July 2019

Arts & Letters

Mungo MacCallum: A true journalistic believer

By Kerry O’Brien

Mungo MacCallum. December 13, 1979. © The Sydney Morning Herald

Celebrating the contribution of an Australian media legend

St Mungo’s Day came to Brunswick Heads a little late this year. Eight days late, and very different to the tradition journalist Mungo MacCallum had begun not long after moving to the seductive Byron region of northern New South Wales 31 years ago.

We’re slowly making our way up the Brunswick River through ancient volcanic country on a chartered flat-bottomed boat, watching with deep respect and affection as Mungo climbs slowly to his feet and carefully picks his way across to the jazz band squeezed into a corner of the cabin. He gingerly lowers himself into another chair and picks up the microphone. The band slides into the opening bars of “St James Infirmary Blues”, Mungo places a finger on the stoma in his throat, takes as deep a breath as his lungs will allow, and huskily whispers rather than sings the first few words.

“I went down to St James Infirmary…”

He smiles his way through the words but we can all see the effort it’s taking.

“Let her go, let her go, let her go…”

One thing Mungo has not done as his body has betrayed him with chronic regularity over the past six years – or maybe has just paid him back for his abuse of it – is let it go.

In the last half-dozen years Mungo has had two significant brushes with melanoma, a heart attack, throat cancer, and now prostate cancer and advanced emphysema. Through all of it, including the 16-hour operation on his throat and various rounds of debilitating chemo and radio therapy, he has continued, with very rare lapses, to write his weekly political column in a genuinely independent and nicely idiosyncratic Byron newspaper called The Echo. The quality of his work is as good as anything he’s churned out in 50 years, and his well of political history – a rare commodity these days – is deeper than any other commentator’s I know. He also has a regular blog for The Monthly called “The View from Billinudgel” and has written 11 books and two Quarterly Essays.

I told Mungo that one motivation for writing this profile was the hope that it might help keep him alive. The last time I tried something similar it was a long interview for the ABC with Clive James, who felt his death was so imminent he’d already begun writing his own requiem in verse. In fact, the BBC accidentally killed him off at the time. His friend Martin Amis told him to lie low for a few days so he could see what others would say about him. That was in 2013 and he’s still going, still writing reflective verse on his still imminent death. But then Clive has only had leukaemia and emphysema.

There’s no journalist alive who’s covered this nation’s politics as long as Mungo has. He began writing national affairs from The Australian’s Sydney office in the Menzies years and joined its Canberra bureau in 1969, the same year that Laurie Oakes started at Melbourne’s Sun. In fact there was a stream of young Turks into the press gallery at the time, questioning why the positive political coverage was so skewed to the conservative side. Mind you, it wasn’t hard to find negative stories to write against Labor during its years of internal trench warfare after the Split in the ’50s, but the conservatives went largely unscrutinised.

Mungo was a cheerfully self-confessed class traitor. As a descendent of wealthy colonial adventurers and political conservatives – a long line of Wentworths – and student of the elite Cranbrook school, he went in the opposite direction to that which his heritage would have ordained. His presence in the Canberra press gallery was of some discomfort to his uncle, William Wentworth IV, who was a minister in “Jolly” John Gorton’s government.

He’s also the last in a long line of Mungos. His great-grandfather, Sir Mungo, was already a distinguished scholar when he arrived at the University of Sydney from Glasgow as its foundation professor of language and modern literature. He ultimately became chancellor and has a campus building dedicated to him. Mungo has written that both sides of the family were “remorselessly conservative in their politics”. His father, also Mungo, was a print and broadcast journalist, and a senior manager and programmer at the ABC when it first hesitantly embraced television. Young Mungo guessed his father voted Labor but if so he kept his shocking secret from the wider family.

Mungo felt no such stricture. His politics headed increasingly left as he made his way through university and his early years in journalism, as the Vietnam War began to escalate and environmental causes began to permeate the political consciousness of the young. His eyes were also opened for the first time to the scandalously institutionalised racism inflicted on Indigenous Australians and the depths of degradation they suffered.

“I used to volunteer that two great Australian families met in me,” he wrote in his memoir nearly 40 years later, “and both lost.” The first chapter is headed: “My family used to run the place but all I got was their worn-out genes.”

His friends and contemporaries at university included Clive James, Germaine Greer, writer and publisher Richard Walsh and artist Martin Sharp – the latter two both of Oz magazine fame – and Mungo co-directed the 1962 university revue that featured Greer in her stage debut. He and Walsh were in the Australian universities’ debating team and were among an extremely talented bunch of students on the campus paper, Honi Soit. He remembers Greer stopping one of the more pretentiously intellectual meaning-of-life conversations at the time with the rather emphatic premise that “God does not exist and if he did he’d be a fascist cunt”.

Walsh has observed that “Mungo’s brilliance as a writer, his flamboyant character and his pedigree soon established him as one of the most colourful personalities” at the university. Not bad, measured against fellow travellers like James and Greer, as well as Australia’s recently deceased pre-eminent poet, Les Murray, actor John Bell, and filmmakers and writers like Bruce Beresford and Bob Ellis.

As a partnership, MacCallum and Walsh were the long and the short of it and I’d kill for a photo of the pair dashing around in Mungo’s Goggomobil, the tiny German car that was part of his shtick. As Walsh observed, “The car was so small and Mungo so tall that he usually drove it with the sunroof open so the top of his head – his mouth normally dangling a cigarette – half protruded.”

Mungo clearly had a thing for small cars, because when he left Australia by boat for Asia and Europe after collecting his honours degree in maths, he took a mostly reliable re-conditioned Morris Minor with him, driving it through India, Pakistan, southern Iran and Turkey before stopping for a year in Greece, which, he felt, had invented almost everything worthwhile in Western civilisation. He settled among the island of Hydra’s colony of expatriate bohemians including Australian writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift and a young Canadian poet named Leonard Cohen, whom Mungo remembers as “an introspective opium smoker who worried ceaselessly about the quality of his orgasms”.

His time in Greece was longer than he’d intended because he was joined there by his unexpectedly expectant girlfriend, Sue. They opted to marry and have the child on Hydra, before moving on to London, as was the wont of practically all young Australian expatriates of the era. When he left for home, he sold his car to Clive James for a shilling. I’ve never asked whether he’d warned Clive that there was no second gear, the exhaust bled into the back of the car and the doors wouldn’t lock.

When Mungo entered journalism back home in early 1965, he cracked a job in the small Sydney office of Murdoch’s fledgling Australian, which at the time, he said, was “constantly breaking new ground, doing new things”. He’d actually applied to Murdoch’s Sydney afternoon tabloid, The Daily Mirror, thinking he would have no chance at the country’s first national daily newspaper, but was drawn to the attention of The Australian’s then editorial director, Douglas Brass, who was impressed by Mungo’s ability to use the semicolon. As it turned out he wasn’t able to capitalise on that rare journalistic ability because the teleprinters on which he fed his copy to the Canberra news desk didn’t have a semicolon key. Before long, as well as his general beat he was writing a weekly satirical column, which Rupert Murdoch would monotonously complain about, and the editor, Adrian Deamer, would defend with equal monotony.

Richard Walsh also recruited him on the side as Oz magazine’s anonymous and unrestrained political correspondent. For Oz he specialised in some of the national capital’s more scurrilous political gossip.

Mungo was sent to The Australian’s Canberra bureau in 1969, three years after Menzies, “a pompous old fart”, had retired. His successor, Harold Holt, had drowned, Gorton had become prime minister, Gough Whitlam was in the ascendancy and the politics was colourful to say the least.

Having covered any number of national political stories from Sydney for several years, it came as a shock to Mungo, now all of 28, to realise how little he knew about the subterranean bureaucratic and parliamentary processes, often unreported behind the superficial exterior of a political game to which the gallery frequently applied only very basic analysis. He took it upon himself to demystify it all and try to engage the unengaged – often with the irreverence and humour that had become his hallmark. “Cut through the bullshit” was his shorthand.

The real dialogue between politicians and journalists was most often conducted in King’s Hall, the centre of the gracious old “temporary” Parliament House, and in the non-members bar. Mungo once wrote, “If King’s Hall was the building’s heart, the chambers its lungs, and the corridors and lobbies its veins and arteries, then the non-members bar is its liver.”

Journalists, lobbyists, politicians and their staff all cycled through the non-members bar, coming and going throughout the day and well into the night. Information washed through the place as efficiently as the alcohol. If the discourse had to be more discreet, the modernistic Lobby restaurant across the road had its tables set far enough apart to make eavesdropping more difficult, although of course the visual sightings often made it easier to work out who was leaking to whom.

The Mungo I met in Canberra in the early 1970s was all arms and legs and wispy beard, with a drink and a cigarette at a well-exercised elbow whenever possible, and always quick to laugh. Whether at lunch or in the office, or commenting for radio or television, or in the non-members bar, when he wasn’t drily poking fun at one hapless target or another, he would enter discussions with the sense that he was dispensing the last word on the subject, and a look that defied you to disagree.

Richard Walsh had since moved on from Oz to edit Nation Review, the highly entertaining and provocative weekly newspaper started by a young trucking entrepreneur named Gordon Barton with the aim of shaking up both mainstream media and politics. For Canberra coverage, Walsh recruited Mungo, who by then had been warned enough times that he was on borrowed time. Adrian Deamer told him Rupert Murdoch had taken to stamping around The Australian’s Sydney office “shouting that he had not started the paper as a refuge for soft, bearded lefties with suede shoes”. Nation Review promised a lot of fun and plenty of room for exposing cant with sometimes scalding candour, and allowed full rein to Mungo’s humour and sense of the ridiculous.

Victorian premier Henry Bolte, who strongly believed in the power of a good hanging to enhance his electoral support and never minded admitting it, was “Henry the Hangman” or “The grand old man of murder”. Ralph Hunt, one of the Country Party’s more stolid frontbench performers, was “Ralph Rhyming Slang”. Mungo’s essay for the Review on the opening of parliament after Whitlam had led Labor into government from 23 years in the political desert, illustrated by a very young and immensely shy Michael Leunig, was a classic. Sir Paul Hasluck, for instance, the Tory governor-general and somewhat prim former Menzies minister who’d had to read Whitlam’s program into Hansard as if it were his own, “went home, presumably to wash his mouth out with sulphuric acid before coming back for the evening piss-up”.

Mungo’s targets weren’t confined to the conservatives. The former Labor leader Arthur Calwell, who had failed three times to win government, once sued Nation Review for a million dollars – a tidy sum nearly half a century ago – because Mungo had described him as part of “a narrow and embittered Labor gerontocracy whose actions seemed motivated by almost anything except to enhance the party’s electoral prospects”. The original judgement awarded a modest $18,000 to Calwell but was overturned on appeal; a landmark ruling that meant public figures could no longer claim to be immune from criticism.

The ungrateful son of Establishment privilege never hid his admiration for Whitlam (who was also viewed by conservatives as a class traitor), but still took the piss out of him as circumstances demanded. The Great Man’s rasher moments were sometimes driven by anger and frustration, such as when he called Joh Bjelke-Petersen a “bible-bashing bastard”, and sometimes by a wicked sense of humour that could be wilfully indulgent, such as when, as Mungo recorded it, he joked about Tasmania’s reputation for inbreeding to a group of journalists travelling to the island state with him: “There’s always a chance of a bit of double-headed fellatio.”

Out of it all, Mungo remained a believer. His enduring view of Whitlam is of a man who changed the face of Australia overwhelmingly for the better. “But change brings insecurity,” he wrote in his memoir, “and the dark side of Whitlam’s legacy is that the cost of trying to implement a grand political and social vision is now seen to be unacceptably high.” Bob Hawke and Paul Keating would passionately dispute that, given their 13 years of reform that also changed Australia’s course, but there was periodic friction between them and Gough over what he saw as their failure to maintain the breadth of his vision. Hawke’s lack of political courage on national land rights for First Australians was a case in point.

Mungo was a late convert to both Hawke and Keating. He thought Hawke was “too ego-driven, too erratic and too impulsive” in his quest for the prime ministership over Bill Hayden, but concluded that in government, backed by a superstar ministry, he became “a superb leader in Cabinet, and the finest political tactician I have ever met”. He initially thought Keating was even more opportunistic than Hawke, but later that along with Hawke he founded Australia’s modern economy and as prime minister became a significant leader in his own right. Mungo describes Keating’s Redfern speech on reconciliation and Mabo as seminal in resurrecting the drive for an honest history of the harsh colonial impact on First Australians. John Howard, on the other hand, he saw as turning the country back to its paternalistic and assimilationist past, stalling the reconciliation agenda.

There have been too many recent prime ministers to cover here, but he does not see Scott Morrison too kindly either, characterising him as utterly vacuous and obsessed with marketing spin. “I don’t even think the bastardry is intentional,” he says, “it’s just what he is. In a sense it is the inevitable culmination of his bankrupt and moribund party. His re-election might provide a reset but I am not optimistic.”

When Nation Review folded in 1981, Mungo stayed on in the gallery, unshrinking in style, wit and candour, as a columnist and commentator, but by 1988, with the move to the new Parliament House imminent, he’d had enough. It was a combination of physical and mental exhaustion (a certain amount of it self-inflicted) and his intense dislike for what he saw ahead for both journalists and politicians in the cavernous new building. He’d witnessed the planning from the inside as a member of the press gallery committee and saw it coming as “a grand museum of Australian art, but bad for journalism and worse for democracy”. He felt the chance for real interaction between ministers and backbenchers, let alone between journalists and all politicians, would be hopelessly constrained. He was proven absolutely right on that front. Politicians could hide for days in their self-contained offices, he said, and so they often did.

He and his partner, Jenny Garrett, opted for a new life in the Northern Rivers of NSW near Brunswick Heads. He was writing a regular column for the Melbourne Herald at the time and was able to keep it going from the outside looking in. Semi-retiring to the beach, he called it. Or as he wrote at the end of his memoir:

I once was an over-achiever
A true journalistic believer
But now I relax
With a phone and a fax
And a large curly-coated retriever.

Mungo and Jenny were scouting out their new territory when Nick Shand, co-founder of The Echo, recognised him in a pub and invited him to their tongue-in-cheek annual staff awards night at which he won a limerick competition. He would go on to contribute a weekly column and crosswords – quick and cryptic – which he has delivered ever since, for little more payment than enthusiastic community goodwill. He has also continued to write political commentary for various mainstream outlets, and even wrote on cricket for The Australian Financial Review, as well as turning out a book every two or three years. Each one has laugh-out-loud moments as well as distilled political wisdom. He wrote three of them on election campaigns from the back bar of his then local, the Billinudgel Hotel. Even those who wholeheartedly disagree with his politics should value the history lessons.

The only surprise in all this for those who knew Mungo from the ’60s to the ’80s, is that he didn’t cash in his chips 20 years ago, or even earlier. Let’s just say he has lived his life even more exuberantly than most journalists of his generation, whose mortality in those days was around the 50 mark.

He credits Jenny, his sheet anchor, with saving his life. He’d once told her their relationship wouldn’t work because there wasn’t enough conflict. By then he’d already been married three times. They’ve now been together for more than 30 years, with blended family scattered from Cairns to Hobart, and two dogs who rarely leave their side. The four of them became such a feature at the Poinciana cafe in Mullumbimby that the business had postcards printed, featuring them all at their regular table. They similarly featured for some years in the beer garden of John Cornell’s popular Hotel Bruns-wick, until the dogs were banned and Mungo imposed his own ban on the pub.

David Lovejoy, the other co-founder of The Echo, says that after 31 years he can’t imagine the paper without Mungo on the editorial page and, like the rest of us, misses the conversations of old before Mungo lost his voice. Lovejoy sees him as “marooned in silence”.

Mungo has copped his failing health on the chin, but says that without the capacity to continue writing he’d have slashed his wrists by now. “The eminent scientist, J.B.S. Haldane, wrote a brilliant mock-heroic poem called ‘Cancer’s a funny thing’,” Mungo wrote in one of our email exchanges. “I don’t find it all that funny, but given 35 years of dedicated smoking I really can’t complain. People say I’m brave, but I’m not. I will claim to be stoic, and as productive and cheerful as I can be under the circumstances, but the constant dependency is the worst. Jenny has, of course, been wonderful, but I feel really guilty about making her into a virtual full-time carer. But I am not allowed to drive, can only walk about 100 metres with a stick and eat much of my food through a tube from a hole in my stomach. (Haldane mentions it: ‘And now I am like two-faced Janus / The only man who can see his own anus.’)”

He can still appreciate family and friends, and he makes social appearances when he can. His motorised scooter is a blessing, but he tires quickly. It now takes him an hour each morning with his various medications, the nebuliser and other necessary rituals just to set himself up for the day. Iced coffees have replaced the crisp white wines of the past. He keeps up with the news on the ABC and sport on Foxtel, and the two columns and the weekly cryptic crossword are like his lifeblood. He has also been updating his book on Australian prime ministers, The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, for a new edition out this month.

He thinks his heart will fail him before the cancer has its way. “The low moments are when I feel that I’m going further and further downhill,” he says. “I have made a living will, and do not want to be revived if it involves living as a vegetable. There are things to live for, but I’m genuinely not worried about dying. I am an atheist, which is actually something of an advantage.

“Since my schooldays I have regarded religion as superfluous – Occam’s razor warns against multiplying entities unnecessarily, which means if there is already an inadequate explanation, don’t make another one up instead. Religion is mainly about creation – now comprehensively covered by science – and morals, varying from creed to creed, and usually derived more from common sense and culture than blind obedience.

“Philosophers all tell you that if you do good for hope of reward or fear of punishment, you are not doing good at all. I do believe there are some absolutes – cruelty and racism are always and everywhere wrong. Being sure what is right is more complicated. I usually fall back on the old formula of trying to leave the place a bit better. That misogynist grump and compulsive correspondent, Paul, who never met Jesus but claimed to have channelled him in the throes of an epileptic fit, did at least produce a useful set of triplets. I find Faith the least appealing; her sisters Hope and Charity are far more attractive.”

He called his memoir Mungo: The Man Who Laughs, borrowing from a Bertolt Brecht poem on posterity: “He who laughs has not yet heard the terrible tidings.” Mungo has now lost his physical capacity to laugh, and has to content himself with a wide grin, crinkled face and lively eyes. But his sense of humour is clearly intact and more important to him than ever, even though he now lives day and night with Brecht’s bad news. It speaks volumes for the durability of the human spirit. Certainly his.

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