NOOSA - Under the headline ‘That’s all she wrote’, one of my favourite journalists, Mungo MacCallum, announced today his inability to keep writing for the press. Very sad news.
“I never thought I’d say it,” Mungo wrote, “but I can no longer go on working. It takes all my effort to breathe and I’m not managing that too well. And now my mind is getting wobbly – hard to think, let alone concentrate.
“So I am afraid there is not much point in continuing to push the rock up the hill. I shall retire to my Lazy Boy recliner and doze over the television watching (or not) old sporting replays, propped up by drugs, oxygen, and the occasional iced coffee. I am rapidly winding down.”
I've been reading Mungo’s always well-informed, often sceptical and sometimes hilarious pieces since he first wrote for The Australian in the early 1970s, later working as the chief political commentator for, amongst many publications, Nation Review, the late and lamented weekly for which I freelanced for some years in the 1970s.
I think it was in 1972 that I first met Mungo when he visited Kieta where I was managing Radio Bougainville. He was one of a group of journalists sussing out the operations of the new copper and gold mine high in the mountains at Panguna. But they were staying at a luxurious little resort parked just off the mainland on the small but perfectly formed Arovo Island.
Hearing he was in town, I made my way to the island and made it my business to meet him and compare notes on, well, a lot. New Guinea and forthcoming independence, the impact of the copper company on the Indigenous people, John Gorton and Australian politics, expat life in the middle of nowhere….
But our most intense discussion, which extended over many beers, was about whether Pidgin English (Tok Pisin) is a real language or not. Me arguing for the proposition. The debate remains unresolved.
A few years later I again bumped into Mungo. It was 1977 and in the intervening years I’d continued to freelance for Nation Review from assignments in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. But now I was managing radio station 2ARM-FM in Armidale and had taken myself south to Canberra to lobby on behalf of public broadcasting. I made sure I looked up Mungo who occupied what seemed to be a small cell perched in the roof of the Old Parliament House.
He recalled me, took me under his wing (Mungo’s three years older than I) and ran me through various corridors, passages and gangways to ensure that during my day in Canberra I was able to buttonhole as many MPs as possible.
It was a good day’s work and we finished with a couple of hours at the non-members bar where he introduced to me to a number of his peer press gallery journalists. In a single day I had developed an instant political and media network.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that I encountered Mungo again. By then I was a frequent visitor to Canberra in my role running the ABC’s government and media relations department. During those visits I didn’t get to sit down with him a lot, but I always knew where to find him – at a small table in the courtyard adjacent to the non-members bar.
It couldn’t have been too long after that, probably about 1990, when he and his wife, Jenny Garrett, took themselves off to a sort of writing retirement on the beach near Brunswick Heads in northern NSW.
But the last few years have been tough. Very tough. He wrote earlier this year, “I am 78, with a compromised immune system and chronic issues over heart and lungs.”
That and the rest. An operation for throat cancer in April 2014 reconstructed his throat from a flab of his arm and a stripped out artery. He’s also had two significant brushes with melanoma, two heart attacks, advanced emphysema and now prostate cancer which has spread through the bloodstream and into lymph nodes and a hip bone. It’s incurable. And finally it’s brought Mungo to a standstill.
Throughout these debilitating illnesses until yesterday, he had continued to write for publication. “I am sorry to cut and run,” he wrote in his final column. “It has sometimes been a hairy career, but I hope a productive one and always fun.”
And so this man, once described by Gough Whitlam as a "tall, bearded descendant of lunatic aristocrats", who for so long had brought to me and to others an insider’s view of politics with much of the humour and without any of the arrogance these days associated with the press gallery, takes his leave.
Christmas is coming and Australia is flat
Kindly tell us ScoMo where the bloody hell we’re at.
And when we’re certain that you know that you don’t haven’t got a clue
Then join in our Yuletide chorus as we sing: FUCK YOU!