DON BENTLEY slumped down in his armchair in front of the television set. He was in shock and at first Bentley’s wife looked at him in silence.
After a few minutes, she said tentatively, quietly: ``Everything all right dear?’‘
Bentley said nothing. He sipped at the glass of shiraz he had just poured, his eyes fixed on the television, watching a cricket match being beamed from England.
``So how did it go?’’ his wife said again.
Don Bentley had just returned home, early, from his first shift on the Sunday Chronicle. Having spent the first four days of the week working on the daily Chronicle, he had faced the challenge of learning more names and a different hierarchy on the Sunday edition.
As if starting a new job had not been stressful enough, two sets of faces, two sets of egos in the space of four days had been difficult to contemplate when he had left for work that Saturday afternoon.
He was due back at around midnight, and here he was at 9 pm, sitting in front of the television set, glass of red in hand, watching the cricket from England. His wife was concerned, considering the nervousness and bad temper he had displayed when he left for work that afternoon.
``Everything go OK?’’ his wife said again, a tinge of anxiety in her voice.
``Oh, yeah,’’ Bentley said finally, his eyes still fixed to the television. Someone had just scored a six. ``But fucking strange place, I’ve never known anything like it.’‘
He then described the events of the evening, not so much the whole evening but the events of the final 10 minutes.
``Well, everyone was friendly enough, helpful. Most of the guys are the people I work with in the week so I had met them already. But the editor, now there’s a ... I can’t explain it. I’ve been around a lot of newsrooms, known a lot of editors, but this guy. I’m speechless.’‘
``Well, tell me,’’ Mrs Bentley pressed.
As Bentley explained it, the evening had gone along without drama, or incident. A steady stream of work; he had been surprised to be given a couple of page leads to edit when new boys tended to get down-page copy, until they had proven themselves. Bentley’s ability to handle copy quickly and accurately had obviously been noted during his first four shifts on the daily Chronicle and word of his expertise had reached the editor of the Sunday newspaper, or at least his deputy who was assigning stories.
The editor - a tall fit-looking man, shaven-head bald with angular features extenuating a narrow, long nose - had approached Bentley’s desk earlier in the evening, standing over him. He reminded Bentley of a bird of prey, possibly a bald eagle, but he stood over Bentley not in a threatening way, merely craning forward to shake Bentley by the hand.
``Linton Muffin,’’ said the editor with a smile. ``Busy tonight, of course, but we must have a drink some time. Any problems, just shout out.’‘
Bentley had kept his head down all evening, checking and double checking his work because he wanted to make an impression on his first shift on the Sunday Chronicle.
It was ironic that in all his career, Bentley had never worked on a Sunday newspaper before, at least as a sub-editor. It was a strange feeling to be at work on a Saturday night, a night when Bentley liked to be out at a sporting event, or at a restaurant.
At about nine o’clock, with most of the first edition of the newspaper completed, save for some empty pages towards the end of the paper waiting for late sport, a voice had boomed out across the newsroom.
It came from the editor, Linton Muffin.
``Hector, it is time!’‘
Bentley, still recounting the events of the evening to his wife, said: ``Well, this bloke Hector, he’s one of the sub-editors, he gets up from his desk and walks over to where the editor is standing. Then he falls on to his knees and starts to kiss the editor’s boots.’’
``Why’d he do that?’’ said Mrs Bentley, not sure if Don Bentley was making it all up.
``It’s just some kind of ritual, apparently. Then the editor shouts out that all the early starters, those due to go after the first edition at eleven o’clock, can go. It’s like if this bloke kisses the editor’s boots, we can all go home.’‘
``Sounds weird,’’ said Mrs Bentley. Her husband agreed.
Don Bentley soon learned that the kissing-boots ritual was not the only thing eccentric, if not weird, about the work practices of the Sunday Chronicle.
A few weeks later Bentley was assigned to the newspaper for a week as a replacement for the permanent sub-editor, who was on leave. Sunday newspapers traditionally have a slow start to the week, usually starting on a Tuesday, but there appeared great haste in the office of the Sunday Chronicle to get the entertainment guide completed by a deadline of about lunchtime. Bentley merely assumed at first the guide was produced as a pre-print to the main paper itself, but soon learned that the haste was to clear the decks for what was termed a planning meeting.
The planning meeting was held at a local restaurant, the Thai Garden, each week and together with the editor and the staff sub-editor, the newspaper’s chief reporter, Sean Caporelli, was also required to attend.
In those first minutes in the restaurant, when the editor and Caporelli finally had a chance to acquaint themselves with Bentley, there was a surprising lack of talk about the Sunday Chronicle and its plans for the week.
What there was talk about was choice of menu - which Bentley would learn over subsequent secondments to the Sunday newspaper resulted in the same dish being presented at the table, squid shaped in the characters of the Thai alphabet served in a strong chilli sauce, so strong that it emitted fumes from the plate. There was also much discussion about the choice of wine, which, like the main dish, always resulted in the same variety and vintage being presented - a pale, weak white wine in a carafe which Bentley suspected had its provenance in a cardboard box somewhere out of sight at the back of the restaurant.
Many things were discussed at the planning meeting of the Sunday Chronicle, many of them having nothing to do with newspapers whatsoever.
As far as Bentley could ascertain, the main discussion at the planning meeting had much to do with the trouble the editor and his star reporter had landed themselves in through the consumption of excess alcohol in the preceding week. Often at the planning meeting of the Sunday Chronicle, a list of drinking establishments where Muffin and Caporelli might or might not receive service that week were drawn up.
The planning meeting dragged on well into the afternoon and, on subsequent stints on the Sunday Chronicle, Bentley would learn its length could be determined not just by looking at his watch but how warm the wine arriving at the table was becoming. The speed of its consumption had no doubt exceeded the capacity of the staff to chill it after it had been poured from its cardboard box.
Bentley was also to learn the planning meeting was in the plural. It was in two parts; the second session taking place in an establishment just over the road from the Thai Garden, the New Sydney Hotel.
Here beers were tried, mostly ales from a boutique Tasmanian brewery. Usually during these sessions at the New Sydney Hotel, which coincided with the arrival of patrons who had just finished work, there would be no discussion of the Sunday Chronicle at all, or what might be on its front page later in the week. After sessions in the New Sydney Hotel, Bentley could never remember anything that had been discussed either there or at the Thai Garden.
Bentley enjoyed his periodic stints on the Sunday Chronicle. It was a welcome distraction from his usual night shifts on the daily newspaper, giving him a greater scope of work. This pleasant distraction was a little like the column on bird-watching he had been writing for the daily newspaper, an escape from the strait-jacket of hard news when, with writing headlines for Sunday features and entertainment news, a different kind of flair came into play.
The demands of the planning meeting, however, began to take their toll on not only Bentley’s well-being, but his relationship with his wife.
Sometimes the planning meeting, after phases one and two, would enter another phase, at another hotel, possibly with live music, or at a restaurant that opened late into the night.
On Tuesday evenings, Mrs Bentley became increasingly concerned about Bentley’s late arrival, and the state he was in when he finally entered the front door. Early one morning, as dawn broke, a concerned Mrs Bentley, realising Mr Bentley’s side of the bed had not been slept in, looked out of the window to find Bentley asleep on the front lawn.
Under similar circumstances a few weeks later, Bentley could be seen reaching for the switch of his electric blanket as a frost settled on the grass.
During the early days of working on the Sunday Chronicle, Don Bentley, the birdwatcher and bird conservationist, had also found himself in a swank restaurant with Muffin and Caporelli eating Cape Barren goose, an endangered species.
Don Bentley’s shifts on the Sunday Chronicle, or more precisely his attendance at the Tuesday planning meetings, were brought to a halt after a much anticipated escape to a luxury hotel on Tasmania’s scenic East Coast was marred for Mrs Bentley when Don Bentley spent two days in bed, suffering the effects of what she suspected was a form of alcohol poisoning.
It was Don Bentley himself who put a stop to the Tuesday sessions when he discovered Linton Muffin and Sean Caporelli, unable to keep up with Englishman Bentley’s adeptness at sinking pints of Hazards Ale, were pouring the contents of their near-full glasses into his near-empty one while he was on visits to the lavatory.
The pull of Linton Muffin’s influence, and the good times to be had in his company, proved too strong for Don Bentley and he still conspired to meet him on days off, in a strict regime of keeping drinking and misbehaviour under control
Bentley had met many a journalist, particularly in his days working in London’s Fleet Street, who could be termed characters, but he had never quite met anyone like Linton Muffin.
Muffin carried a charismatic, erudite air, possibly from his upbringing in the Brethren Church, where is father was a lay reader. Muffin himself had carried ambitions at one time to enter the Anglican Church, and Bentley recognised something of the English country vicar in him. Bentley had spent many a happy moment as a cub reporter in rural Surrey in the 1960s sipping port and sherry with vicars while on his country rounds.
Muffin was given to delivering sermons about the evils of what he saw as an uncaring, greedy society, of society’s obsession with celebrity and personality, a fascination with the frivolous that Muffin saw reflected in the tabloid press but not the newspaper he edited which, like its daily stablemate, maintained a broadsheet design.
A conversation with Muffin might range far and wide, but it always came back to journalists and journalism, usually with Muffin lamenting that all the fun had gone out of the business with a new breed of young journalists who valued a university degree in communications above getting out and meeting people, and getting drunk.
And did Bentley and Muffin get drunk, and did they have fun. For Bentley there was always the unexpected around the corner, a cause for a laugh. The beauty of Muffin’s company was that it reminded Bentley of all the reasons he had entered journalism 40-odd years previously. A sense of adventure, the unpredictable, the freedom from routine and set hours and, most importantly, that thing that cannot be defined, that thing, that bonhomie, the Irish call craic.
``What ya got, what’s the goss, who’s up whom?’’ Muffin would say when he greeted Bentley at the start of their latest drinking, carousing adventure.
The adventures were many. There was the occasion when Muffin was determined to sample a ploughman’s lunch that had recently appeared on the menu of a favoured haunt, the Lark Distillery just off the Hobart waterfront.
Bentley arrived early to run his eye over the establishment’s wine list and was surprised to see Muffin arrive on his racing cycle, wearing garish lycra, a matching helmet and cycling shoes.
It signalled this would not be a full session, just a light lunch of cheddar, onions, sourdough bread with a couple of glasses of good shiraz thrown in to wash it all down.
The two glasses became a bottle and before long Muffin and Bentley were moving on to a waterfront establishment for more wine, Muffin pushing his bike.
During the afternoon the bike could be seen chained to lamp-posts outside a variety of establishments along the Salamanca pub and restaurant strip before the racing bike entered Salamanca Square. There Muffin, Bentley and racing bike encountered a problem. Bentley wanted to visit the Barcelona bar, a favourite at the time, before an expression of anguish and doubt creased Muffin’s face. It was an establishment at which his custom was no longer welcome, for an indiscretion that Muffin could no longer remember.
There was an easy solution that satisfied all parties, and Bentley prided himself on coming up with it; the rigours of the afternoon had not dented his quick-thinking.
``It’s easy, Linton,’’ said Bentley. ``We’ll sit at the tables outside and you just wear your helmet. They’ll never recognise you.’’ It worked, and Bentley and Muffin downed a couple of expensive Spanish lagers, all the while keeping a watch on Muffin’s expensive bike.
It was then off to an open-air music venue in Salamanca Square, where a band specialising in Latin American salsa was playing in the early evening. Muffin, his lycra matching the garish pattern on the maracas, parked his bike between a Mexican in a straw hat and a Colombia with a pipe, sitting on beer barrels close to the stage.
Being the front-runner, the person who determined if Muffin was welcome or not at pubs and clubs, became a familiar role for Bentley during his developing friendship with Linton Muffin and his cohorts. Bentley, with much experience under his belt, prided himself on his ability to hold his alcohol, and maintain an appearance of near sobriety even if he had had a skinful.
The role of Muffin’s front-man became a familiar routine. Bentley would enter the establishment first, leaving Linton Muffin on the pavement outside, seek out the owner or manager and ask simply if Muffin outside could come in?
Once, at the New Sydney, he encountered the question: “Is he wearing lycra?’‘
Working night shifts, Bentley was unavailable for many of the sojourns to Hobart’s hostelries. Determined not to leave Bentley out of the fun, Muffin when he was out and about would phone the Chronicle night desk and tell Bentley where he was likely to be if Bentley was in need of a drink after work.
One evening, Muffin had forgotten to turn off his mobile phone and, after inviting Bentley out for a night of carousing, he was heard to say to another colleague out with him: ``You go in first, they’ll serve you.’‘
Muffin had an uneasy relationship with the office watering hole, Mahoney’s over the road from the Chronicle building. It should have been a natural venue for a journalist, within walking distance of the office, but Muffin’s behaviour at times annoyed the management. It was not so much bad behaviour but his tendency to rant about the shortcomings of Tasmania’s political structure and its ruling politicians. Some of these very politicians gathered at Mahoney’s on occasion, to court the journalists who met there, and it was a trade treasured as much as that of the newspaper patrons, and one to be protected.
All the same, the antics of Muffin could raise a smile from the owners of Mahoney’s from time to time. On one occasion bar staff painted a face on Muffin’s bald head during one of his rants. It was a face with a smile.
The staff at Mahoney’s pub, however, did allow recitations of Muffin’s beloved poetry, not his own work but those of Coleridge and W H Auden. His colleagues were not so tolerant. On one celebrated occasion, at another establishment with a roaring log fire, Muffin’s insistence on reading poetry resulted in a prized collection of poetry being snatched from him, and tossed into the flames
``The burning of books, a stain on civilisation, a strain on freedom and democracy,’’ Muffin would complain for weeks afterwards, addressing not only the journalist who had performed such sacrilege but others who had laughed at his antics.
In all Bentley’s travels, and in all his associations with journalists, he had known some bizarre reasons for journalists being barred from drinking establishments, but the recitation of poetry was not among them. At least until he met Muffin. Bentley was surprised late one night, after Mahoney’s had closed, to find Muffin reticent to enter another favourite establishment, Joe’s Garage. As it name suggested, Joe’s was a bar decked out like the inside of a motor and motorcycle workshop. Engine blocks and giant springs served as bar stools, wheels as tables; the bar constructed of strips of corrugated iron.
``You go in Bentley, and see if I’m welcome,’’ Muffin said out on the pavement.
Joe’s was a tough, no-nonesense establishment, frequented by bikies and Bentley rarely went there. Unlike Muffin, who owned a 900cc Kawasaki motorcycle, Bentley had no interest in bikes and, for that matter, high-performance motorcars. Bentley drove an ancient Jeep Wrangler, something that got him into the hills for his birdwatching forays. Bentley’s vehicle was not one that impressed Muffin, and certainly not one that would have brought admiring glances if it had been parked outside Joe’s Garage,
``You go in Bentley,’’ Muffin insisted out on the pavement, ``to see if I’m still welcome.’’ Bentley approached a young woman behind the bar, a woman speaking to a group of rev-heads further down the counter.
``Excuse me, I have a friend outside who says he has been barred in the past. Is he welcome today?``
``And who’s your mate?’’ the barmaid said tersely. ``A Mr Muffin, you know a tall, bald gentleman who likes poetry. And he owns a Kawasaki.”
``Oh him,’’ the barmaid responded. ``Yes, but none of that fucking poetry.’‘
It appeared Muffin had been reciting lines from a W H Auden poem on the pain of love that had upset bikies in the bar. Bentley wondered why. Maybe if was the unusual, the unfamiliar that put the bikies on their guard and he pondered if there was possibly a poem about the delights of riding a motorcycle. In all probability there was, but Muffin had never mentioned it.
While in the bar, Bentley had met a Samoan friend, the father of a schoolmate of Bentley’s teenage son. The Samoan was in fact the bar’s bouncer, a business he ran in conjunction with other members of the Hobart Samoan community.
Bentley was never one for practical jokes, or japes or ruses, but he saw an opportunity to use his friendship with the Samoan to have some fun at Muffin’s expense. On a subsequent evening Bentley suggested to Muffin that they visit Joe’s garage again. Muffin was surprised that Bentley should want to go there because he had never shown any enthusiasm for the bar in the past, but Bentley merely said that he had enjoyed the barmaid’s company on the proceeding visit, and had enjoyed the country and western music that she had played on the juke box.
Muffin was delighted he had at last found another Joe’s Garage enthusiast. When they approached the establishment, the Samoan bouncer was out on the street, fixing Muffin with a hard stare. At the door he ushered in Bentley with a smile but turned to Muffin and said, ``Sorry, sir, you can’t come in. This a Wordsworth house.’‘
Another establishment that had caught Muffin’s eye was a pub reputed to the the oldest in Australia, or at least the one with the longest record of continuous business, dating from 1806. The term “continuous business” was stretching a point because the pub went for long spells when it was not open at all, there always seemed to be disputes between current licence holders and the actual owner of the building. During one period when the pub, the Crown and Anchor, was open for a lengthy time it became the preferred haunt of Muffin and his entourage.
Like Mahoney’s, the Crown and Anchor was situated within brief walking distance of the Chronicle. It held dangers not because of its proximity to the newspaper office but because it tended to stay open as long as there were customers drinking there. Instead of going home directly after his night shift, Bentley, along with others, found himself increasingly drawn to the Crown and Anchor. Often towards the end of the week, when he was required to stay later at the office, Muffin would be there, too.
Mrs Bentley at this time began to notice not only Bentley’s late arrival home each evening, but unfamiliar demands on the Bentley joint bank account.
Every few days money would be drawn late at night by Eftpos from an establishment with the business name of Shirley’s Laptop Enterprises. It sounded more like a strip-joint or worse and Bentley was at a lost for a few days to explain who was the recipient of such largesse. He then realised it was the business name of the couple holding the Crown and Anchor licence, Shirley and her partner, Leyton Butler. They also had a side-line in selling second-hand computers.
Muffin encountered problems at the Crown and Anchor of another kind.
The historic pub stood between the city centre and a major hotel, the venue for conventions. Delegates would often spill from the hotel to explore Hobart night-spots, invariably ending up at the Hope and Anchor in the small hours en route back to their hotel. Here Muffin found a ready audience for his impromptu poetry recitals, one that had not grown tired of the same poems from W H Auden being recited over and over again.
Late one night a group of lawyers attending a national law convention had washed up at the Hope and Anchor and Muffin had joined them in conversation. When the pub finally closed in the small hours of the morning, Muffin suggested the whole merry party continue to Joe’s Garage, a short distance away. The lawyers marched down the street - singing and still holding their glasses - and were promptly arrested by police for being rowdy and in possession of alcohol on a public street.
Muffin had been editor of the Sunday Chronicle for seven years, and during that time had pushed its circulation to unprecedented levels. He prided himself on the fact it was not done with sensational reporting, but reporting in depth. Building circulation was also done with innovation, introducing an arts section to the newspaper, and a children’s page.
The stresses of the job, though, and the social life that went with the position, slowly began to tell. Bentley could not work out which stress – of work or play - led to the other, but it was clear the editorship was a demanding job, with long hours and heavy responsibility, and Muffin complained with increasing frequently that he should be spending more time with his family. He had in mind taking a backwards step, and becoming a sub-editor on the daily newspaper, possibly only working a four-day week which would allow him to pursue a new interest, setting up a website that gave a deeper version of Tasmanian news than a newspaper format - even a broadsheet like the Chronicle – could not do.
For such a project he had received the blessing of the Chronicle’s owners, as long as it did not conflict with the work Muffin did for their newspapers, or compete in a commercial sense, namely for advertising.
Events conspired to hasten Muffin’s departure from the editorship.
One winter’s evening the night reporter of the Chronicle chased a story about a man and his teenage son trapped by snow at the summit of Mount Wellington. A mountain rescue team were called out and the pair were eventually brought down to Hobart, safe but a little cold.
There was great mirth among the night staff when the names of those rescued had been revealed by the police as Linton Muffin and his son, Tim. Immediately a mock front page was produced, with a screaming headline that read ``Mountain drama, journalist comes in from the cold.’’ Together with a report lampooning Muffin was a picture of a snowman with the caption, ``Linton Muffin after being found by mountain rescuers.’‘
The incident proved an epiphany for Muffin. He gave up his position as soon as a replacement could be found, and settled into life as a sub-editor working a four-day week.
After a few years, this arrangement also proved to be frustrating for Muffin. The liberal, gently paternalistic Tasmanian institution that was the Chronicle daily and Sunday newspapers may have proven a warm and cosy environment for Linton Muffin, but the former editor was looking beyond newspapers, to the new age of the internet and citizen journalism and blogging. Muffin decided to take early retirement.
It was fitting for those who knew him (and indeed still do) that Muffin’s last shift should be on a Saturday night, working for the Sunday newspaper. At around nine in the evening, a voice boomed out, ``Hector. Come over here!’’ Hector obliged, walking slowly towards Muffin before dropping at his feet, and then kissing his boots.
``Earlys can go home,’’ shouted Muffin, and the earlys and a few others trooped to Mahoney’s.
Chronicle (39): End of an era/ Start of an era
Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!
Number 39 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