Private life of a public man

Eulogy delivered at Donald Horne's funeral, September 21, 2005.


I HAVE TO confess that my first meeting with Donald was less than auspicious. It was at a history conference during the morning-tea break. I was standing around and Donald was nearby – engaged in conversation with someone else. He broke off this conversation, walked right up to me, looked at my chest, read my name-tag and announced in a rather irascible tone: "So you're not Stephen Alomes."


"I wanted to talk to Alomes. He's written something quite useful," he declared as he turned on his heel to resume his former conversation.

By a remarkable stroke of good fortune, and a modicum of uncharacteristically astute management, some time later I managed to meet his daughter, Julia, and secured a place in the family, a relationship now stretching back almost fifteen years. And so it was that I came to appreciate just how important family and friends were to Donald.

Although Donald is rightly called a "public intellectual", what I found remarkable were the ways in which the boundaries between the public and private man were blurred. For some writers, the time at the desk is a haven from domestic and social ties, a world of imagination secreted away from everyday life. For Donald it was different. In the writings this family – Myfanwy, Julia and Nick – and their times together were often evoked in his writing, as were the lives of his parents, grandparents, other family and his many friends and adversaries. This was not just in the autobiographies and memoirs but also in essays and critical reflections on travel, culture, society and politics.

In more recent years even his physical being became a vehicle for ruminations on social and cultural life. After his essay on the social and cultural process of ageing (Griffith REVIEW 4: Making Perfect Bodies), I joked that he had become one of the foremost exponents of theories of embodiment, the cutting edge of feminist and poststructuralist cultural studies. He seemed particularly pleased that he had managed to keep abreast of the times without quite realising it and even more pleased that it was without ever having read the voluminous theory that made this important. It was just one illustration of his remarkable antenna for what was current in contemporary culture.


AT THE SAME TIME, however, public ideas and reflections were constantly invoked in the private sphere. As Donald himself declared in Into the Open (HarperCollins, 2000): "Ever since I can remember I have been addicted to keeping the conversation going ... a large part of the kinds of things I liked to talk about have also become part of the public conversation. Sometimes best seller, high profile ‘public'. Sometimes boutique public." Many of those public conversations were first aired around the table, at restaurant tables or the dinner table at Grosvenor Street – food and talk were ever-sustaining forces. He was always trying out his latest ideas and arguments on the immediate family and those in his wider social circle, provoking response, argument, objections and, sometimes, hopefully, assent. The table was where he did a lot of his research. All of us close to him have been quizzed, more than once, by Donald, and most would have seen the results of these conversations transformed into one piece of writing or another.

I was often questioned about what was happening in higher education – and thus in a few casual conversations, Donald was able to assess the latest government policy initiatives and their effect on universities, which he could then critique with confidence. It was a remarkably efficient research technique. Family and friends constituted his private laboratory for the development of useful ideas. In one sense he was always working, even at home – one of the sources of his extraordinary productivity.

Such an image might suggest a domestic autocrat but, appearances sometimes to the contrary, this was far from the case. He was an explorer, an experimenter, an "enlarger" as Manning Clark would have said, someone who found the journey to a good idea one of life's great thrills. One of his important gifts was the capacity to enthuse others around him with a similar love for imagining new possibilities. He was remarkably successful – in one sense, too successful. Time and time again he lost control of the conversation at home; Myfanwy, Julia and Nick would interject, as would all his friends. They would take the ideas in new directions, challenge, dismiss and occasionally affirm, so much so that Donald often struggled to get a word in – the man of public conversations often had to fight for space in the noisy republic of ideas at home. Sometimes he had to interject, "Can I just finish my point?"; on occasion a terse "shut up" was uttered – rarely with any effect. Secretly, he clearly loved the fact that his rambunctious family and wider social circle talked over the top of him. He more than most appreciated the irony: the man who could command the public stage with such authority struggling to get a word in at home. I think in one sense he hoped to foster a wider public culture that might replicate the riotous, argumentative but convivial life of the family and friends he so enjoyed. Donald's pluralist ideal, grounded in civic virtue, was in some senses the private writ public.

As Julia, Anna, his eight-year-old granddaughter, and I sat round the breakfast table the weekend after his death, digesting the media response to Donald's passing, Anna innocently remarked that the private man she knew as her special grandfather seemed to be famous. "But surely not as famous as Britney Spears?" she inquired. No, probably not as famous as that, we agreed. But, seizing the moment, she confidently responded: "Donald had a better voice." And she was right. Donald was able to find a distinctive voice that touched many and provoked almost as many. It was his voice, but it was one forged over many years after much reading and, more importantly, through innumerable conversations he had with his family and friends.

Family and friends, however, meant more than just finding the right ideas and the voice with which to express them. His private world sustained Donald's spirit in profound ways, reinforced his ironic view of himself and the world, his sense of the absurd, buoyed him up through difficult times. It gave him hope for the future. This sense of optimism owed much to the family Donald and Myfanwy were able to create together. He, of course, said it best himself in Into the Open: "Above all I thank Myfanwy ... not just because of her usual, and constant, stream of reactions. But also literally. If we hadn't met at a party more than 40 years ago this book [indeed any of the books] would not have been possible."

We have all been the beneficiaries of this remarkable partnership. Future generations have a gift of many remarkable books as testament to its fecundity. 

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