Not every foreign correspondent spends their days in a flak jacket and lop-sided helmet. Many lead more prosaic lives and I was one of those.
Having left the bright lights of Wonthaggi in the early ‘70s I began my career at WA Newspapers before landing my dream job as an ABC radio and TV reporter. In the mid-‘80s I was posted to London where my new wife and I set up home in an Islington terrace formerly occupied by members of the Bay City Rollers. As a musical force they were highly forgettable but we were to be constantly reminded of them courtesy of debt collectors’ letters addressed to Woody, Derek and Co.
The ABC was in a stately building in Portland Place where BBC radio and TV bulletins were recorded and then quarried for our reports.
Each day correspondents, or 'stringers', telephoned in stories from Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Some were memorable characters like 'Stumbles' McIvor in Moscow who couldn’t read a sentence without mangling it, or Jack 'Gin Bottle', our man in Paris, who could prepare a coherent report, but only before 4pm.
Technologically we were at the cutting edge: a ticker tape machine called Bertha sent the written word to Sydney, we edited audio tapes with scissors and sticky-tape, and all our stories were poured down to Sydney each evening on a connection not much better than a phone line. You can imagine the amazement with which we witnessed the operation of our first fax machine.
It was a small newsroom, with three radio journos and two from TV. Our five healthy egos were too often undernourished as much of our output involved turning around the work of others. Speaking of egos, during my time the British Parliament lit up over Maggie Thatcher’s attempt to have the book Spycatcher banned in Australia. The publisher was represented by a young barrister named Malcolm Turnbull and the action was defeated. It worked wonders for Malcolm’s confidence.
Other memorable news included the Zeebrugge ferry capsize, the Kings Cross Underground fire, the Piper Alpha oil rig explosion, and the bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, which resulted in almost 700 deaths.
Mixed in with these big and genuine news events was the weird and the wonderful. I interviewed Bob Geldof, who had just been knighted. He brought along his tiny dog Growler, made famous for having once eaten Mick Jagger’s breakfast in the rocker’s hotel room.
Decades before tweets were part of mainstream journalism I was one of a horde of reporters who turned up to cover the return of a lost budgie. True story.
It had been reunited with its owner (we were assured) only because its cage was positioned adjacent to the home phone. Whenever the owner answered a call he would recite the number, which the budgie duly committed to memory. When the lost bird was found it tweeted out the number, and presto, was returned unharmed to its owners. Expectant TV crews from all over Britain turned up at the bird’s cage, microphones primed, to capture a re-enactment of the miraculous telephone tweet. Unsurprisingly the adage about never working with children or animals was borne out - the budgie refused to perform.
The movie star Douglas Fairbanks Jr honoured me with a visit to promote his book. The old fellow battled up the stairs to the studio bemoaning the fact we did not have a lift.
Sir John Gielgud and the glamourous Jane Seymour also graced 54 Portland Place, but provided scant news, being there merely to promote an American TV soap.
It seemed I could not shake popular culture wherever I went. In Northern Ireland in 1987 I stayed at the heavily-fortified Europa Hotel. I drove down the pot-holed Falls Road where a bus had been torched the previous day and still smouldered. I ventured to Sinn Fein headquarters for an interview. Security was tight. Announcing myself nervously through the intercom I was finally ushered into the inner sanctum. The atmosphere was grim and tense but I was soon put at ease when my talent, a hard-man from the IRA, greeted me with: 'So, you must be a fan of Neighbours?'
I was at Wimbledon in 1987 when a brash and cocky Pat Cash won the final, the first Australian male to do so in 16 years. I watched him demolish the humourless Ivan Lendl (or 'Eye-van' as Pat pronounced it). A wag said of Lendl that he spoke six languages and smiled in none of them. After the victory Cash broke with tradition and, ignoring the waiting Royals, clambered over spectators to celebrate with friends and family in the players’ box. I remember thinking: I am actually being paid to witness this.
During my three-year posting, the legendary Peter 'The Bear' Cave arrived. I quickly came to love him despite his grumpy, disagreeable nature. He was to become an award-winning reporter, recognised around the globe, and he did indeed spend much of his time in a flak jacket. He exhibited the traits of the successful foreign correspondent: rampant individuality and disdain for bureaucracy.
He repeatedly complained about our ancient typewriters and when these complaints went unheeded the keys mysteriously began to fly off whenever we used them. New electronic keyboards soon arrived. Earlier, in Brisbane, he was rumoured to have put 50,000 volts through an old recorder in order to get a new one. Again, mission accomplished.
1988 was a huge year for me with the birth of our first child, Ben. ABC veteran Ian Henderson and Peter Cave also celebrated the arrival of sons, Tom and Elliot. All three were delivered at the nearby Portland Hospital which, unknown to me then, was the hospital of choice for the great and the good of London. All was well until August of that year when the media staked out the hospital for the arrival of Princess Beatrice. Word filtered through that the bean counters back home were demanding to know how journos on ABC salaries could afford to have babies delivered in such august surrounds. I’m sure that grand tradition of penny pinching continues to this day.
After my stint on the 'front line' I returned to Australia and a quieter life on the dark side of PR. But I still fondly recall my days as a dashing foreign correspondent and bore young journalists witless with the gratuitous advice that, in their chosen profession, life will never pass them by.
Photo by Flickr user R Barraez D'Lucca.