Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 20 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
TANGLED up in blue, Don Bentley was angry because he could not get the time off from work to go to a Bob Dylan concert in Melbourne.
Bentley had already booked holiday before he realised Dylan was coming to Australia and once the holiday roster was posted on the notice board in the newsroom it was virtually set in concrete.
Bentley had heard Dylan described as the patron saint of journalists and he could understand why. Dylan, besides being a songwriter of note, was also a wordsmith who had taken his stage name from Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. Dylan the Welsh poet was also a favourite of Bentley’s but Dylan the folk singer had passed Bentley by in the Swinging Sixties. Bentley in his teens was a Beatles man and he only grew to appreciate Dylan years later after hearing Dylan’s acclaimed album, Blood on the Tracks.
Bentley was a roving correspondent in southern Africa at the time and on long car trips out of his base in Johannesburgh, to Swaziland, Botswana, Rhodesea and Mozambique, Bentley would take a selection of Bob Dylan tapes with him.
When he now heard Dylan sing of the Mojave desert of California, Bentley would remember the dry African Savannah, and happy days being free of the shackles of the office, at least until he reached his destination and deadlines called.
Bentley sat in Mahoney’s pub, complaining loudly that Dylan would be singing and strumming and blowing into his mouth organ without him.
There was some consolation, however, in the fact that Bentley had actually seen Dylan perform live which was more than could be said for some of his colleagues who were also Dylan fans. The occasion was in the late 1990s in Townsville, where Bentley worked as a sub-editor after arriving in Australia from Britain. On that evening Bentley did not need to consult the staff roster to see if he could get the evening off: virtually the whole office decided, roster duty or not, they were going anyway.
The chief sub-editor, Sue Lucas, was also a Dylan fan and knew from the moment it was announced Dylan would be performing in Townsville that she would not be able to take the evening off. The concert was on a Friday, the busiest day of the week because Townsville did not have a Sunday newspaper and the Saturday editions of the city’s two local publications comprised bumper weekend editions.
Sue Lucas may have been a Dylan devotee but she was not of the Dylan generation. She had been introduced to the poetry and music of Dylan by her husband, a photographer considerably older than herself who had spent a large part of his early working life covering events in south-east Asia, events which included the Vietnam war.
When the Dylan concert had been announced, Lucas had conducted a head count of those who were desperate to attend. Most wanted to go and a plan was hatched to produce the newspaper in record time, leaving just the front and back pages to be laid out and edited by a relatively junior, but ambitious sub-editor. The agreement was that Lucas would return to the office with the other sub-editing staff as soon as the concert ended just in case there were any late-breaking major stories. Although the junior sub-editor was confident in his abilities, he was reassured that adults would be on hand if things went horribly wrong.
Drawing up the plan to attend the Dylan concert, Sue Lucas decided that it was better that the editor did not know of the arrangement. He usually left the office early on a Friday evening to spend the night with his family, phoning just before deadline to make sure everything was going according to plan. Lucas was confident she would be back in the office in time to take his call.
As she explained to the other members of staff, the Dylan plan had been drawn up on a need to know basis and the editor did not need to know.
On the night of the concert Lucas attended the evening conference with the editor as usual.. Plans for the early pages were laid out and the editor made his observations as usual before discussing what was to be on the front page.
What the editor wasn’t told was that those early pages had been produced already, and dummy proofs hidden from sight just in case he should stumble on any.
The concert was to start at eight in the evening and at 7.30 five of the seven sub-editors and two of the three night reporting staff made their way to the concert arena, leaving the stand-in chief sub-editor to enjoy his big moment.
Bentley was hitching a lift to the concert with Sue Lucas and her husband Len and outside the Express office Len Lucas was waiting for them in his Volkswagon Beetle, a car of the same era as Dylan’s initial acoustic period in the early 1960s. He was smoking the biggest joint that Bentley had ever seen and, after Bentley had climbed into the back seat, he thrust it into Bentley’s hand.
How long had it been since Bentley had seen a joint, and how long since he had smoked one? He couldn’t remember, but it was well before he had married Mrs Bentley about 10 years previously. Bentley had never been a great drug taker and he was reticent to take a drag at first. Alcohol, and sometimes nicotine in the shape of a cigar, remained his drugs of choice.
“Go on, and no smoking without inhaling, ” shouted Sue Lucas from the front passenger seat. She remembered the television shots of Bob Dylan performing at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration, and Clinton’s words when asked about whether he had ever smoked dope.
Lucas was giggling now, and singing “The Times They Are a Changing” as Bentley took a drag.
After parking the car, the party met Bentley’s wife at the booking office where she was picking up the tickets.
Mrs Bentley immediately noticed Bentley had a strange look about him, an expression she had not witnessed before. His eyes were wide open, almost in a stare. At the same time he appeared distant.
“Had a busy night getting the paper out in all that rush?” she asked. Bentley remained silent, dreamy, gazing out into space.
“Far out, Babe,” he replied eventually, slowly, in a drawl.
Bentley had never referred to this wife as “babe” before and clearly the excitement of the concert was getting to him, or so Mrs Bentley thought.
The extended party from the Express occupied virtually a whole row of seats, the journalists and their partners arriving towards the end of the support act, performed by a female American folk singer Bentley and Mrs Bentley had never heard of.
Soon the magic moment, the start of Bob Dylan’s performance, was announced. He and his band had entered a darkened stage and as the lights went up to cheers, Bentley could see that a smoke machine had created a misty, smoky effect for the opening number. The drifting smoke on the stage, hanging in the air in places, was not unlike the smoke that had drift through the Volkswagon Beetle on the way to the show and Bentley could still feel the effects of it.
“Crazy, Babe’’ Bentley muttered softly as Dylan got into his first song.
Old numbers, new ones, fast ones, some slow, the blues, acoustic folk, rockabilly, Dylan was rocking Townsville. Bentley was loving it, but someone was rocking Bentley’s seat from behind. It was a gentle rocking at first, much like Bentley’s frame of mind as he immersed himself, body swaying, in the music of Dylan. Then the person behind started to bang the seat, as if with their foot or hand. It was annoying but Bentley was determined to be tolerant, he didn’t want to swing round with a scowl. This was a night for peace and goodwill, to be cool, to let it all hang out. He had told his wife so.
The annoyance continued for two more numbers before Bentley was forced to act. The person in the seat behind was now banging Bentley in the back and Bentley, the goodwill beginning to evaporate along with the effects of the joint, turned around in anger.
There in the half light reflected off the stage sat the editor of the Townsville Express. He looked along the row of seats to Bentley’s left and right, to virtually his entire staff swaying and rocking to the music.
“And who’s getting my fucking newspaper out,” he shouted to Bentley but his words were lost to “A Simple Twist of Fate.”