Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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Could you remember a particular example of where the top brass got really upset with a story in Salt?

Yes, although the example is trivial in a sense, but it's always stuck in my mind, because it epitomised their attitude to us. We published drawings, black and white drawings sent in by the troops, and there were some very good ones, and a lot of them. And one day we published, or were about to publish, a very good series of drawings of troops coming back from the line, having their first shower for weeks. And this was troops in New Guinea. And we, you know, we had the block made, it was ready to go in, but because we had to go through the form of submitting everything to a censor, we submitted it and to our utter amazement, he said, 'You can't use this.' We said, 'Why?' He said, 'Naked men.' And we said, 'But these are all shown from the back or the side, there's no full frontal or anything like that. He said ,'Doesn't matter, naked men.' These were troops who'd just been fighting very hard, you know, under the shower. And we finally, we published it, and got a huge reprimand from the big brass. But that's the sort of thing that happened, let alone things about politics or let alone say an article saying that Russia was doing a good job pushing the Germans back from Moscow. That aroused intense irritation among -- especially among Catholic censors.

So this was during the war when the Russians were considered to be our allies?

Yes, yes. And I used to go touring occasionally -- or not touring -- visiting camps and so on in New Guinea and all that, and I found that you could almost invariably tell what sort of a unit it was and what sort of a man its commander was by the reception the troops gave. If they were friendly, if they were enjoying the journal and so on, their commander was friendly, and he was a nice bloke. If he was, you know, a real old martinet stick in the mud, they were unhappy and they were grumpy and didn't talk much, you know, and it was almost invariable, that thing.

What was the political tone of the journal Salt?

Well, people said, its enemies said, it was to the Left and indeed it was, because it treated Russia as one of our allies. And you know we published as much about Russia as we did about Hitler or about Britain or American troops. And there's no question, it was what you'd call a Leftish journal. But what would be the point -- I wouldn't have taken on a journal that was going to be a sort of Colonel Blimp-ish type journal. And I told them that at the very beginning, when they interviewed me in Melbourne and when I went down without my rising suns on. I said I wasn't interested in doing a sort of saddle-and-spur type magazine or anything like that. So that's how it was. And that's how it remained. In fact, though it was never stated, I suspected it, and there were a couple of communists on the staff. But you know, they didn't write as communists.

Apart from the letters that came from the men complaining about conditions, did you ever publish any articles or editorials criticising the top brass?

No, that would have been sudden death I think. Actually there were two occasions on which there were very strong moves to close us down, from people in parliament. But we survived them.

And the moves from parliament came because of your Russian articles?

No, because the journal was a gadfly in many ways. It was an irritant because it was so wide, you know. It had lots of conservative stuff in it as well, masses of it. Dr Evatt was one of our chief irritants. Not so much in terms of politics as wanting to run it. He was on the phone or sending me orders almost every day, you know. He was like that as you know. He took over almost everything he looked at and touched. And he'd send down a great screed about Dr Evatt, saying what a terrific job he was doing and so on, and we didn't publish it and he would be furious and so on.

So you didn't ever take any notice of him?

No. We did towards the end once when he was starting some new policy, I can't remember -- anyway it affected post-war soldiers, and we were very strong all the way on post-war as well as war, because we had so many requests. Soldiers were so -- a lot of them -- worried about what jobs they'd have after it all. A lot of them had just come through a Depression, you know, a few years before and they were worried. So when Evatt sent us this thing which had to do with post-war procedures and possibilities, we published it.

You've never had any difficulty resisting authority when you didn't want to take any notice of it, Mungo?

No, well, the main problem is not to get angry, too angry. I do get -- I tend to seethe and I try to remain cool.

Why do you think it was so clear to you that you had to resist authority? Do you think you owe that to your German grandmother?

I don't think so, because it's a different sort of thing. I think it was because I was very belatedly losing my acceptance of the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, you know. I think during the war I became politicised, not on anyone's side, but conscious of the fact and I was not interested in running, you know, some fuddy-duddy thing. So it was as much, not to amuse myself, but to interest myself that [I] had this wide spectrum of things.

And you wanted to be relevant?

Yes, yes, very much so.

So why was it important for you to have rank?

Well, it was to deal with people. I didn't get any rises by my own request. I just took it for granted that I would start as a Private, which is an absolutely idiotic attitude to take. But I started as a Warrant Officer Class 1, and then I was made a Lieutenant, then a captain, and then a Major, and Major is, you know, ridiculous in a way, because it's a field rank, which is different, it's a proper soldier's rank. But it was necessary and it was just announced to me by Robert Madgwick, that I would now be a so and so.

And you think that he did that because he thought that you'd need it to do what you had to do?

Partly that and partly because the service was very happy about Salt. They regarded it at their main achievement in many ways, the way in which they'd got closest to troops and things like that. It did help, because being in a reserved occupation, the Herald refused to let me go on leave, and I had to resign. So I had no income, so it was good to have the extra.

Did you ever run any propaganda?

Well, I suppose you could say a lot of it was propaganda in a sense, because we were on one side, you know. We did publish a few rather ordinary caricatures of Japanese, you know, with spectacles and buck teeth and all that. But we were not conscious of propagandising in the banal sense, you know. But I suppose you'd have to say there was an element of propaganda in it, that we, after all, the soldiers' contributions themselves, their poems, their stories and letters, were propaganda in the sense that they took it for granted they were on a particular side, as did we.

For you as a person, what did you get out of the period that you were leading the Salt group, what did you learn and gain from that?

I learned and gained a lot of things, some of them good, some of them bad. I learned, first of all, at the Herald, working for the first time, I'd ceased to be a dilettante, which I had been up until then. And then on Salt I learned that I had a capacity to -- well to lead. I know it sounds pompous but I was able to lead even though I was a fairly unsmiling leader.

Yes, what kind of a leader were you? How would you describe your style of leadership?

Well, it was a very difficult situation because we had to run like a newspaper's [office] but in the army in uniform in rank. And we were required to do certain things, to do the occasional drill, through which we shambled, you know. And things like that were very difficult, a matter of discipline. I mean, if it had not been the army, one would have said, 'Oh for Christ sake, fix yourself up.' But with the army he had to be called Corporal or whatever, he had to be paraded before me, things like that, you know. And the Headquarter people were always on our tails about that because they regarded us, I think rightly, as a fairly motley crew, even though we wore a uniform. And that was a difficult thing, but I was able to get away with it four or five years and to keep them together, you know. And then there was the question of ... we had some recent migrants who had been -- not suspects -- put into a sort of a Land Army, or Workers' Army I suppose you'd call it, and they could be sent anywhere at all, and they were sent to us to be our packos, which was a very good thing for them actually, because it was a stable situation, no danger. And these fellows frequently didn't get on with the old sweats who were from the First World War, who were in charge of packing and stuff like that, and that had to be ironed out quite often, and so on. But more importantly, I think, was the fact that I was able to -- I had a sort of, I found I had an entrepreneurial sort of streak, you know. And it led me into trouble later, but I think it was one of the main good things that came out of it. As for the bad things, when I say -- the war politicised me for the first time. Up 'til then I'd -- even though I'd been in Canberra for the Herald doing a stint there -- been totally uninterested in the politics of it. I was interested in the politicians as people and why they were there, but I not been political. And as a result of the war, and of some the (I felt) grossly unfair attitudes of a lot of officers to -- not my officers, other officers -- Russia and the attitude they'd rather have Hitler almost, you know, I went to the Left. But it was not the sort of political allegiance that would mean anything to a real politician or Leftist, it was very much a sort of social attitude. And that came with me when I came out of the war, and well, I was in a rage by then.

Did that lead you to join a political party?

No, no, I never joined a party and my Leftism was really anti-establishment. That's what it was. And you know I raved about things like that. By this time I was back in civilian clothes, thank goodness, but I went through a bad time. The Herald wanted me back and I didn't want to go back, because I'd had to resign from them and they'd never contributed to my pay or anything. So I went to -- I was taken on by the Sun, which was a tabloid, afternoon tabloid, as a very expensive columnist, which was pretty good, you know, I mean it was nice to have some money after a while. And it was an absolutely mad thing to do, because the tabloid world is not my world and also I undertook to fill virtually a page a day with my own writings -- the column was called National Circus, which was an all-inclusive title, and I could write in theory about anything at all. Or I could be amusing or serious, whatever, you know.

But National Circus suggests a satirical bent.

Yes, and on the whole it was a sceptical, satirical column, yeah. In part, you know, it ate up material like mad, and I was trying -- I was drinking a lot at the time -- and I was feeling this anger at the establishment, which became worse and worse because it was totally undiscriminating. Anybody who had any sort of position I would be automatically antagonistic to, which was absolutely ridiculous, of course. And I had this long history of fantasy and the fantasy, from being quite mild and pleasant about people, changed. It became very savage and so on. And also I found there were so many things that were taboo on the Sun which, of course, went dead against all my so-called satirical attitudes and material. So there we were.

What kinds of things were taboo?

Well, things that affected advertisers for a start. Almost everything does when you come to think of it. And I had several interludes with the editor, whose name I can't even remember now, but he kept on railing me back and I'd go off in a fit of fury, go to the pub over the road, have a few drinks and then come back and try to hammer something out. But people, other people, friends of mine, who became friends I should say, were very good. They were very, very supportive and helpful and they listened patiently to my ravings and so on. So that was one of the bad things that came out of the war. And it was a very bad, silly mistake to think of doing a column under those circumstances.

You've always had a sort of scarifying wit which enabled you to really see what was silly and absurd in somebody and caricature it. Do you think that perhaps in some ways it was bad for you to be placed in a position where that was what you were supposed to do all day long?

Well, yes it was, because it was my fault and it was definitely bad for me. And you know, it put my marriage under strain and it put me under strain and I ended up going, on the doctor's advice, retreating into a nursing home for about a month, drying out, and you know quietening down, and so on. They gave me that drug that's supposed to make you sick -- I can't remember the name of it -- but you have a sherry, which I never drank anyway, and then you have this dose and they're supposed to coalesce in your mind so that whenever you touch alcohol you go 'ugh', like that. And it had absolutely no effect on me at all. And it was rather disappointing but rather triumphant in a way, you know; one felt this idiotic triumph if one wasn't affected by this drug.

You were married in 1939 and almost straight away went off down to Melbourne to get Salt started. Did Diana, your wife, go with you?

Yes, but it wasn't straight away. I went down to Melbourne after my abortive attempts at the navy and the airforce and so on, and then Conlon asked me to do Salt. And that was 1941. So we were married two years earlier than that, and lived at Vaucluse where the tram deposited me at night. I went down to Melbourne, yes, and she followed after a while. She was just beginning to be pregnant and so she went down and we had quite a pleasant flat, and she made friends with some of the people on my staff and so on. But neither of us was a Melbourne person, you know, as most of the others were. They were a good lot, I liked them and she liked them.

How many children did you have?

One. We thought that was enough.

And was the marriage happy during those war years?

Yes, in a fraught sort of way. I mean, being war years, they were not very happy and so on, and she wasn't very well, and she had a bad pregnancy, a very difficult pregnancy, and it was -- I liked Melbourne, personally, quite a lot. I don't subscribe to this thing about it being a dreary place at all. I think it's, in certain ways, much better than Sydney. But I didn't want to live there forever or anything like that. She came back to Sydney to have young Mungo, and I came up to see him, and it was in that hospital that's been demolished, the one in Paddington.

St Luke's?

The Woman's.

The Women's Hospital.

The Women's Hospital, yes. And I suppose, as always happens, I was amazed at his colour because he was a deep magenta purple colour. So I looked at him through the glass of this thing, you know, here was this screaming purple thing and I know fathers are supposed to feel proud when they have sons. I didn't feel pride, you know, I didn't feel I'd achieved anything. And several people thought I was a bit peculiar because of that, and maybe I am, I don't know.

What did you think of him as you grew ... [INTERRUPTION]

Well, the interesting thing was, in fact, he came down with her, back to Melbourne, and the months went by. He never uttered a sound, never tried to get onto his feet, anything like that, and I began to have dreadful fears. And then suddenly, one day, just absolutely with no preparation or anything, he got to his feet, started talking fluently, and strode out of the room, you know. And our fears were dispelled. He was alright.

Sounds like you felt a little bit of pride that day?

Yes, yes. Well, yes I did, yes, yes.

And do you think you were a good father?

No. That's one of the things that catches up with you in old age. You think a lot about the past ,of course, and the bad things or the guilty things you feel come up. And one of them was with him. I don't think he realised it himself, but I was so preoccupied with the Salt at first and then later on with the ABC, and you know we had good times. We played together in bed in the morning and all that sort of stuff. But I don't think that I -- I wasn't sufficiently attentive.

Did Diana feel that?

I think she did, yes, yes ... Well, she was under a lot of strain with me, let alone him.

In what way?

Well, because I was drinking a lot and I was so preoccupied with work, and that went on for years, that situation.

So, you feel that you didn't actually, during these war years and then subsequently after the war, pay very much attention to your domestic arrangements?

Not enough. Not enough, no. I was very -- one of the ways of relaxing to me was to do handyman's things. And I did lots of carpentry and I was always very interested in design and I designed special desks and things like that, and I was useful around the house. And you know, we moved several times and I was very capable of improving the house and doing things which, nowadays, we'd get somebody else to do.

So, you did those sorts of material things, but in terms of, as it were, taking an interest in young Mungo's development and in her state of mind, you weren't so interested?

Well, I think it's probably not right to say I wasn't interested. I was careless more than uninterested. Because my mind was full of things. I would have been interested if I had not been so busy.

Do you think your attitude was unusual for that time?

Well, it was unusual among my friends. Most of them, you know, were good family people, or -- a lot were journalists and some were artists and so on, and even though they were supposed to be bohemians they were not very bohemian at all, really.

But we have heard sometimes that, at that period, men really weren't all that interested in what was going on at home.

I think that's true, yes. There was very little talk about sharing duties and so on. My big contribution was, has been and is, helping with the washing up. I know that, you know, it's terrible ... but somehow it's always been done for me, and when I've tried people have said don't worry. So I'm lucky I suppose. Lucky but tainted.

Lucky or clever to make sure you never do it well enough to be asked again?

No, I didn't make sure. I often almost longed to do it.

So, after the war was over, and you were working on the Sun, and getting more and more enraged, and more and more involved in alcohol, what was happening at home at that time?

Well, Diana was bringing Mungo up and he turned out to be bright after all this long dumb period. And he, at four like me, was accepted for Cranbrook, which was very close to where we lived, which was the main reason he went there. But normally they didn't accept people in for the prep school until they were much older. But he went there. I used to contribute by walking down the hill with him, taking him to Cranbrook in the morning. And she, later I should say, developed a capacity, a good capacity, for writing radio scripts and things like that.

And so, what happened after you went to this place where you dried out? When you emerged from that were you drinking less? Even though this chemical hadn't worked, this drug hadn't worked for you, had you succeeded in being off the grog long enough to be able to come out to a more sober existence?


You went straight back to drinking?

Well, yes, but not, you know, with whoops of joy or anything, but just, it gradually resumed, you know.

And what did you do then, next?

I resigned from the Sun, couldn't bear it any longer, and went to England, or to Europe and England. And I went off the grog. I did this whole tour of England, I was away for a couple of years, and didn't ever have a drink.

Did you take your family with you?

No, no.

Why did you make that decision?

Well, Mungo was doing okay at school, and we didn't want to leave him with his grandparents, and Diana wanted to stay and look after him, and she didn't much want to go to England, because she'd been there as a schoolgirl and it was, you know, in the bad old colonial tradition. She went to a very good, expensive school, and all the other girls laughed because she came from Australia. And that put an end to England as far as she was concerned. And on the other hand, I hadn't been, and the war had delayed all these trips that most people take at that stage, or a lot of people. And so she said, 'You go,' and I went.

And what did you do there?

Well, I had a brilliant time actually because they were so easygoing. I know it sounds ridiculous now, but I thought of England as epitomising every virtue and everything, and we went on this ship full of young hopefuls to make their names in Britain and so on. I got there and somebody, not an Englishman, had told me, 'Why don't you try the Department of Information?' So I strolled in there and a very nice woman gave me afternoon tea in porcelain cups and all this sort of stuff, silverware, and I said I was thinking possibly I could give a talk or two. And she said, 'Of course, of course.' The result was that they put me on a salary, a modest salary but a good one, and sent me all over Britain and parts of Europe with a private car, a chauffeur, talking about Australia. Much of which I didn't know anything about, you know. And it was a wonderful way of seeing everything and not only seeing everything, but meeting people as opposed to talking to them. I talked -- they talked to me by the hundred, you know, and we had these very variable audiences. I talked in prisons, I talked to women's institutes, which were the warmest of all, and they used to sing Jerusalem by Blake before every meeting, and it was beautiful.

Why were they interested in hearing about Australia?

Because migration was in the air, post-war migration. And everything there was very tatty, you know, people's suits were threadbare, ruins everywhere, ashes, and these flame flowers they called them, I think, which sprouted because of the huge bonfires. It was the first warmth, they sprouted, in centuries. Things like that. And the English themselves, I found very, well, simpatico. I liked them very much. And even though there were certain occasions when one didn't -- they almost universally, especially in the upper classes, still thought Australia was a colony to which I took umbrage. And I spoke to trade unions, who were very interested in migration. And all those sorts of people. In the West Country I spoke to hunting people. They all wanted to know about a day in the life of Australia, of an Australian, you know. And I used to put a few little criticisms in, like there are lying dogs in the butchers' shops and things like that, to which they took umbrage. And there it was. It was terrific, and these girls, these Department of Information girls wore red and green uniforms and little Robin Hood caps and things. And you know, we sped all over the place and put up in good hotels. It was fantastic.

And what sort of things were you telling them?

Well, some I grabbed hastily from books. But mainly it was a day in the life of the average Australian -- the sort of house they might live in, the sort of food that people ate, the sort of jobs that were available, the sort of schools and their amusements and so on.

So, you're personally responsible for the huge wave of post-war migration from England to Australia?

Not entirely, but to a little extent, yes, yes.

So, did you just confine this then to England or did you ... ?

No. I went of course to Scotland and Wales and ...

[end of tape]

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