard that question 250 times', and then tell them off about it. I think something should be recorded: is that hundreds of thousands of Australians knew what I meant by des ... describing Australia as a lucky country. They read the book. [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
Well, you know, I get asked this question sometimes people ring up on radio and their first question is, 'Is still the lucky country?' and I tell them off. I say, 'You know, I've heard that question asked 250 times and if you don't know the answer ...', or whatever it might be and so forth, but what I would like to say, now, is that a great number of Australians, tens of thousands - for all I know hundreds of thousands - knew what I meant. At the time there was no doubt about it. All the reviewers, everybody knew that I was being ironic. It was quite clear. What I'd said in the book itself was that Australia was a lucky country run by second rate people who share it's luck. That was the ... and throughout there was absolutely no difficulty in people understanding that I was being ironic. A couple of years after that there was that now forgotten minerals boom, and a whole great deal of flatulent overpraise of Australia for being so clever as to have minerals, and it was at that stage that people, who very largely hadn't read the book, began to speak of Australia being the lucky country as if it was a gift from God, or as if the Australians were particularly clever at being lucky, and at the same time there was a new lot of lecturers coming out of the universities wanting to push old rubbish like me away, and they misrepresented the book too, and used the expression as if I'd meant, somehow or other, that luckiness was the greatest thing that a country should be. The ... the perpetuation of the misinterpretation of the phrase, came almost entirely from lazy sub-editors on newspapers, who slotted it into all kinds of headings: 'We are indeed a lucky country for surfboards', I remember being one of them. And I ... I'm sorry that that happened because my ... our fellow citizens had enough sense to know what I meant in the book, but as, you know, the years went by, of course, obviously fewer people read it, and it was constantly misrepresented almost entirely by lazy sub-editors who were using it, and misusing it, as a phrase. They should have instructed all people who entered journalism what I'd meant by the expression, 'the lucky country', but I think that there are still a lot of people around who understood what I meant, and that the very use of the expression made a lot of people think - even if they misinterpreted what I meant - you know, can the luck last and so forth? It went by way of a useful range of discussion. Academic reactions to it at times were disappointing. Sociologists didn't like it because none of them, at that stage, had been able to produce a sociology of Australia. But I think, myself, outrageous statement make ... It would have been quite good if a great deal of research programmes in economics, sociology and politics in Australia had been based on the premises of The Lucky Country - popularisation as it might have been, but we would have had a better run, I think, from academic research than we have had.
Irony is something that you've used quite a lot in your writing, in your speech and ... and general conversation, and in public life generally. It's a characteristic of Australian humour that's often been commented on, that we're an ironical lot. But it also has been a basis of quite a lot of misinterpretation, perhaps by a minority, but often do you feel that your use of irony has got you into difficulty or led to your being misunderstood?
I think that if my use of irony has got me into difficulties that's bad luck for the people, finally, who got me into difficulties. One can't, I think, deny a style. And I think that in some ways I have a kind of intellectualised version of an Australian style, which is intended to be ironic and laconic. I wish that more people would join me in that. For example, I really think that Frank Moorhouse's little book Conferenceville is more use to me, anyway, than say Patrick White's The Solid Mandala. I think a lot of Australian writing - fiction writing - has become over portentous, [and] that Australians can be really remarkable, when they're writing, when they're adopting a laconic and ironic style, or sometimes a light realist style. And that can also apply to a lot of academic discourse. We're drowned [in] the, at times in fact, what one might describe as imported jargon, or jargon of our own, whereas our great talent for superficiality and irony, I think, could provide a quite distinctive Australian sociology. We shouldn't have just sociology about Australia but an Australian style in sociology. Lamentably, although we did have an Australian style in economics, it's been pushed aside, although perhaps it will come back again. And in all of these things we ... we shouldn't deny the kind of intellectual benefits that might be obtained by raising to a higher intellectual level, characteristics of our citizens, [although] not themselves necessarily professional intellectuals.
Oh, well, you see, you find [when] academics are talking amongst themselves they say, 'That's bullshit', in conversation, but when they write, of course, they ... they won't speak in that kind of way. I thought the ... that publication Nation Review, now deceased, I thought had a splendid way of bringing into words, intellectual conversation around dinner tables. You know, it used the swear words. It used the put down words. It ... it used irony and it had some enormously talented performers. It reached its height at the time when Bill McMahon was Prime Minister and, indeed, one of his then ministers told me that half the Cabinet used to buy Nation Review each week so that they could laugh at their ... their Prime Minister's latest funny episodes, but that was a great achievement to put into intellectual language a ... a kind of vernacular wit and insight.
e Lucky Country was a book of social analysis and economic analysis and also in the broad sense political analysis.
And cultural analysis.
Yes. In ... in relation to the political aspects of it, it was a ... it was a broad scope. You looked in the round at Australia. How do you sit, in the political sense, in the way you look at your country?
Well, The Lucky Country is entirely out of date, thank God, in regard to its political analysis. That was the age of Menzies and I got stuck into him. I got stuck into the Labor Party too and the place has improved very considerably since then. I think I would apply to an analysis of Australia, also some of these kind of Australianised characteristics. I would like to see some kind of ... of a revival of the idea of a fair go, except that I would like to see it expressing what I think is the ... the great contribution ... The greatest political contributions in politics are those of liberalism I think and ... and by the fair go I would imagine the idea of equal rights, of toleration, of a pluralist society, of a society in which the government was not making all of the decisions. You could build up a whole fair go ideology in Australia that was expressing the finest expressions, I think, of European liberalism, and I think in Australia also, a quite natural style is that not only of liberalism but of liberal humanism. I don't think we're much good at being Bible bashers and so forth. I think that we could be quite good at assuming that although the human condition contains great disasters - fifty or sixty million people for example killed in Europe this century through political disasters - that ... but nevertheless our ... oh my God ... my God it's gone ... so ...
Oh that's right. Can I come back to the ... is it possible to ... [pick up] ... the ... the humanist thing, that's right, yes.
Oh, I think that another useful Australian characteristic is that of humanism. By that I don't mean that we denied the existence of evil in the human potential in a century in which fifty or sixty million Europeans and others were killed through the actions of governments. We could certainly see it as a highly evil century. But there are also potentials for what I would describe as good in human beings. I think the human beings have co-operative qualities, as well as the opposite. And I think that human beings have a great talent for curiosity, which is their distinguishing characteristic from the other animals, and a little bit of that kind of humanism associated also for Australia with the kind of laconicism and irony, summed up in the idea 'give it a go', you know, which I think makes the only sensible basis for action. You can never be sure about what you're going to do, but you can give it a go. When John Kerin had his brief, unfortunate period as ah Treasurer, to begin with somebody asked you know some silly bloody question, he said, 'Your guess is as good as mine'. Now if the press gallery had understood - if they were true Australians - laconic and ironic - they would have praised him for that: best answer given by a Treasurer in the whole history of Treasurers because most of what people say about all these things is, to use a technical term, bullshit, instead of which they attacked him for it. But the idea that you don't know everything, but you try things out, you give them a go and then react to them is a true pragmatism. So in that was also I think we could be developing a more Australian political approach.
Oh, I try to avoid all discussion about party politics in Australia because I feel that everybody else in public life is busy doing that and I don't have to do it. I have occupied various kinds of positions ...
[Interrupting] That's right.
Yes. Yes, well I ... I've been ... At the university I passed from Trotskyism to anarchism, and then subsequently I became a conservative, although a liberal conservative and then I began to disband that in two ways: one was that the social movements of the 1960s finally were saying what I'd always believed, that when God created human beings she created women and men. And that ... In fact I started writing a book about Australia in the 1940s in which I attacked the ... what we would now describe as the racism and sexism of the Australian Labor Party. But in the 1960s, with those various liberal movements that developed, I could feel associated with those, and at the same time I gave up my ... what ... what I felt was a great problem of a lot of progressive doctrine. People had all these damned policies and unlike our Australian wisdom that you give it a go, that it may not work out, they made that it would work out, so why do anything? Then it occurred to me, of course, that not doing anything is equally risky. So I moved around to a position which ... in which I could finally end up voting Labor again, which I did, I think, in the 1949 election. I ... I remember I was editing The Bulletin at that stage and I didn't say, 'Vote Labor'. I rather despised publications that tell people how to vote, but we gave them quite a decent run, and in 1972, which was my last year in The Bulletin, everybody was getting so much onto the Whitlam bandwagon at that stage that I put in a little bit of irony about it too, but I certainly was very pleased to see Whitlam win that election.
Just a little bit yes, although when I thought ...
I don't know that I ... I which ... I feel that if there's a majority they don't need me, do they? I mean it's there. I certainly jumped ... I jumped onto the Whitlam bandwagon on November 11, 1975. I mean, obviously when somebody like Whitlam gets in - there are thousands of people whose careers are going on - all kinds of people I knew - I didn't see them for three years, they were so busy making careers out of Gough Whitlam, and of course you saw ... that one saw them a fair bit in 1975, so I became a Whitlamite on November 11, 1975, and subsequently wrote a book, Death of the Lucky Country that I think sold a great number of copies and had the extraordinary result that if I was walking down the street, people would come up to me. This was for months afterwards, and say, 'Do you know where I was at the time?' because they'd read the book, they recognised me from television, and they wanted to share their experiences. I wrote it as a way of recovering from an attached - a retinal detachment - a detachment of my retina. It ... I thought it up when this retinal detachment occurred after Whitlam was sacked. There was no connection and ...
Yes that's ... well I used actually in writing the book my retinal detachment as one of the metaphors of the book. It was an unusually written book, in the sense that I thought it up while my eyes were bandaged and then I ... I was ... I couldn't bend over so I lay on my back and wrote this book at the rate of three thousand words every three days, and I'd be correcting the proofs of one chapter and revising another chapter, and starting another chapter. It was a kind of workshop. I took Christmas Day off.
I thought up the overall structure of it entirely. What are you going to do when your eyes are bandaged? You can listen to music, which I also did. It was in fact ... The Death of the Lucky Country was thought up to a background of baroque music. And then when Mifanwe, my wife, came in, I kind of a said, that you know, dic ... dictated the overall structure of it.
Well several different things in fact but most of all I don't trust the Labor Party much at that stage. I thought they'd all blame themselves, and I was just trying to point out = one hesitates to take ... you know, take this all this up again, but what happened was quite against the rules as they had previously been understood.
Yes, well my Republicanism wasn't always there. When I was a liberal Conservative in England, I was what you might describe as a Wig Royalist. I thought the Royal Family were a lot of German imports and not much good, but they performed a very useful functional role, which in Britain might still be an explanation of them. I never thought of being a Republican, but when I was a starting to write The Lucky Country, I was ticking all these things off: the White Australia Policy, Aborigines and so forth, and the author, Geoffrey Dutton, had written an interesting article in the journal, Nation, on Australia being a Republic, and I thought, oh God yes, why not? That's a good idea and ... and took it up as well. It's a ... it's a most embarrassing thing to still have to talk about it. It seems to me to be such an obvious thing to do but one's put into a false position of looking as if one is taking up an unimportant issue, but it was from then on that I adopted this, and I would continue to do so and do, because I still think we need quick starts to imagine that we are really an independent nation. I've given one example and that has been the failures of Australian businessmen to really act as if you can have innovation in Australia. Or not to act sufficiently to do that, but also the cold war's over, and what the hell's the use of our traditional foreign policy? Loyalty to great allies? Which great ally? Sending off expeditions, by all means, but now to the United Nations, and in a number of other ways, and this is why I would support the Republican thing. It might possibly prompt people to think more fully about what a much more independent Australian nation would do, which I think, you know, is something rather necessary now, because just as I provided a kind of reconceptualisation of Australia, I suppose, in The Lucky Country, I think it's time for us ... bad luck, you know, lazy minded people don't like to do it. We've got to have ... do some quick reconceptualising also, now: this year.
No. Well I'm not a nationalist in the sense that I'm not a chauvinist. I don't ... Nationalist to my mind means that you're a patriotic chauvinist, which means that you believe that your country is superior to other countries. There's no harm in people thinking that we'll win the Admiral's Cup, we've got Ayers Rock and so forth. That doesn't do much harm but it be ... can become nasty and xenophobic and also aggressively trying to impose your order on others. I ... I think that that comes simply from our colonial position, and earlier Australia was above all an imperialist country. The big chauvinism in Australia was never, you know, Henry Lawson or gum trees and stuff. It was British Imperialism. To be a ...
Yes that's right. To the Empire Day which I gave my speech when I was at Muswellbrook. To be a chauvinist meant that you believed the British race - the expression that was used - were superior to everybody else, and had a right to rule the world. People often don't realise now that the kinds of imperial rhetoric that ... for example, Hitler was simply extending imperial rhetoric in a ... a ... some ways unexpectedly dreadful manner but that that was what he was doing - not thinking something up. And then when we have the United States we're modifying it a bit, but we're still imagining ... Lots of Australians are still imagining that there is some God-given divine mission to people, who speak English, who live up in the northern hemisphere.
Well it's mainly getting rid of the rubbish of imperialism and getting rid of the rubbish of Australia not seeing itself an independent nation. And otherwise it's the question of saying to Australians, 'Look, you should consider who you are. You should cont ... you should have, above all, a deep interest in what this society is, and what it's national interests might be'. And that is in no way nationalist, it's simply accepting the fact that the ... in this funny looking thing on the map that looks like that, we have a society called Australia and that we are the people who are experts in that matter, and the people who should be - if we don't know, nobody else will - paying attention to it.
Some people think that that task of defining what Australia is, is a task of defining how its economy will operate, who it will be friends with internationally, what kind of defence arrangements it will have. You have a more abstract idea, don't you, of creating an idea, or a set of ideas, for Australia? Could you tell us what those are and where you see ... where you're coming from?
Could I take off ... could I take five minutes off? [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
You put forward the view that if we're to understand what Australia is, that's essentially a question of working out an idea or a set of ideas for Australia, that it is an ideas issue, the question of what is Australia. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
Well I think it's really important that Australians should think about their economy and about their strategic relationship to other countries, about their politics, their society, all of those things, but I think they shouldn't think about them isolated, you know, because they're connected. In universities these days there's been this tragic specialisation of knowledge, which means you chop a country up under different headings as if it didn't exist as a whole, and I think what is of great importance to Australia is a thorough cultural analysis that offers the kinds of values and ideas that we have, the ways in which often you don't express values just in what you say, but in how you act. The values we express, for example, you know the way in which we move our bodies around. Now, for example, a country like Australia's different from, say, a country like the Soviet Union where half of them turned up to work drunk because we know how to arrive at work on time, and, roughly speaking, how to adjust ourselves to changing circumstances. These are also ... also values, and I don't think all this other stuff about economies and so forth is going to be quite successful unless we know a little bit more about the kinds of ... different kinds values and habits of Australians, and look in particular for those which seem to be common to a great number of them, and in that sense I'd use the word 'ideas'. Ideas can sometimes, to people, sound pretty waffly. They say, 'Oh let's be pragmatic', you know. Well being pragmatic is just one idea. Everything is an idea, so I've spent a fair bit of my writing life, some of it just writing novels and autobiographies and things, which haven't had much to do with Australia, or incidentally so. And ... but I've written more books about Australia than I ever intended to, because what interests me, above, all is that approach that in a society ... You can see the world quite differently from one society to the other. How do we see the world in Australia? And the ... the question about why Australian business management has performed so badly in terms of innovation, I think, can only be asked in the question about what kind of values and habits do they have? How do they see things? The kind of way in which foreign policy ... Why has it seemed so self evident to us - most of us - the way in which we conduct ourselves is almost maintaining loyalty to a great place up there that speaks English and so that what Australia needs, I think, is more overall theories about what Australians are, about what the world is, and that would be a much more realistic way of going about these practical problems.
How do we distinguish ourselves from other countries that superficially look rather similar to us? You've made a big point about the necessity to separate ourselves from Britain conceptually. The same thing might apply to the United States. Is there any way in which you would characterise us as unique, different, special?
I think, we've got to be very careful. We had to distinguish ourselves from being British, because it's just looney to imagine that we're the same as the people in what's left of the British Isles. But I think that another basic way of looking at Australia is to say how similar it is to a great number of other nations. It's an industrialised nation, it's a nation in which the economic is seen as fundamental, the work ethic's a principal way of getting dignity and labour, investment, economic growth is seen as important, it's kind of modern in the sense that it believes you take thought and you do things and so forth. It's liberal democratic like lots of these other societies. If an anthropologist came from Mars you would write down, first of all, how very like Australia was to ... for that matter, even some of the Eastern European countries. What we then looked for are what are the ranges of distinctiveness, despite those common characteristics? And some of them had questions of detail really except they happened to us to be extremely important details. For example, if people are talking about, as I just said, Australia's an industrialised society, if that happens to interest you, you ask yourself in ... in which way is ... is it similar to and in which ways is it different from other industrialised societies? Talk about its politics likewise, and don't, for God's sake, compare it to Britain and the United States, but compare it to countries that are, you know, kind of roughly similar size, something that practically nobody does. And then to take up questions about in what I would call Australia's public culture, what projections are there of the whole meaning of existence? Now people may sneer at soap operas say or the news, but those are out there. They're great projections of reality to most of our people, and how would they compare, how do we see ourselves there, to what extent do we get a chance to do that, and so that the only reason one has to exaggerate this need for us to look for our differences is because we have felt rather ashamed very often of our differences. There is a whole period when what was Australian was seen as necessarily rather comic. Now that was a period when there was scarcely ever a play put on - an Australian play. When there was what they would do would be they'd get an elocutionist to come along and teach the Australian actors how to project Australian talk to an audience so that it didn't sound funny. Well there is no particular reason to consider it to be comic, the peculiarities of Australia. They're part of our general human condition. It's part of our ... the cultural heritage and we should learn to not be self satisfied but to assume that we've got as much right as any other society to have some distinctive characteristics, and to think about what they are. At the same time we also obviously, in strategic senses, have particular relationships with the world in terms of trade, in the closeness to people in South East Asia and the South West Pacific, and we have to think: okay, that's wonderful that stuff they're saying over there, but how do we look, how do our interests look in regard to strategic matters because here we are in this place, what's its name? Australia.
I'm see ... I see ... how much more time have we got? I seem to be stalling on that one.
Have we? Okay right. I'll give it a go. Some of them are ... some of the things of which we ... we have to consider ours ... distinctive of ourselves are so obvious that it's, you know, astonishing that we haven't thought about them. And I can become rather boring on this but the peculiarities of the way in which our businesses are run, our banking system, our geographical situation, the people we trade with, all of our hard talk. We should have much better representations in the media of how we compare in that with other countries: their similarities, their differences, in the relations that there are between people. Everybody knows that there are different relations between Australians compared with, say, there are different relations between Japanese. In fact I live in a place near Bondi Junction in which there are a lot of young backpacking Japanese, and you can see they come here partly to look at Australians. And they don't necessarily dislike ... there's a noodle shop up there. I go up and talk to some of them. They see us as interesting matters of observation and some of them think how much better we are at our relations with each other, than the Japanese are. And when we talk about ... I think an enormously important thing for Australians is to get rid of all this claptrap about rating ourselves, our living standards, in terms of something called 'per capita GDP', which just means ... if it was put in terms of United States dollars, it just means what's the exchange rate this week. We should learn ways of measuring - maybe you can't do it in arithmetic exactly, but of estimating what it is we've got going for us. What things are there about Australian life, with our things that we like? Do we want to have gardens? Do we want to have relaxed manners? Are we interested in holidays? Do we want more libraries? Things of this kind can provide a much better vital basis for economic policy than looking at all these damned figures, which are infinitely reinterpretable. You ... you ... you can't ... you can't base a whole policy on a society's future by looking up its so called per capita gross domestic product, because especially since you can reinterpret the figures in ... in several different kinds of ways according to what measure you use. Why don't we think more about who we are, what we think is good about ourselves, and how that might be strengthened.
Well I think that part of the potential of Australians still is in the kind of overall humanist approach that human beings are significant and important, that there should be some attempt for them at least to have equality of rights and equality of access, and that they should be in a sense experimental in what they do. And with no understanding you can't get quite by on that, you've got to have a few educated people knowing some things as well. But we should begin with those, and see them as important cultural resources.
I thought it was quite good that Hawke used the expression 'the clever country', but I thought it was unfortunate and characteristic that he forgot he'd used it the minute after he'd used it. But, of course, one makes the point that cleverness is essential but not sufficient. One can't have a ... After all the opposite of clever country is stupid country, and one can't really base a successful modern society on stupidity, but cleverness is the ... a basic need. Also needed, I think, is capability, which is a slightly different thing. And also needed is imagination. Primarily wisdom I suppose. Somebody criticised, 'You can't say we should be the wise country'. I rather didn't like that. It sounds a bit like the thought police you know. Tell me what wisdom is. But cleverness is ... is the entry key, and then after that you're imaginative, you're capable.
You've described to us the characteristics that you think can be properly attributed to Australia, and that you feel are important for us to remember. What are the characteristics of Donald Horne that you think are significant, and tell us something about the process by which you've become who you are, and what you are in our society.
That's almost straining my sense of modesty too much ...
Oh but ...
Having said that, one of the autobiographical trilogy that I wrote was called Confessions of a New Boy. I'd taken the 'confessions' from a book of another name. The 'new boy' idea was that I'd been a bit of a gate crasher I think, and that, in so far as that succeeded, in the sense that people paid some attention, it's been because Australian people one way or the other have been a bit up, and what it was imagined they might be. That thing The Observer you know, it wasn't all that evident in the cultural wilderness of 1958, that an intellectual fortnightly would sell 10,000 copies per issue in Australia, and that worked because there were 10,000 people or so, to whom that meant something, and I didn't know who they were, and I didn't care much at that stage. I just happened to be saying these things, and there they were. I ... in other words, what I have done since then, I suppose, is to say that I've done some things which most people thought wouldn't work, but they have worked because there've been people in Australia to whom they meant something. In the same way the business of vetting the old racist Bulletin, and in three or four weeks producing a new one was actually supported by new readers. The Lucky Country would be a great example of that. Penguin Books in London. The Lucky Country came about because Max Harris said to me, 'Why don't you write a book about Australia because you've written some good stuff in The Observer', and I thought, oh yes, why not, yes, sure okay. And so I then became writing about Australia, which I wasn't, to be frank, obsessively interested in, even at the time. London Penguin said, 'No, nobody ... Australians won't read that', and Geoffrey Dutton who was the editor of Penguin Australia then, took his risk ... took a risk on it, and, of course, it sold a great deal more than anybody had expected. Another thing, I think, would be after Whitlam was sacked and I wrote this thing from the eye hospital, or thought about it in the eye hospital, called Death of the Lucky Country. Most of the people I knew said, 'Australians are not like that. They don't give a stuff about Whitlam. They don't want to read about it now. Summer's coming on, why don't you just enjoy yourself and recover from your operation?' That was the almost universal advice I received from people. Penguin themselves thought they were taking an enormous risk in printing 10,000 copies, [snaps fingers] which sold like that, and they kept on reprinting it. I ... I don't want to go on. Of course some of the things I've written haven't achieved that but I think above all, yes, I've kind of crashed in at times.
Well ... and I suppose sometimes it's foolish. But, you know I'm glad you mentioned Ned Kelly. During the ... what were they? Bicentenary celebrations, remember they produced some book with the 200 famous Australians in it, or Australians who made Australia great or something like that? The Sydney Morning Herald wrote an editorial that Saturday saying they thought it was a rather pompous list, that they should have included rebellious people like Ned Kelly and Donald Horne.
But but also I seem to have been more accurate than not, in estimating a potential in the Australian people to be interested in what I'm doing.
In terms of writing and so forth?
Well in this kind of public personality there's the related thing, I think, with finding it irresistible at times to try to throw up some ideas that means to some extent ah not exaggerating, but putting things with relative simplicity, with being prepared to use loaded language and being concerned with attracting people's interest. And lots of these things I don't care if I'm right or wrong. I mean at the moment I think I'm enormously right, but I'm quite happy to find it otherwise, so I suppose I have actually assisted one to some extent, in helping Australians to have a think about themselves.
Well I have changed my mind about quite a lot of things. For example, the White Australia Policy, to begin with. I was never racist, but I thought Australians were such a lot of bloody snobs that they would never agree. It was too dangerous to change the White Australia Policy because of these ... our fellow Australians and their prejudices. And then I read a pamphlet produced by a group called the Immigration Reform Group. It was called Immigration Reform, Control or Colour Bar, and I thought this will be a lot of nonsense, these bleeding hearts, you know, overestimating the possibility of change, and I went through it twice with a pencil and then thought: they're right! And that was ... just by reading an article by Geoff Dutton, put ... made ... helped me put Republicanism into The Lucky Country. Reading this pamphlet made me feel that it was really a practical and possible thing, that the White Australia Policy could be reformed.
So although you stood out intellectually in Muswellbrook and were ... and was seen very much as the cleverest boy, you don't feel that now. You don't often find yourself articulating ideas and finding very few people that agree with them, or alternatively finding ideas from those around you. In other words I'm getting at the fact that at times you have been accused of intellectual arrogance, and I wonder whether you recognise or accept that label at all.
Well ... anything can run to excess, and arrogance in initial statements seems to me to be a virtue rather than obfuscation and carefulness and so forth, I would sooner in presentation be arrogant, although I hope not in a way.
Well I would think there probably is, yes, sure, in the sense that characteristics carried to excess I'd sooner be arrogant than over-humble. In this sense. It's not a personal matter, it's a question of how on earth does one encourage discussion amongst our fellow creatures, and one way of doing that, I think, is to state something quite confidently, in a way which might spark off a debate, and of course that can be arrogance in excess. It becomes arrogance if you assume that you're absolutely right. It doesn't become arrogance - in some ways it's rather humble I think - if you imagine: look I'm prepared to make an idiot of myself. Who's going to speak up? All kinds of people are sitting out there and aren't preparing their footnotes or preparing their qualifications or turning into jargon, and here's this who idiot stands up and says, 'I'll speak up, okay', which means, of course, that you may be knocked down.
I don't think so. John Anderson was never knocked down. He was always still standing up at the end of the day.
Oh, well, I would, you know, agree with some criticism being made. I can't ... I haven't ... I can't give you a great list off hand but ...
Well, once again, in the kind of public field I've been attempting as a writer overall - not just this stuff about Australia that in the novels I've written, and the autobiographies and also some overall cultural analysis stuff, that's not specifically Australian, to write in a relatively simple manner, but also in a manner that I believe has been relatively ironic, not getting too excited. I ... I really feel a great deal of writing now is extremely overdone, either in unnecessary jargon or in a great deal of hype and sensibility in fiction, So I suppose I've had ... I've often felt that people like Frank Moorhouse and maybe David Foster in another way, and I have a kind of, in mythological terms, more Australian approach than some others.
You keep saying in the public sense these are my characteristics, and you've already told us that you feel a reluctance to talk about very personal matters. You've said the reason for that is that you feel that such self-revelation is often contrived and not truthful and can even be a bit self promoting, and that's why you avoid it. I wonder whether another reason is that you're a very well-defended person, and that your philosophy about not putting forward yourself as a private person, is a way of avoiding pain?
And that, of course, is always possible, I don't know. In my three thirty in the morning moods, when I wake up and recall my follies and the world's, that certainly wouldn't be the case. I prefer not to believe that. I just prefer to believe, that I maybe, of course, be quite deluded, that this is a perfectly respectable intellectual approach to have to existence. I also believe that a fair bit of this kind of very interesting inner sensibility stuff is not true. You know, it's kind of written up. I ... I just don't believe that anybody is quite as sensitive as appears, you know, in kind of written up novels for example.
But you've already told us that you feel that when you write about anything it isn't exactly the absolute truth, that it's a version of it, and you're happy to do that about public things. What's wrong with doing it about private things?
Because the private things purport to be a representation of how things feel, in a way that is entirely different, I think, from externalities. I'm a very great believer in the important intellectual attributes of superficiality, but first of all look at the surface of things, you're likely to talk less rubbish that way, and often the rest of it is somewhat mysterious. I mean, for example, I start saying something or other, and somebody says, 'Why?' and I say that's a silly bloody question. Let's first of all consider 'what', and then we might consider how can we change it. The ... the 'why' may be unanswerable.
Maybe there's another way of looking at it, that in history and in the study of history you've looked at patterns, shapes and meanings in the history where you've see a repetition of the patterns. In your life I see - if I may be so bold - a certain repetition of a pattern of someone who's had periods of withdrawal and loneliness and you have, perhaps, made a virtue of that ability to stand alone. There was a period in your adolescence, during your father's break down, but even before that, as the boy in ... in Muswellbrook who liked studying. And then later in your life you have talked about your friendships, you've talked about your relationship with your family, it seems to have a pattern which you have guarded very carefully about making yourself too vulnerable to situations.
All I can say is that may be so. One of the difficulties in these things is that what I'm saying may not necessarily contradict it. It can nevertheless be, I think, a perfectly defensible intellectual proposition, that an excessive sensibility and introversion ... Let me put it this way that. No I shan't do that. That an excessive sensibility and introversion may be unsustainable. The ... the motives by which we act are really so confused, mysterious and contradictory, we come out making these great pronouncements about why we're this that and the other. Okay righto, by all means, yeah. What you say may very well be the case - I don't know.
So you would be concerned that if you looked, say, too deeply into those obviously very emotional periods of your life, say surrounding your father's breakdown and so on, that it would actually cripple you and prevent you from being active in your own public life.
[Interrupting] Oh. I don't I don't think so. I mean, that's something that I look back on, you know, quite regularly, and I've explored it in every possible way that I can. This comes up, in particular, in my autobiographical trilogy which some people have felt really didn't bring me to life. Well, you know, I just - if I can speak frankly - thought that Clive James's ... I've forgotten what it was called, that first thing of his which he ...
... in which he played Ginger Meggs, I thought that was contemptible. I have a great regard for Clive James when he conducts serious intellectual interviews, but if that was about equal to his clowning, you know, when he goes to Los Angeles or Miami or somewhere, and makes an idiot of himself. I mean he wasn't Ginger Meggs. He had an intellectual history which he ... He was just presenting himself as a comic strip, and I found that contemptible, simply because it was pretending to be a biography. In the same way Patrick White's thing, Flaws in the Glass: the first two sections of that I thought amongst some of the best things he's written - written in a somewhat different style. The third thing was despicable. He did nothing but get stuck into people he disliked and making most of it up, and, I suppose, what I was trying to do in my series was to avoid at least those faults.
So then from the Donald Horne, whose mother taught him to make a game of everything, we would ... the only kind of autobiography we could expect that was personal, would be one in which he made fun of himself, do you think?
Not necessarily. I got a bit sick of making fun of myself. Now that autobiographical thing is a trilogy and it's finished. Sometime this year I intend to write starting some kind of memoir essays kind of things on different things: you know, what it was like to edit The Observer, what it was like to take over The Bulletin, that kind of stuff, and I won't ... That'll be written in a much less detached manner and also not in a straight forward narrative style. I mean I'll use the wisdom of what I know now so that's the part of my life that I think was less wasteful and useless than other parts of it.
Could we turn now and talk about your books a little bit. I mean we've talked about some of them in more detail, but I suppose there's a body of work, we need to talk about, and of course there's so many of them that we couldn't possibly ... I mean you've been a very prolific writer.
Incidentally there's nothing necessarily wrong with that.
Is there anything that you particularly feel out of that whole body of work that you would like to draw our attention to because it either represents a strong view that you haven't yet expressed to us, or else because it was overlooked, or represented something that hasn't been always acknowledged about you and your contribution.
Yes, well people see my books quite differently. They get puzzled because there've been very different kinds of books. What I think unites almost all of them is the belief that we invent reality, that we don't represent reality. There isn't a reality out there that we represent. We create [and] construct systems of belief and values and all this kind of thing, which I've been getting onto most ... actually in some recent books, a thing called The Public Culture and The Great Museum, one I'm just finishing writing now. But that's been characteristic of most of them. The Lucky Country is really, to my mind, about the kinds of realities that Australians at that stage had created, which were no longer workable: the idea of a white British Australia, which didn't recognise its relations to Asia and could go on being stupid and so forth, was a ... a reality that could no longer exist. I think actually it's bad luck Australia, but you know, you've got to go through now and knock down the existing reality as well, so that that could be ... appear to be quite practical. I've also written more theoretical stuff about it, and I wrote a novel called But What if there are No Pelicans, which has sold less than any other novel that I've written, but I always hope someday, you know, a few people might look at more seriously, and that, as a novel, is also concerned with this theme about the ephemeral nature of reality. It's ... I think that in a sense life is hypothetical. You have to theory and you can ... it's not hopeless. You can just prove things. You can take into account the evidence that what you believe is untrue, but most of us are not capable of doing that. But everything is in that sense theoretical. It's a ...
So you've written a great many more non-fiction, analytical works than fictional works, and you've always championed that type of writing on the public scene. You're suggesting, aren't you, that it's just as imaginative as a form of writing, as fiction is.
I think it's very important to realise that the imagination isn't confined to fiction. A lot of fiction is straight formula stuff, you know, as worthless as straight B-grade movies or that rubbishy magazine that I once produced. When I was chair of the Australia Council I found it very important to get rid of the expression 'non-fiction'. Non-fiction to me made as much sense as non-gardening books, or non-philosophy or non-history. Why fiction? There was nothing particularly literary about fiction. There are some things which fiction can do that history can't do. There are things that history can do that fiction can't do. For example, Manning Clark, when he sat around and thought up this enormous six volume thing, The History of Australia, was creating, surely, a great imaginative act. You know imagining Australia, and he was, as I've said a number of times, doing it as if he were writing a Nineteenth Century novel. He imagined a whole society. He imagined that personalities were ... were important. He wondered the meaning of life and so forth, and without having a theory of the importance of imagination for historians, I ... Edward Given's famous work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of the greatest acts of imagination which was produced in the Eighteenth Century, and people in the Eighteenth Century imagine that this man sat down there, read a whole lot of books and wrote this enormous thing about a thousand years of history. In the same kind of way ... Geoff Blainey went a bit off later, but when Geoff Blainey wrote about the physical conditions of Australian development in Tyranny of Distance and some other books, he brought every creaking and grinding wheel bull-wagons as they went to Sydney, to life, and he also, by those means, was creating, I think, imaginatively. When Henry Reynolds wrote his thing The Other Side of the Frontier, he had another vision of what the European occupation of Australia might be, and ... and tried to see it from an Aboriginal point of view in a way that nobody else had previously thought of, and that was also imaginative, and scientists, of course, are much more imaginative than they allow for. When they write their stuff they have to write it up in this boring kind of way but everybody knows they don't think like they finally present their papers. I could go on for some time but I'm just trying to establish that imagination is not limited to fiction, and that a lot of fiction is not imaginative.
Yes, well I ... I should explain that I don't believe in predicting the future, and I can start predicting the future if you can show me one person who predicted the nature of the collapse of Leninist - Marxism in Europe, or anybody in the 1950s who suggested that you get both inflation and stagnation at the same time, because in the 1950s we thought you couldn't do that, [but] we've had it now for twenty years. The ... you can predict all kinds of rather simple little physical things. You can't really predict human affairs at all, because there are too many what are called variables in it. As soon as one thing changes you've got a different score. It's like some enormous game being played, involving millions of people, in which you suddenly discover the rules have changed, and it's a different game altogether. Like at the ... Then we sometimes have projections, don't we? I mean, you know, the kind of projections can sometimes suggest that absurd result if you just ... by projection I mean just carry something forward from now and assume it keeps on getting up. If you wanted me to be imaginative, you know, I could put up some doomsday stuff and one can certainly do that: the possibility of resources running out. I would ... my imagination may ... just when your things are not working for the moment or how they're working now, and what I'm saying will probably be absolute rubbish. One thing would be that the entire ... George Gepps spoke better than he knew when he said there was a new world order. We now have a situation in which you don't have either two superpowers or two sets of powers contesting each other. We have a situation in which all of the major powers are likely to form what's technically known as a concert, and possibly act against minor powers. We have minor powers who are engaging in really enormous conflagrations of ethnic chauvinism, in ways that could endanger peace or their own countries, and they can also make them ... have available to themselves maybe nuclear weapons. Well now we ... we may be looking for ... I ... I got sick of the people in Melbourne when George Bush arrived. They were all protesting against the United States. They didn't know what the hell they were protesting against. It was just kind of ... it was an old traditional habit of protesting against the United States. The United States may no longer matter all that much. We may be in a situation in which for the sake of world peace and ... and on the whole [matter of] freedom that we support the idea that the major powers enforce various types of order on minor powers. The alternative maybe they start blowing each other up. I mean the kinds of people who protest against nuclear armament can stop protesting against the United States, they can start protesting against Iraq, against Israel, against Iran, against Pakistan, against all of the countries that they have, on the whole, seen as victims of the United States. That's one thing. Another thing is that I just can't imagine how the existing economic order is going to go on. The idea that governments don't intervene is not going to work. Governments are intervening so much now in trading blocks, that either we're in for a very nasty and dangerous period of economic rivalries, and ... and here our traditional ideas about loyalty to somebody, they don't mean much. If you try to choose between East Asia, North America and Europe, what the hell's loyalty mean? Or there'll be a solution, and that the solution is not going necessarily to be a free market, it's going to be in some ways a government-backed solution which doesn't necessarily ... There ... there was a whole arrangement for about twenty-five years into the period of the great post-war boom, in which through government actions, trade was quite easy to do. We may have something like that again so both in the relationship between the powers and in economic matters we may see quite different (under Robin) things happening.
[Interrupting] It'd be ... I ... I ... I ... it'd be silly for me to answer that. I'm being silly, anyway, talking about the future. That would be quite silly to answer. I mean you could have predicted I think, say, in the early 1930s that maybe there must be some way in which governments can do something about the Depression. People didn't know, but you could say, 'Look there's a need here, somewhere or another beyond balancing budgets', and then Keynes and others, Roosevelt and so forth, began to think of ways. All I'm suggesting is ... I mean, it'd be absurd for me to provide the answer in a sense.
Yes. But you're attempting to define the problem that needs to be solved and that somebody might solve, and you see the problem as the fact that trade blocks may create a whole new problem that we haven't had before.
Yes, well, trade blocks will then create a political problem, won't they and you have the ... I ... I rather like the idea of the major powers combining against anybody who tries to bust things up, like letting off nuclear weapons, or killing people over border disputes, or invading Kuwait or whatever it might be. That is threatened by the fact that these major powers are also economic powers, in that they may split up into economic zones and that could be very disastrous, because that then could be a reason, again, for the great powers to start threatening each other. And the United States's nuclear superiority wouldn't necessarily mean much there. So on the whole, you know, we live in interesting times. One can't predict, I think, beyond that except that those are some of the present parameters.
The United Nations could possibly come into its own, much despised, in its earlier form, as the League of Nations, it may. In a very rough and ready way, you know. It'd be a way that lots of people won't like, and it won't quite work as ... as it was meant to, but it may be ... not so much the United Nations, but the standing powers in the Security Council, backed also by Germany and Japan, who are not powers in the Security Council, may attempt to move into areas in which minor powers are threatening peace, or threatening nuclear attacks or threatening invasions or whatever it might be. It may be too much to expect the United Nations to come into the kind of trade difficulties we can see looming up, but it may be once again that some type of international arrangement might do that. I don't want to sound idealistic. The alternatives seem worse.
I know that you like to be optimistic and not to whinge, but for a moment can I invite you to be pessimistic, and paint what you could see as the outcome in the future for Australia that you would most fear, that could happen, where we could get it wrong.
I think a very unfortunate thing for Australia would be if it developed such a ... a ... a kind of mechanical approach to economics in which almost anything that mattered for something that showed up as a measurement on a gauge, because I think that could really wreck the whole place. It could be like New Zealand. It doesn't work so you do it twice over, and I don't know that Australians could quite handle. I mean people grow up in Ethiopia quite used to the fact that they're not very well off. I don't know that Australians could quite handle this. For the moment I don't think there's much danger that Australia will alienate itself from its immediate neighbours. I feel that the possibilities of that are greatly exaggerated. The political difficulties of Australia in the world environment, for the moment, are close to nil. I mean we're South East Asia - a nice peaceful area, isn't it? I mean, Europe's the great struggle point for the moment; Africa in certain ways; Latin America in other ways. The South East Asia, anyway, area is the most peaceful one so we don't have to worry about that. If we could just bring ourselves to the ground through economic simplicities and stupidities. Oh I would also always hate to see a reaction in Australia against the general liberation. There's a curtain in it. I think that Australians are quite good at being, in effect, tolerant, even though their words are not much good when they use it. On the whole shameful it would be if intonations of racism, which can sometimes be exploited by a political party should really [be] exploit[ed] it in Australia. It ... it would economically be disastrous, and what a shabby way for us to go back ... to go back on questions of racial tolerance, to ... I can't imagine we'd really go back to a nation where [we're] British, to try to undo some of the changes that occurred in the position of women. I mean, there are some conservatives in Australia now, who would like to put Australia back to some imaginary past. And that would be disastrous too.
Well, you have to ... I mean there's only two chairs for democracy. I mean you have to be ... I'd believe that more important than democracy is maintaining a liberal humanist value to society. That after all was what the whole collapse of Communism's about. Democracy's very hard. It's only a representative democracy. I believe that's the best thing going. It's not much good, but in theory, of course, any country can become highly authoritarian and repressive, in certain ways. Some of the kind of ... the Bjelke Petersen Government had some of those elements. I can't quite see the circumstances in which they would take over in Australia, but they could, yes, certainly. Economic catastrophe might produce some kind of change of that kind. I suppose it would be ... the possibility of great socialist revolutions in Australia seem small. If there were any such thing it would be a lot of yabber about free enterprise, which is actually state controlled, combined with 'Let's bash the boongs, the poofters, get the sheilas back into the kitchen' and so forth.
Young Donald Horne wrote in his diary that he'd like to be a writer or a university lecturer. In the end you became both, didn't you? The writer, we've heard about. [The] university lecturer was a little bit more unpredictable because you actually didn't ever complete an undergraduate degree.
I didn't actually ever complete two undergraduate degrees in the sense that I was at Sydney University for three years, and later Camnberra University College for two years so that I actually received a university education without benefit of degrees. The university invited me to go along there as a Research Fellow for a couple of years, and while I was there, I gave some lectures and they decided ...
Well I'd ... the ... I had decided to resign from The Bulletin. I got sick of it because it was my second editorship of The Bulletin, and a couple of people in the Faculty of Arts just thought it would be quite good for a university to have somebody ... to take the step in having somebody like me, to have a chance to settle down to some steady writing at this ... I thought it [was an] enlightened approach which should be more widely adopted. And while I was there, as a Research Fellow, I gave some lectures which the Dean sat in on, and decided to advertise a position which I applied for and got. There were still plenty of jobs at that stage.
I ... I cert ... found nothing odd about this in the sense that I'd published all these damned things which I thought were some kind of a contribution to Australian public intellectual life, and ... and secondly that the kinds of techniques that I'd learned as a writer, I've ... as it turned out - I thought worked quite well in lecturing, so that I was relatively competent in that.
I ... because I wanted to go back to Sydney and ah ah live with this lady I was with at that stage.
Right right. So ... so that's right. You moved back from Canberra to Sydney. Now things have come around full circle with you as Chancellor of the University in Canberra and thoroughly established as a very prominent academic. What did you think of academic life?
I thought it was wonderful. I really enjoyed it - to be able ... I enjoyed the various kinds of lecturing. The first year lectures I did in association with a colleague named Thompson, and I ... we saw their function being to simply inspire people's interest, and to hope that they would, you know, learn something about reading about the topic and thinking about it intelligently. The upper level ones could be related to one's own interests more fully. I did them entirely in seminar arrangement. The MA courses, which were pass work, of course, were courses, had a third kind of interest as they brought together different ranges of people, but I loved them and they were also related to books I was writing so that one was able ... I was writing The Great Museum and The Public Culture, and I was able to ... I partly worked them out really in ... in establishing these courses and they were kind of test marketed because I'd try them out on several years of students. I thought it was wonderful to be able to relate one's work so fully - one part of it to another part. It was from then on that I began to be happy with my working life, which I hadn't been thoroughly happy with before, because it was all of ... it was all out of the same cloth.
And all related to ... certainly to thinking and providing expositions. I liked students. There were a few exceptions I suppose, but I didn't have that kind of detestation of students that some conservative people have developed. I remember many years ago having an argument with one of those conservative people, rather famous for her conservatism, and at the end of it she said to me, 'Oh Donald you're speaking like an undergraduate'. I think that was a funny comment and her approach to university life. And I also found that having led a life in which I had to do several different things I could fit it all together. I was playing a part in five courses each year, and I became Chairman of the Faculty of Arts, which they have certain responsibilities, as well as writing books, and I had a wonderful time.
I di ... As a matter of fact I didn't think about that much. My colleagues were divided on that question, but I just chose not to think about it.
I'd always had an enormous regard for the importance of the Australia Council and the overall the high quality of its lurk. I had discovered ... I never imagined I'd be any good as a Chairman, because I'd always been the one that went along to a committee meeting and interrupted it. When I became Chairman of the Faculty of Arts at a rather difficult time in that faculty's history, I discovered, as Chairman, you can interrupt the meeting, and then you can also be Chairman as well, and I think be all occurrence I was actually one way or the other quite a good Chair. If I hadn't established that I may not have accepted the Australia Council position, but I felt confident about being a Chair's more than just conducting the meeting I think. It's connected with the agenda, it's connected with the followup and it's connected in some ways with not really leadership but something or other - setting a bit of an example or expressing corporate aspirations or whatever it might be. So I applied that in the field of the Australia Council and I felt honoured to have been given that situation, and on the whole enjoyed it.
I think that one never knows that, of course, until you see what the final result is. I was connected with the restructuring of the Council, which I think was very important. The details of that don't matter much but it made it, I think, a better body. I was also connected with the idea of extending the Council's imagination as it were, and range of conduct. I don't know that that's been carried on with now so that perhaps wasn't an achievement, although the idea is still around, and I would hope it will become one again, and thirdly, I spent quite a lot of time in building up ideas for sustaining the idea of the importance of the arts. When I came to the Australia Council there had been a tendency to feel that the arts was a self evident truth. The arts were good for you, good in themselves, which is a silly argument. What does 'good' mean and then you have to go into a whole lot of stuff? But it seemed to be quite easy to explain the social and public benefits of the arts, not in terms of an export earnings and no economic stuff, but in general terms and I think I've worked out arguments in relation to that, which I also related to the general benefit of intellectual life. So, I suppose, those three things. I was also incidentally, I think, as the universally acknowledged to be very good at actually chairing the meetings.
Oh yes, I did attract a lot of criticism, especially over the period when we were restructuring the Boards of the Australia Council, our acts and subdivisions. It's what I think of, looking back at it, as the great civil war of the Boards. I can remember appearing in Perth. A lot ... a lot of people had such an enormous affection for the Australia Council Boards, they didn't want it to be changed in any way at all. Appearing in Perth one day you know Brisbane the next, the same arguments had be cycled as if they had been faxed from one to the other, and discussing that, that was an unpopular period, and there were some difficulties for a while with certain management questions, but over the latter part of it, I may be mistaken, but I think on the whole what I was doing was relatively popular.
Well I suppose so. As I've got older I've also begun to enjoy not being under attack, or at least not being able ... of being not liked but, you know, feeling I'm doing something useful. When I ... when I began writing I used to imagine infuriating people, then later on ...
With glee, that's right, yes. Well that disappeared quite a long time ago. Writing The Lucky Country was instructive of that. I started to write it like that, and I changed it at the [end]. I mean The Lucky Country was, as we all know, a very popular book, and that was partly, I think, because I abandoned ... I mean I didn't mind infuriating people who didn't agree with it, but I tried and continued, I hope, to use a slightly more, as it were, persuasive style, which I could imagine there were people who rather enjoyed it.
Yes, well people have often said there's an element of larrikinism in me and I don't mind them saying that. I sometimes jump on top of the dining room table and do imitations and things of this kind, and suddenly cause strange scenes in restaurants. I don't mind that. That's a ... an Australian characteristic that I'm quite happy with, so long as it's not a kind of loud mouthed vulgar boasting, as it can sometimes be.
It happens to me quite without thinking about anything, and I have a tendency also of just jumping up. It's just the limitations of this format that stopped me doing it just then, as a matter of fact, and putting on a little act.
At ... through the course of your life, whatever you've done, because it's tended to be strongly said, arresting, out of the mould, often against the crowd, it's ... you've attracted both friends and enemies. Those who've liked you, and like what you've done, what do you think they like about you?
I think that on the ... I can hear just judge. I mean there are two lots of things there. There are all the people I know, and I don't know - that's just because we like to talk to each other and exchange views and be funny and tell anecdotes and swap theories and in general have a good time over lunch or dinner or whatever it might be. There are all the other people who come up to me in the street or whatever it might be, and what they like is simply they like the books. They've given them some ideas. Of course, I've written so many different kinds of books that people get quite uneasy about it. I always like it when somebody comes up and says, 'I really like your book', and I say, 'What book?' thinking if it's The Lucky Country I'll knock your bloody head off, and they say, 'Oh The Permit', [?] or something, which is a satirical novel that I wrote, and I enjoy being outside of Australia because there people say, 'I really like your book', and they mean this thing, The Great Museum. They've never heard of The Lucky Country. It's purely ... After all, for a writer, it's not altogether displeasing to have one's books liked.
Oh God knows, it's just that I've changed around a bit myself. Also that, you know, being radical conservative and all that kind of thing. They ... they've been legion, and of course they change also. I've had all kinds of dislikers. When I was at Sydney University I was disliked by the conservative element, and also ... also by the people I used to call the Stalinists - you know, the Stalinists - who disliked me for different reasons I think. In my army period I was just a gunner. I don't know that I attracted any great emotions. When I was a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, I was disliked intensely by a whole section of the left-wing because of my ... what I thought my attacks on what I saw as the authoritarianism of the Left, and also disliked, of course, if I wrote liberal articles by conservatives, and so the story's gone on.
You'd be aware because you would have been told, that you ... that there are some people who are really quite afraid of you. They're afraid of your ability to ridicule them or make fun of them, and that they feel a fear being around you. Does that always surprise you? I get the feeling you're surprised by that.
Well I'm ... If I go to a party or something like that I don't think of myself as anybody. I mean they may do that. The ... the great danger for me actually is people who come up and say, 'I've always been wanting to meet you', and I put on a nice smile, and three-quarters of an hour later I'm still listening to what they're saying, my eardrums ringing. The ... you know that ... I ... When I meet people now, certainly I have no consciousness of being anybody in particular, normally, unless I'm a guest or putting on a turn, you know, speaking or something of that kind. And in ... in lots of times nobody knows who the hell I am and I don't have much to say.
Ah yes, I would think so, yes sure. Probably I think a great deal less than I used to. That may just ... I don't know whether that means that I've learnt to suffer fools in silence more, or whether I've acquired better diplomatic techniques - I don't know. I mean when I was ... as Alec Hope used to call me 'Young Donald', I had an extremely belligerent and destructive style. There were some people for whom I had extraordinary veneration. For them I kind of amused them by speaking softly and saying funny things, but the others I really get stuck into. And I certainly would now have tempered that fairly considerably, although not altogether. I ... I don't mind ah on occasion becoming quite angry with people as long as one doesn't any longer feel inwardly angry because that can put you off, but to use the techniques of anger. I can remember, for example, when Geoff Blainey was going around with all of that criticism of immigration policy, I made some quite bitter attacks on him, but I had the advantage of not having any personally bitter feelings towards him. This was even in his presence. It was his arguments that I was attacking. I ... I think he ... Some funny thing happened to him on his way to multiculturalism, so that I'm partly aware now, I can't always pull it off, that invective ... after all, you know, is part of the general discussion of things - that attacking things that one considers to be grave errors is sometimes a very useful thing to do, especially because it can encourage the others, but it's better to do it, in so far as you can, without losing ... doing your block.
[Interrupting] Speaking generally, with exceptions of course.
Yes well at 3.30 in the morning I think it's a very ... for somebody like myself who is by ... I can see myself as being constitutionally optimistic. I'm not constitutionally optimistic really. I think I got it from my mother probably, and I'm also by intellect, pessimistic. I mean I've read so many books and know so many things about the hideous potentials of human beings that who could not be in some ways pessimistic? And it seems to me that that comes together quite well as an ironic style, you know, that you can be optimistic, but if you are an optimist, you have to be an ironist in that it might all go backwards - how funny that would be. But when I wake up at 3.30 in the morning, there's no optimism, and I think it does me good to sit there in the depths of pessimism. On the other hand if I'm - especially in regard to more general questions - if it's about myself I can't stand it for too long. I say, you know, 'Remember French Warfare, remember the Holocaust, remember this that and the other. For God's sake, what are you whingeing about?' and I will sometimes end up trying to tell myself some instructive stories.
I think so, yes.
What would be the main thing you would want to say to Australians or to anybody for that matter, that you've learned out of your life. What would be a message if I can put it that way, that you would want to say to them?
Corny as it may seem, and meaningless as it really is, I think, well, to some people I would continue to say, 'The unexamined life is not worth living', Socrates' famous dictum. I think that human curiosity is one of our really noble and useful characteristics. Unfortunately [sighs] that leaves a lot of other people out, and there I would say to Australians, you know, 'In a sense try to be yourself, in the sense try to imagine anyway that you are Australians. You may be ... Australians are various kinds ... of diverse kinds of which you might imagine that there are some things which unite you rather than divide you'. I don't really know whether that is what I believe. It's the answer I gave your question as you just put it then.
Yes, you've talked about this teaming conflict of ideas inside your head, that may come out as anything, and if we can talk for a moment about not the invention of Australia, or the creating of the book, but the creating of Donald Horne and invite you to invent an idea of Donald Horne of your ... of yourself, which Donald Horne would you choose. When we look through your life there was people who were politically conservative: a Donald Horne who was at one stage even politically conservative, a Donald Horne whose adopted many different faces in different situations. Is there a real Donald Horne?
Ha! Well I don't know but the ... what I would like to be would be a liberal humanist critical Donald Horne I think. I think those are the ... When you look at all the disasters of the Twentieth Century really some of the things that have come through best have been the the liberal values, the recognition of the importance of criticism, existence, and the maintenance ... despite the many disasters of human activity - the maintenance of some faith also in a further development of the human condition. That's kind of high sounding stuff and nobody really ... ever really is that, but if I had a pick that's what I'd like to be, except that, I suppose, that I would tend to strengthen in particular the critical ... critical side of it.
Well how about: for God's sake don't whinge.
Well I think, you know, epitaphs are really something more than that. I'd just like a simple statement something like 'Writer and critic' that'd do me: Writer and Critic, Keep off the Grass.
Oh well, yes. Well some of the closing for all I know is, you know, a kind of censorship. Some of the rest of it comes from a really deep conviction that when human beings are really going to talk bullshit, I say that about the future, or it's about what they really are inside them.
Well it's not a pretty important part of the agenda. I think would be important ... but I can't remember now what those elements were in which you felt frustrated.
Just, I suppose, generally that when we've asked you to construct a picture of yourself, you've been very ready and open to do it about your public life, and about your role as a critic and so on. You've been more guarded and less free with your description when it comes to the things you think privately.
Oddly, it may be partly because I haven't thought about it very much, it just occurred to me. In fact that's a ... that's a much better answer. Why don't you just and ask the question again.
Yes, I thought of that last night as a matter of fact when I woke up this morning.
Oddly enough it may be partly because I haven't thought about it so much. I mean, I have subjected my kind of public performance to an enormous amount of self examination, not out of vanity I can assure you, but just out of interest. I mean, who else's public performance would I know more about than mine? I don't have much faith in a really internal introversion, and I just don't think I've conducted it, perhaps, is the best answer I could give. I haven't thought about it very much.
I think that the its existence is more easily examined, and the ... the refutability of what one thinks is more easily obtained. When I wrote all that autobiographical stuff, as far as possible, I tried external checks which was something one can't do, of course, in the internal examination.
Yes, well I believe that we ... I mean, I don't believe that we're entirely socially determined, of course not, and I do believe in a sense there's a kind of free will in individuals that can be of enormous importance, but all individuals are social. We work within the limitations and the potential of being social. Beyond that we don't exist.
I ceased to believe in God I think, oh, I don't know, somewhere early in high school I think, and my belief earlier was never very intense.
I think I'll just simply cease to exist. That was something which used to terrify me earlier. I've discovered with great delight as one gets older, it becomes something one can contemplate and I would always hope that when that time comes that I'd behave myself with a certain amount of decorum. You never know, of course, because of the amount of pain and disturbance that can happen to people when they're dying. It's entirely out of your control. But I would like to make what used to be described as a 'good death', but of course I don't know whether I'll be granted that possibility.
Not really, no. Not really. I mean I've gone through periods, especially when I did all these jobs I hated in which I'd sometimes be unable to move. You know, I'd go home, have a headache for a day, thinking oh God this is terrible, but no. I think I'd probably ... I ... I think I'd probably have - I don't know - outlets in living, which mean that I wouldn't in that sense disintegrate.
Oh probably not. It's the kind of question I've ceased to ask myself now. For a large part of my life I thought I was the most alarming failure. I can remember at the age ... at the age of thirty-five I thought, my God I'm thirty-five, what a waste. Here I am mucking around with all this rubbish. Then I thought, oh my God, I'm not thirty-five, I'm thirty-seven. I think that was about the time I started on The Observer.
Well few is ... half, I suppose. Oh no. Anyway I've been a late starter I think. I mean my first book wasn't published until I was aged forty-two. I hadn't learnt that I could chair meetings well until I was aged ... I don't know, sixty-two or something. So I've been a late starter. I was an early starter of course, and then there was this long puzzling bit of my life, in which was an almost an utter waste, which is the part that I've written about mainly in the autobiographical trilogy, that I find puzzling.
I still find it puzzling and I deliberately wrote it so that people could puzzle over it, if they cared. Rather than provide slick answers.
Confidence and also I felt that, you know, the ... the world hasn't been ... I ... been filled with people asking me to do things always. There've been occasional things. Max Harris said, 'Why don't you write a book about Australia?' There've been ... and of course as you get older and so forth, more people ask you to do things, but I didn't really grow up into a society which was filled with wonderful opportunities though. I ... I ... I did in 1944-5, in association with a friend, Bruce Miller, start writing a book about Australia, which in lots of ways wouldn't have been all that different from how The Lucky Country turned out, although perhaps not so well written. It wouldn't have been published.
That's right yes. Well I ... I ... I don't ... as I say, I don't think the world has been filled with people asking me to do things anyway.
I suppose it was lack ... it ... it ... it ... I ... that strange period when I wasted so much time in such an idiotic fashion, it probably was all over some kind of lack of confidence or lack of defined ambition, or not recognising ... Probably at the end may have just been stubbornness. I didn't want to do it any way except my way. That's a possibility, isn't it?
But your way at that time as you said, one of the reasons why you were ... you you became a conservative was to be different, so it seemed that it was fairly important for you to stand out against the crowd.
I didn't ... don't feel that I became a conservative to be different. What I think happened was that as an anti-authoritarian person, I rebelled against what I saw as the authoritarianism of the Left. It's a bit of a difference I think.
If I can just butt in there, I don't know that I've spent much of my life thinking I'm going to be different. I've spent a fair part of my life just doing things and then thinking, oh well, maybe that was different.
I believe that there can be periods when there are people who do provide a sense of liberation and leadership. A lot of it may not work later, but those are pretty important matters in intellectual or ... or political life, and that kind of authority, which is not the authority of having power to regulate people, but the authority that appeals to intelligence or conscience or reason, those are great moments of authority.
I used to imagine it would be impossible for me to enter politics really after I got through this ... this nonsense of becoming a conservative in Britain, because my political imagination really when I was younger was entirely revolutionary politics. In my fantasies I was there addressing the multitude before I was executed. You know, that kind of thing? And I didn't believe in revolutions. At least I didn't believe that they were ever going to be successful. You know, bound to fail and so on. That was why I came out at the time when Whitlam was sacked. It wasn't a revolutionary thing, but suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was speaking in the public. My first public meeting I guessed 15,000 people in the Hyde Park in Sydney, an experience which left me weakened with surprise that this had happened. So that I was more used to that idea of politics. I ... I couldn't have, looking back on it though, upped it. I got rid of my English rubbish. I could now, I think for some reason or other I could put up with elect ... you know, the electorate and all those kinds of things but for most of my life ... For the same reason I wouldn't have been much good, over most of my life, as a diplomat. I wasn't patient enough with, you know, buttering people up and telling lies and so on.
Yes. Yes. Although I might say also patience. I mean anybody who writes a book or who's done, you know, the number of the things that I've done, you're anxious and concerned and there are problems about writing the damned thing. Will people publish it? And you ... and then you can sometimes engage in enterprises in which you are concerned about favour and so forth so I think ... I think it's this: that I've sometimes impatiently committed myself to something, but thereafter you have to be patient.
[Interrupting] On the ... on the other hand ... I thought I'd butt in, I don't mind becoming extremely impatient. You know, you're the editor so you call somebody in and say, 'Why isn't this story done?' You know. 'Bbbbbllll...'. 'Well don't bloody well say that just do the story', that kind of thing, but that's different.
To be engaged in a ... a ... a noble and ... and elevated politics in revolutionary times. I'd ... Jim McClelland used to feel that I would have made a most enlightened kind of left-wing Liberal Party politician, but I think he's that ... I think that was being too kind to the ... to this Liberal Party. There have been some Liberal Parties in the world which that could be so.