The dank editorial offices of the Bulletin in Sydney’s lower George Street in the 1950s were a daunting place for a raw teenager from the remote south-western Sydney suburb of Revesby. I found myself there in response to an advertisement for a copyholder to the proofreader, and landed the job.
Overawed at first by the Dickensian ambience of the offices, I enjoyed a lift in spirits when introduced to the associate editor, Cecil Mann. A grey-haired, balding, bespectacled man in his sixties, seated at a massive oak desk, he looked up from subediting with a steel nib dipped in red ink and exclaimed, ‘A likely-looking colt.’ A friend at court, I sensed, confirmed on learning that Mann’s father had raced horses in the NSW Northern Rivers region. My father had a small plastering business and trained and drove trotters.
The Bulletin, proud creation of J.F. Archibald in 1880, had evolved from a powerful political and literary journal that promoted the careers of writers of the stature of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, C.J. Dennis, Joseph Furphy, John Shaw Neilson, Ethel Turner, Barbara Baynton, Vance and Nettie Palmer and artists of the calibre of Norman Lindsay and Will Dyson. Owned since 1927 by the Priors, a Catholic family from Mosman, the old pink-covered paper had become a very right-wing publication that nevertheless continued its strong literary content. The Bulletin at that time had a sister publication, the Women’s Mirror, and the proofreaders of the two journals sat on opposite sides of a partition in a cramped room halfway along the editorial floor.
Keith Ross, who corrected the proofs for the Bulletin, was fortyish, pedantic, hen-pecked, from the western suburb of Ryde, with an encyclopaedic knowledge and a high-pitched, nasal voice. The Women’s Mirror reader, Graham Phillips, was urbane, witty, cultured, highly strung and homosexual. His partner was Gordon Watson, a concert pianist from the Watson’s Ink family. There could be no more contrasting couple than Ross and Phillips, but their banter across the partition was always friendly and invariably witty. They kept Phillips’ copyholder Adrian Wintle and me entertained.
Phillips would regularly chide Ross for his stinginess, his taste in food, his reading matter, his musical preferences and, most of all, his attire, best described as pre-war drab. Phillips was a flamboyant dresser, verging on the theatrical. Members of the editorial staff would pay visits to the readers room to check proofs and consult the massive Funk & Wagnall dictionary, which occupied pride of place on a bench near the doorway.
These were highlights of the day as we savoured bons mots from the luminaries. They included Douglas Stewart, Ronald McCuaig, Charlie Shaw, James Macdonnell, Jim Blair, John Fountain, Phil Dorter, Malcolm Ellis, Pauline Littlejohn, Stan Keogh and Bill Fitzhenry.
I had not worked long as a copyholder when, after having had a few editorial items accepted, I was offered a cadetship, the second in the history of the paper. The only previous cadet was Phil Dorter, who had come across from Western Australia on winning a short-story competition. Dorter was still a member of the staff at the time, editing the ‘Man on the Land’ page.
My promotion earned me an office of my own with an old-fashioned roll-top desk, along with an entitlement to join the roster for the morning-tea ritual. This involved boiling an enormous antique kettle, preparing a brew capable of standing up to critical scrutiny and summoning staff members who would stand around a makeshift table covered with a sheet of newsprint to pontificate on affairs of the day. The setting was austere, the debate robust and colourful.
David Adams, the Bulletin’s editor, was a solemn but kindly man whose main interests were finance and politics. Cecil Mann, assistant editor and chief subeditor, was an accomplished short-story writer who had edited the Red Page before handing it over to Douglas Stewart. The Red Page, the inside front cover of the paper, was regarded as the holy of holies of the literary section. Stewart almost had apoplexy on discovering on his return from leave that Ron McCuaig had published one of my poems in this hallowed province.
Cec Mann was my hero. Born at Cudgen on the Tweed River, he left school early and had done all kinds of bush work before enlisting at 18 in the AIF in August 1914. Attached to the Light Horse, he sailed with the first contingent and was wounded on Gallipoli, a second time at Lone Pine and again at Passchendaele, where he won the Military Medal. A special limited edition of three of his short stories signed by the author is one of my treasured possessions. I also have copies of his Light in the Valley and The River and Other Stories, the latter signed in characteristic red ink, ‘For my Bulletin colleague Ray Alexander’. Mann lived with his wife ‘Duggie’ at Neutral Bay. They bred bulldogs and cultivated orchids.
Douglas Stewart was a major contributor to the development of the literature of Australia and New Zealand, where he was born. Highly versatile and prolific, he wrote poetry, plays, short stories, biographies and criticism. His best-known works include Sonnets to the Unknown Soldier (1941), The Fire on the Snow (1944), Australian Bush Ballads (with Nancy Keesing, 1955) and The Seven Rivers (1966).
A short, stooped, slightly built man, Stewart was a heavy smoker who held his cigarettes off to the side in his left hand, in an effete manner. He spoke quietly, often emphasising his deliberate choice of words with a wry smile. Stewart was married to the artist Margaret Coen, and they maintained close friendships with several contemporary artists and literati, including Norman Lindsay, Kenneth Slessor, Nancy Keesing, David Campbell and Rosemary Dobson, all regular visitors to Stewart’s office.
By contrast to Stewart, short-story editor Ronald McCuaig was tall and stout and walked with a swinging leg action. He had a grating voice and a raucous laugh. Each week McCuaig wrote a humorous, topical verse under the pen-name Swilliam and laughed uproariously every time he hit on a witty line. A poet, journalist, literary critic, humourist and children’s author, McCuaig was described by Geoffrey Dutton as Australia’s first modern poet and by Kenneth Slessor as being in the front rank of Australia’s poets.
Stewart and McCuaig were part of bohemian Sydney, of which I gained a glimpse when invited to some of McCuaig’s parties in his Elizabeth Bay flat. I remember one night witnessing the host, in his cups, loudly enquiring where he could lay his hands on ‘dirty French postcards and Mickey Spillane’, both being considered risqué at the time. The American crime novelist’s thrillers, featuring the sexy, sadistic, misogynist deeds of hero Mike Hammer, would hardly raise a hair today.
Charlie Shaw was a jockey-like figure with short, curly grey hair. He pounded away all day on what looked like the original typewriter. Born in South Melbourne, the son of a Tasmanian horse trainer, Shaw had several stories published in the Bulletin and was eventually employed by the magazine as a rural editor. He published collections of short stories on the outback and detective novels under the nom-de-plume Bant Singer. His claim to fame was his novel Heaven Knows Mr Allison, published in 1952, about a US marine and a nun stranded on a Japanese-held Pacific island. It was made into a film starring Robert Mitcham and Deborah Kerr and was released in 1957, two years after Shaw’s death of cerebral haemorrhage.
James Macdonnell was a tall, debonair former naval gunnery officer who became Australia’s leading novelist of navy books. He wrote an average of 12 books a year and spent very little time in the Bulletin office, where he worked from 1948 until 1956. As editor of the ‘Personal’ page, he would sometimes invite me to accompany him to interviews, which he conducted wearing Savile Row suits, expensive silk ties and gold cuff-links.
Maintaining my interest in horses, I went to Melbourne in November 1955 to watch New Zealand champion Rising Fast go under to Toparoa in the Melbourne Cup. Sheila McDermott, the office secretary-cum-telephonist-cum receptionist, possible believing I needed to broaden my horizons with an introduction to Chloe, organised accommodation for me at Young and Jackson’s hotel. Jim Macdonnell on the other hand arranged for me to play aviator in a Qantas simulator, compliments of his brother, who was a pilot.
Malcolm Ellis was a distinguished historical biographer whose works included John Macarthur, Lachlan Macquarie: His Life, Adventures and Times and Francis Greenway: His Life and Times. His role at the Bulletin was political correspondent and editorial writer, which he performed with ardent imperial patriotism and staunch anti-communist zeal, using the nom-de-plume Ek Dum. He was the most taciturn of the editorial staff.
Jim Blair began his career as an accountant with the Adelaide Steamship Company, but on having short stories published in the Bulletin, was invited in 1934 to join the staff. He began by editing the ‘Smoke-Oh’ section, then took over as editor of the Women’s Weekly from 1936 to 1942. In this capacity he introduced a popular US comic strip, ‘The Phantom’, to Australia. Blair at one time was political and current affairs editor. Something of a polymath, he was prominent in the National Radio Quiz (1948–49) and won Bob Dyer’s Winner Take All in 1959. His publications include the humorous novel No Train on Tuesday. On leaving the Bulletin, Blair became research officer for the NSW Public Service Board.
John Fountain was a gentle giant who spoke with a lisp and wrote with a delightful turn of phrase. He wrote the introduction to the limited edition of three stories by Cecil Mann and did so with pronounced admiration for the man being honoured. Fountain and Phil Dorter were close friends and tremendous contributors to the various pages of the grand old pink paper. Dorter later became public relations officer of the NSW Water Board.
Pauline Littlejohn was the only female on the editorial staff at a time when women were expected to confine themselves to fashion and female affairs. Littlejohn was a delightful, intelligent woman capable of contributing much more. Stan Keogh, who wrote under the pen-name Bo, was the paper’s film critic. He was a short, quick-striding man who would walk round the office with his hands in his pockets, whistling.
The pixie-like figure of Bill Fitzhenry would appear around corner at the most unexpected times with answers to the most unlikely problems. Fitzhenry acted as librarian and general factotum and carried the history of the paper in his head. He would tell me how he would slip Henry Lawson a small advance on his next short story for drinking money.
John Brennan edited the Women’s Weekly with the assistance of two female staff members. Filling in for Brennan became one of my duties, and this would occur rather frequently as Brennan was adept at finding excuses to visit Claude Fahey’s next-door Bridge hotel. I enjoyed subediting the contributions of country women for sections such as ‘Mere Male’ and ‘Between Ourselves’. I would also edit the ‘Sporting Notions’ page, which featured regular racing contributions from crusty old Rosebery clocker Algy Gray. Gray’s copy was not quite Damon Runyon or Ring Lardner, but he had a great strike rate with his tips for major events.
My assignments were varied, from sailing through the Heads covering the commissioning of the HMAS Voyager to interviewing the Harbour Bridge’s Cat Lady, who cared for a colony of moggies in the south pylon, to writing drama and film reviews. The Daring-class destroyer Voyager, the first all-welded ship built in Australia, was cut in half in a collision with the aircraft carrier HMAS Melbourne off Jervis Bay in 1964. During my time at the Bulletin I served my compulsory three months national service at Holsworthy as a sapper in the Survey Corps and a two-week CMF camp at Narellan in the Intelligence Corps.
It was a privilege to have been able to mingle with such fascinating literary characters in an interesting era in a part of Sydney that I still find fascinating. There was always interest in lunchtime excursions to The Rocks or Circular Quay, or to Berkelouws bookstore or Peapes menswear, or the Green Parrot restaurant with Adrian Wintle for a meal and a bottle of hock.
Yet one could sense the decline of the old pink paper, and it was obvious that Archibald’s prophecy that his clever youth would eventually become a dull old man would soon prove accurate. And so, when an opportunity occurred to join the sporting staff of the Daily Telegraph as a D grade journalist I grabbed it, declining a counter offer from the Bulletin. Sir Frank Packer, wanting to neutralise the Women’s Mirror in favour of the Australian Women’s Weekly, purchased the Bulletin in October 1960, as part of the package.
The title carried on as a weekly magazine under Sir Frank and then Kerry, under an array of notable editors, including Donald Horne, Peter Hastings, Peter Coleman, Trevor Sykes, Trevor Kennedy, David Dale, Richard Walsh, Lyndell Crisp, Gerald Stone and Max Walsh. It closed on 24 January 2008, when it was losing $4 million a year.
Ray Alexander, born in Sydney, was a journalist at the Bulletin and the Daily Telegraph and subsequently CEO of the Australian Jockey Club. He also held senior racing posts in Macau and Canberra.