At last it was back to Australia and 1 PD at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Within days I was discharged. The farewell gesture from the RAAF was an appalling Victory suit, one of those austerity suits invented by Mr Dedman, Minister for Post War Reconstruction. It was cuffless, narrow of lapel and free of lining and had no shape whatever. My father thought differently. He had a cousin, J. Dunstan Lewis, who had a business in the T & G Building, Collins Street. Mr Lewis was a tailor, a kindly gentleman of great patience. A suit was something that had to be constructed with great patience. It took at least a month, in which time there had to be at least three fittings. 'On which side do you dress, Keith?', Mr Lewis asked.
I had no idea what he was talking about. People never referred to the penis in 1946. He explained further.
On which side do you place your personal equipment?' I was still not sure what he was talking about but slowly things began to dawn. Australians still had to provide clothing coupons, and for a time I was in deep trouble. Mr Lewis had definite ideas.
'A gentleman needs a different suit for every working day of the week. I suggest you think of having five suits. A suit always needs several days to recover and come back to the right shape.' Eventually he did make five suits, and they all lasted at least twenty years, a profound and sensible investment. They were the first and last handmade suits I ever owned. By the time I needed to buy another, J. D. Lewis was no longer there.
Bill, Helen and I settled back into civilian life. Brother Bill, after battling in Java, ultimately managed to get a discharge from the British Army. An office desk looked anything but inviting to him. What could he do? For a time he even contemplated crocodile shooting in the Northern Territory. He was talked out of that, and went into the newsprint business with Gollan and Company. He had a long, successful career and became a director of the Tasman Pulp and Paper Company.
Helen became a journalist, worked for the Herald and wrote a column titled 'Nan Heard Today'. In one of her early columns she gave readers advice on how to organise their clothes: 'Keep your cupboard like a filing cabinet'. When Helen returned home that day Mum in triumph led us all into her room and announced, 'I want you to see Nan's filing cabinet'. Mum threw open doors to reveal chaos. Helen's cupboards looked as if the place had been raided by the CIA. Helen was a good journalist, but marriage and three children halted her career.
Dad still wanted me to be an engineer. That was the path to power and a prosperous future. The thought of slide rules, mathematics and chemistry, all over again, filled me with dread. 'I want to be a journalist, a writer', I said. 'Yes, I understand that', he replied. 'Journalism and newspapers are our business. You can still be associated with journalism. You can do both. You can be a newspaper engineer, the man who prints the newspaper, the man who installs and runs the presses. Fascinating. I would love to do that. You would make much more money.' 'I don't care about money', I replied, in the classic style of the 21-year-old. 'It's what you do that's important.' 'You go into journalism and you will end up a hack', he thundered. `Think of me when you are an underpaid sub-editor with three kids to keep, slaving over tired copy at three in the morning. Don't do it.' Next morning I went into the Herald and Weekly Times building, saw Archer Thomas, Editor of the Herald, and asked him for a job. I pleaded with him not to tell anyone, and it was three days before Dad discovered I was one of his employees. He did not complain, and never again did he accuse me of being a potential hack.
At that time cadets were alternated between the Herald and the Sun to give them experience. Cadet training was four years, and I observed that it was similar to pilot training: the trainee could be scrubbed off course within days, months or the first year. My spelling was wretched - so bad that in the Herald sub editors' room I was known as Chaucer. Spelling remained a great mystery for years. Several sub-editors suggested it might be better if I found a different occupation. Archer Thomas saved me. He was a great extrovert of a man, Hollywood handsome. He was not a great thinker, but he would become excited over big stories, and when he did he was capable of inspiring every member of his staff. 'I think just possibly the boy can write', he said. 'We have lots of people who can spell, but not many who can write. Let's keep him.'
So I was saved. I noticed early that the best chance for a young reporter to get a story in the newspaper was on police rounds. There was a range of rounds and cadets had to do them all by turn to gain full experience. There was the shipping round. There were good stories to be had here, meeting all the P & O and Orient ships and interviewing the passengers who had just arrived from that magical place, 'overseas'. There was the western round, covering the Board of Works, the railways and the tramways. There were good stories to be had here, too, given the frequent strikes of the trams and trains. The famous communist secretaries of the Australian Railways Union and the tramways union, Mr J. J. Brown and Mr Clarrie O'Shea, were considered monsters of evil by our editors and by Sir Keith Murdoch in particular. I became fond of both men, who were always courteous and understanding - much more so than the Minister for Railways, Mr Kent Hughes, who had the abruptness and incivility of an ex-colonel, which he was.
The next was the Town Hall round, covering the often sinister machinations of the Melbourne City Council. I hated that. The most illustrious rounds were Victorian Parliament and Federal Parliament, Canberra. However, I always angled for police rounds. The others were mostly in the grip of the old hands, the senior journalists, so the best hope for a cadet to make the front page was picking up a quick horror story, and these were to be had on police rounds. There were two shifts for Sun reporters: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., or 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. or later. The Press rooms, at the northern end of police headquarters, were dingy and dun coloured. There were a number of famous police reporters, such as Geoff Sparrow, who with immense patience took me everywhere, introducing me to all their contacts. There were others, such as Alan Dower, who were highly skilled but jealous of their beats and so introduced me to no one.
Official relations between Press and police were generally poor. There were times when the police believed it best to tell the Press nothing. Then we had to listen to police radio, D24. The police used numbers to describe various events; for example, twenty for robbery, seventeen for indecent behaviour, ten for fire, twelve for armed assault, fifteen for rape and thirty for murder. Frequently D24 changed the code to confuse the Press. When this happened, reporters had to depend on a mate inside to slip them the latest code. Reporters virtually had to be Reilly, Ace of Spies.
There were long, dreary hours, sitting at night just waiting for things to happen. At 2 a.m. after a terrible, eventless night we consoled ourselves at the George Inn, a Greek cafe in Russell Street inhabited by police and reporters, which went all night. There customers ordered the classic culinary triumph: rump steak, two eggs, onions, chip potatoes, a slice of tomato, lettuce cut into streamers and razor-thin slices of stale white bread and butter.
A dozen steak and eggs would go by and I would think my career was getting nowhere; only a miserable assault here, on page seventeen, a traffic accident there, four paragraphs (always called pars) on page twenty-five, or a robbery in Heyington Place, Toorak, a third of a column on page twelve. Not even a decent bashing. I didn't wish anybody harm, but a satisfactory throat cutting on St Kilda Beach would have been a great help.
My greatest dream was a fire in the Exhibition Building. That great domed edifice, built for the International Exhibition of 1880, was unloved and unprofitable in the I940s. Most of us knew it only as the cold and draughty building where we had suffered when we did our Matriculation examinations. It had not become the national treasure that it is now. I knew it was made of wood. I knew it was very nearly the biggest wooden structure in the Southern Hemisphere, with quite appalling fire precautions. I wanted it to burn down after the Herald's deadline. That meant later than 5 p.m. But then for a really super front page spread, with pictures, I wanted my article to catch the Sun's first edition to the country and that went to the railways by midnight. It would be perfect if the Exhibition Building could ignite, say, between 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. on any night except Saturday. Saturday night would be awful because we had no Sunday newspaper. There were a few false alarms, but the Exhibition Building remained intact, regrettably.
Reporters on the police round sat and waited and waited, always within earshot of the D24 radio. If a number came up that sounded promising, we called pictorial and dashed to the spot with a photographer. Photographers got cars; reporters did not. One night at 1 a.m. I heard the D24 signal: 'Twelve at 15 Fortescue Street, West Preston. Could be a bad one'. 'Ahhhh, twelve: armed assault', I said to myself. It was too late for a photographer. I didn't wait for anyone but grabbed a taxi and got the driver to drive at high speed to Fortescue Street. There was not a car on the road, we made brilliant progress. Lights were on in the house, but nothing seemed to be happening. I knocked on the door and it flew open. A woman grabbed me by the coat lapels. Thank God, you've arrived', she said. 'What do you mean?', I asked. 'My husband!', she screamed. 'He's out there with a Japanese sword, and he's coming back to kill me.' 'But . . . but . . I said. 'I'm just a reporter.' 'Aren't you a policeman?', she moaned.
I explained the terrible truth and immediately started putting up barricades. I was even more terrified than she was. The police arrived ten minutes later and were very amused, It was the longest ten minutes I could remember. The husband meekly surrendered an hour later, and the story was too dull to make the late editions. Another night the longed-for number, ten, came on air. 'Ten at Chitty's Wood Yard, Dandenong Road, East Malvern.' 'I see, a fire. Better get onto that one', I thought. Again it was after midnight, right on edition time. I called a taxi, hoping beyond hope that the fire was big enough and disastrous enough to replace other stories and make the late editions of the Sun. It was indeed a splendid blaze, and a house next door was also on fire. I had my notebook and pencil in hand, ready to interview what I quickly discovered were fairly desperate people.
'Excuse me, Sir. Is this your house? Could you please tell me how the fire started?'
'Of course it's my house, you bloody idiot. Help me get the furniture out: Suddenly I was assisting, carrying out beds, a piano and sofas and putting them in the front garden while fire took over the rest of the house. By the time I had done my fire-battling duties it was all too late and I had missed the late editions.
That was a serious matter. Competition was ruthless. Fire, murder and disaster were more useful in the 1940s for selling newspapers than they are now. The Age, Argus, Herald, Sun and Truth all had their full-time teams at Russell Street police headquarters. Some reporters were so keen that, if they got to the scene first, they would even pay witnesses of crime and accident to keep quiet and not speak to other reporters. We were convinced Argus reporters were distributing 5-pound notes. But if you were first with a story it was usually a question not so much of 5 pounds as of whom you knew in the police, who in the Homicide Squad could tip you off. I had just one or two friends. My best was Senior Constable Cec Hughes, a veteran, working in D24. Cec Hughes would meet me in the hotel and relate stories of the old days. He often told me of the days when he was an original member of the wireless patrol back in the early 1930s.
'The patrol cars were Lancias', he said. 'You know, the old Lancia - huge, very long, like a coffin, with an engine that would fire at every second lamp-post. The wireless gear was so heavy it took up the entire back seat. Brakes? Sort of. You'd get arrested now for having brakes like we had. One early morning we were involved in a car chase. We were doing about 90 in Swanston Street, up there beyond the City Baths. Our brakes failed and we couldn't stop until we were across Princes Bridge down near Wirth's Circus.'
Cec Hughes gave me the tip about most things, but he could not be on duty twenty-four hours a day. The most spectacular crime during my time was a Chinese murder at an illegal baccarat school in Little Bourke Street. I went home at 3 a.m. convinced it was a quiet night, nothing happening. The next morning ! picked up the Argus. Oh horror, there were banner headlines: 'Murder in Little Bourke Street'. I had been beaten hopelessly. I have often thought that if ever I came down to earth again I would try to be the curator of the Botanic Gardens. At least with the planting of trees if you make an error people take twenty years to find you out. In the newspaper business your errors, your failures to achieve are all too evident the following morning. I looked at the Sun, miserable, close to tears. The sensational story was all over the front page of the Argus, complete with pictures of the baccarat den and diagrams of where police had found the body. In the Sun nothing - just a humble story on proposed improvements to the Hume Highway. Dare I even go into the office? Perhaps I should resign at once and look for a job at a bank or as a grocer's clerk?
That afternoon I stood in the office of the Chief of Staff, Rod Travis, a big man with a Henry Lawson moustache, a former lieutenant-colonel. He had the Argus in front of him.
I explained that the Homicide Squad tipped off the Argus and the Argus alone. 'I'll get them for this. I'll take our complaint right up to the Chief Commissioner. We're the biggest circulation newspaper and, by God, they need us. You make sure it doesn't happen again.'
He was a very kindly person, which was unusual in a chief of staff, but there was a threat in his voice. Never again did I feel comfortable on police rounds. Every morning I rushed to see the rival papers, the Age and the Argus, which I read first to see whether I had been ruined.
The Herald and Weekly Times was like an all-embracing mother. It was very different in Sydney. Frank Packer's Daily Telegraph and Ezra Norton's Daily Mirror had reputations for terrorising journalists and there were constant tales of sackings for lack of performance. Reporters were rarely fired on the Sun and the Herald. However, the Herald and Weekly Times had a reputation for care and parsimony. The company did not use regulation toilet rolls in the staff lavatories, it used carefully cut squares of copy paper. Our typewriters were vintage, nigh-antique Remingtons. They screwed to the tops of the desks. The tops were on a hinge and could be folded underneath.
Sun staff started mostly at 2 p.m. and finished at 11 p.m. After 8 p.m. it was often boredom waiting for things to happen. Rod Travis tried to keep us busy. A favourite method was to have us all write letters to the Sun. I wonder how many people realised then that often letters to the Editor came from the staff. Rod Travis would walk into the reporters' room at 9 p.m. and say: 'Okay, I want a letter from you, a letter from you and a letter from you. Don't make them too dull'.
One time I wrote this letter:
Sir, I think it is disgraceful how Myer's, Buckley and Nunn's and Foy's frequently leave dummy models in their shop windows, unclad. The sight of the naked form like this can have a very dangerous effect on impressionable youths. To make matters worse I have noticed that some of these dummy models are black. Would the proprietors of these stores please make sure their models are clothed at all times. Yours etc., 'Shocked', East Malvern.
The result was splendid. The 'Letters to the Editor' column rocked for weeks with charges and counter-charges full of moral indignation.
Cadet training was diligent. Osmar White, who had been a famous war correspondent, officially had the task of training cadets. His methods were very direct: bludgeon cadets into action. 'You're all no good', he would say, glaring at us. 'If I had my way I'd sack the lot of you.' There was a sub-editor on the Sun called Lyle Cousland who was relentless. Almost every night I was hailed to his desk. An old gentleman who delivered messages would give the dreaded call, 'Dunstan, you are wanted in the subs' room'.
Lyle Cousland was small, barely more than 150 centimetres tall. He had a large, soft, black pencil. There would be line after line through my copy.
'Why do you always use the passive voice?', he would demand. `It's just an excuse for avoiding what really happened, and you take all the punch out of the copy.'
'You've got "it was said". That's no good to me. I want to know who actually said it.'
'The accident took place in Hawthorn? All right, which street and which corner? And what time?'
'What on earth are you trying to say here? Get that sentence down to twenty words.'
'Oh Lord, what are you trying to be? Alfred, Lord Tennyson? You don't need all those adjectives.'
'Why do you take so long to get into the story? Nobody's going to take the trouble to read all that garbage. You know the rules: How? Why? When? and Where? In a news story you've got a fiftieth of a second to attract your reader, then he's gone.'
It was painful, but I learned more in six months about English from sub-editors on the Sun News-Pictorial, than in a dozen years of school and academic training.
The editor of the Sun was J. C. Waters, a large, ebullient man. 'Promising Jack' he was called because Jack Waters was always promising a sublime and glorious future to every member of his staff. Jack's ideal was London's Daily Mirror: short news stories and every day something different. The theory was that even the Second Coming of Christ would be worth only three days' coverage. Average readers were scanners, Jack argued. Their eyes hopped quickly over the headlines; few had the concentration to go beyond seven or eight sentences. Only news stories of vast moment required more than that. Therefore the information, exactly what happened, had to be provided instantly, starting from the first paragraph and working in descending order of importance. He believed in good pictures, very large, and he frequently ran a picture right across the front page. The Sun photographers were unquestionably the best in the land. Journalists were nomads, creatures of movement and ambition, who would stay a few years then move elsewhere. The photographers were the backbone of the Sun News-Pictorial.
Good pictures, short, precise stories and simple Anglo-Saxon words - that was the recipe. John Williams, who was to be editor in-chief and chairman, used to give a warning about the typical reader. This reader lived in a triple-fronted brick veneer in Moorabbin, was married, with two children, and was struggling on a mortgage. He had a radio and a mental age of 14, so we must never attempt to use fancy Latin derivatives, which he and his wife would not understand. Furthermore, this couple was conservative in outlook and easily shocked. We were always to remember that the Sun was a family newspaper. It was this philosophy, coupled with brilliant sub-editing, that gave the Sun almost double the circulation of any newspaper in Australia.
It was an era when news stories appeared without a byline. Only the very great reporters like Clive Turnbull or Rohan Rivett ever scored a byline. After the 1970s bylines became the common practice. Even a tale that was really only a hand-out from a public relations firm or a blurb from some politician seeking publicity could merit a reporter's name. But in the 1940s the byline was almost unknown.
There was an exception. If a journalist could get a feature article into the then-illustrious Herald weekend magazine, this would earn the wonder of wonders, his or her name in the paper. My school days were unfortunate, my Air Force career lacked glory and my father had warned me that I would become a 3 a.m. sub-editing hack - surely writing feature articles was the one way left to get on, to be noticed? I made a resolution. I would write a feature article in my spare time every week.
I was already doing an arts course part-time at Melbourne University, but I showered the features editor with article after article. The features editor was Fred Aldridge, a former war correspondent and a brilliant journalist. He was patient, indeed. He would go through my copy, suggest different leads or a new approach, but would always end with the words: 'I don't know, Keith. It just doesn't quite ring the bell'. Months went by. In despair I asked myself, When is that damned bell going to ring?'.
But I kept on trying. On a round-Australia tour with Sir Keith Murdoch I made an investigation into United States ex-servicemen who had decided to settle in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria. Fred Aldridge did not comment on the article this time. I kept wondering whether he would use it. The Herald weekend magazine was put together on Thursdays. If one walked up to the fourth floor it was possible to see the pages already made up in metal on the stone. Three weeks went by. Every Thursday and Friday I surreptitiously crept up there just in the hope that Fred might have relented. On the fourth week I went up late on Thursday night. The light was dim, but it was possible to see page two of the magazine all made up in metal. There in reverse type was my article and, oh joy, back to front, the line:
By Keith Dunstan
It was a moment of pure happiness, like flying solo. I purred. I had broken through. Getting an article into the paper was never quite so difficult after that. My success was all due to Fred Aldridge.
The awesome figure who towered over us all was Sir Keith Murdoch, father of Rupert. Sir Keith was editor-in-chief of the Herald and Weekly Times Limited, a supreme commander, an old-fashioned newspaper proprietor. He liked to impress his personality not only on the Herald and the Sun but also on Australian politics. Never did the Herald deviate from the conservative line. Never was there such a thing as a justified claim by trade unions for more pay. And never was there such a thing as a justified strike. As for Labor politicians, if they were not all communists, their policy of socialism made them just as bad, a lighter shade of red.
I was studying politics part-time at Melbourne University where lecturers pointed out the imbalance in the Herald's coverage of the Canberra and the Spring Street political scenes. They would go over the newspapers with a ruler and announce the copious inches, even feet, devoted to the conservatives and the sparse treatment given to Labor. Resentment against the Herald and the Sun was all too obvious when as a reporter I tried to cover the Trades Hall scene. I even noted it as a police reporter. In Fitzroy one day, when I was trying to gain information on a simple robbery, an angry character slammed a door in my face. 'I won't speak to any Murdoch cunt.' That was a shock. An the way home in the tram that night I worried: 'What do I do now? I'm a Murdoch cunt'.
But Murdoch, always determined to be a king-maker in politics, was unlike any newspaper proprietor that I ever encountered. He was the omnipotent, even ruthless, chief, but at the same time he wanted to be the benevolent, paternal father of us all. His father had been a clergyman and Sir Keith liked a display of old-fashioned Christian ethics. He believed his reporters should always look well bred. Male journalists had to have short hair, and, unlike in the 1970s or 1980s, suits and hats were compulsory. One day soon after I joined the staff I met him in the lift. 'Dunstan, be said, 'where's your hat?'. 'I haven't got one, Sir Keith.' 'GET ONE!', he thundered. And I did, half an hour after that moment.
Murdoch insisted on interviewing every cadet before he or she was hired, then worked hard at remembering names. He had a beautiful 'humble' line. When asked to describe his profession or craft, no he was not a journalist, he was a 'reporter'. Daily he would go on a grand parade through the reporters' room, determined to make friendly conversation. It was always an embarrassment because Sir Keith was ungifted at small talk. 'Well, Dunstan, what are your reading?', was a favourite opening gambit. I had to think quickly of something appropriate and splendid. 'Um . . . Crime and Punishment, Sir Keith.'
Only Frank Murphy, Herald Chief of Staff, showed no fear. 'The Sporting Globe, Sir Keith', he replied when Sir Keith asked him the inevitable question.
My life moved closer to Sir Keith Murdoch's than I had anticipated. My skills were singularly few, but I was good at shorthand. While still in the RAAF I had taken a course in Pitman's Shorthand. 1 would practise while listening to a radio, and love songs were particularly useful. I could write 'I love you faster than anyone else on earth. By the time I started as a cadet I already had over a hundred words a minute. This was another crafty method for getting on: those with good shorthand got the major court cases. But there was a disadvantage I had not anticipated: the Sunday round of the churches. Religion received much better treatment in the 1940s than now. Monday's Sun always had a round up of the best and most fiery sermons. I would telephone the clergy on Friday, get the exact times they were giving their sermons, then on Sunday sprint from church to church, taking in shorthand at least six sermons: those of the Reverend Crichton Barr, the Reverend Gordon Powell, the Reverend Dr Irving Benson, the Reverend Dr A. H. Wood . . . Fortunately some of the more publicity-hungry gentlemen had their sermons already printed for me when I arrived.
Sir Keith was always making business trips to Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide and frequently visited his big property, Wantabadgery, near Canberra. He needed someone to act as secretary, to write his letters. Seeing that I was competent at typing and shorthand, he often took me with him.
One must understand this was a delicate era. Sir Keith kept his newspapers pure of anything faintly related to sex. Rape was indecent assault or, in extreme cases, an outrage committed against a woman. Brothels were houses of ill fame, and prostitutes - how could you mention such a word? - were women of ill repute. Homosexuals almost did not exist. The best you could do was point to indecent or unnatural behaviour. Sir Keith not only had to be pure, he had to appear to be pure. It would have been improper for him to travel with a female secretary. Far better to have a young man to take his letters. Thirty years later it might have been considered normal and proper to travel with a female, whatever shape, size and marital condition, rather than tour with a young man.
Yet there was more to it than that. He believed young reporters should be educated. They could learn by travelling with him interstate. In the aeroplane he would hand over voluminous accounts and annual reports of the Herald and Weekly Times. 'Here, study these. See how they work. You will need to understand all this before long.' He was good, indeed, at watching the pennies. There were no wild extravagances on his trips. He indulged in all sorts of Presbyterian economies. On one trip we lunched at the elegant Hotel South Australia in Adelaide. The lunch was almost over when I was called to the telephone. I returned, looked at the bill and put down a 10-shilling note. I was expected to look after minor details, such as the paying of accounts. 'What's that for?', Sir Keith asked. 'That's the tip for the waiter, Sir Keith.' 'I've already paid the tip.' He picked up the 10 shillings and put it in his pocket. Sir Keith's secretary, Miss Demello, told me he had an old-fashioned attitude to economies. Often when he was writing cheques he made a mistake. There was threepence duty, pre-paid, on every cheque. `Miss Demello, I've mucked up this one', he would say, coming out of his office. 'When you go to the bank get a refund.' I asked her what she did. 'I would tear it up, of course', she said.
Sir Keith's Christian conscience went further. He believed in cultivating young people, getting to know them. He made new cadets presents of books about great editors, biographies of such people as Horace Greeley, founder of the New York Tribune, who had invented the line 'Go west, young man'.
Sometimes Murdoch's grand ideas went awry. He would meet journalists, writers, even diplomats, and in a moment of largesse say, 'You must come and work for me in Australia'. Then he would forget he had ever made the offer. When these candidates arrived on his doorstep, he would honour the promise, but often they had no journalistic training and were the despair of chiefs of staff.
One man who impressed Murdoch was a diplomat, an expert on Indonesian affairs. He was given an office and told to write. Indeed he produced a number of weighty articles on the Pacific scene. The prose was so turgid that fewer and fewer appeared in the paper. He became disillusioned, packed up his things and, without telling anyone, left. Three months later there was a call from the pay office. What were they to do with this man's money? It was all there, uncollected. The Editor had forgotten him and no one had noticed his departure. In late July 1949, almost at the end of my cadet training, ! received a message to report to Sir Keith Murdoch 'at my convenience'. This was a euphemism for 'immediately'. I went into his splendid, walnut-panelled office with the elegant pictures on the walls by Rupert Bunny. He took on a lofty, fatherly tone. He said that he approved of my work and that now it was time for me to move on to other things. 'We need a new staff member in our New York office. Would you like to go to New York?' It was like offering a place in the Australian Eleven to a cricketer, a sainthood to a priest, the job of prime minister to a back bencher. Half gasping, I said: 'Yes, Sir Keith. I would love to go to New York'. 'How old are you?' 'I'm 24, Sir Keith.' 'I need someone in New York a month from now, but you're far too young. We don't approve of sending away young, single men.' He looked out the window across the Jolimont railway yards, and I could see him pondering the terrible fate that overcame unattached males in libidinous, far-off cities. 'You really want to go?' 'Oh yes.' 'I'll tell you what I'll do. If you can find yourself a young lady and get yourself married in that time, it's on. You are not engaged or anything like that?' 'No, Sir.' 'Do you have anyone in mind?' 'Ye-es, I think I do.' 'Well, go to it then.' The young lady I had in mind was Marie Rose McFadyen, and she had been on my mind for at least four years. Our romance had quietened while I was in Labuan, and there had been little correspondence, but it started again once I was home in Melbourne.
Marie was a brunette with one dimple and a smile so dazzling I thought it could melt the Manchester Unity building. She had a lovely sense of humour, a keen eye for the absurd and a love of music, but there was something in particular we shared: a shyness, even a terror, created by the wowser society we lived in. Her aunts used to say that as a child she tried to sit as far away as possible when a man entered a tram. We were victims of our background. Her father many times said he disapproved of even hand holding in public. Geelong Grammar's monastic society had created in me a fumbling ineptitude with women, which took years to overcome. Recognition of each other's nervousness drew us together, and even as early as 1947 I found it hard to imagine life with anyone else.
Marie's father, Charles Hector McFadyen, was a senior public servant, who became department head of the Department of Shipping and Transport. A sporting champion, he had played cricket and football for Essendon. In the First AIF he had played for his division in both Australian Rules football and rugby. Furthermore he was a boxer. All the McFadyens were good at sport. Marie's brother Alan was a sprinter so good he was on the verge of Olympic selection for the 400 metres. Her elder brother,
Ken, could also run and was an outstanding footballer. Marie, too, was good at all sports. She could beat me easily at tennis, she was good at basketball and her smooth style across the pool was something to behold. She had been a champion swimmer. All this was disturbing for young Dunstan, who had no sporting gifts whatever and in the year 1942 was credited with being Geelong Grammar's slowest creature in the 100 yards sprint. Any sort of Hitlerian selection committee would have banned the liaison at once.
Charles McFadyen, known as Chub, adored horse racing and was a gregarious man, but his standards were high, and he thought also that young people should be chaperoned. Dunstan had to take care. Yet in the years after my return from overseas service there were opportunities for romance, and Marie and I had many interests in common. How wonderful it was on a summer evening to get up on the cast-iron balcony of the old mansion at 20 Wallace Avenue when the azaleas and the rhododendrons were in bloom and we could hear the shriek of the cicadas. Many people condemn that violent noise, but to us it was the most Melburnian of all noises - the signal that at last this was summer. I ran an extension cord up the narrow stairs from the attic to the roof so that we could play my turntable, which operated through an AWA mantel radio and used cactus needles.
'Why do you want to take all those rugs and things upstairs?', asked my mother. Why, indeed. We played Scheherazade, so splendidly recommended by Manning Clark, we played Schubert's Unfinished Symphony and the piano concertos of Rachmaninov, our passion at the time, but we were also deeply moved by Bing Crosby. We had a 10-inch HMV record with `Star Dust' on one side and 'Deep Purple' on the other. So the turntable turned, the music poured out over the cicadas below and the air was soft. The steel deck underneath tended to be slightly hard, but our eyrie up there, looking down on Toorak, was very close to heaven.
Marie was a nurse at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, and after graduation she assisted in the operating theatre. She worked with such famous names as Mr Albert Coates and the celebrated prisoner-of-war surgeon `Weary' Dunlop. Hours in the theatre were long and hard. Even after operations were over the young nurses had to wash down the theatre themselves; floor and walls had to be washed seven times with antiseptic. It seemed I spent a lifetime waiting outside the Nurses' Home at the Royal Melbourne. However, waiting was not as arduous as it might have been because I could wait in a Holden, an FX Holden.
Hoidens were launched on 29 November 1948. The Sun News-Pictorial first became excited about the Holden a few months before the launch. General Motors-Holden had four or five of these snub-nosed models - windscreen divided down the centre, grill that looked like a shark trying to smile and mudguards all smoothed into the body - at their test course at Lang Lang, near Melbourne. Newspaper photographers carried out all sorts of espionage. They hid behind bushes, took furtive shots, then published the pictures with captions that read 'Is this the new Holden?'. And, of cum se, it was.
Dad knew everybody on the Board at GM-H. He adored anything new, any new gadget. He had to have a Holden, and his wangling skills were so great that he managed to buy number twenty off the production line, even though the waiting List was as large as that of the Melbourne Cricket Club. Everybody stared at our new Holden. I thought it better than a Rolls-Royce, so I did not mind sitting there, waiting hour after hour for Sister McFadyen. One night when we were coming home at midnight from a dance at Kew, I failed to see a car approaching from the right at the corner of Barkers Road and Auburn Road. Nobody was hurt, but the beloved Holden received a huge dent in the side and had to be towed away. Shock, terror, guilt. How could I face my father? He loved the new Holden as much as I did. He looked at the damage and never said a word.
Marie and I loved to dance. We danced at the Power House at Albert Park or at Number Nine Darling Street. My very smart mother always worded me up correctly. 'When you take out a girl always make sure that you have a single gardenia for her.' his band. Dennis had the mysterious skill of being able to appear everywhere. We danced to 'Star Dust', 'Moonlight Becomes You', Expensive things gardenias: 5 shillings or even 7 and 6 each. The gardenia was always delivered with ribbon attached and in a Cellophane box. At all dance places there was inevitably Dennis Farrington and 'How I Love the Kisses of Dolores', 'Lovely to Look At, Delightful To Know', 'Alone' and 'Alone With the Light of Romance'.
If we could get away with it and we had the loan of the family car we detoured before we went home: over the MacRobertson Bridge and down the Boulevard along the Yarra. Sustenance workers - men on the dole - built the Boulevard during the Great Depression of the 1930s; the dole was 5 shillings a week for men living away from home, 1 shilling and 6 pence for those living with a relative. At the time the workers could not possibly have realised they were building the perfect love-nest for future generations. Always, after 10 p.m., there was a line of cars at two favourite spots along the Boulevard. One spot looked across the water to Toorak, the other to Hawthorn and Scotch College. There was always a blur of white faces in the hack seats of the cars.
When I tried to creep into the house after midnight, the light in my parents' room would be on. Never would they go to sleep before Helen or I had reported in. There was always a debriefing. Mum and Dad had to know everything. 'I can't imagine what you've been doing that would keep you up to this hour', my father would growl. I think he had a fair idea.
The Murdoch offer was one sent from heaven. Marie and I had been dreaming of and angling for marriage for six months, but flats in the 1940s were even harder to find than cases of Scotch. After scanning the real estate advertisements and finding a possibility, a chance, not only was the rent exorbitant, but there was the extra touch of blackmail, key money, and that palm greaser for the key could be 500 pounds. Ah, but in New York we would not have to find a flat. The Herald and Weekly Times would see to it.
After my historic interview with Sir Keith Murdoch I hurried home in a state of euphoria. There was just one way to do this. I needed a car. This time the Holden was not available and I did not have the courage to ask my father directly for his beautiful Buick. Craftily I negotiated through my mother. 'Of course, Billy, he must have the car', she told my father. That evening I drove round the Yarra Boulevard to our favourite spot, the love line-up with the view across to St Kevin's and Lansell Road. I formally asked Marie if she would marry me and come to New York. Marie said 'Yes'. The future looked limitless.
Next came the ultimate honour. Sir Keith invited Marie and me to dinner with Lady Murdoch at their stately mansion in Albany Road, Toorak. He invited several other cadets. This was part of his policy: a chief executive should know the young members on his staff. Murdoch received much criticism for his political tactics and ruthlessness but, in my experience, no executive since has tried so hard to help young journalists. 'Whatever you do, don't outstay your welcome', was my father's solemn advice. 'At 10 o'clock you announce you must be gone.' The dinner was very grand, with servants and a butler. Drinks were exquisitely served. The main course was chicken, which Sir Keith carved himself from a small side table. He was just severing a drumstick when the chicken skidded off the tray, shot through the air and landed on the floor. We looked in wonder, hushed, not daring to comment or, heaven forbid, laugh. What would he do now? Discard the chicken and order another from the kitchen? No, indeed. He stepped forward, picked up the offending chicken and, saying nothing, went on with the carving.
After dinner we were shown the house, the antiques and art treasures and the superb Murdoch collection of Georgian glass. At 9.30 p.m. Sir Keith announced, 'I suppose you will be needing your coats'. He beat Dad's darg by half an hour.
True to Sir Keith Murdoch's orders, our wedding took place in less than four weeks. It was set for 5 September 1949, which helped to inspire a little gossip. It was the custom in the 1940s for parents to promulgate an engagement formally in the newspapers. There was none of that. The speed was almost indecent.
Just two weeks before the wedding Dad had his first heart attack. He was only 54 but it virtually put an end to his full-time working career. There was just one treatment for cardiac problems, total rest, lying in bed utterly motionless, so that the strained heart could cure itself. It seemed logical that the wedding should he postponed, but the very thought of that just raised his blood pressure. The wedding had to go on. After all, he had organised the whole event and he had even created a little book, all bound, with the names and addresses of all his overseas friends, for us to look up in Honolulu, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, Vancouver, Montreal, New York and London.
The wedding took place at Scots Presbyterian Church, Toorak. My brother, Bill, was best man, Bob Dalziel was groomsman, my sister, Helen, was matron of honour and Anne Cornwell was bridesmaid. Glenda Raymond, later Glenda Crawford, sang 'Angels Guard Thee', and how she sang. Those angels have been guarding us ever since. It was an unforgettable event, but Dad was home in bed. Our first night was to be at the Hotel Australia in Collins Street. At midnight we called in to say goodbye to Dad. He noted that I had a bottle of champagne. 'Where are you going with that?', he asked. 'I thought I would take it back to the hotel.' 'Why?' 'To drink with Marie.' He erupted. 'Leave it here you damned fool. There's chicken sandwiches and champagne waiting for you in your hotel room. My father did it for me in 1918 and I've done it for you.'
In later years 1 realised our marriage had been plotted entirely by my mother and Marie's Aunt Doris. Very carefully and with great design they brought us together. 'Marie is a nice girl, I wouldn't take anyone else out if I were you', my mother would say. It was a marriage similar to those of the Chinese or medieval nobility, arranged entirely by the parents. Our marriage subsequently was such a success, improving year by year, that I have wondered often ever since whether marriage is not a problem too serious to be left to the young.
Continue to chapter eight: Correspondent