Humphrey McQueen

Donald Horne: critics and negotiators

The general idea of ‘public intellectual life’ is more useful than the particular idea of’ the public intellectual’. ‘Public intellectual life’ is a public manifestation of what I called in The Public Culture ‘the critics’ culture’ of a liberal-democratic state. (It is made possible by the belief in a questioning approach to exist­ence as a central force in society.) However only parts of this critical activity emerge into the public culture; it is these parts that might be thought of as its ‘public intellectual life’. They provide a kind of public acclimatisation society for new ideas. All kinds of people may play a part in working up these ideas down there in the subterranean passages of the critics’ culture and others may take over the business of negotiating them into the public sphere. Many of these ‘negotiators’ are paid public performers in the news and entertainment industries. However some of the ‘critics’ also have a capacity to barge in directly – but only if they have a desire to appeal to people’s imaginations, and the talent to do so. These are the ‘public intellectuals’. Some of them may be one-offs. Some become regulars. They become influential if they articulate ideas that are already in the minds of some of ‘the public’ anyway, if in a more diffuse state. They get nowhere if they don’t. Two of my books, The Lucky Country and Death of the Lucky Country, were prime examples of appealing to interests of which readers were already becoming aware.

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The way we organise our deaths offers insight into the meanings and significances we attribute to life. The sidelining of organised religion has allowed Australians to voice our own ideas about the muddles of existence through the choice of music for funerals. The regularity with which ‘I did it my way’ is heard at wakes is a reminder of how much more pertinent that song is for individuality than are newspaper columns by Bettina Arndt or Hugh Mackay, still less from Andrea Dworkin or the late Christopher Lasch.

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If before the 1890s, books had been judged by their dust jackets, most would have been considered uniformly dull, or indecently attired. Dust jackets appeared first in 1833 to protect the recently introduced cloth casings as they made their progress from printery to publisher’s warehouse, on to booksellers and then to library shelves, at which stage the wrappings were usually thrown away. Those earliest dust jackets could be blank or printed with the title as well as the names of the author and publisher on the front, or notices about other volumes on the back panel.

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I met Patrick White first in 1965. Reduced to 1.9s.6d, he was lying, in an American edition of Riders in the Chariot, on a sale table at Finney Isles department store in Brisbane. So much has changed. Today, we would talk of remainders; the shop has been taken over by David Jones which has in turn been taken over by Adelaide Steamship which later bought up Grace Bros; prices are now given in dollar and cents.

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What would you like to know? Doc Evatt’s on-the-­spot explanation of why he wrote to Molotov? Archbishop Mannix’s response to Cardinal Spellman’s claim on the papacy? The particular pleasure derived from small boys by the headmaster of Geelong Grammar Junior School? How a knowledge of Urdu maintained the Hands off Indonesia blockade? What Malcolm Ellis said to Charles Currey when the lift opened? All those delights and more tumble out of Russel Ward’s autobiography.

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First up, best dressed is a warning for flatmates where the laggard must take comfort from the prospect that ‘An overcoat covers a multitude of sins’.

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