|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 16, 1992
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
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]
Have you got any theory as to why you were able to make use of the freedom that university offered to extend your education when many there didn't take that opportunity at all?
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.
What impact did Anderson have on you as a person?
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.
And so it was his certainties that you think had a bad effect on you. Do you think he made you too certain?
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.
You got involved in university society and politics, too, while you were there. Could you tell us how that came about?
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]
As editor of Honi Soit you began really there most publicly, your career as a stirrer. What do you remember about those days and about how you got into the business of stirring people up?
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.
Didn't you also enjoy having a go at people, getting them ruffled?
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.
Do you feel positive always inside when you make a positive statement?
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?
Back in the Honi Soit days, did you feel that you were giving people your thoughts, or did you feel that you were just sometimes setting the cat among the pigeons?
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.
So you intention was to make people see things more clearly, in other words the way you saw them.
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.
Do you remember any particular controversial issue that you got going in ... in Honi.
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 ...
[Interrupting] What was the thrust of that, if I can use that expression?
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'.
At this stage, were you thinking of journalism as a career?
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 had actually meant something to you, hadn't it?
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.
And you became its university correspondent. You were actually sacked from that position, weren't you?
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.
Do you feel that this anti-authoritarian stand had to do with the ideas that you encountered at university or with the emotional experience you'd had in the disappointment in your father's authority?
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.
Do you think it's important that if you're going to engage in intellectual life that you develop a certain ability to tolerate that kind of criticism?
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.
When you were at university did the criticism infuriate you or did it at that stage still hurt you?
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.
You said you left university without any friends. Had you really alienated all your friends?
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.
And did you get pleasure out of these new friendships?
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 ...
A tough time.
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.
When you were at university, you seemed to get a lot of fun out of the games you were playing. Is that how you saw it at the time?
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 ...
[interrupting] Was this the same ...
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.
This was your mother's philosophy.
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.
Were girls playing any part in your life at this stage?
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.
So you hadn't formed any mature sexual relationship with anyone.
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.
Looking at your life overall, what part has friendship played in that?
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.
So you look to your friends for intellectual stimulation and exchange, more than say the traditional things of loyalty and emotional support and ... Do you have any confidants?
In the ... I'm sorry, do you mind asking that question again. I missed the end bit of it.
Well I ... it ... it ... it was really thinking of the role of friendship in your life, in a more intimate emotional sense.
I missed the last word. You said that ...
Do you have any confidantes? Anybody that you confide in?
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.
Who have been your great friends in life?
I ... I don't know that I ... I ... that would be I think ... I just wouldn't like to specify names I think ...
Others might be offended?
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.
[end of tape]