|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.
When did you get married?
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.
You prefer economic fundamentalist to economic rationalist as a term?
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.
So whatever you did you weren't going to be predictable.
That makes me sound like somebody who's changing clothes all day. [INTERRUPTION]
During this period in England, how did you earn your living?
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.
Was that a ... a good experience working as a journalist in England?
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.
So you don't have any sort of general things that you feel it's important for journalists to remember?
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.
Do you think this is because they are not properly aware of their charter?
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.
You said that when you were at university you rather despised the idea of journalism. What made you turn to it?
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.
[Interrupting] So you gave ... So you gave up the beginning of the career as a diplomat ...
Yes that's right.
... for a woman?
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!
And then you went into journalism without any great high hopes of it?
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.
And in talk ... in thinking about your life in journalism and in writing, how do you relate those two, and what do you feel is the real role in society of a writer?
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 ...
... the whole paper yourself.
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 ...
Did they mind?
I ... really, I can't quite remember.
I was wanting to really know whether you were a good editor?
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.
But so the other journalists ... the journalists who worked for you didn't ever complain about the way you treated their work or how detailed your briefings were?
[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.
So that they were happy to be incorporated in your vision?
'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 ...
I suppose this is one of the things that is sometimes being said about you, that you are an egotistical person.
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.
I suppose I'm going here, back to those certainties that you got from John Anderson ... [INTERRUPTION - SLATE]
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.
Did you adopt that as a kind of technique - theatrical ...
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.
You're talking about charismatic leaders.
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.
Did you feel you were a demi, semi charismatic editor?
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 ...
Did you crack jokes the way your father had done, as one person doing it as a performance, or did you engage the others in dialogue?
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.
Does it also make it bearable?
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 ...
Yes what is that?
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.
So you've always tried to deal with serious subjects with humour, and to approach life and catastrophe with a certain amount of laughter.
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.
And despite the fact that you admit to being egocentric, you point out that often you're laughing at yourself.
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.
Nevertheless you do often get very irritated with what you see as stupid behaviour or stupid thoughts, especially when they get a big place on our public platform.
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.
You worried that people mightn't listen to you if you do that?
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.
When you wake up at three o'clock in the morning worrying about ...
... what you said - three-thirty - let's be accurate - it ... it's usually because of something you've done impulsively, is it?
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 ...
Yes. So what brought you back to Australia from England?
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.
Was this your way of leaving England?
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.
And this was in the late 1950s you'd come back to ... you came back in 1954 and The Observer happened. What ... what year ...
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 ...
[end of tape]