Australian Biography

Donald Horne - full interview transcript

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Young Donald Horne wrote in his diary that he'd like to be a writer or a university lecturer. In the end you became both, didn't you? The writer, we've heard about. [The] university lecturer was a little bit more unpredictable because you actually didn't ever complete an undergraduate degree.

I didn't actually ever complete two undergraduate degrees in the sense that I was at Sydney University for three years, and later Camnberra University College for two years so that I actually received a university education without benefit of degrees. The university invited me to go along there as a Research Fellow for a couple of years, and while I was there, I gave some lectures and they decided ...

[Interrupting] Why did they invite you to do that?

Well I'd ... the ... I had decided to resign from The Bulletin. I got sick of it because it was my second editorship of The Bulletin, and a couple of people in the Faculty of Arts just thought it would be quite good for a university to have somebody ... to take the step in having somebody like me, to have a chance to settle down to some steady writing at this ... I thought it [was an] enlightened approach which should be more widely adopted. And while I was there, as a Research Fellow, I gave some lectures which the Dean sat in on, and decided to advertise a position which I applied for and got. There were still plenty of jobs at that stage.

That was a position as lecturer?

I ... I cert ... found nothing odd about this in the sense that I'd published all these damned things which I thought were some kind of a contribution to Australian public intellectual life, and ... and secondly that the kinds of techniques that I'd learned as a writer, I've ... as it turned out - I thought worked quite well in lecturing, so that I was relatively competent in that.

The Sydney University degree of course was interrupted by the army. What interrupted the one at ... at Canberra. Why did you never finish that?

I ... because I wanted to go back to Sydney and ah ah live with this lady I was with at that stage.

Right right. So ... so that's right. You moved back from Canberra to Sydney. Now things have come around full circle with you as Chancellor of the University in Canberra and thoroughly established as a very prominent academic. What did you think of academic life?

I thought it was wonderful. I really enjoyed it - to be able ... I enjoyed the various kinds of lecturing. The first year lectures I did in association with a colleague named Thompson, and I ... we saw their function being to simply inspire people's interest, and to hope that they would, you know, learn something about reading about the topic and thinking about it intelligently. The upper level ones could be related to one's own interests more fully. I did them entirely in seminar arrangement. The MA courses, which were pass work, of course, were courses, had a third kind of interest as they brought together different ranges of people, but I loved them and they were also related to books I was writing so that one was able ... I was writing The Great Museum and The Public Culture, and I was able to ... I partly worked them out really in ... in establishing these courses and they were kind of test marketed because I'd try them out on several years of students. I thought it was wonderful to be able to relate one's work so fully - one part of it to another part. It was from then on that I began to be happy with my working life, which I hadn't been thoroughly happy with before, because it was all of ... it was all out of the same cloth.

And all related to ideas.

And all related to ... certainly to thinking and providing expositions. I liked students. There were a few exceptions I suppose, but I didn't have that kind of detestation of students that some conservative people have developed. I remember many years ago having an argument with one of those conservative people, rather famous for her conservatism, and at the end of it she said to me, 'Oh Donald you're speaking like an undergraduate'. I think that was a funny comment and her approach to university life. And I also found that having led a life in which I had to do several different things I could fit it all together. I was playing a part in five courses each year, and I became Chairman of the Faculty of Arts, which they have certain responsibilities, as well as writing books, and I had a wonderful time.

Did you enjoy the fact that there you were without an undergraduate degree yourself in this position?

I di ... As a matter of fact I didn't think about that much. My colleagues were divided on that question, but I just chose not to think about it.

Why did you accept to be Chairman of the Australia Council?

I'd always had an enormous regard for the importance of the Australia Council and the overall the high quality of its lurk. I had discovered ... I never imagined I'd be any good as a Chairman, because I'd always been the one that went along to a committee meeting and interrupted it. When I became Chairman of the Faculty of Arts at a rather difficult time in that faculty's history, I discovered, as Chairman, you can interrupt the meeting, and then you can also be Chairman as well, and I think be all occurrence I was actually one way or the other quite a good Chair. If I hadn't established that I may not have accepted the Australia Council position, but I felt confident about being a Chair's more than just conducting the meeting I think. It's connected with the agenda, it's connected with the followup and it's connected in some ways with not really leadership but something or other - setting a bit of an example or expressing corporate aspirations or whatever it might be. So I applied that in the field of the Australia Council and I felt honoured to have been given that situation, and on the whole enjoyed it.

What did you think was your best achievement there?

I think that one never knows that, of course, until you see what the final result is. I was connected with the restructuring of the Council, which I think was very important. The details of that don't matter much but it made it, I think, a better body. I was also connected with the idea of extending the Council's imagination as it were, and range of conduct. I don't know that that's been carried on with now so that perhaps wasn't an achievement, although the idea is still around, and I would hope it will become one again, and thirdly, I spent quite a lot of time in building up ideas for sustaining the idea of the importance of the arts. When I came to the Australia Council there had been a tendency to feel that the arts was a self evident truth. The arts were good for you, good in themselves, which is a silly argument. What does 'good' mean and then you have to go into a whole lot of stuff? But it seemed to be quite easy to explain the social and public benefits of the arts, not in terms of an export earnings and no economic stuff, but in general terms and I think I've worked out arguments in relation to that, which I also related to the general benefit of intellectual life. So, I suppose, those three things. I was also incidentally, I think, as the universally acknowledged to be very good at actually chairing the meetings.

Did you attract very much criticism in the time that you were there?

Oh yes, I did attract a lot of criticism, especially over the period when we were restructuring the Boards of the Australia Council, our acts and subdivisions. It's what I think of, looking back at it, as the great civil war of the Boards. I can remember appearing in Perth. A lot ... a lot of people had such an enormous affection for the Australia Council Boards, they didn't want it to be changed in any way at all. Appearing in Perth one day you know Brisbane the next, the same arguments had be cycled as if they had been faxed from one to the other, and discussing that, that was an unpopular period, and there were some difficulties for a while with certain management questions, but over the latter part of it, I may be mistaken, but I think on the whole what I was doing was relatively popular.

I get the feeling, whenever you talk about being under attack, that you're reflecting on what was really an enjoyable experience.

Well I suppose so. As I've got older I've also begun to enjoy not being under attack, or at least not being able ... of being not liked but, you know, feeling I'm doing something useful. When I ... when I began writing I used to imagine infuriating people, then later on ...

With glee.


With glee.

With glee, that's right, yes. Well that disappeared quite a long time ago. Writing The Lucky Country was instructive of that. I started to write it like that, and I changed it at the [end]. I mean The Lucky Country was, as we all know, a very popular book, and that was partly, I think, because I abandoned ... I mean I didn't mind infuriating people who didn't agree with it, but I tried and continued, I hope, to use a slightly more, as it were, persuasive style, which I could imagine there were people who rather enjoyed it.

But people are supposed to get milder as they get older, and I have the feeling that there's still quite an element of larrikinism and mischief in the way you go about things.

Yes, well people have often said there's an element of larrikinism in me and I don't mind them saying that. I sometimes jump on top of the dining room table and do imitations and things of this kind, and suddenly cause strange scenes in restaurants. I don't mind that. That's a ... an Australian characteristic that I'm quite happy with, so long as it's not a kind of loud mouthed vulgar boasting, as it can sometimes be.

It's not to do with wanting attention, not caring much whether it was positive or negative?

It happens to me quite without thinking about anything, and I have a tendency also of just jumping up. It's just the limitations of this format that stopped me doing it just then, as a matter of fact, and putting on a little act.

At ... through the course of your life, whatever you've done, because it's tended to be strongly said, arresting, out of the mould, often against the crowd, it's ... you've attracted both friends and enemies. Those who've liked you, and like what you've done, what do you think they like about you?

I think that on the ... I can hear just judge. I mean there are two lots of things there. There are all the people I know, and I don't know - that's just because we like to talk to each other and exchange views and be funny and tell anecdotes and swap theories and in general have a good time over lunch or dinner or whatever it might be. There are all the other people who come up to me in the street or whatever it might be, and what they like is simply they like the books. They've given them some ideas. Of course, I've written so many different kinds of books that people get quite uneasy about it. I always like it when somebody comes up and says, 'I really like your book', and I say, 'What book?' thinking if it's The Lucky Country I'll knock your bloody head off, and they say, 'Oh The Permit', [?] or something, which is a satirical novel that I wrote, and I enjoy being outside of Australia because there people say, 'I really like your book', and they mean this thing, The Great Museum. They've never heard of The Lucky Country. It's purely ... After all, for a writer, it's not altogether displeasing to have one's books liked.

The people who haven't liked you, what do you think has been the pattern there? What's annoyed people?

Oh God knows, it's just that I've changed around a bit myself. Also that, you know, being radical conservative and all that kind of thing. They ... they've been legion, and of course they change also. I've had all kinds of dislikers. When I was at Sydney University I was disliked by the conservative element, and also ... also by the people I used to call the Stalinists - you know, the Stalinists - who disliked me for different reasons I think. In my army period I was just a gunner. I don't know that I attracted any great emotions. When I was a feature writer for the Daily Telegraph, I was disliked intensely by a whole section of the left-wing because of my ... what I thought my attacks on what I saw as the authoritarianism of the Left, and also disliked, of course, if I wrote liberal articles by conservatives, and so the story's gone on.

You'd be aware because you would have been told, that you ... that there are some people who are really quite afraid of you. They're afraid of your ability to ridicule them or make fun of them, and that they feel a fear being around you. Does that always surprise you? I get the feeling you're surprised by that.

Well I'm ... If I go to a party or something like that I don't think of myself as anybody. I mean they may do that. The ... the great danger for me actually is people who come up and say, 'I've always been wanting to meet you', and I put on a nice smile, and three-quarters of an hour later I'm still listening to what they're saying, my eardrums ringing. The ... you know that ... I ... When I meet people now, certainly I have no consciousness of being anybody in particular, normally, unless I'm a guest or putting on a turn, you know, speaking or something of that kind. And in ... in lots of times nobody knows who the hell I am and I don't have much to say.

But you do sometimes make mince meat of people.

Ah yes, I would think so, yes sure. Probably I think a great deal less than I used to. That may just ... I don't know whether that means that I've learnt to suffer fools in silence more, or whether I've acquired better diplomatic techniques - I don't know. I mean when I was ... as Alec Hope used to call me 'Young Donald', I had an extremely belligerent and destructive style. There were some people for whom I had extraordinary veneration. For them I kind of amused them by speaking softly and saying funny things, but the others I really get stuck into. And I certainly would now have tempered that fairly considerably, although not altogether. I ... I don't mind ah on occasion becoming quite angry with people as long as one doesn't any longer feel inwardly angry because that can put you off, but to use the techniques of anger. I can remember, for example, when Geoff Blainey was going around with all of that criticism of immigration policy, I made some quite bitter attacks on him, but I had the advantage of not having any personally bitter feelings towards him. This was even in his presence. It was his arguments that I was attacking. I ... I think he ... Some funny thing happened to him on his way to multiculturalism, so that I'm partly aware now, I can't always pull it off, that invective ... after all, you know, is part of the general discussion of things - that attacking things that one considers to be grave errors is sometimes a very useful thing to do, especially because it can encourage the others, but it's better to do it, in so far as you can, without losing ... doing your block.

You've told us that you believe in keeping your problems to yourself, and you don't, in fact, complain about things or confide your problems in people, not even your family, and yet ...

[Interrupting] Speaking generally, with exceptions of course.

And yet things wake you at 3.30 in the morning.

Yes well at 3.30 in the morning I think it's a very ... for somebody like myself who is by ... I can see myself as being constitutionally optimistic. I'm not constitutionally optimistic really. I think I got it from my mother probably, and I'm also by intellect, pessimistic. I mean I've read so many books and know so many things about the hideous potentials of human beings that who could not be in some ways pessimistic? And it seems to me that that comes together quite well as an ironic style, you know, that you can be optimistic, but if you are an optimist, you have to be an ironist in that it might all go backwards - how funny that would be. But when I wake up at 3.30 in the morning, there's no optimism, and I think it does me good to sit there in the depths of pessimism. On the other hand if I'm - especially in regard to more general questions - if it's about myself I can't stand it for too long. I say, you know, 'Remember French Warfare, remember the Holocaust, remember this that and the other. For God's sake, what are you whingeing about?' and I will sometimes end up trying to tell myself some instructive stories.

So your mother taught you well about the brave face.

I think so, yes.

What would be the main thing you would want to say to Australians or to anybody for that matter, that you've learned out of your life. What would be a message if I can put it that way, that you would want to say to them?

Corny as it may seem, and meaningless as it really is, I think, well, to some people I would continue to say, 'The unexamined life is not worth living', Socrates' famous dictum. I think that human curiosity is one of our really noble and useful characteristics. Unfortunately [sighs] that leaves a lot of other people out, and there I would say to Australians, you know, 'In a sense try to be yourself, in the sense try to imagine anyway that you are Australians. You may be ... Australians are various kinds ... of diverse kinds of which you might imagine that there are some things which unite you rather than divide you'. I don't really know whether that is what I believe. It's the answer I gave your question as you just put it then.

Yes, you've talked about this teaming conflict of ideas inside your head, that may come out as anything, and if we can talk for a moment about not the invention of Australia, or the creating of the book, but the creating of Donald Horne and invite you to invent an idea of Donald Horne of your ... of yourself, which Donald Horne would you choose. When we look through your life there was people who were politically conservative: a Donald Horne who was at one stage even politically conservative, a Donald Horne whose adopted many different faces in different situations. Is there a real Donald Horne?

Ha! Well I don't know but the ... what I would like to be would be a liberal humanist critical Donald Horne I think. I think those are the ... When you look at all the disasters of the Twentieth Century really some of the things that have come through best have been the the liberal values, the recognition of the importance of criticism, existence, and the maintenance ... despite the many disasters of human activity - the maintenance of some faith also in a further development of the human condition. That's kind of high sounding stuff and nobody really ... ever really is that, but if I had a pick that's what I'd like to be, except that, I suppose, that I would tend to strengthen in particular the critical ... critical side of it.

What would be the main thing you'd want Australians to remember?

Well how about: for God's sake don't whinge.

You yourself haven't gone in terribly much for whingeing in your life. Would that be the thing you'd want to be your epitaph: You never whinged.

Well I think, you know, epitaphs are really something more than that. I'd just like a simple statement something like 'Writer and critic' that'd do me: Writer and Critic, Keep off the Grass.

At the end of a long interview I have to say that I don't think ... I think I've rarely talked to anybody who was at the same time so open and so closed.

Oh well, yes. Well some of the closing for all I know is, you know, a kind of censorship. Some of the rest of it comes from a really deep conviction that when human beings are really going to talk bullshit, I say that about the future, or it's about what they really are inside them.

But you've been game to talk bullshit about other things just to set the agenda, just to get things going, why not about yourself?

Well it's not a pretty important part of the agenda. I think would be important ... but I can't remember now what those elements were in which you felt frustrated.

Just, I suppose, generally that when we've asked you to construct a picture of yourself, you've been very ready and open to do it about your public life, and about your role as a critic and so on. You've been more guarded and less free with your description when it comes to the things you think privately.

Oddly, it may be partly because I haven't thought about it very much, it just occurred to me. In fact that's a ... that's a much better answer. Why don't you just and ask the question again.

You can say it now.

Yes, I thought of that last night as a matter of fact when I woke up this morning.


Oddly enough it may be partly because I haven't thought about it so much. I mean, I have subjected my kind of public performance to an enormous amount of self examination, not out of vanity I can assure you, but just out of interest. I mean, who else's public performance would I know more about than mine? I don't have much faith in a really internal introversion, and I just don't think I've conducted it, perhaps, is the best answer I could give. I haven't thought about it very much.

Do you have a view that the sociological and the public is much more important than the psychological and the private?

I think that the its existence is more easily examined, and the ... the refutability of what one thinks is more easily obtained. When I wrote all that autobiographical stuff, as far as possible, I tried external checks which was something one can't do, of course, in the internal examination.

So you were looking at society in the individual, rather than the individual in society?

Yes, well I believe that we ... I mean, I don't believe that we're entirely socially determined, of course not, and I do believe in a sense there's a kind of free will in individuals that can be of enormous importance, but all individuals are social. We work within the limitations and the potential of being social. Beyond that we don't exist.

Have you ever believed in God?

I ceased to believe in God I think, oh, I don't know, somewhere early in high school I think, and my belief earlier was never very intense.

What do you think is going to happen when you die?

I think I'll just simply cease to exist. That was something which used to terrify me earlier. I've discovered with great delight as one gets older, it becomes something one can contemplate and I would always hope that when that time comes that I'd behave myself with a certain amount of decorum. You never know, of course, because of the amount of pain and disturbance that can happen to people when they're dying. It's entirely out of your control. But I would like to make what used to be described as a 'good death', but of course I don't know whether I'll be granted that possibility.

Were you ever afraid, or have you ever been afraid in the course of your life that you'd disintegrate in the way your father did?

Not really, no. Not really. I mean I've gone through periods, especially when I did all these jobs I hated in which I'd sometimes be unable to move. You know, I'd go home, have a headache for a day, thinking oh God this is terrible, but no. I think I'd probably ... I ... I think I'd probably have - I don't know - outlets in living, which mean that I wouldn't in that sense disintegrate.

Do you think your life has had the kind of effect that you hoped for?

Oh probably not. It's the kind of question I've ceased to ask myself now. For a large part of my life I thought I was the most alarming failure. I can remember at the age ... at the age of thirty-five I thought, my God I'm thirty-five, what a waste. Here I am mucking around with all this rubbish. Then I thought, oh my God, I'm not thirty-five, I'm thirty-seven. I think that was about the time I started on The Observer.

So you've really achieved more in the last few years of your life, than you ever did before?

Well few is ... half, I suppose. Oh no. Anyway I've been a late starter I think. I mean my first book wasn't published until I was aged forty-two. I hadn't learnt that I could chair meetings well until I was aged ... I don't know, sixty-two or something. So I've been a late starter. I was an early starter of course, and then there was this long puzzling bit of my life, in which was an almost an utter waste, which is the part that I've written about mainly in the autobiographical trilogy, that I find puzzling.

And you still find it puzzling.

I still find it puzzling and I deliberately wrote it so that people could puzzle over it, if they cared. Rather than provide slick answers.

There was never any question about your ability I think right from the beginning. The question perhaps was about your confidence.

Confidence and also I felt that, you know, the ... the world hasn't been ... I ... been filled with people asking me to do things always. There've been occasional things. Max Harris said, 'Why don't you write a book about Australia?' There've been ... and of course as you get older and so forth, more people ask you to do things, but I didn't really grow up into a society which was filled with wonderful opportunities though. I ... I ... I did in 1944-5, in association with a friend, Bruce Miller, start writing a book about Australia, which in lots of ways wouldn't have been all that different from how The Lucky Country turned out, although perhaps not so well written. It wouldn't have been published.

But in the second half of your life, the successful part, you actually became an initiator and you weren't waiting for people to ask you any more.

That's right yes. Well I ... I ... I don't ... as I say, I don't think the world has been filled with people asking me to do things anyway.

But you did get the confidence together, then, to initiate.

I suppose it was lack ... it ... it ... it ... I ... that strange period when I wasted so much time in such an idiotic fashion, it probably was all over some kind of lack of confidence or lack of defined ambition, or not recognising ... Probably at the end may have just been stubbornness. I didn't want to do it any way except my way. That's a possibility, isn't it?

But your way at that time as you said, one of the reasons why you were ... you you became a conservative was to be different, so it seemed that it was fairly important for you to stand out against the crowd.

I didn't ... don't feel that I became a conservative to be different. What I think happened was that as an anti-authoritarian person, I rebelled against what I saw as the authoritarianism of the Left. It's a bit of a difference I think.

There's been a pattern there too ...

If I can just butt in there, I don't know that I've spent much of my life thinking I'm going to be different. I've spent a fair part of my life just doing things and then thinking, oh well, maybe that was different.

You still haven't had a great deal of confidence in authority though, have you?

I believe that there can be periods when there are people who do provide a sense of liberation and leadership. A lot of it may not work later, but those are pretty important matters in intellectual or ... or political life, and that kind of authority, which is not the authority of having power to regulate people, but the authority that appeals to intelligence or conscience or reason, those are great moments of authority.

Is that the reason you've devoted yourself to writing and thinking rather than say entering politics?

I used to imagine it would be impossible for me to enter politics really after I got through this ... this nonsense of becoming a conservative in Britain, because my political imagination really when I was younger was entirely revolutionary politics. In my fantasies I was there addressing the multitude before I was executed. You know, that kind of thing? And I didn't believe in revolutions. At least I didn't believe that they were ever going to be successful. You know, bound to fail and so on. That was why I came out at the time when Whitlam was sacked. It wasn't a revolutionary thing, but suddenly, for the first time in my life, I was speaking in the public. My first public meeting I guessed 15,000 people in the Hyde Park in Sydney, an experience which left me weakened with surprise that this had happened. So that I was more used to that idea of politics. I ... I couldn't have, looking back on it though, upped it. I got rid of my English rubbish. I could now, I think for some reason or other I could put up with elect ... you know, the electorate and all those kinds of things but for most of my life ... For the same reason I wouldn't have been much good, over most of my life, as a diplomat. I wasn't patient enough with, you know, buttering people up and telling lies and so on.

Impatience has been a characteristic of your life. You do get impatient with things.

Yes. Yes. Although I might say also patience. I mean anybody who writes a book or who's done, you know, the number of the things that I've done, you're anxious and concerned and there are problems about writing the damned thing. Will people publish it? And you ... and then you can sometimes engage in enterprises in which you are concerned about favour and so forth so I think ... I think it's this: that I've sometimes impatiently committed myself to something, but thereafter you have to be patient.

So as a politician you would have ...

[Interrupting] On the ... on the other hand ... I thought I'd butt in, I don't mind becoming extremely impatient. You know, you're the editor so you call somebody in and say, 'Why isn't this story done?' You know. 'Bbbbbllll...'. 'Well don't bloody well say that just do the story', that kind of thing, but that's different.

As a politician, the only kind that would have attracted you would be to ... to have been a demagogue.

To be engaged in a ... a ... a noble and ... and elevated politics in revolutionary times. I'd ... Jim McClelland used to feel that I would have made a most enlightened kind of left-wing Liberal Party politician, but I think he's that ... I think that was being too kind to the ... to this Liberal Party. There have been some Liberal Parties in the world which that could be so.

[end of interview]