Australian Biography

Donald Horne - full interview transcript

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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 ...

Don't be bothered by modes ... modesty.

Oh but ...

You're not ... not ... you don't have a reputation of being someone bothered by modesty.

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.

The old Australian attribute of being as game as Ned Kelly.

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.

So we've established that one characteristic that we can say is that you're prepared to ... perhaps rush in where angels fear to tread.

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.

Is there any other characteristic that you feel is ... it's fair to attribute to you?

In terms of writing and so forth?

In terms of yourself. In terms of who you are. In terms of your personality and your characteristics.

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.

You say you think you're right, but you're prepared to discover otherwise. Have you usually found that you're right about things?

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.

You've been accused of intellectual arrogance. Do you think there's any basis in that accusation?

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.

Is this a style you learned from John Anderson at Sydney University?

I don't think so. John Anderson was never knocked down. He was always still standing up at the end of the day.

And you've been knocked down?

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 ...

Are there any other personal characteristics that it would be of interest to draw our attention to?

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 ...

Unreliable Memoirs.

... 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.

You've always resisted being in ... the invitation to speculate and predict about the future. Could I invite you to imagine it?

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.

What sort of an arrangement? What sort of an arrangement? I mean in Australia's particular position, with as you say, trade blocks forming how do you see that going ...

[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.

I'm not asking you to predict. Can you imagine what role the United Nations might have?

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.

Could you imagine us ever, or what circumstances could you imagine us ever reaching where our basic democratic approach to things might falter?

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.

[end of tape]

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