|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: May 19, 1996
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.
Throughout your life, has friendship been an important element?
Yes, it has, it's been very important, partly of course because I was frequently depressed and frequently upset and frequently drunk and frequently, you know, generally not very good. And a good example was at the Sun, the tabloid after World War 2, where I had this absurd huge column that I'd taken on to write. And frequently I just couldn't. And friends, you know, covered for me. They were lifelong friends after that, of course. They're dead now, but I always remember them very much. And a lot of women friends, quite apart from, you know, partnerships, being just friends. And that has frequently happened, and I've appreciated that very much. And by and large I've been very well done by, by friends. I think a lot of people have been scared off at various times, maybe because of the drinking, or maybe -- I was once told, somebody said, 'You terrify me,' and I said 'Why?,' you know, I thought I was being very benevolent. And she said, 'Because your eyes look through me.' And I immediately lowered my eyes, shut my eyes and I didn't know what to say. I can't help the way I look, you know. And also this big broken jaw gives me a very pugnacious look and that puts a lot of people off.
Have you ever thought that it's rather odd that you're somebody who a lot of people have liked a lot and been a good friend to, that you're somebody who has achieved remarkably well in every area of endeavour that you've taken up, and have been acknowledged in that way, with prizes and good reviews and so on. And yet I suspect you're left with a slightly poor opinion of yourself?
Yes, I am. But I think that's natural. People who have a high opinion of themselves are frequently, I think, wrong. And frequently unbearable anyway. People have said that my standards are too high. And I think that's a bit ridiculous, because I think that something's not worth doing unless you aim for a high standard. And I've never liked this thing about 'she'll be right,' you know, which was very frequent in, say, parts of the ABC technical staff, because they didn't belong to the ABC, they were with the Postmaster General, and they had no relationship with us at all. And they were naturally anxious to get the job over and done with and we'd say, 'No, let's do something ... ,' and they'd say, 'She'll be right.'' And I'm not blaming them at all. I think it's the most natural thing, but now of course that it's all one and much better as a result. But I don't -- I mean, why shouldn't one criticise one's self?
Well, perfectionism can, in fact, set you up for failure and a sense of failure.
And maybe that sense of failure isn't justified when in fact you've done rather well?
Yes, I don't really feel I've failed, but I do feel I've made a bit of a mess, doing too many different things. And things like that. But I don't feel that I've been misguided really. I think I've had a pretty good life.
What's been the element in your life that you think has been the best thing for you about it? What has made you happiest? What have enjoyed most?
Oh, it's like saying, 'What's your favourite record? What would you take to a desert island?'
Let me ask it another way.
In thinking about life and about what's valuable in it, what for you have been the things that have given you an element of pleasure and joy in times, perhaps even when things didn't look too good?
Well, music would be one. It still does. And art. In the presence of any great piece of work, whether it's art or whether it's music or sculpture, or you know, good, wonderful writing, those are I think both the great consolers and the great anti-consolers, because they make you realise how un-good you are, how bad you are comparatively. And I think those have been important to me in that way. Probably lots of other things too, but you know, I can't think. One test is that I do cry fairly easily and I'm not ashamed of that at all. But if something is pretty wonderful, I want to cry.
As the man who started ABC television, what do you think of television today?
I think in some ways, technically of course, it's much better than the early days; it was pretty rough. In terms of subject matter, I find it hard to judge because one feels one's been there, seen that, you know. I think a good example is whatsisname, the English naturalist broadcaster.
David Attenborough. His stuff was superb, I thought, and we were riveted by it, as were many, many people. And at the same time, aren't the nature programs today just as good? Yet I don't want to look at them really now. I think it's because one gets jaded. You've been there, and therefore one is not a good judge. I did television criticism for a long time for Nation, the journal. And I was pretty critical. I tried to be critical and constructive at the same time. And there seemed to me to have been more innovative attempts in those days, because less had been done. Whereas now everything has been done in some ways it seems and even though the techniques are much, much better and I think in many ways the acting is much, much better, the only thing I have against it is that I've seen it, in some form or other, and that for people of my age, this very fast accelerated form of production with very, very limited attention spans -- I think that's what it's made for, people who can't think about something for more than about 10 seconds. But you get this flittery jittery form of presentation, especially in drama. And that I don't think is an improvement. Also, even with a plain talking head, there is quite a bit of talking head on SBS which is excellent I think, but on the ABC frequently, the talking head is filled with gimmicks. It's as if the producer was a young producer who'd suddenly been told there are all these different gimmicks and decides to use every one of them. And almost blot out the head, you know, you might see the little voice, see the little mouth and voice occasionally, but he's talking away or she's talking away, and it's very hard to concentrate on what they're saying all the time, when there's this jit, jit, jit jit, jit.
Do you think at all about dying?
Yes, I do a lot now. I didn't think at all about aging or anything until I was 80. That was the solemn note suddenly. I thought, 'Eighty, God Almighty,' you know. And, as well as the past and all my faults and things -- well I don't think about it, I just know about it. I know I'm going to die soon. And there's all this talk about euthanasia and so on, and every day in the paper you read about a new disease, or a new cure, and things like that go on the whole time. But I only know two, three, things. One is that I'm not really afraid of dying providing it's made reasonably easy and they either put me out or at least fill me up with morphine or something like that. Secondly, I don't want to become demented beforehand. And thirdly, I want it to be quick and you know, without mess. Don't want to be a nuisance, it'd be terrible. But -- and I'm absolutely convinced that people who don't have religion, don't go to church and so on, frequently when there's a referendum or a poll, when asked do you believe in god, they say yes. And these are people who are not religious. And it seems to me absurd. I don't believe in ... I believe that if there is a god, we made that, we thought him up or her up, and he's in us, in our mind. We need somebody or something to think about. But I'm absolutely sure that there's no exterior god. What I would like to know is there must have been a primal force, and I want to know what that was, and nobody can tell me.
Have you got any ideas?
No, because you think, you read, the scientists and the famous cosmologists and all these people and they talk about the first explosion. What I want to know is why did it explode, and what is going to be there? Nobody can say. Nobody that I know of anyway.
It's not something that your fantasy can help much with?
Do you think death's the end?
Oh yes, absolute oblivion, yes. Sometimes people say how would you like to be remembered and I don't really know. I don't think it matters terribly, but I find that I have a sneaking feeling I'd like to be remembered with some affection for a while, because these things all pass and everything will stop and that's it. But just for a little while. I don't want people to be able to say, 'Well I'm very glad he's gone,' you know.
Have you got any grandchildren?
Yes, two, both girls. And I'm fond of them although in a recent publication there was a terrible misprint. I had said, and I still say, that I don't go overboard about them, any more than I did about my son when he was born. I don't say to myself, 'They're wonderful,' and so on. And in this publication it left out that I don't say that they are wonderful. It was, 'They are wonderful.' But I'm very fond of them, and they're both, I think, very likeable, you know, and very clever, which is good.
You had some very distinguished ancestry. Does the notion of family and continuity mean anything to you, and does it matter to you that there's no Mungo MacCallum to carry on the name?
Well, I have fleeting regrets about that -- it's simply -- I know it's a bit silly really, you know, and what does it matter? But as a sort of dynasty, which is not the usual thing in Australia, it would have been quite fun, I think, to have had another Mungo, you know. As for, what was the other bit ...
Just that whole sense of family. Because one of the things that's quite striking looking at a pattern in your life was that you were born into a situation in which family was an overwhelming consideration, and you seem to have distanced yourself further and further and further from investing any real feeling in that?
Yes, well as I say, I'm fond of these two girls and love it when they come to see me. But the legacy of that family clench and the harm it did to Dad, and the harm it did when it was reproduced in my brother Duncan, and the harm it did in one sense, even to my marriage, first marriage, because I had an uncle who was married to my maternal aunt -- sorry, my grandmother's daughter -- it affected their marriage very severely, this family clench. And he was a friend of Diana's as well and when she told him that we were going to get married, he said, 'Be very careful Diana. You'll marry the family.' So it wasn't just me who thought that this was an absurd situation with Grandmother. And that's why it's had a life-long effect and made me scared of these things. Not that I'm scared, you know, of now or situations. But it left a long memory and I wouldn't like to see it happen again to any of them.
This notion of judging yourself and finding yourself wanting, which you defend as being a perfectly reasonable stance, do you think it could have something to do with the fact that the family did have such high standards?
I suppose it could, I suppose it could. Although by the same token people occasionally have accused me of arrogance. So, you know, I don't mope around finding myself wanting the whole time. Quite often I throw myself about and that's one of the things that I regret a bit now. That I remember.
Oh, my relationship with Moses. As I say, we respected each other and I think admired each other, both in our different ways. But Betty Cook who was Moses' alter ego said I was arrogant when I argued with Moses. And maybe I was after all. And little things like that, you know. And also sometimes, when drunk, I used to get arrogant.
And that was also associated with your raging against the world?
Yes, I think it was, yes.
You had this idyllic, happy childhood, and yet there were lots of tragedies looming for you. When you were a child, were there any intimations of the darker side of life? Were you, did this fantasy that you had throughout your childhood, ever incorporate in it elements of life around you that were in any way sinister, threatening or dark?
Yes, I don't think I fully realised at the time, but they remain so vivid I think they must have. The first was a boy called Lee at preparatory school and he had a harelip and it was very hard to make himself understood. And he was told to go and get his hair cut one day, and he went and got his hair cut. And the barber misunderstood him, took every spot of hair off his head, and there was this big, shiny skull and these big wet eyes, and this terrible lip. And I felt very, very sympathetic. And some boys laughed, of course, which you expect. And I thought, 'You poor wretch, I'm very sorry for you.' And that was the first time I'd really, as a child, felt a sort of sorrow for him. And then up in the country in this place Rydal where we used to go on summer holidays, there were two other examples of, I thought, grief and hardship, mental, spiritual hardship. One was a travelling magician who came with his assistant who obviously was his mistress and a very rude boy who did the heavy work. And he was a lion-faced big man with a very loud voice and a very bad magician. And he gave a show in the village hall that night, and all the locals gathered. We went. And there was this terrible air of tension the whole time and he spoke more and more and more loudly and he did a trick with an apple at which you see obviously that it was a different apple from the one that it pretended to be. And everybody could see this, and nobody laughed. Or if they did laugh, they laughed scornfully. And he spoke more and more loudly. And I thought it must be rotten to have that sort of life and be battling along knowing you're not much good and trying to drown your knowledge out by speaking more and more loudly. And the third was at the same place, Rydal, a travelling parson who was a very nice man and who one felt was very lonely. He serviced this quite large parish of rather ordinary churches, very ordinary churches of simple country people. He was obviously an educated man, and he started his sermon on the text of St Paul, saying, 'A little wine is good for the stomach,' and I thought to myself, aha, you know. And there again, he was so lonely and he came to lunch afterwards and he and dad walked in the garden together for a very, very long time, just talking. And his parson's collar was very dingy and I thought, 'Monsignor is so sad and lonely.' And they were the first intimations, really, I had of loneliness and sadness and hurt.
And there was to be quite a lot of that later coming from the family. And the tragedies that the family lived through.
And when you look back over what was really a very tragic family life, what impact do you think that had on you as a person and the way your mind worked?
I think it made a lot of different impacts. I think it affected my attitude towards women. I think it affected my attitude towards learning and scholarship and so on, by which I was surrounded, but knew I wouldn't be very good at it and felt, you know, slightly wanting in various ways. For a long time of course I forgot these things. I was just a little boy, you know. But they kept on coming back and I was always aware that there were people who were much worse off than I. Which didn't, in fact, stay with me much during the Depression, when I was so lucky. And I wasn't even aware really of the Depression being on, you know. But they were there, in my mind, and I knew about poverty and loneliness and things.
I've got a pick-up to do which relates to Salt. How did you all feel when Salt came to an end?
Very sad. In fact, we toyed with the idea of continuing it in civil life, and it would have been very, very, very difficult for many reasons. One was that, apart from me, most of the staff were Melburnites and had families there. And another was that we would have to find big publishers, with big machines to produce the numbers. And another was, of course, that it had been distributed free to all these people, and even though they loved it and it had this very wide appreciation, we couldn't distribute it free in civil life. And I did go to see -- of all people -- Ezra Norton, the notorious tycoon who published tabloid papers and he heard me out. But he knew and I knew, you know, it just wasn't possible. So, we were going to call it Salt in Civvies to carry on the name.
And the final edition, what was it like?
Yes. What about that?
What was it like? What did it contain?
Oh, well, from our point of view it was triumphant, because it contained these bouquets from everybody, from the chief of staff right down, and from lots of civilian organisations like the RSL, to my surprise, and things like that. Scientific organisations, Salvation Army, all these sorts of people who'd moved among the troops and they all were glowing, wonderful. And we published a lot of them, of course. And also we published the cartoons of not only me, but all the staff with appropriate witticisms. And a few farewell bits and pieces but no earnest advice, you know, no 'stick at it lads,' nothing like that.
If you had to step outside your mind for a minute -- if you can do this -- and describe the way your mind works, what kind of a mind have you got, do you think? You said you weren't an academic type?
But what kind -- could you describe the way that you see your mind working?
Well, it is a flittery mind. It's changed a bit recently since I was 80. It's a bit slower. It used to be very fast, and very full of words, very articulate. It's not a very good planner. I used to say to people who'd been to university and in fact quite recently, when my autobiography came out, a philosopher whom I know wrote me a note saying he'd read it and he enjoyed it very much, but he thinks it's just as well I didn't do philosophy, because I'd see that philosophy, if I'd done that, would have taught me more about coherent thinking. And I've never been a coherent thinker, I've always been a darting thinker. And he said, 'No, it would have spoiled you.' Which I was surprised at. Interesting.
So maybe there's some validity in your way of thinking after all, even though it wasn't quite what the family expected of you?
Oh yes, yes. It wasn't a heavy expectation. You know, nobody ever told me that I ought to be something, oh no, no. But the darting, after all, it's not uncommon among reasonably creative people. It's the other sort of people who normally do become philosophers and so on.
[end of interview]