Sunday, September 27, 2009

The accidental journalist

AFTER a lifetime as a journalist I'm often asked what literary studies or university degrees I took to become a top newspaper columnist and author.
It wasn't easy. I started in newspapers 57 years ago and if anyone else out there had a more unusual introduction to journalism, then let me know.
You see, I wanted to be an electrician when I just squeezed through my junior examination back in 1951 but couldn't get an apprenticeship in my hometown, Maryborough, Queensland.
All jobs were pretty scarce in the early fifties and there was no dole, but I survived by helping my old man restore an old house to sell for a small profit. I don't know what he made out of it, but he gave me five shillings (50cents) a week and board and tucker at the family home for nix.
One early morning, after about four months working on the cottage, Mum approached me with the local paper, The Maryborough Chronicle, smiling broadly.
"There's a job for you here," she said. "They are advertising for a cadet journalist."
"A what?" I replied.
"A journalist ... a reporter," she said.
"Don't be silly mum," I said. "I'm bad speller and a slow reader."
"I don't care," she said. "After breakfast get on your bike, go into town and apply for the job."
She kept at me and at me and then Dad joined in, so that morning I did what they said.
The editor interviewed me and sent me down to the Gardens on the Mary River and told me to look around and come back and write two foolscap pages about what I saw.
That I did, and handed it in. He told me he would give me a phone call at 6pm that night. But we were like most other people in Maryborough and didn't have a telephone. So he said to come into the office at 6pm instead and see the chief sub-editor.
I had no intention of going back but mum, and then dad, kept at me and to shut them up I got on my bike again and went into the Chronicle office.
I climbed the stairs and met the chief sub-editor, Ray Foster. We had a chat for a few minutes then he took me into a room with two teletype machines clacking away and told me to tear the typed paper off after every two or three paragraphs and glue it to copy paper, underline any capital letters, punctuate it and bring it in to him in the subs room.
I was astounded and asked him why?
"Do you want the bloody job or not?" he said firmly. "Just sit down there between the machines and do what I told you."
I was now absolutely astounded. I didn't want a bloody job where you had to be a good speller and a good reader, but I sat down and started tearing off the news as it rattled up via Country Press in Brisbane from the rest of Australia and the world.
It wasn't good money but better than the five bob I got from Dad. And at least I could still play rugby league, which was my favourite sport. I played for Brothers and when I was 19 I was selected for Maryborough against Bundaberg and Gympie and then for Wide Bay to play against France and New Zealand.
I had a future in rugby league, no risk, and that was a big blessing because I might one day make it to the really big time and get a great job as a car salesman or something better than journalism.
After playing against France and the Kiwis I got some interest from clubs in Ipswich, Toowoomba and Brothers in Brisbane so at the end of my four year Chronicle cadetship I applied to The Courier-Mail about a junior reporter's job and surprisingly got it.
(The editor, T.C.Bray, a truly great editor, said he would make me a D grade reporter as soon as I picked up my shorthand, which was terrible.)
There was very little money in it but I picked Brisbane because my fiancee, Jan Cridland, had won The Sunday Mail Sun Girl competition, won a Holden Special and was now a top model in Brisbane.
I had become very good friends with my boss at Maryborough, Ray Foster, mainly because he used to cover the league matches for the Chronicle, and was a mad keen rugby league supporter.
So when I was leaving for Brisbane he put on a small farewell in the comp's room, with a few beers, mainly for him and his mates, because I didn't drink back then.
Nevertheless I became a bit emotional to be leaving and just before I left I drew him aside.
"I've got to thank you Ray, " I said, "for giving me the job when you knew I'm a bad speller and a poor reader. But you must have seen something in me that made you pick me over all the other applicants."
Ray started laughing.
"Shit! No mate," he said. "You were the only bloody applicant. There was no one else but you."
So off I went to my brilliant career with The Courier-Mail in 1956, knowing the only way up for me would be to make it on the rugby league field.
More next week.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lawrie Kavanagh blog launch

Kavanagh's Queensland will be launched online on September 27.