THE ping-pong ball bounced across the table tennis table, bouncing once on the floor and then sailing through an open window. It could be heard pinging in the cobbled alleyway below, two floors down. “Bugger,’’ said the player serving, gazing at the open window.  “Bruce,’’ he shouted sharply.

A copy messenger came running into the room from the newsroom of the Chronicle beyond.  “Fucking ball’s gone out the window again. Go and get it,’’ said the server. Without saying a word, the copy runner went to the window and leaned out.  “I can see it,’’ he said excitedly, “but the wind’s blowing it towards the road.’’  “Well be bloody quick then,’’ said the player who had been serving.

The table tennis table occupied a prime position in the centre of a room that had once been the newspaper’s library. The electronic revolution that had swept through newspaper offices in the later part of the 20th century had not only made old-style printing processes using hot metal for type redundant, the tradition of cutting newspaper clippings to be referenced and filed in vermilion envelopes had also been consigned to history. The room that had once been the library was an extensive one, as big as the history of the Chronicle that stretched back more than 170 years, a little less than the birth of the state of Van Diemen’s Land itself. Along with the table tennis set-up, the room contained a small table with wooden chairs on which meals could be eaten and four giant leather armchairs, scarred and creased like the skin of an ageing surfer who had spent a lifetime in the sun. The room was a long rectangle. Along the wall separating it from the newsroom ran a kitchen unit with sink, refrigerator and microwave oven. The facing wall had a notice board and soft-drink and fast-food dispenser, the shorter wall overlooking the alleyway was dominated by a window edged in brick that had wooden window frames dating from the building’s construction in 1880.

The room by nature was dark and dingy, as was apparent during the rare occasions when its fluorescent light was switched off; a red-brick office block —the rear of the city’s post office — denying this side of the Chronicle building any sunlight. Librarians, it seems, in times gone by had been relegated to the dark corners of the Chronicle, perhaps indicating their lesser station and status in the bright and breezy world of newspaper journalism. Evidence of the librarian’s hand in what had once been the labour-intensive, time-consuming occupation of cutting and pasting thousands of newspaper clippings each night and day lie in the white-washed shelves strung across the fourth wall. Brass label holders still clung to each row of shelves, like shipwrecked sailors submerged in a sea of streaky whitewash,  shouting out ``farming’‘, ``crime’‘, and ``religion’’ in an SOS from the past.

The messroom that had once been the library was the territory of the Chronicle’s reporters by day, but it saw little use because the reporters were out and about and if they needed refreshment and rest there was a canteen downstairs, with plush suede armchairs and hot food straight from the oven instead of the microwave. And who would play table tennis during or at the end of the day, when there were homes or pubs to go to and thoughts of the office would be switched off as promptly as the log-off button on the computer? The room that was once the library came alive during the early evening and into the night, when its fluorescent light took hold. It was then that the night-shift sub-editors made it their domain, during their meal break in their seven-hour shift that finished at around midnight, if they chose not to go the pub.

The old hacks — as they called themselves — and some of the younger ones who gathered in the former library at night would be faintly amused that their journalistic endeavours, or the life that went with journalism, had come to this: a game of table tennis in the night when once they would have been down at the pub, discussing the night’s headlines and how they could be improved, over pints of Cascade pale ale or Boag’s draft. The demise of the newspaper pub culture was lamented each evening when the hacks chose to play ping-pong, and not go to the pub. It was the biggest change to overcome the newspaper industry, since the invention of the printing press, they would say, although it wasn’t, of course.

Journalists calling time on drinking was not entirely blamed on the advent of electronic editing, in which the keyboard and what it recorded was so unforgiving of drunks. The keyboard of an Imperial, or Royal or Olivette manual typewriter had been unforgiving, too, but there was no danger of the output of these going directly into the newspaper. The pubs where the journalists at the Chronicle had drank over the years had also changed. McMahon’s over the road from the Chronicle building was now a karaoke joint four nights a week, in that part of the week, towards the end, when the thirst became greatest for the hacks. How many times had the hacks tried to make themselves heard, to discuss the headlines and issues of the night, over the voice of someone singing ``My Way’‘? The hacks for the latter part of the week had forsaken McMahon’s for the Hope and Anchor a little way down the road, but the Hope required a walk when hacks of all generations, on all newspapers in all parts of the world were newspapers are printed and relished by readers, had never been known to walk more than 100 metres for a drink.

So the table tennis had come to the fore between the hours of eight and nine when the journalists took their break. The drinking of alcohol was generally frowned on in the office but management turned a blind eye to a few cans of lager stashed in the back of the office fridge, wrapped in brown paper, to be sipped between table tennis games. The management of the Chronicle were forgiving of many things, a hankering for the old ways among them. Journalists were allowed to talk about truth, of the sacred covenant between journalist and reader that recognised the public’s right to know. They were allowed to demand that their story ran as they wrote it, even if the journalists didn’t always get their own way. They were allowed to defend their stories from the assault of politicians and bureaucrats and, worse, advertisers. Journalists were allowed to talk of the advertising department in disparaging terms, to answer the age-old litany from advertising reps that ``It’s the advertising that pays your wages’’ with ``It’s the news that sells the advertising’‘.

Just as some people viewed the newspaper industry as outmoded, in the context of television and the news carried on the internet and even mobile phones, the Chronicle could be viewed as an anachronism within an anachronism. The past half-century had seen newspaper closures to the point that many towns and cities only had one publication when in past years there might have been three or four. In this climate it was remarkable that the Chronicle survived against a bigger, more prosperous competitor, the Star, that could offer more generous advertising rates.

The Chronicle remained a family-owned newspaper, the last in a major centre of population in Australia, whereas its rival was part of a bigger stable of state capital newspapers. Was it merely too eccentric to be considered a threat to its bigger rival, and the rivals in the other cities of Tasmania which were also tied to larger groups. It had somehow slipped under the radar. The Chronicle still retained a broadsheet format when the trend in recent years in England, where the template for Australian newspapers had always been set, was for newspapers to be of tabloid size. The Chronicle, unlike its rivals, was also sparing of colour, in this case not so much a reflection of its owners’ eccentricity but the limitations of its ageing rotary press. The newspaper could manage 10 colour pages in an 80-page run, and that, said the owners, was enough.

This is the world that Don Bentley had entered one December day six years previously. Bentley had washed up on the shores of Tasmania, and indeed the Chronicle, and he now was pleased that the tides of fate had carried him to Hobart, although there had been some resistance initially to taking up residence in Tasmania. The journalists at the Chronicle, those with ambition who wanted to move on, still asked him what he was doing there when bigger, more important newspapers beckoned on the mainland. Bentley had worked in the legendary Fleet Street in London when to have done so meant something, when newspapers had a status far greater than today. Bentley had worked on the Daily Mirror as a young man, when he too was ambitious, and then had packed his bags for adventures overseas, drifting to South Africa and working there. Although he had been brought up in the world of tabloid journalism, years working on a liberal South African newspaper had given him a taste for broadsheet, serious journalism and he had never been able to return to the popular press when he had returned to Britain.

It followed then, that when he had come to Australia, he would seek out the remaining broadsheet newspapers in the big cities for employment but found jobs on these difficult to secure. The newspapers had a glut of experienced journalists, many of these slowly being retrenched as papers across the country tried to trim staff levels to maintain profits. To his shock, Bentley discovered there was no demand for an ageing hack who had seen it all, and believed he still had something to give. The situation would have been so different a few years previously, he kept being told at interviews, when Australia craved British journalists for all their experience and input, but now Australia had more than enough journalists of its own, especially those returning from working for Australian proprietors overseas, and bringing back all their experience with them, like souvenirs packed in their bags.

Bentley’s Australian connection, and the reason he arrived on Australian shores in his 50th year, was easy to explain. During a spell working as a news scriptwriter at the BBC World Service, while waiting for a newspaper job to come up after his spell in Africa, Bentley had met a Tasmanian. They had married and had a son and Bentley’s wife had one day remarked casually, amid a rail strike and rain and fog, that, compared with Australia, London was no place to bring up a child.

Bentley at the time was unhappy in his journalist work for the first time in his career. He had joined the newly-formed Independent newspaper as a sub-editor with a promise of a reporter’s job and this had not materialised. He had been marginalised, in turn, in pursuit of a key job as one of the foreign news editors, and felt for the first time his career was not going anywhere. Why not Australia, he asked himself, for one last adventure? If he knew how difficult finding employment was he would never have come, but things had finally worked out after a painful period in which he had returned to Britain to get casual work and some money coming in, leaving his family in Australia. During this time he had been offered a sub-editor’s position on a small newspaper in Queensland and he flew from Britain to take it up. When the Chronicle had advertised for a sub-editor two years later he was a shoe-in for the job, because he had previously met the editor when he was looking for work and been placed on a waiting list.

Hobart was the first city in which Bentley had spent the night on arrival on Australian soil. His mother-in-law put him and the family up and he still carried with him those first impressions. From childhood, exploring the woods of his native Surrey, Bentley had loved the outdoors and the vistas and scenery of Hobart lifted his spirits after London, the flight out and a quick change of aircraft at Melbourne for the connection to Tasmania. Mount Wellington really did hang over the city, as his mother-in-law said it did. On that first day it was not flecked with snow, as she often described it in her letters, but had a thin veil of white cloud that billowed over its craggy sides like a tablecloth on a rough-hewn wooden table. Were those Bentley’s words, or had he read them in a travel guide, he couldn’t be sure but they summed up the mountain and he would always describe the mountain as such.

Crossing the Tasman Bridge from his mother-in-law’s home on Hobart’s eastern shore on that first day, Bentley liked what he saw when he reached the city. He still had his sights on the big city, of Melbourne and even better Sydney, but he thought at the time that if he was ready to opt out totally from mainstream journalism, Hobart would be the place to come. That was before even seeing a copy of the Chronicle, and delving into its style of journalism of old. The city and its simple, relaxed way of life reminded him of the Surrey of his youth, the part of Surrey that had not been gripped by the tentacles of London’s urban sprawl and London’s influence: the part of Surrey that still had fields, and villages, and a country accent, a drawl, that had no trace of London’s Cockney urgency. People from the Australian mainland joked about setting the clocks back 20 years on arrival at Hobart airport, but many Tasmanians took a silent pride in the fact that Tasmania had not tried to keep pace with the rest of Australia.

That first day, Bentley gazed from the window of a Metro bus to see a Greek restaurant called Zorba’s, a gym called Tarzan and Jane’s and a hairdressing establishment named Making Waves. There was a builder’s van that passed with the name Maverick and that of a house decorator’s called Streak and Son. What innocence, what charm, Bentley whispered to himself, with a smile.

Bentley had started in journalism in a country town, that of Guildford in Surrey, in the 1960s. In those far-off days before motorways, the traffic moved along the high street in such small volume as not to be a threat to pedestrians. The quaint Victorian station hummed with trains departing and arriving from six or seven directions, and at the end of the platforms was an engine shed with a turntable and hissing stream engines waiting for their next call of duty. The cafeteria in the station served a milk shake and a slice of apple and blackberry pie whose flavour his mother’s finest cooking could not approximate. At the office of the Surrey Advertiser, the young reporters retired mid morning, if they were not covering the local court or a meeting of one of the council’s committees, to the restaurant of the Co-op store which was less of a restaurant than a tea room. There waitresses in long black dresses with starched white pinnies served toasted teacakes and milky coffee.

Bentley, although 40 years and 12,000 miles away from the memories of his days as a trainee reporter, thought of these things this day. Hobart reminded him of that long-lost Surrey and growing up in the Tasmanian capital in the 1950s and 1960s would not have been so very different to his early life in Surrey. The tea cakes would have had that same flavour of fruit just picked from the vines, an engine whistle would have sounded from the distance where the locomotive was being turned on the turntable in the engine sheds at the station mouth. Crows would have cried from the skies as they crossed the city and at the end of the working day there would have been pints of ale in homely pubs with log fires and barmen talking about the weather. Bentley would say to himself he was lucky to have found Hobart, and he now had no ambition to go to the ``big smoke’’ as Melbourne and Sydney were termed, as the major cities are termed in every country. He was in Hobart to stay and he hoped the Chronicle would remain as it was for a few more years, at least until he retired.

Next week: Don Bentley’s love affair …








Don Knowler A story of journalism … once!

After a long career in journalism, Donald Knowler has a treasure-trove of stories of his own to tell. To recount his experiences in short story form, he has invented a newspaper, The Chronicle, which bears no resemblance to any seen in Hobart before. It is a broadsheet to carry the weight of Knowler’s observations over the years, of journalists, their contacts and the hot-metal printers consigned to history by electronic editing and typesetting. The series of short stories, which start today,  will run regularly (grouped under the Category Don Knowler. They will explore not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant they have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so …