Michael McKernan on Ryan Cropp’s Donald Horne Biography

By Michael McKernan

Review: Ryan Cropp, Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country (La Trobe University Press). pp. 384. Paper $38.00.

In June 1977 Donald Horne came into my office – we were on the same corridor – quite early in the morning. He was clutching his copy of Historical Studies. I was pleased as I thought he was about to congratulate me on my first article in Australia’s premier history journal and I was quite proud of my achievement, too.

Cover of Donald Horne: A Life in the Lucky Country Not a bit of it. He was spluttering with rage. Under ‘Short Notices’ right at the back of the journal there was a paragraph on his book, Money Made Us, published the previous year. The ‘review’ was generous, to a point: ‘it contains much that is stimulating and the fruitfulness of its method is demonstrated, but overall it is disappointing.’ In less than another 100 words the book’s ‘reviewer’ explained why. The ‘review’ was unsigned. Donald wanted to know if I knew who had written it. Me? Give me a break. No mention of my substantial article. I thought Donald Horne was the most self-centred man I had ever met.

Ryan Cropp agrees with me, but he goes much further than that. This is a fine biography of a difficult man. Cropp brings maturity and sensitivity to his task, demonstrating to the reader his significant ability to deal with complex issues clearly and cleverly. It is a whole of life account which differs, considerably, at points, with Donald’s own account of his life.

In The Education of Young Donald, the first of the trilogy of autobiography, a book hugely admired on publication and since, Donald devotes considerable space to his ramshackle life as a university student, his extraordinary drinking, his gross self-promotion and his (tedious) fights with Sydney University’s literary community. Cropp overlooks a great deal of this, though he does emphasise the importance of philosopher John Anderson in shaping Horne’s way of thinking, his methodology of thinking, that would remain with him for the rest of his life.

Cropp advises his readers to read Donald’s autobiographical writings very carefully. They are not always trustworthy, he cautions, creating a ‘Donald’ that suited the author’s purposes. In my early morning conversations with Horne at the University of New South Wales, I often encouraged him to get cracking on the rest of his life, such was my admiration for The Education. Donald would look at me quizzically as if cautioning me against reading too much into the book. It was not until I read Ryan Cropp that I understood what Donald was trying to let me in on.

This book often hinges around the lunches that consumed so much of Horne’s time both as a journalist and later. I only lunched with Donald once, to thank him for launching my first book. It was then I discovered another facet of the life that Ryan Cropp emphasises: Donald was an unrestrained gossip. We gossiped about our university colleagues, mutual friends – Ed Campion springs to mind – and anyone else that hoved into sight. It was amusing but also illustrated what great skill Horne had in reading people.

One of the people Horne read most successfully, in this account, was the newspaper proprietor and bully (Sir) Frank Packer. Horne’s career in journalism was turbulent, sacked as a Sydney University stringer, and then tempted from diplomatic training by the offer of a job at the Daily Telegraph. Horne brought substantial skills to journalism – enormous curiosity, remarkable energy, quick-wittedness, careful writing, and attention to detail. Enough for success, but as Ryan Cropp demonstrates, it was the whims, prejudices and casualness of the proprietor that determined careers.

Horne, as editor of Weekend, a Packer ‘tits and bums’ shocker, gave the proprietor exactly what he wanted: enormous sales. Horne added another string to his bow on Weekend – he could be outrageous and get away with it through malicious, overblown humour. As a reward, Horne was given a serious paper to create and edit, Observer, which succeeded intellectually even if sales were miniscule compared to Weekend. Then he was horse-shoed into the Bulletin, which Packer had almost accidentally acquired.

Tiring, eventually, of Packer Horne tried and succeeded in advertising before being rescued by Professors Douglas McCallum and Frank Crowley for a life as an academic in his last quarter. Recruiting Donald Horne was a coup for UNSW’s Faculty of Arts, originally a poor relation to Sydney University, soon to easily surpass it. Horne was a natural academic, a talker, a leader, a teacher and extraordinarily productive. At Ryan Cropp’s hands, readers gain keen insights into the practice of journalism and the nature of academia, either worth the price of the book alone.

One of the great strengths of this book is the close reading that Ryan Cropp gives to each of Donald Horne’s most important books. Of course there is a separate chapter on The Lucky Country. Cropp’s understanding of the achievement of that book, and its shattering place in the Australian national conversation, is profound. It was the undoubted high point of Horne’s writing life. But there was so much more, so many books, and most receive similar close attention. It is pleasing, too, that Cropp emphasises the close collaboration, in all his writing, between Horne and his wife Myfanwy. He would not publish without her involvement and authorisation.

But it is Ed Campion who provides the best lines in Donald Horne. ‘For half a century, said Campion, Horne’s family and friends were “enrolled in the ongoing Donald Horne seminar whose foundation member was Myfanwy.”’ The seminar was constant, amusing and beyond fascinating to the seminar convenor.

There is so much to admire, enjoy and be nourished by in this book, but readers may wonder, as they turn the last page, whether they have come any closer to understanding the enigma and mystery that Donald Horne was. Perhaps in the last section, when all the stuffing has been knocked out of the showman, the aerial trapeze artist, the garrulous raconteur, readers come closest to knowing the real Donald Horne.

The last chapter, ‘Requiem’, though only a few pages, is intense and fine writing. There is sadness, of course, at the ending of every life, but as readers contemplate Donald’s death, they come to realise that we will never see his like again. He had a place in Australians’ affections; he was listened to; he was widely read and highly regarded; he gave so much to Australian life over such a long period. We were richer for having him in our national life.

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