Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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Mungo, the water, Sydney Harbour, has played a very big part in your life, in your fantasy, hasn't it? Could you tell me where that began and how it developed?

Well, it really began almost as a baby, because we were so close to the beach. And dad went down every day to swim there, and we took to going with him. We learned to swim very early and the water held no fears for us. There was no problem. And then he gave us a canvas boat, and then after that I graduated to a little rowing boat, dinghy, and then to my first sailing boat, and then to a -- well, a specially built boat, and we used to go out on Saturdays and have friends from school as crew and so on. And we'd go sailing virtually all day. We raced a bit occasionally, but it was mainly the sailing itself that we liked. And frequently we capsized, as did many other boats then. They were far less easily uprightable. And they had to be towed to the nearest shore, and then righted and bailed out. And I remember one day we did this, beautiful summer's day, a sparkling brilliant day, and a strong nor' easter and we capsized and we drifted in, because we were quite close to a little beach on the end of Darling Point which juts out into the south part of the harbour. And beyond this little beach there was this lovely green land and at the end of it, there was this little stone castle, baby castle. And on the lawn in front of the castle was this gay fashionable crowd exchanging banter and tea and cocktails and things. Anyway, from the crowd came a man and he strolled, very dignified, who looked like an ancient Roman statue, dressed in very well-tailored modern clothes. And it was Lord Beauchamp, who had once been governor, a very controversial governor, because of his private tastes and so on. And ...

What private tastes?

Well, he was alleged to like 'rough trade,' as we say. And he'd come back after ending his governorship, from England, partly because (apparently) of his social inclinations and they were not happy about them in England at that stage. And here was this very statuesque, rather beautiful man, and he stood looking down on us, three little, we were all little-ish boys, soaking wet and shivering, righting this boat. And he said one word after a while. He said, 'Yes.' And strolled away. And the next thing we knew was a splendid English butler came walking very proudly, holding this huge silver tray in front of his impeccably attired formal butler's clothes, and the tray was loaded with cucumber sandwiches and silver teapots full of tea and cups. And he said, 'My master sent me.' And we thanked him, and -- we were freezing cold -- gobbled all the sandwiches and drank all the tea and when he came back, I allowed one of my fantasies to obtrude, because at that time I was crazy about PG Wodehouse, the comic English writer, and he wrote about lords and country houses and gentlemen's gentlemen and all that sort of stuff. And so I piped up to the butler, 'Please thank your master.' And he gave a slight smile and bowed and retreated, and we got away on the boat. So that was one oddity that happened on the harbour.

Can I take you forward in time now? During the war, did you go overseas at all on behalf of Salt?

Yes, I was anxious to get away into the army, as it were, and I went first to New Guinea, and then I decided that I would try and dissolve for a while, disappear in terms of my own headquarters, and I was wearing a safari suit, and I went to the soldiers' store and they hadn't anything -- yes, they had ordinary battle-dress. So I put that on and talked my way onto an American aeroplane and they flew me to Hong Kong -- no, to the Philippines first, and there I had a cup of what they said was their wonderful Java coffee, which I found awful, and flew on from the Philippines to Hong Kong. And when I was there I thought -- there were masses of troops and things, English troops, and I thought I could change and become an English major, which I was in Australian terms as well, a major. So I went to their store and spun some story about how I needed a heavier uniform, and so they gave me an English Royal Marines uniform, a dark blue one. And, you know, everybody seemed to accept me with no trouble and I was never asked for any identification. And I went to their Mess and ate with them, wandered around. I was writing articles meanwhile for Salt and so on. And then I got onto a British cruiser and we steamed up to Shanghai. And I didn't like Shanghai, it was a pretty -- well it was a filthy town in many ways. And one understood its reputation, but there was no problem either, because they accepted me, just as a Royal Marine Major. And then I got onto an English plane, because I wanted to go west for a while, to India and so on. And this plane was absolutely chockablock with French soldiers and some dancing girls from an army entertainment unit, and everywhere were notices saying don't smoke, don't smoke, in French and English. And immediately they got on, these French soldiers all lit up their [Sweet] Caporals and stuff like that. And the atmosphere was absolutely awful, because the plane stank of all the fuel that was on, and then all these Caporals and it was pretty gruesome. So we flew over the hump, which was the great range of mountains between India and China, and we landed at Calcutta with just enough fuel. It was considered a very dangerous flight to take, and it was the only way to do it at that time. And in Calcutta I wrote some more articles. I didn't send them, I just kept them all, and there again, there was no problem. I just became part of the British Army in Calcutta. And then I was able to get onto another plane, a rather less risky one this time, and I went to Burma, to Rangoon, and did a lot of sketching there and so on. And I remember I was accepted, but some people knew, and yet accepted, because we were housed in a huge officers' dormitory and they didn't have mosquito nets, which was a fatal thing in Burma. And I was wide awake at about two o'clock, beating off these mosquitos, and there was a little group of English officers at the other end of the room, and they heard me. I said, 'Christ,' because they wouldn't shut up, and also because of the mosquitos. And one of them said to the others, 'There's an Australian bloke over there. He's quite a good bloke, let's get him to join us.' So I got up and we drank beer all night, and they knew I was an Australian, but nobody said anything. And then I flew back home and developed malaria.

So you really travelled all around the east unauthorised, impersonating a British officer ...

No, it wasn't impersonating, I just wore the uniforms of a British officer. But I didn't ever -- you know, I didn't ever lie. Nobody ever asked me my name. And how these blokes in the ward knew that I was Australian, I can't remember. But nobody ever, you know, raised any objections.

And none of your superior officers knew that you were even there?

Well, apparently not, no. I was never asked for my identity card or my disc or anything like that.

And back home in Australia, they didn't know?

Well, I told my staff, of course, when I got back.

But none of the top brass knew?

No, no, no.

So this was rather of an escapade. Why did you actually do it?

Well, I wanted to get into the field a bit, and I wanted to travel a bit for the sake of getting some stuff from overseas, which was our own, as opposed to stuff which agencies and so on sent.

Would you have been in deep trouble if you'd been caught?

Yes.

Did you know that?

Well, it somehow didn't seem important, and one just -- I didn't worry about it at all, no. But I assume I would have been either very severely reprimanded or maybe even, you know, court-martialled for desertion or something.

Now, can we fast-forward until the present time, and I just wanted to ask you -- in the last several years of your life, you've had a certain amount of peace and stability with your second marriage to Polly. What have been the main events of the last 20 years?

Well, the main events I suppose -- one has to be a main event, and that is stopping smoking four years ago. Because I'd been smoking 60 years, up to 40 cigarettes a day. And everybody else was stopping, and I didn't want to stop a bit, but I thought maybe I'd better. So I went to Smokenders, which is a pretty efficient outfit. I probably wouldn't have stopped if they hadn't been holding sessions in the local hotel. All we had to do was just go five minutes. And they were efficient. They had a lot of American bullshit, you know, the highest things and transcendence and so on, and nevertheless they were very capable. They gradually got us off it and, again, I wouldn't have been able to do it without being in the group. There were 12 of us, all much younger than me. And this gradual withdrawal, and one felt that one had to do the things that we were supposed to do, namely stop smoking, do this and that. And I just couldn't have done it without the group, even though I'm not a joiner and hate joining groups, you know. But nevertheless it worked. It was agonising and I still feel it, still feel the need four years afterwards. But it saved me an enormous amount of money. And of course, one of my physicians said that I must have enormously strong genes to have been able to go through 60 years of 40 cigarettes a day.

Had it done any harm to your lung?

Yes.

What?

I have some emphysema and I have a lot of bronchitis, and as you can hear now, the voice is very hoarse and rough, and also I suddenly lost my voice and my metabolism changed and so on and so on, and I developed what they call a lungus longus, which is from smoking, but it didn't show until quite recently. Your lungs force their way down, and that gives you a little pot, which you can't do anything about.

And has giving up smoking improved your health?

I think so. I think so. And that leads one to another very important thing, that was of course my marriage to Polly, because if I hadn't found her, I'm sure I wouldn't have been here now. And I mean I didn't stop drinking or anything like that, but I think she stabilised me enormously and I owe her a great debt.

What drew you to her?

I don't know, it was simply that -- well I liked her enormously, you know. And I'm not sure about this thing called love, because it's always -- when I was younger I thought love was something very romantic and it was the sort of stuff that sloshy novels are made of, but nevertheless it was a real romantic thing. And then I thought to myself, 'This is ridiculous. It is not, because it goes wrong so often.' And it's not a lifelong commitment or anything. So then I came round to the idea that it was primarily a close and sympathetic comradeship. And I've always had this problem of being sceptical or romantic at the same time. And that's why I think I came to her, because she was a great comrade, and we were not sure at first, you know. But we were very close. And when I came back, she wrote, I wrote, and she came over.

Your attitude to women throughout your life. What part have women played in forming who you are and how ...

... A lot ...

... do you think about women?

Well, that's how they've played their part I think. Again, I veered between the romantic and the sceptical, and I've always respected women a lot. And I've enjoyed their company enormously because they're much quicker, frequently, not always but frequently, they're much quicker than men. And you can tell a joke and put on an expectant smile and the man will still be sitting there wondering what it's all about, whereas the women will have laughed and passed on to something else. And things like that. That, and what is it about women? I just, I feel, I know this sounds incredibly old-fashioned, but I feel that among certain women there is a certain sort of mystery. And it's not simply biological, it's not simply mental, you know. And also I've got this, I've always had this fear of being the intrusive heavy-handed male with women, which has frequently made me a bit slow, slow on the -- not the attack, but the relationship.

You've held back at times when you wanted to ...

Oh yes, yes.

... make a move?

Yes, yes.

Because you've felt sensitive?

I didn't want to be insensitive. And you know, occasionally women have said to me, 'Oh for goodness sake, kiss me.' And things like that. And you feel such a fool, you know.

Well, certainly when you were growing up, it wasn't something that was seen as the male role to be asked.

Yes, the male took the initiative, and that's how it was. But it's always inhibited me a bit, except of course, and this is typical, if I've been, not drunk, but you know, had a few wines.

It would give you courage?

Yes, yes. I won't be frightened of being insensitive.

The scepticism that you talk about that's been a characteristic of you all your life, and it's something that people who knew you and knew your work when you were working, were very struck by -- that there was always this wry eye on the world, and you had a way of looking at the world that saw the absurdity in it. Did this scepticism sometimes spill over into cynicism?

Well, I tried not to. I tried to laugh at the scepticism, you know. And there were occasions when I was very cynical and I always tried to stop myself. The scepticism, I think, is quite a healthy thing in general. And it fed my fantasies of course, and my sense of continuing absurdity really, and -- they varied -- sometimes very bitter as after the war when I was going through a bad patch, and then later much softer. And now they're pretty healthy and well and not cynical, and they are more and more to the fore. I find myself making fantasies about almost everything. I don't drive nowadays, but when we're out in the car and Polly's driving along and some fellow shoots past us in a huge car, I find myself saying to myself, 'What he's doing is saying to himself get past her you silly fool, get past her. And then take it cool and easy lad.' And I keep on thinking that everybody's saying this, you know, and it's absurd.

When did you first notice that life was absurd? Do you remember?

I would think, probably, in my late teens. Sort of crept up.

And can you remember some of the key moments when you really suddenly saw the absurdity of the situation you were in?

I can remember one key moment when my first wife and I went to a meeting and it was a lecture by Bertrand Russell, the famous philosopher. And he was introduced by the senior partner of a very superior firm of lawyers here. And this partner introducing him said, 'It's wonderful that this great man should come down to us lowly folk and mingle with us in the marketplace.' And we went into paroxysms of giggles like this. And from that time on, I thought that sort of utterance was absurd.

You've always been very critical of other people, but I have a suspicion that that very strong criticism has been more frequently turned on yourself. Do you feel that perhaps you've made life hard for yourself by perhaps being a little bit too critical, a little bit too aware of your own limitations and faults?

Yeah -- well I've certainly been aware of my own limitations and faults and they've come -- the awful things I've done -- back to haunt me in old age. Old age, of course, always is supposed to go back to the past a lot, and I've found I'm no exception. But the problem is that so much of what comes up in my mind are the bad things I've done, the trespasses. And I don't think -- I mean one can do nothing about it now, and I think a lot of the people involved have probably forgotten it. Whereas they've all stayed with me. And it's not a very pleasant experience, you know, because you can do nothing about it now.

Has that been true all your life, that you've tended to notice more when you got it wrong than when you got it right, and to listen more to those who criticised you than those who praised you?

Well I think I have, yes, I think I have.

And that's considered to be rather a recipe for depression. Has depression been an issue for you?

Yes, a lot, a lot.

Could you talk about that?

Well, it's pretty hard to talk about when it's just an amorphous depression. It's not something which, you know, hits you because of any particular incident. You just wake up one morning and find yourself enormously depressed. And I, once or twice, like many of my friends, have been tempted to think about suicide. And then I've realised that I'm just dramatising myself to myself, you know. And I've known many suicides, and they've been in much worse condition. But I'm depressed frequently by the pointlessness of everything. Then I suddenly think well how lucky I've been, how rich, not only my life but life generally is, how extraordinary nature is and things like that. But the depression does creep back.

Do you think that was linked to your battle with alcohol?

I think so, partly, yes, yes.

You wrote your first radio feature about alcoholism?

Yes, about me.

And I wonder if you could now talk about your relationship with alcohol throughout your life, your struggle with it, and what it's actually meant to you?

Well, I realised this when I was brought home unconscious from a party when I thought I was talking wittily. And from then on, I knew. On the Herald of course, as now I suppose, journalists did quite a lot of drinking. And every Friday night, for instance, we'd assemble in a particular bar, or we'd go to the Coopers Agency in Sydney and drink Coopers, which was very strong and so on. So in those days I drank just about anything, like any young man. I wasn't outstanding in terms of alcoholic consumption. But we used to go to the Press Club, which was a pretty dreary squalid place then, and there was a lot of drinking on Friday nights again. And somebody once came up to me and said, 'Can I have a word?,' and I said, 'Yes, what?' and he said, 'I know you're an alcoholic,' and I said, 'Oh why?,' and he said, 'I know because of the way you drink. You don't, you can't sip, you drink like that.' And you know I was not, not affronted at all. I had no reason to be, but he was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I felt a peculiarly joyous person. And very earnest, very sincere, all the right things. And he wanted me to join Alcoholics Anonymous. And I went along to a meeting and was so repelled by this business, everybody called everybody else only by their first names and they exchanged these, I thought, terribly dreary reminiscences about how Jack had come round to help Bill when he was having a bad trot and Tom had hurt Jerry by refusing to come when he called him. And all this sort of stuff, you know, and it depressed me beyond measure. And in fact, that sort of stuff has been the big cause of depression when people talk like that. Then gradually I settled into a lot of beer, which I never really liked, because it's gassy, and I can't take it and so on it went. And I drank a lot of whisky and, well, I drank a lot of everything, except liqueurs, because they were sweet and I didn't like that. And it wasn't until some years ago that I concentrated entirely virtually on white wine. Still white wine, never champagne because that gives me a huge belly ache, the moment it goes down. And anything sparkly does. So now I drink only white wine and if there's no -- I'll drink a light red if there's nothing else, you know. But I drink about, I would say, between two and three bottles a week, which isn't very much you know and the doctor's quite happy about that.

But at the height of your drinking, was there a factor, because there was a very strong belief among writers at the stage that you were writing, that you needed to drink to write?

Yes.

And of course, that's a view that's now been discredited. Did that play a part? Did you feel that it released your fantasies?

Well, I don't think it has been, for me anyway, or when I was writing, didn't discredit it, because you might get a run on after a few beers or wines or whatever, and you think this is not bad. And then you look at it next morning and frequently it was bad. But as often as not, it was not, if you fiddled with it and fixed it up a bit. And I think wine can be a help. Not if you're half-seas-under or anything, but if you're into an enthusiastic phase, I think it helps.

When you have dried out from time to time, have you felt better afterwards?

Yes, I suppose so.

Why do think you managed to stay on the wagon the whole time you were in England?

I don't know. It was a complete change of scene -- oh, I suppose I couldn't have done the job I did if I hadn't been. It may have been absolute force for circumstance. I don't know. That didn't apply here. I think it was probably the novelty of what I was doing, completely new scene, new people, new everything. It may have been something to do with family strains. I didn't think so, though.

You grew up with a very strong sense of really belonging, in many ways, to Europe.

Yes.

And I wonder if you could now talk about your relationship with alcohol throughout your life, your struggle with it, and what it's actually meant to you?

Well, I realised this when I was brought home unconscious from a party when I thought I was talking wittily. And from then on, I knew. On the Herald of course, as now I suppose, journalists did quite a lot of drinking. And every Friday night, for instance, we'd assemble in a particular bar, or we'd go to the Coopers Agency in Sydney and drink Coopers, which was very strong and so on. So in those days I drank just about anything, like any young man. I wasn't outstanding in terms of alcoholic consumption. But we used to go to the Press Club, which was a pretty dreary squalid place then, and there was a lot of drinking on Friday nights again. And somebody once came up to me and said, 'Can I have a word?,' and I said, 'Yes, what?' and he said, 'I know you're an alcoholic,' and I said, 'Oh why?,' and he said, 'I know because of the way you drink. You don't, you can't sip, you drink like that.' And you know I was not, not affronted at all. I had no reason to be, but he was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I felt a peculiarly joyous person. And very earnest, very sincere, all the right things. And he wanted me to join Alcoholics Anonymous. And I went along to a meeting and was so repelled by this business, everybody called everybody else only by their first names and they exchanged these, I thought, terribly dreary reminiscences about how Jack had come round to help Bill when he was having a bad trot and Tom had hurt Jerry by refusing to come when he called him. And all this sort of stuff, you know, and it depressed me beyond measure. And in fact, that sort of stuff has been the big cause of depression when people talk like that. Then gradually I settled into a lot of beer, which I never really liked, because it's gassy, and I can't take it and so on it went. And I drank a lot of whisky and, well, I drank a lot of everything, except liqueurs, because they were sweet and I didn't like that. And it wasn't until some years ago that I concentrated entirely virtually on white wine. Still white wine, never champagne because that gives me a huge belly ache, the moment it goes down. And anything sparkly does. So now I drink only white wine and if there's no -- I'll drink a light red if there's nothing else, you know. But I drink about, I would say, between two and three bottles a week, which isn't very much you know and the doctor's quite happy about that.

Why did you come home?

Well, I suppose that's quite a good question, because the BBC asked me to stay, and I could have stayed like Michael Charlton did, but by the same token I felt -- quite apart from what Diana would feel about it and what she would want to do -- a certain sort of loyalty, because after all I was only on secondment from the ABC. I was still actually a member of the ABC. And they had provided my fare. The first time they didn't but the second time they did, and I think it was partly a feeling of loyalty and partly of course because I wanted to, in my rather foolish -- I wanted Australia to grow up, and I wanted to be part of the growing up. Because there were many things that irked me very much here.

What does it mean to you to be Australian?

Well, now, I've never been sort of a flag waver. I think this is -- certainly in old age -- a wonderful place to live. And I think Sydney and generally the whole feeling of the country has changed for the better, even though everybody's complaining about recessions and skyscrapers and lack of planning and all that, I do think that, as many, many visitors do, that this by comparison say with living in Europe, is a paradise. And I think it began just after the war, World War 2. It used to be so provincial that I used to always then wear brown suede shoes. And people would look at those shoes, you know, they'd eye them as if I was some very odd person. And there was a very limited attitude to so many things. And with the advent of all the immigration from Europe, first from Europe, things improved out of sight in every way, you know, food, tolerance, all these things. Much, much better. And they are now, with the Asian influx.

What are the qualities of Australian-ness that appeal to you most?

I think frankness, and the egalitarian, even though it has disadvantages, I think it's that. Access, as between different strata, is so much different, so much easier. And there's none of this arrogance and haughtiness that used to irritate me occasionally in England. But then again, England, in certain ways, was much better than here.

How important have friendships been in your life?

Pretty, very important, actually.

Could you take us through your life and tell us how friendships at particular points have affected you?

Well, after the war, for instance, when I was on the Sun trying to do this ridiculous column, and doing a page a day and getting drunk every day, the other fellows there, several of them, rallied round enormously, and were terrifically helpful and friendly and remained friends until they died. And ... [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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