Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!

Number 18 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so …

His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler

IT was a hot and sultry night as Don Bentley walked the streets of Hobart during his break from the sub-editors’ desk at the Chronicle. The scent of flowers hung in the air but Bentley’s thoughts were far from the summer blooms in Franklin Square. They were 12,000 kilometres away, in central Africa.

Bentley had spent a decade of his career reporting from Africa and his thoughts often strayed there, especially on nights like this when Hobart’s rare hot and humid weather seemed to put the city on a different continent.

The pavements of Hobart were still warm from the midday sun and the night was so hot and muggy that Bentley decided after a few blocks to cut short his walk and head for the coolness of Mahoney’s pub over the road from the Chronicle building. Sitting at the bar was Thomas Butler who that night, against his wishes, had been assigned to the sports desk.

“Fucking sport, I hate fucking sport,” Butler was muttering to the barman as Bentley approached. Butler then vented his frustration on Bentley. “All those fucking clichés: someone bounces back, some team crashes, some athlete soars. I’m running out of the trite and banal.”

Bentley thought for a moment about headlines and clichés, and sub-editors looking for the right word on steamy nights, in steamy bars, and a story came to mind from his days in Africa. It was all about headlines, and it would give Butler a laugh before he returned to a sea of similes and a marathon of metaphors for the second half of his shift.

In the far-flung reaches of what had been the British empire was the copper mining town of Kitwe in Northern Rhodesia. And at the far-flung reaches of the newspaper empire managed by the Rhodesia Newspaper Corporation had been the Northern Times, whose circulation not only embraced the mining settlements of the Copperbelt but stretched right to the border with the Belgian Congo in the north.

Kitwe was a child of the copper industry and unless you were involved in mining, or an ancillary industry, it would be no place to further a career. This was especially so, for journalists because there were bigger and better newspapers, in bigger and better towns, to the south in Southern Rhodesia or South Africa.

The Northern Times, consequently, had difficulty recruiting staff, but this problem was overcome by the Rhodesia Newspaper Corporation by simply using the publication as a dumping ground for journalists who failed to make the grade on its bigger newspapers, or those guilty of major indiscretions. Such indiscretions usually centred on drink, but adultery involving wives of company executives had also been the cause of banishment to the company’s northern reaches and, on occasions, taking liberties with an editor’s daughter.

Bentley had known of two journalists thus banished during the mid-1960s. In these instances drink had not been a factor. However, in the boring backwater of Kitwe drink was to be the ultimate reason for the pair leaving the employment of the Rhodesia Newspaper Corporation altogether.

One of the journalists, John Edline, was a New Zealander who had arrived in Southern Rhodesia in the early 1960s with ambitions to be not a journalist but a farmer. He had dreams of establishing a vineyard and winery, ignoring the fact that the soil and climate of the region were not conducive to growing grapes.

Edline, while he nursed his farming ambitions, had marked time by using his skills as a journalist learned on a country newspaper in his homeland on the Bulawayo Chronicle, during which time he had discovered that the General Manager’s wife craved a love and affection that the general manager was not giving her. Edline filled the breach, at least for a short time until the general manager found out about his wife’s infidelity and called Edline into his office, telling his secretary to leave the room and shutting the door.

Edline feared fisticuffs at worst, and the sack at best, but was surprised that he was merely being transferred to the Northern Times in Kitwe, a daily paper whose existence he did not know of until that moment, in a town he had never heard of. He soon discovered, however, that life in Kitwe carried its own punishment. It was a form of, if not prison, detention which Edline was unable to escape because he still owed the company the air fare from New Zealand, a fee that was to be waived in the event of his honouring his three-year contract.

A similar fate had befallen an Englishman, Trevor Grimshaw. Grimshaw had arrived fresh-faced in Africa after serving an apprenticeship on the South London Press and during his first Christmas at the Bulawayo Chronicle had a little too much to drink at the newsroom Yuletide party.

It might have been the chilled rum punch that was responsible, or the strong Lion ale, or even exposure to a macho white African culture so different from his own in suburban London, but Grimshaw acted totally out of character. Usually shy and cultured, he displayed a determination to be one of the boys this evening, to join a party of men more senior to himself in a corner of the room free of women, where bawdy, sexy jokes were being told for male ears only. Grimshaw, joining the laughter and back-slapping in a group that included the editor and his deputy, could not think of a joke himself but saw the opportunity to make a manly impression when a young attractive woman in her late teens crossed the floor, carrying an orange juice and a piece of Christmas cake.

“Now I’d like to shag her till she squeals,” Grimshaw had said with a laugh, expecting laughter to ring out from the male circle. There was a silence instead before it was broken by the editor.

“Would you like an introduction to my daughter?” he asked, before allowing Grimshaw to creep from the room, and then dash down the giant Rhodesian teak staircase that divided the Chronicle building into floors.

Within a few days, Edline was welcoming Grimshaw at Kitwe’s railway station after his two-day train journey north from Bulawayo.

“And what you make of the Falls?” Edline asked, as he helped Grimshaw with a heavy suitcase that contained at a pile of novels, because Grimshaw was not even sure that Kitwe had yet acquired the luxury of a bookshop. The railway bridge over the mighty Zambezi River which gave a view of the Victoria Falls was the highlight of the train trip north, but Grimshaw had been in no mood for sightseeing.

“Didn’t fucking notice,” he said tersely.

Edline and Grimshaw had expected to fill positions as reporters in Kitwe, as they did in Bulawayo, but they soon discovered that their journalistic experience was needed in the sub-editors’ department. To describe the sub-editors’ section of the room as a department was something of an exaggeration. Edline and Grimshaw were in fact the only night-duty sub-editors along with a chief sub-editor who doubled up as foreign and features editor during the day. The chief sub-editor, after mapping out the general layout of the newspaper with the editor, left in the early evening, leaving the pair to put the newspaper to bed.

The Rhodesian owners had clearly lost interest in the Northern Times, although its editor was a rising star in the group who had been given his first editorship at the young age of 32, to prepare him for bigger things to come.

The bigger newspapers in what had just become Zambia after Northern Rhodesia’s independence from Britain had already been taken over by the Zambian Government and it was only a matter of time before the other newspapers would follow suit.

Because Edline and Grimshaw were merely marking time at the Northern Times, they showed a lack of commitment and enthusiasm for their work. At the same time, this frustration with their roles on the newspaper had a concomitant spin-off in the time and energy they spent at the Kitwe Expatriates’ Club, especially the time they spent at its bar.

The club stayed open late to cater for night-shift workers in the nearby copper mines and Edline and Grimshaw soon discovered on their arrival in Kitwe that there were drinks to be had there when their own shifts ended at around midnight, when they had seen off the front and back pages.

The club had also become a popular hangout for the Times’ dwindling band of expatriate printers, especially the head printer who has about to turn his back on post-colonial Africa and head back to his native Britain.

Edline and Grimshaw were not merely going to the club at the end of their shifts; they were also visiting the bar during an extended break from their sub-editing duties which started as soon as the chief sub-editor had left in the early evening. One evening the head printer and his deputy decided to join them, leaving a large part of the evening’s typesetting and layout of pages to a batch of eager African apprentices recruited as part of the Africanisation program.

“And here’s to Empire,” said the print works chief, as he started to down the first of several glasses of “printer’s ink”, the traditional printers’ drink made up of equal parts of rum and blackcurrant cordial. “And the printers and journalists, that great bond.”

“And to stone subs and printers, an even bigger bond,” added the deputy printer, referring to the specialist sub-editors who worked with printers in the works, cutting stories and amending headlines that did not fit in the typefaces and space allocated to them.

An arcane discussion about headlines – fueled by printer’s ink – ensued, particularly those that gave the biggest problems for both printer and journalist, headlines containing a “w” or an “m” because they were wider than other letters. The head printer observed he cringed every time he saw the word “rumpus” because that was guaranteed to cause problems, usually making a headline bust so it spilled over a column measure.

“Fucking rumpus,” he kept repeating as the rum crept up on him. “Fucking R-U-M-P-U-S, ” he shouted, spelling out each letter louder and louder as he went.

Grimshaw and Edline, although relatively new to sub-editing, went on to count the number of headlines they had written containing the noun, a convenient substitute for “row” or “storm” if these were already used in the newspaper on a story describing an argument or disagreement of any kind. They were words from the sub-editors’ lexicon, words with a minimum of consonants and vowels that only had a function in headlines and were never actually used in everyday speech. The lexicon also included “wrangle” and “fracas”, and it was noted as the conversation moved to the two journalists’ troubled careers that both the latter headline words could have been used to describe their departure from Bulawayo. Grimshaw, also feeling the effects of too much printer’s ink, chose rumpus instead.

“Editor daughter rumpus,” Grimshaw shouted out, in mock seriousness as though writing a headline aloud.

“General Manager’s wife rumpus,” said Edline, and his words were drowned in laugher.

As they ordered another rum and blackcurrant, the manager of the Expatriates’ Club, who had come out of his office to identify the source of the raucous laughter in a corner of his bar, reminded the journalists and printers, diplomatically, that they were on their break and they might think about getting back to work.

* * * * * * * * * *

Grimshaw woke with the worst headache he could remember. The sun was streaming through his bedroom window and burning his face. He looked down the bed and realised he had his clothes on. Not only that, his brown brogues were on his feet, still carrying the fine red African dust from Kitwe’s hot and dry main drag.

Grimshaw turned on his side so his face was out of the sun. He had awoken from an unsettling dream unlike any other he had had while drunk, and clearly he had been that. Drink dreams, as he called them, usually involved fast cars and naked women with big breasts and throwing typewriters out of windows, but this dream was different. Other dreams were ethereal and cloudy; they utilised fragments of memory and imagination to paint imperfect pictures that were clearly unreal. This was a dream Grimshaw could smell and see and touch, or so it seemed. He continued to lie on his bed, troubled. Worse, he had no memory of the night before but his all-too-real dream suggested otherwise.

Usually Grimshaw waited until he got to work to see the newspaper, because he knew what was in it anyway, and it was merely used as a reference so stories would not be repeated. This morning, however, he felt compelled to finally get out of bed to go and buy a copy.

He walked a few blocks from his home on one of Kitwe’s backstreets to a trading store that sold newspapers and, even though he was some distance away, he was confronted by a Northern Times poster, reading: CITY COUNCIL RUMPUS

When he reached the store, he scanned the newspaper quickly. Every headline in the Times, from the front page to the back, had the word rumpus in it.

Grimshaw returned to his unit in shock. As he turned the key in the door, he could hear the phone ringing. It was the editor.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Don Bentley munched on a bacon-and-egg roll the morning after his stroll and his meeting with the reluctant sports journalist, Thomas Butler, in the pub. He had forgotten the conversation about Africa but as he turned the pages of the Chronicle he was soon reminded of it. On the back page, above a story about a dispute between the Indian and Australian test cricket teams, was a banner headline that read: