Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McInnes, Colin Campbell (1914–1976)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

This is a shared entry with Graham Campbell McInnes

Graham Campbell McInnes (1912-1970), diplomat and author, and Colin Campbell McInnes (1914-1976), writer, were born on 18 February 1912 and 20 August 1914 at South Kensington, London, sons of James Campbell McInnes, singer, and his wife Angela Margaret, née Mackail. The boys' parents were divorced in 1917. In the following year Angela married Captain G. L. A. Thirkell, a Tasmanian-born engineer who was serving in the Australian Imperial Force. The family sailed for Australia early in 1920 and settled at Malvern, Melbourne.

From that year Graham and Colin Thirkell happily attended Scotch College where both were prominent in debating, literary and dramatic societies. They enjoyed Scouting and country holidays. Angela insisted on nightly readings in literature (comics being banned). In 1929 Graham was a school prefect, in 1930 Colin a probationer. Each of them won a government senior scholarship: Graham had first-class honours in British history, English and economics, Colin in British history and economics (exhibition). In November 1930 their mother abandoned her unemployed husband and left for England with their son Lancelot George (1921-1989) who was to become a senior officer in the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Residing in Ormond College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1933), Graham graduated in history and English with first-class honours. He had at last learned of his father's whereabouts and was determined to seek him out, but delayed throughout 1933 as an Ormond tutor. In the following year he sailed for Canada and located his father, with whom he got on well, as did Colin. Both reverted to their father's surname. Graham went on to England where his mother judged that Australia had given him an incorrect set of values. Returning to Canada, he worked as a journalist and broadcaster, wrote A Short History of Canadian Art (1939) and became an extension lecturer for the University of Toronto. He wooed his old flame Joan Cecile Burke by letter after five years apart, and married her on 28 September 1938 at the register office, Kensington, London.

Employed by the Canadian National Film Board as a producer (from 1942), McInnes joined Canada's Department of External Affairs in 1948: he was successively first secretary in New Delhi and Wellington in 1952-54, chief of protocol in Ottawa, counsellor and minister in London in 1959-62, high commissioner to Jamaica, and (from 1965) minister, permanent delegate and finally ambassador to the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization in Paris. He had published Canadian Art (Toronto, 1950) and two novels.

In the mid-1960s Graham McInnes launched out on autobiography, or, rather, 'works of literary art, resting on fact . . . but not bound by fact', which led to four books. The Road to Gundagai (London, 1965), with Hal Porter's The Watcher on the Cast-Iron Balcony (London, 1963) and Donald Horne's The Education of Young Donald (Sydney, 1967), made up an outstanding trio of Australian autobiographies of boyhood. It was about Melbourne and its suburbs, the Bay and the bush, trains and trams, Scotch College, escapades and encounters with the police, Scouting, camping, hiking and fruit-picking, murders of the day, and Allan Wilkie's productions (the family saw nineteen Shakespearian plays). McInnes's writing was more than attractively lively and comic: a few acute comments such as 'the mingling [at school] of war and religion and Empire', the parody of (Sir) Nikolaus Pevsner in describing his Malvern surrounds, and the chapter on his mother stand out. Though conveying his embarrassment at Angela's detestation of Australia, he was respectful and compassionate. He explained to his friend, the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, 'in spite of everything, I loved her. I couldn't help it, though she was so awful!'

The Road to Gundagai sold at least 20,000 copies, broadly equally in Britain and Australia. McInnes had scores of enthusiastic letters from contemporaries, thankful for such evocative recall of growing up in the 1920s. Humping my Bluey (London, 1966), on university days, was flippant about the Depression period, but full of lively material on Farrago, theatre, jazz and debating. Finding a Father (London, 1967) detailed his discovery of and adoption by Canada. In Goodbye Melbourne Town (London, 1968) the vein ran thin.

Davies described McInnes as 'a warm, generous, merry man' who, like his father, 'was at all times battling with a thrawn, angry man who longed to overturn tables and shout at fools'. Tall (6 ft 2 ins, 188 cm), spare, urbane, courteous, impeccably dressed, and moustached, McInnes visited Australia in 1969. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of cancer on 28 February 1970 in hospital in Paris.

Colin MacInnes (as he spelt his name) had joined his mother in England in 1931. He soon broke with her, worked in an office in Brussels, studied at art schools in London and served in the army during World War II. After the war he became a celebrity for his varied work in radio broadcasting. Much of his best writing was as an essayist, but his novels, City of Spades (1957) and Absolute Beginners (1959), won wide attention. In middle age he lived largely as a nomad in London's new bohemian underworld of rock music, drink, drugs and homosexuality; he was bisexual and did not marry.

Retaining a strong sentimental interest in Australia, MacInnes set two of his novels there—June in her Spring (1952), his favourite, and All Day Saturday (1966)—but they won little appreciation. He contributed to Sidney Nolan (1961) by Kenneth (Lord) Clark and others. The Australian sections of his England, Half English (1961) are perhaps the best of his comments on the country. In 1964 he visited Australia for Time-Life, but his contribution to Australia and New Zealand (New York, 1966) was out of touch. He died of cancer on 22 April 1976 at Hythe, Kent, and was buried at sea.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Gould, Inside Outsider (Lond, 1983)
  • G. McInnes, The Road to Gundagai (Lond, 1985), introduction by R. Davies
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 1969, no 4, p 522, 1970, no 1, p 115
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 May 1965, 25 July 1969
  • Times (London), 2 Mar 1970
  • G. McInnes papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'McInnes, Colin Campbell (1914–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcinnes-colin-campbell-11410/text19497, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • MacInnes, Colin
Birth

20 August 1914
London, Middlesex, England

Death

22 April 1976
Hythe, Kent, England

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation