The virus

First published

Most journalists have a dream of writing something else, a film script, a play, a book, an item beyond daily news. Everything they write is ephemeral: news today, gone the next. So often as a columnist I received the message, 'Yes, I read your column, usually in the smallest room in the house'. The symbolism of that message did not go unnoticed.

Then there was the other message, the dire warning made by Dad, 'There is no money in journalism'. My father's words about journalists being miserably underpaid were all too true. So in 1959 I started writing radio scripts for Crawford Productions. I began with worthy sagas about Australian achievement, then for nigh on five years I wrote scripts for the police series 'D24', which could almost be called the forerunner of television's 'Homicide'. Every week Dorothy Crawford sent me a synopsis of some murder or vile crime, taken from the police files. Crawfords believed it was important to improve the public image of the police, so the message of 'D24' was always that the police were decent, honest and ultimately triumphant. I turned each synopsis into a half-hour radio play, for which I received what even then did not seem a princely sum, 10 pounds a script.

Dorothy Crawford, Hector Crawford's sister, could have been putting on plays for Laurence Olivier. Her standards were high. She sent back scripts two or three times until she got what she wanted. I found it exhausting murdering some creature every week. We went through all the famous hangings. One episode concerned Frances Knorr, the baby farmer who specialised in taking in unwanted babies for cash, on the pretence that she would be a loving foster mother, then murdered them. Frances Knorr was hanged at the Melbourne Gaol on 15 January 1899. Female fiends made good subjects for scripts. Another splendid `D24' episode was about Martha Needle, who poisoned her whole family because she wanted to marry a young carpenter named Otto Juncken. Martha swore her innocence right up to the moment on 22 October 1894 when the hangman pulled the lever. We had knivings, garrottings, armed raids, famous exploits of bushrangers, the death of Squizzy Taylor: 1324' was a splendid blood-stained history of local crime.

The plays were put together at radio studios in the city. Dorothy decreed that there were never to be more than five main characters in any script; one more actor to be paid and the expense would be too high. The stars nearly always were Keith Eden and Patricia Kennedy, two astonishing actors for whom I had the greatest admiration. They could do any accent, feign any instant emotion, including dying splendidly on the gallows. They stood round the microphone, no time even for rehearsal, and plunged straight into the script live, while a technician in the studio handled sound effects ranging from sea gull cries to car doors slamming, steps on stairs, shots and the occasional axe on the back of a neck.

Colin Bednall, the person who launched me into column writing, was now managing director of GTV9, and he asked for a full-length, two-hour radio drama. I gave him an outline of a tale about a gambling-addicted, saucy, middle-aged female who lived in Fitzroy. She ran an illegal tote in a disused church hall. The tote had defences in depth and an early-warning system that would have done credit to the United States Air Force, but still she was constantly raided by the police. I thought it a racy story, but it did not please Colin Bednall. My gifts for character creation were never quite good enough. The play, as they say, did not go to air. One merciless deadline with a daily column was bad enough, but script writing for compassionless editors who called up even at midnight was too hard. Besides, there was always the dream of producing a book, something in hard covers. The first book was The Paddock That Grew, the history of the Melbourne Cricket Club. I have talked of the magical events in life: marriage, the arrival of each child - nothing equals that - going solo, the discovery of music, the first byline. And, oh yes, the arrival of the first book.

The scene comes back very clearly. The year was 1962. The first copy of The Paddock was delivered to the Herald office in a cardboard box. I took it home, then at 5 p.m. I hauled out the volume, solid, hard covered, eternal. I put it on the kitchen table, walked around it three times and purred. My God, it had happened.

The Paddock was published by Cassell and Company. The manager of Cassell Australia was an elderly gentleman, Cyril Denny. He was one of the old school, nothing extravagant about him. He served barley water to his staff in the morning and in the evening. Very excited I went in to see Cassell and said, 'What do you think of my book, Mr Denny?'. Ile gave we a long look and without a smile answered: 'Keith, I have been here a long time. I have published a lot of books and I have never read any of them'.

The next book was Supporting a Column in 1964, followed by Wowsers in 1966. Two men, Cyril Pearl and Phillip Garrett, had a remarkable influence on my early book-writing career. Cyril, author of Wild Men of Sydney, Morrison of Peking and many other books, relished poking fun at the absurdities of society. He loved to steal notepaper from the Naval and Military Club and then, under its letterhead, write outrageous, pompous letters to the Herald and the Age, signing them Major-General Fitzhenry (ret). Nobody ever checked to find out whether this general really existed.

Cyril told me that he knew the head of the research department at the La Trobe Library, Phil Garrett. `Phil', he said, 'is amazing. He knows where every body is buried and every extraordinary, unknown story in Melbourne. The truth is he has written most of the books for the so-called historians here, but they have never acknowledged him'. I discovered all this was true, and I formed an alliance with Phillip Garrett that was to last for fifteen years. He would point to stories, like a water diviner with a wand, and I would go hunting. Almost invariably I found the elusive substance for a book. Phillip Garrett taught me that research in a library is not a dull, dusty affair, but something that can be immensely exciting. He was a quiet, shy person whose greatest love was to get into one of the pubs around Carlton, late in the day, and just talk.

Our first project together was Wowsers, a history of Australian prudery. Phillip told me I would have to go through every issue of the Bulletin from its inception, a formidable task. Yet it was not dull; it was like fishing. I would go for days without making a catch, then suddenly I would find a fact, an extraordinary happening that proved an entire historical theory. I would find it perhaps in an old journal, such as Bell's Life or Melbourne Punch. When that happened I became so excited I wanted to stand up and shout: 'Look, I've found it. It's there. I've got it, I've struck gold'.

Oh no, behave yourself. You are in the solemn sanctum of the reading room. No noise is permitted here whatever. So I would have to wait an hour or two and explain my excitement to Marie when I got home.

Phil was a genius for finding the off-beat story. He told me about the first cremation in Melbourne, which took place on the beach at Black Rock in April 1895. Cremation in the nineteenth century was considered outrageous, appalling. However, there was a small group who believed in it and fought for it. In 1895 J. R. Le Pine the undertaker agreed to cremate the late Mrs Henniker of 8 William Street, Richmond, who had died at the age of eighty-three. He picked a remote spot on the seashore between Half Moon Bay and Black Rock. His assistants used 3 tonnes of firewood and a keg of kerosene. They took the hearse, with the body in an elaborate coffin, almost to the beach, then placed poor Mrs Henniker among the logs. No clergyman was there and Mr Frederick Henniker, Mrs Henniker's only son, lit the match. It was described in Parliament as 'a scandalous and horrible occurrence', but there was no law against it and so we won cremation.

Phil Garrett also introduced me to William Henry Judkins. Judkins was a little wisp of a man who was for ever collapsing from ill-health. In 1906 he was superintendent of the Social Reform Bureau, which he had founded, and editor of the church journal Review of Reviews. Judkins, although apparently of poor physique, was a battery of energy. He was in the newspapers daily, thundering against sin in all its forms. His blast-off point was the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon at the Wesley Church in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. With Mr Judkins as the speaker it should have been more aptly named the Blood-curdling Afternoon or a Sensational Afternoon at the Wesley Church. He could shake the very dust off the church rafters. There was a new expose every week: gambling at bridge parties, Sunday drinking and a hundred other sins. He stood outside hotels on Sundays counting the number of people who went in and out. He was strong in his condemnation of the wickedness of barmaids, those voluptuous sirens who enticed men into hotels to partake of the demon drink, thereby leading them to ruin. Particularly he railed against John Wren, who ran that 'sink of evil', the illegal Collingwood Tote. He was against the brothels of Lonsdale Street, two-up and the pony tracks, and he used to say there were forty-four places of evil in Melbourne where the law was broken. Judkins was the name of the day. Little boys ran up to him, called him names and threw things at him. He was the Ul"--te wowser.

I followed his career in the newspaper room at the State Library. It is a curious thing about research: you move into an era to such a degree that eventually you feel you are there, living in that day as if you had taken a trip in H. G. Wells's time machine. I bad started writing a book to mock the wowsers, but later I was not in a mocking mood and I gained a respect for the extraordinary courage of little Mr Judkins.

After 1908 Judkins's appearances were fewer and fewer. He went to Sydney in 1910 to fight a great prohibition battle, although it was clear he was very ill. Yet when everyone thought Judkins was finished, he came back to preach his old hell-fire, standing on crutches. Then one night, working alone, I read that on Tuesday, 3 September 1912, William Henry Judkins died of cancer. He was only forty-three. I felt I had lost a friend. I left my books and went off to have a cup of coffee, close to tears. Wowsers poured out with passion. I had a distaste for this society that imposed controls over what books we read and what art shows we went to and told us how we should behave on Sunday. I believed utterly that the absurd Methodists, Baptists and Presbyterians had held back our society for a century or more. It was their censorship that stopped the exchange of ideas on book and film, it was their restrictions that stopped sex education and produced a race of inhibited, even dangerous, people. Once people were better educated there would no longer be a need for pornography, and sex abuse, child molestation, rape and abortion would disappear. I am not sure about any of this any more. Who knows? Perhaps old Judkins had something. Perhaps it all requires more time, another fifty or a hundred years, but in the 1990s pornography has not disappeared, it has proliferated. Rape, abortion and child abuse are more prevalent, and as for alcohol, perhaps we are a little wiser, but it still causes more havoc than all other drugs.

Another man whom I admire deeply, and who has had a great influence on me, is Barry Humphries. I met him first when he was a university student doing his Piescape and Forkscape sculptures. At the opening of his Piescape exhibition he put his elbow in a bowl of tomato sauce to test the sauce for the correct temperature and then drank it. What was left he poured over his head. This, he said, was a tribute to our great national drink. One picture was called I Was Eating a Pie and I Coughed. The beauty of such modern art, he said, was this: it could not possibly last more than two days.

Barry went through a period of alcoholism, which caused him great suffering. It was ironic perhaps that he launched Wowsers at almost the height of his troubles. His drinking became so bad that his father, Mr J. A. E. Humphries, used to sit in my office at the Sun, wondering where Barry was and hoping that he just might turn up.

Indeed, I was very disturbed that he might not turn up for the launching of Wowsers, which was to take place at Dan Murphy's Cellars in Chapel Street, Prahran. But that was not the Humphries style. No matter what his state, no matter how ill he was, he never missed a curtain call. He went further than that. Instead of my giving him a present, he presented me with a magnificent Hutton's Hams advertising mirror, 150 centimetres by 80 centimetres. It depicted the little Hutton's man, in his high hat, so famous at the turn of the century. There he was, thrusting another character out of the way with a 'Don't argue, Hutton's Hams are best'.

My mother was offended by this. Her father had been manager of Farmer's Hams and Bacon, a far superior ham she felt, and it was Hutton's that took over Farmer's in Ballarat and ended Farmer's Hams for ever. She decided she would not sleep until she found a Farmer's mirror, and she did, in a grocer's shop in Toorak. I don't know how she got it, for she was a very shy lady, but 1 think she almost tore it off the wall. We still have both mirrors splendidly displayed, side by side. Although Barry did turn up for the launching of Wowsers, he had been drinking a great deal of brandy. He gave another marvellous Humphries performance, which was reported on radio and television, but the strain was there. Marie put him in the car at Murphy's car park and for half an hour he sobbed.

In 1970 Barry was charged with being drunk and disorderly, and three days later he was beaten up at a hotel in Richmond. That was the turning point. He had a number of very good friends who helped him through his troubles and he has not drunk since. Barry was extraordinarily generous with his ideas. It was at his suggestion that 1 wrote Knockers, a book that has run through many editions. He kicked it off very well: 'Don't bother to rebuke Keith Dunstan for having documented our most endearing vice between the covers of this book. It won't sell'.

He had another idea for a bestseller for me, Ratbags. He even suggested a range of ratbags who should go into the book - Bea Miles, Frank Thring, Percy Grainger, Germaine Greer and, of course, John Barry Humphries. In the foreword he wrote: What is a Ratbag? A Ratbag is a man who saves all his dead matches for that tea tray he knows he will never make. A Ratbag writes letters to Raquel Welch enclosing his photograph and a stamped, addressed envelope. If you're a vegetarian, a Jehovah's Witness birdwatcher with five-coloured Biros in your breast pocket and you belong to a sky-diving club, you are a potential Ratbag.

If you are a hippy over nineteen who thinks Shakespeare was a woman, Hitler was Jewish and if Beethoven were alive today he would be writing TV jingles, you are a transitional Ratbag. But if you read The Great Gatsby once a year, if you can whistle the Brahms Hungarian Dances, don't have a television set, grow your own marijuana and have just ghost-written the autobiography of a surfrider, you are a terminal or raving Ratbag.

There were other books - Sports, a history of Australia's obsession with sport, The Store on the Hill, a history of Georges, the illustrious old store in Collins Street, Melbourne, and then in 1987, after four years' labour, The Amber Nectar, a history of Carlton and United Breweries. Given that CUB in its time had swallowed more than sixty other breweries, The Amber Nectar was virtually the story of brewing in Australia.

The Amber Nectar was the idea of Paul Ormonde, Public Affairs Director of CUB. It all seemed so simple at the start, but when I began digging at the brewery I was horrified. Where were the old records? They virtually did not exist. You see, brewers are suspicious, careful people. They have had to be. Except for the Bible Belt in the United States and the choicer parts of the Middle East, Australia endured the most virulent temperance people in the world. In sumptuous wowser pockets such as Melbourne and Adelaide this continued until the 1960s. The brewers were always under attack so they retired to their fortresses. Not only did they not reveal any information, they never spoke to the Press. When R. F. G. Fogarty was chairman and general manager of CUB he employed an old Army mate, Ginger Burke. Ginger theoretically was the public relations officer, but actually he was the anti-PR officer. It was Ginger's job to keep all reference to CUB out of the papers.

R. F. G. Fogarty had a rule. He never gave interviews. Eventually, by using every wile as a newspaper columnist, I did manage to make friends with him. He gave me careful 'leaks' for my column in the Sun News-Pictorial. One day he called up.

'Keith, we have a new can. Come and look at it.'

I entered the bluestone fortress in Bouverie Street and went into the sacred chamber. 'Old Foge', a term one dared use only behind his back, pulled out the new 28-ounce Foster's Lager can. He gave it to me. It was empty. 'Do something with that', he said.

It was not an earth-shaking story, but anything to do with beer is news. I took the can back to the office and showed it to the Picture Editor.

'Hard to photograph that', he said. 'Why don't you take it over • to the Phoenix Hotel and photograph it with Lou Richards?'

This I did.

Three months later CUB was renovating the ancient Duke of Wellington Hotel in Flinders Street. Legend had it that once cock fighting used to take place at the Duke. 'I'll ring my old mate Foge', I thought. 'He'll tell me about it.'

His secretary replied coolly to my call. There were no little lies such as 'Mr Fogarty is in conference'. No, she said, 'Mr Fogarty doesn't want to speak to you'.

So I thought, 'All right, Brian Breheny, the Assistant General Manager, he'll talk to me'. Mr Breheny wasn't available. Well, how about Dr Carl Resch, the head brewer? Couldn't get him. So I went right round the building. Not one official would come to the phone. As a last resort I rang Ginger Burke.

'Hey, Ginger, what's going on? Am I on the black list?' Ginger explained: 'You see Keith, you had the old man's big can photographed with Lou Richards. He doesn't like Lou Richards. So he has put out the word that nobody in the entire company is to talk to you'. The ban went on. Fogarty died on 27 February 1967. Brian Breheny took over and actually threw a party for the Press. Every media person, as he or she left the brewery, received a present of a carton of beer. Brian Breheny looked at me, smiled clearly the smile of forgiveness, and said, 'You deserve two cartons'.

But all the suspicions were still there when the suggestion came in 1983 that a book was necessary for CUB's centenary. We argued over a contract for a year. Word came back from the management that they wanted to see every chapter and approve it before I proceeded further. As far as I was concerned the book was mine; any interference and not a word would be written. Finally, when I decided to reject the project altogether, my historian son, David, suggested that the History Institute act as an independent arbitrator. Any suggested amendments were to be put to the institute. So we proceeded. As it happened an arbitrator was never necessary. CUB did suggest some changes but only to save me from inevitable libel writs.

There were other problems. When I started research, wherever I turned doors seemed to close. Brewers were very sensitive souls. Not only did they not reveal information to newspapers, but newspapers also did not write about breweries. They dared not offend delicate Presbyterian, Methodist and Baptist sensibilities.

I needed official records. I went to the CUB management and asked for old records and all board minutes, please. There were none, they said. We don't keep board minutes.' Mercifully and wonderfully everything changed after the big Elders IXL takeover. I asked again. 'Certainly.' There was a splendid, patient keeper of the books, named Joyce Grimshaw. She said: 'Not only do we have the minutes of CUB, 1 think 1 can find you the original minutes of the Foster Brewing Company'.

Indeed, they were all there in a locked vault, carefully handwritten in ancient, leather volumes. It was an enchanting moment when I opened the first volume. I felt I had just discovered Lasseter's long-lost gold reef.

The launching of The Amber Nectar was on 18 November 1987. The Managing Director of CUB, Peter Bartels, produced a big surprise, a special beer for the launching, an unbelievable thrill for the author. CUB had done it only twice before, the first time for the television star Bert Newton and the second time for one of their top executives. The can carried my photograph, signature and the message 'Commemorating the launch of "The Amber Nectar" November 18, 1987'.

Actually I began to regret I ever saw that beer can. The book launch took place at the Hotel Windsor, and the roll-up of Press, radio and television reporters was splendid. Alas, their interest in the book was only slight. What fascinated them was this: Dunstan had received a huge quantity of free beer. You see, I was a victim of modern engineering. CUB either had to give me a large quantity of cans or have them destroyed. Beer canning is a very high-speed operation and the absolute minimum run on the canning line is 1000 cans. The launching was at 11 a.m., not a strong drinking time even for journalists, and the guests disposed of maybe only sixty cans. CUB could not sell the rest, so after the launching Paul Ormonde asked would I mind if they delivered about 940 cans to my house? I said modestly, 'Thank you very much'.

From then on we were under siege. I received more than 300 letters from beer can collectors, asking for cans. I had a notice printed and sent out, announcing that a large cache of cans for collection would be available at the Age office during Easter 1988. All the cans went in two hours. In the following days we were telephoned morning and night. The number of beer can collectors in Australia was beyond belief. They had an association and they swopped cans. Rare cans fetched high prices. The beer can enthusiasts seemed worse even than butterfly collectors or hunters after old snuff-boxes. Some sent photographs of their collections, of living-rooms lined with beer cans from floor to ceiling. One wondered how they endured such constant alcoholic decoration, but no doubt it gave them a feeling of comfort. The problem grew and grew. The international can mafia took over - there were requests from collectors as far off as Wisconsin and Surrey. Some sent rare local cans, believing an exchange would be irresistible.

I tried to answer their requests. Still the letters came. Some offered cash, 50 dollars a can, but I thought if I accepted money it would become worse. Bob Millington, the Age 'News of the Day' columnist, published my appeal, 'Please stop, there are no more cans', but they did not believe me and it was eighteen months before the letters stopped arriving.

After Ratbags there was a three-year break in book production. In May 1979 John Morgan, Editor-in-Chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, said the company needed a representative on the West Coast of the United States. Would the Dunstans be prepared to set up residence in San Francisco? This was an offer almost as beautiful as the one made by Sir Keith Murdoch precisely thirty years earlier, when he had asked us to go to New York. We would, indeed.

Just two weeks before we were due to leave Morgan had another announcement. There was little point in having a representative in San Francisco. Los Angeles was the place. Three-quarters of the population was in southern California, the movie industry was there, the aerospace industry was there. Everything really happened down south. Would we please make our headquarters in LA.

This was awful news. I was almost too terrified to break it to Marie. We remembered Los Angeles as being hot, smog laden, automobile ridden, an awful conglomerate of widely tossed suburbs, with perhaps a city centre but not a place where anyone lived or wanted to be. We moaned, but there was no turning back now. Our tickets had been bought, our house in South Yarra had been let, even our bicycles had been boxed and made ready for departure. Our only contact in Los Angeles was an Englishman, Ronald Clarke, the West Coast representative of the Reuters News Agency. Upon arriving, I went into the Reuters office in downtown LA and asked for Mr Clarke.

'Oh, he never comes in here', said a receptionist.
'Well, maybe once a month to pick up his pay.'
'Where is he, then?'
'He works from his home out at Woodland Hills.'
'Where's that?'
It's about 30 miles north from here. You get there by taking your car out along the Ventura Freeway.'
But I haven't got a car.'
The receptionist shrugged. She knew anyone without a car in Los Angeles should go away and cut his throat.
`But be can't work out there. It's impossible.'
'Oh no. He's right. He's got his teleprinter, his computer. Everybody does that.'
This was our first discovery of the new era in journalism. Most of the London newspapers had representatives on the West Coast but none of them worked right in LA. They all had their computers and I had to do the same.

I rented a word processor from Reuters, a machine called a Teleram. Laughably it was classed as portable. Actually it weighed nigh on 30 kilograms, and it almost dragged my arm out of its socket when I took it aboard an aeroplane. The portable I acquired seven years later had more than 100 times the memory, worked at twice the speed and weighed only 2 kilograms.

The Teleram had a built-in modem and sent messages over the telephone wires to the Reuters computer in New York, which then relayed the copy to Sydney. I always admired its chirpy style. When it made connection with New York a message came on the screen: `Hi! This is your Reuters computer'. Then when the message had gone through it would say: 'So long! That's all folks!'. One time in four it did not work at all; and on these occasions I came close to kicking its computer teeth in.

The Teleram had one dreadful failing, electrostatic energy. Southern California is about as dry as the Simpson Desert. In summer the temperatures were regularly around 38 degrees Celsius and, with carpets made of nylon, conditions were perfect for this alarming behaviour. It was possible actually to see a spark go from the fingers to the metal case of the Teleram. When this happened there was a complete wipe-out; everything on the screen disappeared. Sometimes I had been labouring for several hours, written 2000 or more words on the shortcomings of President Jimmy Carter, when zap, everything was gone and I had to start all over again. Eventually I discovered there was one solution: the Teleram had to be earthed at all times. So I had to type in bare feet. But then I would forget to take off my shoes and disaster would strike again. Where did all those stories go? They were so irretrievable. There had to be some great black hole that held the long-lost tales that were zapped away into non-existence.

Yet the Teleram was the answer, the forerunner of all the word processors that made it possible for so many of us to work away from newspaper offices. It had to be carted everywhere. For example, there was that moment in history when Columbia, the first space shuttle, landed at Edwards Air Force Base in October 1981. California was specially moved by this space event because the astronauts were coming home to virtually their own backyard, the great Mojave Desert. The world's Press congregated at Edwards. Months before we had had to book our own special telephone connection.

I remember sitting out in the makeshift Press room on a frigid desert morning, working very carefully in bare feet to make sure I did not lose my historic message. Some people had camped all night around the base, others had driven out at two, three or four in the morning. By dawn the crowd had built to an astonishing 150 000 people. Of course, everybody had to be there. There were the astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Scott Carpenter and Wally Scherer. From the entertainment world we had Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, John Denver and Frank Sinatra. Then there were some distinguished movie spacemen: Leonard Nimoy, Spock no less, and William Shatner from Star Trek. The desert, a pale ochre in colour, like so much of California, reminded me of home. The country was flat and it could have been the very land, say, north of Broken Hill or around Coober Pedy in South Australia. It was devoid of all trees except the curious Joshua trees, 3 to 4 metres high, with strange, gesticulating fingers. Undoubtedly the trees were named after the prophet Joshua and these were his outstretched fingers, yearning after God.

For the crowd at Edwards Air Force Base the moment of greatest tension came when Columbia fired its retro-active rockets over the Indian Ocean. This was the time of the re-entry, with temperatures boosted to 806 degrees Celsius. A television commentator, with an air of gloom, was announcing: 'For sixteen minutes we will not know whether the flight has been a success. We will not know whether the astronauts have come through it alive'.

So we waited and waited, nobody saying much, while those minutes ticked by. Then the silence was broken. There were cheers across the great Air Force base as if it were a football final. Columbia was 47 000 metres over Big Sur and we could hear a Southern drawl, 'We're comin' right down the chute - right on the money'.

At 10.17 a.m. there were two loud bangs like anti-aircraft fire. Columbia had passed through the sound barrier. It was all over with such astonishing speed. First we saw a sparkle, a glint of metal 4000 metres up. There were screams of 'There it is' as Columbia came into full view. Then it just dropped like a gliding brick, flattened out, appeared to rise a trifle and finally landed, as predicted, 'as sweetly as a feather'.

I was astonished at the size of the space shuttle. It was as big as a DC9. It had a curious nose-down, tail-up appearance. Columbia almost gave the impression it was exhausted.

Helicopters swooped overhead. There was a sniffer team to check for dangerous gases, vehicles with umbilical cords to cool Columbia down and to clean out its entrails, fire carts, transport wagons and, not the least, a tow vehicle that was to bring the craft in at 9.5 kilometres per hour, a process that took four hours. Some come-down after travelling at 28 715 kilometres per hour. It was several hours before we were able to interview the astronauts, John Young and Robert Crippen, whereas the entire landing had been over in twenty seconds. It was a remarkably moving event. I interviewed one lady, Louise Wolfe of Fullarton, California, who said: 'This is the first time we have had a chance of seeing real spacemen come to earth. For me this is history. I wasn't there for Christopher Columbus, but, look, I saw the arrival of the space shuttle'.

To Marie's and my surprise, and despite all our dire misgivings, we learned to love Los Angeles. Oh yes, there were lots of druggies, a high rate of crime, astonishing, weird religious sects, psychopaths and sexual crazies, but 1 think the rate per head of population was little different from that back home in South Yarra. Nobody actually knew how big the Los Angeles population was; the estimate was about 11 million. Nobody was sure where Los Angeles began or ended; the guess was it was about 120 by 80 kilometres. It was a string of eighty communities loosely tied together. Deer wandered through the Hollywood hills, and farmers still produced vegetables, strawberries and oranges in the most remarkable places.

We settled at Calabasas, beyond the smog and just beyond Woodland Hills where we had first met the Reuters man, Ron Clarke. We bought a condominium overlooking an exquisite lake. There was a swimming pool where Marie could swim, and we played tennis almost every afternoon. Los Angeles, of course, was the ultimate victim of the automobile. It had no public transport system worthy of the name and BOO kilometres of freeways. You could drive on freeways all day, twenty-four hours a day, without ever retracing your steps and without ever leaving Los Angeles. The creature who did not own a car in Los Angeles was indeed lost beyond redemption. I can never forget the breaking-in agonies. We bought a Chevrolet but the insurance company declared that, unless we acquired Californian licences immediately, the car would be impounded. They laughed at our international licences so carefully purchased in Melbourne. In California they did not even recognise interstate licences let alone the international variety. So I went into the Department of Motor Vehicles in Hollywood. There were at least 500 people battling to get a licence all at the one time. I queued for over four hours. But not everyone queued. During the morning I saw the pop singer Rod Stewart sweep in. Rod's hairdo was tinted a beautiful shade of canary and he had a nice blonde creature on his arm. Rod swept through and won his licence in ten minutes. It pays to be a celebrity in LA.

First I had to pass a two-page written test in Californian road law, then do a thorough eye test. Finally along came the examiner, a bearded black gentleman who had to fold up like a deck-chair to get into the car. He made me drive interminably around Hollywood, but fortunately he was not over-interested in my driving. He just kept complaining about the summer heat. 'Man, can't you get any more air-condishnin' outa this car?' Miraculously I received a pass. My driving licence called for both a colour photograph and a thumbprint. There's no coyness about fingerprinting with the LA police.

There was still the terror of those freeways. Just getting on and off called for immense skill. I looked at the four lanes of pounding traffic and was terrified. 1 went up the ramp at 30 kilometres per hour, prepared to inch my way into the stream. Immediately there was a deafening outbreak of beeping from behind. Malibus, Eldorados, Comaros, Thunderbirds and Bonnevilles were going out of their eight-cylinder minds.

1 consulted Ron Clarke. `There is just one way to get on the freeway. Close your eyes, put your foot down on the accelerator and go like hell.' I had no trouble after that.

There was never a shortage of stories in Los Angeles. For example, there were wonderful places like Forest Lawn. In a curious, inverse way we came to love it, making it almost top of the list for our sight-seeing visitors, after the J. Paul Getty Museum. Forest Lawn was the inspiration for Evelyn Waugh's extraordinary novel The Loved One. You will remember he called the book The Loved One because death in California was such a horrid idea it was never mentioned, and anyone who had gone to the great beyond was always called a 'loved one'. The place where they made their departure was Forest Lawn, built to be so spellbinding that it was almost a Disneyland for loved ones.

In 1963 Jessica Mitford, one of the brilliant Mitford sisters from England, satirised Forest Lawn all over again in The American Way of Death. She described the entrance gates as the largest in the world, `twice as wide and six feet higher than those at Buckingham Palace'. This was absolutely true, but that wasn't all. Forest Lawn really saved tourists wasting their time looking at the art treasures of Europe. Forest Lawn had them all. It had reproduced almost the entire works of Michelangelo. There was the huge statue of Moses, the lovely Pieta from the Vatican, the Medici Madonna of Bruges, Day and Night from the Medici Chapel in Florence, plus Michelangelo's David, carved out of a single block of Carrara marble, just like the original. Actually Forest Lawn has had two copies of David. The first came crashing down in the earthquake of 1971. The new one was built with a stainless steel rod up one leg and was mounted on Teflon so the next time the earth moves, God willing, David will stay aloft. What else? There was da Vinci's Last Supper, reproduced in stained glass, and The Crucifixion by Polish artist Jan Stryka, the largest painting in the United States, if not the world, 60 metres long and 14 metres high. To see it visitors had to go into a vast theatre and listen to the story of the last days of Jesus, in quadrophonic sound, before lights went on, curtains rolled back and the Los Angeles Philharmonic played Tchaikovsky's Pathetique Symphony as the picture came into view. After that the curtains closed and the picture was replaced by another equally large one, The Resurrection. This time the music was Handel's 'Hallelujah Chorus'.

Regrettably, above all, editors in Australia yearned for stories about movie stars. Messages would arrive night and day, saying please interview Frank Sinatra; Bob Hope. Jack Nicholson, Meryl Streep, Michael Caine - notwithstanding that in most cases it would be easier to get a private hour alone with President Carter and no trouble at all, in comparison, to have a chat with the rising Ronald Reagan. After conniving, pleading and describing the huge, enthusiastic audience in Australia, where people were actually English speaking, it was possible to get interviews with a great many of the stars: people such as Liza Minelli, Cher, Johnny Cash, Johnny Mathis, Nastassja Kinski, Julio Iglesias, Phyllis Diller, Willie Nelson, Dorothy Lamour, Debbie Reynolds, Vincent Price, Cleo Lane and Sammy Davis, junior.

Often it meant finding them in regrettable places like Las Vegas or Lake Tahoe. One time Marie and I went to Hurrah's at Lake Tahoe to see Sammy Davis. Our hotel room had two bathrooms and three television sets. There was a television set in each bathroom, and the windows were sealed to keep out the light on the presumption that guests only went to bed in the day-time. Night-time was for gambling and looking at Sammy.

Almost once a month we went across the desert to Las Vegas. There we stayed at Caesar's Palace, which had almost as much statuary as Forest Lawn, including another gigantic reproduction of Michelangelo's David, again made out of a solid block of Carrara marble. One almost hoped Michelangelo, wherever he was, received royalties. Celebrities performed in the Circus Maximus where the ushers were dressed as Roman legionnaires and people such as Sammy received 150 000 dollars a week. It was here, too, that I interviewed the astonishing Willie Nelson. He had his hair in plaits and his face looked as if it had been trampled upon by too much drinking and far too many one-night stands. He admitted he had been a good whisky man. He had wonderful stories about his first wife, Martha, a full-blooded Cherokee. They had a stormy marriage and, according to Willie, one time she threw a fork at him and it stuck in his rib-cage, humming like a tuning-fork. Then there was the time be came home drunk and passed out in bed. Martha sewed the sheet tightly over his head until he was like a body ready for burial. Then, when he awoke, she beat him with a broomstick. Their marriage after such an event was not destined to be a long one.

Our stay in Los Angeles was never as lonely as we expected. All three daughters came to the States while we were there. The most remarkable visit was by Kate, the journalist, who was married on 1 February 1980 in an adventure almost as great as ours back in 1949. Our close friendship with Milton and Sylvia Johnson went back nigh on forty years, and it seemed a bonus when Kate and their son Andrew also became close friends. Andrew was an engineer like his father, and he melted my heart immediately because he was a good bicycle rider. Soon after we left for California the beautiful Kate-Andrew romance seemed to come apart. Andrew left with a friend to sail on a small yacht to England. Kate went in the opposite direction. She bought an air ticket and decided to stay a month or two with us in Calabasas. It seemed that the Kate-Andrew episode was over.

Actually it was just starting. There is nothing like a long cruise on a small boat for thinking, and Andrew missed Kate desperately. He terminated his boat trip at Singapore and sent a cable to Kate at Calabasas: `I love you. Will you marry me?'. Kate replied, 'Come and see'.

It was not easy finding a plane from Singapore to Los Angeles. Andrew had to travel via Canada and the airline lost his luggage on the way. He arrived in Los Angeles with only the clothes that he was wearing and feeling decidedly nervous. Kate bad held him in suspense, but the answer was 'Yes'.

The marriage took place at the Prince of Peace Episcopalian Church in Woodland Hills, just near Calabasas. We thought marriage in the US would be a happy, easy come, easy go affair, but that was not the case. The vicar at the Prince of Peace was even more stern than our vicar back home. Two days before the marriage he insisted on giving the betrothed couple his standard lecture. 'Don't come back to me again', he said. 'I only marry people once. This is for life.'

They were married in the presence of a small group of our American friends, including Vivien Kane, the student who lived with us for a year. She came from Philadelphia to be with her Australian 'sister'. Kate and Andrew made a beautiful couple. I particularly thought so, because Andrew, having no wardrobe, had to borrow one of my best suits for the occasion. What a honeymoon. They went to a firm called Rent-a-Wreck and hired a huge convertible tourer. It was so grand they looked like Hollywood stars of the early 1970s as off they drove on a grand tour to San Diego, Las Vegas and round to San Francisco.

Jane came over to visit us, with her American husband, Steve Beckley. Sarah also joined us for a marvellous six-week holiday and became infected by the biking mania of her parents. She bicycled along the edge of the Grand Canyon in Colorado and for several thousand kilometres along the banks of the Mississippi River. She too discovered the joys of sleeping in a mini-tent on the bard ground and being bitten by what is often described as the national bird of Minnesota, the mosquito.

So what happened to our children? David, once known as Steamboat, made a career as a historian and a writer. He married Paula, who became a senior teacher at Lauriston, then Korowa. Jane was a nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. She and Steve, a potter and teacher, settled at Maldon. Kate and Andrew returned to Australia. Kate, after working for the Age, went into television, reporting, news casting and production. Andrew diversified into computer engineering. Sarah, our youngest, became an advertising account executive and married Peter Cudlipp, an advertising director. This was our ultimate blessing, four very happy marriages, which provided us with eleven grandchildren.

In 1982 Marie and I arrived back in Australia and just before Christmas I returned to the old harness of writing 'A Place in the Sun'. Rod Donelly, Editor of the Sun, brought out an unnerving poster to celebrate the return: 'Dunstan is back'. Very likely it confused a number of people and made them think Don Dunstan had returned as premier of South Australia.

At first it was fun to be writing the old column again, but it was amazing how much Melbourne worked to a tight calendar: summer heat, Moomba, football, Melbourne Cup, cricket, Christmas. The same stories kept coming back and back and back. I retired from the Sun and worked as a freelance journalist, although still writing regular Saturday pieces for the Herald and Weekly Times. In August 1985 Max Suich, chief editorial executive of James Fairfax and Son, asked if I would write a weekly column for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and regular articles for the Good Weekend magazine. I had been hanging around Flinders Street ever since I first visited there as a small boy with my father, and there were some terrible feelings of misgiving and guilt as I walked out for the last time. But there had to be a change, there had to be a new direction. Marie Rose, who is always the brave one in making decisions, said: 'Do it. You will regret it for ever if you don't'. The Max Suich invitation was irresistible and temporary retirement was over.

As Thea Astley once said, writing is a virus. People who get the bug don't know how to get rid of it. One really needs a pill to make one stop.

The end

In this final chapter of the first book of memoirs, 'No Brains At All', Keith writes about writing, it being a virus. The dozens of books written in his career being the result of a pathological affliction.

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Barry HumphriesBrian BrehenyCrawford ProductionsColin BednallD24HG WellsGTV9Los AngelesMax SuichMelbourne Cricket ClubPhillip GarrettSquizzy TaylorThe AgeThe HeraldWilliam Dunstan VCWowsersWriting for Television

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