I can thank Bert Connell for teaching me to play lawn bowls in 1979.
I am not sure if this was before or after the time he sent me on a botched mission to fetch his pipe from home.
The reason I can’t remember this is I’ve killed a lot a brain cells with alcohol since then and it’s quite possible the rot started the day he taught me to play bowls.
But no way can I forget Mr Connell. I doubt anyone who worked at The Examiner around that time could.
He was my first news editor.
You’ve heard of Clark Kent, the mild-mannered reporter who turns into the man of steel when he ducks into a phone box to put on a cape? Well, Bert’s daily ritual was to get to the office every weekday at 2.59, take his waistcoat off the coat stand, put it on, and proceed to rule the office with an iron fist and a caustic tongue.
Woe betide me if when he sat down there weren’t piles of neatly torn telex paper on his desk.
From October 25, 1978 to late 1979, I was the copyboy at the newspaper. In those pre-computer days, stories arrived in the office on a bank of three or four telex machines. By the time I started work at 2.30pm. each rattling machine was spewing reams of paper over the floor and it was my job to cut them up and divide them into national, world, sport and stories from our regional offices in Hobart, Devonport and Burnie.
Our Burnie office was operated by a junior reporter named Tony Eastley, who went on to make a name for himself as a foreign correspondent and AM anchorman on ABC radio. He had a prodigious output. In hindsight, I think he used the Burnie Council as a training ground for later covering wars and Middle East peace talks. Mr Connell called him Beastley Eastley, which was a lot nicer than the things he called some ‘lame-brain-sons-of-bitches.’
According to office folklore, he once threw a typewriter at a poor reporter. I’m not sure that really happened. It may be he started the rumour to give the office the atmosphere of some kind of a torture chamber, and if any of the young cadets or copy boys or girls put a foot out of line we’d know what punishment awaited.
All of us had come through a school system that had its share of men who took pleasure in whacking naughty kids with the cane, so he was something of a stepping stone into the big, wide world. He didn’t have a cane but he did have a whopping great em ruler.
He certainly never hit us with it but it was a pretty scary prop when he came up behind you while you were practising your typing.
“Use all those fingers, son.”
“Yes, Mr Connell.”
That’s what we called him. Mr Connell. (We had other names for him behind his back).
In turn, he assigned nicknames to most of the young cadets, who all sat within typewriter-throwing distance of his desk: “IB1, IB2, IB3 (which stood for Idiot Boy 1 etc). Different time, different culture, different rules about what was politically correct.
I guess I was lucky.
Most the time he called me son.
“Run both ways, son.”
“Go find a bromide in the library, son.”
“Go back and have another look, idiot boy. I know it’s there.”
The worse thing was if you came back from the airline offices or Tas Coaches empty handed. In those days, photos from regional offices were couriered by the buses, and photos from the mainland came in by commercial flights.
If Mr Connell was expecting something and you didn’t come back with it, he’d send you right back.
At this stage, you faced a choice: was it better to argue with the stubbled, burly bus driver who’d growl at you: “I’ve already fucking told you I’ve got nothing for you.” Or did you dare be monstered again by Mr Connell?
Often enough, Mr Connell was right. That lame-brain-son-of-a-bitch driver had overlooked a packet.
I learnt a number of things from him that helped me build the foundations of my career. Respect, perserverance, time-management, attention to detail, touch typing and the basics of journalism from a very hard but skilled and dedicated newsman.
I’m happy to say I taught him two things too.
- Never send an IB who’s just got his licence and has probably never been in a car before to your home in Summerhill to fetch the pipe you’ve forgotten. I remember kangaroo-hopping the staff car up the hill, then flooding the engine when I tried to come back. A furious Mr Connell had to get a lift up there to rescue me, and his demeanour became no sweeter when the car started first try for him.
- I was never going to become a star lawn bowler. In 1979 the Australian law bowls championships came to Launceston. Mr Connell was a keen bowler himself (he had no time for women who played; he labelled them harridans) and he decided he was the best-placed person on the newspaper to report on them. But he knew there’d be heaps of results to compile from rinks all over the city, so he needed a young assistant to run both ways. I’m not sure if he actually tapped me on the shoulder with his em ruler one day, but metaphorically that’s what happened. Did he really expect an 18-year-old to share his excitement? For lawn bowls? “But Mr Connell, I know nothing about the rules of bowls,” I said. “It’s OK, son, I’ll teach you.” So he took me up to Trevallyn Bowls Club one afternoon. It only took him ONE end of me kangaroo-hopping my bowls down the green to realise I was never going to cut it. That’s when he suggested we adjourn to the bar for hops of a different kind.