Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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What are some of your most vivid memories of being at school, at Grammar?

One is the tuckshop, which was by today's standards extremely crude, and we used to go up to the corner of Oxford Street and buy terribly filthy cream puffs as luxuries. Another memory, not to do with the school, is building the railway under the park. These huge piles of yellow clay, and I was told by the doctor I had to have some milk at lunch, and secretly I would leave at lunchtime, strolling, and go behind these huge piles of yellow clay and drain my bottle of milk, throw it away, and then come back.

Was it considered a shameful thing to drink milk?

It was not very manly. Other things -- of course, an amazingly crowded school. It had its grounds down at Rushcutters Bay, but then -- in the school, there were only about 600 boys compared with 1,000 now, and they didn't have mod cons like they do now. Now they have, you know, all sorts of technical rooms and stuff like that. Whereas then some of the rooms were the originals, and the desks were the originals and there were some very famous names carved in the desks, you know. And things like that. But basically, yes, I think it was not an up period at the school, and I think the teaching was, on the whole, average, but not above average, you know. We had Cadets of course, which were horrible. Once every term or so, a very gruff military man would come to the school and he would give us instruction. We would all have to get into our uniforms and he would give us -- and produce from somewhere, I don't know where -- some very, very smelly guns, and we would put on a bit of gun gel, then he would go away. Then once a year we had to go on camp, which was frightful, because -- well, the food was awful, and also we had to do a good deal of squirming along on our bellies, you know, and we all got covered in leeches and also I personally found it awful because, as always happens, still does, if I have a radical change of circumstances I get very constipated. So I came back covered with leeches and constipated.

So you didn't feel drawn to the army?

No, I didn't as a matter of fact, although later I was in it.

What were you reading?

At school? A lot of very -- you mean apart from the ...

I mean, you were very involved in books at this time. What sort of books were you reading?

Just about every sort of book. Lots of adventure stories, you know. Quite a few light-hearted social novels. People who were flourishing in, say, the '20s. People like Arden. I don't know whether you've ever heard of him, but he was very popular then. And he wrote social novels, rather like a precursor of Evelyn Waugh, but not nearly as good. Lots of those. Not much history, although I was interested in it at school, and the occasional Australian book. There were some really pretty good books about boys at school in Australia with whom I could identify, you know, set in Whale Beach and in the mangrove swamps of Pittwater, and there is a secret place there where criminals lived, and there was also a lot of spying that went on and a map of Pittwater. And that of course immediately brought everything home. It wasn't like reading about another country.

Who wrote that book?

Can't remember.

But it was one that stuck in your mind, because it seemed relevant to your life. Was much of the literature and the learning and the mental life of your school years really focused on Australia, or was it mostly English and was that your reference point mentally?

That's how it turned out. Or rather European, European sense, and certainly English. That was, I suppose, because that was the only language I spoke, unlike Grandfather and Father. But it sort of marked me for life, actually. I know Asia is important to Australia, and I'm well aware of all that, but ever since I've had much more affinity to the west, to Europe and England than -- even Grandfather was that way, you know. He talks in his memoirs about a trip he made to America via China. And he was amazed at meeting dignified Chinese scholars in long robes, things like that.

And so, for you, I think you wrote somewhere that Australia was a pleasant, sunny foreground to the real action that was actually taking place intellectually in Europe.

Well, I think it was. It was pretty provincial, let's face it. That's how I think it was. And very, of course, inward looking. We -- the whole city for instance, even though it was in many ways a very pleasant city and more so than today in some ways, it was a man-sized height city -- nevertheless people did look inwards a huge amount and then they talked about Home a lot, like mother did. Home being Britain, and they based their attitudes on Home, but they didn't live like that really. Everything was, even then, much more casual than Home.

The historical events that were going on around you in these early years of your life. You were born in 1913, so the Great War occurred in your early years. Do you have any memories of that at all?

Yes. I wasn't, of course, involved in the fighting. By the same token I remember vividly my uncle coming home and I remember a postcard that came from him, and it said, as I recall, it just simply said, 'It is very cold. Uncle Walter.' And he was on the Western Front, of course, freezing in the trenches and so on. And he came back, and he had the lot, he had DSO and bar, MC and bar mentioned in dispatches two or three times. And you know he was a sort of legendary soldier hero. And then he went to university and did medicine and was very contemptuous of the antics of undergraduates who were not old enough to go to the war. Not because they hadn't been to the war, but because of their antics, which he'd not had, you know.

And you therefore were growing up during the '20s and '30s in this very well-off family. But of course then you would have hit The Depression. What are your memories of The Depression? Did in impinge on Point Piper?

No. We weren't, by the way, we weren't very well off. We were comfortable, but not very well off. By the standards of these days we would be considered virtually below the poverty line.

Relatively speaking, though.

Relatively speaking, yes, but not rich or anything like that. And then The Depression hit, and my first memory of The Depression was I was out sailing on the day that Jack Lang opened the Harbour Bridge, and of course, that was -- what was it? -- '32 and by that time The Depression had been going for a long time. But for some reason the fellow who was crewing for me, and I was in a boat which I'd had specially built and all that, you know, no expense spared, and he said, 'Jack Lang's opening the Bridge today.' And suddenly, it hit me that these years we'd had a Depression. And I really hadn't been involved at all. I'd been very lucky. And Father had -- he was okay, barely alive then, Mother had a small private income from England. There was no question of losing jobs or anything, you know. And occasionally some friend or somebody would drive me through some suburbs in the west, Pyrmont for instance, I remember, and people would throw stones at the car. And that was as close as I came to being affected by The Depression. But the day that Jack Lang opened the Bridge it suddenly hit me there had been a Depression.

Why did it hit you that day?

I don't know. Of course, he was a very controversial Premier, very controversial. And had a huge uproar, finally was dismissed by the Governor and all that, and he'd been leading the anti-establishment forces for years. And I think it was suddenly the fact that he was opening this huge new bridge that made me think of what he'd been doing during these years, defying the financiers in London, defying the Commonwealth Bank and all that sort of stuff. Cancelling people's debts because they couldn't pay them.

Loved by the poor, loathed by the rich.


And how did it strike your young mind then?

Well, even then it didn't impinge terribly hard because I was in a transitory stage myself. And it didn't, you know, make a huge difference to me. Luckily, because by that time Father was just about to die, and then life became more real and earnest.

Let's go back now and talk about the lead-up to your father's death, and about -- there he was working as a journalist and managing to work effectively as a journalist despite the fact that he was drinking too much. How did you as a child become aware of his drinking?

I suppose it was gradual. He was doing -- it was mainly, of course, it started to dull the incessant pain of this frozen hand. I became aware -- well occasionally, for instance, he'd be smelling of beer. Then there'd always be a lot of bottles of beer kept in the pantry and so on. Then occasionally he'd take Mother and the children, including me, out to dinner. And he'd drink a bottle of some awful stuff called sparkling something, can't remember what. And get a bit groggy. And then he started bringing, I think -- yes, he brought some whisky home several times. And you know, it became pretty obvious. And also on public occasions I got a bit worried about going out with him as boys do, you know, when their dads are a bit odd. And then when I was at university, in college, and I was rowing, and he came to watch me, he was very groggy then. And also when I went to the Herald he took me round, which rather embarrassed me actually, and sort of introduced me to all the senior journalists, leader writers, and I felt a bit, you know. And he was pretty groggy then. So it gradually built up.

And did it worry you as a boy?

Oh yes, yes.

What was worrying you?

Well, I suppose the fact that I had a dad who was a bit pissed, you know. Because, as I say, very quiet, never obstreperous or anything like that. And I believe firmly -- I do believe in view of the family history that there is a distinct tendency among the MacCallums, which is partly perhaps temperament, there's a physical tendency there, and I just think that it took quite a long time to come out in him. In fact it took him to be in extremis for it to come out, you know.

What was his relationship with your mother like?

Well, as far as I could see, they were very, you know, very affectionate and again, not demonstrative. There wasn't arms around each other much or anything like that. In fact, I don't think I ever saw them put arms around each other.

But you had a sense that they had a good relationship?

I think so, yes. I know mother adored him actually. The only time -- talking of her stoicism -- that I ever saw her breakdown was when his funeral occurred and she wanted to go to the funeral and it wasn't done much in those days. And my aunt restrained her. She said, 'I want to go with him.' This drinking business -- well, I think it's one of those things that comes with sadness partly on his part, because he'd lost, he'd given away his law thing in Oxford. He'd lost it in Sydney through no fault of his own, even though he lectured in law for a while, and then he had the hand which stopped him doing so many of the things that he adored. Like playing tennis. He was a very good tennis player and he rowed for his college at Oxford, and he fenced at Oxford, he was a fencer. And all these things stopped. Bicycling stopped.

And at a stage when he was still a relatively young man in his '30s.

Yes. He died at 48.

So, returning to you, and where you were ... what were your brothers and sisters like? What was your relationship with the rest of the family?

Well, I think it was more or less typical of that sort of family. Tolerance for each other. My sister, she was very bright, and we got on alright, you know, we didn't pull each other's hair or anything. My first, next, brother was also very bright, but very ill most of the time. I can remember one, another occurrence in childhood, when I was blithe and father was very ill, and another time I was blithe and Duncan was in bed for months. And I can remember this woman in white who had a very big smile every day when she came to massage him. And to this day I'm not sure what it was. I know it was very serious and it affected the rest of his life. It may have been meningitis, or it may have been some form of polio, I think. But these things passed me by. So much of them. And, as I say, it wasn't until father died that I virtually started to, well to, wake up to that sort of thing.

Why do you think it passed you by?

I don't know. I think it may have been a sort of form of, possibly a form of, protection. And possibly a form of egotism. Possibly just, you know, a feckless boy.

You withdrew into your own world a little?

I suppose I did. I mean, I don't recall being terribly hurt or anything like that, except once when father was lurching and I went out with him. But I don't recall being you know badly hurt or anything like that.

You're suggesting by that that you were perhaps a rather insensitive boy. Yet, a lot of people around you thought that perhaps you were too sensitive?

Yes, yes.

Where would you ...

I think it was because I was inward looking and, you know, a friend of mine much, much later, years and years and years later, said to me, 'The problem with you is you're too interested in your own emotions.' Which is true. I've used them for work a lot.

But then you were also, to some extent, a budding artist trying to find what was your metier and having some trouble doing that?


Why do you think that was? Were you just too broad in your range of talents, or ...

Well, some people have said that. I don't, you know, it's not becoming to say one was, but I think I was pretty broad actually and people did say that I was gifted and people said I was -- people kept on advising mother, 'He's very highly strung,' they'd say. I didn't know this. I didn't take any notice of it, but she told me later.

What do you think they meant by highly strung?

I presume they meant nervy and easily upset.

Now, what was happening to you during this period of adolescence, about girls? Were you finding -- what happened with you at that age of sexual awakening? Were you conscious of it all? And how was it affecting your life?

Not really. Not really. I was a very late developer, but I did adore a couple of totally unresponsive girls. There was one who lived opposite us, and she was a natural flirt, and I used to, you know, look at her like that and she'd give a gay laugh and pirouette away, and that sort of thing happened. But absolutely nothing happened in the ordinary sexual sense.

So, when did women in that sense enter your life?

Oh, I suppose about 18, 19, which in those days was quite ordinary. People, men, were very much less reawakened.

And how did that happen?

Well, I suppose I was -- yes, it must have been I started having night ... what do you call thems? ... and you know ...

Wet dreams?

Wet dreams. [laughs] I couldn't think of the word. Yes, I was having those. But you see a lot of people would have them earlier, and especially now I would think.

When did you have your first really serious encounter with a girl?

It would have been about 18. Yes.

And what was the setting for that?

Oh, various furtive places. Once or twice on a beach, and once or twice on a tennis court, without tennis players. And once or twice in sitting rooms, you know.

So, when you finished high school, you finished without quite the academic achievement that maybe had been hoped for you. But a reasonable pass.

No, I mean nobody said ,'I'm very disappointed,' or anything.

But you got a reasonable Leaving Certificate?

Reasonable. Yes, reasonable. Reasonable. I had Honours in English. That was the main thing. Nothing like the Intermediate.

And you -- it was, I suppose, preordained that you were going to go to university?

Oh yes, yes. It was just taken for granted. It wasn't a big deal. They didn't say, 'We want you to go.' Nor did they say, 'Would you like to go?' And I'm glad I went, you know, it was great fun.

So what was that like? Where did you go to university?

To Sydney University and I went to where the family had been previously, to St Andrews College. And it prided itself on being tough. Still does. I heard a thing the other day, it's like a dinosaur that place. They won't -- they put to the vote the other day, the old boys as well as the present, would they accept women in the college. 'Oh no,' they said, 'no, no, no, no.' It modelled itself on a tough Scottish Presbyterian college, you know, Aberdeen and it had Freshers, you know, first-year men whom it bastardised to no point at all in my view. The raison d'ĂȘtre of it was that there were some boys -- or men we called ourselves -- who had been big fish in small ponds at school, and the idea was to show them that they were not. But it didn't really have much effect on them. And it just made life a nuisance for a lot of people. The only good thing about it was that you were rostered to answer the telephone, so that it was always answered, and it went incessantly, every day, every night, with girlfriends and everything.

What did they do to you when they bastardised you?

Oh, in those days, they tried to humiliate you in every way. They'd tell you to sing the national anthem backwards, and then they would make you get up on the bookshelves in the library, which were very high, and stay up there. They'd come to your room, which was in pitch darkness, round about 1 o'clock in the morning and make you stand naked on your bed, shine the lights on you and interrogate you. And the final big bit was to go down to the gym and wriggle your way through a mass of rotting vegetables and stuff. All, you know, pretty futile. Some days had been much, they told me, much worse. For instance, recently I was told that some lads at St Pauls, the Freshers, all had to go out and take the head off a cat. Which I regard as barbarous, you know -- and these are all people who, you know, are going to be doctors and lawyers and judges and so on.

So you came into this atmosphere a boy that was called highly strung and over-sensitive?


How did you react to it?

Well, I didn't like it at all. It was I thought unnecessary and pointless. What it did do of course was show up various facets of the characters of the tormenters. I mean, there were some, particularly those who were going to be doctors, oddly enough, who really had a sadistic streak. And I don't know how they got on as doctors. I hope they weren't gynaecologists or anything.

But then it would have come your turn to be a tormentor?

I didn't, I didn't bother. And my friends there who ... there were three or four of us who were known as the literary clique, and we just didn't bother. We left it to the other doctors to be, you see, to do their stuff.

So, how long were you at Sydney University?

Only for two years. No, sorry. One and a half years in college and then dad died, and I had to leave. I went home. And then two years at -- well I did the three-year Arts course, but one and a half years of it I did while I was on the Herald.

Right. So you did complete your degree?

I did complete the degree, in a very mediocre way.

And you did it, and you did it part time?

Well, I was a cadet on the Herald, and in those days you started as a cadet in the library from 2 to 11pm, and I used to go there. In the morning we'd trot down to Blackwattle Bay to row, then I'd trot back. We'd have breakfast which was the best meal that they had there. And then we'd trot to lectures. And what, with the early exercise and the weariness, just drop off to sleep and that was it. But it was pleasant -- the rowing was good. For instance, we'd trot across from St Andrews to Blackwattle Bay, which is quite a long way, and on the way we'd stop at Arnott's factory and there the night watchman would sell us huge bags of broken, warm, new biscuits for tuppence, which was rather nice.

What had made you decide to join the Herald?

Well, this is -- I don't know. I assume that strings were pulled or something, because I can't remember anything about joining, except dad's being slightly drunk when he took me round. I can't remember anything else. And because the editor, a man called Brunsden Fletcher admired him very much, and in a way sort of protected dad, though he was able to do his work, I think there may have been some sort of string pulling. All I remember is just suddenly being on the Herald.

You don't remember deciding that you wanted to be a journalist?

No. I did after being one. But my earlier things had been vague. I'd wanted to be a distinguished academic when I was a child because we used to go for these rather beautiful occasions on the green grassy quadrangle at Sydney University, and we'd see all these distinguished academics in their coloured gowns and things. And then I wanted to be a boat builder, then I wanted to be an architect, and so on, you know. That's one reason why I didn't do enough with music or anything. I just flitted from thing to thing.

All of them seeming attractive, with none of them actually holding your interest for long enough?

Well, they held my interest, but other things sort of intervened, you know.

So somebody else probably, you think, decided that it was a good idea for you to be a journalist and introduced you to the Herald?

Well, I think so. I don't recall. It must be some sort of psychoanalyst thing that has made me put it out of my mind, because I've tried and I cannot see what happened in between.

What was it like on the Herald? What did you have to do?

At first it was terrifying, because we had a chief of staff who was like a lion, and whose life was in the paper, and, you know, he regarded new boys, especially those from reasonably privileged backgrounds, as being fodder to be chewed up and eaten and found fault with. Anyway, I was in the library and that was good because it gave you an idea how the place worked. But it was so different from now, of course. A very, very, very dignified place, people wore very high stiff collars and all that. And it was on the corner of Hunter Street and Pitt Street in the old -- it's now Westpac, I think. And much smaller of course. But then, after that, you became a secondary cadet and did finance, which meant that -- well, you went to the vegetable markets in the morning and the fish markets and the fruit markets and got the prices, and you went to the Post Office, the GPO, to take down the weather data, and so on. And you became, you got involved in shipping. In finance it was totally useless as far as I was concerned, because what happened was that you were given no tuition, and you were sent for annual meetings and things and listened uncomprehendingly while they talked about the accounts. And then came back to the office, and I still find myself thinking -- when I see the phrase 'an extraordinary meeting was held' -- that it really was extraordinary, not that it was extra. And it's childish, but I just -- I've no idea about balance sheets or anything like that and so on. Shipping was good in a way because you got up very early in the morning, went down to Fort Denison -- to where the Opera House is now -- and got a launch with other journalists, went out to meet in-coming boats, interview passengers, you know. Sometimes you said, one tried not to but one couldn't help it, as they came up the Harbour, 'What do you think of Australia?' That's so terrible. But we got some good stories there and it was a nice life, except getting up at 5 o'clock in the morning. But got some very good stories. I got my first scoop there and things of that sort.

What was your first scoop?

It was this drunken admiral. He'd retired, and he was coming back from a trip to Europe, like most people were, and he said -- he was not drunk at that point of course -- he came up and said, 'I've got a good story for you, laddie.' And, 'Come to my flat later.' So I went to his flat in Potts Point and he, by that time, was absolutely pissed, you know, and he wanted me to join him and I sipped away carefully. And he rounded off everybody in the navy. He said they were all fools, and all his fellow admirals and all this ...

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