Australian Biography

Donald Horne - full interview transcript

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Donald, you were born in 1921 and spent your formative years in a ... at little country town called Muswellbrook. Could you tell us a little bit about your life in those early, formative years?

I think one of the most formative things in my early life was living in Muswellbrook, which we didn't think was little - it was three and a half thousand: pretty big by the standards at that stage, and one gift given to me from that is something that I simply wouldn't have got I think by being brought up in a suburb, and that was a sense of a whole society. I think it came to me partly through ah my mother's social membranes as it were. She was very sensitive to snubs and insults and so forth, but I had a society at which the big landholders - the Whites - Patrick White's cousins and others were on top, and at the very bottom were people who lived on the common and their ... and their children went to school without shoes, and then all of the intervening parts of that: middle class, lower middle class, upper lower middle class and all of these things so that the ... I described it in The Education of Young Donald and it ... just in a few paragraphs I think, it it really is a microcosmic world. It's the kind of reason I think why I would always like to have written a Nineteenth Century novel. I didn't know the words I'd like to have written ... were kind of rather tedious novels of sensibility that many people write now ... are just to once again have that sense of all of these people having these social relations to each other.

Where did you fit in it? Where did your family sit in that hierarchy?

In the hierarchy of Muswellbrook my family was I think put exactly like this: I remember when I was writing The Education of Young Donald, I looked up the Muswellbrook Chronicle over a period of years to see who was invited to the different balls in the town, and the big top ball was the Picnic Races Ball, and school teachers weren't allowed to go to that. Bank managers were for obvious reasons because they were keeping the whole racket going. We were in the next top one, which was the Golf Club Ball, and the golf club ... Some of the big landed families played golf when nobody else was there, but school teachers were just about as low as you could get, I think, at the golf club. Then, after that something that nobody else worried about was the Anglican Ball and they'd look at the Catholic Ball as pretty well near the bottom because Catholics were not seen as really being part of the ordinary human existence.

This was their relationship to the town as a whole. What happened inside the home? Your father was a school teacher. How did ... how did the home shape you?

I think some of the ways in which the home shaped me was that my father brought me a thing called Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge and somehow or other I don't know whether 'encourage' is the right word but [he] was certainly complacent about my buying books of my own which I would save out of money, you know, got from selling newspapers and things of that kind: old newspapers not new ones, to butchers, and ... oh, it was Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge and these things. I had this great desire that I really would like to know everything, kind of view, which some people woulld say of me still, I suppose, and there were times when I really wish I, you know, wouldn't it be wonderful if I could live for a thousand years, except that of course we all know by that stage all of that knowledge would have become rather obsolescent so that the ... It wasn't a scholarly house in any way. The books they had were about four different books, but I had this whole shelf, you know, five mere books and I don't whether the word is 'encouragement' or simply their toleration of my odd habits, but certainly that was being ... there was also, looking back on it, memories of belief, which in our case made entirely secular. Anzac Day was very big in our house. My father would put on his medals and they'd all walk down the street to and then they'd put biofacate - the non-Catholics would go off to the Church of England, and the Catholics would go off to their mass, which seemed a pretty un-Australian thing to do, and their specific ceremony. The School Empire Day was big. I still have a copy of the speech I made for School Empire Day in ...

The Great War hadn't long ended of course.

The shadow of the Great War hung very ... well shadow's not quite the right word because it was also seen as redemptive in some ways, but the memories of the Great War were very big in our house. I remember, once, at night we went to the ... the movies had come to Muswellbrook - and we went to see some movie about pacifists, and when we got home we sat down in the kitchen, as we normally did after going to the movies, and my mother made cups of tea and we sat around having cups of tea and biscuits and my father - he's looking at me very anxiously and then he suddenly says, 'You'd serve wouldn't you if there was another war?' as though we were in some ways getting ready for the next war.

How old were you?

I would have then been I suppose in about fourth class or third class, yes, but I was being signed up.

So what sorts of sentiments did you express when you spoke at Empire Day?

I expressed idealistic sentiments about the Empire in my great speech, as a great brotherhood of nations, you know all that kind of thing, and ultimately even the natives, you know, a few hundred years from now perhaps ... That was one of the lines of Empire Day.

Was this the beginning of Horne's multiculturalism?

I don't think ... I mean there was no doubt ah that at that period people got an imperialist view of human existence and Cassell's Children's Book of Knowledge certainly presented natives as different from the rest of us. In Muswellbrook we didn't have any multiculturals apart from Greeks. There were the Greeks who ran the ... you know, the steak and eggs place, the cafe, and that was it. There were no Aborigines. Looking up the census returns there were a few ... I think a few Armenians and a few others, but it was an entirely an English speaking society divided most bitterly by the most important division known to human kind: the difference between Protestants and Catholics.

And that was a bitter thing in the town?

People, now who talk about a divided society, have made a considerable error as they're speaking of the difference between Aboriginal Australians and others, and that is, we now have a complex multi-ethnic society but at that period there was a divided society. The difference between Catholic and Protestant went through most forms of life. I myself believe that Catholics were not really part of the human species like the rest of us. They had distinctive physical characteristics ah which made them different from us, although there were all those individual exceptions, and as we know ... there were ... most business houses were Masonic and anti-Catholic and within government departments there were some Catholic, some Protestant ones. The police were bitterly divided. These were ... it was a divided society of the kind Australia, perhaps, will never be again.

And where did your family sit in relation to that? Were you ... what part did religion play in your household?

Religion didn't matter much to us. The Church of England were seeing ... we belonged to the Anglo-Presbyterian Ascendancy in the sense that my father was born a Presbyterian but switched over to Anglicanism when he married my mother, and the Church of England - we went to it once a year, for Anzac Day. But we knew we'd been baptised in it - actually I didn't get around to being confirmed - and that we'd be buried in it, and it was there for that kind of purpose.

And the Anglican Ball.

We the ... The Anglican Ball was not such ... of such significance to us as the Golf Ball - if I might use that expression, but we did know that the Catholics were different: anti-British, superstitious, priests drinking whisky all day, although my school teacher, who had me for about four years, was a Catholic. Of course he was different, and the boy and girl next door, the Cheese family, who ... with whom I used to play, they were quite different. Individual Catholics were human beings, but the idea of it being Catholic was pretty repellent.

What about your parents as individuals - could you describe to me what kind of a person your father was?

Yes well my mother and father represented two, I think, you know, one always doesn't know whether one's just writing this off again as one's own memories, but my father had a nervous breakdown during my adolescence and that changed my attitude to him entirely because he a bit - seemed to me frankly was a bit of a washout for me as an adolescent, but before then, I don't think I distinguished between my likings for them, but my mother was and continued to be a - until she died at the age of ninety-two - a very outward, in some ways rather superficial, but extremely generous and a lively kind of person, who felt that there should always be some fun going on in life. Her house used to be a great centre of playing pianolas, playing bridge, playing tennis - doing all of those things. Whereas my father had a somewhat more systematic view of life. I used to get sometimes beaten by a slither because I'd broken one of the elements of this system.

What sort of things were you beaten for?

Oh giving cheek to a shop keeper I remember on one of those occasions - not very often but on one occasion I wrote 'shit' in an indelible pencil on a chocolate box and got a pretty fair hiding from that. I think the indelible pencil made it ... made it worse. He all ... On the other hand he used to be funny. He thought that one of the things in life one had to do, I think, was to do what we would think as wise cracks and make jokes and so forth and I suppose that had some effect on me.

You used to engage in that with him did you ... part of your relationship?

Ah no, he ... I think his funny relationship was just him. He ... he would be funny, we would laugh at him ... but it certainly - I came from a household in which it seemed appropriate that one should make little jokes, which is something I suppose I've continued and tried to do.

Now during most of these Muswellbrook years you were an only child. Did that have any influence do you think?

I don't know. I used to feel a bit guilty about being an only child because it was spoken about, you know, like one of those menaces: diphtheria, cancer and things like that that people spoke about privately, and one could hear them discussing at night when I was in bed. I was simply self conscious as an only child. I've got not the faintest idea. One theory is this, isn't it, that only children or sometimes the first born have a certain extra confidence. I don't know whether that's true or not, but I wasn't unconfident at that stage.

Who did you play with?

I used to play mainly with the kids next door, and otherwise my great playmate was actually my female cousin, Elaine, but I ... she was available only on holidays and we developed a very close friendship, and elaborate systems of games and what we'd do every time we met, which was most days on holidays. We'd go down to Sydney for school holidays and we had these great lists of things that we'd might do, and we'd settle that and then do some of them, so that she would have been my greatest friend, although somewhat limited because it was only in school holidays.

What do you think it was about her that made her such a good playmate for you?

I think it would have been just one of those relationships in which we'd known each other for a long time. I mean from the beginning rather. Some of my earliest memories are actually of her. And in which we'd developed conventions of common interest. I mean those words of course, wouldn't have meant anything to children of age four or five, but we'd done that so we had a pattern of common behaviour. We used to have rows that ... I remember once pulling her hair.

Were you the dominant one?

I doubt whether that would apply. I think that probably this was a co-operative relationship. I mean honestly I think that very business of working out lists and bargaining about what we were going to do next doesn't sound like ... doesn't sound very dominant.

Did you spend much time alone when you were at home?

I spent a fair bit of time alone when I was home, and I developed this habit of ... of reading and of ... I used to, you know, play around by myself sometimes [with] toy trains which I didn't find very ... I found pretty boring. My great experience with toy trains once was just smashing them all up. I remember when I was very young having a Noah's Ark. I didn't have many toys, of course. In those days people didn't. I had a few toys which were kept in a big packing case, and ...

With this great interest in learning, you must have been a little bit different from your friends at school, were you?

I was the kind of cleverer boy in Muswellbrook District Rural School, I suppose. I remember when I was in second class one of the school teachers - and of course my father being a school teacher, we used to meet them at home - came down to second class and asked me to read to her class which was a fifth class, just to show them how stupid they were: here was a second class boy - what a terrible thing to happen - who could read better ... you know, better than they could so I was a kind of smart ...

Did you enjoy that? Did you enjoy being given the opportunity to show bigger boys that they were stupid?

I'm not quite sure whether I enjoyed it but I was appalled once when I didn't come top in arithmetic. Throughout my whole period from third class to sixth class, there used to be monthly tests and the results were all put up on the wall, they would perish there until the next year, and I came top in everything. Except that on this particular occasion I think I came fourth in arithmetic and that seemed quite ... quite strange. I might say this kind of know-all, smart character disappeared later in high school but ...

What made it disappear?

I don't know. I first went to Maitland Boys High School and continued to ... I think I was number three in the Hunter Valley and I ... at the end of the year I'd become number one or something, and then going to Parramatta High School it was associated partly with my father going through this nervous breakdown, through differences between city and country, and other kinds of ways, and to my absolute amazement in my first half yearly exam results in second year at Parramatta High School I failed in French. I never imagined I'd fail in anything. I think that I had a kind of disturbance of some kind, which to some extent impeded or held up my kind of natural cleverness, so there's a ... it's just possible if I'd stayed on at the St. Ann [?] Maitland High School I would have ended up with say four first class honours in the Leaving, rather than two.

And do you think that you learned other things by that loss of ... of pre-eminence?

I don't know that my troubled adolescence did me any good at all. I think that it took me ... I think it would have been ... I think I might have been a more useful productive person if I had not had a troubled adolescence.

Why did you move from Muswellbrook to the city?

Well my father being a school teacher was moved. There was a great thing in my life called the Ed ... called the Department. It sounds like something out of a Nineteenth Century Russian novel, and mysteriously the Department would intervene in our lives. Once a year it sent somebody called the Inspector, and the Inspector would arrive at Muswellbrook and school teachers whole future would depend on the Inspector. I remember once - I used to put on plays when I was at Muswellbrook - I put on some plays and my teacher got an improved teaching mark from the Inspector because of these plays, and then suddenly the Department decided that my father would move to Sydney. In terms of the Department - it would decide that.

This was just when you were going along very well at Maitland High.

Yes, I was going along well at Maitland. Yes.

And you said that when you came to live in Sydney, shortly after that, your father had a nervous breakdown. What caused the breakdown?

I don't know what caused my father's nervous breakdown, but he had it. It didn't matter to me much what had caused it and really that was the end of his existence. He retired from the Education Department and ... and went on to a retirement pension from then, and also one from the Repatriation Department. It was decided that it had some connection with his war service. If that's true or not, I don't know, and that was the end of that really, from there, regard to fathers ...

So the period after you left Muswellbrook and came to Parramatta had ... was extremely eventful.

Well it was eventful in the sense that I simply became somebody else, I think, for quite a period. I was still kind of only ... I was partially clever. There was some subjects in which I was going to be clever and others in which I wasn't. But in my whole period at Parramatta I didn't go to ... have any school companions really apart from ... when I met people at school. I think that was partly because of the uneasiness of our household and all of the people coming along - a big part of that.

You also stopped being an only child.

In ... yes that's right. In third year, year what? Something or other under the new system - Year Nine if I can ... my sister, Janet, was born, and I wasn't quite sure whether my mother was intelligent enough to have a baby so I read all of the ... you know, the mother craft books and then I got a sister through that process, and ...

You had such a deep conviction that your mother mightn't [Donald laughs] be able to cope.

Well I just ... yes that was ... yes. We had big discussions also. Once Janet had a dummy. There was a big ... dummy's were really much out at that stage, and there was something called the 'truby king' or 'ruby tring' or something or other. We had big discussions about how she was to be ... go through her early period and you ...

Were you satisfied with the outcome?

If the processes more or less followed my instructions! My mother's milk dried up and that wasn't allowed for but, you know, there's nothing you can do about that .

But you were successful in persuading her that you should really have charge of your sister's ...

I ... I wasn't in charge of it. It's just that we talked about it intelligently like two members of a family.

And at this stage your father was really a bit out of the scene?

Yes, well my father was going out of the scene, then in the next year he was out. He ... he was still, at that stage, really tense and difficult to get on with but became even more so.

He'd been very important in your childhood though?

Yes I was a student so, you know, reading backwards: yes.

And then you lost him.


What affect do you think this had on your attitude to people in authority?

I don't know. I mean that's an obvious question. I don't know. All I can say is that the combination of his going around the bend for a while and my being transported to a suburban high school and suburban area seemed to have a ... an unusually large disruptive effect on my life.

He was also disgraced, wasn't he?

Oh that's right yes. Well he wasn't actually he was but found innocent of ...

Oh right.


Yes. So ... so ... he was he was charged with ...

He wasn't charged, no.


After you came down from Muswellbrook to Parramatta, there was quite a lot of trouble started happening in your whole life, big changes and events: your sister was born, your father got into difficulties too.

Yes well my father began to show signs of nervous disorder when I was in sixth class at Primary School. He ... in fact he took I think two months off and went down to Bondi and I spent a couple of months at Bondi Public School, and he continued. He became more and more prone to anxiety - not so much suspicions, but it was evidencing general quite high neurotic conduct, so that runs through from what we now describe as Years Six, Seven, Eight, Nine. In Year Ten I suddenly discovered that he ... at the school he was at it was suggested that he had I think put his hand on the thigh of one of the pupils. And by this stage he's in an almost state of collapse. Nobody knew whether that was true or not, but he was then declared to have a nervous breakdown and for a while he spent a bit of time at Callan Park which was the ... as we used to say in those days: lunatic asylum. I can remember with this great feeling of my mother's that one should always cheer people up, you know, we'd go there once a week and cheer him up. And then he ... this is the kind of moment interviewers hope, you know, when you finally get your tears ... then he would ... he got better, but he was never much good. He'd been emptied out and he was living on a couple of pensions, and ... I think ... I don't know if that had such an effect on me as the deterioration of the whole family atmosphere running over, what, four and a half years I think, yes ... say.

They'd be important years in your development. Important ones for your development - your early adolescence.

Yes, well, I seemed to go through some changes over that period but I ... I think it was the ... the drama, actually, of his nervous breakdown was one in which my mother used to say this almost to the day she died: you know, I kind of took over and helped and she had to write things about his condition, and I remember I was going through that period, you know, in which you had inverted sentences, so she had to write this report on him, [and] I was beginning sentences with 'never have I known a man so agitated' and this ... so that she could describe my father's condition to the ... somebody called the Master in Lunacy, I think, at that period. Yeah.

And you continued these visits. How long was he in Callan Park?

He wasn't ... he wasn't in Callan Park for long. He showed very good progress. He was out of the stone building and they have huts - some huts one to six. It was a bit like the Muswellbrook School when you moved from First Class around the playground: you know, first, second, third, fourth, fifth and in no time at all actually he was a good boy and got into hut six and then was discharged. It was only a period of, I think, about three months or so. He used to say, in his joking manner, that he was actually one of those people who had a certificate saying, 'you're sane'. In those days if you passed out they wrote a thing saying you were sane again, but he was never the same again.

And your whole relationship with him shifted.

Yes well he was entirely, pretty well, an empty shell by then.

And you really saw that happen before your eyes?

He ... I ... I not only saw it happen before my eyes, but I became, you know, a player in the thing - helping my mother establish these pensions, fighting for pensions, one way or the other, and in general sustaining ourselves.

So your father had been a strong coherent figure in your early childhood, and at a fairly early stage of your adolescent ... adolescence you actually almost swapped roles with him. You had to take on the role of the person who helped you mother with the new baby and you organised things.

Oh it was, I suppose, to some extent like that. Yes.

It was a little early in life to have to move in that direction.

Or worse things could happen. I was reading, actually, this biography of Dickens and there was this appalling moment of Dickens when he was suddenly sent off to the blacking factory, which had such a shattering effect on him that it then became one of the great Victorian problems it seems. I mean lots of ... lots of ... lots of people's parents were killed at Auschwitz and so forth. I mean the ... there were enormous ranges of human tragedy.

It's obvious though, from your reaction, that those visits to Callan Park were fairly significant emotional occasions for you.

Yes well they were part of it. What I was trying to recall then, also, was the kind of poignancy of the kind of ... kind of cavalier attempt to make fun of everything and keep [things] going as applied to these ... by conventional standards rather tragic circumstances. You know, we go along, have a talk about what was happening and he'd tell us ....

[Interrupting] But you managed to keep ... sorry. You'd go along to talk about what was happening.

We'd go along to talk about what was happening and he'd give us a bit of gossip from Ward Six or whatever it might be. We'd have a joke, yeah.

But you managed to keep up the front yourself.

I'm ... It's another of those questions which I feel almost as if I'm kind of boasting about this and I have never before in my life thought of ... of it in that kind of way, but I certainly didn't sink anyway.

So this change had occurred in your life, but you passed through that and what happened in your senior years at Parramatta High, did you ...

I didn't like Parramatta High much. I was once invited there a few years ago to give a Speech Day address and I explained ... a Speech Day Address is one of the highest forms ... hardest forms of oratory, so I said to the students, 'I didn't like Parramatta High much', and at once they gave out this universal cheer. I had them. I then moved to Canterbury High School because we shifted house again and there I recovered, actually, a bit of spirit. It was a school which was devoted to only one thing and that was getting good marks in the Leaving Certificate. Yet on the whole I seemed to respond to that, and also my secondary education on the whole was a washout really ... nothing much, but we ... I there found under a history master, who ... a history teacher who tried to interest us in social change, economic change, little bits of Marxism - things of this kind, which represented, I think, the greatest, most intelligent thing that happened to me in my high school days.

You were introduced to the world of ideas at Canterbury High.

Yes, that and also at the school they had a school library. I don't think Parramatta had run one. I can remember picking up the Oxford Book of Modern Verse and reading Elliot's The Hollow Men which seemed a bit odd, and they actually had a selection of ... from The Wasteland and elsewhere, so I started reading away. And I also used to go into town, as we used to call the central business district back in those days, oh pretty regularly about once a month I think, and I'd go to the Municipal Library and get whatever the total number of books was - I forget - from that, and my father, as a teacher, also belonged to the Teacher's Federation Library, so I'd get another stack of books from that, then I'd go back through all these trams and trains and trolley buses carrying this enormous stack of books which I would try to get through.

So you weren't playing sport like other boys of that age?

I had no interest in playing sport. I used to play tennis when I was in primary school because we had a tennis court. After that I played nothing. I ... I tried to go ... there was cricket for a season at Maitland so that frightened me. I didn't quite understand why the ball wouldn't hit me, and otherwise in the summer I used to be ... used to go swimming which was quite easy to swim - swam around. And in the winter I used to try to avoid football by ... at Parramatta there was a cinema near the high school. It's still there I think. It was quite easy to sneak off there Wednesday afternoons.

So at high school did you have any particular friends? Did you belong to a group?

At Parramatta High I just led this reclusive life because of our deteriorating home situation. At Canterbury I actually did develop some friends, yes. I started having friends again, and I remember one great occasion for me was ... a liberation after all that anxiety - was that I went off with one of these friends to a boarding house in Kurrajong Heights and had a good time for a couple of [hours with] school girls there and some other people and so forth so I ... I began to feel that, you know, my great problems were over. In fact I had diary in which I confided the fact that things were going to get better now.

You felt like a human being again.

I felt like some new kind of human being, I suppose, yeah.

So when you went to university did this sense of an expanding world continue?

Yes, when I went to the University the ... possib ... my imagination burst with all the enormous changes that occurred to me at Sydney University. And it is my experience of people at universities on the whole that it doesn't necessarily produce all that many changes. In my case it did. In one year I had acquired a knowledge of French Symbolist Poetry. I'd met Jim McAuley and Harold Stewart and others who told me about that. The famous exhibition of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings had come to Sydney, so I'd go along and see that every Saturday. I passed rapidly from Marxism to Trotskyism to Anarchism, which was my ideal position at the end of the age of seventeen, and I was trying to read my way through all the great Victorian novels. And, oh, I was also, of course, entirely familiar with, say, page one of the Freud's The Pscyhopathology of Everyday Life, and had read Ulysses.

And this broader interest in the ideas ... the politics of ideas, the ideas of politics and society generally ... in general, was given some practical expression in your own involvement in the politics of university life.

Yes I ... I ... I'd just like to make a little point before answering that. It often occurred to me when I was, you know, lecturing at the University of New South Wales that student ... good students there simply couldn't have had the kind of education I've had. When I was there I didn't turn up at lectures much. I had to ... you had to do the essays and you sat for an exam and the exam was a 100 per cent of the mark, no tutorials and so forth, and this gave me the opportunity to do this enormous amount of reading in my spare time at Sydney University. I educated myself in the modern movement in literature, in painting, and in certain areas of philosophy and so forth, which is not available in the ordinary courses. I sometimes ... I ... I'm sure universities I think are miles better now than they were then, but that kind of university suited me better.

Well not all students took advantage of that freedom in the way that you did.

No, well very few - about two people then as now. Universities were mainly places where you got a degree so you'd get a job. They used to call Melbourne University 'the shop'. It was the place where you bought a degree and, of course, most of them were bought. There were ... at Sydney University I think there were two hundred people on exhibitions [sic] who didn't have to pay their fees and the rest were there because their parents could buy them university educations.

I take it you were there on an exhibition.

I was there on a teachers' college scholarship actually, which much to my shame. It's not shame but disgust.

Why were you there on a teachers' college scholarship?

Well the teachers' college scholarship had attached to it forty pounds a year. It was pretty good money then, and it was the only way in which I could get through the university.

It was for the living allowance.

Yeah, a living allowance of forty pounds per year plus books. I ... I used to work in the vacations mainly in book shops. I remember working at Dymocks, finally, and there I was promoted from the basement to selling, and I spent several weeks selling books and as I was leaving on Christmas Eve, it was the ge ... general manager whatever he was, is there saying good night to us all and thank you for a good season, and he says to me - I'm ... this is at the age of seventeen, and I'm about to go to university - and he says, 'Goodnight Mr Horne', as he called me. He said, 'I think there might be a career for you in books'.

[end of tape]

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