October 2005

The Nation Reviewed

The dishwasher unstacker

By Edmund Campion
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

News of Donald Horne’s death, at 83, opened a torrent of remembrance. The sports pages of London’sGuardian newspaper, in a story about the Ashes, even found a lead in his phrase “the lucky country” – a famous irony that went famously wrong when people used it to boast of Aussie successes. Mostly the obituarists wrote about Horne the public man: the “emeritus professor”, “author”, “editor” and “critic”, as his death notice called him, the stirrer and thinker with 74 listings to his name in the State Library of New South Wales catalogue.

At his funeral, though, it was not the public man but the family man who dominated proceedings. When adult members of his family spoke they remembered him at home: the husband who made breakfast each morning for his wife Myfanwy and whose regular domestic tasks were folding the laundry and unstacking the dishwasher. They spoke of robust debates at the table that sometimes became raucous, as one of them said, when each member of this talented family sought to have their say. They remembered too the meticulous planning that went into their trips together. They’d sit around the table consulting histories, maps and guidebooks, and considering each other’s preferences.

Mention of their travels caught my attention. Like many people, when news of his death broke I took a Donald Horne book off the shelf to relive my contacts with him. The book I chose was Right Way: Don’t Go Back (1978), an account of the Horne family’s travels in Australia – along the Murray, to Melbourne and Port Phillip Bay, to Adelaide and Kangaroo Island, and to Alice Springs and Darwin. It was part holiday and part research for something else he was working on, and he wrote it because “travel is a family experience” and he wished to explore “the rituals of family intimacy”. True: here for all to see are the quizzes, word games, exchanges of information, tantrums and shared stories of a family’s life. Meals are a central ritual to be planned, prepared and enjoyed together, not fodder to be consumed on the run. In Robe, on South Australia’s Limestone Coast, Myfanwy goes looking for crayfish tails, only to find that every tail is being sent to the US market. So she makes do with shelled claws and legs. With these she buys lemons, rolls, a cucumber, strawberries, two bottles of West End beer and a bottle of white wine, and thus creates a feast. Every meal was seasoned with ideas and discussion.

In the book the Horne children, then quite young, appear as partners in their parents’ lives. Both are great readers, although Nick also plays bridge and collects souvenirs. Julia buys postcards wherever they go – perhaps the beginning of her adult career as an historian of tourism. Then there is Donald himself. His role is to condense their joint research and present it on the road in a way that will engage their attention. Typically, he reports this with lots of irony and self-mockery. He writes of himself “lecturing to the windscreen of the car”. He concedes that listening to him lecture is thirsty work: “We go to a milk bar.” There was nothing stuffy about him, as these pages show. They also show his questioning mind at work. He never looked at anything without asking: what is it for? What is its meaning? Where does it fit in the scheme of things? The old Andersonian never ceased examining the life round him.

In Into the Open (2000) he wrote that he had learned the craft of good prose from Brian Penton, his editor at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph: no difficult words; no verbal jams; “cut out the first two paragraphs of almost anything contributed by someone from a university”. In Right Way: Don’t Go Back you see him exercising his craft. He was a lucid, lively writer because he worked at it.

The book also shows him obeying another Penton dictum: “If you take the trouble you can give people something to think about.” On the road he did this with his primary audience, his family, because if Julia and Nick understood him he knew his readers would too. From an early age they were enrolled in the ongoing Donald Horne seminar whose foundation member was Myfanwy: his researcher, first reader and necessary critic. The seminar membership spread to include friends, colleagues, students and anyone able to contribute. Now, sadly, that long seminar is over.

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