I was the literary editor of the National Times for almost three years, from 1979 to 1981. I was given the job by Anne Summers who had held it for some time and for whom I’d written a few book reviews. She was a top-flight journalist who had published her feminist history doctoral thesis as Damn Whores and God’s Police. She wanted to spend more time at investigative reporting.
Why Anne recommended me for the job I don’t know. Perhaps she thought my light-hearted reviewing style might be good leavening for the seriousness of the paper.
The National Times was a Fairfax broadsheet published on Sundays. Distinguished former editors had been Vic Carroll and Max Suich. The editors in my time were Evan Whitton and later David Marr. Among the staff were many people with notable careers – Paul Kelly, Marr, Marian Wilkinson, Virginia Duigan, Brian Toohey and Andrew Clark, to name a few. Peter Blazey had a brief florescence. Artists included Patrick Cook, Michael Fitzjames, Jenny Coopes, David Bromley and Victoria Roberts.
I went into the building on Jones Street twice a week – on Tuesdays when I checked on the books coming in and farmed out the reviews, and on Fridays, when I organised the pages, delivered the copy and checked the proofs.
The room in which we worked was nothing like a newsroom today. We used electric typewriters and up-ended them to make more room on the desks. We wrote on octavo sheets with three layers, white, pink and yellow. One copy we filed, another we delivered to the sub-editors and I forget what we did with the other. People smoked at their desks. Some drank.
I wasn’t paid much for the two days’ work but the job was a godsend to me as I’d been working as a freelance with no regular income. As well as my salary, I was paid extra for my own reviews. I pasted the pages I’d edited into a scrapbook, which now sits in the State Library archives. I wouldn’t be surprised to find that 10 per cent of the reviews I published were my own, perhaps more. Seldom the lead, illustrated review; I wasn’t that blatant.
Another perk of the job was access to the splendid Fairfax cuttings archive. I was writing my history of boxing in Australia, Lords of the Ring, and spent a lot of time away from my desk researching this book. The cuttings and photographs were invaluable.
The literary editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Margaret Jones at that time, was obliged to put all the books not sent out for review in the library. Not so at the National Times. I carted home books by the bagful and my library expanded exponentially. Every so often, when the cupboard where the books were stored filled up, I stacked them on my desk and invited the staff to take their pick. Typically, the piles vanished.
I was guided solely by my own personal tastes. No books on opera, ballet, or high art generally were reviewed. Nothing on gardening, cooking and only rarely, when it couldn’t be resisted, something on science. My pages were heavy on history, biography, mainstream fiction and certain sports. Cricket, as with science, only when the book couldn’t be resisted.
Feeling my way, early on, I used Anne’s list of reviewers but gradually added my own choices; friends and writers I admired. I encountered no serious difficulties with the job. Evan Whitton and I shared an interest in such things as boxing and hard-boiled detective fiction and had rapport. David Marr also mostly left me to my own devices.
There was a minor brush with a libel action that came to nothing. Two reviewers in particular insisted that their copy not be altered by so much as a comma. Occasionally their pieces had to be cut for space and there was hell to pay.
Eventually I tired of the flow of books. It got so that if I received another package of bulky, glossy hardbacks and publicity notices proclaiming them works of genius I felt physically sick. I came to hate the sight of new books. It was time to quit.
As luck would have it there was an ideal candidate for the job standing by. An experienced journalist, a writer who’d published a brilliant collection of short stories and had won the Premier’s literary prize for her novel Sister Kate – my partner, Jean Bedford.