Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

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The Maralinga tests were British tests, so in order to do your inquiry properly, you must have needed the cooperation of the British government. Did you get good cooperation?

Oh, very reluctant cooperation. They dragged their feet. I remember one day, the first day we were there, we went along to the Foreign Office and we were met by a very off-hand, patronising chap who came out as though he could spare us about five minutes. And I told him what we wanted, and he gave me a rather dismissive reply. And I gave him a rather explosive Australian reaction, and he finally agreed that we could go out to the place where their records were stored, which was just outside Reading ... oh, it's a familiar place, the name escapes me at the moment, it's a familiar British defence establishment.

Harwell?

No.

No.

Aldermaston or some name like that.

Right.

It was bitterly cold, it was a very, very cold winter, January, and I and two or three others of the commission staff went out there about, oh, five or six days and sat there and made our way through a lot of archival material. And some little English typist sat there eyeing us suspiciously all the time, as though we were going to steal some of their precious secrets. Because that was the great mystery of the ... of the British attitude. Nothing was secret any more, there was nothing that the world didn't know about nuclear testing, but they acted as though they were guarding precious secrets from the Russians, the enemy Australians. It was a most foot-dragging exercise by the British all the way. Then, of course, we called a lot of British witnesses, including Lord Penney, who'd been control of the whole thing out here. He was a nice old man. I got the impression that he wasn't terribly proud of having used all his immense scientific skills on an exercise that was really an exercise in futility. I never understood why the British thought they needed a bomb.

Do you understand why anybody thinks they need a bomb?

Oh well, I can understand the Americans thought that that was their way of putting a quick end to the war. And I can understand that the Russians, especially under Stalin, who was a paranoid maniac, thought that the Americans would destroy the Soviet Union if they didn't have a means of retaliation. But I suppose historically, the whole nuclear age will be looked on as a monumental piece of human folly. I don't think we realise in retrospect how lucky we were that the world wasn't blown up.

At the end of Maralinga, what did you feel that you'd accomplished by doing that investigation?

Well, I emerged out of it with my anti-Pom attitude reinforced. And I thought that maybe our recommendations would achieve a proper clean-up, which they haven't.

What ...

So it was really, I suppose, a futile exercise.

What about compensation for the victims?

Well, that was something that we could not really determine, it was impossible to state with any certainty whether anybody had acquired a cancer due to radiation. We said that it was probable that there'd be a considerable increase in radiation all over Australia as a result of the tests. But it was impossible to say with certainty that anybody'd got a cancer as a result of the tests.

Looking back on your whole period as a judge, your period as a lawyer had not greatly increased your respect for the business of being a lawyer. Did your period as a judge ... what did you feel at the end of that about the system of justice in Australia?

Well, I suppose the system of justice is only as good as its practitioners. I've got a considerable respect for our present High Court. I haven't respected all High Courts. I think Barwick High Court was an incitement to tax evasion. His tax, the tax decisions of his court were really an invitation to the buccaneers to go for their life. I think the present High Court is high-quality and an enlightened court. The great illusion of lawyers is that it's just a matter of black words on white paper, that if you're a good enough lawyer you can infallibly reach the correct answer to the problem, that your politics, your religion, your moral viewpoint doesn't inform your judgement at all, which of course is nonsense. As has been proved in the recent change of mind of the High Court on such questions as Section 92, Mabo, and freedom of speech.

The view of the law changes with the composition of the court. Lawyers, well, I didn't emerge with an enhanced view of lawyers. I've retained my idea of them as narrow specialists who were basically, apart from the law, uneducated people. I think that the increasing number of women in the law will improve things, although of course, they're still second-rate citizens in the law. The practicing barrister women and solicitors there, for all of the appearance of equality, the traditional male lawyer does not accept that a woman lawyer can be as good as they are. They, I think most of them, accept Mary Gaudron ... accept Mary Gaudron as worthy of being on the High Court, because she's generally acknowledged to be a fine lawyer. I wouldn't like to be a woman practicing law, frankly, but it may change over the years. I still think ... and I think there are obviously sexist judges, as has been demonstrated in the last few years on their remarks in rape cases, etc. The law remains, to me, a rather obscurantist and socially backward field of human endeavour. I wouldn't choose to spend much of my spare time with lawyers.

Did you feel that the system of justice and the law had much to do with morality?

Ah, well, that again varies with the judges. The judges who think that they're just dispensing pure law would regard moral questions as an intrusion. That would be a reflection on their legal capacity. There would be other judges who have a humanitarian streak in them. It reflects itself, the difference in temperament of just judges reflects itself especially in the criminal law, in their attitude towards sentencing. There are hanging judges, and there are compassionate judges. I don't mean to suggest that lawyers are evil people. I'm just saying that they're very limited. It's in the nature of their calling. And of course, there are notable exceptions.

You do well in the law by seeing it really more as a technical matter ...

That's right.

... than a matter that really affects human affairs?

That's right. But I think at the highest level, the High Court, our present High Court, they see more to it than just pure black-letter law.

Now, talking of women, as you just were in relation to the law, can I ask you now, can we turn now and can I ask you about the women in your life?

Well, a few of them.

Going right back to the beginning, can I ask you about your mother? What sort of a person was your mother and what was your relationship with her?

Well, I had good relations with both of my parents. There's been nothing in my life, nothing of my own inadequacies that I could feel that I could blame on my parents, or on my childhood, apart from the religious scruples I talked about. She was a gentle woman, unpretentious, bright without being over-intelligent, loving. I, you know, I remember her with nothing but fondness.

What did she think of you? Did she encourage you a lot?

Yes, she did ... [interruption] ...

... [question repeated] ... What did your mother think of you? Did she encourage you?

Yes, she did. I think she was proud of me. She thought I was a clever boy, and that I'd have a bright future.

What do you think she wanted most for you?

I don't think she had any set notion of what I should be, she just wanted me to be something of an achiever.

And there was no lack of any affection in your house?

Oh, no, none at all. Mind you, as I grew up, you know as I grew out of my teens and went out into the world, I didn't see much of them. I became self-propelling and didn't live at home and only saw them every now and then. I outgrew them, as I think most children do outgrow their parents. But I remained on good terms with them and later on, when I was going well up here in Sydney, they came and visited me and stayed with me.

What about your two sisters? Did they play an important part in your life?

Well, my older sister was, as I said, a very lively woman and she ... we didn't exactly have a falling out, but we grew apart as I grew older. She had a rather more conservative, conformist bent than I did. As a matter of fact she was a bit of a snob. She married upwards. She married a nice man but he was a Melbourne GPS [Great Public School, which actually means a major private school] man and it would have been considered an upward social move, her marriage. We didn't ... and of course I was in Sydney, she was in Melbourne and I didn't see much of her for years. I went down and saw her before she died, five years or so ago. And she died well, I must say that. She had lung cancer and she knew that her time was up and she took it very bravely.

What about your younger sister?

Well, I didn't have a great deal to do with her. She was, she was I suppose the ... well she was, I think she was an afterthought, you know. Don't forget that they were the years before contraception. I think my mother had probably had enough by the time she'd had three. I'm sure she put up the shutters after she had the fourth. But the younger sister was, in a way, less part of the family group than the rest of us.

Did she have a good life?

Not a particularly good one. I think that she was a bit neurotic. I lost contact with her when I moved to Sydney. She married, and had a child, a nice child, who now lives up here and who we see occasionally. But I think she had a rather unhappy life. She died in her 50s. I don't know what of. But we were not on really familiar terms for many years. I totally lost contact with her.

Because you'd just moved generally away from the family at that stage?

Yes, I suppose so. They stayed more or less old Melburnians and a bit provincial. I'd moved into the big world and I found them a little bit provincial, frankly, in later years.

Do you remember when you first ... your first experience of being sexually attracted to girls?

Well, I was what you call a late developer. I suppose ‘round about 18, I know they all start when they're about 11 today, but I had my first sexual experience when I was 18 or 19.

And how was it for you? I mean, how was it regarded then? Was it an important thing that you felt that you needed to do, or could you tell us how you felt as an adolescent boy about sex?

Well, it was, of course ... a totally different world today ... I'm not suggesting that men and women, or boys and girls, felt any different then than they do today. But it was not nearly as sexually liberated. Virginities were prized. I would say that in those days easily the majority of women went to the marriage bed in a virginal state.

But male virginity wasn't prized.

Oh, no. Oh, no. It was a bit of a disgrace. You were, oh, you were a bit of a poofter, you know, to use the way they spoke of people who couldn't succeed in a little bit of penetration. The field was more limited of course, because ... I don't know whether it's realised just what a liberating thing The Pill was, for both men and women, because women were inhibited in those days by fear of pregnancy.

Now, with a large number of the girls that you knew inhibited in this way, or prizing their virginity, or for whatever reason being unavailable, how did the rest, how did the males who had to lose theirs, how did they find a partner to do it with?

Oh well, there were always a few. There was leavening of girls whose concupiscence outweighed their scruples or their fears. And there, as I said, the field was smaller but it was not non-existent.

How did you find it?

Oh, I suppose I went looking for it.

Did you have anybody to help you?

I had a rather raunchy mate, named Don Sandy. He was a very funny man, and very successful with the girls. He claimed that he'd had a hundred girls by the time he was 21. If so, that would have been an exceptional, an Olympian, performance in those years.

But greatly admired?

Greatly admired and envied. I think he put ... yes, he put me on to my first girl.

Why do you think the girls cooperated?

Oh, I suppose they felt like it. You know, it's a mistake to think that The Pill was the beginning of female lust. It was the beginning of the loss of inhibition, but I have no doubt that the girls in those days felt just as sexually aroused as women do today.

So for you, during these early years, what you were looking for was to ... was to have some sexual experience. When did you have your first real romantic relationship with a woman?

Oh, I suppose when I was about 22 or 23. I thought I wanted to marry her, but that wore off. I think it coincided with my Trotskyist period when I came to regard a fixation on a woman as being unworthy of a revolutionary.

And, but you did have a woman at this time that you were really seriously interested in?

Oh, yes.

So how did you deal with that?

Well, we cohabited. Well, I don't mean that she left home but, you know, we got together in various places. And her father greatly disapproved of me. She was a ... she came from a rather rich family background. Her father disapproved of me on many, many grounds. That I was poor and that I ... she was a Catholic, they were a German family. But that didn't stop her eagerness. But he, the father, knew that I'd abandoned my faith and he disapproved greatly of that. I was regarded as not a desirable companion for his daughter.

And is that what brought it to an end?

No, it just faded out.

So when did you meet your first wife?

When I was doing my law course, in Sydney. She was also a lawyer. She'd just finished her course.

What was her background?

Well, she was of a Russian Jewish family. Her family had moved across Russia from, I think they were, I think her father was born in Omsk or Tomsk, I'm a bit confused. But gradually, in the revolutionary years, 1917 and following, there was a great civil war in Russia. You know, all the Western powers intervened and tried to crush the revolution. Her father, my wife Nora, her father was a lawyer, but he didn't really practice law much. He was basically a businessman, a small energetic, very likeable figure. They moved across gradually and they settled in Harbin in Manchuria, which was a great refugee city, full of refugee Russians and a lot of Russian Jews.

From there then, of course, there was the Chinese-Japanese War and he was actually taken prisoner during that and came within an inch of losing his life. Then moved on to Shanghai. And from there down to Australia. They'd really spent a life on the run. He was a very courageous, enterprising little chap. And he set up some sort of an export/import business in Sydney. He was always on the verge of ruin. Finally, towards the end of his life, he had a stroke of luck. He persuaded somebody to finance him in the purchase of ... the building of a building in North Sydney which, you know, he was a developer at the very end. And when he died, he'd lived to 83, 84, fortunately he bequeathed that to his daughter. So when our marriage broke up, I wasn't encumbered by any alimony payments or anything like that.

What was the marriage like?

It was alright. I think I was happy enough in the marriage. But ...

Why did you get married? What were you expecting from marriage?

Well, that's a big question. I think ... I think I really, there was this business of settling down, of getting some order into my life, and getting on with the business of making up for the 10 years or so start that I'd given to my generation by my absorption in Trotskyism, and the years I was at the war, and the years I was a proletarian. Those who'd been my school mates were by then established in the law, medicine, or something like that. And I thought, really, I wouldn't say it was a great love match but it was a matter of stabilising my life and getting on with making something of myself.

She had a very different background from yours?

Oh, yes.

Did that open up new worlds to you?

Absolutely, oh yes, I was really introduced into the Jewish world. I lived for a while in the same house as her parents. I mixed largely in Jewish circles. I learnt to speak Russian, an odd sort of a Russian, but I picked up a lot of it. I'd started off as pro-Semitic. I don't know what it was caused by, because you know, most people were anti-Semites in those days. I think my admiration of Marx and Trotsky had a lot to do with it. They were Jewish. Well, though Marx, it's not commonly known, was an anti-Semitic Jew. They exist. Trotsky was my shining star and he was Jewish. So I didn't come to that new circle with any anti-Semitism or any inhibitions about mixing with people other than Australians.

And did you learn a lot from them?

Yes, I think I did. We used to go occasionally to the Russian Club, which was then in George Street, up towards Central railway station. And I didn't realise ... well I, at the time, one of the regular visitors was Bialoguski, the fellow who, the ASIO agent who was mixed up with Petrov. And I suppose on several occasions that I was there, Petrov was there with Bialoguski, but of course I didn't know that. And I developed a fondness for the vodka, which I've never lost. And Russian food. Russian literature, I already was familiar with, and the course of my general literary education I'd been a great admirer of the great Russian writers, Tolstoy, Gogol, Turgenev and the rest of them. And still I regard them as, you know, among the greatest of the fiction writers. I learnt a bit about the Yiddish theatre. And well, in a way, I lived as a non-Australian for a certain amount of my life, which did me no harm at all. I've never felt since, although I don't know whether I did before, I've never felt particularly Australian.

Did you have any children?

Well, we adopted a couple of children. For some reason or other my wife couldn't have children. We adopted a couple of children.

And do you think you're a good husband and father?

I don't suppose I'm a good judge of that. But I think I was, I think I was a reasonably good husband and father.

At that time were you, as a husband and father, expected to give a lot of time to the family? Or was your life really focused ...

I don't know, I spent a lot of time with the family, I enjoyed that.

So what brought the marriage to an end?

Well, we were married for about 16 years, which I think is a long while for a marriage to last. I can't imagine these life-long unions, although I know they still exist. And well, fundamentally, I fell for another woman. She was a woman in her mid-30s, who'd been married to a doctor who was turned out be schizophrenic, and he treated her and her three children very badly. He ultimately was locked up in Callan Park. I met her just at that time, and I fell for her, and I tried to resist breaking up my marriage, mostly because I was so fond of the kids. But it was not to be resisted and I, finally, my wife and I were divorced amicably, and we're still good friends. And this mad husband who was released from Callan Park and actually practiced medicine after that contested the divorce right up to the High Court, an absurd thing to do. You never hear ... well in those days it was a different divorce law, but anybody who was sane accepted the fact that when one of the partners sued for divorce that was an unsalvageable relationship. But he was so mad that he couldn't. So it took us about five years for her to be in position to marry me. And we married and I took over her three kids.

And what was it about her that made her so irresistible?

Oh, that's very had to describe, isn't it, emotional entanglements. I was, you know, deeply smitten by her. She was a beautiful woman, intelligent, a very good woman, compassionate, a sensible woman. She came from a country family and she'd had an affluent upbringing. She'd been a boarder because, you know, she lived in the country, Cowra, she'd been a boarder at an upmarket North Shore girls school, Abbotsleigh. And her friends were mostly very different to the sort of friends I had. North Shore people, country people. I mixed for a while in those circles, but reluctantly, and she grew out of them. And she was quite conservative when I met her. And I wouldn't say I turned her into a socialist, but I converted her from rural conservatism, and we were more or less on the same wavelength.

Was she helpful to you in your political career?

Yes, she was, she encouraged me to go into parliament. She knew all these political friends of mine. She knew Neville Wran, Neville Wran and his wife, his then wife, were on visiting terms. They often came to dinner. Knew Kerr well, he was a frequent dinner guest. Knew Gough. And was, I would say, finished up as a Labor voter. So there was no strife there, no contention on those grounds.

What do you think that she saw in you? What was it that she liked about you?

Well, it speaks for itself, doesn't it. I was such an immensely attractive man. I don't know what it was but, you know, it was a mutual infatuation.

How long did that marriage last?

Well, it was terminated by her death. At the age of 51 she developed cancer and she died within about a year of that.

What year was that?

It was after the dismissal ... 1976.

So that happened right after the dismissal? 1976.

[The year] 1976 was a dreadful year for me. She was sick all that time, and she died I think in November, almost a year after the dismissal.

So, with the sort of really depressed feeling that you must have all been having on the political front, and the loss of your wife, was there any danger that you yourself might fall into a proper depression?

Oh well, I more or less fell apart for while. I began to drink a bit too much, but I pulled out of that fairly rapidly and got on with my life again. Picked up the pieces.

[end of tape]

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