Australian Biography

James McClelland - full interview transcript

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When you retired as a judge, did you consider just putting your feet up and relaxing?

Yes, that's what I thought was ahead of me. I had no plans to do anything else. Sit and read, cultivate my garden.

And what happened to change that?

Well, shortly after I handed the Maralinga report to the Governor-General, I got a ring from Eric Beecher, the then editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and he asked me if I'd write an occasional piece for the Herald. I agreed on the condition that I could write when I liked, about what I liked. I didn't tie myself down or anything. So I began sending in the odd piece, every two or three weeks. And that developed into a weekly column.

And do you enjoy doing the weekly column?

Oh yes, I do, I do. It's, I suppose, the most important aspect of it is it helps me to still feel a bit relevant instead of just vegetating, being put out to grass.

Have you ever wondered whether or not, with your particular abilities as an observer and especially as a critic, whether ... was there ever a conflict for you between the life of a writer, an observer, a critic, and the life of the man of action at the centre of things?

Yes, there was really. As a matter of fact, as I've told you, I came onto the labour market in the depths of the great Depression. If I'd had my own choice, if there'd been an opening for me, I would have gone into journalism. That was my ... and from there on to writing, not necessarily fiction. But I thought of myself primarily as a writer. And it's ironical that I should just get around to being something of a writer towards the end of my life. But that's really what I thought was my metier.

Why? What is it about being a writer that you feel appeals particularly to you?

Well, I love words to start off with. And well, I was really reared on the great literature of the world. And I developed an early reverence for writers. As I've said, one of the elements in my conversion to Trotskyism was his facility with words. I read his History of the Russian Revolution, a massive tome it was, brilliantly translated, and I was seduced by his words as much as by his arguments.

What are the great works of literature that were the most formative for you?

Well, I suppose all of the literatures of the great Russians, French, you know, Flaubert and later on Proust, who became one of my great favourites, Joyce, Ulysses, and all of Joyce. I had a Galsworthy period and most of the English writers, and of course, especially the greatest of them all, Shakespeare.

And what about contemporary writing, are you interested in that?

Oh, yes, I'm not so much. I've read the best Americans of recent years, Saul Bellow, Updike, people like that. But I've ... my interest in fiction has waned over the years. I'll start reading a book and get to about page 50 and think, ‘Oh, I've read all this before.’ I suppose, you know, all of the themes, and there are not all that many, have been more or less exhausted by my earlier reading. I still read prolifically, I read biography and that sort of thing.

If you had been a writer, what kind of a writer would you have been? Do you think you would have written fiction, or would you have been ideas interested, or a biographer?

I might have tried fiction, I don't know whether I had any gift for fiction. I did write a few short stories when I was younger, but I never tried to get them published. I think probably I would have been, written about current affairs, biographical works, things like that. That's, you know, commentating on the scene around me. Travel and everything like that.

Are you interested in other artforms?

Oh yes, I'm ... I like music. I don't know a great deal about it. I'm very interested in the theatre, painting, you know, not in any expert way, but I like painting very much.

You've been active too, in the theatre world?

Yes I was. I was mixed up with the old Phillip Street Theatre, which was the only live theatre that we had in Sydney at one stage. I actually became chairman of the board of the old Phillip Street Theatre. And then I was asked by Neville Wran to set up the Sydney Theatre Company when it opened up in the Opera House, the drama theatre in the Opera House. I was on a board of three that set that up and then we retired and there was a board was elected. I've also been associated with the birth of the Belvoir Street Theatre. I played an active role in the establishment of that, and of course, I'm a regular theatre-goer.

Now the arts community, during your lifetime, during your political life, have been very active at times in supporting the Labor side of politics. Have you had any role in that?

Well, I did in the 1974 election, it's been largely forgotten, it was a double dissolution election forced by Sneddon refusing supply. And at that stage Gough accepted the challenge and we had an election, and which he won, but more narrowly than in 1972. And in the course of that campaign it occurred to me that there was considerable support for the Labor government in the artistic community and a feeling of gratitude, for things that Whitlam's government had done for them.

So I conceived the idea of a meeting, a midday meeting in the Opera ... in and outside the Opera House. I thought if I could get the leading artistic figures along it'd be a great boost. So I ... the first one I tried was Patrick White. I rang him and after great hesitation he said, yes, he would appear at such a meeting. And then, I busily engaged in campaigning, going around the country, and I didn't actually get to the meeting itself. And my then wife, Freda, played a considerable role, so she rang Lloyd Rees and, you know, everybody who was anybody in the artistic world turned up on the stage. Gough turned up and, showing I thought a less than perspicacious view of the occasion, proceeded to give a speech on sewerage in the western suburbs, which was a rather discordant note. But the meeting itself was a great success. There was an overflow out onto the steps of the Opera, and it was a real boost to the campaign.

And that was your idea?

Yeah.

The beginning of 'Arts for Labor'.

Yes, I suppose it was.

In a way.

Yes.

Yeah. Why are you called Diamond Jim?

Well, I had a rather dandyish period. I was a sharp dresser, you know, something the way Keating is today. And somebody, I've never actually tracked it down, somebody hung that moniker on me and it gradually took hold. I didn't know for quite a while that behind my back people referred to me as Diamond Jim.

And it was because of your interest in nice clothes?

Because I was a snappy dresser, I suppose.

Why were you interested in dressing well?

I think it was really probably a reaction from my impecunious childhood and youth. For a long while, but of course I'm long past it now, but for a long while I was very interested in clothes, and when I had the money to indulge it, I dressed up a bit.

How important has money been to you in your life?

Not, not ... let me put it this way ... I was never concerned about becoming wealthy. All I really wanted to be was unpoor and when I achieved that I didn't set out to enrich myself with investments or anything like that. I was content all my life to be unpoor, which I've been, unpoor, for some 40 years now.

You lived in a certain amount of style ...

Yes I did, I lived, in my most affluent periods, I lived in a couple of rather grand houses.

Some people questioned your sincerity in supporting the working classes when you were living in that way ...

Oh yes, I was accused of being a Bollinger Bolshevik, but I didn't see any necessary clash between being well-off and still knowing there were problems for people less well-off than myself.

You didn't feel uneasy at all about having more than others?

Well, I think I would have been ashamed to be immensely rich knowing that there were people in need. But I was never as rich as that. I was never, I was never more than just moderately well-off.

Now, can we return to talking about the women in your life? We got, yesterday when we were talking about it, we got up to the point where I was about to ask you about your current marriage, so I'll do that now. When did you meet your present wife?

Ah, I think it was in 1978, a couple of years after Freda had died. I met her at a friend's party.Ah, I think it was in 1978, a couple of years after Freda had died. I met her at a friend's party.

And who was she?

Gil Appleton.

And could you tell me a little bit about that relationship?

Oh well, I was very much taken by her. She was a very attractive woman and highly intelligent. I've always thought she's a bit brighter than me. And I suppose the debt I owe to her really is that she ... I was never what you'd call ... I don't think I was ever sexist in the sense of feeling a vast superiority to women and things, that women belonged in the kitchen and the bedroom. I think I shed those feelings, which were of course the common feelings of the men of my generation, fairly early in life. But of course, there was, I suppose, a residual hangover of those attitudes, and Gil more than anything else I think, introduced me to the modern woman. The woman who can combine an independent career, who can think independently, who can stand up to men in arguments, can earn her own living, and if she feels like it, live the traditional life of a married woman, but not as that dominating her life. Well, she typified that to me and, of course, another great service that she's done me is that I've tended to mix socially with her generation, rather than with my coevals, as I otherwise probably would. And ...

She's younger than you?

She's 27 years younger than me. And I would think that one of the most, one of the most important factors in the aging process is that old people tend to mix almost entirely with old people. And that's bad for you. You tend to ossify and live in the past. And I've never lived in the past, and I owe Gil a lot for that.

Would you call yourself a feminist now?

Yes, I would.

And what does that mean to you?

It means that women are men's equals in every way. And that there should be no discrimination against them. That, in fact, in order to help them to catch up, because of the disadvantages under which they've laboured for, traditionally, there should be positive discrimination in their favour. And I have learnt through her and her friends that women are just as good as men. In fact, in many ways, better. I prefer the company of women as a matter of fact.

Why?

Because of these qualities that I mentioned, they're ... well they're less vain to start off with. They're less inhibited. Men don't have close friends in the way that women do. When men are in some sort of crisis or in some sort of trouble, they tend to bottle it up. That's the manly thing to do. But women go and cry on each other's shoulder and there's a great ... I've seen there's a great fraternity of women that helps to sustain them in what has always really been a rather harsh world. I suppose it's because of that, it's because of the discrimination under which they've laboured in the past, that they've tended to form sort of a woman's club. Intellectually, well, there's no, just no case for the old proposition that men were brighter than women. You just have to look at the HSC results and the university results and, of course, when women venture into the professions or into the realms of higher learning, they hold their own with men. And that will increase. So I, yes, I'm a confirmed feminist.

Would the young Jim McClelland be surprised to hear you say that?

Yes, I think he would because, well, I was a man of my generation, and my generation thought themselves superior to women.

And you felt that too?

Well, I must have felt that to a certain extent. I was not, as I say, I was a man of my generation.

You've been part of the establishment of some very powerful groups in the community, politics and the law. Do you think that the men in those arenas will ever let women in right at the top?

Ah well, it won't be a matter of them letting them in. Women will force their way in. By sheer achievement. Well, take one field, the field of literature, not that women were ever totally excluded, but they were exceptions. You know, the Jane Austens and the George Eliot, I forget what her feminine name was. George Sand ...

Well, their names speak ...

Hmm?

Their names speak for how they got recognition, wasn't it, by calling themselves ...

... male names.

Yes.

George Eliot, you know, arguably the best novelist in the English language. They were exceptions. Women achieve now, you could almost say that they dominate the field. Most of the best novelists around today I think are women.

And how do you feel about this, Jim?

Well, I feel delighted. I regard the men, mostly of my generation, who think otherwise as fossils.

Are friends very important to you?

Well, I wouldn't say that I've ever really depended on friends. If anything I would say I've been a bit of a loner.

But you have had some great friendships and some disappointing ones?

Oh yes. I've been a bad picker of friends.

Who would you say has been your closest friend in the course of your life ... who are you closest to as a friend?

I really find it hard to remember one. I was quite a close friend of John Kerr's, less so with Neville Wran but I was a friend of his. I was a friend, on a lesser plain, with Paul Keating when he was a young man in parliament. He'd just come in and Paul had a tendency to sit at the feet of older men. He started off with Jack Lang, Rex Connor, and then I was his father-figure for a while. You mightn't say I was in terribly good company, but we ...

What do you think of how he turned out?

Of how he's turned out?

Yes.

Oh, I think he's, for all his shortcomings I think he's turned out well. I ... he's certainly got very obvious shortcomings ...

Which are?

Well, I suppose he's arrogant, but in personal encounter he isn't. He just doesn't come across as well as he ought to. He's a very, very likeable human being. Immensely intelligent, short on formal education, and I think that's possibly a part of his problem, part of his arrogance. It's a sort of over-compensation when he finds himself in the presence of people with high educational qualifications, he's inclined to be over-assertive. But he's brighter than most of the people with degrees that I've met.

Your friends that you've talked to us about — John Kerr and Neville Wran and Lionel Murphy even — in a way ended up disappointing you ...

Well, I wouldn't say Lionel did. I remained friendly with Lionel and an admirer of Lionel's right to the end. But certainly Kerr and Wran ceased to be friends of mine.

How did you deal with that? Did you, when you felt that they were doing the wrong thing, remonstrate with them, or did you cut them off?

I cut them off.

Why didn't you remonstrate with them?

Well, I've never been a preacher. I thought if they turned out to be not what I'd hoped that they would be, that was a reflection on me rather than on them. I'd overestimated them. And that is a ... it's been a chronic weakness with me all of my life. I do tend to overestimate people. And then I get disenchanted with them.

But you wouldn't feel that as a friend you should point out to them a way they might do things differently?

Well, no, that has not been my habit. My habit, when disenchanted with a friend, has been to terminate the relationship.

Does that leave them a bit puzzled?

Well, I think, I heard, but of course I never saw or spoke to Kerr again after the dismissal, but he made several overtures for a reconciliation through common friends, which I rejected.

Why?

Because I couldn't forgive him.

And you feel the same way about Neville Wran?

Yes.

But part of this is because you feel bad that you overestimated them?

Well, I suppose that's a big element in it. I'm really reproaching myself.

And yet, a famous faller-outer with other people, Patrick White, was one person with whom you remained friendly for most of his life.

I sometimes wonder if Patrick had lived a little longer whether I could have survived the inevitable fate of most of his friends. Geoff Dutton, for instance, who was ... he'd been a close friend of Geoff's for more than 20 years. I didn't see him all that frequently. I did know him for 20 years, but that's a ... well, there were periods when he disapproved ... he almost severed his connection with me. Well, there was one, for example, he felt after the Kerr episode ... Kerr had persuaded him, for instance, to accept I think it was just about the first Order of Australia. Kerr was, had something to do with that. I think he was the one who actually awarded them after they'd been selected by the government. And at my place I can remember one night Patrick talking Kerr ... Kerr talking Patrick ... into accepting it. And of course, after the dismissal, Patrick sent it back. Sent his Order back. And he hated all Governors-General after that. If you became Governor-General you became an enemy of Patrick's. And after, after Kerr, the next Governor-General was Zelman Cowan. He invited me to Yarralumla several times, and I refused. I was still in the same mind as Patrick, Governor-Generalship was a disgraced occupation and we didn't have anything to do them.

Well, then Ninian Stephen came along and Gil and I met the Stephens, Ninian and his wife, at a friend’s house one night. And we were greatly taken by them. They were enormously intelligent, charming people. And shortly after that, Ninian invited us to Yarralumla for dinner. And I chewed it over, you know, I was in a great dilemma about it, and finally I decided that you could separate the man from the office and I would just treat him as a human being whom I liked. And so I accepted it. And of course, Patrick avidly read the vice-regal column every morning to see whom to add to his anathematised list, and there my name cropped up one day, and he didn't speak to me for a while, and then I ran into him one day and he raised it immediately. And I just put it the way I've put it to you, that I separated the man from the office and I liked him and his wife so much that we accepted. Well, he forgave me for that. But mostly that would have been a mortal sin, a case for excommunication. But I think, well, I think he was fond of me.

In judging your friends you applied much ... they had to do much worse things than Patrick's friends had to do?

Yes.

And yet sometimes you've been bracketed with him as a rather famous hater. Do you hate the people that you've dropped?

No, I don't think I do. I wouldn't say hatred is the term. I know I've been called a famous hater, but no, I don't think I hated Kerr. I certainly don't hate Neville Wran. I just don't want to know them any more. If that's hatred, well, I'm a hater.

Did you feel acute disappointment at the time?

Over what?

Over the loss of their friendship.

Oh yes, certainly. I was very fond of John Kerr. He was a very entertaining man, very nimble mind, very highly endowed intellectually, he was. Very lazy, and I found that rather attractive. I'm rather attracted to people of great gifts who don't fully extend themselves.

Now the standards that you apply to other people, have you always applied those same high standards to yourself?

Well, I can say there have been aspects of my own conduct for which I would have felt something akin to hatred.

Like what?

I've done a few things that I'm not proud of.

Are you willing to tell us what they were?

No, I'd rather not.

I wonder why?

Oh well, I've buried them long ago. They weren't all that atrocious, but enough to make me feel either ashamed or embarrassed.

What kinds of things do you think people ought to feel ashamed or embarrassed about?

Well, I haven't always treated people as well as I should have. I suppose in my earlier years I didn't treat all the women I knew as well as I should have. Things like that, that's all.

Where you feel, in retrospect, guilty about ...

Yes I do, sure. I think I acted unworthily.

And you can't think of an instance that we might all sympathise with?

No, I've buried them all.

Maybe that's wise. When you were in power with Labor you were critical of the mateship arrangements, where advancement was by connection with a particular group. And yet you were to some extent connected in with that as well, weren't you?

No I don't ... you mean the mates, the little Irish Mafia lot? No, I was never close to them. I would have been labelled as being of that faction, but that was a misconception of my political stance.

And so you kept yourself clear of that kind of method of advancement?

Oh yes, sure I did.

During the time that you were in office, were you ... I mean some of the people that you have criticised were involved in taking bribes or being in some way influenced and corrupted in their political positions. When you were in political power, were you ever in a position where you were tempted or where anyone attempted to bribe you?

There's very little corruption at the federal level. The opportunity is just not there. If I were somebody who was seeking a favour from government, at the federal level, I wouldn't bribe a politician. I'd attempt to suborn one of the people who I think are the real decision-makers, the bureaucrats. I would think that there's an almost total absence of corruption on the bribe-taking level in federal politics. The opportunities are really not there. But ... as they are at the state and municipal level. Anyhow, nobody ever offered me a bribe.

What would you have done if they had?

Oh well, I'd have, I'd have been very indignant that they considered me bribe-able, and I would have, I suppose I would have gone to Whitlam, told him about it.

On the subject of honesty, one of the things that people feel about politicians, and some politicians are now coming out and saying, that truth isn't something they feel the need to serve. And a notable thing about you, that's very striking to anybody who hears the story of your life and the way that you operate, is your extraordinary honesty, your willingness to speak out and say what you see to be the truth, even when it's against your own interests, seemingly. Where do you think you get this compulsive truth-telling from?

Well, even after I rejected God, I didn't discard the old Judeo-Christian ethic. I continued to believe in truth-telling and treating your fellows, you know, do unto others and you would have that they do to you. I continued to believe all those things. I suppose, in a sense, I've always been a moral man. I could give you no other reason for being honest. I suppose there was a certain, even a certain element of vanity that I think it was demeaning to dissemble.

You've been conscious from time to time though that it wasn't necessarily serving your own material and political ...

Oh yes, yes.

And that didn't bother you?

No, not at all.

[end of tape]

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