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National Observer Home > No. 45 - Winter 2000 >Book Reviews

Into the Open : Memoirs 1958-1999

by Donald Horne  

Sydney, HarperCollins, 358 pp. and index.

An opponent of Churchill once accused him of having written his autobiography and calling it "The World Crisis". The charge had little weight in Churchill's case, but such an accusation of implied narcissism is all too appropriate to Donald Horne's latest effort.

How did Young Donald become Chairperson Horne? How (more specifically) did a man once effervescing with heterodox, cosmopolitan enthusiasms metamorphose into that most parochial among panjandrums, whose 30-year crusade to separate taxpayers from their hard-earned readies he could justly sum up in the words, I've never met a pork-barrel I didn't like? Is this a mutation as intrinsically inexplicable as the link between Jane Fonda's Barbarella days and her Hanoi persona? Or (dread thought) was Horne the boring apparatchik already implicit in Horne the enthusiast, lacking only a Whitlam Government to bring him forth in his full charmless splendour?

These are valid enquiries, but one should not approach "Into the Open" expecting answers. Its evidence of freakish authorial memory ­ few readers could remember their most recent breakfast as clearly as Horne can remember every tiresome literary punch-up in which he participated from the 1950s onwards ­ cohabits with a reluctance to extrapolate any lasting lessons en route. Often the book attains a kind of characterisation-in-reverse, making any individual that it portrays seem less vivid than he or she was before. At times, with its weird imagery, it suggests protracted sniffing at the fumes of the viscous glue which is Patrick White's prose style. For instance, Horne surrealistically describes Bob Santamaria as "glowing in myth"; and he likens Frank Knopfelmacher to "an eternal telephone, robotically grinding".

Horne's writing ­ if we assume that "Into the Open" was written at all: to a reviewer with years of audio-typing experience, it reads suspiciously like a dictation transcript ­ cheerfully ignores Dr. Johnson's bleak admonition, "We are seldom tedious to ourselves."

Readers are, apparently, supposed to take on trust Horne's axiomatic magnitude as a light to lighten the Gentiles. Other writers, when alluded to at all, are considered primarily for the extra insight they give regarding Horne's own mental processes. We learn of (say) Frank Moorhouse, not that Moorhouse's output might be worth our while, but ­ a much more consequential news item ­ that Moorhouse's output is worth Horne's while. Of the Australian Republican Movement's political ramifications, Horne reveals little; of its insufficient deference towards Horne (the republican universe's Unmoved Mover), he reveals much. Quadrant's silver-jubilee hardback anthology is condemned, not for what it included, but for what it omitted: namely, the glorious musings of Horne. Even Whitlam's dismissal, which did for Horne (to quote Clive James) "what Culloden did for the Scots", emerges less as an administrative crisis than as a deliberate attempt by Sir John Kerr to spite Horne personally. When Spike Milligan called a book "Mussolini: His Part in My Downfall", he meant it as a joke. Horne, one fears, would be perfectly able to coin such a title in utter seriousness.

All this is not crude egotism; it is the unavoidable consequence of lobotomising any wider cultural interests formerly had, instead of measuring literary talents against the best which Europe and America have offered in our time. James McAuley chose the latter course, "costing [in T. S. Eliot's words] not less than everything"; and it was clearly this decision ­ far more than any religious or party-political difference ­ that exasperated Horne. McAuley sought assessment for his oeuvre by the standards of an Eliot, a Yeats, a Roy Campbell, a Paul Valéry (to say nothing of Milton and Dryden, whose examples haunted McAuley as incessantly as Beethoven's example haunted Brahms). Horne, by contrast, seemed content with the somewhat humbler aim of attaining a manner more lucid than Ern Malley's, less preposterously self-satisfied than Geoffrey Dutton's. In this, naturally, Horne succeeded; but since when was surpassing Dutton or Malley the artistic equivalent of scaling Everest?

Some may argue that Horne shows strange logic ­ both here and amid earlier books ­ in exalting Australia's unique significance, meanwhile hoping that Australia will drown itself in the floodtide of Asian culture; but niceties of coherence no longer trouble Horne overmuch. They rarely troubled him even in his youth, when he (along with many a colleague) paraded his reasoning skills by simultaneously preaching militant atheism and the Immaculate Conception of John Anderson.

Such cognitive dissonance results in a book sadder than Horne possibly realises. Seldom can anyone in the ruck of ideological conflict have had a weaker grasp of ideas as ideas. Beside Horne, Kenneth Tynan ­ at whose exalted journalistic level Horne should by now be residing ­ resembles one of the great metaphysicians of all time. Horne's gift as arts bureaucrat, as pamphleteer, and as academic administrator for shirking hard, unglamorous issues displays a kind of brilliance. When he first agitated for increased Australia Council funding he had an obligation to identify the questions that government arts subsidy raises by its very existence. Why institute it? Who decides how to dispense it? Has it ever amounted, in practice, to more than a totalitarian rort for the greater glory of Goebbels, Zhdanov, and their latter-day equivalents? If so, where and when? Given its products' primarily microscopic audience, how can it be reconciled with the centuries-old principle of "no taxation without representation"? Besides, where exactly are the cosmic geniuses it was supposed to germinate? And so forth.

If Horne even considered these problems, one must presume it was only to brush them away. At least the silly patronesses who subsidised "Finnegans Wake's" composition contented themselves with wasting their own money. Horne, the Mæcenas of Muswellbrook, is cannier than they: he wastes ours instead. Then he indignantly wonders why a million of his compatriots voted in 1998 for One Nation.

Horne's ostentatious heartache mystifies. No prophet is more honoured in his own country than he. Few authors anywhere match his record of fulfilling self-imposed didactic tasks. At his fame's height, he probably possessed still more intellectual influence than Manning Clark, and perhaps more power to implement pet theories than any Prime Minister since 1966 (Hawke included) has enjoyed. Everything "The Lucky Country" and its sequels told Australians to do ­ bemoan capitalism, excoriate Menzies, desacralise religion, criminalise all forms of racism except Anglophobia ­ we have done. He demanded we scrap the White Australia Policy; and we did, with socio-economic benefits discernible by anyone still prepared to walk western Sydney's streets after dark. He begged us to extirpate censorship; this also we did, confident that legal permission to publish four-letter words ad infinitum would of itself ensure an Augustan age. He urged us to confer tertiary "education" on even (or rather especially) those forever incapable of benefiting from it; we did that too, with what effects upon the social contract any observer can see. In foreign policy he exhorted us to "let Asia triumph, though the heavens fall"; and we obeyed him for a quarter of a century, till East Timorese cries to these same heavens for vengeance became fractionally too clamorous even for Keating to drown out.

To Horne, therefore, Sir Christopher Wren's renowned epitaph applies: "If you seek his monument, look around you." Yet is Horne grateful for the sheer sycophancy with which Australians have consummated his programme? No, indeed: "Into the Open" exudes rancorous bafflement. Its narrative's chronological confusion seems to accentuate the author's own throbbing grievance at foes long since dead. A reader who had somehow spent the last three decades in a coma would assume from Horne's grumbling that the Infamous Menzies ­ during whose diabolical régime Australia suffered the tortures of full employment and predominantly crime-free suburbia ­ was still alive. But then he is, for Horne at least. We remember Japan's Lieutenant Onoda, who emerged from the Philippines' jungles in 1974, unaware that World War II had finished. Horne apparently suffers from analogous myopia about his own combat, an attitude that is surely taking Asia-worship altogether too far. Actually, Horne goes one better than both Onoda and the proverbial general: he continues to fight the last culture war. One would not be surprised if he now started to advocate new objects of enthusiasm like Bob Dylan, chic new novels like "Portnoy's Complaint", or mega-hip clergy like John XXIII.

Those who have formed sympathies with Horne's views may want this book. Others may content themselves with wondering whether so disjointed a manuscript would even have found a publisher had its perpetrator been a young unknown. Something of the production's sheer self-indulgence becomes obvious from its very cover design. Not one, not two, but seven photographic portraits of the author adorn it. Even for those few writers endowed with the natural good looks of a Catherine Zeta-Jones or a Natalie Imbruglia, such visual treatment would seem like overkill; but for the rest of us . . .

R.J. Stove


National Observer No. 45 - Winter 2000