1921 - 2005 | NSW | Reporter, editor & writer
Donald Horne was a successful journalist and twice editor of the Bulletin before he became the leader of the republic debate in Australia for 20 years. His 1964 book The Lucky Country provoked national introspection on Australia’s culture and place in the world; it was one of the most influential Australian books of the 20th century. The book was meant to be an attack on Australia’s complacency. For decades he was frustrated that the irony of the title was lost on many people who interpreted the phrase as meaning that Australia was blessed with natural abundance and the good life.
Three words as emphatic and memorable as the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, or the first five of Strauss’ Thus Spake Zarathustra. Donald Horne composed a title that, independently from the book would, like those trademark chords of Ludwig’s and Richard’s, have a life of its own. A definitive article, an adjective and a noun that would provide Australia with an ironic nickname and Horne with an enduring reputation.
The Lucky Country. The most famous title in the history of Australian publishing should be woven into any new preamble for the Australian constitution. If proposed in the planned referendum it would easily pass, voted for by people who’ve never read the celebrated work, or any of Donald’s three novels, biographical works or 20-odd non-fiction books. Horne’s fame was secured by those three words as surely as E=MC2 ensured Einstein’s. Yet like Albert’s immortal equation, Donald’s title was little understood.
It remains a key to many a political or academic discussion on the history or future of this country and is frequently appropriated by authors who, adding a few extra words or a question mark, affix “The Lucky Country” to their new book’s cover.
Horne had been a hero to conservatives – he’d edited Quadrant for the Council of Cultural Freedom when it was funded by the CIA and The Bulletin when it was owned by Sir Frank Packer. But he moved The Bully from its mission statement (“Australia for the White Man”) to an increasingly centrist and progressive position. Too much for Sir Frank, who sacked him. (As Donald had sacked me, the first of a number of editors to do so, when, as a teenage theatre critic I asked for a modest increase to my thirteen quid a week).
And Donald Horne kept moving – always a little more to the left. Less and less a darling of the right, he increased his opposition to the White Australia Policy and became an increasingly proactive Republican.
Far from an expression of joy and unalloyed patriotism, Donald’s famous title was essentially bleak, but few bothered to read the words that followed: “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck”. His unromantic reading of Australian history would challenge Manning Clark’s mythologising. Donald saved the fiction for his novels.
Like that other perceptive social critic Clive James, young Donald was a kid from Kogarah but spent most of his formative years in the Upper Hunter, an area as richly endowed with literary talent as with coal. The curmudgeonly Patrick White lived on the Hunter – at our next-door neighbours “Belltrees”. The brilliant Barbara Baynton was upstream at Murrurundi. Havelock Ellis devised “the Narcissus complex”, subsequently made famous by Freud, while working as a local schoolteacher.
Horne’s turf was Muswellbrook, increasingly asphyxiated by giant mines. Here, every Thursday, I think of him while broadcasting Late Night Live from a tiny ABC studio atremble with the rumble of endless coal trains. Yet though Horne’s ideas are still being mined - and will probably prove Muswellbrook’s most valuable and enduring export - no trace of the author can be found.
In a woebegone attempt to challenge Gundagai’s Dog on the Tuckerbox, the town’s main street boasts a large and abysmal sculpture of a Blue Heeler cattle dog – with a plinth claiming the breed to be of local origin. If ever there was a contested statue worthy of toppling, here it is. Ready to be replaced by one of Donald, Muswellbrook’s most famous human.
To synchronise with The Saturday Paper Donald Horne Prize for Journalism, I suggested that at very least we inaugurate a Donald Horne memorial ‘Lucky Country’ lecture. But the locals were mystified. Even our MP, who seems to know the first names of every voter in his vast electorate, had no idea of the author’s connection to the city.
Donald was, and remains, one of Australia’s most significant journalists, authors and, ultimately, scholars. During his years as an academic he became an Emeritus Professor at UNSW and Chancellor at the University of Canberra. He remained hyperactive until the end, always available for an interview – like the one he gave me shortly before his death at 83.
During his academic years, wife Myfanwy became the editor’s editor, later completing and publishing his final work Dying; A Memoir in 2007. But it was those three resonating words, ‘The Lucky Country’, that provided his epitaph. And ours?
Phillip Adams AO is, in his own words, an ancient broadcaster, antique columnist, bygone film-maker and proud member of the Australian Media Hall of Fame.
Donald Horne in 1986. Courtesy of Fairfax
Donald Horne in 1979. Courtesy of Fairfax
Donald Horne in 2000. Courtesy of Fairfax
Donald Horne in 2004. Courtesy of Fairfax
The Lucky Country, Donald Horne, Penguin Books, 1964
Donald Horne: Selected Writings, Nick Horne (Editor), La Trobe University Press, 2017