Donald Knowler celebrates more than half a century in the newspaper business. He started work as a messenger boy in Fleet Street in September 1963 before writing his first words six months later on the newspaper that gave him his start in journalism, the Woking News and Mail, in Surrey. He usually looks back, and forward, through his alter ego, Don Bentley, but in two articles first published on the Tasmanian Times website lamented the demise of the office pub.
The death in the family came so suddenly I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I was racked by guilt and regret. I should have paid more attention in the final days.
The warning signs, the draining of life, had been there for some time, since the staff of the Mercury in Hobart forsook its art deco building on Macquarie Street for a shining chrome and glass headquarters in the more upmarket Salamanca Square.
The death certificate for Montgomery’s, the pub over the road which had been the journalists’ and printers’ watering hole for more 150 years, had been signed at that moment just over a year previously although no one at the time realised it.
Pubs aren’t supposed to die – at worst they are turned into poker-machine venues or pole-dancing joints – but here I was standing on the corner of Macquarie and Argyle Streets looking at a “closed” sign in a brutal black typeface pinned to the front door.
I, like current and former Mercury employees, had deserted Montgomery’s when the newspaper moved office. I had been back only once in more than a year, after seeing a retired Mercury sub-editor pushing open the pub’s main door one afternoon. Although he lived over the river on the Eastern Shore, he still regarded Montgomery’s as his local, and home.
Six months on from sinking pints of cold Cascade Pale Ale with my former colleague in the corner of the bar the sub-editors always called their own (the reporters took up station at the other end of the bar a little earlier in the evening), I stood on the corner outside Montgomery’s on a late summer’s afternoon feeling a very serious thirst coming on. But the locked door and the sign that journalists and printers of old would say was in 60 point, Century Bold barred my way.
I looked through the window and saw that the Montgomery’s I knew of old, knew for 12 years, was still very much intact. The high stools for the island tables in the main bar were awaiting patrons to plonk down on them, spilling beer from 10 ounce, schooners or pint glasses in the process. The taps with beer labels of Cascade draught, pale and light were waiting to be pulled. The television above the bar was primed to show the Friday night footy at the flick of a switch. The old, historic beer bottles, and cans, still lined the shelves above the windows, along with a battered typewriter that was the only indication that this was the journalists’ domain.
Everything was in place for a night of fun and craic, followed on a Friday and Saturday night by revelry and fights.
All it needed was people. It was the Marie Celeste and instead of sea-salt air, the joint still carried the smell of stale tobacco still drifting from the curtains and stale beer from its carpets.
I strained to see a collage of photographs of former patrons on the wall. Yes, Guy “Parsnips” Parsons was still there, a wicked smile on his lips from no doubt playing a “jape” on one of his colleagues (probably me) earlier in the evening, and there was Mike “the Duck” Power who seemed to spend his whole non-working life in Montgomery’s.
Both Parsnips and the Duck have moved on to the great newsroom in the sky but they lived on in Montgomery’s, in the Duck’s case a model of a yacht above his favourite spot in the bar, placed there at his wake in recognition of his love of the pub, yachts and the sea.
“If those walls could talk” might be a cliché but it seemed appropriate all the same when I looked through the window of Montgomery’s a week after it closed earlier this year, a pane of glass still embossed with a Tasmanian tiger symbol of the Cascade brewery from yesteryear, in a style that vanished with the Victorian era.
Words of anger and rage from reporters when a story had been cut, or left out, or a reporter’s name had been spelled incorrectly in a byline. Laughter from sub-editors at a spelling mistake or misprint – “cunt” for “cut” springs to mind in a sports story caption – and plots to outwit management during newspaper strikes. And words of poetry, love and lust from a journalist who left newspapers for the world of the web.
I came late to the Mercury, and all its stories, but for me the end of Montgomery’s is placed in a wider context. Standing on the steps of the now closed pub, I suddenly realised that it was a few weeks short of the 50th anniversary of my discovering journalism, and discovering the institution that was the journalists’ watering hole.
I emptied my first pay packet – six English pounds I think – on the bar of the Red House, in Woking in the English country of Surrey, and went on for fifty years to spend much hard-earned cash in such establishments on four continents.
I won’t list the continents, or the pubs, but I have no regrets. I loved every minute of it and I have a million stories to tell.
Not all stories from journalists’ watering holes are funny or happy ones, though. Journalists, my parents warned me when I entered the profession all those years ago, had the lowest life expectancy of any workers, and the highest divorce rate. And over the next 50 years I knew too many journalists who either ended up divorced, alcoholic, or penniless, or a combination of all three. There were many who ended up in an early grave but, I might add, I never knew of a suicide. The fraternity of the journalists’ pub would never allow that.
The watering hole was at the centre of a rather special community for all the years newspapers were put to bed before the age of computers. It had to end, of course, and the closed doors of Montgomery’s are symbolic of what we in the trade might describe as an end of an era in which the old ways of producing newspapers, indeed news content, have changed. Along with the age-old traditions, the watering holes have also vanished. Some had official names reflecting the printing trade, like the Printer’s Devil pub I once frequented in London’s Fleet Street; others unofficial ones, “the branch office” or “the stab in the back”.
Alcohol and producing newspapers were indelibly linked, they were symbiotic.
Now the link has been broken. It is not modern social norms that frown on cigarettes and alcohol in the workplace, or near to it, that is responsible. Modern technology is also to blame. The computer is very unforgiving of alcohol either imbibed or spilt on its keyboard, unlike the typewriters of old that demanded to be greased with beer and cigarette ash. And armed with smartphones, reporters do not have to go to pubs for their gossip, and stories.
Stories from the pub involving the journalists themselves, though, will live on as long as there are journalists to tell them.
Standing on the corner outside Montgomery’s I remembered one about myself.
Feeling that thirst coming on late one afternoon I decided to sneak out of the Mercury building for a “quick one” before my official break after the first edition went to press.
Waiting for the traffic lights to change, on the other side of Argyle Street from Montgomery’s, I suddenly saw the editor of the time emerging from the pub’s entrance, with rage written on his face.
He had been in dispute with a member of staff, who had stormed out of the newsroom a short time previously, to take refuge in the pub. The editor had gone to threaten him with the sack if he did not return to work.
Slamming the pub door behind him, the editor’s eyes settled on me across the street. I was obviously heading for the ale house.
With quick thinking that even surprised me, I put my hand in my pocket and retrieved a 20c coin, which I then placed in a parking meter close by.
“Just feeding the meter” I said to the editor, as the lights changed and he walked by.