After recently having spilled a rather fine Australian Shiraz into my laptop, I have come to realise why journalists don’t drink as much as they once did. In my youth, journalists used to file their copy from booze proof analogue telephones or pound their stories out on almost indestructible manual typewriters. A fraternal interest in booze was a hallowed foundation for creating and maintaining contacts.
I started out as a reporter in Sydney, covering unions whose operations seemed to float on a sea of beer and spirits; whose currents, I quickly learned to navigate.
To avoid unpleasantness and resulting fisticuffs, different union factions used to favour different pubs in the seventies. Members of the Australian Communist Party drank at the Criterion, an otherwise undistinguished bar just across the road from Australian Associated Press. Off Duty overnight subs (sub-editors) mingled with communists, environmentalists, the occasional giant drag queen and ageing members of the anarchist “push”. People had heated arguments over ideas; a concept many computer literate whippersnappers might find novel. Reporters would learn of scoops which would be tragically forgotten after the sixth or eighth Bundaberg Rum and Coke. It was the sort of place where you went in with a fairly loving relationship and came out with a force nine hangover.
One block south, on the edge of Chinatown, right wing unionists drank at the old Trades Hall Hotel. They belonged to the Centre Unity faction, which was neither Centrist nor unified, but it didn’t seem to matter as long as they had the numbers at the weekly Labor Council meetings. They seldom spoke to journalists and drank and plotted in the back bar, deciding Labor candidates’ careers, rigging union elections and writing the policies of the state Labor government itself. Only one journalist, Jack Simpson from the Telegraph, cracked their system. The back bar was connected to the public bar by a service window which the Centre Unity officials had to open to get their beers. Jack sat on the public bar side, running a small but lucrative betting shop. Jack would trade tips on the horse races for inside information on the Labor Party. The system worked well, until Jack a former bare-knuckle boxer; fell off his stool under the influence of one beers or three. His stories were a bit scrambled after that, although it seemed that editors of the Telegraph, who didn’t much like unions anyway, didn’t seem to notice. As Jack succinctly put it, “They were so low, they could walk under a snake’s belly with their umbrellas up!” I still don’t know whether he was talking about the Telegraph staff or the rightwing union officials.
Across the street, what was left of the unions drank at the Star Hotel. I went there one hot Sydney Summer afternoon, after a long unwooded Chardonnay sodden long lunch with two hackettes. The bitchumen pavements may have been melting outside, but the bar was cool and dark. A solitary drinker was downing beers with the sort of intensity with which lawyers pursue money. One of the hackettes, now a sage and respected columnist, sidled up to him.
“What’s your name,” she asked with a giggle.
“I’m the Flick man,” he replied.
It was at that moment that two things dawned on me.
The first thing was that I recognised this fellow with the deep tan and the tattoos as a member of the Painters and Dockers Union. They worked the waterfront, which in those free and easy days before containerised cargo, was a lucrative venue for organised and disorganised crime. The Painters and Dockers were the toughest blokes on the wharves.
At this point, I remembered I had a pal belonging to the Actors Union which had been trying to sign up the strippers at Kings Cross. One club’s bouncers protested against organised labour by throwing a union organiser down a flight of stairs and giving him a kicking which resulted in the loss of his spleen. But the Painters and Dockers owed the Actors a favour.
I read two weeks later that the club in question had burned down, with the manager still inside. Interviewed in hospital, the club manager told the Sydney Morning Herald that he had been depressed when he set the club alight and had locked himself in. He said that when he recovered from his injuries, he planned to leave town and get out of clubbing which had lost its attractions for him.
And the girls were talking to a Painter and Docker who called himself the Flick man. He was of course referring to the Flick company, which applied pesticides. Their radio and televisions ads claimed that if you had problems with insects, cockroaches, rodents or indeed pests of any sort, all you had to do was “Call the Flick man”.
“Just one flick and their gone,” was their slogan.
I made myself absent.