I met Donald Horne for the first time at a dinner party in Sydney in early 1968.
He asked me what I did and I said I had just come back from four years in England – foolishly imagining that this would mark me as a travelled sophisticate and someone likely to share his dim view of 1960s Australia. My sister had sent a copy of The Lucky Country (1964) to London and on every page I had found myself nodding in smug recognition at Donald’s provocative analysis of Australia.
But his response at dinner in 1968 left me in no doubt that I had shown a significant lack of judgement by lasting four years in the Old Dart. As I was to discover, a decade earlier he had preceded me in a similar odyssey, which he described in God Is An Englishman (1969), and which no doubt informed his fervent commitment to the republican cause.
I did not know that he had once been a monarchist and even toyed with the idea of standing for the Tory party. Donald was never one to stick with an idea he had tested to his satisfaction and found wanting. Many years later, he said that he admired someone who, ‘if he took something up would lend himself to it absolutely. And if he ceased believing in it, he could abandon it absolutely.’ He was speaking about my late husband Jim McClelland, but I thought he could easily have been speaking of himself. Both Jim and Donald were at times accused of apostasy by their critics.
As Donald held forth at dinner that night in 1968, my positive memories of England rapidly faded, replaced by grim recollections of poverty, awful weather and food, menial jobs, and the class system. He convinced me that I had not come back a minute too soon and it was going to be a good time to be in Australia. He was right.
Throughout his life Donald had many younger friends. He was vocal in his intolerance of woolly thinking, which kept you on your mettle; but it was a matter of great pride if he thought your views worthy of his attention.
My marriage to his friend Jim in 1978 cemented our friendship, and over the next 20 years there were countless lunches, dinners and parties, often to celebrate the completion or publication of the latest of Donald’s astonishing flow of books. We drank a lot in those days. In his cups Donald was famous for episodes of belligerence in which he was quite likely to shout at his wife, Myfanwy, to shut up if he felt he was losing his grip on the floor. She remained unperturbed. Donald’s rows with lawyer-journalist Adrian Deamer, a long-time friend, were legendary, but never led to lasting rifts.
At times Patrick White was among the company, but this ceased when Donald was given an Order of Australia; after the Governor General’s role in the dismissal of the Whitlam Government, Patrick returned his own honour and refused even to socialise with anyone he saw as selling out by accepting one.
Once at a social function, the then Federal Minister for the Arts Barry Cohen asked us for suggestions for appointment to the chair of the Australia Council. There was no-one in the country better qualified than Donald and we said so. Donald filled this role with great distinction, bombarding the Council – and the government – with ideas for a cleverer country.
Donald loved to try out ideas on you; often they would form the basis of his next book. I was immensely flattered once when he gave me a draft of the first chapter of a new book to read. It was a relief to be able to praise it unreservedly, as any criticism would have been subjected to intense scrutiny. For someone in an unassailable position as a writer and intellectual, Donald was strangely sensitive. When another friend reviewed his latest book unfavourably, Donald instructed me never to invite him to dinner or any other function with this person again. He was miffed when Paul Keating failed to re-appoint him to the Australia Council, and Keating too was added to the Horne black list.
The Hornes shared with Jim and me a love of travel, particularly within Australia, visiting small country towns and places of the deep interior. Most obituaries have focussed on Donald’s more polemical work, but there are different delights to be found in the books drawn from his travels like Right Way Don’t Go Back (1978), and The Great Museum (1984). While The Lucky Country will retain its reputation as the most influential book of its period, The Education of Young Donald (1967) instantly became, and will remain, a classic of the Australian canon. There can be no better – or more enjoyable – resource for anyone wanting to know what it was like to grow up in Australia between the wars.
Donald’s enthusiasm for any new theory or train of thought was infectious; sometimes the words tumbled out so fast that you had to strain to listen. For those of us given to pessimism it was comforting that he remained positive about the future in the face of events like the Whitlam dismissal, his own serious illnesses, and even the gradual erosion during the Howard years of his expectations for a better Australia. Surely, only Donald, faced with the real possibility of going blind, could spend the time in hospital planning the book which became The Death of the Lucky Country (1976).
He was not happy unless he had a project. It was always a relief to his friends when we heard he was working on a new book. Almost to the end, hooked up to an oxygen concentrator, he was documenting his own decline, dictating what one hopes will become a posthumous gift to all of us.
Donald was not universally loved: there are people who worked with him at some stages of his life who still bear the scars. The Donald I knew, however, especially in later years, was a loving and devoted father and grandfather, and the kindest and most thoughtful friend. He was not ashamed to weep when he became emotional, as he did for example over the death of a much-loved cat, and – on his eightieth birthday – when thanking Myfanwy for the unquestioning love, loyalty and support she had shown him. It was a spectacularly successful and loving marriage.
I can scarcely imagine an Australia without Donald – his extraordinary breadth of knowledge, his clear-sightedness, his capacity constantly to refresh the public discourse.
There is no obvious replacement in sight. He was a one-off.
Convenor, Barton Lectures series for the NSW Centenary of Federation Committee 2001;
Chancellor, University of Canberra, 1992-95;
Founding member, Australian Republican Movement (1991);
Chairman, Ideas Australia Programme, 1991-94;
Convenor, National Ideas Summit 1990;
Chairman, Australia Council 1985-90;
President, Australian Society of Authors 1984-85;
Chairman, Copyright Agency Ltd 1983-94;
Member of Council UNSW 1983-86;
Chairman, Faculty of Arts, UNSW 1982-86;
Emeritus Professor, UNSW 1984-86;
Associate Professor, UNSW 1980-84;
Member of NSW Cultural Grants Advisory Committee 1976-79;
Member of Advisory Body Australia Encyclopaedia 1973-89;
Member of Executive Government Committee, Australian Constitutional Commission;
Contributing Editor, Newsweek International 1973-76;
Editor, Bulletin 1961-62, 1967-72;
Co-Editor, Quadrant 1963-66;
Creative Director, Jackson Wain Advertising 1963-66;
Executive, Australian Association Cultural Freedom 1962-66;
Editor, Everybody’s 1961-62;
Editor, Observer 1958-61;
Editor, Weekend 1954-61;
10 Steps to a More Tolerant Australia (2003)
Looking For Leadership (2001)
Into the Open: Memoirs 1958-1999 (2000)
An Interrupted Life (1998)
The Avenue of the Fair Go (1997)
The Intelligent Tourist (1993)
The Coming Republic (1992)
Ideas for a Nation (1989)
Portrait of an Optimist (1988)
The Lucky Country Revisited (1987)
The Public Culture (1986)
Confessions of a New Boy (1985)
The Story of the Australian People (1985)
The Great Museum (1984)
Winner Take All (1981)
Time of Hope (1980)
In Search of Billy Hughes (1979)
Right Way, Don’t Go Back (1978)
His Excellency’s Pleasure (1977)
Money Made Us (1976)
Death of the Lucky Country (1976)
But What If There Are No Pelicans? (1971)
The Next Australia (1970)
God is an Englishman (1969)
The Education of Young Donald (1967)
Southern Exposure (1967)
The Permit (1965)
The Lucky Country (1964)
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.