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This Graced Life: Journalism

By John Coleman

The last of the fun professions

Veteran journalist Evan Whitton liked to call journalism the last of the fun professions. No doubt he was referring to the variety of stories journalists cover and the excitement that accompanies many of them.

But to me, a product of 1950s journalism, much of the fun stemmed from the colourful characters I met in the profession in Australia, Britain and the United States. And I lament that so many of them are no longer around.

For instance, I recall in the Brisbane newsroom muscular, darkly handsome John who loved to play tricks on his colleagues. Such as when a reporter was called to one of the room's soundproof phone booths to answer a call from the RAAF with information about a search and rescue.

"Are the search aircraft in the air now?" asked the reporter.

"Yes, I can put you through if you like," came the reply.

Excited, the reporter scribbled furiously to the chatter across the intercoms and the roar of the aircraft hurtling through the sky. It went for several minutes. An incredible exclusive, he thought.

Until peals of laughter came from the next booth's open door. It was John, brilliantly mimicking the chatter of pilots and roar of engines.

Then there was Bob, the brilliant foreign correspondent promoted to executive ranks back in Brisbane. He loved words - phrases that "sang"- and his enthusiasm for stories was unbounded.

He sent me into exclusive restaurants with young Aborigines to test colour bars... had me undergo hypnosis...dress as a bodgie and mingle with bodgies and widgies... infiltrate Gold Coast pyjama parties... almost drown in the first shark meshing boat off Southport's notorious Bar.

I baulked at only one story, aimed at exposing fare evasion. "What would happen," he mused, "if you jumped on and off trams in Queen Street without paying?"

Kev, fighting Irish and a superb reporter, loved a drink and would take on anyone who made priests or nuns the butt of jokes.

There were the swashbuckling police roundsmen who, hats on back of heads and cigarettes drooping from lips, tuned into the police radio, often arriving at crime scenes before the police, drove two-radio cars and admired each other's pistol collections.

In Townsville, there was Jim, the towering editor, a rough diamond with a heart of gold. He worked incredible hours at the untidiest desk I've ever seen and would advise his reporters to "just give us the guts [of the story]."

He began the day early and left, exhausted, near to midnight - again imploring his night editor to "just give us the guts..."

Jim loved writing obituaries and a close friend was the undertaker who invariably dropped by late at night with news of the latest deaths. Somehow, though, wires got crossed and Jim dashed off an obituary about a leading Churchman.

The Churchman nearly died when he read the paper next morning. Jim, unfazed, wrote a light-hearted apology with a photo of the Churchman. Somehow it seemed to make the error even more embarrassing.

Yet Jim, a two-finger typist, could dash off in minutes a lucid, hard-hitting political editorial. Fearless in every sense, I saw him throw out of his office a group of waterfront thugs who tried to stand over him because of the paper's policies.

Alf, the diminutive Chinese boy joined the paper straight from school and worked under my tutelage. At the port, I sent him to board a Chinese freighter to seek out stories. Later, I found him walking up and down the wharf disconsolately, greeting me with his broad north Queensland accent: "Those b-----s can only speak Chinese."

Alf went on to edit a paper in Hong Kong and later to stun Fleet Street with his world exclusives.

A succession of southern metropolitan journalists came north in search of the sun and romance of the tropics.

They never lasted long: I recall one, so affected by sun and alcohol that he couldn't walk up the long flight of stairs to the newsroom - the bumping told us he was attempting to manoeuvre himself up the stairs on his backside, step by step.

In Fleet Street, on the mass Sunday circulation paper, there was suave, debonair Harry. I recall sitting next him that night when the first edition came off the presses in its millions of copies.

The paper loved to focus on the behaviour of eccentric vicars and money-hungry correspondents across Britain sent in a stream of "tips."

Harry, it seems, had taken the correspondent's word for an outrageous story and didn't bother to check it out. Too late, he picked up the phone and, terror rising in his voice, exclaimed: "Reverend, you didn't say that? ...Had you ever thought of saying that?"

Brendan, the lanky, brilliant Irishman, was one of Fleet Street's celebrated journalists who went to jail in the 1960s rather than reveal his sources of information. Often he would disappear at mid-morning to seek refreshment at one of Fleet Street's many pubs.

A cigarette pack with lighter on top on his desk was meant to indicate to Bob, the Scots news editor, that he was downstairs responding to a call of nature. But Bob was never fooled and his yells of "Brendan!" echoed across the newsroom.

Mike, dapper, bowler-hatted, helped at the news desk and wrote quirky, humorous pieces. There was the night he was putting out the rubbish at his bachelor pad when, keyless, the door slammed behind him.

Clad in his pyjamas, he summoned all his reserves of dignity as he walked down Swinging Chelsea's Kings Road to seek help.

In Canberra government journalism, John, chubby with a sunny smile, was one of the finest Christians I've met, founding with a group of others his own little gospel-based church.

He would greet colleagues on a Monday morning with, "My house is full of refugees". And it was true: he and his wife Meg clothed, fed and provided shelter for a stream of Vietnamese boat people.

When Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin in 1974, John toured the city to report on the devastation for newspapers around the world and then joined Meg in cooking and serving meals for the homeless and distressed at the relief centre.

Then in New York there was ageing Bill, a deft subeditor who somehow edited his own speech as he talked, Tom who wanted to know if all my bosses were sirs and Sol, blissfully ignorant of Australia, who greeted me memorably with: "Happy Anzac Day!"

Journalism's characters... I remember them all with affection and hope the fun never goes out of journalism.

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