Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

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... [please note, there is microphone noise on some sections of this interview] ... Jim, when and where were you born?

In Melbourne, on June the third, 1915, about five weeks after Anzac Day, after Gallipoli.

And what kind of a household were you born into?

Well, I suppose you'd call it a ... not exactly working-class, but a lower middle-class house in the suburb of Glen Iris, which the Sydney equivalent would be, say, Chatswood. My parents had been born in the inner suburb of Richmond, which has been gentrified in recent years, but was then considered a sort of slum. And it was a bit of upward mobility on their part to have moved to Glen Iris, which was a thinly settled area in those days. It's since, of course, become quite a populous place. But it was a typical lower middle-class household.

What was your father like, what work did he do?

He was a tradesman painter in the Victorian Railways. It was a different thing to a painter today. They did an apprenticeship. He could not only paint houses, but he was an expert paperhanger and sign writer, you know, that gold lettering sign writing they used to do. He was an expert at that. Quite a tradesman.

What kind of a person was he?

I remember him with great fondness. He was a rather fussy sort of a bloke in some ways, you know, he was over worried about us. And they were very, very different times to the one ... well, not now, not since we've had the recession, but there was none of that sort of security which we later felt in Australia, say in the '50s and '60s. In those days there was always a danger of losing your job. Of course, he, working for the Victorian Railways, was much more secure than somebody out in the, you know, competitive capitalist world. He felt reasonably secure, except I remember during the Depression, which of course is one of the great — what do they call it today — defining times of my life, he was put on ration time. He was never out of work, but he only worked say three days a week and I remember his wages were reduced at one stage to two pounds and eight shillings per week, which I suppose in modern purchasing power would be something like 150 dollars for a family of, you know, wife and four children. We were never actually, we were never actually penurious, but there was nothing to spare. We used to eat modestly. My ... I remember, you know, rabbit was one of the typical items of our diet. My mother was a good, modest, sort of cook. And we lived modestly, but not in poverty.

Did you think of yourself as a poor family?

Well, relatively poor. Compared to, I suppose, to most of the people we knew I thought of myself as poor.

How many children were in the family?

Four children, and I was the second eldest.

So how did they come?

Well, elder sister was 18 months older than me. She was a lively, rambunctious sort of a girl. Intelligent, pretty. We were good friends. And then I had a younger brother, a brother who was two years younger than me. We were good friends, too. And a younger sister who was, I suppose, a bit of an afterthought. It has to be remembered that it was a Catholic family. My father was not a Catholic. My father, in fact, was the son of what used to be called in those years, an Orangeman. What we'd call an Ulsterman today. And he was a ... his father, my father's father, whom I never met by the way, was by repute a typical Ulsterman. He'd go out, go into the streets of Melbourne on St Patrick's Day to get himself a Mick, you know, I mean to pick a fight with a Catholic. And then he'd come home with a bloodied nose that would be an honourable wound earned on the field of battle.

But my father displayed no sectarian feelings at all. He married my mother, who supplied the Catholic side, behind the altar, as they used to call it, at St Ignatius Catholic Church in Richmond. And as they always did in those days, if the priests agreed to marry them in a Catholic Church, a non-Catholic, he gave an undertaking that any children of the marriage would be brought up as Catholics. And he honoured his promise, although I've always suspected that he was probably a closet atheist. But his attitude really was, ‘Well, if my wife and my kids can fall for all that, well that's their business.’

So what did he do on Sunday, when you all went off to church?

Well, his religion was his garden. And that's the lasting bequest that he's made to me, really. He'd be out there mowing his lawn and the front garden, and the family would go out the back gate and up the hill to the little Catholic church. And I remember, finally, when I was about 16 or 17, I decided one morning that I wasn't going to church any more. It was sort of St Paul on the road to Damascus in reverse. And I came out the front door and there was Dad down in the garden working away. And he looked up at me and he said, with sort of mock sternness, ‘Why aren't you at Church with the others?’ And I said, ‘I'm not going any more, Dad.’ And he tried to appear as though he was about to read me a sermon and a great grin spread over his face, and he said, ‘Good on you, son. Go and get the mower.’ So I got the mower and I adopted his religion on the spot.

Before you got to that point, though, Catholicism had played a big part in your life?

Oh, an enormous part, because I was ... it dominated my life. As a matter of fact, it made my childhood miserable. There were, in those days, as I suppose there are today, Catholics of various degrees of piety. There were the daily communicants, of which I was one for a short period. The ones whose whole life was contemplating God and the hereafter and also the heinous sins they might be committing by thinking of things of the flesh. Dangerous occasions of sin, all these expressions come back to me now. And I, for a while, was an extremely pious boy. And so much so that I developed what we called then, I don't know what they're called now, scruples. That means that I constantly thought I was committing sins. Which I wasn't committing. I was just imagining sins for myself, of rushing in and out of confession. And it cast quite a blight over several years of my life when I should have been a joyous, carefree kid. I had this consciousness of my guilt before God.

Where did this come from?

I don't know, I suppose it came from the indoctrination of the Christian Brothers. I remember every year we'd have what they called a retreat when we'd, you know, cease all activity except going to church and singing hymns and going to confession. All this stuff. And they used to send out an expert on — a sin expert — our sin expert one year I remember, well, I suppose every year, was a Redemptorist priest. They, they're specialists in fire and brimstone stuff. And I'd come out of one of those sessions trembling with terror in immediate fear of fire and damnation.

How old were you?

Oh, well I was ... at this period of my life lasted from about 10 to 15. I was an altar boy, the whole bit. You couldn't have got a more pious child.

What school did you go to?

Well, I went to ... the family was ... my father was transferred in the Railway Department from Melbourne to Ballarat, a lovely provincial town in Victoria, when I was about nine. And my brother and I went to a local Christian Brothers school called St Patrick's. It was not notable for scholastic achievements but it always won the football. Didn't lose a football game for about 40 years. It was full of these bog Irish, rough and tumble — the school was attended mostly by the children of the ... the Irish who were sort of getting a bit socially mobile, you know, country pub keepers and that sort of thing. Their kids. It was a morning school and a day school.

I was a day scholar and we were sort of the ... the proletariat of the ... of the school because we were day boys and the boarders were the aristocracy. I went there for all the time that my father was working in Ballarat, and then he was transferred back to Sydney — I'm sorry — to Melbourne. And I went to what was then a sort of an elite school, not in the social sense, but in the intellectual sense. The boys who were considered most promising from the various suburban Christian Brothers' schools were sort of culled and encouraged to go on and do an extra couple of years after ... well there used to be an Intermediate and then a School Leaving Certificate and after that they had what was called Leaving Honours. And I got my Leaving in Ballarat at St Patrick's. And then I did two years of Leaving Honours with the intention of going to the university. And I ... well I did well at school. One of my fellow students was Bob Santamaria.

Before we get to St Kevin's, back at St Pat's, were there any other of the boys that took the religious teaching as seriously as you did?

I can't remember any who took it as seriously as me. I was ... it was because I was described as sensitive, you know.

What do you think that meant?

I don't know how it would be described in current psychological terms, but it meant, I suppose, that I was, I took, I took ideas seriously, I was susceptible to a sort of apocalyptic view of the world, and I suppose I fell for this idea, this fundamentalism religious idea, that we're only here in preparation for an afterlife. And as a susceptible boy in that atmosphere I developed this totally unhealthy excessive religiosity.

What kind of form did your scruples take? What are some of the sins you did confess to?

Oh, I confessed to having unclean thoughts.

At 10?


At 10 years old?

Oh no, no, that'd be a bit later, you know, sort of pre-pubescent times. It didn't really develop to its full horror, I suppose, until I was about 14 or 15. One of my favourite sins when I couldn't think of any other was judging others harshly. You know, it's funny in retrospect to think that somebody who later was considered a little acerbic, that I could have considered it a sin in those years.

It was one you didn't get rid of?

Well, anyhow, finally, you know, as I say, it was ... this state of mind was still present with me when I went to St Kevin's, and they were all very holy, very religious boys, at St Kevin's. I mean Santamaria, who's remained in that state of grace to this day, was typical of the sort of fellow students that I had there. And I remember, we didn't move around much in those days, we weren't as physically mobile. Nobody except the rich had motor cars. And the St Kevin's boys were from various suburbs, as I say, they were culled from the suburban Christian Brothers' schools that were dotted around Melbourne. And in the holidays we didn't see each other. It was ... you didn't make a journey say from Chatswood to Sutherland, the equivalent of that in Melbourne in those days, you stayed in a very small physical environment.

And I remember one year on holidays, it must have been when I was about 16, I went back to do Leaving Honours twice, because I was too young to go to university, I remember writing to Santamaria and telling him that I'd been reading HG Wells and Bernard Shaw. And this was the first real chink I think in my religiosity, that I suddenly saw that there were ideas that clashed with those that had been my constant daily fear. And I suppose intellectual doubts began. And I was a slow developer, but I was, I suspect, beginning to develop sexually as well. And I remember writing to Santamaria and saying that I was impressed with what I'd been reading in Wells and Bernard Shaw. And he wrote back to me and — greatly disturbed that this should be happening to me — and suggested there was an antidote to that sort of infection, the works of Chesterton and Belloc. They, of course, were great Catholic propagandists. So he could see that my soul was in peril and he recommended that I, you know, take this medicine and in the hope that I'd recover. But it didn't. I developed more and more doubts. And I got over my scruples. I began to notice that there were girls in the world. And then all of a sudden I made a decision — yeah, it was St Paul on the road to Damascus — that Sunday morning I decided I wouldn't have any more of it. That I'd shaken God out of my life forever. And I had. And I never went back.

How did your mother react to that?

Well, it was curious. I had always thought of her as the ... well she was not a terribly religious woman. She was an habitual Catholic, like most Catholics, they're branded at birth. They come into the world marked as Catholics. Suppose the same goes for Presbyterians. And they just take it for granted that once a Catholic, always a Catholic. But I began to propagandise a little bit. I couldn't see why the others in my family should be victims of an incapacity which I had shaken off, and I began to talk a little openly about what nonsense it all was. And gradually they all deserted it. My brothers and sisters and my mother. She even stopped going to church. But there was one thing, there was one residual trace of Catholicism she never lost. She would never serve meat on Good Friday.

Looking back at that period of your life with this intense all-consuming religion and then the total abandonment of it, do you see that as a sort of emotional development or an intellectual development?

Well, a mixture of both, both intellectual and emotional. There was quite a ... I think my emerging interest in sexual matters probably triggered it. I'd begun to question the dogma. But I think what probably stuck in my craw more than anything else was the sudden realisation that if I stuck with this Catholicism, the bans on things for the flesh and everything like that, that that would clash with what I wanted to do. But it was a combination of that and the increasing widening of my intellectual horizons. I was reading, not only Wells and Shaw, but Schopenhauer with the scorn he poured on all such things. And suddenly it struck me as being totally contrary to the way I wanted to live my life.

What did the local priest think of losing a whole family?

Well, he didn't look kindly on it. I remember him as a great big, bog Irish fool of a man, really. His sermons were the most jejune that you could possibly imagine. And he came around to the house looking for the flock that had strayed. And we had a ... we had steps leading up to the house from the front garden, and anybody who was coming could be clearly, was clearly visible from inside the house. And when he'd turn up ... [interruption] ...

... [question repeated] ... What did the local priest think of losing a whole family?

Well, he was very disturbed. And he took measures to try and bring back the flock that had strayed. He came around to our house and there were steps in the front of our house and there were various vantage points inside from which you could see somebody coming up the steps. And somebody would go and have a look out and when they saw him they would depute me to go to the front door and answer him. And he was no sort of an opponent, you know. He was a very crude, primitive sort of a Catholic. And he came with the usual stuff about the soul being blackened, the dangers of damnation, all that sort of stuff. And I just said to him, ‘Well, I don't believe in that any more, Father.’ I was polite but I'm afraid I couldn't forebear from pouring a little bit of youthful derision on these antiquated ideas. And he'd froth at the mouth and he came about two or three times. But finally they gave up.

During the time that you were being educated by the Christian Brothers, did you ever come across any sinning on their part ... some of the things that have been coming out recently about what went on at Christian Brothers' schools ...

Well, I had a personal experience of one of the Brothers. He was — he took a particular interest in me, and every now and then, not terribly often, but I suppose half a dozen times, he would just tell the class that I was in to go on with their work and call me out. And he'd take me up to the adjoining presbytery and he'd tell me of our great ... I remember his expression, he was Irish and very, very, very Irish, in the most attractive way, buttery Irish. And he'd tell me of the great heart love that we had for each other. I found this very embarrassing, but I didn't know why. I can't — and he was sweating profusely, I can remember that. And I was too ignorant of such matters to understand what was going on in the man. But that went on several times. And he must have, after a while, sensed my embarrassment. It never got any further. He didn't touch me as I recall, although he may have. I think he may have kissed me. But I remember later in life that, you know, it was a case of a sort of a homosexual approach. After a while it ceased because I think he could see that I was not responding in any way. And he wasn't a brutal type. He wasn't the sort to force himself on a boy. To me it was just embarrassing.

And I saw him much later, later in life, I remember when I moved to Sydney, and I was on a bus and I got into the bus and I saw this rather small, crumpled figure sitting down at the back of the bus. And I went up and spoke to him. And he was ... I told him that he'd once teached me — taught me — and he was charming and polite, but showed absolutely no sign of recognition. Mind you, this was perhaps 30 years on. I was not recognisable as the boy who'd attracted his attention. And probably there'd been so many like me that I'd passed from his recollection. In any event he showed no sign of recognition. I remember he got off the bus and walked towards St Mary's Cathedral. I felt just a pang of pity for the poor old man. And I didn't feel any anger or anything like that. But I realised gradually how much of that must go on, or has emerged in recent years that it's been common all over the world.

Did you ever encounter it in any other member of the clergy?


Sexual repression or problems with their sexuality?

Well, not personally. I suppose if I'd stuck around a bit longer I would have, but you know, I'd have been more knowledgeable about such things. But I can't say that I had any other personal experience.

Or any member of your family?

No. Oh, yes. I remember my sister — this was earlier — I remember when we were living in Ballarat and my sister was just blossoming. She, I suppose she was about 17, and one of the Brothers from St Pat's came to visit us, just on a fraternal visit. And he got overcome and he asked my sister to sit on his lap. And he fondled her breasts. And she was in ... she was a humorous sort of a girl, she raised her eyes to the ceiling, but didn't smack his hands away or anything like that. And then my mother came into the room and he desisted then, of course. But I could see that he was quite worked up.

And he did this in front of you?

In front of me, yes, couldn't contain himself. I suppose he thought, oh, I suppose at the time I was only about 13, and he thought I wouldn't notice anything untoward.

You're in the middle of the period that you were having scruples. What did you think of a Brother doing this?

Well, it didn't really click with me. I was — as I say — I was a late developer. And it didn't really have the significance to me that it should have had.

Now, at St Kevin's you had very bright boys in the class with you.


Did you interact very much with them in an intellectual way?

No, I can't say that I did. We had a debating team, which consisted of Santamaria, me — I was the leader of the debating team — and one other. And we used to debate against other schools, including, I remember, the final of the debating contest was against an elite Melbourne girls' school, I think it was called Mandeville Hall [Loreto]. It was in Punt Road, South Yarra, and it was a very upmarket school. And we were adjudged to have just defeated them. We won the debating prize. But I can't remember really much intellectual interaction. The only contact I had with Santamaria, [who] turned out to be the leading Catholic spokesman of all that lot, was my letter. I never had any arguments with him about religion. My abandonment of religion came really after I'd left school.

What was Santamaria like as a boy?

Well, lively, always gave the impression of always walking on his tiptoes. He was a chubby sort of a fellow.

Trying to reach heaven?

Yes. Levitating I suppose. He, his parents were, I think they ran an Italian greengrocers shop in a suburb called Brunswick, which would be about the equivalent of Sydney's Newtown or somewhere like that. He's since recounted that his father didn't go to church every Sunday, but he still never abandoned the church. He was a very religious boy, even then.

How important was education to your parents?

Oh, very important. They had high hopes of me as soon as it became apparent that I was what they called a bright boy. And I won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne.

Did you ever think of becoming a priest?

Yes, sure I did, during my scruples period. I can remember they were always on the lookout for recruits for the seminaries. And I remember during one of these retreats that I mentioned, when the Redemptorist hot gospeller was there, he came around to our house and he told my parents that he believed that I had the call of God, that I had a vocation. And that I was officer material in a way, you know, he wasn't thinking of me as just your ordinary little suburban priest. The suggestion was that I should go to Louvain University in Belgium, I think it is, which is, you know, training ground for archbishops and cardinals and that sort of thing. And that, of course, was tempting to me, for reasons other than religion, my horizons were, you know, very limited. I never imagined that I would ever leave Australia. It wasn't like it's been since where every kid of about 16 or 17 is packing his or her bags for the mandatory trip to England. And the idea of ever leaving the shores of Australia was something you didn't aspire to in those days. And that tempted me. And I'd have signed on the dotted line. I suppose I was about 14, disgraceful they'd be recruiting people at that age. They would inevitably have lost me in due course, but in any event that’s where the old man showed his mettle. He ... it was one thing for him to go along with his kids going to church. It was another one to be dragooned into ...

[end of tape]

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