A life in newspapers

I come from a family of writers, mostly journalists. My parents met and fell in love as young reporters on The Courier-Mail in the 1950s. When I was growing up, if you told a story, it had to have a strong lead and put the most important things first. If you didn’t tell it right, you didn’t get to finish it.

My father was chief sub-editor in the days the newspaper was produced in hot metal. Stories were typed on manual typewriters, edited on paper and then keyed into a special machine that produced hot metal type. It came out in newspaper columns which were then laid out manually in page frames for printing.

Journalism may have lost its lustre since then, but to my three brothers and me, who visited our father’s work at Bowen Hills in inner Brisbane as kids, it was venerable. On my night, I wore a navy blue dress with a red and white tie at the front, a matching hair band, long white socks and black patent leather shoes. In the composing room – smells of grease and engines – Dad’s friend Merv Irwin gave me my name engraved backwards in metal, like a stamp.

And then the newsroom, clacking typewriters punctuated by dings and ratcheted carriage returns over constant talking, people rushing around. I don’t know what my brothers thought but for me it was life-changing. I was taken away by the energy and excitement, people illuminated by their shared purpose, to learn the truth of things and tell the world. I’d found my calling. I finished school, started at the Telegraph, left only when life took an unexpected turn, did other things, kept writing, hoped I could get back.

The Committee for the Economic Development of Australia says 40 per cent of jobs we have now won’t be here in 15 years. You might think a job requiring writing skills, an understanding of human frailty, warmth and perseverance would survive. But many of us go to the internet where the news is free, that dreadful cacophony that defers to the mob. And we don’t count the cost. Diversely owned newspapers were an important check on power, as the recent film Spotlight showed. It was a team of dedicated journalists that investigated and made public the great evil at work in Boston. It's a co-op of journalists who've brought us the Panama papers, working for the few independent media outlets left in the world.

I’ve been back in journalism these last three years, writing about mostly small things, raising children, education, nature, creativity and dear Spike, and this is my last column with the weekend magazine. I’ve learned that many journalists still strive to ensure that what we read is fair and right and well-written and important. It’s been an honour to be their colleague, and yours, dear reader.


Enid Blyton's Malory Towers?

Every year, we start our Easter beach holiday at a bookstore with a hefty kids’ section. My son, 13, loves Enid Blyton, currently the Malory Towers series about life for students in a boarding school on the sea in Cornwall. Their problems are manageable and life is grand. My son likes the formula; a new student needs to learn their lesson, a naughty student doesn’t get their come-uppance, and a student with a problem turns out to be the best. This holiday, he was looking forward to buying the books from the series he hasn’t yet read. Imagine his shock to learn Enid Blyton didn’t actually write all of them.

I’m a great believer in the Barthesian notion that the author is dead, present company notwithstanding. It’s refreshing to contemplate the text as independent of its author, the reader bringing their own experience and unique reading. It gets me out of having to take responsibility for just about anything I’ve written. It’s also been handy as a mantra when reading reviews of my books which otherwise would break my heart. The author is dead.

But Enid Blyton is dead not only in a literary professor’s head. She’s more like a Monty Python Norwegian blue parrot kind of dead, deceased, late, no more. She died in 1968, and I suspect hasn’t written anything since. How then can she be releasing books as recently as 2009? It’s like Roy Orbison who put out so many albums after his death he came back into the charts, or Elvis, who toured for years after his passing.

The recent Malory Towers books were penned by Pamela Cox, a children’s writer made famous, circuitously, by her Enid Bylton books. On the copies we saw, Enid Blyton’s name is splashed across the top, with a teeny Pamela Cox in the inside pages against the six new books in the series she wrote. I imagine Cox is a Blyton fan and has done the series proud, and I know there are other series for kids with multiple authors. But there’s still something wrong with what they’ve done.

It’s nothing like A Monster Calls, an outline and first chapter by writer Siobhan Dowd that was finished by the marvellous Patrick Ness after Dowd died suddenly of cancer.  A Monster Calls honours Dowd and brings beauty to the world. The recent Malory Towers books are different. There’s something wrong with publishing books written by the childhood hero of so many that are written by someone else. I asked fellow Blyton fan and writer Kim Wilkins, who actually understands Barthes, why. “Because it’s market-driven and our relationship with children’s books is of the heart.” Yes.