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January will mark my sixtieth year in as a member of the press, I’ve witnessed the birth of both the 24/7 news cycle and the smokeless journalist.
Recently, I attended the Andrew Ollie Memorial lecture in Sydney. The honoured guest speaker was Peter FitzSimons, one of Australia’s best-ever columnists and prolific author of more than a dozen books. Mercifully, he was without that bizarre red bandana.
Fitz, typically, spoke long, passionately, and eloquently, about the old days at the SMH on Broadway and the current hard times at the ABC (and elsewhere) with the feds storming into journos’ apartments, searching underwear drawers and harassing whistleblowers. He got a, deserved, standing ovation.
But it was his drifting back to the old Herald building and reminiscing about life in Colditz Castle in the 1990s that sparked my attention. Jeez, I first rocked up at the building as a callow New Zealie, fresh off the boat, in February 1963.
I started thinking just how much things have changed in this computerised second industrial revolution. For example, pitching this feature idea to The Big Smoke boss, I commented that she probably didn’t even know what a linotype machine was. (She didn’t).
So, let me join Mr Red Bandana in some journalistic reminiscing.
As a 15-year-old cadet on the Taranaki Herald (circulation 12,000) in New Plymouth, New Zealand, one of my most dreaded jobs – apart from drawing the daily weather map—was a couple of hours a day in the proof-readers room.
I would have to sit there as a “copyholder” while two middle-aged, very dedicated no-nonsense, women read stories and advertisements from proofs pulled from the linotype machines clattering away next door.
It was a great test of your attention and accuracy. The linotype operators would take reporters’ copy, type it into their cumbersome machines, complete with pots of melted lead, and spit the words out on a metal slug which would then be slotted into a “form” in a page which would (after sub-editor inspection) be sent off to the stereo department to be moulded into a concave metal sheet to be locked on to the printing press. So many processes.
Sub-editors, and lino operators, developed a skill to read words, on slugs, upside down and back to front. I couldn’t know how handy that skill would become years later when I was chasing The Great Train Robber Ronnie Biggs around Brazil.
I had made it to Rio De Janeiro without a visa by slip-streaming a moustachioed Fleet Street journo, Ralph Champion. (Poms didn’t need visas to Brazil, Kiwis did.)
I got sprung at Customs and Immigration in Rio and was locked up in a hot green tin shed for about six hours. They finally let me into the country for 24 hours but impounded my passport.
Next morning, I was at a chaotic press scrum at La Cateche, the infamous police HQ, in Rio. The Police chief named Garcia was straight out of Central Casting. Dressed in black, tiny, wiry, with a thin moustache and pearl-handled pistols on his hips, Garcia was answering questions about Ronnie’s firecracker Brazilian girlfriend Raimondo Nascimento de Castro, a sometime stripper who later performed in Melbourne’s St. Kilda.
My other lasting memory of a journo’s life in the Sixties was smoking. We lived in clouds of it. Every newsroom was an ashtray with doors.
I was jammed at the front of the media scrum at Police HQ. I looked down on the police chief’s blotter and backwards – using my linotype experience – I read an alert with my name on it. I sidled back into the pack.
On January 4, next year, I celebrate 60 years in journalism. The biggest advances? Computers, the Internet and news 24/7. I remember in the late 1960s writing a gee golly gosh story for the SMH from NASA about the fact I was writing that story on a keyboard with a screen!
In the 1960s, at the America’s Cup in Newport, Rhode Island, we would send a seven camera crew member to Providence to get the footage on a plane to Sydney and I would then do a phone voice-over to be used when it arrived two or three days later.
In the early Sixties, we were in awe of a gadget called a “fax machine” which would, somehow, convert stuff into a picture which would spit out on flimsy facsimile paper.
Back then, we typed on “threes” – small paper sandwiches with carbon inserts that carried only two or three sentences. You worked in a cacophony of huge, upright Remingtons being pounded with two fingers. And with each page ripped from the machine you would shout “Boy!” and a keen teenager (and possibly future editor like John Hartigan) would scurry from the Copy Boy pen to fetch it for the sub-editors. You never knew their names. Just “Boy”.
My other lasting memory of a journo’s life in the Sixties was smoking. We lived in clouds of it. Every newsroom was an ashtray with doors. I shared a desk at my first job with the women’s editor, June Litman, who smoked so much one eye was always almost closed and she had a yellow nicotine stain on her upper lip. And a stain on the ceiling.
She did go on to become the chief sub-editor and I did dedicate my book, Human Headlines, My 50 Years in the Media, to her with the line: “ For the late June Litman. My journalistic mentor. New Zealand’s first-ever female chief sub-editor. She should have been the editor”.
A 1960s postscript. In 1966 I was working in Toronto, Canada. At 22, a callow Kiwi, somehow, was Bureau Chief for United Press International. I was sent to Kingston, Jamaica, to cover the Commonwealth Games.
Also on The Big Smoke
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- A quick word: Language is dead, and we killed it
- Our government passed a social media gag bill without debate
Very glamorous. Eating curried goat. Sleeping on a Pakistani wrestler’s mat. And, as a news agency reporter working almost 24/7.
I was sharing a room with a Fleet Street photographer named Ray Bellisario. I was suspicious of him. He knew nothing about sport, knew nothing about the Games’ program. I discovered I was rooming with Britain’s first paparazzo.
He admitted his sole aim was to get a bikini shot of a teenaged Princess Anne who was there with her Dad, Prince Philip.
I don’t think he got the pic he wanted but if he had come to the stadium he would have got a front-page zinger.
At the opening ceremony, Princess Anne’s open jeep came down the marathon tunnel and did a sharp turn to the right into the arena. Princess Anne fell over and she entered the stadium with her skirt up around her waist and her legs in the air.
I’m sure that went out on the fax machine to somewhere.