John McLaren remembered

John David McLaren, b. 7 November 1932, d. 4 December 2015


Early in the morning of 4 December, Overland lost a great friend and guide when John McLaren died. John was associate editor of Overland from 1966–1993, editor from 1993–1996, and a board member until 2014, when he stood down for health reasons to become, instead, an official Overland patron.

John’s association with the magazine actually went back almost sixty years, to 1956, when during his first posting as a state school teacher, in Yarrawonga:

I sent away a cheque (‘Australia’s best five bob’s worth’) and became a subscriber . . . The first issues were like a breath of fresh air. It seemed to engage with its readers like the old Bulletin, and was left wing without being dogmatically left for its own sake . . . Above all, it was refreshingly Australian, talking about the sort of places where I was living, and speaking the language of the people I was meeting and the kids I was teaching.

In addition to his editorial and managerial roles, John wrote innumerable articles and reviews for Overland as well as major biographical and historical works on the magazine, its founders and their political and social worlds. (Unlike Churchill, who said ‘I expect history to be kind to me because I intend to write it,’ John’s treatment of the history he was part of never seemed derived from any desire for self-justification or to aggrandise his own role.)

When the magazine’s founding editor Stephen Murray-Smith died suddenly in 1988, the question of who was going to edit Overland was unresolved. John characteristically did not press the issue, and Barrett Reid became editor. He hadn’t always gotten along well with Reid but upon this colleague’s death in 1995 John prepared a fine tribute issue of the magazine. (It was the first issue I bought, in the old Cosmos bookshop in St Kilda, having been in there, originally, unsuccessfully trying to build up the courage to ask them to stock the Monash postgraduate journal I was working with then: Colloquy.)

With Reid’s tastes tending to the more rarefied, John came in as editor with the magazine under even more than usual financial pressure. He commenced the hard work of turning those figures around, and his decision to offer Ian Syson the editorship in 1996 was both inspired and one which typically put the interests of the magazine first. As Jim Davidson said to me recently, recalling his time with Meanjin, ‘As editor one must go where the energy is.’ There is a case to argue that editing a cultural journal is ideally a younger person’s job.

I met John in 1997, when I started helping out at Overland while writing an MA thesis on Australian poetry anthologies. In the 1997­–98 summer break, I read John’s Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Post-war Australia, and was greatly impressed. Here was a scholar based at a university of technology publishing a book with Cambridge University Press which was interdisciplinary, personal, learned, accessible, enjoyable, politically engaged, and focused on Australia and its particular cities and regions. After the scholasticism of parts of Monash University’s intellectual environs of the time, this connectedness to the world I lived in, appealed greatly. (John would later supervise my PhD on the Whitlam period with our friend and Victoria University colleague Paul Adams.)

At the time of John’s death he had been sick for a protracted period with Parkinson’s disease, and low blood pressure meant increasing dizzy spells and fainting which, earlier in the year, had made it necessary for him to leave his house in Pigdon Street, Carlton, where he’d lived for almost fifty years, and move into a retirement home on Rathdowne Street. He said there he kept finding himself thinking that he’d be going home soon; it was difficult to accept that this was now his home. Having his son Cameron die unexpectedly in September was an added blow: it was hard to deal with these two events so close together, he admitted.

In the home, he still seemed in good condition mentally – the usual dynamic of our relationship, in which I was quietly amazed by the breadth of his knowledge, the clarity of his thought, the beauty of his spirit, the openness of his mind, and the amount of practical, useful things he had done, continued – but his body was letting him down. The dizzy spells made it hard for him to walk about and he couldn’t leave the home without significant support and care; the Parkinson’s made it virtually impossible for him to write or use a computer. His subscriptions to various artistic organisations he had to let go.

Perched awkwardly on his bed, he would recite passages of Shakespeare, or Robbie Burns, or the King James Bible at will; diagnose the ills and causes for optimism within Australian, British and American politics, and labour politics especially; tell you what was of interest in the new London Review of Books or whichever journal he had by his bedside table; offer anecdotes on the very many personalities of Australian left-wing literary and intellectual life he’d known; remark on the news of the day and perhaps even the cricket. (He was a member of the MCC and loved dining in the longroom and spending time in the library there, both experiences he was kind enough to share with me, on a visitor pass.)

Born in Malvern, John attended Caulfield North Central School, Scotch College, Ballarat High (after his bank manager father was posted to that town), and Scotch College again as a boarder for two years when the family moved to Wycheproof, where the local high school only went to Form IV (Year Ten).

He credited Ballarat High with imparting to him ‘the true springs of learning’. About Scotch he was more ambivalent, his feelings perhaps not aided by hearing of his name being listed amongst the ‘recently deceased’ old boys in the school magazine, some years back: ‘The culture of the [boarding school] hill was based on exclusivity, hierarchy and instant obedience.’ He resented Scotch later coming to dip ‘into the public purse as it extracted the money needed to keep the school’s facilities superior to any available to outsiders. The ideal of service easily slipped into the practice of self-service.’

Bonded to the Education Department (like so many of his generation at university), John was obliged to turn down both a Commonwealth and a Senior State Scholarship and take up instead a Secondary Studentship at the Secondary Teachers’ Centre at the University of Melbourne, before beginning work as a teacher at Princes Hill Central School, North Carlton, in 1954. Being ill-prepared by an Education Department only recently renamed from the ‘Department of Instruction’, he was to pay credit in his memoirs to experienced educators ‘who enabled some of us to survive’: ‘The classroom teacher is daily confronted with the most complex social situation of any professional.’

Gaining a Diploma of Education, John was posted ‘to his delight’ to Yarrawonga, on the Murray, where he met his future wife Shirley Stewart: ‘I thought she might have been keen on Ken Baird, but I got in first with a proposal,’ John and Shirley adopted two brothers, Jim and Cameron, then aged five and four, from the Turana Children’s Home in Parkville, in 1961. The family moved to Carlton in 1966, where Shirley helped to establish Flemington High and John had ‘a foothold’ at Melbourne University, in the Secondary Teachers College.

‘The environment of the College,’ he said, was ‘with Wodonga High School, the most intellectually stimulating I have worked in.’ This was for two reasons: ‘Its small numbers enabled it to preserve something of the genuine university ideal of pursuing universal knowledge. Staff from all disciplines participated in a common discourse.’ At the same time, ‘everybody was engaged . . . in the effort to realise the meaning of (their) discipline in the practical work of the schools.’

At the College, John wrote his first book (Our Troubled Schools), helped to draw up the constitution of the College Staffs Association, later incorporated into the National Tertiary Education Union, and went with Shirley on the first ever Community Aid Abroad study tour, to Indonesia in 1970. On one of my last visits to John, he commented on the general usefulness of such tours and noted it was unfortunate they were discontinued. The tour fed into John’s strong intellectual interest in South and South-east Asia, which was to result in a number of important articles and books.

Asked by the Registrar of the Darling Downs Institute of Advanced Education, in Toowoomba, how he might set up a Humanities Department, John’s response led to him being offered the position of Department Head, which he accepted in 1972. Though a time of professional achievement and excitement for John, it was also very difficult personally, with his older son Jim continuing an antisocial lifestyle that had commenced in Melbourne, seemingly overnight in his mid-teens, and with the profound ‘fundamentalism and philistinism’ of this isolated outpost of Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland: ‘The town embodied the worst of the Australian legend. It was like the men in Henry Lawson’s stories, hiding the sense of its own failure behind a vision of virginal innocence that could only be corrupted by contact with an evil world.’

John made a point of always wearing a tie, so that the townspeople would not have less respect for him than they had for the politically conservative medical doctors who stood at the top of the Toowoomba social tree. ‘Most of my time there,’ he recalled, ‘was spent during the great days of the Whitlam government, when . . . the townspeople thought they were living in the first days of Stalin.’ In the wake of the Kerr-Fraser coup, ‘The Liberal and Country Party pamphlets read like something prepared by the League of Rights . . . One of my neighbours thrust a stack of these into my letterbox, with an accompanying letter asking me to consider them and either repudiate Labor’s plans or get out of the country and go to Russia where I belonged.’

He confided to me that Shirley told him later she’d considered leaving him when he accepted the job; it had been a mistake not to consult with her properly before accepting. It was in Toowoomba that John ‘gave up’ going to church, ‘partly through boredom, but partly through a growing conviction that any doctrine that found justification in life beyond death desperately diminished the horror and beauty of the lives we actually led.’

On 9 December 1975, the day before Fraser’s government was endorsed by an electorate which had been blatantly deceived by Kerr, Fraser and the British palace (to a degree only now being revealed by the historian Jenny Hocking), John’s resignation was accepted by the Darling Downs Institute. At the end of that year he moved to the Footscray Institute of Technology to lead its Department of Humanities.

With the Institute’s Director, Doug Mills, Irene Westacott, a teacher and later Footscray mayor, and George Seelaf, visionary unionist and force behind the founding of the Footscray Community Arts Centre (which John would later chair), John was part of an informal ‘Footscray committee’ meeting each week to consider what the area needed and how those needs might be organised. To generations of western suburbs students, young and mature-aged, he was a caring and inspiring educator, retiring as Professor from what was by then Victoria University, in 1997, but remaining very active in university life. As Peter Dawkins, the current Victoria University Vice-Chancellor, said to staff on John’s death, he was ‘in many ways the grandfather of today’s College of Arts.’ (If Dawkins’ chosen term doesn’t properly capture John’s energy, it does convey his progenitive role.)

In the mid-1980s John spent an enjoyable Fulbright scholarship at the University of Oregon. There was something about the no-nonsense earthiness of his colleagues there, in the nation which, it should be remembered, remains in many ways the great bastion of the liberal arts that he recalled especially warmly.

As a scholar, John wrote over a dozen books, including the influential Writing in Hope and Fear: Literature as Politics in Post-war Australia (1996), New Pacific Literatures: Culture and Environment in the European Pacific (1993), and Australian Literature: An Historical Introduction (1991), with his last book Melbourne: City of Words, published in 2013. His works were amongst the most sourced and cited of all Victoria University staff.

John’s approach to literary studies, building from Leavis, Hoggart and particularly Williams, was grounded in a wider study and analysis of society and ‘the full sweep of the historical community’. He extrapolated:

My reading of [Martin] Buber coincided with my studies of the way children learn language, and developed my understanding of literature itself as the dialogue within which we make our worlds and our place in them. The world gives us our language, and from it we make ourselves. Literature enables us to know in their fullness a range of people greater than we could ever otherwise know in our daily lives, and so enables us to fashion ourselves through dialogue across space and time. The Arts and Sciences extend this dialogue to the whole of being.

John acted for a time as editor of Farrago, while a student at Melbourne University, and was editor of Australian Book Review from the time of its re-establishing by the National Book Council in 1978, to 1986, recalling ‘the excitement of the job was its involvement in the world of Australian writers that, despite the harsh shock that ended the Whitlam years, still pulsed with the energy that came from a belief that as a nation we could achieve whatever we wanted.’ He was disappointed to have not had his contract with ABR continued, having held out the hope, as had Syson while he was editing Overland, that finances might permit him to take on the job full time. He started editing ABR at the same time he produced his first issues as guest editor of Overland, while Murray-Smith was taking leave.

In politics, John stood as ALP candidate for Indi in 1958, going down to the Nationals candidate Mac Holten who after all, John said wryly, was standing on his record as a footballer with Collingwood and a playing coach and premiership-winner with Wangaratta. Holten accepted John’s challenge of a public debate but then found every proposed date unsuitable: ‘Events showed the wisdom of his tactics, and he went on to win the election and spend nineteen years demonstrating his limitations in the House of Representatives.’

In the 1960s, with Race Mathews, Clyde Holding, John Button and others, John fought to democratise and liberalise the hidebound Victorian ALP, prior to Whitlam’s federal intervention. He was made a life member of the ALP in 1999 and remained in the party, despite strong reservations about its contemporary directions.

Whitlam remained a hero: John wore an original ‘It’s Time’ badge to the celebratory drinks held for his being made a Member of the Order of Australia, at Jimmy Watson’s wine bar in early 2014. It was a poignant moment when Alan Watson shouted the attendees a glass of champagne (or sparkling white wine, I suppose I should say) and thanked John for their years of conversation in that eminently civilised place which John had embraced early, amidst a nation of men who at the time not only drank beer and only beer but tended to view with suspicion and hostility those who drank anything else. (John recalled to me once a particular friend who, he said with admiration, first showed him you could drink red wine with your barbecue!)

John loved and was sustained by his family, and was badly wounded by the death of Shirley on the last day of 1999. ‘The lodestar has gone from my life’, he said. At the end of an Overland board meeting in early 2001, amidst some slight rowdiness, he called us to order to remind us that this meeting marked the one-year anniversary of Shirley’s death, and to say he’d like to move that we acknowledge her contribution to the magazine. He broke into tears; the only time I saw that happen. I put my arms around him and told him he was a hero to me. Whether it helped or not, it was true.

Of course, he had very many friends also, across his wide range of interests and activities, from classical music, art and contemporary dance to football and the St Kilda Football Club, which he followed with a knowledgeable interest but more fatalism than optimism.

When I asked how he was getting along, towards the end, he remarked ‘As I get older my body seems to deteriorate, which is the opposite of what I’d hoped would happen.’ The humour points to a larger, admirably human philosophy. As a young man, John’s seriousness overflowed into teetotalling puritanism. He enjoyed relating later how, after being invited by his fellow student John Button to come for a beer, ‘No drink before or since tasted so fine.’ John was to remain, throughout his life, a serious person but one with an acute awareness of our common human urges and failings, and of the need for tolerance and acceptance of others: ‘[W]e live in the face of death, which, because it is the end, makes all life precious. Of course, this is just another way of saying that the glory of life is its absurdity . . . Recognising that life is what we make of it requires us to take all knowledge and faith seriously, but not solemnly, and frees us to enter into dialogue with anyone who is willing, and to learn even from religion.’

To borrow a phrase quoted in Tim Colebatch’s recent biography of Rupert Hamer, John McLaren lived ‘a fine and useful life.’ Personally and professionally, he provided insights and set examples that are worth us seeking to remember and live up to.

Goodbye, my dear John.


*The quotes in this obituary are taken either from John’s memoir Not in Tranquillity (2005) or from my memory.

Nathan Hollier

Dr Nathan Hollier is Publisher and Chief Executive Officer of Melbourne University Publishing and a past editor of Overland.

More by Nathan Hollier ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. Wonderful tribute Nathan – thanks for all those lovely quotes from John, which as you say show us what a deeply serious, considered man he was, as well as his energy and commitment. And thanks also for those thoughtful details about the end of his life – vale.

  2. Thanks Nathan for that personal account of a really substantial contributor to Australian literary and cultural life. John’s CV is long and esteemed, but just as importantly he was such a fine man to spend time with and learn from. There are many of us who owe him much.

  3. A great tribute to a unique and much respected man. Thank you Nathan Hollier. I was one of John McLaren’s students at Wodonga High School in the early 1960s and to this day can recall very clearly his approach to English and literature, the subjects in which he taught me. John made literature a living experience and not just a study of books and poetry. We students all hoped to be in his class and I was one of the lucky ones. I,and every other student taught by John, thrived under his tutelage and dedication. I remember this man, his wit and his dedication to teaching. I remember his charming wife, who also taught at WHS and was much loved by all and so am very saddened with his passing and of the loss of such a keen mind. My last contact with the McLaren family was in the 70s in Carlton where I met them by chance. It was as though we were back in Wodonga.

  4. John contributed to Australian society in so many ways. I was Chief Librarian at Footscray Institute of Technology in the 1980’s and later University Librarian at VU. John was a tremendous advocate for the Library and donated materials and funds as a tribute to his wife Shirley. He challenged managerialism, often forcing other managers (including myself ) to give more consideration to the intellectual basis of decisions. Union issues were treated similarly (I recall a Board of Studies meeting where a forthcoming strike was being discussed and academics were arguing that they should not be required to fill in leave forms because they worked 24 x 7. With his usual acerbic wit John commented that, if they didn’t fill in leave forms that day, no-one could know they were on strike!)

  5. I was one of John McLaren’s students at Wodonga High school where he met and married Shirley; who was my Art and Needlework teacher. John was different to the other teacher and he had an impact on my learning but at the time I really wondered about his difference. Now I am older and can appreciate what he brought to class as there were often hints of a wider world out there for a student from a samll country secondary school. We all wondered why Shirley married him as we thought that she should marry a prince. It was only later and now reading about John’s life that I realize that he was a prince. I saw John at recent school reunions and talked to him about school and shared with him that I was a PhD candidate. He understood what that meant and what a journey it is so I was pleased with his comments and I hope that he was pleased that my learning continued more that 30 years later.

  6. For part of the time John McLaren presided as Overland’s editor, I worked with him as Associate Editor, on editions from No. 132 (1993) to No. 138 (1995). It was when I lived just across Sydney Rd., in Brunswick, while John resided a mere five-minute walk away in North Carlton. So we often met at his place, which was always cheerful and pleasant. Although he was deeply passionate about what he called ‘our literary culture’, and could be intense at times, my overwhelming experience of John was as ‘one of nature’s true gentlemen’, as the saying goes. He was thorough, fair-minded, collegial, considerate, consultative and thoughtful, and all of his decisions very well-informed; always subject to reasonable discussion. This, I believe, was part of his deeply egalitarian outlook; a willingness to engage and debate; always looking for the most useful and helpful position, while very firmly asserting his progressive values. I also had the pleasure, on a couple of occasions, of hearing John talk to live audiences, and he was a superb and rousing public speaker, incredibly persuasive and articulate, and without seeming to use notes or prompt cards. His grasp of facts, particularly, was firm and crystal clear. Previously, I had worked on Overland (as Acting Associate Editor and then Editorial Assistant) for part of the time that Barrett Reid was at the helm; my stint being from No. 120 (1990) to No. 130 (1992). I must say, I find the supposed ‘difficulties’ between Reid and McLaren to be overstated. Actually, John and Barrett were able to work together extremely well, when the need arose. Certainly, there were differences, but they boiled down to a matter of emphasis and style, rather than any divergence in fundamental values. Barrett was certainly much more of a bohemian, and – even in ‘sombre’ editorial meetings – could often be flamboyant in his personal manner: funny, charming, entertaining, outrageous, acerbic, witty and wise, all in the same breath. But both men were equally committed to progressive political and social agendas, following in the great Overland tradition, and this mutually shared wisdom remained a substantial bridge between their two distinctive personalities. Unfortunately, I was away overseas and unable to attend John’s funeral, but did manage to catch up with him briefly in a Fitzroy restaurant, then later at an official Overland ‘do’ in Melbourne. On those two occasions I found John as engaging, kindly, wise, thoughtful, quick-witted and good-humoured as ever, though his health was certainly beginning to look quite shaky. His unique presence was fully evident, even at that late stage. He set a very high standard for decent and intelligent life on our little planet, and was an exceptional man.

  7. i first met John in 1983 as he was the uncle of one of my friends from university who was living at Johns in first year.
    Many, many years later when i began writing again my friend forwarded some of my stories to John and we began an email correspondence in which John mentored encouraged provided feedback. His support was an key element in my continued writing and publishing successes. he will be sorely missed.

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