What made Mungo MacCallum special, one of the things, was that for all the bewilderment and dismay he felt looking at politics he never lost his sense of clarity. If John Howard was the most effective politician of the past two decades, Mungo’s preferred description of him was the most enduring: “an unflushable turd”.
MacCallum called his memoir The Man Who Laughs and he was, even with a politics built of bad news. The shape of his nose meant that when he was serious it still looked as if he was thinking of something funny. “I come from a political family,” he wrote. “This is less of a boast than an admission.” The descendant of explorers and conservative politicians, he had another gag about this: “I used to volunteer that two great Australian families met in me, and both lost.”
MacCallum was part of a generation of writers who went to Canberra and changed the country. Robert Menzies was still in power. MacCallum’s journalism made our politics vivid and stumbling and alive. As his publisher, Chris Feik, said this week: “He brought wit to the coverage of Australian politics, and thus permanently expanded our sense of it.”
MacCallum was The Saturday Paper’s first employee. A year and a bit before our launch, he sent a message out of the blue: “Know anyone who wants a regular supply of cryptic crosswords?” MacCallum did not know that we were planning a newspaper, just that he had “a huge emotional and financial need for a new outlet”. He took the job in three words: “Thanks mate – onboard.”
In recent years, MacCallum survived a heart attack and emphysema, and fought three types of cancer. “Recuperating from pneumonia, emphysema, melanoma and Tony Abbott,” he wrote in one message. “I’ll give you a ring when things have settled down a fraction.”
Surgery on his throat made it impossible to talk easily, although he never stopped writing. If an editor rang to check the meaning of a line, worried it might be defamatory, he would respond that this was indeed its intention: “A problem for you, my boy.”
MacCallum wrote with speed and flair. There was never a column he couldn’t deliver. Length and deadline were the only needed prompts. The final words would almost always be early: “Herewith.”
Two weeks ago, MacCallum sent a note to his editors. “I never thought I’d say it, but I can no longer go on working,” he wrote. “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 am sorry to cut and run – it has sometimes been a hairy career, but I hope a productive one and always fun. My gratitude for all your participation.”
Mungo is survived by his partner, Jenny, his daughters Diana and Gail, his stepdaughters Adrienne and Gillian, and, by his estimate, “several million words’ journalism”. Last week he sent enough cryptic crosswords to last until March.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 12, 2020 as "Mungo MacCallum (1941–2020)".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription