The first nine years of my life as a journalist were all spent in small-town journalism. Thinking about that, I looked up the populations of the first four towns I worked in --- in three different countries ---- and with one exception, I was surprised at how small they were. When I was growing up in New Zealand it was a country of less than two million people --- not even half as many people as now live in and around Montreal, where I now live. I grew up in a nation of small towns.
Anyway, I have always thought it was an immense advantage to have started off in small towns. In my home town of Invercargill, on the south coast of the South Island of New Zealand, we were only 23,000 people, yet we supported two daily newspapers, and had done so for many decades. I worked for both of them. I spent six months in the better established, more respectable morning paper, slotting into the profession --- if it can be called a profession --- at the lowest rung, as a copyholder in the reading room. It was our job to read the copy on which the proofs were based, and correct any mistakes that might have been made in the galleys of type. It was a good way to get to know what went into a newspaper, but after three or four months it had taught me all there was to know, and in my sixth month I decided to quit and join the opposition paper.
Here I really reaped the advantage of starting in small-town journalism. Without any ado, they threw me into work as a reporter, writing whatever turned up, covering meetings, courts, interviewing travellers, covering local events, and writing features. Almost every Saturday I would write some long, full-page piece that I had dreamed up. For example, I discovered that, through my family’s Scottish clan I might have been descended from Robert the Bruce, the famous highland warrior --- so I wrote a page about him. I remember writing a page about a man called --- what was it? Sir James Hector, the country’s first geologist ---- who had done the geological mapping of the New Zealand landscape.
Then, because I had an obsessive interest in sport, they let me write a weekly column on sports, under some fanciful pseudonym --- I think I chose Cyprian, though I have no idea why, or what it meant, except that it was different from the monikers of the other sports writers. I turned out to be pretty good at the job, quick and curious, two essential qualities for a reporter, and I enjoyed every day of my work life on this newspaper. I loved my workmates, too, a group of fellows of rich personality, more than a little eccentric, guys who had just been gathered off the street, as it were, some of them well educated, almost all of them well-read, and without a single pretension from among them that might be considered above their station. My boss, the City Editor, F.W.G. Miller, was an especial prize: a middle-aged man, a tall, plump, shapeless, ungainly figure of a man, who had retreated with his family during the depression to the site of the long-abandoned gold rushes in the interior, where he lived in a cave and panned for gold that might have been left over in the rush. He made enough to see his family through the worst years.
When I came under his authority, Fred would stand sort of helplessly before the large assignment book --- he was never a born leader of men --- in which all work for the coming days and weeks was entered, always looking flummoxed as to what should be his next move, trying to make decisions that did not come easily to him. As a sideline, he wrote a piece of amusing doggerel verse that appeared in a front page ad for a local baker, every day a new verse, and this was probably the thing most people read first because it appeared in both newspapers.
To teach me how to go about an interview, he took me one day with him when he was interviewing Clark McConnachie, a famous billiards professional who was visiting the town. They chatted away for a while, and on our way back to the office he said, “You might have noticed I didn’t take any notes. I thought it might make him seize up. But I had my notebook in my pants pocket, and I was surreptitiously writing notes in it while I was talking to him.” I never had occasion to use this peculiar method of reporting, but I never forgot it.
In two and a half years they promoted me through the seven years of training laid down in the union contract, and when I said I was leaving to take a job in Dunedin, our big brother city to the immediate north of us, they offered me more money to stay. I took that as a kind of proof that bosses could never be trusted: they knew I was worth more, but weren’t paying it to me.
I was hired in Dunedin because of my expertize in sports. My job as a reporter had brought an end to my active participation: at the age of 18 I had won a New Zealand half-mile title, which prompted my coach to mutter that I could go to the Olympic Games. I regarded that as foolishness of the most despicable kind: I knew I wasn’t anything like good enough, even if I were ready to put in the intense work demanded, which I wasn’t. So I quit it all, and for a couple of years, in the pleasant little university city of 65,000 people, I wrote mostly about the local sports. During those years I got married, became interested in seeing the world, and announced that I would be leaving for Australia. They offered me more money to stay: didn't I know the type? They knew I was worth more, and weren’t paying me it.
We went to a small city in northern Queensland called Mackay, with a population of about 13,000, between Rockhampton and Townsville. We arrived in Sydney just as immense floods had inundated enough of New South Wales and southern Queensland to make overland travel impossible, so I took my first plane ride ever, and was quite dismayed when the door opened in Mackay, to be hit with a wall of intense heat such as I had never experienced. Temporarily we took a room at the Mackay hotel, which turned out to be one of the smelliest, poorly kept places I have ever lived in. We tramped the streets looking desperately for some place that would take us in, and we met some rich, apparently slightly unhinged characters, such as a guy who kept telling us he had made liars of six doctors. He was not ready to lease us his house, however, and eventually we were offered a bed on a balcony, temporarily, of course, by a widow. My only memory of that place is that when I went to the toilet I found a huge toad sitting on the seat, one of the tens of thousands, I later learned, that had proliferated all over Queensland.
Fortunately, after a few days we were able to rent a small ground floor apartment with a rather strange woman, who one of our friends classified as a nymphomaniac, a word I had never heard before.
Our apartment had a concrete floor. All food cupboards stood on legs at the base of which was some poisonous stuff designed to keep the bugs at bay. If, during the night, we got up to go to the toilet it was almost impossible to avoid standing of the cockroaches that were always busy. Disposing of these squashed cockroaches was not a problem, because by the time we rose in the morning the corpse had been dealt with by a long, disciplined line of the tiny Argentinian ants that were common in the region. Our main impression of Mackay was that it was full of creepy-crawlies. We had a quarrel one day, Shirley went flouncing off into the town, but she returned within minutes, driven back by the sound of things crawling around in the long grasses. Probably some sort of snake. We learned that the snakes could climb into your rafters, or settle over your door to drop on you when you opened it. People came regularly from Sydney to capture the taipan, probably the world’s most poisonous snake, and they were regularly bitten while trying wrestle them into a bag. And once bitten by a taipan….goodnight!
I really didn’t take to the owner of the newspaper. He was the son of the owner of the Brisbane paper that was also the proprietor of the Daily Mercury. He had been raised in big-city Brisbane journalism, and I think he found my small-town attitudes insufficiently direct, or what I would have called sensational. One of my major jobs was to phone each weekend the various sugar-cane crushing mills, to get their figures for the week: the phone system was primitive, and kept cutting out, until I vowed if I never had to use another telephone it would be too soon.
Inland from Mackay were a number of small towns, hardly worthy of the name, just places carved out of the remarkably ugly landscape, which was covered by nondescript trees, and huge pillars built by ants.
Some of my fellow reporters, like me, were not intending to be long-term employees. One in particular provided us with endless speculation: he was an Englishman, married to a young woman who had worked on one of the popular tabloids in Fleet Street. She seemed to have her head screwed on, but her husband was a pathological liar, who entertained us with extravagant tales of his past adventures, especially during the war, when he was, successively, an RAF fighter pilot, a captain of a Coastguard cutter, a soldier in the Royal Marines --- stories in which he showed no sign that he was aware he was constantly contradicting his previous stories.
We left after six months to go to India, by way of travelling around the periphery of Australia, down to Melbourne, then across the Nullabor desert through the mining towns of Kalgoorlie and Coolgardie, to Perth, and so on to the ship for India.
Oddly enough, years later when I was working in Winnipeg, our friend the pathological liar turned up with his wife, unchanged, still telling his tall tales, but by now with a definite edge of instability about him. Our final news of him was that he was found dead in a roadside motel.