Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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So, did you pass out of primary school with flying colours? Did you do as well as your grandfather and father might have led you to believe you would?

Well, it wasn't very hard to do well, simply because it was reading, writing and arithmetic and I knew those. And as I recall anyway, the final exam, so-called, was exactly the same as the one we had every Friday before, during the year. And anyway I was in hospital at the time and I didn't attend this great ceremony. But I remember Nanna, who was our sort of housekeeper, and who'd come out to help Mother when she first came, to help her with me, Nanna came rushing into the hospital and said, 'You're the duck!,' and I said, 'What do you mean? What am I the duck of?' And she said, 'You're the duck! You're the duck!' And it turned out of course that I was the dux of the school for what that was worth, which wasn't very much.

And so then did you go on to Grammar to go to high school?


And so how did you feel going off to start there at Grammar?

Not very well actually because between getting there and leaving Kersworth, I'd been run into on my new bicycle, and the fellow who ran into me took some sort of a spasm or fit or something and started shaking all over and lying on the ground. And everybody congregated round him, got him off to hospital and all that, and I was left to my own devices. And I walked home feeling very odd, and whimpering slightly I must admit. And it turned out that I'd broken my jaw and broken my nose and lost a few teeth and so on. And the effects of this remain to this very day. I was in bands for six years after that.

You mean like orthodontists?

Orthodontists' bands, yes.

There weren't too many orthodontists?

No, there were not. Whereas this fellow, this other fellow, was as good as gold next day, I had this orthodontic six-year period, and orthodontists then were not very advanced. They were more or less pioneers, you know.

I guess having orthodontic treatment was fairly unusual in those days?

Yes it was. I went to a man called Dr Gates in Macquarie Street, and he was kindly and he meant well. He was gruff, he was grey-haired, and he filled my mouth with these dreadful bands and he said they were experimental, and I had them on for six years. They were very, very painful and he even fitted me out with a cap which had very heavy rubber bands fitted round it, and this cap I had to put on at night, and fit my jaw into the rubber bands, you know. And it seems now such an absurd sequence because my -- after all, my parents were very good parents and pretty intelligent, and the idea of trying to change my teeth instead of re-doing the jaw, seems to be so absurd. And anyway this whole 18 years, which at the time ruined my tummy; my teeth were so sore I couldn't chew anything. This whole 18 years ruined my teeth largely, because they never took the bands off, as they do these days, and the teeth rotted behind the bands, and so on and so on and so on.

It must have been extraordinarily painful for you?

It was. It was extremely painful. I got used to it and I'm not saying I was particularly brave, but the idea was, you know, not to complain and this is the family idea. So I didn't.

And this went right through your high school then?

Right through Sydney Grammar.

You were always the boy in the bands?

Yes, yes. And I was also the boy who couldn't play football, which was okay with me. It was good for me.

And so, was it successful? Did they end up sort of getting you straightened out?

No, I'm now an ancient version of what I was then. I've got a lot of false teeth, of course, because so many of them rotted under the bands.


I went to this orthodontist at least once a week for 18 years. God knows what it cost.

And did your jaw go back to the way it had been?

No, no. I'm exactly as I was, an ancient version of my 13th year.

So all the effort was in vain?

Yes. That's why I'm saying it seems so extraordinary. I don't know what my parents' advice was or if they were told, or what their motivation was. But I've only now just really begun to resent it. I didn't resent it at the time, I just took it, you know, for one of these things. But now I say to myself, why the hell didn't somebody tell my parents to get the jaw back by operating on the sides of the cheekbones and the teeth would then come back into their right position.

So, did you distinguish yourself at all at Grammar?


Not in any way?

Well, yes, I did. I was the leader of the debating team, and that was my sole distinction. Well, I did get the possible maximum score of the Intermediate Exam. Didn't do so well at the Leaving. I guess by that time I was getting a bit jaded with these teeth aching the whole time.

And what about your interest in learning and books, what was happening to that?

I was very interested in certain things. Some things seemed to me to be merely odd. Like chemistry, which we used to do in a very desultory way. You know, we'd pour something into a test tube and see what happened and that was it. And, but I was interested in books of course. I wasn't terribly interested, really, in the canon of the classics. Not as interested as I became, of course. And also I wasn't really so interested in Shakespeare, who was mandatory then as he is now. At that time. I didn't -- I don't think Australian schoolboys, probably even now, really are ready for Shakespeare. And I remember, we saw some terribly bad performances of the play of the year. There was the Allan Wilkie Shakespearean Company for instance. And they were real hams, you know. But they were, I suppose you could say they were, fulfilling a need. But the bad performances rather put you off, you know. There were some absurd situations. It was a tiny company, about four people, who used to do things like Henry V, and the arms and the troops and all that, Agincourt, all the great fights and so on, used to be performed by four soldiers marching across the back of the stage, rushing round the back and then round the front again to get across. And this was the supposed to represent a huge army. Things like that were a bit stupid. But as for -- I was interested in books, of course, but I didn't really appreciate the classics. History I became interested in, and we had one master who later became Professor of History in Melbourne, a man called Crawford and he was fresh back from Oxford and a very inexperienced young teacher who had a pretty bad time from the class because they played up and he couldn't control them. And nevertheless he got my interest and after school he used to talk to me about history and the immediacy of history and how it still could reflect human beings, things like that. And also, I was interested in music. We had a master called Mr Moate who was, oddly enough, totally unmusical to meet, but he used to occasionally -- for his own sake more than ours -- play the piano in the big school (which was really part of the school, the historic part) and he used to give lunch hour recitals to himself, for himself, and we used to -- a few boys, about half a dozen boys would come and listen.

And were you musical yourself?

Yes, yes.

And so what form did your study of music take?

Very superficial and very desultory, you know. I used to -- I tried to play the piano. I was in fact considered musical enough to be sent to Mysie Stephen who was a very well-known teacher of the piano at the time. And I developed all these awful characteristics of the self-taught amateur, you know, the small boy.

So you were playing for yourself, by ear, as they say?


Before you actually learned?

Yes. Mother was musical, you see, and we, like many people, took it for granted. We had an upright piano, and we had every conceivable form of music on top. All the sonatas of Mozart, Beethoven and, for contrast, the American Song book, the English Song book. We did quite a bit of singing around the piano. I didn't ever sing but they did, my parents.

So eventually -- you were musical -- and eventually you were sent to a good teacher, but you never became very good at it?

Well, I didn't keep at it because various other things -- I know this sounds corny but it's the story of my life -- I was also extremely interested in painting, and I used to go round Point Piper painting. We had a sort of mentor, a man called Happy Harry, Happy Harry Williams, who had a club foot, and he was an amateur painter, a very, very bad painter. There's one of his pictures upstairs purely for sentimental reasons. And he used to paint the whole of Point Piper virtually and he, you know, gave me a few tips as they say. And I used to go round painting the whole of Point Piper. And then, as Mysie Steven suggested in music, she said I ought to keep at it, because I had talent. I was sent to Grace Cossington Smith for more painting experience -- she lived up on the North Shore in a very attractive villa called Cossington -- and I used to go up there for a while. Only for a while because then again something else intervened, you know. So my experiences with Grace were very, very productive, very good, and also absurd.

Absurd in what way?

Well, she was up in the North Shore and I was, you know, round about 12-ish and I used to go up on Saturday mornings. It was high summer, very hot, and I survived a couple of trips and then the next one, by the time I got there, I was feeling not only very hot, but very sick. And we used to go out into the -- you could only describe it as a sort of meadow -- beyond her villa. And she had this great huge straw hat and floating garments and seemed very cool, and in fact was cool, whereas I was sweating and hot and fussed, you know. And we went on to this lee on this particular day, on to this meadow, and she said to me, 'Now, I want you to try and paint that gum tree.' And I said, 'Okay,' and set to work. And gradually I feel sicker and sicker. She said, 'Try to think of it Mungo in the round, as if you're painting something in the round.' And I tried that and the trees started to do it for me, they just started to go round and round. And finally I vomited copiously and sort of said, 'Oh, terribly sorry,' ... but the disconcerting thing was that she pretended not to notice that I was vomiting all over the place and she gazed into the distance and she was a great cricket fan, and she said, 'Do you think we'll win the next test?'

While you're vomiting?

While I was vomiting. And to add to it, on another occasion she gave me a great chunk of cake which we ate on the meadow. And with all these things in my mouth, I had plates as well as bands, and this huge chunk of cake gripped the plate and so it was -- pulled it out like that, and here was me, you know, trying desperately to claw cake off me and to claw the plate clean and ...

SSo you had these teeth come right out of your mouth in the cake?

Yes. This was just a top plate that was loose, you know, and the cake pulled. So, as I bit into the cake, [it] pulled everything out and great hunks fell to the earth and kept on falling until I got the plate clean again and put it back. And I kept on saying, 'Sorry, Dr Gates, Dr Gates,' who was the orthodontist. And she, again, she just looked up at the sky and talked about cricket. I thought it was not a time for her to be polite.

But she was very polite?

Oh very. Politesse. The real politesse.

But you learnt something about painting?

But you didn't give up painting because of that?

No, no, no, no. This was in the '60s this happened, much, much, much later. No, I used to paint, I used to paint when we went for summer holidays to the country and, as I say, all round Point Piper. I had a brief -- like many things I hadn't kept it -- but there's a little indoor still life upstairs that my mother had, she'd kept.

Now, as you were growing up throughout this rather idyllic childhood, in a very pleasant spot, did you play a lot with your father? What was your relationship with your father?

Well, it was good, I think it was more the sort of relationship that ... more formal than these days it would be. But by the same token one's reading in the paper the whole time about boys who've had problems with their dad and left home. This was a sort of tight-lipped relationship. He was -- as I say -- he was a wonderful father in so far as he gave, he made things, you know. He made me a magic lantern. He made me a canvas boat to go, for my first ventures on the water. He always made things for us. And he was not demonstrative. Nor was Mother for that matter, and I think that's one reason why so many things now, when one tries to remember them, are mysterious. One doesn't really know because one didn't talk about them, you know.

Was he encouraging of your activities?

Oh yes, yes, yes. You know, you'd say, 'Oh gosh, I've got to get some more paint,' or something. He'd get it. He'd bring it home that night without, you know, asking. He was wonderful. But I suspect he was tight-lipped in the sense that he was disappointed because he'd had a very bad time just after the war. He had had this brilliant legal career, he'd come back to his country, he'd set up as a barrister, and in those days they had what you call a preference, ex-serviceman's preference ...

This was after the First World War?

Yes. And he'd not been allowed to go to the war because of his language abilities and his general thing, and he'd been put into the office that dealt with codes and things like that. And his brother, my uncle, had gone with great distinction and come back covered with glory. And Father set up as a barrister, and because of ex-serviceman's preference, didn't get enough clients, you know. So then he turned to journalism. But I think he was always sad about that.

Was he a good journalist?

Yes, he was an immediate leader writer, you know, he wasn't a reporter or anything like that. And it was very different sort of journalism from going into [reportage] journalism, you know. He'd be applied for by the Editor of the Herald, and he wrote ... he did things in half the time that most people did them. He was very productive. He'd written things as a boy and sent them to journals and they'd been of a quality which made the journals think it was his father, the professor, who'd written them. And from that time on, his father said to him, 'Sorry, you'll have to adopt a nom-de-plume. I can't have you using ...' The same thing happened with my son for a while.

With the name Mungo MacCallum?


So you think that he became rather sad because he had to go into journalism?

Yes, and then he had this frightful accident, which made everything worse.

What was that?

He was a great bicyclist, and he loved going on these bicycling things. And I think that may have been because -- that's maybe why he came back, because he loved the country. But he'd go on these bicycling things and they would really drain him. He'd go on, say a Saturday, and he might do about, you know, 100 miles a day, and come back absolutely exhausted. And one day he came back, and had a gash on his hand, and he said, 'Oh it's nothing, it doesn't matter.' And by Monday he was almost dead in hospital with an infection, bacteria. And of course in those days they didn't have all the things they have now that can clear these things up. He was in hospital for absolutely months, and by the end of it, he was so weak that they couldn't even give him an anaesthetic. And his hand, when he came home -- I hadn't realised in my blithe way, I was, you know, painting around and sailing and I hadn't realised what was going on -- was like a lobster. It was stiff, absolutely stiff, like that, and it was deadly painful for the rest of his life. And he had a golf ball and every night he'd sit at a table doing this to the golf ball, trying to make something happen, to get something into his hand. And he learned during this period to write with his left hand, and this is the period before they had ballpoints, and then he had just -- written again with his right hand, but by sticking the pen into this totally stiff, aching, agonising hand. And that hand pursued him for the rest of his life. And I think what with that and maybe his mother and -- I think he just felt everything was terrible.

And how did that express itself in him?

He began to drink. He was a quiet drunk. Never, you know, a scene or riotous or lurching or anything, but he became a pretty huge drunk. And he still kept on, you know, his leader writing ... 'til almost the end, and then he died at 48 because of this.

And he was able to function perfectly well as a journalist although he was a drunk?

Yes. He became more and more ill more frequently and in fact he was totally exhausted I think in every way, you know, and he died. By that time I'd just joined the Herald myself, and they came to me in the evening and said, 'Your father ...' My uncle came and said, 'Your father's dying.'

Were you aware as you were growing up and during this childhood period that he was ...that drink was a big problem to him?

Oh yes, yes.

How did ... how were you aware of that? How were you conscious of it?

Well, because he was drinking all the time at home when he was at home. And he was ... [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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