Australian Biography - Donald Horne

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Australian Biography opening title sequence



Donald sync: I'm a very great believer in the important intellectual attributes of superficiality.


Photo: Donald at a microphone




Donald sync: When I began writing, I used to imagine infuriating people.


Photo: Donald reading a magazine




Donald sync: I don't especially want to be enigmatic, and I hadn't even thought of myself much like that, but if that's the way it is, okay.


Photo: Donald



Donald, zoom in to BCU

Donald Horne
Born 1921
Social Historian & Author

Dissolve to:

Donald sync: Yes, well 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 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.


Photos: Donald as a baby

Zoom in to one photo

Donald v/o: I think one of the most formative things in my early life was living in Muswellbrook, which we didn't think was little it was three and half thousand, pretty big by the standards of that stage.



Donald sync: And one gift given to me from that is something I simply wouldn't have got, I think, by being brought up in a suburb and that was a sense of a whole society. I think it came to me partly through my mother's social membranes as it were. She was very sensitive to snubs and insults and so forth. But I had a society of which the big landholders, the Whites, Patrick White's cousins, and others were on top and at the very bottom were people who lived on the common and their children went to school without shoes, and then all of the intervening parts of that middle class, lower middle class, upper lower middle class, and all of these things so that


Photo: Donald in a bow tie, tilt up

Donald v/o: -- and I described it in the 'Education of Young Donald' just in a few paragraphs


Photo: Donald as a young boy

I think, it really is a microcosmic world.


Photo: Donald is a young boy in a bowler hat and suit, zoom out to reveal Donald with his siblings

Donald v/o: It's the kind of reason, I think, why I always would have liked to have written a nineteenth century novel. I think some of the ways in which the home shaped me


Donald, zoom out to MCU

Donald sync: was that my father bought me a thing called Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge and somehow or other -- I don't know if encourage is the right word -- but was certainly complacent about my buying books of my own which I would save out of money, you know, got from selling newspapers and things of that kind -- old newspapers, not new ones -- to butchers. And with Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge and these other things I had this great desire that I really would like to know everything, kind of view, which some people would take of me still I suppose. And there were times when I really wish, you know, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could live for a thousand years except that of course we all know by that stage a lot of your knowledge would have become rather obsolescent. So that it wasn't a scholarly house anyway, the books they had about four different books but I had this whole shelf, finally, of books and I don't whether the word is encouragement or simply their toleration of my odd habits but certainly that was big. There was also looking back on it, memories of belief, which in our case were mainly entirely secular. Anzac Day was very big in our house; my father would put on his medals and they'd all walk down the street and then it would bifurcate -- the non-Catholics would go off the Church of England and the Catholics would go to their mass which seemed a pretty un-Australian thing to do,



Donald sync: but at that period there was divided society. The difference between Catholic and Protestant went through most forms of life. I myself believed that Catholics were not really part of the human species like the rest of us. They had distinctive physical characteristics which made them different from us, although there are always individual exceptions and as we know there were -- most business houses were Masonic and anti-Catholic and within government departments there were some Catholic, some Protestant ones, the police were bitterly divided. These were -- it was a divided society of a kind that Australia will perhaps never be again.


Photo: Donald and his parents

Donald v/o: Religion didn't matter much to us, the Church of England was seen -- we belonged to the Anglo-Presbyterian ascendancy



Donald sync: in the sense that my father born a Presbyterian that switched over to Anglicanism when he married my mother, and the Church of England, we went to it once a year.


Photo: Donald's parents

Donald v/o: My mother was a, and continued to be



Donald sync: until she died at the age 92, a very outward and in some ways rather superficial, but extremely generous


Photo: Donald's father and mother

Donald v/o: and lively kind of person who felt that there should always be some



Donald sync: fun going on in life. Her house used to be great centre of playing pianolas, playing bridge, playing tennis, doing all of those things. Whereas my father had a somewhat more systematic view of life, I used to get sometimes beaten by a slipper because I'd broken


Photos: Donald as a small boy

Donald v/o: one of the elements of this system.


Donald, zoom in to BCU

Donald sync: My father began to show signs of nervous disorder when I was in sixth class at primary school. He in fact, he took, I think two months off and went down to Bondi and I spent a couple of months at Bondi Public School and he'd continually -- he became more and more prone to anxiety, not so much suspicions but was evidencing general, quite high, neurotic conduct. So that runs through from what we'll now describe as year six, seven, eight, nine. In year 10, I suddenly discovered at the school he was at it was suggested, I think, that he put his hand on the thigh of one of the pupils and by this stage his, in a state of collapse, nobody knew whether that was true or not, but he was then declared to have a nervous breakdown, and for a while he spent a bit of time at Callan Park, which was, as we used to say in those days, lunatic asylum. I can remember with this great feeling of my mother's that one should always cheer people up, you know, we'd go there once a week and cheer him up.


Photo: Donald's father

Donald v/o: But he was never the same again.

Interviewer o/s: And your whole relationship with him shifted?



Donald sync: Yes, well he was entirely, pretty well an empty shell by then.

Interviewer o/s: And you really saw that happen before your eyes?

Donald sync: He -- I not only saw it happen before my eyes but I became, you know, a player in thing, helping my mother establish these pensions, fighting for pensions,


Photo: Donald, his mother and a sibling, zoom in to Donald

Donald v/o: one way and the other, and in general sustaining ourselves. My father, before he fell to bits,



Donald sync: used to say, you know, you should think for yourself and so on, I suppose lots of fathers say that to their children, but I seemed to be responsive to that idea, so that I think somewhere or other in those mysteries of personality development even before my father went around the bend, I had acquired a certain kind of critical spirit.


Donald, zoom in to CU

Donald sync: I think I'm a natural autodidact, that is to say I teach myself. That's a process that can occur in formal education, it means that people are handling the material critically and so forth, but I seem to have done it mainly outside formal education. It may go back to that period when I was reading Cassell's Children Book of Knowledge, thinking I might know everything. It was also prompted, of course, in my first year at Sydney University by the fact that some of the people I met, all of whom were older than I were, opened up new doors. It was an accident that this great impressionist, post impressionist exhibition of painting arrived that year, it was an accident that I met Jim McAuley who introduced me to Mallarme, Baudelaire, Laforgue and so forth. It was an accident that I met other people who introduced me to Trotskyism, Leninism, Marxism, Anarchism, God knows what. And there was also Alec Hope, A.D. Hope was one of the people whose acquaintance I'd acquired, though I was much younger than he was at that stage. So there were people suggesting extra things I might do. And there was John Anderson and he controlled something, amongst other things, the then Professor of Philosophy at Sydney University and the famous free thinker, he had a special little library which was meant to offset the conservatism of the official library and I was able to whip through that, or part of it, during the year. And then Anderson himself was one of those rare things, a university teacher who really can change people's ways. He had disciples,


Photo: John Anderson, zoom in

Donald v/o: he was, the word charismatic is almost always wrongly used, but he did have a kind of semi-charismatic intellectual appeal in which you felt that out of this Scottish mouth with this Glaswegian accent was coming the absolute truth.



Donald sync: When I was there -- I didn't turn up at lectures much. I had to, you had to do the essays and you sat for an exam and the exam was one hundred percent of the mark. No tutorials and so forth and this gave my the opportunity to do this enormous amount of reading. In my spare time at Sydney University I educated myself in the Modern movement in literature, in painting, and in certain areas of philosophy and so forth, which was not available in the ordinary courses. And sometimes I'd bump through,


Photo: Donald graduating, zoom out

Donald v/o: universities I think are miles better now than they were then, but that kind of university suited me better.

Interviewer o/s: At this stage


Donald, zoom in to CU

Interviewer o/s: were you thinking of journalism as a career?

Donald sync: No, I used to rather despise the idea of journalism. I actually became the university correspondent for the Daily Telegraph when I was there, three pounds a week for God's sake, and here was I previously on 40 pounds a year, but I just regarded that as a way of just getting three pounds a week. I mean I could pay for my own drinks which I hadn't been always able to do previously. I became


Photo: Donald in a suit, smoking a cigar

Donald v/o: a journalist entirely by accident.


Donald, zoom in to CU

Donald sync: And I got married first in 1948. It was an Englishwoman with whom I'd been living prior to 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, funny thing to become, lived in a country village, and then worked in London and built up a whole life that had seemed to have nothing whatsoever to do with what had preceded it. And when I wrote that autobiographical trilogy I intended it to remain, to have certain enigmatic qualities about it. 'Why did that happen?' Well the reason why I left it enigmatic is I don't know. I think that people can be over clever about giving the reasons why this, that, or the other happened in some cases, in 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.


Donald, zoom out to CU

Interviewer o/s: What brought you back to Australia ?

Donald sync: I came back to Australia as usual by accident, on impulse. Frank Packer wanted to start another rubbishy magazine which was going to be called Weekend and in a period of desperation in London when I had no money left at all I'd worked on a similar thing in London and I'd heard about this so I went along to him and said, "Why are 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, where people deliberately make bad, low budget movies. It was like that, no better, no worse, it wasn't intending to be newspaper, it was just rubbish.

Interviewer o/s: Was this your way of leaving England?

Donald sync: No, I only left for six months, I was going to go back after that and then by various accidents, disillusioned by marriage, and the fact that having started the thing, I felt, you know, it should continue, I stayed on. I was one of those people when I left England in 19- left Australia in 1949 I was never going to have


Photo: Donald with a mustache

Donald v/o: the dust of Australia on my heels again. I was one of the, you know,



Donald sync: expatriates who despised the country, its 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 great, as I say, buccaneer's adventure, you know, there was a week production period and we moved the desks in about half an hour after the staff, and then a week later we 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


Photo: Donald and another man, zoom out to reveal Frank Packer

Donald v/o: recompense. What happened with The Observer was that it died of indigestion, it acquired The Bulletin.



Donald sync: Frank Packer had been tipped off that Rupert Murdoch was going to buy a women's magazine they had called New Idea, so he went down to The Bulletin and bought New Idea and then he rang me from a public telephone box, for some reason, and said, "I've just bought New Idea," and he said, "and they own a paper called The Bulletin." He said "you've got to decide if you want to kill The Bulletin or kill The Observer." And I said, "I suppose we have to kill The Observer. "So The Observer took over The Bulletin. And incidentally not only did I take off its masthead, "Australia for the white man", but within about four or five week I think, I just changed the magazine altogether. Rather risky because all of its existing 87 year old racist readers might have stopped buying it without anybody else subscribing and


Photo: Donald with a copy of The Bulletin

Donald v/o: also the entire staff went. Humphrey McQueen, for whom I've got a very great regard, read through all of The



Donald sync: Bulletins and Observers that I edited and he tells me that I'd been working out that book, 'The Lucky Country', in the course of editing those. I actually wrote it in six weeks. It was when I was at this advertising agency, it was over the Christmas New Year period when all of the executives were off having the, playing golf and so forth and I wrote a lot of it there, and the rest of it at home and I was able to write it so quickly because


Photo: Donald with glasses

Donald v/o: I'd virtually thought it all up anyway. I think the primary significance of The Lucky Country


Donald, zoom in to ECU

Donald sync: was that it articulated a number of things which a number of people half believed or were ready to believe when I said them. For example, the criticisms of the White Australia policy, for example the criticism of our treatment of Aborigines, for example the presence of people in this country who'd weren't of what we now describe as English speaking background, for example the inadequacies of political life, for example the somewhat over subservient approaches we had to both the British and the United States, and all of that. And also for example the fact that our traditional Puritanism and repressiveness was an undesirable characteristic. All of those things actually changed. The other example, unfortunately, is one which is still I think on the agenda, and that was the unsatisfactory and highly derivative and non-innovative nature of Australian businesses. So all of those things were kind of talking points for people and they also had --they were used in schools. One should remember that there wasn't a book, a useful book on Australia then, and The Lucky Country was a kind of very successful literary creation, I think. It really is in some ways a series of essays held together by a last minute final thought about what it was all about. But it was photocopied in tens of thousands and given to kids in classrooms, either as English expression or


Cover: The Lucky Country

Donald v/o: as what we now describe as Australian Studies. The Lucky Country is entirely out of



Donald sync: date, thank God, in regard to its political analysis. That was the age of Menzies and I got stuck into him, I got stuck into the Labor Party too. The whole place has improved very considerably since then. I think I would apply to an analysis of Australia also some of these kinds of Australianised characteristics. I would like to see some kind of revival of the idea of the fair go, except that I would like to see it expressing what I think is the great contribution, the greatest political contributions in politics are those of liberalism I think and by the fair go I would imagine the idea of equal rights, of toleration, of a pluralist society, of a society in which the government is not making all of the decisions. You could build up a whole fair go ideology in Australia that was expressing the finest expressions, I think, of European liberalism, and I think that in Australia also a quite natural style is that not only of liberalism but of liberal humanism.



Donald sync: By that I don't mean that we deny the existence of evil in the human potential. In a century in which 50 to 60 million Europeans and others were killed through the acts of the governments we could certainly see as a highly evil century, but there are also potentials for what I would describe as good in human beings. I think that human beings have cooperative qualities as well as the opposite, and I think that human beings have a great talent for curiosity, which is there distinguishing characteristic from the other animals and a little bit of the kind of humanism associated also for Australia with a kind of laconism and irony, summed up in the idea, give it a go. Which I think makes the only sensible basis for action. You can never be sure about what you are going to do, but you can give it a go. When John Kerin had his brief and unfortunate period as Treasurer, to begin with somebody asked some silly, bloody question and he said, "Your guess is as good as mine." Now if the Press Gallery had understood, if they were true Australians, laconic and ironic, they would have praised him for that, best answer given by a Treasurer in the whole history of Treasurers, because most of what people say about all this things, to use a technical term, blueshit, instead of which they attacked him for it. But your, the idea that you don't know everything, but you try things out, you give them a go and then react to them is a true pragmatism.


Photo: Donald and Mythany getting married

Interviewer o/s: Now on a personal front, you married Myfanwy, your present wife.


Photo: Donald and Mythany eating oysters

Interviewer o/s: How did that come about?

Donald v/o: Yes, well the,



Donald sync: about a week after we started The Observer, Michael Baume, who was a member of its staff and is now a Liberal senator, had a party connected with The Observer and I met somebody called Myfanwy Gollan at this party, and it just occurred to me, and I think a week later I proposed.

Interviewer o/s: You make up your mind quickly?

Donald sync: Apparently, yes, although successfully in this case. At that stage I wasn't divorced so that produced a delay of a couple of years I think, one way and another.

Interviewer o/s: And what part has Myfanwy played in the rest of your life?

Donald sync: Well, Myfanwy and subsequently


Photo: Donald and his children

Donald v/o: our son and daughter, Nicholas and Julia, make up for me the essential part of my life.


Photo: Donald making a speech in front of a painting, zoom into Donald

Interviewer o/s : What would be the main thing that you would want to say to Australians, that you've


Photo: Donald making a speech in New South Wales Art Gallery

Interviewer o/s: learned out of your life?

Donald v/o: Corny as it may seem, and meaningless



Donald sync: 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 really noble and useful characteristics. Unfortunately 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 that try to imagine anyway that you are Australians, you may be Australians of various kinds of diverse kinds, but you might imagine that there are some things which unite you rather than divide you.


Photo: Donald in front of a New Constitution banner, zoom in to Donald

Donald v/o: Well, I think it's very important that Australians should think about their economy, about


Photo: Donald making a speech with a crowd behind him

Donald v/o : their strategic relationship to other countries, about their politics, their society, all


Donald, zoom in to CU

Donald sync: of those things. But I think they shouldn't think about them isolated because they're connected. In universities these days there's been this tragic specialisation of knowledge, which means you chop a country up under different headings, as if it didn't exist as a whole. And I think what is of great importance for Australia is a through cultural analysis of us, the kinds of values and ideas that we have, the ways in which often we don't


Photo: Donald with Patrick White and others

Donald v/o: express values just in what you say but in how you act.



Donald sync: I remember in the 1980s, people were saying our role models should be Alan Bond, and Elliott and all these people who went broke. Our role models should have been innovative business management. At the time when the America's Cup was won by Australia II, a national disaster I think, because it was interpreted as meaning that we were technologically a great society, we over \did that. Later a Tasmanian innovator produced a catamaran which made a record crossing of the Atlantic ocean and that's now turned into efficient production. He didn't become a hero, we're suppose to celebrate Bondy. I think that one of the most humiliating episodes in which any Australia Prime Minister has ever participated was Hawke sitting there in that souvenir shirt with the champagne corks popping, getting excited because we'd won the America's Cup.


Photo: Donald reading a speech

Interviewer o/s: What do you feel is the real role in society of a writer?



Donald sync: Well, I think that one has to recognise, 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 can be pretty hard and distressing, but become obsessed by it. And one of the, to me, one of the great delights of writing itself is that 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 that you make a fair bit of money out of it, you lose that freedom because you just go to produce the same stuff. But you're sitting there and you're wondering, you know, what will I think, wonder what I might do next, so I change this and certainly some of the books I've written they've been enormously interesting in 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 pleasure with handling words in a great number of ways. So that's, I think, why all writers write.


Photo: Donald and John Dawkins

Interviewer o/s: Do you think your life has had the kind of effect



Interviewer o/s: that you hoped for?

Donald sync: Oh probably not. It's the kind of question that I've ceased to ask myself now. The last part of my life I thought I was the most alarming failure. I can remember at the age of 35, I thought, oh my God, I'm 35 what a waste, here I am mucking around with all this rubbish, and I thought my God, I'm not 35, I'm 37. I think that was just about the time I started The Observer.

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

Donald sync: Well few is, half I suppose, no -- anyway I've been a late starter I think, I mean, my first book wasn't published until I was aged 42. I hadn't learnt that I could chair meetings well until I was aged, I don't know, 62 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 which was almost an utter waste, which is the part that I've written about mainly in the autobiographical trilogy that I find puzzling.

Interviewer o/s: And you still find it puzzling?

Donald sync: 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.



Interviewer o/s: You have a reputation for not suffering fools very gladly, and sometimes being a little contemptuous of criticism that's offered you. Does that apply to your family's criticism as well?

Donald sync: I don't know. I mean, like most people I suppose, I explode now and again. I believe -- I don't really apologise -- I'd sooner have an exploder than a brooder and I think all human relationships people sometimes explode and I would do that sometimes at home. Even when travelling of course, I mean travelling is a great, somebody should write a book sometime about all of the awful traumas of travel.

Interviewer o/s: If you're good at exploding, are you also good at apologising -- sometimes they're a necessary...

Donald sync: I've got better at it, I've got better at it.


Photo: Donald in a cap and gown

Interviewer o/s: You've been accused of intellectual arrogance, do you think there's any basis


Donald, zoom in to BCU

Interviewer o/s: in that accusation?

Donald sync: Well I would think there probably is, yes sure, in the sense that characteristics carried to excess, I'd sooner by 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


Photo: Donald making a speech

Donald v/o: if you assume that you are absolutely right.

Interviewer o/s: Another accusation,



Interviewer o/s: seeing as we're in the areas of the rude words you've been called, is that, is that you are self satisfied and even smug about your own positions?

Donald sync: Well self satisfied I'm certainly not, I mean I wake up in the middle of the night, three thirty every night, thinking what an idiot I am, how I mucked everything up, not every night but sometime I wake up and I think what will I worry about this time. 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.


Photo: Donald writing

Interviewer o/s: When you wake you are three o'clock in the morning worrying about...

Donald v/o : Three thirty.

Interviewer o/s: Three thirty, let's be



Interviewer o/s: accurate, it's usually because of something you've done impulsively, is it?

Donald sync: Not necessarily, I have worry less, if I can't worry about my own inadequacies and errors I worry about the general state of humanity, and it's usually that first, and if it's a bad night in which I really can't think of anything absurd that I've done over the last 24 hours, I might worry about our species.


BCU Donald with black masking under credits:

Interviewer: Robin Hughes

Research: Graham Shirley
Frank Heimans

Camera: Paul Ree

Sound Recording: Tim Parratt

Sound Mixing: Robert Sullivan



BCU Donald with black masking under credits cont:

Production Manager: Kim Anning

Production Accountant: Megan Gilmour

Production Coordinator: Joanne Holliman

Post Production Supervisor: Brian Hicks



BCU Donald with black masking under credits:

Film Australia would like to thank:
Donald Horne
John Fairfax Ltd.
University of Sydney

Producer/Director/Writer/Editor Frank Heimans

Executive Producer: Ron Saunders

Film Australia [logo]
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