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Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Sydney, Where the Typewriter Wizards of Oz Are

Many moons ago, I was covering a rugby match at the Sydney Sports Ground when a young New Zealander was knocked out cold. I left my Olivetti Lettera 32 in the Press Box and went down to the changing rooms to check on his condition. As he came to, a doctor asked, "Do you know where you are?" "Yes," said the young fellow, with the utmost confidence, "at the Addington Showgrounds." "No," replied the doctor, "you're in Sydney." "Sydney!" exclaimed the excited footballer, sitting bolt upright on the medico's bench. "Sydney where the bridge is?" 
The Twilight Zone
Sydney with its glorious Harbour Bridge no longer has the allure it once did for young New Zealanders. But for this old fogey, it has developed a whole new attraction, one far more enticing than the bright city lights and the iconic bridge: the regular chance to meet and pick the brains of typewriter masterminds.
Sydney has become, for me at least, the city where the Typewriter Wizards of Oz are.
Yesterday I was able to attend yet another of the weekly meetings of STAX, the Sydney Typewriter Appreciation Exchange, a collective of typewriter technicians, collectors, dealers and sellers. These gatherings are usually held at the home of collector Richard Amery at Rooty Hill in the Western Suburbs, just off the M7 Motorway. I always take with me a carload of typewriters, and between packing and unpacking, travel and recovery, it adds up to three days out of the week -  for one day's enjoyment. But is that one day worth it? You betcha. It's absolutely brilliant!
Short of meeting a gorgeous billionairess who likes nothing better than pillow talk about the pro and cons of omitting James Densmore's name from the original typewriter, this is as good as it gets. Heaven on a stick, except the stick is the gear shift on my little Typewritermobile, and that's been getting a terrible thrashing.
Or should it have been Yost?
The main reason for me making the effort to return to Sydney yesterday was the chance to have the typewriter "brains trust" cast their eyes over two escapement wheels from SCM Galaxie IIs, in search of the elusive "jewel" (read the next issue of ETCetera, in which all will be revealed).
Sadly, it's far too long and exhausting a trip for me to make on a weekly basis (360 miles, or six hours there and back). But I have now been able to get to three of the meetings, so, as Richard Polt had hoped, I'm averaging one a month. Having said that, I'm finding the meetings increasingly appealing, and the drive home in the dead of night seems to pass relatively lightly, given I've got four hours of typewriter talk to mull over.
The gatherings start with a sort of "show and tell" of various typewriters of various vintages, followed by fascinating demonstrations of typewriter repair jobs; then there is much chat about typewriter-related experiences, most of it hugely amusing. All the while genial and generous mine host Richard Amery is making and passing out cups of coffee and tea and handing around trays of choccy biscuits. The events are a massive amount of fun and indulgence, all concerned with just one cherished machine (though VW Beetles do get the odd mention). What more could one ask for in one's dotage (aside from the billionairess)?
Richard Amery has that typically Australian laconic sense of humour, a dry wit, and his little animated address yesterday about feeling the pressure of Richard Polt buying up beautiful Imperial Good Companions in England had us all in stitches. But Phil Chapman announced that Charlie Foxtrot had just taken delivery of a container full of typewriters from Blighty's fair shores, so there'll no doubt be something in that lot for Mr Amery to cast his eager eyes over.
Over the past 15 years or so, I have felt envious of those people who were fully trained as typewriter technicians. The skills they have are to die for. There have been a couple of exceptions among those I have met in Australia, two in particular who proved to be unpleasant and untrustworthy. But there are bound to be rotten apples in every basket, and I don't waste time bothering with them. In the main, the technicians of my acquaintance are just champion blokes. 

Undoubtedly a highlight of yesterday's meeting was a close look at the work of Phil Card, who had restored to full working order a Blickensderfer 5 and an Imperial Model D for Richard Amery - both quite remarkable achievements. I was astonished by how well they now type, and I "dips me lid" to Phil for his incredible skill.
We started out by comparing a couple of Erikas - Richard Amery's very nice, shiny black Model 8 and a model 5 Bijou I am working on. Richard's 8 reminded me greatly of the wonderful early 1950s Model 9 I have. Both Richard's 8 and the Bijou 5 also have that fascinating triple-action typebar mechanism, with provides such a smooth typing action.
Richard produced for the "show and tell" session an interesting "Typer's Companion". On each side of the top there are felt sections to sit the typewriter on, and in front there is a small drawer for typewriter odds and ends. The Lion British Typewriter Supplies Company of London also made and marketed its own duplicators (see below).
Just in case Terry Cooksley was feeling a little left out by the praise being heaped on Phil Card, Richard produced a Royal 10 which had been fully restored by Terry, to show us how well it looked and worked. Richard also brought out a Smith-Corona Silent I had restored for him about 10 years ago.
None of us have been able to work out why this wide carriage Olympia SM9 has upper and lower case capitals.
And none of us could work out while Phil Chapman had spent $20 on a Hermes Ambassador. Ah well, poking round with it was all in the spirit of the day - a lot of teasing, a lot of laughs, all of it from truly genuine typewriter people. Not to mention the mesmerising work of the Wizards of Oz.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Frankly, My Dear, I DO Give a Damn

Like Leer, Blenheim, New Zealand-born journalist Francis Derek Devine had three daughters. Unlike the seriously demented Leer, Frank died with the claim that he’d become “Older and Wiser” (the title of a collection of Frank’s Quadrant essays, published just after he passed away, aged 77, in July 2009). For all that, Frank was still doubtless blinded to how his daughters - or at least one in particular - would turn out. Yet if ever a situation offered some credence to the idiom “turning in one’s grave”, it would be the work of Frank’s eldest offspring, New York-born Miranda, widely regarded as the Goneril of Australian newspaper columnists.
Miranda marked her 55th birthday last week with a story which must surely erase whatever credibility she had left, one so thoroughly exposed by Paul Barry on the ABC TV’s Media Watch tonight. It was a story devoid of any proper fact checking and balance; lacking, indeed, any of the ethics which defined Frank Devine’s lifetime in journalism, and which he would doubtless have hoped to pass on to Miranda.
        When Frank passed on, it was written that “Australian journalism lost a true giant”, a man of talent and generosity, an editor, reporter, columnist and “intellectual giant”, and a “stylish writer with a love for words”. He had been editor of the national daily, The Australian, as well as The New York Post, The Chicago Sun-Times and the Australasian American editions of Readers Digest. Miranda is hardly destined to be so fondly remembered. Would Frank Devine have ever, for example, accused gay men of “rogering gerbils”. Or called a Test rugby union captain a “tosser” because he used Auslan sign language? Well, no, at least not in print, or online. Frank, like all good and real journalists, understood the great responsibilities that came with writing opinion pieces for publication.
        In Miranda Devine’s writings, there can be found no trace of the once honourable craft that Frank Devine so enthusiastically embraced in 1948, as a cadet sports reporter on the Marlborough Express, under the caring guidance of Wairua-born Express editor Selwyn Isaac Vercoe (1904-1989).
As a journalist, Miranda Devine might believe she is being consistent with her father’s example. On one level, that would be a reasonable assumption on her part. Although Frank grew up the son of working-class parents – his father was a carpenter and chairman of the Marlborough branch of the New Zealand Labour Party and his mother (née O’Sullivan) was of Irish stock - he was to spurn working-class values. Indeed, Frank spun so far to the right that, as mutual friend and former colleague Maurie Carr would have described him, he was “further right than Genghis Khan”. Staying loyal to what became a family tradition of right-wing political thinking, however, is one thing – failing to heed the teachings of a father’s six-decade devotion to fair and honest journalism is entirely another.
I was reminded of Frank Devine’s consistently considered columns earlier this year when I read Miranda Devine’s Daily Telegraph blog post, in which she described the legacy of deposed Prime Minister Tony Abbott thus: “Abbott was like the soldier on D-Day who threw himself on barbed wire so others could go over the top. He did the dirty work that [Malcolm] Turnbull never would have been willing to do. History will be kind to him.” One thing we must accept about the digital age, for better or for worse, is that history is no longer the fine wine it once was, allowed to settle and mature over a number of years, so that its true essence may eventually emerge. History is these days settled upon in a relatively short period of time. To suggest Australian political history will be kind to Tony Abbott is clearly not a considered opinion, nor one that will ever be proven to even vaguely true. Abbott’s demise was inevitable long before it became a reality, simply because his acts of prime ministerial stupidity were bringing his government down. To suggest he did “the dirty work” and threw himself on barbed wire while others trampled over him is as silly an analogy now as it would have been as a suicidal act at Normandy on June 6, 1944. Miranda Devine may have savoured some fine old wines in the company of Abbott at Kirribilli House, but that is no excuse for letting the effects go so tellingly to her head.
What Miranda Devine needs to comprehend – although it may now be too late - is that her increasingly irrational, ill-reasoned and irrelevant right-wing columns are making her as much of a national joke as Abbott’s directionless prime ministership made him. Her columns have long since lost any semblance of objectivity, and that is the worst criticism that can ever be levelled at any journalist, in any form of the media. Devine allowing herself to be bundled in with Andrew Bolt, Alan Jones and Ray “Bo” Hadley is, like diving on barbed wire at Normandy, sheer journalistic suicide. It simply means that, among the nation’s political journalists and commentators, she no longer counts. Instead, in the absence of any impartiality, she has become overtly offensive and the object of widespread derision. She simply cannot be taken seriously. But I, for one, am offended that she continues to hold such a high profile, and that’s why I do give a damn about her ongoing rants.
I knew her father – not well, but as a casual acquaintance. I worked with Frank Devine in various parts of the country, from Sydney to Western Australia. I sometimes chatted with him as he sat at his desk behind his pale green Remington International standard typewriter on Holt Street in Surry Hills. We shared an unshakable passion for the New Zealand All Blacks rugby union team. At least one of my 1970 sports columns in the national daily, The Australian, in which I raised points about the politics behind the selection of a multi-race team to tour South Arica that year, had earned Frank’s considerable interest.
Born in Blenheim a week before Christmas 1931, Frank attended St Mary’s Primary School, where he was an altar boy. A keen rugby union player, he was a 1st XV forward at Marlborough College and so excelled at cricket that he toyed with the idea of a career in flannels. But like me, at age 17 he had had to give up any dreams of higher honours in rugby and cricket when he started a career in newspaper journalism, working for the Marlborough Express. Like me on the Greymouth Evening Star 17 years later, he had found a skilled and compassionate mentor: in his case Vercoe, in mine Russell William Nelson. Vercoe took Frank under his wing, giving him books to read, such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan's libretto for the comic opera The Duenna. Russell Nelson gave me a Webster’s Dictionary, considerably heavier and equally heavy going.
 In 1954 Devine set off to see the world and got as far as Perth, where he joined The West Australian and met Jacqueline Magee, a women’s page reporter who had grown up on a farm at Kulin on the Eastern Wheatbelt of Western Australia. They married in April 1959 and the next year Frank embarked on a decade of foreign postings. A family story told how Norman Kirk, later to be a Labour prime minister of New Zealand, visited their modest family home in Blenheim and helped dry the dishes: nobody was permitted to use the tea towel thereafter, and it hung on a wall in pride of place. 
As New York correspondent for the now defunct Melbourne Herald, Devine covered John F. Kennedy's presidency, the Cuban missile crisis, civil rights marches in Selma, Alabama, and got to know Martin Luther King. He worked as a foreign correspondent in New York, London and Tokyo. He was a sports fanatic (he had a bookcase full of dog-eared Wisdens), a film buff and a stylish writer with a love for words. He wrote a column in The Australian about English usage which became a book, The Quick Brown Fox.
Frank Devine would not have enjoyed being labelled a right-wing ranter, a senile fascist or a CIA agent (though PM Paul Keating's "Old Fart" jibe did amuse him). But he was able to take comfort in the knowledge that he was at least ethical in what he wrote. Furthermore, he was sacked as editor of The Australian by Rupert Murdoch for supporting pilots in their 1989 strike and opposed Prime Minister Bob Hawke’s use of military aircraft and crews to break them - hardly the acts of a fascist. Nor was it reactionary of him to insist on American ideas of the independence of editors. His Quadrant tribute to “Bradman the Liberator”, described The Don as a “major figure in Australia’s decolonisation”, a man who “helped free us from an inhibiting awe of the Motherland and its splendours”. These would not be sentiments shared by Tony Abbott, the John Howard-inspired PM so admired by Frank’s daughter, the man who gave Prince Philip a knighthood.

Frank Devine became an Australian citizen in the 21st century. Like all good New Zealanders, he had been raised to think of Australians as “ill-educated, spendthrift, technologically backward, uninventive, racist, sexist, fat and drunk”. But over time he overcame those innate prejudices. It’s such a shame his daughter cannot beat hers.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Return of the Mugwump: How Shift Inventor Brooks’ Half-Breed Was Trumped by the GOP

Silently and unconsciously, some of us still pay what is by now long undue tribute to the visionary author, “mechanician and mathematician” Byron Alden Brooks (1845-1911), often many hundreds of times a day. Ostensibly, we use his invention, the “Shift” key, on our keyboards. But with a computer keyboard, of course, the “Shift” key shifts nothing. Logically, it should be called a “Caps” key. Historically, it could have been called the “Vibrate”, “Slide”, “Move”, “Push” or “Draw” key, none of which would be any more relevant to computer use than “Shift”. Vibrate, slide, move, push and draw were the words Brooks himself used to describe the typewriter carriage movement in his invention, when he applied for a patent for it on December 30, 1875. He didn’t mention “Shift” once. And although Henry Harper Benedict also favoured “Slide”, it was Remington, not Brooks, which decided “Shift” was more appropriate. If Remington had elected to apply the eccentric Lucien Stephen Crandall’s prior invention to its typewriter, the “Shift” key might have become the “Oscillate” or “Swing” key. Happily, however, Benedict and his Remington employers recognised that Brooks had the far more practical idea, and so today we’re stuck with “Shift”.
         With the IBM Selectric, the carriage doesn’t shift, but the golfball single type element on the head-and-rocker carrier does, smartly pivoting on its whiffletree mechanism, 180 degrees from right to left to change case. The advent of computer typesetting technology eliminated even that much movement, and the word “Shift” became totally obsolete. Ironically, Brooks himself foresaw electronic communications - along with electric cars, solar power and colour photography. These were things he described in his 1893 utopian novel Earth Revisited, a work verging on science fiction in which the protagonist, Herbert Atheron, dies and wakes up as Harold Amesbury in 1992. New York City has become cleaner, healthier Columbia and war is a thing of the past. He may have been well off the mark on that point, but the inventive, far-seeing Brooks can still be recalled today in other ways, including politics. And the early ructions at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last week was one of those.
Brooks gave Atheron/Amesbury his fictional names after an opportunist young broker called Walter Butler Atterbury (1854-1953), who like the Earth Revisited hero enjoyed life into the second half of the 20th Century. Atterbury coming out against Seth Low for the borough’s nomination in the summer of 1897 split the GOP in two in Brooklyn, incurring Brooks’ considerable wrath. Brooks labelled him a “fool”. Atterbury came to represent, in Brooks’ eyes, a figure of mistrust and poor judgement. A portent, perhaps, for another divisive Republican Party nominee, 120 years down the track.
         Brooks, like the inventor of the typewriter itself, Christopher Latham Sholes, was an unwavering Republican, although Sholes was the beneficiary of political patronage known as the "spoils system", an issue which divided the Republican Party throughout the 1880s. For his part, Brooks was a GOP powerbroker in Brooklyn, seemingly in no need of party patronage. Yet he would have qualified as a “Stalwart”, one of those opposed to the "Half-Breeds" (that is, half-Republicans), the faction of moderates led by Maine senator James Gillespie Blaine (1830-1893) which backed civil service reform and a merit system. At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Ulysses S. Grant (1822-85) was pitted against Blaine for the party nomination. Grant's campaign was led by Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling (1829-88) of New York, who attempted to impose a unit-rule by which a state's votes would be grouped together for only one candidate. But some Stalwarts went against him, by supporting Blaine, and the Half-Breeds united to defeat the unit-rule and chose James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) as a compromise candidate. Garfield won the nomination and went on to win the presidential election. Garfield was assassinated by Stalwart Charles Julius Guiteau (1841-1882) and the new Stalwart president, Chester Alan Arthur (1829-1886), surprised his own faction by promoting civil service reform and issuing government jobs based on a merit system. In 1883 the Half-Breeds put through Congress the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which ended the spoils system.
         Opposing any return to this system, in November 1897, Brooks stood accused of being a latter-day, reform-minded Mugwump, a cry back to those Republican activists, such as Seth Low (1850-1916), who had bolted from the GOP by supporting Democratic candidate Stephen Grover Cleveland (1837-1908) in the presidential election of 1884. The Mugwumps switched parties in protesting the financial corruption associated with Republican candidate Blaine. In a close election, the Mugwumps supposedly made the difference in New York State and swung the vote to Cleveland. (The word, from the Algonquian [Natick] mugquomp, meaning "important person, kingpin", implied Mugwamps were sanctimonious and holier-than-thou in holding themselves aloof from party politics.) After Cleveland’s election, the word Mugwump survived for more than a decade, as an epithet for a party bolter in American politics.
         In a letter to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on November 8, 1897, an anonymous critic responded to Brooks’ letter of November 6, headed “Some Things That Politicians Should Have Remembered”, by labelling Brooks a “striking illustration of that species of Mugwamphile” in exhibiting an “insuffarable conceitedness” of “knowing it all”.
         The debate concerned the election for the first mayor of the expanded City of Greater New York (incorporating the five boroughs of New York [Manhattan], Kings [Brooklyn], Queens, Richmond [Staten Island] and the Bronx), and involved Low and Benjamin Franklin Tracy (1830-1915).
Tracy was the official Republican candidate, but finished third on 101,863 votes, a long way behind Democrat Robert Anderson Van Wyck (1849-1914), 233,997 votes, and Low, who represented a fusion of the “goo-goo” (good government) party, the Citizens' Union, and the GOP, on 151,540 votes. Brooks believed the Democrats had “voted blindly” against good judgement and their own best interests. But he was most distraught by the way the Republican vote had been split, with the GOP insisting on party loyalty support for Tracy (who Brooks called “The Old Man of the Sea”) instead of throwing its full weight behind Low, a decision he put down to the “stupidity and treachery of the so-called leaders” of the GOP. Had Low been elected, Brooks argued, the result would have preserved the “organization intact for the future”. However, the Republican leaders, he claimed, had vilified Low and caused greater division and dissension within the party. Brooks asked whether GOP leaders Thomas Collier Platt (1833-1910), Lemuel Ely Quigg (1863-1919) and Timothy Lester Woodruff (1858-1913) were “fools or knaves”. As for Walter Butler Atterbury, whose opposition to Low in Brooklyn was the wedge which split the Republicans in two, Brooks was in no doubt - he was a fool. And George Washington Brush (1842-1927) basically a traitor.
There was also no doubt in Brooks’ mind that even as a compromise candidate, Low represented the expanded City of Greater New York’s best chance of a return to the “Golden Age” of good, clean government against the influence of Tammany Hall. The Citizens Union had been founded on just such concerns, stemming from the growing clout of the Democratic Party’s corrupt political machine under Hugh McLaughlin (1827-1904). Low had already served as mayor of Brooklyn from 1881-1884 and was president of Columbia University from 1890-1900. However, his Mugwump support of Cleveland in 1884 furthered the rift with fellow Republicans and Democrat Daniel Darling Whitney (1819-1914) succeeded Low as Brooklyn Mayor that year, taking the borough back to Democratic machine politics for another seven years. Low finally succeeded in the City of Greater New York mayoral election in 1901, again on a fusion ticket and with the support of Mark Twain.
Nonetheless, this episode in Brooks’ active political life had been marked by disappointment and frustration with the GOP’s leadership. Division among the Republicans? It could surely never have happened in Brooks’ brave new world, as envisaged in Earth Revisited. Could it?

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Ruminations on Death, the Ultimate Fake Orgasm

An ominous 13 years ago, an old friend of mine called Mike Agostini published a book called Death: The Ultimate Orgasm? A reviewer said Mike was “a persuasive interviewer and born raconteur”, "a practising hypochondriac of some note" who put great store in Carl Jung's theory of synchronicity. Mike grew up in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, convinced his mother, Ena Helen (née Govia) Agostini, had the uncanny ability to forecast the future. Like Ena, Mike was also, as I found when I first met him, a faker.
Mike's mother seer Ena with his father, Sedley Agostini
In The Ultimate Orgasm? Mike went back to the philosophers Pythagoras and Plato and investigated near-death and out-of-body experiences and life thereafter, including after-death communications and all things spiritual, psychic, occultist and paranormal. These are, of course, subjects which have fascinated great typewriter men since the late 19th Century, most notably the indefatigable George Yost, whose faith in fakery was quite astonishing.
Mike may or may not now know the answers to the questions he raised in his book. He is himself, as Monty Python put it, “No more! He has ceased to be! 'E's expired and gone to meet 'is maker! 'E's a stiff! Bereft of life, 'e rests in peace! Pushing up the daisies! 'Is metabolic processes are now 'istory! 'E's off the twig! 'E's kicked the bucket, 'e's shuffled off 'is mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleedin' choir invisible!” Once so colourful and chirpy, he is, in other words, a dead Trinidadian-Australian.
For his 2003 book Mike didn’t, oddly enough, speak to the near-death expert I once interviewed, Helen Reddy (I Am Woman), someone who could not possibly have agreed that death was the ultimate orgasm ("Say no more, say no more": Python again). But among those Mike did canvas was a former employer of his, Kerry Packer, another man who now (presumably) knows the absolute truth of his own famous statement. In a eulogy at Robert David Ferris’s funeral in 2007, I said “Kerry Packer is the only man to have died and come back, and he says there’s nothing up there”, a statement for which I was promptly chastised by a charlatan parliamentary chaplain, who said Jesus Christ had done the same thing. I haven’t dared speak at a funeral since.
As I get closer to my own time being called, the more annoyed I am about obituaries devoid of accuracy and honesty about the dearly departed, or eulogies at funerals which sound like fairytales about someone the mourners never knew. One looks around to see whether one recognises anyone else at the service (I know, it’s happened to me once or twice). Some hacks of my acquaintance have written their own advance obituaries, either for fear the truth will out or will be withheld (most likely the former). One who did so was former Canberra Times editor John Mayo Farquharson, who died a month ago. But since he wrote hundreds of obituaries about others, I guess he was entitled to write one for himself.
Many people don’t give any of this much thought, as with wills, the donation of organs or instructions for the dearly-hit surviving. The dead can, however, be forgiven for not sending out notification of their demise.

Former colleagues are falling off the perch with increasing regularity. Some have died in various parts of the world many weeks before I get to hear about it. Mike Agostini (left) died of pancreatic cancer, aged 81, in Sydney on May 12, and it wasn’t until July 6 that a mutual friend let me know. Just today, his old West Australian workmates learned that the extraordinary Scottish-born sub-editor Lex Ballantyne (right) had died, aged 74, in Alice Springs as long ago as November 15 last year. For me, these two men represent quite difference perspectives on journalism.
Michael George Raymond Agostini won for his native Trinidad the 100 yards gold medal at the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver, beating the Australian world record holder Hec Hogan in the process. At the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Mike was sixth in the 100 metres behind Hogan and the American winner Bobby Morrow. As a 17-year-old, in 1952, Mike had beaten the great Jamaican Herb McKenley and in 1953 he ran a 9.9 wind-assisted 100 metres. He won a scholarship to Villanova and on his 19th birthday beat Olympic champion Lindy Remigino in a world record time indoors. After one semester at Villanova, Mike transferred to Fresno State University, California, where the opportunities for good sprinting were better, and he graduated with a degree in economics in 1958. He moved Down Under, where he became an Australian citizen, worked as a freelance journalist and was editor and publisher for Track and Field and Fun Runner magazines. He was also honorary Australia consul for Trinidad and Tobago from 1981-2006 (not that there was much work to be done as such).
As a former age group world record holder himself, Mike took a particular interest in collecting and publishing valuable data on this otherwise neglected area of sport, as well as on the physiology of sports champions. Many was the Friday evening in the early 1970s when Mike and I would be the only journalists at poolside when Shane Gould set world swimming records at North Sydney. I was there to get quotes, Mike to measure her incredibly low heart beat.
I was much less impressed by Mike at our first meeting. As an experienced track writer, I was asked to “treat” Mike’s copy, submitted as a column to the national daily, The Australian in Sydney. Appreciating that this guy was himself an Olympic sprinter, I looked forward to reading his appraisal of Jim Hines. My suspicions were perhaps first aroused by the neatness of his typing – a lovely, crisp Courier font, obviously from an IMB or a Corona electric. Journalists rarely presented such tidy, error-free stories. And I very quickly realised the entire article had been plagiarised from Sports Illustrated, to which I was  a subscriber. It became clear to me then that Mike was not all he seemed to be, or made out he was. That became much more apparent to many others in mid-1989, when his massive financial problems came to a head. None of this, of course, was mentioned in his obituaries.
For all that, I  remember Mike, as so many others do, as a charming, helpful man. Indeed, in late 1972, when I was headed to Port-of-Spain, he offered to advise and aid me along the way. Happily, however, I never again trusted his copy as being original, and I never had any monetary dealings with him. The Jim Hines piece, by the way, was canned (as was Farquharson’s self-obituary last month), but I doubt that ever discouraged Mike. Not that I can now imagine asking him, in the afterlife or otherwise.
Alexander Lawrence Ballantyne was a great newspaper character and a man of a much different hue. As honest as the day is long, he was an expert and hugely experienced sub-editor with whom I worked in Western Australia for a decade from 1979. I often thought of Lex when I sympathised with Canberra Typospherian Jasper Lindell, a young man destined to be a fine journalist but one who sometimes feels he was born half a century too late. Lex epitomised the lure that had once drawn me into journalism – that a good grounding in the profession was a passport to any country in the world where there was an English-language newspaper. So travelled, so worldly, and yet so very different from Mike Agostini: there wasn’t an iota of bullshit about Lex Ballantyne.
Lex spent the last 19 years of his long working life as the chief sub-editor at the Centralian Advocate, from 1993 to 2012. Born in the Gorbals, the tough working-class area of Glasgow, two days before the end of 1939, Lex also had some sporting talent – as a young man he was scouted by Queens’ Park soccer club. While still at school he reported on matches for The Scotsman, where an uncle was the editor. Lex started his working life as a copy boy at the Daily Express in Glasgow, and his clean caption writing earned him a trial as a sub-editor. He moved to Manchester to work for The Sun and finished up on Fleet Street working for the Daily Mail. A yearning for travel took him to Kenya, where he worked for the Daily Nation in Nairobi, and to Argentina, where he worked for the Buenos Aires Herald. Finally Lex joined the Daily News in Perth, Australia.
Lex’s last wish was not to be buried, but to be thrown out on the rubbish tip. An obituary on Crikey said he was “One of the world’s last true newspapermen … a legendary figure in the newsroom". Alice Springs colleague Glenn Morrison wrote that “Lex didn’t suffer fools well and took no prisoners in an argument. He had an extraordinary general knowledge and a wicked sense of humour. I’m tempted to say God bless you mate, but I know that would quickly segue to an argument over the unlikely existence of such a deity … so I’ll just say cheers.”
Neither Mike nor Lex, I feel, would have experienced an ultimate orgasm in death. Both, it turns out, suffered long and painfully, and while the end would have been some sort of release, it would not have been a pleasant one. And perhaps it would be just as well if there isn’t a bar upstairs, a drinking hole for them to meet and chat. I doubt if they’d find much to agree about.