Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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Yes I did. I did continue a lot for many years, ending up in a charge (not me being charged, but another being charged) with having forged Sali Herman's name on some of my paintings, which I'd lost and he'd found, and it was a very foolish thing of him to do, because they were nothing like Herman, but they were mine. Anyway that was the last in my great artistic painting career.

Did you enjoy journalism?

Yes, very, very much, as I got into it. But there were certain things that I never could do and never felt happy about. One was balance sheets and extraordinary meetings. Another was the sort of terrible crash, terrible uproar, type of reporting. You know, you'd go to a big fire when the wool stores went up in flames, which they did, and I always felt sort of spellbound and didn't scuttle around asking people questions and thing like that. Although the Herald didn't do much of foot-in-the-door reporting, I never could do that. My specialty, as it turned out in the end, was special occasion reporting. I was supposed to be good at mood pieces, things like that.

What did you mean by mood pieces?

Well, occasions which were fraught with either atmosphere or meaning. Anzac Day would be one. A dawn service at the Cenotaph, or alternatively, film. It was -- the Herald didn't take the arts seriously, really, but a film about a little village, a fishing village up the coast, and an account of the screening of this film and the local people's reaction. That sort of stuff. Plus, you know, the odd bit of drama which, as I say, they didn't take seriously at all.

So you became something of a feature writer?

Sort of, yes. Plus I was supposed to be a good sub-editor. And seize occasions for jokes which wouldn't be perceived by management.

What kinds of jokes could you slip through?

Well, there was one that -- what's the name of that corset man? -- Berlei. We had a personal column in which we said who had arrived and who had gone from Sydney and I was able to get away with 'Mr Berlei arrived yesterday by the SS Mariposa. He is going to make short stays in each state.' Things like that.

So you were able to amuse your fellow journalists with these?

Yes.

Get them through to the public?

It was a sort of challenge because the upper echelons who we never saw, the Fairfaxes -- Warwick the elder (who's the dead one) was notoriously unapproachable. And we never saw him. Or if we did, he would stand in awkward silence, never saying a word. They were, you know, pretty hopeless. And also the general manager, a man called Stuart who was well on the way to losing his marbles actually, he ended up mad, was a sort of growling person who'd you'd see in the lift possibly. But there was very little comradeship up top. And the Fairfaxes, I think, regarded -- we knew them socially -- anybody who was an employee as beneath them socially, which of course is absurd.

Could you imagine the day might ever come where the Fairfaxes didn't own the paper?

No, I'm still staggered by that. That young Warwick is an idiot, a total idiot. It's partly his mum's fault, she's, you know ... [INTERRUPTION]

So, there you were, a young journalist working on the Herald. Do you remember what your first scoop was?

There was one about an admiral, a retired admiral, and he was one of the people who came back from overseas and one of the people interviewed and so on. And he came up to me and said, 'Come round to my flat later, laddie. Have an ale. I've got a story for you.' So round I went and by the time I arrived it was the afternoon and he was pretty well pissed. And I sipped carefully at my ale, not wanting to get involved or messed up, and he rounded off on all the naval establishment in Australia. He said every one of the admirals, every one of the senior men, was futile and hopeless, idiotic, and so on and so on. And I dutifully took all this down in my little notebook. And he finally dismissed me, and I had it all there -- it was printed next day, rather to my surprise actually, because the paper was then very careful about various things like that. And he was furious of course, and threatened to sue me and have me keel hauled and drummed out of the battleship ...

So, if he hadn't thought you were going to print it, why did he invite you around to his flat?

Well, this is it. I don't think he meant to be nearly as forthright as he was, because he was so drunk. And secondly, I think he half, half wanted it, well to tell somebody, you know. But it was obviously festering in his ancient heart.

He wanted it to come out but not quite so fully?

Exactly.

And so what happened? Were you, was the paper, sued?

No, because my chief of staff, the one whom I was, you know, a bit frightened of in those days, supported me. I showed him my notes. He supported me. Nothing happened.

Now, during this time, what was happening with your social life?

Well, we went to lots of dances and balls. It was at a dance that I ... or a ball I should say -- we called them balls in those days -- had my first sexual encounter. And we went to a place called Carl Thomas' Nightclub after work, just two or three of us, and it was a marvellous old place because it was in one of the old bond store buildings on the east side of Circular Quay, and a very informal, nice old club with a little orchestra, and you know, lots of drink and dancing if you wanted to dance and don't if you don't want to. And Carl was a very, very good host. We'd arrive there after work round about half past 11 and sit down and drink and talk. And he was, unexpectedly, a remarkably good reciter or speaker of Shakespeare. And it's not normal in club owners, certainly in Australia. And he was the first good Shakespeare [reciter] I ever heard and he restored my faith in Shakespeare. We'd do that and we'd go surfing in the morning frequently, because mostly, being a morning paper, we were on at night and afternoon. And then have lunch and then go in to the Herald to our work. So that it was a very pleasant life in many ways and I enjoyed it and, even though I was never a good -- or very jerkily, very sporadically -- quick writer, it did teach me a bit about that. Just like university had taught me a bit about how to think, or how to try to think, because I've never been a good thinker.

You say you'd never been a good thinker?

No. I'd not been disciplined, I get flits. That's if I'm writing a novel or anything, I start to write and I get a flit about, an idea about it, and I have to write down a word to remind me to incorporate the flit later somehow. I can't just [sit] down and write straight through. And that's one reason why I write first by hand, even now, I've never really been good at composing on a typewriter or a word processor or anything like that. I have to write it first. And of course in those days a written manuscript was quite acceptable on the Herald. But it's remained with me. I've never been able to accept -- once or twice, you know, I can remember being able to put something straight down.

What about poetry? You were writing poetry during this time, weren't you?

Yes, yes, but that's -- again, that is something that you don't, you know, bang out on the word processor or even the typewriter. Most poets don't. And that particularly, of course, is not a good example, because as I say, most poems are written in bits and pieces.

So, what was emerging in you through high school, university, and then later as a journalist, was the kind of mind that had moments of inspiration, but that darted about rather. But, you say you did acquire some discipline?

Yes, well one had to, on the Herald. As I say, it was pretty frightening at first. It was the very first time I'd ever been employed, first time I'd had to earn my living, first time I'd had responsibility for certain things, you know. And it was very good in that way. Once I got used to it and began to know what I was fairly good at, it was lovely. Very, very good.

When you first started as a cadet on the Herald, was your father still writing features for them?

I don't think he was somehow, because I remember him taking me round that day of introducing me to various people. But never again do I remember him in there. I think he must have been just on the point of collapse ... it was just, couldn't take the strain, and he'd had the day in bed that he died. So I think he was probably just on the verge of going to bed.

Did you feel that his mantle had fallen on you?

Not really, because he was leader writer, and I was never a leader writer. No, I didn't, no.

Do you remember the first time you got drunk?

Yes. I think I do. There again, it's pretty hard if you were pretty drunk and you know, to remember the very first time. But it was, as I recall, I may be wrong, it was one of the balls or parties we went to, and it was at Hunters Hill. And I recollect discoursing to some girls with animation, thinking I was being interesting. And the next thing I knew I woke up on the sofa at home next morning. And I'd obviously passed out and been brought home. And I went outside and there they were, the heel marks along the gravel path where I had been pulled home.

Dragged up the path?

Dragged up the path. And I felt, you know, pretty gruesome about it. And I knew -- I know this does sound absurd in retrospect, but I knew then I had a problem. That I always would have to fight very hard to control drinking. And I just knew. And that was -- I was 18. And Mother -- this is typical of what I call the stoicism and the quietness of her -- she came down while I was still lying on the sofa, and said, 'You were very tired last night.'

Did you think of your father?

Yes. But that didn't stop me. I thought of him later too, when my sister began. And some say it is passed on.

Did you, in a way, feel a certain compulsion to be like him? I mean there you were, working as a journalist at the Herald, he had died, you'd moved back to home, you were drinking. Do you think that this was all part of taking up where he'd left off?

I don't think so. I know it's very easy to wonder about relationships between sons and fathers, but I don't honestly think that. I remember quite recently somebody -- a doctor -- said to me, 'What were you like with your father?' And this was after I had some pneumonia, and I said, 'This has nothing to do with my father.' He said, 'Oh, you'd be surprised.'

So, girls had entered your life at this point. What did you think of them?

Well, the relationships between men and girls were so different in those days, you know. And, of course, there was very little feminism. Most of the girls I knew came from much the same stratum as I did. Some were the daughters of academics, some were professionals' daughters and so on. We had -- some were known as 'fast', and they of course were the interesting ones. Others were known as dreary and they were. They were much more inhibited, the dreary ones, than they would be now. In other words, a lot of women [these days] are not what you'd call very beautiful, but they are very attractive despite their looks, you know. Or perhaps, because of their looks, they have character. Whereas these girls in those days, even though they were just as intelligent and just as attractive or unattractive, didn't express much character. And that I think was the big difference. And of course, were not nearly as free, and there was no Pill or anything like that. But they were much more buttoned up on the whole.

But even though you had your relationships within this particular circle, and there was a sort of pressure on the girls to stay out of sexual activity, you still managed to find some to cooperate. These were the fast ones?

Yes, this amazed me, because it was a ball, a proper, you know, formal ball in white tie and tails and it was at Government House. And this girl, she was obviously a fast one, and I was dancing with her, and she murmured into my ear, 'Do you fuck?,' and I put on a sort of worldly air, forced a smile, you know, and said, 'What do you think?' Anyway it went on from there, and we ended up on the beach, at Lady Martin's Beach just below my house. And that was my introduction to that well-known activity.

And it went on from there. You did eventually marry. Who did you marry?

I married Diana Wentworth and we lived together -- we didn't live together -- we lived in our parents' houses, but we slept together for, oh, two or three years. And we had to keep it secret because of our parents, although they probably knew. But then it was considered unusual, you know, and we went around together everywhere, and so on. And then finally we got married. And her parents disapproved of me, because I drank too much of her father's whisky, which was very good whisky. Seekay, you never see it now. Whisky isn't what it used to be. And also, they didn't think I had enough money, because they were pretty well off and ...

This was the WC Wentworth family?

Yes. And the old man, he was a nice old man really. He was, I think, incredibly stupid in many ways, but underneath all the crust, he was like Colonel Blimp, you know, underneath all that he was I think a nice man. But he told me that he couldn't consider his daughter marrying anybody who didn't have at least £800 a year. And I know that doesn't sound much now, but by god, it was pretty good in those days, you know. And I said, I thought I might have £800 a year by the time I was 80 or something like that. I told him so, and he huffed and puffed and finally we got married secretly and then confronted them with it.

That was in 1939?

Yes, just before the war.

Now, you came from an academic dynasty really, and you'd married into a really old establishment family. Your family was very strong. Was theirs an equally strong family? And was it different from yours?

Strong in what sense?

Well, you had a strong sense of family in the MacCallum family.

Well, yes, but that was partially because of Grandmother, you know, forcing the family into a clot. Their family was more dispersed, said much more, their minds. Spoke their minds more. They were a very forceful family, still are. And they had these immense quarrels about the estate which was down at Port Kembla, and Bill -- who is the recently retired Member of Parliament, he's still, you know, going strong in his 90s -- he had huge quarrels with his father. Almost every week he'd come to the house, and at that stage we were living there, allegedly temporarily, and I said, 'I'm going to keep out of all these uproars', and Diana did too. But it was a very turbulent family, you know. And it would have done us a bit of good, I think, to have been as turbulent in the sense of speaking our minds more, or being spoken to about our minds. But that's how it was.

So when the war broke out, what happened to you then?

By that time we were living in Vaucluse. We had a flat and I was fighting with the gas company about the cost of the gas, I recall. And yes, I remember, I used to come home with two or three other blokes on the very last tram when we were doing night work, and it'd stop specially for us at the intersection of King Street and Pitt Street, right across the intersection, and you'd see the tram all lit up as we came along from the Herald. And we'd run so as not to keep it waiting too long, and we'd get aboard and the conductor was called Dick. And he was always slightly drunk by this time, and he wore his cap on backwards. And the tram would rocket out, it wouldn't stop anywhere, 'til it got to my flat, which was opposite the tram line in Vaucluse, the top of Vaucluse. And then off I'd get and come home. Then in the morning we'd go surfing. Bondi. Which was, there again, very pleasant, you know.

And when the war broke out, what happened?

It was great turmoil at the Herald of course, and journalism, especially certain sorts of journalists, of which I was one, were a reserved occupation. And the Herald appointed two or three war correspondents, and I wanted to be one but they wouldn't ... They said I would be more use in the sub-editor's room assisting the editors, and so I stayed rather disgruntled, although a bit relieved in fact, because I didn't think I'd be very good with a rifle and so on. And then I thought, well, 'Maybe I'd better join up or try to.' So I tried to join the navy, being very much at home on the water. And I, you know, pictured myself as captain of a torpedo boat, fast and racy and rushing around them, and the wind and spray. And went down to Rushcutters Bay for the test and failed, which infuriated me, because the previous week I had walked all over Vaucluse, you know, getting fit and all the rest of it, and I failed on the simple thing. It was because -- there were about a dozen of us and I was the last on the list to be tested, by which time ... I'd waited all day and I was doing my highly strung feeling, and so the first thing I failed at was looking at your watch in a mirror and telling the time quickly. Which normally I would be able to do, but I stuttered and ummed and ahed and had, you know, finally told the time after about five minutes. And there was another test, dropping a penny and kicking before it hit the ground, which normally I would have done easily. And I missed this time, simply because I was, you know, so upset. And it was absurd, but there you are. I was, it did show, I suppose, that I was not suitable to be the captain of a dashing torpedo boat in an emergency, because I couldn't tell the time.

In the mirror backwards.

[laughing] Or kick a halfpenny into the foam. And then I tried the air force and was rejected for that because, again, the most absurd thing. We were all physically tested and for some reason for the air force they take a sample of your urine. I don't know why. And this room was crowded with men trying hard to have a pee, you know, and finally I had my little pee, and there were two blokes examining them, medical orderlies in white coats, and one of them took mine and looked at it, held it up and shouted to his mate, 'Hey Jack, look at this.' And it was green. And it had never been green before, and hasn't ever been green since. But it was knocked back. They said not suitable.

Why was it green?

I don't know, I think it was something to do with sugar. I do have hypoglycaemia, which means you consume sugar too quickly, and it may have been something like that. Anyway it's never worried me since then. So then I began to feel a bit discouraged, what with halfpennies and watches and green urine, and I had a final go at the army and they said no, and the Herald by then said, 'We won't let you go because you're reserved and we want to keep you here. So then, I thought, 'Oh, well, this is it, stay here.' And then I was approached by Alf Conlon, who was a legendary figure, a back room boy, you know, and he was very influential in all sorts of ways. Much more so than most people think, and a very secret sort of man. But he said would I be interested in founding and editing the army journal Salt. And I thought about it and if I'd known what it was going to involve, I probably wouldn't have. But I did, and it was one of the best things I ever did.

Tell me about the legendary army journal Salt.

Well, it was the first of its kind. Actually it was the property, as it were, of the Army Education Service, which was, again, the first of its kind and became very powerful, did a lot of good work. First of all I went to George Fuller -- this is typical of Fuller -- and said, 'I need a uniform,' without even knowing what rank I'd be, except they did say, 'You'll be a Warrant Officer.' And he made me a Warrant Officer's uniform. I got on the train, they said I had to live in Melbourne, to be in Melbourne, and I got on the train and found people looking at me curiously, and thought, oh well, you know. And one old digger who'd been over the top, as they say, said, 'Have you been over the top, son?' And I said, 'Not yet.' I didn't like to tell him about the urine and watch and all that. I thought it would have seemed inappropriate, ineffective, not a good excuse. Anyway, I got to Melbourne and booked into a horrible hotel, which they'd booked me into, and sat down for dinner, and noticed other people looking at me curiously, and also a couple of soldiers who sort of talked to each other and said, 'Look at him,' and I didn't know what was wrong. And next morning I reported to the headquarters, to army barracks in St Kilda Road, and the first thing that Robert Madgwick, who was the head of the education service and received me said, 'Where are your rising suns?' And the tailor hadn't put those rising suns emblems on my lapel, and that was why I'd aroused such intense curiosity on the way to Melbourne. Anyway ...

So you weren't a proper soldier on the outside as well as on the inside?

Exactly, exactly. And I've always hated uniforms anyway, but then we started, and to cut a long story short, I started Salt and it was very difficult because it had never been done before. And of course, I'd been naive enough to think that it was a good -- in fact I said, 'I'm willing to start as a Private,' which would have been absolutely hopeless, you know. But as a Warrant Officer I had a little bit of status. But I found I was dealing with, you know, colonels and generals, and all sorts. And we were creating new ground, what we were going after was direct access to and from the troops, which was unheard of, you know. And so we gradually set up in Lonsdale Street, and gradually developed. It was, at first, not good, it was pretty simple and not good. But we developed it and finally, by the time it finished in '45, it had this enormous audience, and we had tributes from everybody from the Prime Minister down, to the generals, the soldiers, the everything. And we had this huge relationship with the men.

What do you think was the real secret of its success and how would you characterise its essential nature?

Well, three things. One, I think, was the fact that it had this direct access. They could write to us with their grouches and nostalgic letters. 'What is the length of the naked woman in Chloe's Bar in Melbourne?' That's on the wall in Chloe's Bar. And little things like that. Plus, worries about post-war, a huge range of things. We used to get literally hundreds of letters a week, and we only accepted them if they were signed and the Army Regimental number of the man was on them. That was one thing. Another was we wrote about all sorts of things, not just education or just the war. And we uncovered a few scandals here and there on the civilian front, you know. And it was this rapport that we had with them. But it was this of course that made it so suspect to the brass hats and we had many, many, many fights, terrible fights.

You had enemies on Salt?

Oh yes, yes. But luckily, General Blamey, who was the really top man, came round to our side. But there were many -- politically it was dynamite, the whole thing. And there were questions in parliament and the Army Minister was pressed by the conservatives to close us down and, you know, the lot.

Why were they so worried about you?

Because it was considered an upsetting type of publication. It raised lots of questions. It was regarded -- and of course, it was a place for troop grouches as well as inquiries and things. But it took on in a very big way eventually, and we had this enormous mail. We had people from the other services, the air force, the navy, asked for it. It was found in Czechoslovakia. The Americans wanted it, the English Tommies in the Pacific, and it was, you know, very rewarding.

Could you remember the most celebrated case where you had run something that had upset the top brass?

Well, certainly in my mind it's stuck because it was so ludicrous. We had a lot of drawing contributions. We had a coloured cover, but no other colour. But we could accept, of course, black and white. And this -- I know it sounds trivial but it was typical of the relationship of some of the censorious people ... [INTERRUPTION]

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