Australian Biography

Mungo MacCallum - full interview transcript

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Mungo, Mungo MacCallum, is a name that's very well-known around Sydney and pre-dated you as a well-known name. Could you tell me a little bit about the origins of that name in your family, and its history before you adopted it?

Well, originally Mungo was the patron saint of Glasgow and he was legendary; according to the legend, he was discovered by a monk on the shore, a naked baby screaming away. And the monk instantly perceived his holy potential, and adopted him, took him to the local monastery and he became the patron saint. And even today his statue stands in the main square of Glasgow, and people say 'There's St Mungo.' It's quite a common name in Scotland, and my grandfather was the first Mungo here. But he had lots of ancestors who were all called Mungo. And, as I say, it was an uncommon name here, except for one person. There was a Mungo Scott who had a flour mill and we never knew him, but when we went on holiday, summer holidays, in the train going out of Sydney, we would see Mungo Scott written up. And that was the only other one we really ever knew. But Father was called Mungo, as was the custom in the family. My grandfather was Mungo, he was the first here, father was called Mungo, I was called Mungo, and my son is called Mungo. And that's how it happened

Now, your grandfather brought considerable distinction to the name Mungo MacCallum in Sydney. Could you tell me a little bit about your grandfather's life?

Well, he was apparently a very bright boy -- the only boy in fact in a family of women and he was lucky enough to be very spoilt, he said himself in his memoirs. But he was very bright academically and when he was in his early 20s he became a professor at Aberystwyth in Wales, at the university there. And he was ambitious like many other young men, and he met his future wife there, who was a German woman, who had come over to England to learn English, and better herself in that way. And that was where my father Mungo was born, in Aberystwyth. Grandfather and his wife and son, my father, decided to come to Australia because he couldn't decide, first, whether to stay in Europe and have more academic opportunities later, and be more in touch with the culture of Europe, which he was fond of, particularly German, which itself was a very, very potent culture in the 19th century. And he couldn't decide whether to come out, but finally he did, and that's -- the Sydney University was then a young and barely staffed university. He came out and ended up -- didn't end up -- started up by teaching five different subjects -- French, German, Modern English Literature, Ancient English Literature and whatever else came along.

Several departments in one now ...

Yes, yes.

And how did he end up? He remained very close to the University of Sydney, didn't he?

Oh yes. It was odd, I never heard him lecture but he was apparently legendary as a lecturer, and he became very potent at the university. He became a Vice-chancellor and then he was the very first -- he was, in fact, the very first Vice-chancellor, it was an entirely new position then and very unusual in any universities anywhere. And then he ended up Professor Emeritus, and then he ended up, finally, as Chancellor. And I can remember him -- though I never heard him actually lecture -- I can remember two things about him 'specially -- three things -- one, was he was a very small man. I won't say only that high, but this high, and he had this enormous, beautiful, silky white beard, which was always impeccable, and secondly, I remember him in his robes as Chancellor, and this tiny man in these huge golden robes, which weighed about a ton, you know. And I also remember him reading -- we lived next door, and on Sundays we children used to go up and call on the grandparents, and he would take us into his study -- and it always seemed to be winter when this happened -- because the gas fire was always purring in the grate, you know, and he used to read Sir Walter Scott to us, and I can remember the Scottish accent and the fire purring away, and the very creaky -- he always wore stiff shirts, you know, and gold cufflinks and all this. And I remember the creak of the shirt. I always thought, frankly, I was lulled by Sir Walter Scott, but I found him the most atrocious bore on these Sunday afternoons.

And your father, did he follow in his father's footsteps academically?

He did up to a point. He had a tragic life actually. He was a very ... he was a brilliant man and he was the second Rhodes Scholar from Australia, went to Oxford, won every medal there was. First at Sydney University, then at Oxford, and at the age of 24, I think it was, he was offered the Chair of Law at Oxford, which is, you know, pretty unusual. And he decided against it. And I never knew why. There were lots of things I never knew why, which I wish I'd asked now. I never knew why he decided to come back to Australia. Whether it was out of love of the country, or whether it was a sort of -- he felt a duty that he owed the country, or even worse, in fact, I think it may have been a duty he owed his mother whom I have no sympathy for.

Why had you no sympathy for his mother?

He did. He seemed to have. I had no sympathy, because she was a German matriarch and she ran the family, and I didn't realise this at first as a child, but she really ran the family and she and her husband, my grandfather, who was wonderful, we all loved him, but she and he, as a wedding present to my father and mother, built a house for them in their garden, which -- without asking, you know, without consulting. And when Mother came to Australia, having known nobody except Father, who was her cousin, they were first cousins, she came to Australia knowing nothing and was slotted into this quite nice house. But by the same token, without any discussion. And from the house above, where grandmother lived, there was this dominance all the time.

Tell me about the household. Where were these houses, what kind of houses were they? Was yours a privileged childhood?

Yes. It was a privileged -- nowadays I suppose you'd call it an establishment childhood. Absolutely wonderful. You know, I had -- except for being bored by Sir Walter Scott -- we had everything we wanted, but we were never spoiled, you know. It was taken for granted that we would learn to read early, learn to write early, learn to speak early, and all this sort of stuff. And it was on Point Piper, which in those days -- it still is, of course -- was a very posh suburb, but it was on Point Piper in Sydney, which then was very tranquil place, with big gardens. That's why they built the house for mother and father on their garden. It was a big garden. And houses -- there were very few flats. There were no flats when I was a baby. The first flats were built round about, you know, 1920 or something like that. And there were lots of bushes, lots of trees, and below us there was Lady Martin's Beach, which is still there. It's a tiny little beach, and we used virtually to live on that in summer. And we had, I had, boats and dinghies and we learnt to swim very early and all that sort of thing, you know, a perfect piece of, oh I suppose, childhood, just childhood. Wonderful.

Was there a very strong expectation that you as the eldest child would be following in your grandfather and father's footsteps and doing very well academically?

Well, they were not articulated to me, there was no pressure, which was wonderful, you know. And I just sort of moped -- not moped -- but wandered through my childhood, picking my nose and all that sort of stuff, you know. And I was never told, except by an aunt, that I ought to do well. And there was no question of, you know, 'Go and learn your lessons,' 'Go and do this,' 'Go and do your homework,' and so on. But it was clear that I should do well, but I was never told that, except by Grandmother, my German grandmother. But I went to preparatory school, of course, and then went to Sydney Grammar, where my father and uncles had been. And their names of course were up on all the honour boards for all the honours that they'd got, and my name was never up there at all. But my brothers, both of whom went there, were on the honour board. So I was the distinguished one, not being on the honour board. And I, you know, I did all right. But to my amazement, when I did the Intermediate Certificate, which is now called whatever it is called, I can't remember ...

... School Certificate.

School Certificate, yes. To my amazement I got the highest possible marks. And you know I was sincerely surprised by this.

Because you had labelled yourself as less clever than your grandfather?

I hadn't labelled myself as anything. I led a very, very strong inner life, you know, I wanted to be a painter, and then I wanted to be a musician, and I wanted to be a writer. Just because I read a lot and listened a lot to music and so on. And I didn't have expectations of myself at all, really.

What kind of preparatory school did you go to?

It was ... by nowadays standards I suppose it would be called pretty useless really. I didn't learn anything there, because I had learned all these things at home, reading and writing and arithmetic and stuff like that. And this was a little preparatory school called Kersworth in Dover Road, which was near Point Piper. And I went there at the age of four because I was able to get by all right. And we just went through the normal sort of reading, writing, arithmetic routine. The school was run by a Miss Burke, who was, you know, an elderly lady of no great learning or anything. And we had a playground. We tried to play cricket and all that sort of stuff. It was a very, you know, simple sort of school and they took me early because I suppose it was a good idea to get me out of the house and off the beach, you know.

So you led this very strong outdoors life on the beach and on the water of Sydney Harbour. What did you do with sport? Were you very active in games and sport?

No, at Kersworth, at prep school, we'd go down to Caffyn Park once a week and pretend to play football and cricket. And I disliked football because I was absolutely useless at it, and I would pretend to be absorbed in the seagulls that flooded the park. The other boys addressed pushing each other around and so on. But I was no good at that. We had a half cricket pitch at the school and there was one boy, Peters, I remember, who used to -- he thought of himself as a very fast bowler, and indeed he was fast because he was only half a cricket pitch away. And it was very difficult to avoid the cricket balls.

So you actually didn't much care for being hit by cricket balls?

Not much, no, no. No, my big thing was sailing and swimming. I always sailed and swam.

What's your earliest memory?

As far as I can remember it is hearing what must have been raindrops at night in -- maybe it was even a cot -- as early as that. I remember this drip, drip, drip and it was at night and I didn't know what it was. It didn't scare me. But it had a sort of feeling of portent about it. You know, one felt it meant something that might happen, or might -- I wasn't frightened but it's always stayed with me.

It was a sound that had significance for you?

Yes, but of what I don't know.

Throughout your early life you say that you were developing a strong inner life and interests in artistic things ...


Was beauty important to you as a child?

Yes, I suppose it was, because in that family one heard a lot about beauty in literature and music and so on. I don't think it meant the same as it does now, of course. Because to me now it includes openness and things like that. But it was important. Nothing really was, I think in retrospect, as important, apart from reading, nothing was as important to my inner life as a sort of juvenile fantasy about people, grown-ups mainly. I always used to see -- I accepted what's nowadays called the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie. I accepted that. But by the same token, I was almost critical of it in the sense that people's oddities struck me very quickly. And I used to build fantasies around them. And that pursued me all through my life. It still does. And it -- the idea or style of the fantasies changed a lot according to how things were going for me, became very -- not cruel -- but very critical at one stage. And things like that. But the fantasy was as important as anything else.

So you started off with fantasies about people that you met in your young life, and then gradually your eye became more and more sardonic as you grew older, and you began to see the flaws?


And laugh at them?

Well, according to how things were at the time. If I was going through a rough patch, I would laugh at them. I would laugh at them, not with them. At one stage for instance I would see, briefly, I would see everybody as ... with the ability of insects. No more. Things like that. But that was later, much later.

So, as a child, were they figures that you remember as being sort of resonant for you in your environment that made you notice them and fantasise about them? Were there people that you remember now that were in that category?

Well, yes, I mean my grandmother, whom I keep on coming back to.

An important figure in your young life?

An important figure and a very unrewarding importance because it made me, it turned me off a lot of characteristics in other people, who were far less, I thought, far less difficult.

So, could you just paint a bit of a picture of her. Tell us some of the things that you remember about her.

Well, she was a big woman, very broad in the hip and I suppose you'd say a typical north German, which is what she was. Apparently extremely clever in so far as she picked up languages very quickly and she always, to the end of her life, thought in German, although she spoke absolutely fluent English and so on. She was -- she had a soft, sweet voice, and a soft, sweet face and was a great doer of good works. I think she was very widely respected but because of her capacity for running things. I'm not sure that she was liked very much. And she was, as the professor's wife and then the Vice-chancellor's wife, and then the Chancellor's wife, she was very much in the public eye, and very much in demand for various patronages and things like that. She had a spinning wheel, which she spun beautiful wool on. She made potpourri in, you know, little bowls all through the house. Lovely smell, lovely scent.

And you really, really disliked her?

Well, the reasons that I came to dislike her were, I think, pretty valid. I heard, and I cannot remember from whom, but I distinctly remember hearing it, that they never gave their eldest son, who was my father, any -- or she never (he did, the father, Grandfather did) -- encouragement or praise for all the medals and academic honours that he'd won. And also, I felt that she dominated him far too much. Also, later, when I got married to my first wife, I took my wife, Diana, to see her just as a matter of courtesy, and she gave her a sweet smile and said, 'What a pity you've married him so early. He was doing so well.' And I thought, ''well, bugger you.' I just couldn't wear it. And I thought that -- she had this family clench and that of course affected me enormously, because I decided I would never involve anybody who is near me in the same sort of family clench. And for that reason, it dictated a lot of my subsequent actions, which I now think were overdone and regret.

By family clench, you mean that she controlled and she controlled so tightly that she suffocated ...

... You know, there were all these constant family gatherings. But I know family gatherings are frequently very pleasant and many, many families do them, but with her it was a sort of a duty, you know, and wherever she went she dominated my mother, she dominated my aunts and so on.

What was your mother like?

Mother was -- I've written that she was a mystery to me. I think that's overstating it a bit. What she was, was the most stoic woman I've ever known and that kept her silent a lot, you know. She didn't complain and she didn't say much about family things. She never complained about Grandmother for instance, not until Grandmother was dead and Mother was 98. Long-delayed complaint.

Why do you think she didn't complain?

I think it was partly her nature, partly as I said -- I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said ... [INTERRUPTION]

That's alright.

She was Father's first cousin, and she was brought up in Sri Lanka; Ceylon as it was then. Had the most idyllic childhood, loving family, five sisters, and on this mountain top. Her father was a tea planter and a coffee planter. And it was one of these colonial idylls you know that they used to have in the 19th century, even though you could say probably the Sri Lankans were not as independent or not given what they have now. But I remember her saying, talking about the poor Tamils, who were always the servants, and that was 100 years ago, more than that, you know. But anyway, she was brought up on this beautiful place, then sent to England to be educated, and Father met her when he was born, after he was born in Wales, and they were in England before coming to Australia. And then he met her once or twice after that when they went back to England when he was a child. Anyway, he came back, having refused this professorship of law. She eventually followed him. And they got married. And it was -- she was totally isolated here. She knew nobody except Grandmother and Grandfather and Father. And she came under Grandmother's spell. Grandmother taught her how to behave in Australia, that sort of stuff, and taught her pretty, I think, badly. Anyway she submitted to it as I read her, I think that's what happened, and she was never one to raise her voice, for instance, even to us when we were naughty, never. Then she had this -- she wasn't very strong, but she was enormously tenacious. She could be very funny. She was an adoring mother, you know, a wonderful mother and so on. But she was pursued from the age of 51 -- when Father was 48, she was 51. He died at 48, tragically, then in due succession she lost her youngest son in drowning and then she lost her other son. Then she lost her daughter and I was the only one left. And she never complained. She, by this time, she was in her 90s. She was racked with everything, you know, she had rheumatism, she had breasts off, she had hysterectomies, the lot. And she never -- not only never complained, but she was adored by lots of young people just as much as by old people. But all her old friends were dying, and so on. And she kept on saying to us -- she was still living in this house that she'd come out to as a young bride -- and she kept on saying to us (Polly and I, my present wife, moved in because there was nobody else, you know, and it's not very difficult physically) -- and she kept on saying, 'Darlings do put me into a nursing home.' And we of course were unwilling to do that, but eventually we had to, because otherwise we would have had to have 24-hour nurses and so on. And never once in all these years, all this time, did she complain. And then she just died quietly ... died at 101. So there were no complaints from, you know, 1913 when I was born, to 101.

Going back to your childhood, it was a very privileged childhood. Was there any sense of snobbery at all?

Well, there was I suppose, yes. As I said, I accepted the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, but we were not so much taught as just by example. There are certain things you didn't do, certain things. You never called university 'uni' for instance. That was considered the absolute pits, you know. And things like -- we used the word 'varsity' if we didn't say university. It all sounds terribly pompous now, you know. And ways of spelling, ways of saying words, like 'h', which still happens I think. But we were taught never to be snobs, you know, never to show snobbery. And to just accept people, but not to be like people. That's what the difference was. But there was, I suppose you'd say now, an element of snobbery.

Now, you finished at your prep school and you went to [Sydney] Grammar. Now, there was a bit of an event there, wasn't there, between prep school and Grammar, where you had the fall off the bike and I'm going to ask you about that. So, when you finished your prep school, did you do well at the end of your primary school education?

Well, yes, for what it's worth. I mean, I knew how to do my arithmetic. And I knew how to spell much better than most of the boys. And I read a lot more. At one time, when I was round about 12, I kept a list of the books I was reading, just for fun, and found I was reading roughly 360 books a year. So you know, that was, in a sense, not the product of school, but I was reading a lot.

And when you did your final class at the school, I mean, did you do well? Did you have an exam?

Sort of an exam. The sort of an exam that was reading, writing, arithmetic, you know, nothing very special. I was in hospital when I left because I had appendicitis and we had a -- I had this nanny who'd come out to be my nanny and stayed on with the family and was the sort of, you know, housekeeper. And she came rushing into the hospital after the prize-giving at the end of the school year and said, 'You're the duck!' And I said, 'What do you mean?,' and she said, 'You're the duck, they've made you the duck!' And of course she meant dux. But it wasn't a very distinguished dux.

And did you go then straight to Grammar after that?

Yes. All the family, all the men, went to Grammar. When I say all, I mean my father and uncles, they went. At that stage the school was full of history and all that. It is the oldest school in Australia, even though the Kings School claims the crest; Grammar was founded before Kings. And, as I say, my father's and uncles' names were scattered all over the honour board. And I'd probably be expected to do well, but I didn't really. Anyway it was very different from this little preparatory school. And that's where I stayed for five years. The school was not in good shape at that time. It had a weak headmaster who wore his trousers at half mast and forgot things the whole time, you know. And it was, it was doing well in sport, which was not its intention, and not its foundation. It wasn't founded for that. But it did have pride in being a total mix of male society, and there was no bar to anybody who could -- there were a lot of scholarships, a lot of boys that were there on scholarships, and we used to take -- it was a sort of a reverse snobbery -- great pride in being a school where you had a grocer's son sitting next to the governor's son, and all that sort of stuff.

Were there any really poor children there, though?

Yes, on scholarships. Lots. Two or three of them became very wealthy afterwards because they inherited their father's greengrocery business and became very wealthy. Much more so than people like me. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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