THE ping-pong ball bounced across the table tennis table, bouncing once on the floor and then sailing through an open window. It could be heard pinging in the cobbled alleyway below, two floors down. “Bugger,’’ said the player serving, gazing at the open window. “Bruce,’’ he shouted sharply.
A copy messenger came running into the room from the newsroom of the Chronicle beyond. “Fucking ball’s gone out the window again. Go and get it,’’ said the server. Without saying a word, the copy runner went to the window and leaned out. “I can see it,’’ he said excitedly, “but the wind’s blowing it towards the road.’’
“Well be bloody quick then,’’ said the player who had been serving.
The table tennis table occupied a prime position in the centre of a room that had once been the newspaper’s library. The electronic revolution that had swept through newspaper offices in the later part of the 20th century had not only made old-style printing processes using hot metal for type redundant, the tradition of cutting newspaper clippings to be referenced and filed in vermilion envelopes had also been consigned to history. The room that had once been the library was an extensive one, as big as the history of the Chronicle that stretched back more than 170 years, a little less than the birth of the state ofVan Diemen’s Land itself. Along with the table tennis set-up, the room contained a small table with wooden chairs on which meals could be eaten and four giant leather armchairs, scarred and creased like the skin of an ageing surfer who had spent a lifetime in the sun. The room was a long rectangle. Along the wall separating it from the newsroom ran a kitchen unit with sink, refrigerator and microwave oven. The facing wall had a notice board and soft-drink and fast-food dispenser. The shorter wall overlooking the alleyway was dominated by a window edged in brick that had wooden window frames dating from the building’s construction in 1880.
The room by nature was dark and dingy, as was apparent during the rare occasions when its fluorescent light was switched off; a red-brick office block —the rear of the city’s post office — denyed this side of the Chronicle building any sunlight. Librarians, it seems, in times gone by had been relegated to the dark corners of the Chronicle, perhaps indicating their lesser station and status in the bright and breezy world of newspaper journalism. Evidence of the librarian’s hand in what had once been the labour-intensive, time-consuming occupation of cutting and pasting thousands of newspaper clippings each night and day lie in the white-washed shelves strung across the fourth wall. Brass label holders still clung to each row of shelves, like shipwrecked sailors submerged in a sea of streaky whitewash, shouting out “farming”, ”crime”, and ”religion’’ in an SOS from the past.
The messroom that had once been the library was the territory of the Chronicle’s reporters by day, but it saw little use because the reporters were out and about and if they needed refreshment and rest there was a canteen downstairs, with plush suede armchairs and hot food straight from the oven instead of the microwave. And who would play table tennis during or at the end of the day, when there were homes or pubs to go to and thoughts of the office would be switched off as promptly as the log-off button on the computer? The room that was once the library came alive during the early evening and into the night, when its fluorescent light took hold. It was then that the night-shift sub-editors made it their domain, during their meal break in their seven-hour shift that finished at around midnight, if they chose not to go the pub.
The old hacks — as they called themselves — and some of the younger ones who gathered in the former library at night would be faintly amused that their journalistic endeavours, or the life that went with journalism, had come to this: a game of table tennis in the night when once they would have been down at the pub, discussing the night’s headlines and how they could be improved, over pints of Cascade pale ale or Boag’s draft. The demise of the newspaper pub culture was lamented each evening when the hacks chose to play ping-pong, and not go to the pub. It was the biggest change to overcome the newspaper industry, since the invention of the printing press, they would say, although it wasn’t, of course.
Journalists calling time on drinking was not entirely blamed on the advent of electronic editing, in which the keyboard and what it recorded was so unforgiving of drunks. The keyboard of an Imperial, or Royal or Olivette manual typewriter had been unforgiving, too, but there was no danger of the output of these going directly into the newspaper. The pubs where the journalists at the Chronicle had drank over the years had also changed. Mahoney’s over the road from the Chronicle building was now a karaoke joint four nights a week, in that part of the week, towards the end, when the thirst became greatest for the hacks. How many times had the hacks tried to make themselves heard, to discuss the headlines and issues of the night, over the voice of someone singing “My Way”? The hacks for the latter part of the week had forsaken Mahoney’s for the Hope and Anchor a little way down the road, but the Hope required a walk when hacks of all generations, on all newspapers in all parts of the world were newspapers are printed and relished by readers, had never been known to walk more than 100 metres for a drink.
So the table tennis had come to the fore between the hours of eight and nine when the journalists took their break. The drinking of alcohol was generally frowned on in the office but management turned a blind eye to a few cans of lager stashed in the back of the office fridge, wrapped in brown paper, to be sipped between table tennis games. The management of the Chronicle were forgiving of many things, a hankering for the old ways among them. Journalists were allowed to talk about truth, of the sacred covenant between journalist and reader that recognised the public’s right to know. They were allowed to demand that their story ran as they wrote it, even if the journalists didn’t always get their own way. They were allowed to defend their stories from the assault of politicians and bureaucrats and, worse, advertisers. Journalists were allowed to talk of the advertising department in disparaging terms, to answer the age-old litany from advertising reps that “It’s the advertising that pays your wages’’ with “It’s the news that sells the advertising’’.
Just as some people viewed the newspaper industry as outmoded, in the context of television and the news carried on the internet and even mobile phones, the Chronicle could be viewed as an anachronism within an anachronism. The past half-century had seen newspaper closures to the point that many towns and cities only had one publication when in past years there might have been three or four. In this climate it was remarkable that the Chronicle survived against a bigger, more prosperous competitor, the Star, that could offer more generous advertising rates.
The Chronicle remained a family-owned newspaper, the last in a major centre of population in Australia, whereas its rival was part of a bigger stable of state capital newspapers. Was it merely too eccentric to be considered a threat to its bigger rival, and the rivals in the other cities ofTasmaniawhich were also tied to larger groups. It had somehow slipped under the radar. The Chronicle still retained a broadsheet format when the trend in recent years inEngland, where the template for Australian newspapers had always been set, was for newspapers to be of tabloid size. The Chronicle, unlike its rivals, was also sparing of colour, in this case not so much a reflection of its owners’ eccentricity but the limitations of its ageing rotary press. The newspaper could manage 10 colour pages in an 80-page run, and that, said the owners, was enough.
This is the world that Don Bentley had entered one December day six years previously. Bentley had washed up on the shores of Tasmania, and indeed the Chronicle, and he now was pleased that the tides of fate had carried him toHobart, although there had been some resistance initially to taking up residence inTasmania. The journalists at the Chronicle, those with ambition who wanted to move on, still asked him what he was doing there when bigger, more important newspapers beckoned on the mainland. Bentley had worked in the legendary Fleet Street inLondon when to have done so meant something, when newspapers had a status far greater than today. Bentley had worked on the Daily Mirror as a young man, when he too was ambitious, and then had packed his bags for adventures overseas, drifting to South Africa and working there. Although he had been brought up in the world of tabloid journalism, years working on a liberal South African newspaper had given him a taste for broadsheet, serious journalism and he had never been able to return to the popular press when he had returned to Britain.
It followed then, that when he had come to Australia, he would seek out the remaining broadsheet newspapers in the big cities for employment but found jobs on these difficult to secure. The newspapers had a glut of experienced journalists, many of these slowly being retrenched as papers across the country tried to trim staff levels to maintain profits. To his shock, Bentley discovered there was no demand for an ageing hack who had seen it all, and believed he still had something to give. The situation would have been so different a few years previously, he kept being told at interviews, when Australia craved British journalists for all their experience and input, but now Australia had more than enough journalists of its own, especially those returning from working for Australian proprietors overseas, and bringing back all their experience with them, like souvenirs packed in their bags.
Bentley’s Australian connection, and the reason he arrived on Australian shores in his 50th year, was easy to explain. During a spell working as a news scriptwriter at the BBC World Service, while waiting for a newspaper job to come up after his spell inAfrica, Bentley had met a Tasmanian. They had married and had a son and Bentley’s wife had one day remarked casually, amid a rail strike and rain and fog, that, compared with Australia, London was no place to bring up a child.
Bentley at the time was unhappy in his journalist work for the first time in his career. He had joined the newly-formed Independent newspaper as a sub-editor with a promise of a reporter’s job and this had not materialised. He had been marginalised, in turn, in pursuit of a key job as one of the foreign news editors, and felt for the first time his career was not going anywhere. Why notAustralia, he asked himself, for one last adventure? If he knew how difficult finding employment was he would never have come, but things had finally worked out after a painful period in which he had returned toBritainto get casual work and some money coming in, leaving his family inAustralia. During this time he had been offered a sub-editor’s position on a small newspaper in Queensland and he flew fromBritainto take it up. When the Chronicle had advertised for a sub-editor two years later he was a shoe-in for the job, because he had previously met the editor when he was looking for work and been placed on a waiting list.
Hobart was the first city in which Bentley had spent the night on arrival on Australian soil. His mother-in-law put him and the family up and he still carried with him those first impressions. From childhood, exploring the woods of his native Surrey, Bentley had loved the outdoors and the vistas and scenery of Hobart lifted his spirits after London, the flight out and a quick change of aircraft at Melbourne for the connection to Tasmania. Mount Wellington really did hang over the city, as his mother-in-law said it did. On that first day it was not flecked with snow, as she often described it in her letters, but had a thin veil of white cloud that billowed over its craggy sides like a tablecloth on a rough-hewn wooden table. Were those Bentley’s words, or had he read them in a travel guide, he couldn’t be sure but they summed up the mountain and he would always describe the mountain as such.
Crossing the Tasman Bridge from his mother-in-law’s home on Hobart’s eastern shore on that first day, Bentley liked what he saw when he reached the city. He still had his sights on the big city, of Melbourneand even better Sydney, but he thought at the time that if he was ready to opt out totally from mainstream journalism, Hobart would be the place to come. That was before even seeing a copy of the Chronicle, and delving into its style of journalism of old. The city and its simple, relaxed way of life reminded him of the Surrey of his youth, the part of Surrey that had not been gripped by the tentacles of London’s urban sprawl and London’s influence: the part of Surrey that still had fields, and villages, and a country accent, a drawl, that had no trace of London’s Cockney urgency. People from the Australian mainland joked about setting the clocks back 20 years on arrival at Hobart airport, but many Tasmanians took a silent pride in the fact that Tasmania had not tried to keep pace with the rest of Australia.
That first day, Bentley gazed from the window of a Metro bus to see a Greek restaurant called Zorba’s, a gym called Tarzan and Jane’s and a hairdressing establishment named Making Waves. There was a builder’s van that passed with the name Maverick and that of a house decorator’s called Streak and Son. What innocence, what charm, Bentley whispered to himself, with a smile.
Bentley had started in journalism in a country town, that of Guildford in Surrey, in the 1960s. In those far-off days before motorways, the traffic moved along the high street in such small volume as not to be a threat to pedestrians. The quaint Victorian station hummed with trains departing and arriving from six or seven directions, and at the end of the platforms was an engine shed with a turntable and hissing stream engines waiting for their next call of duty. The cafeteria in the station served a milk shake and a slice of apple and blackberry pie whose flavour his mother’s finest cooking could not approximate. At the office of the Surrey Advertiser, the young reporters retired mid morning, if they were not covering the local court or a meeting of one of the council’s committees, to the restaurant of the Co-op store which was less of a restaurant than a tea room. There waitresses in long black dresses with starched white pinnies served toasted teacakes and milky coffee.
Bentley, although 40 years and 12,000 miles away from the memories of his days as a trainee reporter, thought of these things this day. Hobart reminded him of that long-lost Surrey and growing up in the Tasmanian capital in the 1950s and 1960s would not have been so very different to his early life in Surrey. The tea cakes would have had that same flavour of fruit just picked from the vines, an engine whistle would have sounded from the distance where the locomotive was being turned on the turntable in the engine sheds at the station mouth. Crows would have cried from the skies as they crossed the city and at the end of the working day there would have been pints of ale in homely pubs with log fires and barmen talking about the weather. Bentley would say to himself he was lucky to have found Hobart, and he now had no ambition to go to the “big smoke’’ as Melbourne and Sydney were termed, as the major cities are termed in every country. He was in Hobart to stay and he hoped the Chronicle would remain as it was for a few more years, at least until he retired.
Bentley loved the Chronicle, and he loved the people who worked there. He described his emotions for the place as such to his wife, who would say: “How can you use the word ‘’Love’’ to describe a building of red-brick and cement, and hacks who spend the night with their eyes glued to a screen?’’ and Bentley would say the word “Love’’ was appropriate, and they would both laugh.
The Chronicle building dominated one of the two main streets that not so much dissected Hobartbut brought life to its centre, like oxygen-fuelled blood coursing through twin arteries. Local residents might complain about traffic congestion and the need for a bypass to skirt central Hobart but it was the through traffic that had an appeal for Don Bentley. The nature of this passing traffic confirmed that, despite its state capital status, Hobart was a country town after all. The smell of cattle and sheep as a farm truck sped by, spreading straw and dusty dung across the streets; it was the same smell of Guildfordon a Thursday, cattle market day. The log trucks constantly passing the Chronicle building on their way to the chipping and sawmills spoke of the forest industry’s vital position in the Tasmanian economy and the procession of old cars well past a life-span that would apply on the mainland, some of them even dating to the 1960s, told the visitors to Hobart that this was Australia’s least prosperous state.
The Chronicle building threw out arms of welcome for Bentley when he first saw it from the window of a bus traveling down Davey St. Although the Chronicle building dated from the mid-1880s, in the 1930s an art deco facade had been plastered to its front. The Surrey Advertiser building in Guildford had the same 1930s appearance, only the Advertiser building was layered with a polished sandstone and not the white plaster of the Chronicle.
At the height of his career, Bentley would have cringed at the thought that one day he would end up in not only a backwater but also be employed as a sub-editor when all his life he had wanted to write. But life as a sub-editor on the Chronicle was not so bad after all. As he sat at his desk at night, the silence in the sub-editors’ corner of the newsroom broken only by the hourly chiming of the town clock and the tapping of keyboard keys, Don Bentley was reminded of an account of the sub-editor’s life by a favourite novelist, Graham Greene. The author, who had once worked as a sub-editor on The Times of London in the 1930s, had spoken warmly of the secure, cosy, tranquil world ofPrinting House Squarein which the only intrusion was the swish of fountain pen on paper and the gentle sound of ash plopping into the ash pan under office coal fires.
The evening work on the Chronicle gave Bentley time to do the things he loved most during the day, walk the Hobart hills and beaches and indulge in a lifelong passion for birdwatching. In summer he could also watch cricket — sport was another passion — at Hobart’s Bellerive Oval, and winter afternoons could be spent in his extensive garden in a Hobart suburb that led to the lower slopes of Mount Wellington, pruning and planting a collection of native shrubs that Bentley had planted over the years, mainly to attract birds and other native wildlife.
Don Bentley’s nights were spent editing the copy and writing the headlines for news that was the colourful tapestry of a day in the life of Hobart. Much of it was local, from the courts and the Hobart council chamber, but Tasmanian news from other regions of the state was also given coverage, as were the proceedings of state parliament. The Chronicle maintained a careful balance between Tasmanian and national and world news, as it did a balance of what was pop and serious. The Chronicle lent towards the ultra-serious because the rival newspaper in town, the Star, was formulated along tabloid lines, something it did with flair and professionalism that forced The Chronicle to the top of the market.
The Chronicle could not have survived in any other Australian city. Not only was its broadsheet format outmoded, its style of presenting news saw stories run to considerable length and they were not cut excessively to fit a certain space, as with the tabloid press. The nature of the Chronicle’s format and style of reporting perhaps said something about the people ofHobart. Reader research for both the Chronicle and the Star had shown thatHobart’s population was the best educated in the country, a fact reflected in the broad coverage of the Hobart Star, which often resembled a tabloid in name only. Also in the Chronicle’s favour was the fact that the owners were a sixth-generation Tasmanian family, the Davidsons, who were committed to not onlyTasmaniabut their newspaper. Other newspapers might have been extinguished in the rush to rationalise and merge in the late 1950s and early 1960s but the Chronicle had survived because of the determination of the family to maintain its ownership and the family’s status inHobart, which the newspaper enhanced.
There were fears among the Chronicle staff, however, that all this might change when the older members of the family died and the young breed looked again at the bottom line. The Chronicle had survived not only because of the commitment of its owners, but the fact it paid its way. Gone were the days that the newspaper could have been sold for a vast profit, its title to be merged with its younger and more aggressive rival, the Chronicle readership worth something. Now media companies looked to buy whole groups of newspapers to merge with their own, not individual papers in far-flung places, or to invest in the new media, especially the internet.
Although the Chronicle newspaper in itself was not an asset to be purchased and exploited, the same could not be said for its extensive works, or more to the point the inner-city land the works occupied. The works spread over about a quarter of a city-centre block, running back from the newspaper’s frontage on the main Davey St. The works comprised of a collection of red-brick and timber buildings linked by dingy, cramped corridors. All these buildings housed the 170-year history of the Chronicle itself, as the archive in the basement contained the history ofHobartin bound volumes and yellow envelopes holding cuttings.
As if to acknowledge what had been, two linotype machines built in the 1950s had been placed by the Chronicle’s owners in a large window that shed light on the works from the street outside. Little boys would pause at the window, the younger ones tugging at the hands of impatient mothers who were eager to move on. The boys would study these strange beasts, wide-eyed and believing they might have come from a spaceship, or some kind of parallel world in which the past fuses with the present. The black-iron contraptions were a tangle of spoked wheels and cogs, with a seat facing an ungainly keyboard, with chunky individual keys.
Often at night, tired of table tennis, or telling journalist stories from one of the great armchairs in the messroom, too lazy to walk to the pub, Don Bentley would walk the corridors and passages of the old works, following the tram tracks embedded in the rough concrete floors along which lead was once ferried on trollies to be used in the hot-metal printing process. Down in the dingy building, Bentley considered himself a kind of archaeologist looking for evidence of what had been. As he walked, his keen eyes would pick out a hook once used for hanging galley proofs, or a wooden printer’s tray that once held type. Hidden away, and covered in years of dust, dirt and grime he would spot a metal flat form, like a vice, that once held entire pages made of thousands of lines of lead, and their picture blocks, from which an impression was taken to make the cylinders to fit onto the press.
The giant rotary press was still there, of course. Each night it rumbled and roared into action at about midnight for the first edition of the Chronicle. Its rumble could be heard from the newsroom, and when it started up Don Bentley would get butterflies in his stomach. Some evenings when his shift had finished he would linger if the press had not started running. He would catch up with sections of the previous day’s paper he had not had time to read, or make small talk, until that distant rumble started vibrating through the building, and Bentley knew that all was secure and well in the world of newspapers as another edition, warm and smelling of fresh newsprint and ink, was about to hit the streets.
About once a month, sometimes more, Bentley would go to the press and take one of the newspapers from the early print run, although it was always badly printed, impregnated with oil and ink and unreadable until the presses had reached the sufficient speed for the print to register. It was limp and warm in his hands, like a newborn baby. He never took a newspaper home, preferring to read the one that was delivered in the morning, which had theHobart news and not items from the southern Tasmanian country districts which he and his wife would not be interested in. The newspaper delivered was the one hisHobart neighbours would get, hopefully free of imperfections and early spelling and factual mistakes spotted and corrected between runs.
Don Bentley was a perfectionist when it came to words, as printers had been with their craft. He was not one for exaggeration to sell a story, and hard facts and truth were not commodities to be consigned to the scrap heap like printer’s lead. A well produced, factual newspaper was the journalist’s banner, his flag, his shield against propaganda and those who wanted to hijack the truth.
What a newspaper is and should be was something Don Bentley often thought about, more so in recent years, and something he thought about most when he tramped the print factory at night, following those rail tracks on his archeological dig without trowel and spade. A newspaper, even in the electronic age, could still be vital and relevant and people who said the newspaper industry’s days were numbered might not be right after all.
An impression of printing history and tradition had been left in the works, like an inky handprint on a wall, and Don Bentley knew it would all vanish eventually whatever the future of the Chronicle because this space was just not productive any more, in the way that many in Tasmania said an old-growth rainforest was not productive, it had to turn a dollar. A vacant space whose only currency was history had no place in the forward-looking timeframe of the economic rationalist. For the meantime, Bentley would wallow in it, and remember newsrooms and print works of old, and all their smells and sounds.
The corridors of the Chronicle’s works still held the smell of lead, the red-brick walls soaking it up for more than a century and now slowly releasing it into the atmosphere for those who knew its soft, sweet odour. It mixed with another odour, the smell of ink from the presses, a sharper smell that arrested the senses and made them sit up. It was not a metal or chemical smell, more like tannin on a leather pelt waiting to be made into shoes or a coat, a natural smell but unusual all the same. Don Bentley would take a deep breath when he ventured into the works. The smells were still there but gone was the heat that rose from the linotype machines that forged the lines of type for the newspaper print.
The Chronicle would once have employed hundreds of printers, electronic editing making all of these redundant, along with the proof readers who corrected any mistakes the linotype operators might have made in their setting of the type. Down in the works was the changing room and lavatories of the printers which gave a clue to just how labour intensive the industry had been. Five lines of lockers and wooden benches stretched a good 10 metres to showers and lavatories. Now only a handful were in use by the rotary press operators. Bentley on his travels would use the printers’ lavatory at the back of the changing rooms. The pictures of footy teams had been torn down long ago, stripped ready for a repainting of white-wash that never came. On the top of a row of lockers was an old Blunstone boot, steel capped.
What remained of the canteen, now closed at night, also gave a clue to a lost empire of activity, like an ancient biblical city revealed in a dig. The cavernous canteen, called the First Edition, was tucked away between the works and the front of the building that contained the advertising offices and the newsroom. The gothic windows edged with red-brick that fronted onto the alleyway running down the side of the building betrayed the canteen’s Victorian provenance, something modern suede couches and a rack for glossy magazines could not disguise. An ancient tea urn, pushing a coffee-bean grinder into a lesser space, also gave a hint of what had been.
All newspaper works and their canteens had been like this once, from the Cape to Cairo, from Tierra del Fuego to New York, from Perth to Sydney. Don Bentley in his travels as a foreign correspondent had seen a few that had survived to the end of the 20th century and he wondered if they were still there in forgotten corners of an electronic world. Down in South Africa in the 1970s he had seen linotype machines in Grahamstown, walking in Camden Town, London, in the 1990s he had heard the clanking and thudding of such a contraption, printing a Greek Cypriot community newspaper, and wasn’t that a linotype machine he had seen in the north Queensland country town of Charters Towers just a few years previously, where the doors of a newspaper works had been flung open because of the heat?
The printing process in the days of hot metal had been a complex one and it was understood by everyone in the newspaper industry that it would have to pass into history eventually. It involved reporters writing their copy on pads of paper made from the ends of newspaper reels, that were passed to sub-editors for correcting and rewriting. The sub-editors also marked the type size and face for the printers and these stories were then set by the linotype operators, their machines producing rows of type in column width. These in turn were passed to the compositors who assembled type and matching headlines, picture captions and column rules into lead pages, on metal tables called “the stone’’ from the days when the benches had been made of polished granite. These metal pages, squeezed into the form, were then sent to the works proper to have the impression taken for the moulding of the half-cylindrical plates, representing a page, to be fixed to the press.
What news had rolled from the presses over 170 years? The building of empire, the building of state, of nation, the human conflicts that everyone said would be the end of conflict, the discovery of space, advances in medicine. It was all there in the Chronicle’s archives, electronic or otherwise, as was social, economic and environmental changes that had occurred inTasmaniafrom the time of the founding ofVan Diemen’s Land. It was the Chronicle that had reported the death of the last Tasmanian tiger inHobart’s Beaumaris Zoo, probably the last in existence, in the 1930s, the collapse of the whaling industry, the great bush fires that had spread down from the hills and claimed a human toll. The Chronicle had reported the coming of the industrial age to Hobart with zinc smelters and factories rising from marsh and bush, of the great apple industry in the Huon Valley that for years supplied the British market in the northern winter until its collapse after Britain joined the European common market, the dawn of tourism that put Tasmania on backpacker’s maps.
In recent years the news in the Chronicle had been dominated by environmental issues, disproportionately Bentley thought, although he himself took a great interest in the lakes and beaches and marshes and forests that were home to his beloved birds. In the latter part of the 20th century the news inTasmaniahad been dominated by dams, the conflict between those who wanted to build them and those fighting to save valleys and rivers that would be lost to what the proponents called progress. Now it was forestry, the conversion of native public forest to plantation and plans for a pulp mill soTasmaniacould process this raw material itself instead of exporting woodchips, for only a cheap return, overseas. Bentley tired of the forest debate and wished sometimes it would just fade away and free the news pages and the letters page for other issues. Certainly, forestry was never discussed among the sub-editors of the Chronicle as they sat around the table tennis table at night, or quaffed ale at the Hope and Anchor. Bentley presumed most of the sub-editors were opposed to what appeared to him a relentless destruction of old-growth forests, but none ever said.
The discussion in the mess room late at night was not so much about the subject of the news, more how it was being presented in the newspaper. “Good splash,’’ the sub-editors would say of the front-page lead story, without commenting on the story itself. Or, “Great head on the toddler story’‘, without a clue to who the toddler might be or how they came to be subject of the human interest story that ran along the bottom of page three. If the sub-editors were not discussing the presentation of the night’s news, it was of stories of old, or the characters that were a vital part of that mosaic of black and white print and pictures, of spot red and blue, and the long abandoned space called the fudge where stop-press late items of news had been printed. Don Bentley would think of these things, watching the table tennis ball bounce back and forth on the table in the old library. Once, after too many beers before starting his shift, it occurred to him that a ping-pong ball was not unlike a newspaper – tough and resilient and vibrant but easily crushed all the same.
The crew who gathered around the table tennis table and later at the pub were representative of the “hacks’’ Bentley had known all his working life. There was Colin Clerk the union representative and the amateur lawyer. There was Thomas Butler who had once trained for the Anglican clergy and had run a Christian youth magazine inBritain for 16 years. Journalism of old had always attracted men of God, even if they were defrocked priests or curates, not so much disillusioned with God’s work but the restrictions religious institutions placed on having fun.
Every newsroom of old also had its former teachers, and again the Chronicle was no different. There was David Harding, who studied English literature as part of his Bachelor of Arts degree, and then Victorian poetry at post-graduate level. He spent the hours when he was not engaged in sub-editing, reading the novels and poetry of Thomas Hardy. Why did journalism always attract teachers, especially to sub-editing, Bentley would ask himself? Was it something about the three Rs and being good at English; was sub-editing not so very different from marking essays? And what made journalists try the teaching profession. Don Bentley knew of at least one or two on every newspapers he had ever worked on who had gone into teaching. And they always came back.
The newsrooms of old, Don Bentley would note, had an ethnic quality, ethnic in the sense there were always people from theBritish Isles. At one time, when Bentley entered the newspaper profession, it had been possible to stick a pin in a map of the world, and find an English-language newspaper where they had a job for, if not a reporter, a sub-editor. In his early career Don Bentley had known sub-editors packing their bags with enthusiasm for far-flung places: The Cleveland Plain Dealer and Philadelphia Inquirer in the United States, the East African Standard in Nairobi, the Bulawayo Chronicle in Rhodesia, a newspaper in Papua New Guinea whose name he could never remember and an English-language newspaper in Buenos Aires in Argentina. The slow death of newspapers, and restrictions on immigration, ended that. In Australia, though, it was still possible to find English recruits, as Don Bentley had been even though this was growing rarer.
Don Bentley had once known a Scottish journalist in Rhodesia who spoke with pride of the great Scottish Diaspora and what it had meant for the industrial world. Coming from the ship-building port of Glasgow, the Scot had pointed out one drunken night there was not a ship in the world that did not have a Scottish engineer hidden somewhere in its bowels. Don Bentley had thought at the time it also applied to journalism. Every newspaper had its Scot, and here on the Chronicle was Alex McGregor, round and rotund and always wearing a Glasgow Rangers tie. Alex, like most of the sub-editors, was one for the table tennis table, not so much because he liked ping-pong, but he enjoyed the stories from past and present, gossip and observations about other newspapers that bounced about like the ping-pong ball itself.
If Don Bentley had any regrets about his career in journalism it was that he had not concentrated on quality journalism earlier, and he had spent too much time in the popular press. When Bentley had started out in journalism in the mid-1960s, the gulf between quality and popular journalism was far greater. Most journalists of his generation – who had learned the craft from the bottom rung and had not gone to university – had been heavily influenced by mass circulation newspapers and would have probably felt a little out of their depth working on broadsheet newspapers that placed legal affairs and politics above stories about film stars. Certainly Don Bentley would have felt that at the time.
It has to be said, Don Bentley would often argue, that what constituted the popular press of the 1950s and 1960s was nothing like the tone and content of the mass circulation newspapers in the latter part of the century and into the 21st. As a young man Don Bentley would joke that Britain’s only tabloid newspaper, the Mirror (one that he once joined for the high salary it paid) would not so much give you the news, but shout it at you. Now all popular newspapers in England and Australia had adopted the tabloid format and the tabloid style of journalism where actual facts had a lesser voice that the presentation of the news. How often had Bentley been required to write a story when he worked on the Mirror around a catchy headline instead of the other way, as he had been trained to do.
Quality newspapers had actually moved away from their staid presentation of news and had embraced the modern influences that television brought to everyday lives — or at least acknowledged it — and Bentley liked what they had become, including the Chronicle. Unfortunately, these surviving broadsheets were few and far between.
Along with his regret about not spending more time in quality newspapers, Bentley also regretted not paying more attention to journalism itself, and its role in society. It seemed to Bentley, on the nights he would sit in one of the big armchairs in the messroom and look back at his journalistic life, he had spent an unequal time enjoying the life of journalism, and all its hard-drinking characters, than being totally serious about the craft itself. There was a lot to be uneasy about in his career, not so much misrepresenting people and facts, but inattention to detail and unprofessional mistakes in copy, or missed deadlines, sometimes because of drink.
Don Bentley always called journalism his craft, or even his trade, and he felt uncomfortable when it was described as a profession, largely because he had left school at 16 to be a copy runner and had not furthered his education, beyond a certificate in journalism obtained by taking a day-release course during his newspaper training. He had been indentured to the Surrey Advertiser group for three years, so he was right in describing his training as an apprenticeship in the great trade of journalism. All the same he wished he had gone to university, even as a mature student, to possibly study English literature, not for the letters after his name, but the books it would have demanded that he read, books he had always meant to get around to reading, and had never done so.
These were private thoughts, however. Publicly, from his armchair or at the bar in the pub, Bentley would argue time and again that journalists were not meant to be academics, or literary geniuses who churned out novels and biographies. The writers who plied their trade on newspapers were wordsmiths, especially the sub-editors, and Bentley was proud of the image that that word conjured up. Bentley had honed his skills during a long and sometimes painful process under the eye of a succession of news editors and chief sub-editors, beating out his words on the anvil of life. It was the news and not necessarily the words that were his raw material. He dealt in facts and not thoughts. His words were merely there to be beaten and banged and shaped into the headlines of the day. Sometimes they were squeezed and stretched, sometimes shrunk, even bent but never twisted. He now brought to his work the perfectionist of the printer, and by doing so Bentley considered he was keeping the twin traditions of printing and journalism alive.
The sub-editors waited impatiently for the copy messenger to return with the ball. “Where the fuck is he?’’ said the journalist who had been serving, Alex the Scot, growing still more impatient with the realisation it was Saturday night and it would not be until Monday that they could buy a new set of balls. The Scot went to the door to see the copy messenger dashing towards him across the floor of the newsroom, weaving between the sub-editors’ desks and that of the sports editor as he went. “Got the ball, but … ” the messenger shouted, panting heavily to catch his breath and force out the words. “But a log truck ran over it,’’ he said and held up the ball, which was crushed and beyond repair.