Walking the tightrope
On 5 October 1952 Sir Keith Murdoch died in his sleep at Cruden Farm, Victoria, aged 66 years. He had been into hospital for his second prostate operation the previous April, and his heart gave out. My father thought this event so climactic that he telephoned me in Wallington to give me the news immediately. International telephone calls were not overcommon in 1952. I had sent Dad a photograph of myself near the telephone in our Wallington house and he had craftily read the number on the handset, using a magnifying glass. To us it was like the death of Caesar and contained almost equal drama. For years my father had come home raging about Keith Murdoch. Sir Keith in his later years sold all his personal interest in the Herald and Weekly Times, but while still chairman he gained control of the Courier-Mail in Brisbane and the News in Adelaide. Dad thought this was outrageous. Not only did Sir Keith own these newspapers but he used the Herald and Weekly Times to get them favoured treatment, particularly with newsprint. I would agree with Dad whenever he voiced his view.
'Yes, that's shocking behaviour. He shouldn't be allowed to do that.'
'You keep out of this', Dad would reply. 'It's none of your business. You don't realise what a great man he is.' Desmond Zwar in his biography In Search of Keith Murdoch says that Murdoch before he died was plotting a new venture that would have dismayed the Australian newspaper industry. He was plotting to leave the Herald and Weekly Times entirely to buy the Argus and run it in opposition to the empire he had created. The Argus had been Melbourne's greatest newspaper. The London Daily Mirror took it over in 1949 and made it sensational. The Daily Mirror entirely misjudged the staid Melbourne market and in 1952 the Argus was close to death. Keith Murdoch obviously saw an opportunity.
But there were other forces at play in the death of Caesar. The next in line to Sir Keith at the Herald and Weekly Times was John Francis Williams, a very complex man and almost the complete opposite to Murdoch himself. J. F. Williams had been editor of the Barrier Miner in Broken Hill and managing director of the Courier-Mail in Brisbane before Bednall and was now managing editor of the Herald and Weekly Times. Murdoch was gregarious. He liked to be seen as a king-maker, a patron of the arts and a lover of good paintings and glass. He possessed three country properties, Wantabadgery and Buoroomba in New South Wales and Cruden Farm near Frankston, Victoria. Williams never wished to mix with people, he showed no interest in the arts and he had a country house once but could not bear it. His Who's Who entry ran to only five lines, as brief as he could possibly make it. He listed no hobbies. The newspaper business was his entire life, seven days a week. He was to be seen wandering the nigh-deserted corridors of the Flinders Street building even on Sunday mornings. When he eventually retired, that elegant Herald writer Geoffrey Tebbutt wrote: Williams: difficult, prickly, unpredictable, demanding, moody, capricious, impatient - yes, all these things might from time to time be said of John Williams. And just as truly that he is helpful, considerate, amiable, tolerant, practical, resilient, understanding and, above all, human and generous, judging people as individuals and not by their ideologies and associations.
I can't think of anyone Williams ever harmed, but his staff feared him. His comments could be short, cutting and devastatingly sarcastic, yet he was also capable of extraordinary kindnesses and generosity to his staff. In the 1940s he must have suffered torture trying to get on with Murdoch and keep up with his whims and plans.
In 1948 there was a call to our Wallace Avenue house at 1 a.m. We all leaped out of bed, thinking maybe a grandparent had died. It was the Sun police roundsman, Jerry Bergin. The police had arrested J. F. Williams and charged him with offensive behaviour. The crime? Police had caught him urinating in the street at the back of Alfred Place. Dad drove into the city immediately. How he did it I don't know, but he got Williams off the charge.
My friend Bob Dalziel, who by then was a stock broker, also had an encounter with Williams. One day over lunch Dalziel commented: 'There's a character up at the University Club called Williams. He reckons he's the editor-in-chief at the Herald. Nobody believes him. He's drunk every night. Couldn't be true, could it?'.
My father thought it was true. He claimed that Keith Murdoch was so concerned about Williams's drinking he was planning to fire him. Had Murdoch lived another week Williams would have gone. My father thought it was the concern about Williams, the agonising over whether he should fire him, that gave Murdoch a heart attack.
Bednall in Brisbane, not Williams, was the Murdoch protege, the young man Murdoch had made. Bohan Rivett, Editor of the Adelaide News, was another Murdoch favourite. He was later fired by Rupert, so neither of Murdoch's proteges survived to be leaders of the next Herald and Weekly Times generation. Murdoch almost on the day he died told Bednall he expected him to be his successor. He even suggested to Bednall that he would be his executor.
None of this seemed to impinge on the Herald and Weekly Times board. J. F. Williams took over in October 1952 and became managing director and eventually chairman of the Herald and Weekly Times. He did not have the grand aspirations of Murdoch, but he had other qualities. He restored honesty to the Herald and the Sun. To my mind he rid both newspapers of any suggestion of political bias, and the departure of Murdoch must have relieved all kinds of pressure. I never saw or heard of Williams's being drunk, after 1952.
Ah, but with Caesar's death there was the problem of Caesar's spoils. There was the problem of probate. The properties in New South Wales had to go. Furthermore Rupert, Sir Keith's son, did not have the cash to hang onto both the Courier-Mail in Brisbane and the News in Adelaide. He had to make a choice. lie chose the News and so News Limited ultimately became the launching pad for the great publishing empire he developed around the world. Under the terms of Sir Keith's will the Herald and Weekly Times had first option to buy the controlling interest in the Courier-Mail.
When the Herald and Weekly Times took up the option, Colin Bednall saw no future in his newspaper career. No longer could his dream of becoming leader of the Herald and Weekly Times empire come true. He did not believe he could work under Williams so he resigned. It was a mistake. Almost certainly Williams would not have been vindictive, and there was just a chance that Bednall might even have outlasted him to become managing director himself.
In late 1953 Marie and I sailed home with two children, aboard the P & 0 liner Strathmore. It was a glorious, happy five weeks on the water. I arrived in Melbourne to learn that Bednall had resigned from the Courier-Mail and it was very likely that I was out of a job or, if not out of a job, forced to beg a return to the Herald and Weekly Times. 1 rang the new editor-in-chief of the Courier-Mail, Ted Bray, later Sir Theodore Bray.
'Mr Bray, a lot has happened', I said.
'Mr Bednall has gone. Do you still want me to come to Brisbane?' Mr Bray was very direct, very honest.
'Mr Dunstan, if you don't come, we'll sue you.'What's more he wanted me to come in a hurry.
Brisbane in January 1954 was a city of 500 000 people and very different from what it is now. It had an inferiority complex that ran deep. Nearly all its manufacturing businesses, retail houses and newspapers were owned by the south, particularly Melbourne. It was the custom for a business to send young managers to Brisbane for training before returning them to Melbourne for grander things. Newspapers were no exception.
Anyone from the south was looked upon with suspicion. Brisbane people had a way of spitting out the word 'southerner' that left no uncertainty about how they felt. The entire world was divided between Queenslanders and southerners. The citizens of Brisbane always considered that the finest weather ever granted to humankind was eternally in Brisbane. This was only slightly true. Brisbane in the wet season from December to March was humid and vile. The rest of the year it almost lived up to its claims.
In 1954 Brisbane had no dashing skyline. The largest building was the City Hail, with its splendid tower that tried to ape the campanile in St Mark's Square, Venice. The City Hall stood in St George's Square, where the main feature was an extraordinary statue of King George V on horseback, dressed in quite impossible gear for that tropical climate.
I went on ahead to Brisbane as advance guard, stayed at the Imperial Services Club and looked for a house. Stan Sherman, the General Manager, told me that the offer of a house was typical of Bednall's extravagant behaviour, but that, given I had it in writing, they would stick to the agreement. I found a lovely wooden house with a big verandah, at the top of the hill in Crescent Road, Hamilton. I wrote to Marie and told her not to expect too much. Brisbane was a very curious place. The children tended to go to school in bare feet. The favourite pastime in the evening was to sit on the front porch in the warm air, with a glass of beer, and take in the sunset. The houses were all very different, made of timber and incredibly up on stilts, and nobody used paint much. There was little in the way of sewerage; in fact, some people thought it indecent to have a lavatory inside the house. In summer there would be plenty of mosquitoes so, for heaven's sake, get some mosquito nets from war disposals, I told Marie. Possibly I overdid it. I picked her up with the children at the airport and drove down Queen Street in the city. She looked round slowly and carefully and said: 'How nice. They've got electric light'.
The first thing I had to do was show her the house in Crescent Road. At this stage it had no carpets and no furniture. It was half past eight in the evening, and I had not bargained on the result. I turned on the lights and cockroaches ran everywhere across the bare boards. I tried to explain that the cockroach is very clean and very nearly the oldest insect known to humankind, with a very distinguished history, but it was not a good start.
As soon as we moved in the neighbours called. The lady next door, Lillian Dowling, insisted on lending us an ice chest. Another came in with a basket of pawpaws. Within forty-eight hours we knew half the people in the street. In London after two years we still had not known our next-door neighbours.
All Brisbane was like this. We were fascinated how people, no matter what their status, were on first-name terms. In England Christian names barely existed. Anyone who called on the manager or the top executive of a firm in Brisbane went straight through and Christian names prevailed. Most extraordinary of all, the Premier of Queensland, Vincent Clair Gair, known to everyone as Vince, had his name and suburban address in the telephone book. Brisbane was really an amiable country town, but a real town for all that. Queensland was the only Australian State with a proper city-country ratio. The population of Brisbane was only a third that of the rest of the State.
My job was to take over the 'Day by Day' column on the front page of the Courier-Mail, almost immediately after my twenty-ninth birthday. The previous incumbent was Arthur Richards, who had done it for four years and was now suffering from stomach ulcers. Richards was a very amiable man, smoked a pipe, liked to drink a glass of Bundaberg rum, knew all the important people from the Premier down and every weekend liked to go 'down the bay' fishing. 'Down the bay' was a sort of generic term for anywhere from Moreton Bay to as far south as Coolangatta. A third of the town seemed to go fishing at the weekend.
Richards, the columnist, had become a statewide institution much loved by everybody. He had gained great experience in journalism, both in Sydney and London, and he had a rare gift as a writer. He was a born communicator. No matter what he wrote I had the desire to go on reading to the last word on the page. His column was gentle, whimsical and managed to distil the essence of the Queensland character. The very thought of taking over from him left me unnerved. However, I studied everything he wrote and listened to all he said. The sub-editors on the Melbourne Sun taught me journalism but my debt to Richards in learning how to write was enormous.
The Courier-Mail was an interesting place and there were some great characters on the staff. There was V. J. Carroll, who played Rugby Union for Queensland and was the finance editor. Later he was editor of the Financial Review, editor of the Sydney Morning Herald and editor-in-chief of James Fairfax and Son. There was Roger Covell, who became the distinguished critic on the Sydney Morning Herald. There was Denis O'Brien, writer and critic, and David Rowbotham, poet. Above all there was Mr John Holmes. I loved Mr Holmes. Behind his back everyone called him Jackie, but he was so distinguished, so erudite, he was the one person in Brisbane no one could ever address by Christian name. Mr Holmes was the leader writer and a walking encyclopaedia. He was English born, over 60 and a gentleman who always had the answer to every query. He was one of the last of those who had a true classical education. He knew most languages. Ask him for a phrase in German and he would say in his high-pitched voice, 'Would you like it in classical German or colloquial German?'.
Every night before we went home he said, 'Keith, I think it is time for our little reviver'. I provided the coffee and he the silver flask filled with Amity white rum. I can't tell you what a help that rum was to the coffee. When Brisbane acquired its first espresso coffee lounge we decided that should be the place for our reviver. Espresso was absolutely the new rage and this lounge had the grandest new Gaggia, all silver, twiddly bits, dials, tubes and flashing lights. As it produced the coffee it panted like a suburban steam train.
Mr Holmes said to the person serving, 'Could we have due cappucini?'
'Eh?', she said.
I interjected, 'We want two coffees please'.
'Sorry, I didn't get you. Hey Bill, they want two cappa-cheen ohs.'
Just before my first Christmas on the paper a message arrived from Canberra. The Governor-General asked if Mr Holmes would come to Canberra for Christmas. If he accepted, Field Marshal Sir William Slim would send his aircraft to pick him up. We were agog. It was the talk of the Courier-Mail. Why on earth would the great Sir William be doing this? That night over our reviver I delicately broached the subject.
'Oh, you must understand', said Mr Holmes, 'Billy Slim and I were at school together. He always does this'. Soon after my arrival Arthur Richards took me aside and told me how to write a column.
'Now Keith, you have to be brief. You might have to write a paragraph five times to get it down to the right length. Every extra word you sput into a paragraph the more brilliant it has to be to retain the attention of your reader. The beauty about being a columnist is that you can write what you like. Well, almost. But remember, never try to be too clever. Don't try to be smarter than your audience. Never be a smart-arse. Always you have to be the fall guy. That way your reader feels a little bit superior and gets a laugh. Make Brisbane absolutely the centre of the universe and you won't go wrong. And, oh yes, the weather. Write plenty of gags about the weather. They adore weather in Brisbane.'
My problem was we did not know anybody in Brisbane apart from Robin and Keith Murdoch, who introduced us to all their friends in a hurry. Otherwise it was a completely cold start. Red Smith, the famous sporting columnist who once wrote for the New York Herald-Tribune, put the agony of writing a column very well:
I always say that writing a daily column is the simplest thing in the world. All you have to do is saddle up at your typewriter every day, no matter where you are or where you've been the night before, and start tap, tap, tapping away - every word a drop of blood. And when you've filled the space waiting there to be filled every day as inevitable as death, you say to yourself, There goes another chip off your brain, Smith, but you've gotta eat'. Kirwan Ward, who was a fine columnist on Perth's Daily News, also had a line for it: 'It's just like walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls - a little scary until you get used to it'. Scary? I was terrified. This was the most difficult time in my career as a journalist. Brisbane was never quite big enough. It is hard to believe it now. Today Brisbane is a city where everything happens. In 1954 it was pleasantly sepulchral. My day started at 2 p.m. and finished at 11 p.m. or midnight. By 10 or 10.30 p.m. that column should have been finished, and it was my job to show it in proof form to the Editor-in-Chief, T. C. Bray.
Bray was a little man with a rasping voice. He was efficient and extremely well-informed and had an excellent memory for facts and detail. He read the entire newspaper before it got into print, even the classified ads. T. C. Bray missed nothing. I had to hand him the column, sit in front of him and watch while he read it. This was like having your detention essay read by the housemaster. Ted Bray read my copy without emotion, and sometimes if it was not too good he sighed: 'Mr Dunstan' - he had a mock way of doing this with the emphasis on the 'Mister' - 'Mr Dunstan, is this really your column for tomorrow?'.
The first few days, even the first week, were easy enough because I had material stored, but then it became desperately hard. I complained to Mr Bray about the difficulties. 'Ahh, Mr Dunstan, you don't see enough of the town. You should carouse. Get around the bars and soon you will pick up plenty of stories?
I took his advice and checked out all the bars. I picked up plenty of stories all right, but none that Mr Bray would think were fit to use in his newspaper.
Arthur Richards said that whenever he had got into trouble be had written a little story about his children. He lived in Clayfield and he had called his children the Clayfield Cowboys or the Clayfield Cowhands in his column. He did it so deftly that Brisbane looked forward to the next tale about the cowhands. Richards suggested I should make use of the cowhands at Crescent Road, Hamilton. Our eldest was David, 4 going on five. We called him Steamboat because he had so much steam and as a baby had pushed himself around like a boat. So maybe once a week I threw in a paragraph about Steamboat. I am ashamed to say in arid times I watched him avidly, waiting for some new brilliant activity. Steamboat became quite famous and he was a running serial for nearly eight years. When I dropped him, the Editor-in-Chief of the Herald and Weekly Times even called me in and said Steamboat should continue.
A typical Steamboat paragraph went like this: Water pistols like all forms of armament have improved tremendously in the past twenty years. The latest water pistol is shaped like a Luger and made of plastic. It works by compression and holds a vast store of water. Some even have an auxiliary tank attached to the waist. The skilful operator can obtain fifty to 150 shots at one filling, depending on storage capacity.
Steamboat though has a marvellous refinement. He fills his Luger with soft drink and pulls the trigger. Pure joy. This, very likely, is the finest invention since the flask on the hip. Many years later, during the Vietnam War, David was up on a charge of assaulting a policeman at a demonstration in Williamstown. Before the trial we had a discussion with our barrister. The barrister looked at me, looked at David and smiled. 'Before I start I just want to know one thing. Tell me, is this Steamboat?' I had to say 'Yes, it is', regretting I had ever done this thing to my son. David could have killed him.
The daily correspondence to the Courier-Mail was astonishing. People who write letters to newspapers are capable of remarkable rudeness and savagery. It is one way of easing tension. There was a Brisbane poet who wrote almost daily. He was a little too accurate in explaining my lack of style, my lack of originality and how I could not match the personality and skill of my predecessor. I took this desperately to heart. I had been a failure at school, a failure in the Air Force, and now I was a failure in journalism. There was another character who wrote weekly threatening, sometimes homicidal, letters. This went on for nearly two years. One day there was a telephone call and I sensed it was the person who had been writing the letters. He said an R. Robinson had been killed half an hour ago in Paradise Valley. I called the police but nobody had been killed in the Valley. I never heard from that man again. However, I did learn something. Never again did I worry about angry letters. If you are in that sort of business and do not irritate somebody you are doing a poor job.
Peter Carey has described writing as hard work, like walking up to your knees in thick mud. Column writing is a little like that. Many a column depends on one idea, an incident pulled out of a newspaper, a new invention on the market or a new miracle cure perhaps. Then the columnist has slowly to work out all the angles, all the possible ramifications. (That is something I usually do at four in the morning, before getting up an hour later.) When the column is written it should look as if it has been tossed off with ease, in one blinding shaft of inspiration.
My inspiration for my writing was, and still is, that constant purveyor of ideas and help, my wife, Marie. I could not have survived those early column-writing days without her. She was eternally patient and understanding when I came with the complaint that there was no column for the next day. What now? She would add her wits to mine and we would think of something together. My column writing on the Courier-Mail went in cycles. For weeks, even months, it would seem easy. Then would come the deadly troughs when there were no ideas, when absolutely nothing seemed to happen. I would go home to dinner at 8 p.m., with not a paragraph, not a thought in sight but with the prospect of having to return to the office in Queen Street to fill what still remained a white space on the front page. I would pray - pray desperately and it was extraordinary how the inspiration for the story would come at the last moment. Begging his or her pardon, I was sometimes critical of our Maker. Sometimes the thought did not arrive until only half an hour before the Dresses started moving.
Yes, there was a return to religion. Perhaps it had never been very far away, but it came soon after our arrival in Brisbane. The catalyst oddly enough was Field Marshal Viscount Wavell. English generals were different: frequently they could be erudite and very well educated. Field Marshal Wavell, while still active in the Second World War, produced a book titled Other Men's Flowers. The flowers were all the poetry, all the verse, he loved best - Hardy, Browning, Blake, Chesterton, Burns, Kipling, Hopkins, Belloc. Reading those flowers one day, I came across `The Hound of Heaven' by Francis Thompson. It seemed to say everything to me, to express the whole story of humanity's struggle with religion and God. The poem begins:
I fled Him, down the nights and down the days; I fled Him, down the arches of the years; I fled Him, down the Labyrinthine ways Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter Up vistaed hopes I sped; And shot, precipitated, Adown Titanic glooms of charmed fears, From these strong feet that followed, followed after. It goes on: My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap. My days have crackled and gone up in smoke, Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream. Yea, faileth now even dream The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist. And finishes: Halts by me that footfall: Is my gloom, after all, Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly? `Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest, I am He whom thou seekest! Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.'
Was it possible to believe in the Eucharist? In the Virgin Birth? In the Resurrection? And what about all the stuff on Who Moved the Stone? Faith it seemed to me was entirely a subjective thing. There was something in you; either you believed or you did not believe. And there were delicate shades of believing. Could there be a creature on earth who did not have doubts? St Peter had plenty of them. Would even the most devout cardinal ever do better than 98 per cent certainty? Or your local archbishop, did he rate better than 92 per cent? Or some of the vicars I knew - very good men but some days they seemed low, indeed. And what about me? - 80, 85 per cent sure. Some days belief, and God, seemed very close, indeed. Other times, belief was nowhere to be had. The Hound of Heaven: that is why the words of Francis Thompson appealed so much.
While I was thrashing around I thought maybe the answer lay in the style of religion. I began attending St Augustine's Church in Hamilton, Brisbane. It seemed so bland. I could not stand the ineffectual sermons. Every Sunday the preacher quoted the gospel of the day and gave us a little lecture on theology. We heard nothing on the great issues of the day. Even now I think this is the problem with the Anglican Church. Go to a suburban church and it seems insulated from things that desperately worry people, particularly young people: drugs, AIDS, poverty, political corruption, racism and the dreadful materialism of all of us. No wonder the church pews are only half full.
I thought the Roman Catholic Church must be the answer. The Catholics I knew seemed more dedicated, more disciplined than Protestants. There seemed to be entirely more guts and devotion in the Catholic Church. One evening, at a dinner party, I was talking to a Brisbane lawyer, Rex King.
'Of course, I'm an agnostic', he said. 'I don't think any intelligent person really can be otherwise.' (This is an arrogant presumption always made by those who don't believe.) 'But I do love the Anglican Church', he continued. 'I love little choirboys singing. And do you know what really turns me on, why I go about once a month? I adore the ceilings. Have you ever noticed what marvellous ceilings our churches have? When the vicar is making his sermon I study them intimately.'
For some reason Rex King was terribly shocked that I contemplated becoming a Roman Catholic. He would not have minded my becoming an atheist or an agnostic, but becoming a Catholic was really shocking, like reviling one's club in public or turning on one's old school. '1 will talk to my friend Peter Bennie', he said.
The Reverend A. P. B. Bennie was the vicar at All Saints' Church, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane. Bennie was a graduate of Trinity College, Melbourne, a poet, a former archdeacon on Thursday Island and the future warden at St Paul's College in Sydney. A genuine intellectual, he was often frustrated with not only his parishioners, but also his staid superiors in the Anglican Church. Peter Bennie liked to shock; he adored to throw bricks through windows. Almost immediately after my conversation with Rex there was a telephone call from Father Bennie. Yes, he always called himself Father Bennie. He even sounded Roman Catholic.
'Rex King tells me you want to be a Roman Catholic. Why don't you come and see me? I could spare you time on Tuesday afternoons. Oh, it won't take as long as that. fix you up in five minutes.'
So there were discussions with Peter Bennie on a number of Tuesdays. 'First', he said, 'I want you to go home and read right through the Gospel According to St John. This is the most splendid, profound piece of writing in the entire Bible. After reading St John, you must believe'.
That night I took out my long-disused Bible and began. How could anyone not be fascinated with those rhythmical phrases? In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. Bennie was true to his promise, and within months I was serving at his altar. All Saints' was the centre of High Church Anglicanism in Brisbane, with one of those ceilings so much admired by Rex King. Bennie went through the full bit: bells, incense, rich vestments, Stations of the Cross and the congregation crawling all the way up the aisle to the altar on their knees on Good Friday. I explained to Arthur Richards how High things were at All Saints', so High it would have to be the envy of the Catholics over yonder.
'You ought to come over to our church, we're so Low we had to have the stumps removed', he laughed. Over several Sundays Marie and I noticed some very formal-looking gentlemen in the back pew of All Saints'. They did not appear to be taking a great part in the service but rather were snaking notes. We soon found out what they were up to. They were lawyers and they attacked Peter Bennie for indulging in papist practices. Bennie, who would have made a great barrister himself, was brilliant at Synod. He poured scorn on the barristers. He called them the Three Monkeys.
'They see nothing', he cried, 'hear nothing and know nothing'. There was so much laughter he was never troubled again. It took me months to learn the complicated movements at altar during Mass. Oh yes, he called Holy Communion Mass. Some parishioners were repelled by all this. But I loved it. I loved the ceremony, the dress ups, the whole sense of theatre. Marie, brought up as a Presbyterian, was not nearly as impressed. Coming from a church where there was no need even to kneel, to a church where the congregation crossed themselves and popped up and down even during the Creed, she found something faintly evil about it. But I thought all the movement kept the mind alive and was an aid to concentration. Other churches after All Saints' were pallid by comparison.
We had some of our happiest days in Brisbane. It was just the right size for a city. There is an old saying about Berlin and Vienna: in Berlin things are often serious but nothing is hopeless; in Vienna everything is hopeless but nothing is ever serious. To me, Melbourne or Sydney was Berlin and Brisbane was Vienna. The hunt for the almighty dollar was not so important then; nor was it so important to other people if you did not take part in the hunt. I found out why our house was built on stilts. Just in case you have ever wondered why Queensland houses have stilts, these are the reasons: (1) they allow you to catch the breezes (and the cyclones); (2) they provide a marvellous place underneath the house, where you can put stuff like old pianos; (3) they also provide a ready-made garage, plus a space where you can hang the washing during the wet season; (4) they are needed because most Brisbane houses are built on precipitous hills; (5) when the white ants begin to chew away the foundations it is easy to see them in action.
The years passed and our love affair with Brisbane became complete. It was the easy-going nature of the place that appealed. I liked the way that almost any day of the year I could wander out into the garden in bare feet to check whether the pawpaws were ripening and how the custard apples were progressing. Then there were those marvellous sub-tropical evenings, when we could sit out on the verandah. Everything would be so still and quiet that we could hear a person cough a kilometre away.
Things were unhurried. When the young Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip came on their first visit, Brisbane was determined to show the south what it could do. The City Council urged a vast painting and clean-up campaign, particularly along the route from the airport. One character who had his garden just metres from the Royal Progress failed to paint his house; nor did he fix up his garden. But on the morning of the big arrival he did the decent thing. He got out his lawnmower and cut a great E H R in the long grass.
Brisbane was also stimulating mentally. There were so many fascinating characters. Magda and Igor Vollner ran a restaurant in a basement off Queen Street called Two Seasons. This was the gathering place for talkers, poets, writers, architects and musicians, such as Rudolf Pekarek, the conductor of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra.
Next door to the Two Seasons, and also in a basement, was the Johnstone Gallery. Brian Johnstone was married to Marjorie Mant, an actress and a very good one: a gorgeous extrovert of a lady, addicted to long, flowing gowns. She suffered from asthma, and I remember her walking into Her Majesty's Theatre on opening night, when the stalls were filled with expensively clad women, and saying, in her superbly projected voice, 'What I can't stand is all these women who come here drenched in Fly Tox'. Brian was educated at St Peter's College, Adelaide, and graduated as an Army officer from Duntroon. He became disillusioned with the Army and bravely turned to art. The Army should never have let him out of its hands. Intellectually he was another Wavell.
Brian worked away in his underground gallery in the Brisbane Arcade until it gave him tuberculosis. After he recovered he never returned to the city. He needed more room, more style, better air. So the new Johnstone Gallery was their house at 6 Cintra Road, Bowen Hills. It was just below Cloudland, that vast old dance hall, reception house, call it what you will, that was so beloved by Americans during the Second World War. Cloudland was on the marvellous pimple of Bowen Hills, sitting astride all Brisbane. Cloudland, barbarously destroyed at dawn by the Sir Joh Bjelke-Petersen Government, was a classic building of old Brisbane.
The Johnstones' weatherboard house was Brisbane in its purest form: on stilts, verandahs to catch the breezes, galvanised-iron roof to record the shattering artillery of the December-January rains and at every turn, every glance, a thing of beauty, a breath taking work of art. The Johnstones bought the house next door, connected the two and added further accommodation for visiting artists and friends. The gallery rambled, and steadily Marjorie and Brian gathered a collection of great Australian art, which by comparison made the Queensland National Gallery holdings look like a pathetic, starving relative. The walls were covered with Arthur Boyds, Charles Blackmans, Ray Crookes, Jon Molvigs, Sidney Nolans, Donald Friends, Robert Dickersons not just ordinary examples, but great pictures painted when these artists were at their peak.
Brian Johnstone had an extraordinary, a matchless eye for talent in an artist. At a time when they were virtually unknown he was putting on exhibitions by Boyd, Dickerson, Blackman, Crooke, Molvig, David Boyd, Milton Moon, David Strachan, Keith Looby, Lawrence Daws, Max Hurley, Kevin Connor, Kenneth Jack, Charles Bush, Phil Waterhouse . . . Brisbane artistically was low on the scale in the early 1950s, but the Johnstones were putting on exhibitions by Sidney Nolan and their great friend Russell Drysdale. Brian Johnstone has never been given credit for the profound effect he had on this great renaissance period of Australian art. He was a teacher, and his enthusiasm was such that, when he was selling a picture, he was overwhelming - so much so that during the 1950s and 1960s Brisbane people spent more on art than anyone else in Australia.
It was not just selling for the sake of selling. Both Brian and Marjorie were noble, emotional characters. Brian was fierce in his likes and dislikes. He had a contempt for the creature, the barbarian, who bought just for investment. He was likely to refuse to sell a picture to a 'swine' who did not deserve it. Swine was his favourite word. 'Filthy swine, they're all swine', he would exclaim. The swine might be an art director he believed was dishonest - The swine's a crook' - or perhaps a government official holding down an art position. Invariably the swine had their own sty.
The Johnstones were passionate in their belief in the importance of art. Their art openings were famous. They were not merely openings, but splendid Brisbane parties, conducted in the warm night air. They were not like the art openings of old, with dreadful cream sherry or wine that could only be described as carbonated fizz. The Johnstone bath-tub was filled with ice and unlimited quantities of good wine.
The gallery was set in a leafy, tropical garden of frangipani, poincianas, stag horns and umbrella trees. Under every tree, beside every shrub, there was a lovely sculpture, many by Len and Kath Shillam. My favourite was by Arthur Boyd. It was a play on Nolan's Ned Kelly astride a horse. However, the man on the horse was not really Kelly, he was a judge, and if you looked carefully this judge was really a sheep. Or was he an ass? Oh yes, the law was an ass.
Donald Friend and Margaret 0lley were always in and out of the gallery at Cintra Road. Brian teed up a special project, the painting of a great mural in the lounge at Lennon's Hotel, which Donald and Margaret did together. They worked while the guests slept through the long midnight hours. They used standard Taubman paints, and the result was a mad, triumphant melange, an evocation of everything that is Queensland: cane fields, little steam trains, cane toads, taipans, goats, weird old Queensland houses, cactus, jungle, ratbags, graziers . . The result was priceless and should have been preserved for ever. When the hotel was renovated and changed hands the Philistine owners just painted it over. If only somebody had been smart enough to tell them the mural was worth money it might have been saved. Brian Johnstone retired in 1972. Without question, had there been more recognition from the officials who controlled art in Brisbane, he would have continued. The closure of the gallery was a cultural disaster for Queensland. He died in 1988.
We went down to Melbourne for four weeks every Christmas by courtesy of my father. There was no nonsense about modern Christmas dinners at our house. Even if the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius it had to be done properly.
The dinner began with cold mangoes, very hard to get in the 1950s. There was only one fruit shop in Melbourne that had them: Mr Jonas's. Mr Jonas was at Melbourne Mansions in Collins Street. Rich graziers from the Western District who kept town houses in Melbourne for events in the social calendar, such as the Spring Racing Carnival, always shopped there. The fruit at Mr Jonas's establishment was always perfect, often rare and always expensive. Melbourne Mansions came down to make way for the horrid CRA building, which itself became the first of the modern towers or filing cabinets to be replaced.
After mangoes from Mr Jonas came turkey, splendidly stuffed and accompanied by bread sauce, followed triumphantly by the plum pudding made months before. Dad would personally heat the brandy in a saucepan - far too much so that we always had a conflagration - pour it, flaming, over the pudding, then bear the blazing pudding into the darkened dining-room. There was always money in the pudding. My mother used to cheat. She would put extra 2-shilling pieces under the serves for the grandchildren to make sure they didn't miss out.
Christmas 1956 was particularly joyous, with Dad in his grandest, most eloquent style, carving the turkey. Several weeks after the dinner, Dad said to me: 'I want you to come for a drive. I have something to say to you'. We drove down to the Yarra Boulevard, not far from where I first formally proposed to Marie. He started explaining that I had all sorts of responsibilities, that I was to look after my mother and that when he died I was to make sure the house in Wallace Avenue was sold. 'She can't live in that vast old house by herself. She will want to. But you mustn't let her. Find her something else smaller and more comfortable.'
I remembered the heart attack before our wedding. But you're all right now. You are as fit as can be', I answered. Dad started to cry. I couldn't believe this. Here was the Victoria Cross winner, the tough campaigner, the man who had always been in command of his emotions, weeping. 'Keith', he said, 'when you come down from Brisbane next Christmas, I won't be here. I'll be dead'. 'That can't be true', I replied. 'Surely something can be done. What about the doctors?' 'Nothing can be done. They have told me. You will find absolutely everything is in order. I have arranged it with Perpetual Trustees.'
He was true to his word. His affairs were impeccably arranged, and sadly his forecast for his life was accurate, also. On 2 March 1957, six days before his sixty-second birthday, he collapsed and died on his way home from the Moonee Valley races. He was a committee member of the Moonee Valley Racing Club. My mother was incredibly brave, but I made the mistake of later telling her of the talk in the car on the Yarra Boulevard.
'Why didn't he tell me?', she said. 'Why didn't he tell me?'
There was a funeral with full military honours at Christ Church, South Yarra, on 5 March. There were 800 people present and 300 wreaths. There were seven First World War Victoria Cross winners present: G. Ingram, L. McCarthy, W. Jackson, W. Peeler, W. Ruthven, W. D. Joynt and R. V. Moon. There was also James Rogers, 82 years old, the sole surviving VC winner from the Boer War.
Bishop J. D. McKie, the senior Church of England chaplain of Southern Command, gave the funeral oration. I remember the casket was draped with the Australian flag and on top was Dad's dress sword, something I had never seen before, and an officer's cap and a wreath. The pall bearers were eight regular Army officers, and as for his VC, that was carried on a cushion by another regular officer, Captain M. T. Frost. It was a sunny morning and that part of Melbourne came almost to a standstill. The traffic lights in Punt Road were turned off and police controlled the traffic, which banked up all the way along Toorak and Punt roads. A procession of cars nearly 2 kilometres long went all the way to the Springvale Crematorium.
My mother survived the ordeal of the funeral with great dignity, but it was not easy following Dad's last instructions. She did not want to leave that huge old house, Ste Anne's, and she announced emphatically that she would not live with her children. She would keep her independence.
So there she was in a house with twenty or more rooms, a building 1 used to think was haunted. We would send David to stay with her. She loved that. David made drinks for her and unquestionably became the world's most skilled 7-year-old at mixing gin and tonics.
Eventually she moved into a maisonette in Irving Road, Toorak. There she still carried on her magnificent cooking, making Madeira cakes and Christmas pudding. Every Sunday for lunch she would cook an enormous wing rib of beef for any of her family who could come to eat it. She believed grandmothers should be the kind of people their grandchildren would never forget, so she kept in constant touch with all of hers, making sure she knew everything they were doing and plying them with gifts. She died on 21 November 1974. Her grandchildren wept at her funeral.
Marie and I moved from Brisbane to Melbourne on 20 December 1957. There were a number of reasons: it was important to be near my mother, and John Waters, Editor-in-Chief of the Herald and Weekly Times, said he needed a columnist for the Sun News-Pictorial. Could I start immediately - like on 31 December? Dad was no longer in Flinders Street. I was not the boss's son any more. So I became the daily columnist for the Sun News-Pictorial, a job that kept me busy for twenty-seven years.
Continue to chapter ten: APITS