“I FEAR my voice disappeared during the laryngectomy. But my ideas developed very early,” emailed Mungo MacCallum.
The answer was in response to mine: “can you remember when you first discovered you had a distinct voice?”
I wanted to ask Mungo this question because this was the main idea I took away from The Byron Writer’s Festival: “when does a writer first realise they have a unique take on the world”.
And after all, one of my main reasons for going to the festival this year was to meet The Lismore Echo’s most distinguished contributor.
I had read Kerry O’brien’s recent piece on him in The Monthly and seen the latest iteration of his up-dated book The Good, The Bad and The Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers, was out. I thought The Echo’s readers should know more.
As I said in my editorial a couple of weeks ago, whether you like or dislike Mungo MacCallum’s views and opinions, no one can fault his knowledge, prolificacy and style when it comes to Australian politics.
Despite having suffered serious ill- health, including melanoma, a heart attack, throat and prostate cancer and advanced emphysema – and all the surgery and debilitating treatments that go with such conditions – he has never missed a deadline in the three years I have edited this paper.
And while there were times, especially during the recent election, I searched his columns for a more balanced view on the state of affairs in our parliamentary system, I always looked forward to seeing his offering come through the firstname.lastname@example.org email on a Sunday afternoon.
I posed three questions to him via email after we met at The BBWF this month after Marc Stapelberg took his photograph. These are his answers:
1: At what age do you remember recognising your own distinctive voice? That you had something to say?
My ideas developed very early. Probably because I was an only child and was bullied at school, I had to become a communicator and was reasonably good at it. I ended up second in the state at English (and also mathematics) and was a debater – I won the statewide Lawrence Campbell award a few years before Malcolm Turnbull.
At the university I was a prolific contributor to Honi Soit and the other journals, where I branched into satire – among other things I directed Germaine Greer at the Sydney University revue. But I never considered writing as a career, just a pastime.
Overseas, I dabbled with some freelance for the BBC and when I returned home I joined the once great Australian, but I still considered it a stopgap until I was sent to Canberra in 1969, where I fell in love with the place. Politics became a passion and I was determined to de-mystify it, to make its fundamental importance accessible to readers. This meant adopting a conversational approach including jokes, satire and chat from the non-members bar.
Conservative journalists were outraged but the emerging generation were envious. And the readers seemed to like it. When I moved to Nation Review and was given my head, I was even compared to Hunter S Thompson, a comparison I loathed. But I love it when people told me that I wrote the way I spoke, I don’t speak much these days, but I like to think that my writing is still a fair substitute for voice.
2: Environmental author, Damon Gameau told the BBWF audience the reason we voted for men like Trump was because we have lost our trust in the power within our communities to lead together. We are looking for leaders to make the decisions for us. Thoughts?
Australians have always claimed to be sturdy independents but in fact we seldom resist authority – we like the idea of father (not so much mother) figures to lead us. We know they often let us down, and right now we regard them as the pits, but I cannot discern any mood for revolution.
As always, there is a demand for what is called strong leadership, even to the extent of questioning the worth of democracy, but we would never vote for a Trump – thank heavens for compulsory voting.
At the worst, there is a misplaced nostalgia for the myth of a Menzies. We are right to complain – at the moment we have much to complain about. But I think the centre will hold.
My guiding mantras have always been the Greeks’ conclusion that the idea tyranny is only as good as the worst man who can become tyrant; Churchill’s remark that democratic government is the worst system ever devised – except for all the others; and the American who pointed out that politics is the most important invention of the human race, because it is the only way we solve disputes without killing each other,
3: The Good The Bad and The Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers – what has this body of work come to represent?
The book was commissioned – I was reluctant at first because I thought it would involve too much work, but when I got into it I was immersed.
I realised it could be more than a series of brief biographies, but something of a history of Australian politics. And I have constantly updated it to that end – I think this is the fourth edition.
And as a bonus, it still provides a small but necessary source of income, which is more than can be said for any of my other many books and essays.