La Trobe 2023

ISBN: 9781760641375

RRP: $37.99

Reviewed by Anne Henderson




It took a year to write in 1964 but was years in the making; its title came as a light bulb moment when Geoffrey Dutton suggested to Donald Horne that the name Horne had given to the final section of his manuscript would make an “intriguing” book title. And so, The Lucky Country it became. A title that would so capture the national imagination it would become synonymous with Australia itself. The book would sell out in nine days and be revised and reprinted so many times it has never gone out of print.

Ryan Cropp’s Donald Horne – A Life in The Lucky Country is a biography worthy of its subject – exhaustingly researched, frankly told and surprisingly revealing. Cropp follows the life and mind of Horne over the decades, capturing what he describes as “a kind of public explainer, a crystalliser and a clarifier, a taker of the cultural and political temperature”. Horne, born in late 1921, was what Cropp identifies as an “autodidact”, forever seeking answers and accumulating knowledge.

Horne entered the University of Sydney as the Second World War approached, was soon enough submitting poems to the university newspaper Honi Soit and quickly became its editor. Bruce Miller, a later editor of Honi Soit, described Horne as “clever, cynical and egotistical”.

It was at university Horne decided he wanted to be a journalist and, for a time, was employed by Brian Penton at the Daily Telegraph to submit occasional pieces from the university. From Penton, Horne gained some of his alienated views of his native country and its (from his point of view) comatose inhabitants. Horne’s development as an undergraduate writer would be rudely interrupted by a spell in the Australian military where he spent miserable months in what he described as “regional purgatories”. He eventually escaped by passing his exam to join the External Affairs Department.

Cropp follows Horne’s chequered career over following years as he supplemented life as a public servant with three days a week as a casual reporter for the Daily Telegraph and trying out his ideas in bars with fellow Canberra journalists. He was a fervent anti-communist, a follower of the ideas of author Friedrick Hayek and his old university professor John Anderson, author of The Servile State that argued against state planning and what had become known as state socialism.

Horne would move to an insecure job at Sydney’s Daily Telegraph, sample a taste of what seemed to him bohemian Sydney, marry British divorcee Ethel Deyns and become a strident critic of the Chifley Labor government over bank nationalisation and increasing government intervention in the economy. Horne was a believer in the domino theory of encroaching communism in South East Asia along with a critic of Doc Evatt’s view that Australia could rely on the UN for its defence. A stint in the UK and failing to become a novelist made Australia more attractive, in spite of discovering London’s literary/political magazine Encounter which Horne found a “revelation”.  In 1954, he returned alone to Australia where, in time, he became Frank Packer’s editor of the Weekly Mail a publication Frank Moorhouse described as “sexually retarded” and Robert Hughes referred to as “Packer’s tit-and-bum sheet”.

Separated from Ethel for some two years, the marriage ended and Horne took up with Myfanwy Gollan, daughter of Ross Gollan a journalist with The Sydny Morning Herald. Their eventual marriage would be long lasting with Myfanwy devoted to her husband’s intellectual pursuits in which she participated as critic, proof reader, editorial overseer and more besides. Horne later acknowledged that his books would not have happened without Myfanwy. In all of this, Horne was never bothered with household or domestic affairs as they had decided early that “he would be in charge of paid work and she in charge of the rest”.

It is Cropp’s achievement to craft an engrossing account of the development of both Horne as intellectual and determined thinker managing his way – even at times losing it – to career heights as editor of The Bulletin and The Observer all the while steadfastly beavering away at his desire to produce a book to capture his long held and evolving theories and views about his fellow citizens, their national consciousness and the men who led them. In this, Cropp explores Horne’s close involvement with the Australian Association for Cultural Freedom (AACF) and its close association with the magazine Quadrant. Conservatives such as Richard Krygier, James McAuley, Frank Knopfelmacher and intellectuals such as Geoffrey Dutton and Max Harris were among the many he discussed and chewed the rag with over time. It was an age of fledgling intellectual magazines, such as Southerly, Overland and Meanjin. Strangely, in spite of a conservative Menzies Government, only Quadrant failed to receive a literary grant.

The conservative perspectives among those associated with the CCF suited Horne’s view that the Menzies Government was not a serious challenge to the rise of communism and state control. Travels in South East Asia and Taiwan had increased Horne’s sense that Australia must come to terms with its closeness to Asia and its future relationship with countries emerging from, and resisting, their long years of European influence and control. For Horne it was wake up time and out of this came The Lucky Country. A book that would become for many like a paperback compendium on their nation and its strengths and failings.

Cropp does not make a close examination of the text of The Lucky Country so much as summarise its effect on public opinion and its contribution to Horne’s rise to become a national spokesperson, revered as one who changed a nation. In fact, while the book opened up a new conversation, it was more a diagnosis than a guide for radical change. The generalisations in The Lucky Country were fair enough but also general enough to be interpreted broadly which had the effect of coalescing public views while not really offering a way forward except to explore ideas for change. The Menzies years had been generous to Australians, delivering stability, prosperity and a boost to family life. But boredom for many had set in. What Horne realised in The Lucky Country was a snapshot of Australia rather than any specific suggestions for change. Cropp sums it up writing:

With over fifty years of hindsight, it now appears as a kind of singular literary manifestation of a nation (and a man) in transition, a symbolic stake in the ground at the point between the old Australia and the new…. At the height of the book’s popularity, Horne – hitherto a largely obscure political commentator and magazine editor – managed to achieve something close to household-name recognition.

Success increased Horne’s workload but also his prestige among the nation’s top thinkers and movers and shakers. His anti-communist views also moved with the times until he became a follower of those who believed the best approach to communism was to ignore it. He moved away from Quadrant and resumed editorship of The Bulletin all the while accepting offers to publish further books. He was no longer the outsider from where he could express his alienation. For all that, his first volume of his education trilogy –The Education of Young Donald – is the one book apart from The Lucky Country that stands out over time in this prodigious Horne output. By the late sixties, after five books in as many years, founding editor of The National Times Trevor Kennedy summed up what many were saying that Horne had simply “run out of ideas”.

Here Cropp segues neatly into Horne’s next phase in the field of public debate. With Gough Whitlam at Labor’s helm, Horne became a fan, opining: “I think God has sent him to us … [to create] a disbelief and confusion so great that only good can come of it.” He was certainly right about the disbelief and confusion. In the uproar over Gough Whitlam’s dismissal by Governor-General Sir John Kerr in November 1975, Horne became a leading voice in the protests against the Governor-General and led rallies for years that condemned the Dismissal and advocated a republic to replace the British sovereign as Australia’s head of state.

Horne’s love affair with Gough Whitlam was eventually satirised by his old mate James McAuley in 1976 in a public lecture where McAuley conjured up an image of Whitlam as Labor leader in the clouds aboard a chariot “pulled by four diversely formed heraldic beasts”. The names McAuley gave to the four beasts were Donald Horne, Germaine Greer, Manning Clark and Parick White. Shortly after, cartoonist George Molnar, also connected with Quadrant, produced a mocking cartoon of the scene.

Looking back from some four decades, this phase of Horne’s public spokesman career shows him not to have taken the nation’s temperature quite as accurately as he did in Lucky Country. The failure of the 1999 referendum on the republic, the release of documents from the Palace in relation to the 1975 Dismissal and new voices poking at the Whitlam fan club pile-on have led to more moderate interpretations of what happened.

It is Ryan Cropp’s achievement in Donald Horne: A Life in The Lucky Country to set out the facts and context of Horne’s varied and complicated life in such a way that the persona and work of the man unfold gradually and allow one to assess for oneself what to make of the Doanld Horne phenomena. Along the way, Cropp also offers a penetrating look at the political, academe and journalistic world of Australia and Sydney, in particular, in the so-called dull years of the 1950s and 1960s. They were not so dull in the communications hubs around newspapers and publishing – certainly not where Donald Horne was to be found.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.