Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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Has writing always been an important element in your life?

Oh yes, yes.

Could you tell me when it began?

Well, I suppose when I was at preparatory school, I used to write for our little school magazine, and then I was editor of The Sydneyian, which was the Sydney Grammar journal. And then at university I did quite a lot of writing and wrote ...

Did you write for Honi?

A bit, a little bit. I wrote things like -- well for myself I wrote -- I was very much taken up with people like Ernest Hemingway, and I tried to write like Ernest for a while. And I wrote the College Revue and all that sort of stuff. And then of course on the Herald, one did write, yes. But it was different.

In that developing writing during your childhood and youth, what were the main characteristics of your writing?

I would think probably imitation. I think, as they are with most boy or girl writers, I was very taken with certain writers. And they would vary as I grew up of course, and at one stage I was mad about a book for boys of, I suppose, about 11 about British Sea Scouts and their adventures. They were great sailors, they were boat and yachtsman, and because I was too -- I was a boatman, not a yachtsman -- I got very much involved. They sucked me in, you know. And I think things vary from time to time as you meet some approximation of it in your life, you are interested in writing or reading, certainly, books about or little bits about various things that happen.

Did your writing help you make sense of what was going on around you?

I don't know. I don't know whether it really connected or not. I mean obviously it wasn't very good writing, but I came across some cuttings recently at which I was amazed at how early they were. They'd been published, and these were short stories, but by that time of course I was well into my teens. And they were there. I'd completely forgotten about those, so they obviously weren't very important to me.

So getting published didn't matter so much as writing?

At the time it did. It was terrific, you know. I went around very proudly.

When you started writing professionally as a journalist, how did that relate to your private writing? Did you continue to write privately?

Yes, yes. It had virtually no relation, except in so far as there was a slight overlap between what was called my mood writing assignations -- my mood pieces as they were called -- and perhaps the fiction that I was writing in short stories. They were both allied, I suppose, to a feeling of romance in some way, a romanticism.

Was your fiction published at that time?

Yes. It was short stories -- I wrote quite a bit of poetry then too, and some of that was published in things like the Sydney Mail, which was a branch of the Sydney Morning Herald. A very, very, very dreary periodical, but it published poetry.

Were you pleased with your poetry?

I don't think people, or very seldom do people, really get pleased with what they do, creative people. Put it this way, they tried something and they know like everything it has to be imperfect, and I've always felt what I think most people have.

Do you think you've felt it more acutely than most? Have you been ...

Yes, I think so, judging by what other people say. It's like this business of having to write things down with my hand rather than put them straight on to the typewriter. It's a sort of nitpicking feeling, you know, that one feels about one's work. Nothing is ever perfect.

Do you feel that about yourself too?

Oh yes, yes.

So, you've been sometimes found to be a person who could find fault with other people. You don't find much difficulty finding fault with yourself as well.

No, none whatsoever. It's the easiest thing in the world.

With your writing you were saying that you have a way of looking at things which sometimes glances onto something and it's hard to capture it, and your writing is a way of pinning it onto paper?


Could you tell, in the course of your life ... I mean, just perhaps talk a little bit about the way your writing evolved through the various stages, and how you feel about it in retrospect, looking back at how it worked for you in the course of your life, what your writing meant to you?

Well, firstly I suppose it was private, it was a way of expressing something private to yourself, even though you were chuffed if it was published, but it's primarily private. Then one's technique improved. I was always very interested and very much involved in how people said or wrote things, let alone how they painted them or made films or whatever, you know. And I was always very much involved in shape, in form, and I think that form, or the purposeful lack of it, is absolutely vital. It's a very conscious thing as far as I'm concerned. I don't really usually much like these people who -- or I don't admire them -- who say, 'Oh, it just rolls out of me.' Usually I've found what rolls out ... and one my best friends who practiced this -- I won't name him -- and he used to just [say] it poured out of him, and my god it looked like it, you know, it seemed like it. It was very superficial, full of cliches, and banal.

And you won't name him?

No, I don't think it's fair. I'll tell you this, he's dead. I'll also tell you this -- his wife was a much better writer than he. So puzzle over that. Anyway that sort of writing is not for me. If you are lucky enough to have a run and to be going well, okay, go with it. But look at it next day very carefully I think.

And your first novel, when was that published?

It would have been in the '50s, I would think, yeah.

You wrote it after the war?

Yes, yes, yes.

And what was that called?

A Voyage In Love. Some people thought Love was a sailing ship or something, but it wasn't.

And were you -- how was that received?

Quite well. In fact, people like Ken Slessor, the poet and guru at that stage, said that it was the first novel he'd read which took the city and being in it for granted. Which was, from him, very high praise, you know.

And you wrote another novel after that, didn't you?

Yes. Son of Mars. I couldn't think of the name of it at first. But that was much more elaborate and people liked it. It had very good reviews. I don't like either of them now. if I look at them, which I very seldom do.

And you didn't continue as a novelist and felt much more at home writing for radio? Why do you think that was?

I don't know. It was partly because I -- radio, episodic radio, like episodic film, thinks -- it's more like the way I think, with the flits and quick changes of scene. And of course, you can do things which you have to describe in writing, and on radio you don't describe what you're doing, it happens. And I like to see , well, I used to call it the fourth dimension of features and drama in radio, that you can do things which are magical virtually.

With sound?

Yes, yes.

As a young man were you interested in film?

Yes, but the films -- it depends how young you mean. [When] I was very young I thought the film scene was pretty awful, although we hear now about how wonderful we were in those days, and we have festivals of people on horses and so on. But I suppose it reflected the society to some extent, truly. But then a bit later it seemed to me -- well it did fade off a lot ... filmmaking [INTERRUPTION]

Radio was very important in your life. Can you remember when you first heard it?

Yes, as a child, and we listened to commercial stations because it was before the ABC had started, and we had awful racist things like the Honourable Archie and his Japanese servant Wong and, you know, they parodied a Japanese accent and so on, and Inspector somebody who used to say, 'Just the facts, man.' And 'Take him away' at the end.

And that was quite important in your childhood to listen to radio?

Yes, I suppose it was. We had a lot of gramophone records as well, which left a much more lasting impression, much, much more. They were the beginnings of music as far as I was concerned.

Tell me about music in your childhood, both listening to it and playing it?

Well, it was, as with many families, a family affair. I was supposed to be possibly talented at the piano and I thumped things out, and had a few music lessons, and we would quite often gather on Sunday evenings and sing American songs like Camptown Races and so on. And mother would sing a thing called O Love Dear Love Be True in her sweet soprano, mezzo soprano. And as Margaret and Duncan were born and George, they all joined in. I had my orchestra. That was when I was about four and I'd read about orchestras and the conductors, and in those days there were cigarettes called de Reszke and he was the famous singer, de Reszke, and he was on the packet in his formal drag, you know. White tie, waistcoat, tails, and he inflamed my imagination. And so we were the family orchestra for a while, which was absolute torture for the grown-ups because there was no question of music, it was just making noise. I wore a monocle, a curtain rod, like de Reszke and so on. And then we progressed a bit and we had these American song books and things like that, and then we had Beethoven and Mozart and so on, and then I had lessons from Cossington Smith. But at one point Father had composed a thing called Triumphus Romanorum, A Roman Triumph, which of course would be unthinkable nowadays. I remember my brother wanted to get it published round about the '60s and I dissuaded him, because it was about a Roman triumph, the return of a triumphant Roman General with all the slaves and the paraphernalia, through the streets of Rome. And I was supposed to set this to music, which I thought I did, but of course I didn't. All I did was bang chords and they sang along, you know. But then went one to more, well to proper music, records, Paul Robeson for one, lots of Rachmaninov -- he influenced me enormously because he was so passionate. I used to think of myself as growing up to be passionate like Rachmaninov. We had a lot of records for that time and they were played on a little gramophone like they made in those days. No hi fi or anything like that, with cane needles, and you had a cane cutter that put new points on the needle after each record. And they were supposed to give a warm tone, a warmer tone than steel needles. But what happened was they always got very blunt very quickly and they'd just skid off the record. So that was music in the younger days.

And what about painting? What role did this have in your life?

Well, quite considerable, because apart from anything one did in town or on Point Piper, there were the summer holidays. We used to go to a little village called Rydal, which was quite near Bathurst, and the train journey there itself was quite an adventure because we used to travel as a whole family with Nanna and mountains of luggage; you've no idea how much luggage there was in retrospect. And we'd arrive there. We went there for several weeks every year and I went out every day and painted the bush, trees and things, and I was a so-called romantic painter and I followed painters who are now forgotten more or less, who painted rather fuzzy watercolours, you know. And mine were very fuzzy, and very watery and when I took them indoors out of the sun, they were just terrible looking dark blobs, you know. So that was my main painting milieu when I was a child.

And as you grew, did painting play a part in your life?

Yes it did, it produced a ridiculous situation, I got involved in a police case and this was quite late, much later, when we were living in Paddington. I did a lot of sketching in between things, just offhand, you know, because I refused, as with music, to take painting and music seriously for myself, because I considered that they were full-time or not at all, and if you did bits you must think of them as bits, no more. And these collections of sketches were left lying around in various places when I parted from my wife, and I lost one. And the next thing I knew was a man ringing me up who wouldn't say who he was, asking me if I would sign some of these sketches. And I, like a fool, said, 'No, I don't even want to see them,' because he sounded crooked. And the next thing was the police arrived saying that Herman, whom I knew and whom I'd made television programs with, had disowned some sketches which the accused person had signed in his name, and which he'd asked him to sign more of. And they were my sketches. And he'd stolen them from one of these houses and put Herman's name on them, which was a most absurd thing to do because they were nothing like Herman. And then the police came to see me --that was the first I knew about it -- saying, 'What about these sketches that you've put Herman's name on?'

They were accusing you?

Yes. And well I succeeded in saying I hadn't and then we had a big police court case. And it took up such a lot of time, this absurd thing. And at the end of it, even though the fellow was guilty and found guilty, he was let off with a caution. So there we are. That's what painting did.

But was it important to you in expressing things that you felt about the world around you?

Ah, not as important as writing. But very important. Not as important as music, although I didn't really ever compose music. No, it was strictly -- really from the start, I think, you would say it was strictly a part-time thing and no more.

Can I ask you now about your brothers and sisters, and the family. Who were your brothers and sisters and what became of each of them?

Well, the first one was my sister Margaret. She was very clever, she did very well at school. She took after, in looks but not temperament, thank god, her German grandmother. She had this round blondeness that you often see in German women, northern German women. And, as I say, she was clever, she went to SCEGGS in Darlinghurst and she became dux of the school. And then she got a job, long before I did, with the ABC Weekly, which at that stage, they put out every week and filled with radio programs and articles. And then she had a few affairs which I knew about but Mother didn't. And Mother would have been very upset. Then she went to England, she made the pilgrimage and spent virtually the rest of her adult life there, on the BBC, and had a boyfriend, -- he was not a boy any more than she was a girl by then -- but it was virtually a life-long affair. And he wanted to marry her but his wife wouldn't give him a divorce. And so it went on. And one day -- this was years and years later -- she had made an appointment to see him at a place where they normally met, and had coffee and stuff. She went there and waited and waited. He didn't turn up. And she was frantic. She thought some terrible accident had occurred and then she thought, 'Oh no, he's ditched me at last,' or something. And he was dead. And somebody, a common acquaintance, told her and she was absolutely devastated because she hadn't gone to the funeral, she wouldn't have been welcome anyway with the wife, and she felt very, very alone suddenly, because she had lots of friends, but he had been the light of her life for so long. And then she came back here, and by now she was, you know, in her 50s or somewhere. And she was -- I was shocked when I saw her because she was more or less a travesty of what she'd once been. And she didn't feel at home, because she'd spent so long in Britain and all her friends, virtually, had either grown up or died or gone away. And she just felt absolutely rootless. No home here, no home in Britain any more. And she started drinking, same old pattern. And lived for a while in units, and then my other brother died, and she moved in to live with Mother, and shortly after that died.

And what did she die of?

I think probably heart and alcoholism. I don't know. But you know, it was difficult, I tried to -- I couldn't obviously -- I was in no position to talk to her angrily or anything like that. And Mother didn't. She was very upset by it of course but I did try to persuade her, you know, I said it's so much worse for women who drink than it is for men; even though it's so unfair, it is worse. People think worse of them. And she agreed, but it didn't stop her.

And what about your other brother?

Well, the one after Margaret was Duncan and he was a beautiful child, and again a very clever child and won lots of medals and was on the honour board at Grammar, replacing the gap left by me. And he was in the war as a member of Alfred Conlon's unit, a specialist unit. He was in no condition to do physical things, because all through his youth he had had this illness and he had a very bad physical life. He was almost invariably in pain and so on and so on. And then after the war he went to university and became a lecturer and specialised in economic history of Australia. And had more and more illnesses. And didn't ever leave home. And I think became extremely eccentric. He was regarded at the university as a lovable eccentric. And that's what various academics who've written books have written, described him as. And no doubt he was, I know he had enormously warm influence with people and he was very generous to people without saying anything about it, you know, giving them money. And then he, as I say, got iller and iller and died.

And ...

Never married, had a, you know, I think a rotten life. And, as I say, a lovable eccentric, but very difficult to life with. And he and I just didn't get on.

Did he take over the controlling of the household that your grandmother had ...

Yes, yes. He'd inherited that Germanic thing, and that made it very difficult and he was always telling me about my lack of responsibility. And one couldn't answer him back, you know, ruthlessly because I felt so sorry for him. But he used to infuriate me.

What happened to baby George?

Baby George was the one who died very early, but who potentially was a bright star, as a person. He was the happiest and most radiant person I've ever known. Everybody adored him. And he was totally unspoilt, and he again got his name on the honour board. And then went to university. He wanted to be a doctor, and they wanted, he and his friends wanted, to found what at that time would have been the first group practice. Each doctor specialising in something different. And he went through university, did very well, graduated and with five other friends, all of whom had just graduated in medicine, decided to take a break before enlisting because it was the middle of the war. And so they hired a launch and set off up the coast for Broken Bay where they were going to camp and fish and so on. And the launch ran into a storm, broke up and they all drowned, except for one -- the only one who couldn't swim, they gave the single life belt onto, and he by a million-to-one chance, drifted across the searchlight from the bows of a fishing trawler in this huge storm, unconscious with a broken leg and on the life belt. And they picked him up and he was saved.

Was your brother ever found?

No. We searched, actually even though it was war time and there were lots of people being killed and so on, it was a big event, the loss of these doctors and so on. And I got leave and came up and hordes of people, the army, the navy, everybody, police, friends, students, so on, all searched. We hired boats and launches and absolutely scoured every inch of Broken Bay and the ocean. And nothing was found for weeks and months and months, and then finally a plank, which was identified as the Robin May plank -- Robin May was the name of the launch -- was found drifting up on Lion Island in the middle of Broken Bay. And that was it.

There was all this tragedy in your family.

Well, yes, and this is the point that as of Father's death, when she was 51, Mother had a century, literally, half a century of widowhood, and never once complained. And I know she was offered in marriage, offered marriage by somebody. She refused, and I think she refused for the sake of the family, because by then we were still you know around, or most of us. And quite young.

And so she buried three of her children?


And was left with you?


Did you feel a big responsibility to her?

Well yes, in the sense that it was very -- well, it was something that had to be done, and she'd lived in that house all her life for 70-odd years. And we didn't want to move her, and I didn't think she wanted to move. And by that time I'd just got married to Polly, you see, and if Polly had -- if I'd known this was how things were going to work out, I would have felt extremely diffident about asking Polly to marry me, because she, as much as me, more than me really, had to take on Mother. And so we moved in -- having found a little house of our own, we had to leave, rent it to somebody else, and we moved in and naturally, even with nurses every morning and all that, Mother needed a fair amount of looking after. And more and more and more everything started to go wrong with her body, though not with her mind, and she kept on saying to us, 'Put me into a nursing home,' and I'd say, 'Well, no, we won't.' Finally we had to. And there she was until 101.

With all three of your younger siblings dying, did you ever wonder why you were the one that was spared?

Yes, yes. I did.

Especially George?

Especially George, yes.

You said something to your mother about that, didn't you?

Yes. I said it should have been me.

Did you feel that?

I did really, but not continuously. But quite a lot, quite a lot. But when I think of what was lost in him, you know, he was such a wonderful person.

Can I ask you now about when you were child and your father used to make things and do things for you. Could you tell me a little bit about some of the things that he made for you and the way he used to encourage you to develop your talent, and the things that he engaged in with play with you?

Well, as I say, we were not what you'd call very articulate with each other and he built things for me. He was pretty rough, but a good carpenter, you know. And he made a magic lantern for instance. And we had a willow tree in a corner of the garden and one day he went down to the beach for a swim, up and down the beach, every day, morning and winter. This was before he had his hand and everything. And he came up to us one day with a bottle and an old piece of paper and said, 'Look what I've found.' And it turned out that he had found a pirate's message, which said, 'Look for the gold. Look for the silver beneath the tree in the house, beneath the sad tree in the house of the laughing children.' And we thought, 'Goodness, gracious,' and suddenly he said, 'I know where the weeping tree is, the willow, the weeping willow.' So we rushed down there and dug it up and sure enough, there were these silver pieces, which each of us had. And that sort of thing he was very good at, you know. And then he made me huge piles of trains when I was a small child, wooden trains to tug around everywhere and infuriate everybody, because they made such a clatter. And he bought all our gramophone records. He made this boat. He had a great friend called Simpson, who in a way was rather like him. He came of an establishment and they'd all been judges, his people, and they made him do law, which of course a lot of boys were made to do against their will. And even now. And he shared chambers when he was a barrister with Claude Simpson. And they both nattered on to each other a lot. I only went there once but it had revolving chairs which squeaked, it had walls full of dusty books, it was in Phillip Street, in a little terrace house, Phillip Street being very different in those days from now. And it was a typical Dickensian lawyers' chambers, you know. But he and Claude Simpson used to do things together occasionally, and they contrived this boat, this canvas boat which collapsed and which opened out, and it was soaked in linseed oil to keep the water out. And it stank of linseed oil. And we would take it down to the beach, you know, wobble around in it. It was the first of my boats.

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