Category Archives: Mad Memoirs

Pieces about my useless life. Some aspects R-rated.

The Moscow Circus Comes to Town!

A news editor of Quadrant Online’s acquaintance once told a callow and incompetent cadet how ‘a chimp could write a better story’, the standard formula doing all the work. In 1968, when Tony Thomas visited touring Soviet circus stars, he didn’t monkey around with stock cliches. Fifty years after it was written, his piece remains as vibrant and idiosyncratic as ever

PERTH, February, 1968: Belatedly I got down to see the Moscow Circus people last week. The performers’ enclosure was littered with attractive Russian girls in microscopic bikinis, soaking up the sun. With circus interpreter Vladimir Zharikov, 25, in tow, we called on the silver caravan of director Joseph Dubinsky, grey-haired and with the characteristic Russian row of gold teeth.

He assumed I was avid for statistics and before I could call a halt, I was informed of Russia’s 100 circuses, 9,000 performers, 12 million spectators, tours of 20 countries and 50 new circuses to be built by decision of the government, with 50 new hotels for the cast.

“I’ve noticed a few slips in performances,” I said. “Is this normal?”

(I’d seen one of the Bernadsky girls somersault into the air, not get caught and land on her chin. On Thursday, Nikolay Goncharov aged 15 who is bounced high into the air off a see-saw, failed to land on his chair-on-stilts).

Hal G.P. Colebatch reviews The West: An Insider’s Tales

The director said he didn’t expect perfection. Sometimes electronic robots made mistakes – could more be expected of humans who were so complex? An opera singer who got out of condition could sing less loudly and with less emotion. But circus artists could not slow down as that could involve someone’s life.

“What’s the mortality rate?”

“There occur some casualties. Artists are good at surviving. Irina, from the Sputnik trapeze act, was performing in Tbilisi, Georgia several years ago and fell. She broke every bone. Doctors put every bone together but she was not allowed to move an inch for months. She took a special course of medical exercises and got better.”

The director used to be an actor but broke his left leg and had to go into administrative work.

Strongman Vyachslev Anochin mentioned that another strongman had been killed when one of his heavy juggling balls hit him on the forehead rather than the neck.

The clown Andrei Nikolayev’s arrival from shopping ended the morbidity. He said most people thought a clown was crazy all the time, though he did his best not to look like a clown when he was off-duty. He had a request from a powerful source, namely his wife, not to be so funny. He wanted to get his wife into his act, but would have to wait until she was older and less pretty.

“What’s your theory of humour?” I asked. “Is it that pain gives pleasure to others?”

“That is so in overseas circuses. They have a point of view that the more a clown is beaten, the funnier it is. I don’t agree. In my act, I beat, I am not beaten.”

His tactics were to concentrate on the sourpusses in the audience; the others would laugh anyway. The people who laughed easily did not interest him.

One of the basic features of humour was the unexpected. Most people scratched their right ear with their right hand. He would bring his left hand round his back to do it. He would dust off a chair and sit somewhere else, or walk away from a balloon to aim at it, instead of towards it.

“Part of the soul of each clown is the soul of a child. I still learn from children, like the little girl I saw on the Black Sea, fighting with a plastic crocodile. May I meet only plastic crocodiles in my bath!”

Inevitably, we were drawn to the air-conditioned lair of Ivan Ruban, the animal trainer. Small, mild and wearing a clerkish pair of rimless spectacles, he was exclaiming at the beauty of new hardboard floors just installed in the cages.

He gave his lion, Leo, a caress through the bars, crooning something at it.

His personality guide to his wild beasts was:

Lion: Dignified but as eager for smooching as any cat.

Tiger: Not as strong but could probably outfox a lion in a fight.

Black panther: Temperamental, stubborn and slow to train.

Snow leopard: Reacts immediately if it dislikes something.

Sumatran tiger: Unstable, as likely to bite his hand as lick it.

Brown bears: Deceitful, capable of feigning friendliness in order to attack you. The biggest, the Siberian bear, has a head the size of a 44-gallon drum but it’s so well trained that it carries Ivan’s whip around for him. (Ivan’s whip is more to impress the audience than the bears).

Polar bears: Jealous. It could be fatal to give one of the pair just one lump of sugar extra.

We have entrepreneur Michael Edgley 24, to thank for this 16-week Australian tour. He went through half a dozen circuses in Russia, picking out their best acts for an ensemble. He’s hoping for a million ticket sales to cover costs and make a profit.

The logistics alone are startling. The circus travels via 15 semi-trailers hauling, among other things, the (claimed) world’s biggest tent of one-acre extent. Erected, it’s green on top with red flags flying from four giant mastheads. The sides are red and blue.

This tent involves 4.5 tons of canvas, 2.5 miles of rope and (claimed) ability to withstand gales of 180mph. Now THAT’S a big top.

UPDATE: I can’t let the clown stories pass without adding today the unfunny story of two Moscow clowns Bim and Bom at a performance in 1918. They were prone to making outrageous jokes — like Bom toting portraits of Trotsky and Lenin, and Bim asking what he planned to do. “I’ll hang one and put the other against the wall,” Bom says. Whatever joke they made at this performance, some Cheka (Party police) present weren’t amused and climbed on stage to arrest Bom.

People tittered, thinking it was part of the act. But when Bom fled, the Chekhists began firing their Browning pistols into the air, panicking the audience. Bom hid in the stables behind. Next day they were both interrogated, still in costumes including Bim with a giant chrysanthemum in the buttonhole of his tuxedo. Luckily, they survived their mistake.

The dangerous nature of clowning in Stalin’s time is suggested by this joke: Stalin attends the premiere of a Soviet comedy movie. He laughs and grins throughout the film, but after it ends he says, “Well, I liked the comedy. But that clown had a moustache just like mine. Shoot him.” Everyone is speechless, until someone sheepishly suggests, “Comrade Stalin, maybe the actor shaves off his moustache?” Stalin replies, “Good idea! First shave, then shoot!

Tony Thomas’s book The West: An insider’s tales  is available here

In Praise of Tony Thomas, Journalist

Quadrant Online has been blessed by the curious mind, astute eye and gifted pen of Tony Thomas, who has just published the second volume of his collected essays, investigations and memoirs. When one looks at the sad state of the news business, it can only further darken the mood to realise the unfulfilled need for more like him

The West: An insider’s tales
By Tony Thomas

Connor Court, $29.95
____________________

Readers of Quadrant (and there is no excuse for not being one) will know what a splendid writer Tony Thomas is, with a rare blend of graceful style, humor, meticulous research, a steely commitment to the truth with intolerance of fashionable cant, and as indefinable quality that is all his own.

Growing up in a communist family, and for some years as a very young man a party member, he has become a deadly enemy of the left, particularly of fashionable “Green” idiocies and the global warming hoax, though not blind to the less-intelligent aspects of the Righy..

One gathers disillusionment came early. His essay here on Paul Robeson (brought to Australia by the so-called “Peace Council”) is a merciless expose of Robeson’s conscious (not naive) covering-up of Stalin’s murders.

I was a cadet reporter on the West Australian when many of these pieces were written. Tony, working a full shift as a reporter while turning out this seemingly effortless stream of memorable features in addition, was my journalistic hero. I turned the pages of his bulging cuttings books with awe. He took time to help me prepare my first important interviews and showed me how to frame questions so as to elucidate the most newsworthy answers. It was a better training in the craft than I think any latter-day college of media studies could provide. His features, many of them collected here, have not aged. They provide a wonderful and unique picture of Perth in the 1960s and were a local institution. My mother used to cut out some of the best and paste them in a scrap book, partly because she loved good writing but also in case I needed inspiration.

There was no one like Tony, though we did not lack talented reporters. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that if ever there was a natural-born writer, it was he. These pieces read as freshly as when they were written. They provide a wonderful, unique picture of life in Perth at a time when the great mineral developments of the North were turning it from a glorified country town to a city.

This book should provide hours of delight and fascination, but more than entertainment, it is a valid recording of social history, and it should be an enduring one. If in 100 years anyone is writing a history of these days and still reads English, this is one of the books they should turn to,

Some of the stories are tragic, like the tale of the last of the old Chinese market-gardeners, ending in destitute old age after a life-time of toil. When they were evicted from the South Perth foreshore to make way for development, the old “Charlies” cursed the land. Every development project since has failed there. For Wong Chew, the last of them, a collection was taken up so he could go home to Hong Kong to die and be reunited with the wife he had left there a lifetime before.

There were bee-keepers, desperately chasing back and forth across the state for gum-trees in blossom that might provide a “honey-flow.” Writing this involved investigating the bees’ somewhat brutal social life – a bee’s wings wore out in six weeks, after which it was thrown out of the hive to perish.

There were log-choppers and timber-jerkers, construction-workers on the sky-scrapers then going up, and the desperate struggles of the Playhouse Theatre to remain solvent in a community that basically wasn’t interested.

A feature on the West Australian Education Department’s monthly School Papers was particularly memorable for me. I knew the quaint old building where they were produced, and some of the people who wrote them, very well. While most of their content was bland, if informative enough, – “common objects of the seashore” always fascinated me – at school I had childish nightmares over a too-graphically illustrated poem, “Faithless Nellie Gray” by Thomas Hood. How did it get approved?

Tony risked trouble with the West by writing for the little University magazine The Critic on the taboo subject of homosexuality. However, nobody noticed.

Then there was official concern that children, and others, were getting drunk on liqueur chocolates. The Customs Department tried to interview him as to his sources on that one, which of course he refused to divulge. There were the adventures of a private eye before the Family Law Act dried up the business, and the annual burning by the industry of dud movies that could “no longer be sold even to country theatres.”

What gives this book both its historical value and its charm is that somehow Tony Thomas saw what others missed. Only he noticed something bizarre in the fact that Perth’s proud International Airport had kangaroo-paw flowers (a West Australian State emblem) growing in its gardens and a souvenir stall selling the chopped-off paws of real kangaroos made into bottle-openers and the like. He tried to find the supplier, but in this case failed. A truck-load of them arriving at the souvenir factory, he suggested, would have been an interesting subject for Salvador Dali.

These pieces weren’t produced effortlessly of course. Like any technique mastered to such a degree that it looks easy, there was behind them a great deal of hard work as well as an outstanding talent.

Tony was never, however, simply a writer of light features. He investigated the hard, dangerous lives of wood-cutters, and engine-drivers (with unreliable brakes) and other hard workers building, as Kipling put it, “rudely but greatly.” Some of this reminds me of Les Murray’s classic essay about “a working forest.” There were German anthropologists and bearers of theories that North-West Aborigines had borrowed words from early and forgotten European contacts.

Then there is his interview with visiting World Championship wrestlers, rejoicing in names like Gorilla Monsoon and his simian colleagues (actually highly-skilled tumblers, actors and acrobats). There was an interview with the “proud guardian” of the causeway rubbish tip, perpetually at war with “scroungers”.

He surprised many of us when he took the position of economics writer at The Age – it seemed too dry for him. But he had the intelligence to have schooled himself in a real understanding of economics. Coupled with his writing talent, it was a formidable (and rare) combination.

Perhaps every city is unique, but Perth in the 1960s was, if I may put it that way, perhaps more unique than some. Its atmosphere, with the subtle, pervasive influence of the Indian Ocean is captured authentically in these pages. He writes, too, of a skindiver bitten in two by a great white shark. Any deep green advocacy of the need to share the ocean with these purportedly gentle giants would not have got a good hearing then.

The book ends on a rather different note: Tony Thomas left his three-year-old daughter when his first marriage broke up and he took the job in Melbourne. His daughter, Ros Thomas, established herself in Perth as a successful and well-liked columnist and TV journalist. Tony writes frankly of his fraught, eventually successful, efforts to re-establish a relationship with her, not excusing his shortcomings or desertion of her, and she tells her side of the story here. By mutual arrangement, their two stories were published in her column in the West and are reproduced here. She recalls: “I never had a single photo of my dad … Actually, there was one dog-eared snap of us; lost now, but it was only of his hand steadying mine as a laughing toddler in the bath (I held that photo so many times as a kid, I thought if I looked hard enough, I would see love in that hand).” Lacerating.

But at least it seems to have ended happily. Tony says: “Over the last decade we’ve finally got to know a bit about each other … I love our odd new relationship.” To other absent fathers he says, “Stay in touch. Come what may. Keep showing your face. If you’re in another city, it’s harder to keep up the contact. Man up and do your best anyway.”

Great entertainment and a fine showcase of journalism at its best.

Online editor’s note: Many of the pieces referenced above have appeared in Quadrant and Quadrant Online and we would normally have embedded links to those articles. But not today. As Hal writes, the record of this observer’s eye is part of history’s record and they deserve more than the ephemeral attention of pixels flitting across a screen. Instead, buy the book. Tony’s talent deserves an investment in ink and paper, which can be made by following this link.

Deadline Missed by 50 Years

A young reporter of literary bent is sent in the late Sixties to cover a council meeting, subsequently filing an account that, much to the amazement of the chief sub, invokes Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua’. Spiked in 1967 and only recently re-discovered,  it deserves a run

reporter IIIMany journalists keep their scrapbooks of articles for inordinate periods. When cleaning out a cupboard, I found a volume of mine from The West Australian in the 1960s, the pages  browned with age.

Something unusual fell out, a “copy sandwich” of a story of July 1, 1967, that never got published. In those days we wrote each sentence on a separate half-page A5, so the subs could trim the story to length by throwing away pages. The stack of pages was called a sandwich.

On the top page was a note from the Chief of Staff, Viv Goldsmith: “Tony Thomas – see me about features and news cover (guideline for the future).”

Notes starting “See me” are seldom preludes to positive feedback.  Strangely, the story had traversed the sub-editors’ table and even acquired a note to the hot-metal compositors, “Urgent”. This sub-editor was a moron, turning   my choicest bon mots into the English of phone books and railway time-tables.

I suspect the chief sub had, in a spasm of caution, referred the sandwich upstairs to the editor, who sent it  down to the Chief of Staff with advice to counsel me against levity and disrespect in news reporting.

My aborted story is about a fiery meeting between the semi-rural Armadale-Kelmscott Shire Council and 500 of its electors. The council had summonsed and fined many of them for allegedly neglecting  their firebreaks. The electors had activated some clause in the shire’s constitution to hold their councillors to account.

To set the scene, you probably know that Perth sits on the coastal plain and 30km to the east,  running north-south, are the lightly-settled Darling Ranges, rising to 600m. They’re not exactly the Alps. Armadale-Kelmscott is one of the hillside districts. I probably reported this meeting with special avidity because I  lived  on a half-acre nearby, on Gooseberry Hill.

The sandwich shows signs of poor typewriter hygeine. Each letter ‘r’ falls half below the line and the ‘r’s’ stem is missing, leaving only a mark like a tilde or curly hyphen. But no-one in Newspaper House ever kicked me about my r’s.

Will I ever get round to the story? Here goes:

 Next Best Thing to the Stake

We don’t burn unpopular bureaucrats [subbed to read “we don’t burn people”] at the stake any more, but an electors’ meeting is the next best thing.

The smell of roasting councillors wafted through the Armadale Hall as 500 ratepayers asked questions and said things about last month’s mass fining of firebreak defaulters.

All the Armadale-Kelmscott councillors attended, sitting in a row before the velvet curtains and red drapes of the antique hall. The only cheerful one was Mrs Julie Bethell, who had been elected after the council’s fining sortie.

At 8 pm the meeting opened with the force of a wet match. President P. Kargotich announced that the sound-recording crew (who had decorated the fore-stage with teeming lianas of wires) had forgotten their microphones. Someone was speeding back to Perth (20 miles) to get them. The meeting would start when he got back.

This was like lashing the lions before the Roman games. The packed hall rumbled with discontent for 35 minutes. Some young blades started slow hand-clapping.

“Order,” shouted the microphone-less president.

“Time!” counter-shouted an angry woman.

At 8.45pm a runner panted   entered into the cheering hall carrying a box of microphones. The meeting started with a history of the controversy from the president, read fast and level. Then he called for questions and suggestions from the audience.

Here a misunderstanding arose. The shire thought the meeting had been called so that people could make sensible suggestions about how to reduce fire hazards in future. Most of the ratepayers thought the purpose of the meeting was to do the council over. This misunderstanding was never fully resolved.

The microphone fiasco was grist to the mill. Mr Kargotich disclaimed responsibility; Mr Hugh Leslie, of Kelmscott, said the equipment should have been tested long before the meeting started.

“What is wrong is the shire council, and the whole body of it,” he said, after giving a different history of the fining. “If you can’t lead, then get out and let someone in who can. And if they can’t, we will kick them out.”

Later, there was some confusion between Mr Kargotich and a red-headed youth from the sound crew about whose turn it was in the audience for a microphone.

“You’re an employee of the meeting, not running it,” Mr Kargotich said peremptorily.

Mr Chandler, of East Cannington, rose soon after.

“The way you treated that man gives an idea of how you treat employees…” he began.

Mr Kargotich (divining that this speaker may not be friendly):“Are you an elector?”

Chandler: “I’m a ratepayer.”

Kargotich: “Are you an elector?”

Chandler: “I am not of the district.”

Kargotich: “Well, will you sit down.”

Chandler: “I am being fined. Does that give me the right to speak?”

Loud cheering from the hall, and Mr Chandler spoke on.

Things got so hot after a while that Mr Kargotich had to remind a woman speaker that her remarks about a council employee were going on record and she might regret it if she continued (he was referring to the laws of slander).

Near the end of the meeting, the crisis point arrived, with a motion from an impassioned Mrs Mann of Roleystone that the whole council resign. Her family had collected seven summonses, reduced by the council later to one. The motion came unexpectedly, rather like the baby that popped out of Gargamelle’s left ear.

[At the time I was doing post-grad English literature at UWA, where I would have picked up this bit of anatomical fancy in Rabelais’ ‘Gargantua’ of 1550. In that pre-Google era, I must have had the book handy].

Mrs Mann first objected to the ‘bombastic’ manner of the chairman, Mr Kargotich. She thought he was paid by ratepayers and should be nice to his employers. Mr Kargotich said he drew no salary.

“What do the 3 per cents go to then?” she demanded.

Mr Kargotich explained that legally, this money could be spent at the council’s discretion, and his shire spent only half of it, and that half, on worthy ends.

“I was told that at each council meeting cigarettes were passed around. Is this little enjoyment from the 3 per cents?” she asked meaningly.

Shouts to “Siddown!” came from around the hall.

“I would like to see the whole council resign,” she finished.

This took everyone aback, but Mr Kargotich, unruffled, asked if she wished to move a motion. She did.

Mr Carlson, of Roleystone, tried vainly to cancel the motion, arguing that a vote against the council would be dangerous and that a vote for the council would be seized on by the council as evidence of popular support.

“If passed, the motion would be considered by ourselves,” Mr Kargotich said. “We make the decision.”

After a short speech or two against the motion, it lost by about 450-50.

Our next electors’ meeting on July 7 concerns Paul Ritter and the Perth City Council. I advise the council to look to its microphones.   Ends sandwich.

Understandably, I wasn’t assigned to report that Perth council meeting, a pity as it sacked its town planner, Mr Ritter, soon afterwards. Ritter gazumped the council by getting elected to it  for 16 years. He was runner-up as Perth citizen-of-the-year in both 1974 and 1976 but  got a three-year stretch in 1986 for a dodgy application for a Commonwealth export grant. Doing time is an occupational hazard for Perth celebrities.

Well, that ends my trip down memory lane. Reporting council meetings in those days was at least a step up from reporting the Magistrate’s Court.  The West’s policy was to include particulars of old lags who ‘committed a nuisance’ in the lanes of our fair city.

I’ve just realised: it’s the 50th anniversary of when I wrote the firebreak story. Spooky!

In this month’s Quadrant, Tony Thomas writes about Menzies’ affection for price-fixing cartels.

HAL G.P. COLEBATCH: A Master Craftsman Journalist. Review of my book

HAL G.P. COLEBATCH

A Master Craftsman Journalist

That’s Debatable: 60 Years in Print
by Tony Thomas
Connor Court, 2016, 246 pages, $29.95
___________________________

 

Tony Thomas is either a born journalist or has worked to make himself a consummate master of the craft, or, as I suspect, both. One way or another he has a master’s touch seen too rarely nowadays.

Not only does his investigative work burrow far deeper than that rewriting of press handouts which often passes for journalism today, but like all masters of difficult skills, he makes it look easy. Further, he has a heavy battery of that often overlooked weapon, common sense.

He is, in fact, near the ideal of what a journalist ought to be and, perhaps, more often used to be. What has struck me most about his writing over the years, apart from the knowledge and research behind his work, is his gift for packing an enormous amount of information into the absolute minimum of words, while making the piece witty and entertaining (my mother used to paste some of his best features in a scrapbook). His piece on Biggles, unfortunately not included here, was one of many that could be called a classic of its kind.

Thus his great strengths are a rapier-like flashing wit, a professional’s taut style, and, backing up all his pieces when necessary, assembled heavy legions of facts—a great combination that we see far too rarely today. I cannot recommend the pieces in this book too highly as models for any aspiring journalist.

I first met Tony when I was a cadet reporter on the West Australian, and he, in addition to reporting assignments, was turning out a stream of feature pieces almost it seemed daily, all entertaining, all written with consummate skill. It is a pity that some more of these West Australian pieces, such as an interview with gorilla-like wrestlers and one on the kangaroo-paw souvenirs sold at the airport—both kangaroo-paw flowers and the chopped-off paws of kangaroos made into bottle-openers—have not been included.

He was always ready to share tricks of the trade with us cadets (we never saw the editor, Griff Richards, and probably wouldn’t have recognised him if we had). When I had my first major assignment—interviewing a senior visiting admiral—Tony went through my prepared list of questions with me, rephrasing them so as to encourage the most newsworthy answers (unfortunately, when the time came the admiral was incapably drunk).

Although now a thorn in the side of the Left, and particularly the greenies and eco-nuts, with his savage and unanswerable pieces in Quadrant and Quadrant Online, Tony came from a communist family and was a Young Communist in adolescence. I used to see his mother, still a red-hot red, at the West Australian Writers’ Fellowship, and though we were poles apart politically I respected her seriousness of purpose and her readiness to help young writers.

We were surprised when he left the West Australian to be an economics writer for the Age. The job seemed too dry and uncreative for his talents.

This book is a collection of pieces he has written over many years but of course the most topical are those he has written since his retirement for Quadrant and Quadrant Online. However, the earlier pieces on growing up red and of the Australian communist world of the time are of real historical interest.

He recalls from his Age days attending one lecture by Jim Cairns, who was then the federal Treasurer. With Junie Morosi squatting at his feet, gazing adoringly up at him, the Treasurer seriously proposed abolishing money, which would be replaced with love as the medium of exchange between human beings. The story was never filed because, Tony thought—probably correctly—no one would believe it.

A major theme of seven of the later pieces is the debunking of climate doom-mongers, with their panoply of scare-tactics and bad science. There are four pieces on the mythologising of Aboriginal life and especially the ghastly reality that Aboriginal women have endured. There is a probing investigation into “The Naughty Nation of Nauru” with its kleptocratic leadership, and the squandering of both its phosphate-derived wealth and Australian aid.

Tony’s years as an economics writer may have been valuable in tackling the anti-mining, anti-growth freaks and the bizarre energy-less utopias they prescribe, though it is truly alarming that, fake Nobel Prizes and all, many are taken seriously not merely in the media but in academe. “The Joy of Yurts and Jam-Jar Glassware” is truly Swiftian in its slashing demolition of pseudo-academic Luddite lunacy. As one who loves the Barrier Reef I was pleased to read his article putting its many predicted deaths in their place.

A quite alarming piece is on the feminisation of the military, and the feminist push to have women in front-line combat roles, so they can come home to their children in body-bags. Tony is, of course, able to quote a list of cases where this has already happened. Since women do not, as a rule, have the upper-body strength required for serving heavy guns or lifting wounded in a hurry out of burning tanks and aircraft, with 100 per cent failure-rate on some tests, required standards of strength are being lowered so women can pass. One British officer has described modern unisex infantry training as “aggressive camping”. I don’t think we have reached the point reported from Britain, where recruits are given cards to produce if their delicate nerves are jangled by drill-instructors bawling at them.

Mentioned briefly is the 2016 Australian of the Year, General David Morrison, with his transsexual aide, who seems more interested in promoting “diversity” than combat efficiency in the armed forces (Wikipedia indicates that this “hard-as-nails warrior”, who joined the army several years after Vietnam, may not have heard a shot fired in anger in his entire career). This essay goes with George Orwell’s observation that civilised men can only be civilised as long as rough uncivilised men guard them.

Thomas casts an informed, dispassionate eye on his own youth, growing up in a committed communist household, and the now-available documents of ASIO and the Communist Party (one ASIO agent infiltrated a party branch of just three members). It complements the memoirs of some disillusioned ex-ASIO agents as to the Keystone Cops element, hopefully now left behind, of the early days of the organisation. Yet one also gets the impression, reading this insider’s account, that the Communist Party, despite elements of farce and Carry On bedroom antics, at times had more real power and influence than any except perhaps its natural enemies on the Right gave it credit for.

What might be called the far Right gets a hammering too, with his account of covering police behaviour at a demonstration in Bjelke-Petersen’s Queensland. The collection concludes with a nicely balanced and objective piece on his travels in America and the American conservative showman Glenn Beck.

Hal G.P. Colebatch lives in Perth. His book Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II (Quadrant Books), shared the Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History in 2014.

How I snubbed Bill Gates (sorry Bill!)

 

In early 1986 Microsoft’ co-founder Bill Gates got an appointment to see me at the BRW office at 469 Latrobe St. It was not a successful interview, because I forgot he was coming and went out to lunch. I was habituated to a circuit around the block to stretch my legs after a morning at the computer, with a time-consuming stop at JB Hi-Fi on Elizabeth St to browse the cut-price classical CDs.

I returned to the office to find an indignant Pictures Editor, Tom Brentnall, who had to baby-sit Bill Gates to cover my absence.

My lapse was so egregious that it featured in ex-Editor Jeff Penberthy’s 25th anniversary essay on BRW’s history (Issue of August 24, 2006). He wrote:

When Bill Gates walked into the old BRW offices on Little Collins Street in Melbourne [actually we’d moved by then to Latrobe St. TT], there was no-one on hand to greet him. The young Microsoft founder had called to see senior writer Tony Thomas – but Thomas was a busy man. He was out to lunch, and he deserved it. Among the first owners of a personal computer in Australia [Eh? I don’t think so! TT], Thomas was writing a sponsored page that answered questions for the few PC users, but the magazine was ahead of its time.

In almost a year there had only ever been one genuine question come in from a reader. Week after week, Thomas wrestled to pose intriguing questions to himself, typically sourcing them from the reaches of Adelaide or Brisbane, and you could bank on his answers. Incredibly, then, some nark had written in to say he had checked the electoral rolls, and there was no person named Samson living in Willagee, which happened to be Tony Thomas’s old Perth home suburb.

Such is the price of exigencies. God knows what Bill Gates thought of us – Bill probably told Him when they talked that night. Tom Brentnall sat the geek from California down and gave him our latest issue to read while he rustled up a photographer…

Gates was in early 1986 just a 31yo in the geeky personal computer world. Microsoft was then just a private company on the verge of floating on the stockmarket. (The offering raised a modest $US61m from the public).

It took me quite some research even to establish when Gates visit to BRW happened. It was when Gates was doing overseas PR for the float.

Most IBM-style personal computers were still running the clunky MS-DOS operating system. Windows 1.0 involving mouse-pointing and clicking at the screen, was only a few months old. Bill Gates was not then famous, nor a model employer (he used to memorise staff licence plates so he could check who left the carpark early). But anyway, I now apologise to him over my inadvertent snub.

Microsoft, with its 118,000 workers, is now valued at $US400b, while Gates personal wealth is $US75b. BRW in contrast ceased as a printed magazine in 2013 after 32 years. Then on March 4, 2016, the on-line vestige of the magazine also disappeared. It was never the same – perhaps better – after my retirement in 2001.

11 March 2016 #

Reflections on a Youth Carnival by a primary-school Stalinist

This article appears in the April, 2014 issue of Quadrant.

By Tony Thomas

Did Mr A.T. Jelly, probably of Nedlands, Perth, play some small role in 1952 in ameliorating Cold War tensions and bringing about a more peaceful world?
He was walking along the Stirling Highway footpath near the then State Saw Mills, and I, as an 11-year-old, blocked his way . I presented him with a petition for a Five Power Peace Pact between the US, UK, France, the Soviet Union and China. I explained why it was a good idea, and he became about my tenth signatory that morning.
I was a keen collector of signatures, so keen that I won the prize from the Eureka Youth League and/or its parent the Communist Party of Australia. The big prize! I became the sole delegate from Perth’s Junior Eureka Youth League (JEYL) to Sydney’s Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship.

At this distance it is safe to make a confession. I did forge 10-15% of my signature tally, enough to knock my sister, 12, out of the short-list for the prize. My parents, inspecting my petition sheets, immediately queried the authenticity of “Mr Jelly”. Mr Jelly’s signature was authentic. I was righteously indignant. Even today I notice two Jelly families in Perth’s White Pages, possibly Mr A.T. Jelly’s descendants.
At 11, I was already a petition veteran. At ten I had taken the World Peace Council’s petition to ban the atom bomb to Nedlands State School and got a lot of kids to sign before school – they were flattered to be asked. By playtime, to my disgruntlement, the kids virtually queued to scratch their names off my petition sheet. At a lunchtime interview, the doubtless horrified headmaster at this conservative school, Mr Thorpe, instructed me to cease and desist from signature collecting among his flock.
Joseph Stalin was my ultimate boss as the mainspring of the Five Power Peace Pact petition. Some press man interviewed him in February 1951. Comrade Stalin highlighted the need for the pact, which had been languishing as a topic since Foreign Minister Vyshinsky broached it in the UN a year earlier. (Vyshinsky had presided over the pre-war Zinoviev-Kamenev trial, remarking judicially, “Shoot these rabid dogs… Let’s put an end once and for all to these miserable hybrids of foxes and pigs, these stinking corpses!”).
Insensitively, the General Assembly had voted against Vyshinsky’s peace pact, opting instead for an American protocol for ‘peace through deeds’.
After the Stalin interview, instructions about the petition speedily went out via Alexsander Fadeyev, of the Soviet Writers Union, and Ilya Ehrenburg, the writer, who were Stalin’s conduits to the Peace Council. What do you know, by December there were 600 million signatures, including Mr Jelly’s.
The predecessor petition against the atom bomb (then a US hegemony) had not done nearly as well, gathering only 500 million signatures, including the vestigial tally from my Nedlands State School peer group. Most of the signatures were from Soviet bloc citizens, where declining to sign involved a career setback.

We JEYL members in Perth, aged to about 15, wore the white shirts and red scarfs that were a la mode for Communist youth globally. Our troop mother was a nice but humourless young woman called Dot Calvert.
One morning about eight of us boarded a Stirling Highway bus for the beach, and half-way there Dot instructed us brightly, “Let’s sing the peace song!” We immediately piped up, “For peace, world peace! United for peace! For peace, world peace! U-u-NIGHT-ed for PEACE!” We then launched into the many verses between choruses, such as “Everywhere the youth are singing freedom’s song…We are the youth! And the world acclaims our song of truth!”
How co-passengers on the bus viewed this performance, I do not know. I think Dot imagined that our peaceful enthusiasm would inspire them to join the Communist Party.
Our main JEYL assignment was fielding a soccer team in the Saturday juniors. We played for two seasons, winning no games but memorably drawing one, at one-all. I was goalie. Our ability to field an 11-boy team, given JEYL’s miniscule numbers, was zero. Normally we fielded between 7 and 9 players, and the opposing team would assign us a couple of their spare players to make a better game of it. Those seconded players seldom put their heart into the game.
There was a Jewish team called the Maccabeans, probably boosted by recent arrivals from Yugoslavia, Hungary and the Ukraine. The Maccabeans, if you will excuse my anti-semitism, were bastards. They wouldn’t donate their spare players to our team, and they spent their hour banging goals past me into my net. Our or my worst score was 35-nil.
I’m a bit annoyed that our Eureka Youth League sponsors were so busy creating a better world that they never gave a thought to putting down our mortally-ailing little team.
Or perhaps they were just too busy cramming for EYL study courses. I turned up the curriculum for Victorian EYL studies, July 1951 – maybe they used the same one in Perth. Lesson 6 was ‘Historical Materialism’ . The poor EYL sods not only had to ingest Stalin’s work, “On origin and role of ideas” but do further reading including Zhdanov’s views on “Marxism and Linguistics” and even Boris Hessen’s tract on “Social and Economic Roots of Newton’s Principia.” Zhdanov died in 1948, and in 1953 Stalin used the death as the fulcrum of his planned “Doctors’ Plot Trial” to deport 2 million Jews to extinction beyond the Urals. Boris Hessen was tried and shot (on the same day) in Moscow in 1936 so his work shouldn’t actually have been on the Victorian EYL curriculum in 1951, although Hessen was rehabilitated posthumously in 1956.

Sorry, I’m rambling. Anyway, I was soon Sydney-bound on the Trans-Continental Train. I can’t remember much about the Youth Carnival, except that I had a starring role in a big campfire evening where I sang Walter Scott’s song about “Bonny Dundee”, except I precociously substituted rhymes about NATO and its UK Labor supporter Clement Attlee. This went down a treat among the evening’s sausage eaters and keg-dwellers.
I still recall the atmosphere of excitement and self-importance. Much to my surprise, I found a newsreel about the carnival (http://tinyurl.com/l7ahuad)
and I’ve transcribed the commentary below. The background music was the march from Tchaikowsky’s Sixth Symphony, perhaps a musical pun on Russian influence on the Carnival. The newsreel opens with a Russian-language sign:
“Russian for ‘Peace & Friendship’ – one of many signs at Fairfield’s Hollywood Park where the Youth Carnival for Peace & Friendship opens. The Carnival itself has been give little publicity but Cinesound presents these pictures, [shot of crowds, families, kids] because the Australian public should know what is going on in their midst. Suppression too often breeds strength.
[People march past under flags bearing the Carnival symbol, a dove plus a boomerang which seem slightly sinister/fascist in black-and-white footage].
Ten thousand people attended the opening day. Noticeable among flags missing from the carnival was that of the United Nations, of which Russia is also a member.
The Federal Government and the Australian Labor Party have both described the carnival as Communist inspired. [State delegations go past, and nice-looking female teenagers and young women are singing but not audible]. The procession of youth, the flags, the banners and marching songs are strangely reminiscent of the Nuremburg rallies of the late unlamented Hitler Youth. [Broad-chested young men march in T-shirt uniforms]. Not so many flags, not so many people, but the first German rallies were small too. To a man (sic) sitting in the centre, it is often difficult to tell the far Left from the far Right.
We seem to have gone all European suddenly don’t we? For this is hardly an Australian scene…
Yes Madam, [matronly woman applauds enthusiastically] it is impressive but it is the start of what?
‘Peace’, and marching in the procession are Chinese. [The Chinese, all locals, are in androgynous Confucian or Tai Chi sort of costumes, eschewing any militancy]. We seem to recall that Red China today is at war with the world in Korea…that Australian youth is dying there to restore peace.
Communist Waterside Workers leader Healy marches – a rather mature youth. [With a large tummy, too].
Perhaps the greatest job these people [Greeks and New Zealanders sweep past] could do would be to convince Russia that the whole world wants peace with a passionate longing. [A big truck float goes past, massively decorated with flowers forming the dove/boomerang symbol]. Frankly we can’t see how the cause of World Peace can be aided by a semi-theatrical parade in a picnic ground 15 miles from Sydney. We wonder too how many of those marching today and those who watch, really know what is going on – these children for instance. [Yay! A truckload of cheering, waving kids. Is that cute kid leaning out, me? Well, maybe!]
Let’s not fool ourselves. There is war in the world today and it was started not by the democracies. Maybe the Youth Carnival could start right there, if the authorities would let them. [Women in hats, a toddler wildly waves a flag in each hand]. Because if this were a democratic procession it could not happen in Moscow’s Red Square!”
And you thought ABC News was subjective?
An ASIO plant was in a cinema when the newsreel was originally shown. As described by historian Dr Phillip Deery, the field officer reported,
“The commentary itself was so biased and unfair that it drew groans from the audience…The audience consisted, not of Carnival supporters, but of suburban housekeepers in town for shopping and members of the public and their girlfriends sheltering from the rain [‘members of the public’ must have all male, unless the agent also spotted some lesbians] …the obvious injustice of the commentary provoked a sympathetic reaction.”

Dr Deery, of Victoria University of Technology, in his excellent study of the Carnival, lavishly appropriated below by myself, complains that most historians of the post-war peace movement have ignored or downplayed it (http://tinyurl.com/n5kc7tc) The most detailed work has been by the ‘unremittingly hostile’ historians, including (Quadrant stalwart) Hal Colebatch of Perth, who treat it as a Communist stunt and ignore its broader community participation, Deery says.
He notes that the Carnival was the first outside Eastern Europe and was the child of the August 1951 3rd World Youth Festival in East Berlin (two years before the East Berlin uprising by less-conformist types). The 1951 show was attended by 26,000, compared with 10,000 at Sydney. Among those at Berlin were 135 Australians including Frank Hardy.
One delegate was 24 year old Frank Townsend, a lab assistant and former Student Council president at Melbourne Technical College. Although a political cleanskin in ASIO’s view, he became full-time organiser of the Sydney carnival in early 1952, keen to repay hospitalities involved in his Berlin trip. He envisioned that the carnival would, in the words of a pamphlet, “light a torch which will shine in a world where the people’s are kept too much apart from each other. This torch can light up the road to the happy, sane and peaceful Australian (sic) that we all hope and strive for.”
Getting 10,000 attendees was a good effort considering the hostile State apparatus. Attendees ran the gamut of refusals by 25 councils of halls, stadiums, parks, ovals and even beaches. The planned venue, the Harold Park trotting stadium, was withdrawn a bare fortnight before start-day. The hastily-arranged and privately-run Hollywood Park venue in outer Sydney was banned by Fairfield Council on the eve of the opening, and the council was only thwarted by a last-minute injunction. The State then banned private bus services to the park and in a Dunkirk-like miracle, the EYL organised private cars, trucks and lorries to shuttle the thousands back and forth.
Deery discovered that ASIO, in “Operation Handshake”, had two men and a woman in the Carnival headquarters and (probably) used agents to intimidate anyone offering Carnival services.
A Hobart ASIO man, J.J. Webberley, was flown to Sydney specifically to monitor Tasmanian attendees by trailing cars and identifying people in photographs. He even trailed himself into Taronga Zoo and Paddington Town Hall dances. He reported, “While at Sydney I was able to obtain the names and addresses of a large number of Tasmanians who have communist interests and will report on them accordingly on the following form.”
The Menzies government couldn’t ban the Carnival per se as the Liberals had just lost the referendum to ban the Communist Party and its ilk. But scores of Russian, Chinese, Czechs, Malayans and Americans were denied visas and had to stay home. Only New Zealanders got in. The ‘international’ flavour was from local ethnic groups.

Somehow the organisers created a panoply of sporting, dance, musical, art and literary events, many with handsome prizes of 200-250 pounds. Us kids were offered prizes for plasticine models, drawings and costumes.
Literary sponsors included Gavin Casey, Eleanor Dark, Dame Mary Gilmore, Eric Lambert, Alan Marshall, John Morrison, Walter Murdoch and Katherine Susannah Pritchard. Colin Simpson signed on but then signed himself out.
Cultural groups were transported to factories to do their stuff. On a single morning, seven groups got to seven sites, each group with chairman, a presenter, and sound equipment. Knowing what a hassle sound gear is even today, I feel respect for those organisers of 1952.

ASIO’s list of participating bodies in the Carnival runs to six pages, including the Atlas Greek Club, the NSW Ballroom Dancing Academy, the Melbourne Camera Club, and Geelong Choristers.
Individuals generously housed out-of-towners, including a Mrs Edwards of Fitzroy Street, Killara, who offered to billet two same-sex delegates in her spare room. She probably got the 2 pounds per person subsidy for costs.
As suggested by the Pathe newsreel, the wireless and the SMH, Tele and Sun ran a news blackout on the carnival. Deery says that the carnival’s EYL news-sheet Challenge had daily print runs of tens of thousands and issue No 10 involved 500,000 copies.
Deery then broadens his canvass to ask why Menzies, fresh from his referendum defeat, went all-out to disrupt the Carnival. Apart from obvious reasons such as the Korean war outbreak and the supposedly-imminent World War 111, Menzies viewed the Carnival as part of a Soviet phony ‘peace offensive’ via the World Peace Council. As External Affairs had advised him, “Like shady night club proprietors the Communist promoters are no sooner put out of business by exposure in one place, than they are busy organising a fresh venture under entirely new management.”
Deery puts the case that the Carnival none-the-less involved a genuine effort by young activists to connect with other youth through culture, sport and a bit of non-sectarian politics. “And it was, in the words of the woman who conceived the carnival, ‘an attempt to break through to a whole new section of the working class movement, we were trying something new and it was terribly exciting…we hoped it would be a new start.’ ”
I was chatting on the phone to Joe Lane in Adelaide about his archival research on SA Aborigines (http://firstsourcesguide.com). He mentioned that he too had attended the Youth Carnival, at an even younger age, 9, than myself. He also thought he spotted himself on the kids’ truck. Cue scepticism. Joe’s parents named him after Joseph Vissarionovich, about which he’s a bit embarrassed today. “At least I’m not called Joe Thomas,” I said. #

Despite his unusual childhood, Tony Thomas has grown up to be a model citizen.

How I missed that story

Our contributor wasn’t always the serious, sober scribe Quadrant readers know and respect. Once, long ago, there was a young reporter with rather more on his mind than covering long and windy speeches

I had an Oedipus Rex moment in 1963. If you recall the play, Oedipus goes looking for the man who killed his father and married his mother. On discovering the man is himself, he is so horrified he stabs out his eyes. (Incidentally, Oedipus killed his father in a prehistoric fit of road rage, involving chariots at an intersection).

I was an earnest but wayward reporter, aged 23, on The West Australian. My editor Griff Richards was troubled. A very illustrious gent called General Sir John Hackett had visited Perth. He was the son of an even grander Winthrop Hackett, who co-founded, edited and later owned The West Australian itself. Griff’s problem was that he had picked up rumors that he, Griff, had seriously and deliberately snubbed General Hackett. I assume Griff had heard some elliptical references to the matter at the Weld Club in Barrack Street.

Griff had misplaced a lot of faith in me, and hence assigned me to get to the bottom of these rumors. They involved something about a magnificent speech Sir John Hackett had made where he had used his coat as a prop and declaimed about the sleeves. That didn’t sound very poetic but I got the drift. Rather thrilled to have been given this unusual detective-like assignment, I began my investigations.

To put all this in context, I intend to inflict some excessive detail about the Hacketts.

Winthrop Hackett (below), at times in league with Premier John Forrest, virtually ran WA for the decades straddling 1900. With his immense wealth and influence, he created most of Perth’s institutions, including the free-of-fees and female-friendly WA University, the State Library and Museum, Kings Park, the Zoo, even Karrakatta Cemetery. Under his regime, The West was a ‘paper of record’ – it used to report verbatim the entire Sunday sermons of Bishop Riley at St George’s Cathedral, for example.

For all that, Winthrop must have had a certain gleam in his eye. At the age of 57, the bachelor magnate married in 1905 the 18-year-old Deborah Vernon Brockman, from WA’s pioneer landed gentry. At one stage she ran a tantalum mine in the deserts of the Northern Territory. The tantalum became a crucial input to Britain’s development of radar in World War II.

How and why Winthrop decided so late in life to wed a teenager is unclear (he did have a lifelong and probably innocent friendship with a chap named Leeper).

He wrote a fortnight before the marriage: “The place is so dull, and life so monotonous that I absolutely must have a new experience. Hence this determination. It seems to me as good a reason as most men have for marrying. What do you think? This is in the strictest sense a ‘marriage de convenience’ ” [Pardon his French].

After marriage, he wrote querulously: “Did you find that marriage took at least a couple of hours out of your working day? It is my experience.” This is very close to my favorite joke: When a tradie got married, he told a mate, “It’s great, but long hours.”

Winthrop even tried to run Deb’s life from beyond the grave, putting a clause in his will that her inheritance would cease if she re-married. Deb not only re-married, twice, but became rich anyway, despite foregoing vast Hackett wealth.

Deb (left), sincerely or not, described her marriage as ‘blissfully happy’. She was one hell of a snob too. She had to shift her bric a brac from Adelaide to Toorak, when she embarking on her third marriage. The job took 12 pantechnicons. At the time, it was the largest family consignment ever to go by road in Australia.

She was also loathe to relinquish her title-by-marriage of “Lady”, which she had enjoyed since her teen years. Her second husband, Frank Moulden, was plain “Mr” but Deb continued to call herself “Lady Hackett”. One cheeky social reporter wrote that Lady Hackett and Mr Frank Moulden “were sharing a room at the Menzies Hotel”. Mercifully, Frank got a knighthood later, so she could call herself Lady Moulden. Her third husband lacked a title so thereafter she called herself “Dr” Buller-Murphy, trading on an honorary doctorate she got from UWA. This used to be considered pretentious, but now a lot of Honorary Doctors adopt the title.

The Hacketts’ only son amid four daughters is the subject of my story and discomfiture.

Sir John, like his mother and father, had an astounding career. He joined the British Army after a not-so-good start in art and in the classics at Oxford. In every campaign, he did acts of heroism, accumulating war wounds and war medals at an equal rate. In Syria he was wounded and won the Military Cross. In North Africa he was in a tank blown up during an attack and he was seriously burnt climbing out of it. He won a DSO.

In 1944 he raised and commanded a parachute brigade, getting wounded again in Italy. Then he led the brigade into the airdrop on Arnhem, the celebrated Dutch ‘bridge too far’ which became an Allied disaster. He was severely wounded in the stomach and a German doctor was going to give him a mercy-killing injection, but a second doctor stepped in and saved his life surgically.

Hackett escaped with the Dutch resistance during a hospital transfer, after adorning himself with extra-bloody bandages. He won a second DSO for Arnhem.

After the war he rose to top ranks, including Palestine in 1947 and running the Northern Ireland campaign in 1961, both rather messy fields of conflict. His job from 1965 was as commander of the British Army of the Rhine and NATO’s Northern Army Group but he was too abrasive politically to win the ultimate top job, chief of the defence staff.

After the army he became Principal of King’s College London, where he liked to join student marches for improved study grants, to the horror of other dons.

After his years on the front line of the nuclear Cold War, he wrote in 1978 a fictional and best-selling scenario of World War III based on a Soviet invasion of West Germany seven years into the future (1985).

This big man came to Perth in 1963, a year or two before the zenith of his military career. This year was the 50th anniversary of the first courses of the WA University and the uni senate marked the occasion by conferring honorary doctorates on 15 alumni and bigshots, some with only tenuous WA connections.

As a further preliminary to my Oedipus moment, I will now describe my love life as at late 1963.

A young woman, “Libby”, and I were magnificently in love and eager to neck in secluded places. This was long before typical young couples could hope for privacy in flats. My home was too inconvenient for trysts. Libby was still living with her mother, who made a point of never leaving us alone in her house, ie., she was not stupid. At one point I tried a double-cross. I announced to Libby’s mother that Libby and I would spend the evening at the pictures. Mother then felt it safe to organize a social outing of her own. At the last minute I announced that our movie was off and Libby and I would just have to entertain ourselves at home somehow. Mother showed such suppressed fury that Libby pulled the carpet from under me by discovering there was another movie she badly wanted to see.

The degree-conferring night found me seething with hormones and fuming at the tedium of the ceremony. I had expected it would be all over by 9pm or so and that Libby and I could rendezvous and head down to the Crawley lover’s lane in my car. But the uni felt that each conferee would want equal time and plaudits. Think 15 x 10 minutes, plus extras.

The chancellor, Sir Alex Reid, was in his peacock robes, along with all the senators and profs. Each nominee got a speech about his accomplishments and was then presented with his doctorate.

None of the speeches so far were at all interesting, and of the 15, there were still three or four to go. The best to date was Fred Schonell, author of the famous Schonell Speller, lists of words which we as primary schoolers had chanted and spelled day after day, resulting in pretty good spelling ability, compared to today’s slack brats. Some recipients seemed to have no connection at all with UWA or Perth, such as Sir Charles Blackburn, chancellor of Sydney Uni, who by the time he retired the following year, had himself conferred 31,194 degrees (true). Another was Freddie Alexander, a historian who had managed to bulk out his 50th anniversary history of the UWA to nearly 1000 pages. I had reported some other historian remarking bitchily that a 1000-year history of Oxford University had been a much smaller volume. I hadn’t given Fred any right of reply, and Fred carpeted me over it, with justice.

I decided cut and run to Libby. Anyway, by the time the official ceremony finished, there would be little time to write the story, phone it through and still meet deadlines. Late night stories had to be particularly thrilling to justify the reworking of pages.

Libby and I managed to steam up my car windows and I thought no more about honorary doctors of laws and letters…

Until my editor asked me to discover what those rumors were about concerning our ‘snub’ to Sir John Hackett.

I began by checking our library files – nothing there.

I asked around, using my meagre list of Perth bigshots. Nothing much.

Finally, a uni contact said someone had told him something about a speech by Sir John. Maybe even at UWA.

An administrator confirmed, to my growing dismay, that the speech was at the Honorary Degree ceremony. “But wasn’t all that just formal stuff?” I asked imploringly.

“No, I was there. It was terribly moving. You know how his father had also got an honorary degree? Sir John must have been wearing his own father’s gown with all the academic stripes and trimmings, and he took it off and addressed it as though it was his father, still alive. We were all moved to tears, just about.”

Well, that’s cleared THAT up. All I needed to do now was break the news to my editor, Griff Richards. I’d just say…what would I say?

I could think of two precedents for breaking of bad news similar to this. As a boy I had once been caught by my stepfather, Vic, doing target practice with our chooks, using small stones. Reluctant to discipline me himself (although when I was about six he gave me a sudden slap on the bare bottom when he caught me urinating in the bathroom basin), Vic directed me to report my crime to Mum and take condign punishment at her hands. I began by remarking to Mum on the smallness of the chook pen and the chooks’ need for more exercise. Mum abstractedly agreed. In a few subtle steps I came to mention that I had even encouraged them to run around by tossing a few things at them. Mum abstractedly agreed…

The other occasion was when the local grocer-store owner caught me red-handed shoplifting a Cherry Ripe bar. Again, unwilling to discipline me and lose the family account, he told me to report my crime to my mother. I trudged home, to find a serious Communist Party seminar in progress on the back lawn. Was this the right time for a general strike? How should we educate the masses (sometimes pronounced ‘them asses’) about the US war bases in the Indian Ocean?

As kids do (or used to do), I hung around Mum’s skirts waiting for a break in the conversation. “Mum, I’ve got something I need to tell you,” I whined. Mum was not interested. She was focused on the mood of the masses and the split with Tito of Yugoslavia. “Mum? Mum?” “Get out and leave us alone, we’re busy!”. I went off to play, with a fairly clear conscience.

I couldn’t visualize any comparable solutions for my present dilemma. Remarkably I decided to go the hang-out road, as Richard Nixon once put it, concerning full disclosure.

Griff, by the standards of many modern-day editors, lived a remote existence in a paneled office off the reporters’ hall. As I saw it, his senior people went in to report and came out to instruct. I never could reconcile this persona with the
Griff who was suspended from UWA over allegedly lewd material he published in the student newspaper Sruss Sruss. So “lewd” that the Student Guild had to literally burn the undistributed copies. (“Sruss Sruss” was onomatopoeia involving the rustle of female underwear).

I entered Griff’s sanctum, apprehensively noting the subdued lighting and the important-looking desk.

“Mr Richards, Hackett made a big speech at the uni ceremony and I was there but it was getting really late. I’d been working long shifts and I was pretty tired and left a bit early and missed it.”

Griff dismissed me from the office. He was not the emotional sort and I didn’t know how annoyed he was.

But it so happened that he checked the time sheets and for one reason or another (perhaps I had done a day shift and then done a play review as well that evening), I did appear to have been over-worked. Very nicely, Griff gave me the benefit of the doubt and rounded on the chief of staff, Viv Goldsmith, for slave-driving his young reporter. Viv and I had never got on, but his hands were tied by the time sheets and he had to eat crow. I’m sure he liked me even less after that.

Tony Thomas is a regular contributor to Quadrant Online