I’ve had a somewhat similar gig once before – as a TV columnist for the National Times in what proved to be its dying days. It was money for jam; I was provided with a television set and VCR and a flood of previews of television programs came my way. I could pick and chose what I wrote about – the week’s offerings or forthcoming shows – and the money was good.
As a contributor, not an in-house writer, I phoned my column in to copy-takers and received a proof by fax. Phoning in was fun and I was gratified if I made the copy-taker laugh, disappointed if I didn’t.
It was too good to last. The paper was struggling without adequate advertising revenue and eventually I got a call from one of the two editors: ‘Peter,’ she said, ‘it isn’t working. I’m afraid we’re letting you go.’
Pretty soon the whole thing wasn’t working and the paper folded. I was able to keep the TV and the VCR for a week or two but eventually had to surrender them. It was the only time I’ve ever been sacked.
Writing for the NRB has been very different, though just as enjoyable. Given carte blanche by the editors, it hasn’t been hard for someone my age, with my experience of academia, journalism, the writing life, and an interest in sport, films, politics and life in general to come up with topics for a 500-word piece.
I’ve had my damaged health and my varied youthful experiences as a working-class boy trying to make good to draw on, mostly to treat comically. I’ve met and worked with a lot of story-worthy people like brilliant anthropologist Roger Keesing; selfless humanitarian Fred Hollows; environmentalist saviour of Fraser Island John Sinclair; rambunctious actors Ray Barrett and Bill Hunter and the highly professional Bryan Brown, and with the passionate euthanasia advocate, Dr Philip Nitschke. Great material to tap into.
I was lucky that I suffered from insomnia following an accident with a truck and treatment in a rehab hospital. Sitting wakeful in the dark early hours, it did me a power of good to knock out column after column, giving the editors a stockpile to choose from.
It became harder later without insomnia and with the pressure of other work, and adjusting to a reduced physical and social life. But I had family and friends to exploit for anecdotes, and in quiet moments I could pronounce on my favourites among books and films. It’s been enjoyable to communicate with readers endorsing and dissenting from my judgements.
I think of column subjects when walking about the streets of the Newtown I love; thoughts come when I overhear things in the pubs. A friend falls ill, a grandchild is born, another makes a penetrating bon mot. Life goes on. A novel by a writer I admire, Christopher Isherwood, inspired the title for a hit play that captured the sense that life is the writer’s workbench – I am a Camera. If you look and listen the material is all around you. I am a columnist.