Revisiting the fascinating life of an original intellect
The Education of Young Donald Trilogy
By Donald Horne
NewSouth Books, 797pp, $39.99
reviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
Donald Horne, who died in 2005 aged 83, wrote more than two dozen books, including The Lucky Country and one of the finest general histories of our nation, The Australian People.
Now, published in the centenary of Horne’s birth, comes a timely revisiting of his entertaining autobiographical trilogy, which enables us to re-evaluate the making of one of Australia’s leading writers and public intellectuals.
The Education of Young Donald Trilogy combines in a single volume The Education of Young Donald (first published in 1967), Confessions of a New Boy (1985) and Portrait of an Optimist (1988). In doing so, we get a fascinating first-hand account of Australian social, political and cultural life, from the 1920s to the ’50s.
The events and episodes in Horne’s revealing trilogy conclude in 1958. This was shortly before Donald, then 36, met his helpmate and partner for life, Myfanwy Gollan, and just after he became editor of The Observer, working for Kerry Packer’s brother Clyde. Under Horne this influential periodical challenged entrenched ideas about the direction Australia ought be headed.
As The Education of Young Donald recounts, Horne was born in the outer Sydney suburb of Kogarah but was reared in Muswellbrook in the upper Hunter region of NSW, where his melancholic, golf-playing father taught at the local school. His mother, whom he adored, was more sociable than his dad. At an early age, the bookish Donald was hospitalised with congestion of the lungs. As Donald and Myfanwy’s children, Julia and Nick Horne, explain in their introduction to the trilogy, writing a highly personal memoir was Donald’s “way of testing out some of The Lucky Country’s popular generalisations against the example of his own life”.
Rereading The Education of Young Donald, it seems to be a somewhat schizophrenic self-portrait. In it he contrasts “DR Horne angry shouter” with “young Donald Horne, soft-spoken mumbler of witticisms”. Often, as an “entirely objectionable university student”, the former, he recounts, regularly overpowered the latter.
Horne is often characterised as the creator of the pithy phrase “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by second-rate people who share its luck”. But this description doesn’t do him justice.
The Lucky Country isn’t really about the role luck plays in Australian life.
In fact, as Julia and Nick Horne contend, it is “an impassioned call for us to be a country where intelligence and imagination are prized as much as the other good qualities that have helped make the place what it is”.
Confessions of a New Boy and Portrait of an Optimist, written a few decades later, showed Donald Horne at the height of his intellectual and writerly powers. Both are perceptive, funny and revealing.
Highlights of Confessions of a New Boy include Horne’s military training during World War II and later chapters outline his intellectual and sexual development, his love of poetry, novels and philosophy, his experiences as a trainee diplomat, and his early work as a journalist.
He had significant friendships with poet James McAuley and with Douglas McCallum, a freewheeling intellectual who introduced Horne to the libertarian ideas of Scottish-born University of Sydney philosophy professor John Anderson.
Portrait of an Optimist includes vivid depictions of Horne’s time in post-war England, including living with his first wife, Ethel, at her mother’s home in Cornwall and their exploits in London. We read about his early and largely unsuccessful attempts as a writer of novels and of serious nonfiction. This book also reveals his personal and professional relations with Frank Packer and especially with Packer’s eldest son Clyde after Horne’s return to Sydney.
The Education of Young Donald Trilogy is a witty and nimble exploration of how, as an emerging writer and a budding intellectual, Horne managed to confront, and often harness, his many strengths and to overcome his weaknesses.
For the record, in the ’70s when he taught in the school of political science at the University of NSW, along with McCallum, Horne was extremely helpful to me while I was researching and writing my PhD in the field of political theory. Perhaps more important, through his constant interventions, Horne was instrumental in enabling me – an asthmatic who then smoked 40 cigarettes a day – to stop smoking and to stay stopped.
Ross Fitzgerald is the author of 42 books, most recently a memoir, Fifty Years Sober : An Alcoholic’s Journey (Hybrid).
The Australian, Bookshelf, July 30, 2021, p 10