Supporting a column
Kirwan Ward of Perth's Daily News once said that writing a daily column was like walking a tightrope across Niagara Falls, a little scary until you got used to it.
Actually I have always found it a little scary and the tightrope somewhat slippery. The most hideous sight to anyone who uses words for a living is the cold, virginal sheet of copy paper in a type writer-and that comes up every afternoon. Columns, of course, vary. Perhaps the best column of them all is written by Herb Caen for the San Francisco Chronicle. He conducts a permanent love affair with his city and manages to convince the San Franciscans that they live in the finest place on earth, a place quite considerably better than Los Angeles. Cassandra of the Daily Mirror in London, comments, rages, thunders and irritates his readers to such an extent that they cannot wait to be irritated again the next day.
Others, indeed most of us, try to find a blend of the two, some good stories, some comment, with maybe a name dropped here and there. The knack of balancing on that tightrope is to have plenty of friends, an army of people who want to tell you what is going on, every day of the year.
I came to column writing quite by chance. I was covering Lindsay Hassett's tour of England in 1952 when an invitation came from the Courier-Mail in Brisbane to write a front page column. Why I received the invitation was never clear. Presumably they thought that anyone who could write about a game as peculiar as cricket could also write a column. At that time I didn't realize the size of the task. My predecessor was Arthur Richards, a far better columnist than I could ever be, and adored by all Queensland. The first weeks were desperately difficult. I knew nobody, nobody called in, nobody telephoned.
The editor said sourly: 'The trouble with you, Dunstan, is that you don't carouse enough. You should spend the day carousing around the bars and you'd get plenty of stories.'
So, trying to look like Walter Winchell, I spent all day carousing from bar to bar. I heard a number of quite surprising stories but none of them suitable for the Courier-Mail, the family newspaper. I gained a stomach full of beer but no column.
It was then that I remembered the words of Malcolm Muggeridge. When he was editor of Punch he pointed out that the people who attempted to write humour were the saddest and most miserable of men. No laughter was ever heard in the Punch building. When first he went there he was startled by the sight of the framed photographs of all the former editors. They glared down, morose, unhappy, not a smile amongst the whole bearded bunch of them.
I asked Mr Muggeridge whether he put up a nice, smiling Muggeridge picture to launch the new era. 'Certainly not,' said he. Yes, all newspaper columnists are the same. They are a haunted crew. It is practically impossible for them to make conversation. They are always listening, picking over every word, hoping that they might hear something that might be useful to the column. They can't even walk down the street normally. They peer wide-eyed in all directions. Very bad cases watch their children, waiting for them to say something funny.
The major agony always comes just before going to press. There was a circuit of passages on the third floor of the Courier-Mail known as 'Dunstan's Walk'. Any night it was possible to see this character walking the circuit, head down, hands behind back, worrying for the last paragraph. It was better to do the circuit in an anti-clockwise direction, in keeping with the-water-going-down plugholes.
Yet after some weeks things began to improve. I found that I was living with something alive and people did want to share their experiences. It is extraordinary how few of the stories that one has written can be remembered a month later. But one or two stick in the memory. One of Brisbane's biggest shopping centres was 'the Valley'. There was an English baronet staying at Lennons, the hotel in Brisbane. He called room service.
'I say, how do I get on to the valet?'
'Easy, mate. You just hop onto a tram out there in Queen Street.' Then there was an intriguing story from Surfers Paradise.
A grazier from Cunnamulla was down for his holidays and he was having a fine old time. At a very late hour he took a taxi back to his beach house, paid off the driver and received 16/- change. While fumbling for his key he dropped the change on the door step. His co-ordination wasn't so good so he decided to leave it there until the morning. Lo, the next morning on his door step he found twenty-one bottles of milk.
I put this at the top of the column, but the editor was sceptical, he thought it was too good to be true. Finally he relented and it was published in the Courier Mail the next morning.
Several days later there was a call from Surfers Paradise. A slow voice said: 'Hello, I'm your Cunnamulla grazier.' There was a long pause and I waited for him to start his angry complaint. But no, bless him, he was happy.
'Look, do you want to know what I did with those twenty-one bottles of milk?'
'Yes, I do indeed.'
'I bought four bottles of rum and we downed the lot!'
At this time columns were very much in the fashion. They were partly a hangover from times of desperate shortage of newsprint and it was convenient to give information in short tightly written paragraphs. There was a theory, too, that a bright, entertaining column could somehow assist in circulation. There was barely a newspaper in the country that did not have a column and the Daily Telegraph in Sydney had four. The story went that they did not have another for fear it would be called the Fifth Column.
On New Year's Day 1958 I transferred to Melbourne to write the column 'A Place in the Sun' for the Sun News-Pictorial. This was a column with a distinguished history. It started on the first day of issue of the Sun News-Pictorial, 11 September 1922. It was a newspaper very advanced in format and its column was a good one, considerably better than it is now. Appropriately enough it started with a paragraph about the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes.
A shopkeeper out at Carlton had put a peanut in his window and labelled it 'Billy Hughes'. One of the members pointed this out to the Prime Minister and said: 'It is simply a marvellous resemblance to you, sir. None of the caricaturists has ever done you so well.'
'Are you quite sure it was a peanut?' growled Billy. 'I was in Carlton this afternoon.'
Writing a column for the Sun was no different to writing a column for the Courier-Mail. Always there was a big mail, sometimes kind, sometimes unkind. For example, one day there was a beautiful letter from a nun. She said how much she enjoyed the column and how it was read every day at the convent. Just possibly, this was the worst thing that could have happened. Now, every time I sat down at the typewriter I had a vision of this sweet nun and any paragraph that was even slightly racy I would re-write six times, wondering how it would fare with all the Sisters at the convent.
One letter of three pages criticized me for the wretched quality of my English, then finished: 'Dunstan, boy do you stink. I remain, yours sincerely .. .' Not many such letters are ever signed.
Readers are more apt to write when they are annoyed and the best mail always arrives when they are driven to fury. In November 1965 a BBC TV programme did a satirical piece on Australia read by actor Roy Dotrice. It said in part: 'You are a vast grey suburb masquerading as a continent. Oh wretched land. Your accent is coarse and your vocabulary obnoxious. In 200 years you have managed to enrich the language of Milton with only three words - Pommie, Bluey and Cobber. You have diminished womanhood, a race that includes Florence Nightingale, Edith Cavell and Helen of Troy to "a bunch of sheilas".'
'Your pound is worth only 15/8. Your wine is like something to be found in joke shops along with sponge rubber eclairs and squeaking buns. Oh, miserable Australia. Why do you drink yourselves stupid every night on cold beer? Is it because you have no past and no future? What does it feel like to have put limbo on the map?'
And so it went on. All this was published back here and it seemed a good idea to write a light-hearted reply.
'Over the past 100 years, England has been known here principally as a breeding ground for convicts and ABC radio announcers. Its principal exports for the past three years have been the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Screamin' Lord Sutch.
'The main culture comes from the North Country - the Beatles, Z Cars and Harold Wilson. It is a land famous for great sporting venues - Lord's, Wembley, Wimbledon and Scotland's St Andrew's - ideal for watching the triumphs of other countries.
'Its modern poetry has been produced by good-drinking Welshmen and the drama by Irishmen, often in a kitchen sink. The land that produced Florence Nightingale in the 19th century produced Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice Davies in the 20th. And they, enriched the language of Shakespeare with a new word, "Keeler-haul".
'Their three best songs are Greensleeves, Heart of Oak and God Save the Queen. The only worthwhile living English artist is Ronald Searle. It is a land of warm beer, mini-sized motor cars, appalling weather, loathsome plumbing, stony beaches, overtaxation, scrawny girls, kippers and fish and chips.'
At one stage it seemed that every English migrant had written back in anger. One gentleman, for my edification, wrote twenty pages listing all the achievements of Britain from Fred Perry's Wimbledon to the invention of radar. Others settled down to total abuse. There was one beauty, minutely and magnificently written in green ink on twelve feet of lavatory paper. After dealing with me, Australia, and our attitude to the British migrants he devoted several lavatory paper sections to the quality of 'A Place in the Sun.'
Then there was the gentleman who wrote the editor:
'Dear Sir, Today I wish to congratulate you and the Sun News-Pictorial. This morning Keith Dunstan produced a column and for once he did not mention drink. Yours . . .'
The editor passed on the letter with the message written across the top: YOU'RE SLIPPING.
The local columnist also is an excellent target for the crank, social misfit and psychopath. In Brisbane for six months I received letters three times weekly from the same man. He gave a name, but never an address. Let us say his name was Robinson. Every letter was abusive. Sometimes he threatened violence, even murder.
One night there was a telephone call, the time was about 9 p.m. The caller said there had been a smash by the Breakfast Creek Bridge and a man named Robinson had been badly hurt. Almost certainly he would be dead within half an hour. I went through the regular routine, called the ambulance and the police, but they all insisted that there had been no accident at the Breakfast Creek Bridge. It was all too obvious, Robinson hadn't been hurt. It was Robinson himself who called on the telephone. However, 'the accident' solved one little problem, I never heard from him again.
The columnist has to be careful of another thing, the fabricated story. Many people believe that it would be so easy to make up stories in times of trouble. When the audience is large the invented story always finds you out. Admittedly now and then the truth can be slightly nurtured. There was an occasion in Brisbane one winter when a butcher made a display of a sucking pig in his window. I persuaded the man to put sun glasses on all his sucking pigs and it made a stunning window display. Brisbanians love to be complimented on the magnificence of the Brisbane climate. One was able to write a column on the glory of the Brisbane winter sunshine: it was so intense even the sucking pigs had to wear sun glasses.
At the time of the U-crisis when Mr Khrushchev was ranting at his worst, it was possible to prime a story. A toy shop in Collins Street, Melbourne, had a display of globes. I asked the proprietor, Bruce Hearn, to put up a sign: LEARN GEOGRAPHY WHILE WE STILL HAVE SOME. He obliged.
At the time of the Victorian Liquor Royal Commission when Melbourne was taking a pasting for its six o'clock swill I talked a hotel in Wonthaggi into putting up a sign: HELP CUT OUT EXCESSIVE DRINKING IN MELBOURNE - DO YOUR DRINKING HERE. It made a paragraph.
But the big danger is the apocryphal story that goes with the speed of light around the globe and friends will call up, swearing that it is true.
There was the lovely story about the airline. People were prepared to give the name of airline, where and when it happened. Yet after hours and hours of checking it was obvious that it did not take place.
The friend would say: 'Here's a beauty. You've got to get on to this one. One of the fellers in our firm was on an airliner from Adelaide. The skipper wanted to talk to the air hostess in the galley. You know, they've got a direct intercom link. But, by mistake, he flicked the wrong switch and he was talking to the passengers.
'He said: "Love, I'm feeling fresh. Give me a kiss and bring up a plate of sandwiches."'
'Well, everybody heard. Then this hostess, see, she stormed up the aisle, her face as red as a traffic light. Then one of the passengers said: "Hey, love, you forgot the sandwiches."'
The Pill brought one of the best of apocryphal stories. You must have heard it. Mother returns home early one evening to find her teen-age daughter in bed with a boy friend. Her daughter explains coolly that there is no need for alarm, she has been taking the Pill. 'Where did you get the Pill?'
'Mother, I took the bottle out of your cupboard.' Mother checks the bottle in the cupboard and finds there are no Pills missing. It so happens that the little darling all the time has been replacing the Pilis with aspirins. The punchline of the story is, of course, that Mother then discovers that she is pregnant.
This story was typical. People were prepared to say that they knew friends who actually knew the mother and daughter. Yet always it was impossible to tie people down to names and places. It was one of those stories that went around the world. It turned up, with variations, in a column in London and in a column in San Francisco.
The caravan story came up regularly for years with all sorts of subtle differences and variations in locale. Like a good claret it improved year by year. Here's one version: A young married couple was driving to Brisbane by car and caravan. The gorgeous young thing decided to take a shower in the caravan while her husband drove. It was hot, you see. After the shower she was drying herself, which wasn't very easy considering the bumpy state of the road.
The car swung around a curve, the young thing fell against the door and she was thrown out on the road, a very reluctant nudist. The husband, not knowing what had happened, drove on. The poor girl still had her towel and she did her best to hide her delicious curves. The first person to take pity was a man on a motor bike. He put her on the pillion and they set out in pursuit of husband with caravan.
In twenty minutes or so they caught up. The fellow on the motor bike roared alongside to illustrate what had happened. You can imagine the effect this had on the husband. When he saw a strange man on a motor cycle speeding by with his naked wife on the pillion, he got such a shock he ran off the road and hit a telegraph pole.
Once again there were all sorts of near witnesses to that one. A sense of logic and an old-fashioned instinct enables one to guess that such stories are not quite right. People report them in all good faith. More dangerous is the very strange character who deliberately tries to mislead.
My colleague Bill Tipping who writes 'In Black and White' for the Herald received a call from a smooth, well-spoken gentleman. He explained pleasantly that he parked his car in the car park down by the Kings Bridge. Yesterday he looked in the back and to his astonishment there was a strange box. It opened up to contain £350 in notes. He could only presume this was stolen money. Some thieves had been about to steal his car when they were disturbed.
What sort of car was it?
A Rolls Royce. He gave the year and the model. The story was getting better and better. Naturally Bill wanted to know the man's name. He said he was reluctant to give it. He would rather not. 'You know the B.M.A. frown on personal publicity,' he said. But Bill being a good columnist pressed hard. After all, what harm would be done? This could hardly be put under the category of the doctor who was hunting for patients.
He gave in. His name was Watson and he had his rooms in Collins Street, Melbourne. He also gave his initials. Bill could hardly wait to get the story into the newspaper. Alas, there was no such doctor listed in the telephone book. No report of money being found in a Rolls Royce had been made to the police. The whole story was an invention. Yet the man had sounded so sincere, particularly when he said the only reason he was calling was because, if the money went unclaimed, he would like it to go to some charity.
Yet people do call with good stories. It is hard to define exactly what makes a good column paragraph. It should either astonish, raise a smile or create anger and, with a bit of luck, make someone come out with the line 'Did you read . . . ?' However, the best of paragraphs do have an 0. Henry ending.
I liked the story about Walter O'Donoghue, advertising director of Myers, who was on a trip to Germany. At Munich airport he noticed a little poker machine. He put in ten pfennig pieces, little coloured cylinders spun over and he did quite well. Then he spotted another slot machine designed for one mark pieces, so he decided to go for the big time. Immediately he hit the jackpot and a gush of pfennigs came out the chute. It was marvellous-ten marks ten jackpots.
He called over a German friend: 'Look, look- have a go.' The German told him quite tenderly: 'My friend, you are working on a change machine. You will find that you are exactly even.'
Then there was the man who telephoned. He was a salesman for seat covers and he had just been on a tour of the suburbs. He called at a used car lot, parked his car in the yard, then called on the manager to see whether he would like to buy some seat covers. The interview took less than ten minutes.
When he returned to his Holden in the yard he found that the mileage gauge had been turned back from 78,255 miles to 28,255 miles.
Some of the nicest stories have come from the courts, like this one. Mr Justice Barry to wife:
'Where is your husband?' 'Peking.' 'Do you mean Peking, China?' 'No, Peking grapes in Mildura.'
They come even from the Supreme Court. Mr W. Kaye, barrister, was questioning a horse trainer. 'Isn't it a fact that champion racehorses often have half brothers that are a complete failure?' 'Good heavens, yes. Look at Nellie Melba's brother. He couldn't even whistle.'
From Mr Justice Barber's court this arrived: A husband who was appearing in a divorce suit sent his wife a congratulatory telegram and it came forward as an exhibit. The telegram read:
Roses are red, Violets are blue, You've got rid of me, And I've got rid of you.
Stories with a gentle simplicity about them are good. There was the man who telephoned from Mildura, and he was shocked. He brought a little kid from Melbourne for a holiday, and the boy had his first sight of a windmill. He looked it over and said: 'What's that, a revolving T.V. aerial?'
News stories nearly always produce column paragraphs. In October 1961 a train hit a circus elephant at Strathmore station with somewhat dire results for the elephant. There was a great hold up at the railway gates and some of the motorists became more savage than circus lions
There was the lady who called over one of the station's guards: 'What's going on?' she said. There was a straight answer: 'A train's run over an elephant.'
Angrily she wound up her window muttering that the city was full of impertinent people.
Occasionally a story comes in that has all the basic material for a good story, like this one which is very similar to a tale by de Maupassant.
It happened in North Balwyn, Victoria, in May, 1959; a lady smashed one of two antique vases. She was never over fond of them, but her husband gave them to her as a wedding present and she had to put on a suitable display of grief. But there was no point in keeping just one, so she took it down the road to the second-hand store and the dealer gave her £1 for it.
Well, her husband was on his way home that night and imagine his excitement when he spotted in a shop window a vase just like the one that had been broken. The price tag was a very reasonable £5, which all went to prove that there is money to be made in the second-hand business.
Other stories could have been created just for the TV comedian, like this one. It was faithfully reported by the P.M.G. A New Australian went into the Geelong Post Office and said: Pliz may I have ze fishin' licence ?' Quite properly they referred him to the police station. However, ten minutes later the police called back: 'He didn't want a fishin' licence, he wanted a telefishin' licence.'
The columnist is apt to get the blame, personally, for anything that happens on a newspaper. Every day the Courier-Mail used to put a serial number on its masthead. Vol 490, No 7900, or whatever it was. A gentleman telephoned and asked coldly were we aware that this morning we had 7900 when the previous morning the number was 7799. What had happened to the 100 newspapers which should have intervened?
The matter was taken up with people of ascending importance right through to the Editor-in-Chief. Then there was the survey through the building. 'Did you notice that our serial number was wrong this morning ?' Nobody had noticed. That was the last day the Courier Mail ever ran a serial number on its masthead. What was the point of putting it there anyway if it was noticed only by one remarkably sensitive reader out at Indooroopilly.
If they find coins in the garden, old brooches, documents, anything, they send them in to the columnist. One day a man found a stuffed Corgi at the Flinders Street Railway Station, and without hesitating he brought it to the Sun for us to solve the problem. Why anyone would want a stuffed Corgi is not easy to understand.
For at least three weeks this stuffed Corgi was in the office, looking at us reproachfully.
Eventually we discovered that it belonged to a man ...all right, we'll call him Robinson again, and he lived at Hawthorn. It was decided that not a second would be wasted in getting rid of that Corgi. It would be delivered at once to Mr Robinson by taxi.
It just so happened that another Mr Robinson was in a fury with the Sun and it was necessary to make amends with him. You have guessed what happened.The Corgi went to the wrong Mr Robinson. It seemed to settle matters. We never heard from either gentleman again.
Readers are also fascinated by comic strips. Strip artists are only human, frequently they make mistakes. One day Dagwood might blossom out with six fingers or Uncle Dick in the Potts might have a striped suit in one panel, then miraculously a plain suit in the next. Unquestionably there's a great thrill of discovery in noting an error like that and the newspaper has to be told at once, which means another twenty letters on the columnist's desk. The poor columnist can't do anything about it, beyond answering their letters and thanking them for the information.
The incident which caused the greatest flow of letters was the case of Juliet Jones and Johnny Edge. If you don't follow the comic strips then you will not know about Juliet Jones. Let me explain. There is a daily strip called 'The Heart of Juliet Jones'. Julie and her little sister are constantly having romances with good-looking men which never come to fruition. Julie never marries; she always spurns the man in the last reel, so to speak. I have heard suggestions, even, that Julie really is a man in disguise.
The year must have been 1955 or 1956. Johnny Edge, a young engineer, came to Devon to build a bridge. He fell in love with Julie, they kissed several times, and it was absolutely proper that they should be married at once. Old hands who knew the ways of comic strips understood that there was only one way out of this plight.
Yet inexorably it went on. The wedding was arranged, Julie bought her wedding dress and she was actually waiting at the altar when there was an accident at the Devon bridge. We saw this fearful explosion with Johnny at the middle of it. Comic strip artists are sadists at heart. For a week we did not know whether Johnny Edge was alive or dead.
Then the telephone calls and the telegrams began to pour in. A typical telegram came from Gympie: HIRE SPECIALIST-SPARE NO EXPENSE TO SAVE JOHNNY EDGE. Others were more simple and to the point: IS JOHNNY EDGE STILL ALIVE, MACKAY.
People who understand the methods of syndication services were more crafty. They knew that somewhere in the Courier-Mail there would be episodes of the Juliet Jones strip for at least the next three weeks, so they tried other methods. One caller offered the switch girls £5 if they would tell what would happen over the next few days. I'm proud to say that the switch girls never wavered. They revealed nothing.
Finally it was all too obvious that Mr Edge was gone, irretrievably dead. It was then that those dreadful 'In Memoriam' cards began to come in. For some reason it was assumed that I was a sort of nearest relative to Miss Jones and I received twenty of these cards. One person sent a box of flowers, worth at least 25/- for the Johnny Edge funeral. I reported all these things in the column, and many a reader thought I made them up as part of a stunt to promote the strip. But they were all true.
Yet perhaps the most charming compliment came from the engineers. At the time Queensland Government engineers were building the Little Nerang Dam for a £2·5 million water scheme. There was a small survey point overlooking Springbrook Gorge. This they named in memory of another fine engineer, 'Johnny Edge's Lookout'.
There are little things that one learns by experience. In 1959 I wrote that a shop in Exhibition Street, Melbourne, was offering 25/- for 1930 pennies. Next day there were 300 telephone calls, the next day another 300 and it went on and on with people asking intelligent questions like: 'I haven't a 1930 penny, but I have a 1930 halfpenny. Is that worth 12/6?' I pleaded that I was not a coin dealer but the calls and letters continued at the rate of half a dozen a week until the time when the price took off and rose to £100. Then there was another avalanche of calls.
Yet the intriguing point is this. From all the thousands of calls over six years I never met anyone who owned a penny that was worth more than a penny. The only winner was the P.M.G.
Another time the column mentioned, without giving the name, a pie firm that was using radio controlled vans. It was quite a remarkable development. Every van had two way radio and there were twenty-three vans. If, say, there was a dire pie emergency at Mordialloc, a tuck shop cleaned right out, they could re-direct a van instantly to the spot.
Next morning on my desk I found a crate which contained seventy-two cold pies with a note of gratitude from the owner of the pie firm. This was a moment of awful embarrassment. What does one do with seventy-two cold pies at 9. 30 on a Tuesday morning? I tried to give them away all around the office, but nobody would take them. In the end the office cafeteria took them over. It is not often that one gets a chance to shout pies for everyone in the bar.
Frequently the column would evoke the most extraordinary response. There was a story about the visiting Dean of the School for Santa Clauses, Charles Howard, from Christmas Park, Albion, New York. He arrived at Essendon, an utterly impeccable Santa Claus wearing a beard of pure yak hair, worth £60. Naturally one had to write a story about Mr Howard and his beard.
Next day a parcel arrived in the mail with the note: 'I was most interested to read this morning of the Santa Claus with the beard of genuine yak hair. For some years now I have had in my possession some yak hair. I'm sure you would be interested to have some too.' So from that day I have possessed a small cache of yak hair. No use has been found for it yet, but who knows, one day it might come in handy.
Columnists never win. No matter what they point out, readers always can go one better. Even on the most humble of matters like the size of an orange; should the columnist write an orange has been grown at Mildura the size of a football, a reader will come up with an orange that will barely fit in a wheelbarrow.
One time the column conducted a campaign against the antique flavour of country hotels and another angle was the newspaper used to line wardrobe drawers, frequently they had gone unchanged for ten or twenty years. So a competition was started, who could find the oldest newspaper at the bottom of a hotel drawer? Queensland hotels were particularly rewarding for this. We learned of the Battle of Britain from hotel drawers, the burning of the Reichstag from a hotel drawer and the record came from a gentleman who found in the bottom of a wardrobe a newspaper dated 1928. He was thrilled to learn that there had been a demonstration of the first talking picture in New York City.
Newspaper under kitchen linoleum was another thing. People went crazy pulling up kitchen lino just to get at those newspapers. The record was a copy of the Melbourne Argus for 17 November 1894. The young Archie Maclaren had made 220 not out at the M.C.G. in the match against Victoria. A lovely innings it was 'nothing could be better than his hard skimming hits along the turf'. He batted for 5 3⁄4 hours and he hit twenty-two fours.
Again competitive readers began to talk of their unopened bottles. We had bottles of beer that had remained unopened for thirty years, but the records were set by a gentleman who had kept a bottle of champagne unopened since 1910 and a maiden lady who possessed a 1912 bottle of perfume. There was something terribly tragic about a man who had nothing to celebrate in more than fifty years, and as for the spinster ... perhaps had she opened that bottle all would have been different.
The public relations men call, sometimes with the most unbelievable stunts. There was the P.R. man from the theatre group who brought in a girl in a disturbingly brief gold lame bikini to promote the latest Biblical film. How this girl was precisely associated with a Biblical story I don't remember, but can you imagine the sensation in the office foyer, the wide open eyes in the lift, the indrawn gasps of breath in the corridor, then every head in the large reporters' room slowly turning round ...and concentrating. She came to me. You'd be surprised how difficult it is to make conversation with a shivering girl in a disturbing bikini at 9.30 a.m.
Yet all columnists have the fear that the day will surely come when no ideas will come forth, when nothing will eventuate and one will be left with a dreaded white space in the morning. For the last column on the Courier-Mail I even wrote in a white space in the hope of exorcising that fear, but it is still there.
There is a certain crash-boat routine to be taken at times of extreme emergency. One can send messages on the teleprinter to correspondents in other cities or even make long distance telephone calls. Then I have friends scattered around the country who usually can be relied upon for a good story. I send them a two word telegram 'MAYDAY 4 p.m.' Mayday is the old Air Force code signal that you are about to abandon aircraft, and 4 p.m. is the time I make the disaster stations' long distance telephone call.
Also, as mentioned earlier, there's the despicable practice of columnists watching their children, waiting for them to do something amusing. I used to write about Steamboat, our eldest child. We called him Steamboat because of the noise he made and his powerful method of perambulation. He was enormously handy on a difficult day.
For example, one could get a paragraph 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 of air and holds a vast store of water. Some even have an auxiliary tank attached to the waist. The skilful operator can obtain fifty to one hundred and fifty shots at one filling, depending on storage capacity.
'Steamboat, though, has a marvellous refinement. He fills his Luger with soft drink and when nobody is looking he puts the barrel in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Pure joy. This, very likely, is the greatest invention since the flask on the hip.'
Unfortunately Steamboat paragraphs became increasingly difficult. He grew up.