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March 4, 2024

Vale Mungo MacCallum

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Mungo MacCallum. Photo Eve (the other Eve) Jeffery.

Mungo Wentworth MacCallum: December 21, 1941 – December 9, 2020

This is a personal tribute by David Lovejoy. For detailed accounts of Mungo’s life, see the obituaries in the mainstream press.

With immaculate timing and a great work ethic until the end, Mungo has passed away a few days after announcing he would write no more. Here at The Echo we still cannot quite believe that he has gone.

From shortly after the newspaper’s founding until just a week ago, Mungo produced for us a political column that was well-informed, often surprisingly clairvoyant and always written with elegance and wit.

Mungo, speechless

Above all, his columns were unambiguously on the side of the angels; he spent the first half of his life learning everything there is to know about the Australian political system and the men and women who operate within it, and he loathed politicians of whatever party who pervert and corrupt it.

Mungo was a friend to The Echo when as a fledgling publication it needed friends. In the beginning he let us republish columns he wrote for national papers, because we could never pay what a political journalist of his standing deserved and normally received. Later he worked out how to write an original column for The Echo’s tiny stipend by syndicating it later in the week to other outlets.

He also taught many of the older Echo drudges how to write. This was not just by example: he literally taught us the rules for producing clear and simple prose by devising a set of axioms condensed from George Orwell’s writings. The last axiom was to abandon all rules rather than write anything that lacked grace.

Mungo and Jenny. Photo Eve Jeffery.

The loss to the newspaper is great, but our personal loss is greater. Mungo and his wife Jenny Garrett made legions of friends when they retired from Canberra and settled in Ocean Shores over thirty years ago. In a café or pub you could usually track where Mungo was enjoying himself by the sound of animated and amusing talk, punctuated by his own distinctive laugh-laugh-laughter.

At the newspaper I would see Mungo once a week, when he still filed his copy on paper and in person. After Jenny converted him to Mac and email I used to see him at social events, Gecko cricket matches and staff booze-ups, which were still plentiful in the good old days until our frailties caught up with us. Thereafter a weekly coffee with friends sufficed to keep us up to date.

Discussions with Mungo were often serious affairs and you could learn a lot en passant if you encouraged him to talk. If a factual point needed settling it was very rarely necessary in Mungo’s company to search the internet for it. His knowledge of history, literature and science was phenomenal, and so was the memory that provided access to it.

Perhaps this was natural to a member of one of the last pre-digital generations (he still used a manual typewriter until late in the twentieth century). Although he spent more of his university time on carousing and politics than formal study, Mungo’s wide-ranging education was undertaken and encouraged in the company of similarly brilliant minds, friends like Clive James, Les Murray, Germaine Greer, Bruce Beresford and Robert Hughes.

Growing up as the nephew of the stridently reactionary Liberal MP William Charles Wentworth IV gave him ample opportunity to examine right-wing ideas at first hand, and at a young age he made the choice to reject them and support the Australian Labor Party, as the only conscionable alternative to conservative selfishness.

He could sometimes appear aloof, and he could be fiercely dismissive of fools and scoundrels. A blue-blood Wentworth background is hard to overcome, even when you choose left-wing politics with all your heart. Mungo’s comrade and cherished leader Gough Whitlam described him as a ‘tall, bearded descendant of lunatic aristocrats’, but beneath the beard and patrician manner there was a man of warm and compassionate disposition.

Mungo MacCallum with Julia Gillard at the 2015 Byron Bay Writers Festival. Photo supplied

Rather than seek a political career, for which his stubborn intellectual honesty disqualified him, Mungo elected to become a journalist, and when he retired from covering federal parliament his was one of the most recognisable names and faces in the Canberra press gallery.

His fame scarcely diminished over the years, for in September 2014 a false report of his passing spread across Twitter, causing a wave of grief for a much-loved figure. Like Mark Twain, Mungo was amused at the exaggerated reports of his death and, I think, touched by how genuinely relieved people were when the news was corrected.

The real health problems behind this false rumour presented a cruel test of character. After surgery to remove his larynx, Mungo the mellifluous, who delighted in the play of words, was marooned in silence. Now his friends had to converse on politics without his input, no doubt their talk full of error and misconception, unless he made the mighty effort to croak a word or two from his oesophageal tube. Those words were never of complaint or impatience; throughout his long final illness he maintained a stoic calm, and while he had lost his voice he never lost his probing analytical mind: the columns he continued to write were first-rate until the end.

Barry Jones Mungo MacCallum and Kerry O’Brien at the Byron Writers Festival

One side effect of losing his radio and television work after the laryngectomy was the increased time he had to devote to books and the creation of crosswords. In the last period of his life he completed a revised edition of his book on Australian prime ministers, The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely, bringing it up to the sorry present, and also composed a stockpile of cryptic crosswords so that his puzzle fans can still be teased for months to come.

Much as I treasure memories of Mungo I know they are only a fraction of his long and adventurous life. The Echo and the Byron Shire community were lucky to have him spend the last part of it with them.

Mungo MacCallum is survived by his partner Jenny Garrett, daughters Diana and Gail, and step-daughters Adrienne and Gillian.

♦ Mungo’s farewell ceremony will be live-streamed here from 2pm on Tuesday, 15 December 2020.

The Echo will be putting together a tribute page for Mungo if you have thoughts you would like to be included please send them to [email protected].

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    • The median quality of political prose now plummets.
      Genuinely worried there’s no replacement for his take-no-prisoners honest to a fault punditry.

  1. DISCOURSE: for Mungo (Stefanie Bennett)

    Just because the postman
    careers by
    empty handed.
    The Linden tree
    bears no fruit – and
    friends travel
    on a mistaken
    devil-may-care tide
    doesn’t mean that
    the inconspicuous one
    ‘in waiting’
    won’t attend
    the Chekov Soiree’s
    defining principle

    the first singer
    the last song.

  2. Thank you for this stirring tribute. Perhaps we now need to celebrate that Mungo will be returned to the stuff of stardust after a life that through his wordsmithing gave so much to so many .

    • I weep. Australia could have been Mungo, Barry Jones and Kerry O’Brien. Instead we are Paul Kelly, Angus Taylor and Paul Murray.

  3. A quiet dread, of this day, and here it is.

    Such a bedrock of journalist flair, immediacy and erudition that had many of us reaching for the dictionary too, to help fathom this vast mind of political knowledge and insight.

    He knew exactly, right and wrong, and gave wonderful portrayal of all we needed to know.

    A deep sadness.

    Thanks for your contribution to Australian humanity.

  4. thank you Mungo for your insights & perception,

    remember you well at lunchtimes around Mullum,

    & also thanks to David Lovejoy for a well deserved tribute,

    Vale Mungo!

  5. How lucky were we to be afforded such a deep& soulful character. This man spoke a ‘truth and sense’ which was music to many peoples ears….Thank you to you Mungo & Jenny !

  6. Gooday back in the sixties a mate of mine John Swords worked for the Canberra Times and I often went to see him in Canberra. I was not too bad a cricketer in hose days and the PM Billy McMahon organised a cricket game at Manuka Oval and I got to go as a batsman. Anyway Mungo had broken his leg and he was made wicket keeper and he was drinking a large can of beer he kept behind the stumps and I fieilded a ball and threw it into him but it hit his beer and by the time he got to it it was empty. He never ever spoke to me again. By the way I was bowled first ball by one one of the Australian 48’s at his age of 82. Vale Mungo. Dave Dixon

  7. Everything I feel has already been written in the responses by all above. THANK YOU MUNGO FOR EVERY WORD YOU EVER WROTE, THAT I HAVE READ.

    Dearly missed, dearly appreciated – and again, THANK YOU.

  8. Thanks for this tribute.
    Mungo inspired and educated many of us. His column was always the first thing to read in each week’s Echo.
    Sorry for your loss, and Jenny’s.

  9. Goodnight Mungo Lexicon of a Master of Political ..an ICON you are : RIP : kind regards to Jenny :
    Star amongst the Heaven now ….RIP Mungo

  10. We will miss you Mungo & your invaluable insights/visionary and incredible long standing (Historical) political . experience, going back decades . I didn’t realise Mungo was so very ill ,after reading his final article just last week. I was hoping Mungo would make another decade. SO lovely & touching reading the sentiments expressed from those kind & compassionate friends at the Echo. Deep sympathy goes out to Mungo’s family & close friends. What a legend Mungo was & this region was very BLESSED to have had him.

    • What incredible skill he had as. a writer to make me want to read a political column . A subject I generally find boring and dry . Mungo had me laughing as he educated me . He humanized that world .The world needs more like him . RIP.

  11. Blessings on your journey home Mungo.
    What a treasure you have been. I loath politics, but reading your take on things pulled me in.
    The Echo, will never be quite the same. Trust where your going your voice will now be clear as a bell and you can enjoy a good natter. X

  12. Heartfelt condolences to you Jenny Garrett whose warm friendship I remember from when you lived in Sydney and visited Mangrove. .

  13. Dear Mungo, for years and years we have looked to you for our political commentary. Always delivered with wit and truth and humour. You have sort of been a part of our lives…. bloody hell man, we’re going to miss you.

  14. Returning to Australia in 1975 and living in Canberra next to a friend of Mungo was the most enlightening introduction to politics here. His words were clear and insightful as has his writing ever since. So sad that he died too soon.

  15. Thank you, written from the heart.
    I’ve always loved Mungo’s incisive witty commentary on those who occupy the political space.
    I was immensely pleased a few years ago to find that your Echo provided a place for him to esposue his view on current matters.
    What a loss we have all suffered from his passing.

  16. Who to now for erudite, lucidly phrased incisive wit to deride the largely witless?
    You, insightful scribe, informed my views and created knowledge and understanding.
    From the days of darkness preWhitlam, through enlightenment and action, and back.
    It’s time again, and we can only hope more of your ilk will rise above.
    RIP and thanks Mungo.

  17. Mungo was working from home for the past 3 decades, enjoying the alternative lifestyle – a man way ahead of the pack. Harbouring joy and laughter as he took the piss, old mungo will be sadly missed.

  18. can we bestow the title of ‘mungo’ on kerry o’brien, in the hope he may consider contributing with his considerable political expertise to a column on this excellent rag?

  19. Dear Mungo
    Enjoyed so much beer and laughter at The Wello in Canberra in the heady Whitlam days early 70s. Then treasured your wisdom in the articles and books, until you bowed out. What a meaningful li

    Condolences to Jenny and family

  20. A sad day, i used to always head straight to his article in the Echo as i’m sure many did. A life well lived. Would have loved to have had a few vinos with him and hear some of his behind the scenes political tales, no doubt he would have had a few classics in there.

    I haven’t read many of his books but ‘How to be Meglomaniac or Advice to a Young Politician’ is highly recommended – a classic tale that is true in so many ways.

    I don’t often miss people i haven’t met

  21. Imagine the discussion going on now between Mungo and Alan Ramsay who doubtless had a cold one waiting for him so that they could begin setting the Australian political scene to rights.
    We shall not see their like again.

  22. Thank you for this beaut tribute article, David!
    An article am working on at the moment: Morrison’s lot have long abandoned the Contest of Ideas to cheat-win elections by using $media shock-jerks and arse-trumpets to brainwash bogans [the clueless masses] [at the May 18 2019 Election Jones had 21 Stations in QLD, 12 in WA, etc.] via scares and lies, disrespect of opponents, and blame and lethal HATE of minorities, much as Socrates warned, Donald Horne bore witness, and Trump and Morrison took devious and unscrupulous advantage, to the totally destructive detriment of our Democracies. 0421 421 631

  23. “at a young age he made the choice to reject them (right-wing ideas from his uncle the stridently reactionary Liberal MP William Charles Wentworth IV) and support the Australian Labor Party, as the only conscionable alternative to conservative selfishness”

    “the only”….seriously, I think even Mungo in his earlier years, might have pinged you for that one!

    Do better


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