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Paper, boy

by Peter Wilmoth, 9 March 2016

Peter Wilmoth’s boy-journalist toolkit for antagonising an Australian political giant.

Peter Wilmoth, age 12, with copies of Our World 1974 Courtesy of the author
Peter Wilmoth, age 12, with copies of Our World 1974 Courtesy of the author

It was the school project that got out of control. The task in Grade Eight was to produce a newspaper. Three years later I was still doing it, publishing Our World twice a week, running it off on my school’s Roneo machine. I always wondered what the ladies in the admin room thought as I ground the machine’s lever, each copy dropping into place, the smelly purple ink giving life to my little stories.

They say you’re blessed if you know what you want to do in life. I knew as a very young kid that I wanted to write, and I hoped to work for a newspaper. There was some writing in the blood. 

My grandmother, E.A. (Elsie) Southwell, was a writer and editor who, in the 1950s, collated a pioneering collection of pieces about the environment called Food, Soil and Civilisation, as well as editing textbooks on English expression and poetry. Grandma loved poetry more than I did. She would give me twenty cents if I learnt a poem by Keats or Tennyson. I trousered the cash but pretty quickly forgot the poem.

It wasn’t poetry that had me in its embrace. I loved journalism. What a world that would arrive at our doorstep each morning (there’s an old-fashioned idea). At age ten I would devour the words of the smart columnists on The Age, people I would come to work with later, Peter Smark, Robert Haupt, Peter Cole-Adams, Sally White and, of course, Ron ‘Curly’ Carter writing about football. I could not have imagined that in a few years I would be an eighteen year old cadet journalist at The Age, sitting next to Ron on Thursday nights, compiling the football teams for the big weekend games.

I was restless to get involved, so I took this school project further. It meant I wasn’t just a writer and editor; I was also a publisher with my own little paper. Our World reported on the goings-on in one street - Haverbrack Avenue, Malvern. It brought news of birthdays, examination successes, illness and injury, and families greetings visitors all the way from Sydney. It featured any births, deaths or marriages I could find out about. It had poems, record reviews, gardening notes (by my mother) and reflections on the worlds of sport and occasionally - and ominously for me - politics.

I was thirteen when I started the paper. I was the publisher and editor. I had a team of contributors and 'subeditors', all living in my street and all under the age of fifteen. No-one got paid (not that I had any money to pay them). It was the prestige of achieving a by-line in a boutique local publication, I suppose. So that excuse from publishers is pretty old, then. Luckily for me, everyone wanted to see their name in print, even if circulation numbers hovered around thirty-two.

Each week the pages needed to be filled, so I wrote most of the copy, and if I pleaded with the kids I was kicking the footy with, I might get a news paragraph or even a book review out of them. I also handled graphic design (well, I outlined some headlines by hand and drew some pictures).

The topics of the stories were wide-ranging, from a cat having a litter of kittens to a review of the new Simon and Garfunkel or Cat Stevens album, to a news story flagging the possibility that one of my sisters was getting engaged. (I didn’t check that one and it wasn’t true. The mood was a little bit chilly at the dining table next evening; the idea of checking and double-checking hadn’t kicked in yet).

Some weeks I didn’t have much to publish and didn’t have time to work the room, or the street in this case. Schoolwork was taking up more of my time. Some afternoons I’d lie on the floor with my little blue typewriter and an empty page in front of me, featuring just the Our World logo (which I hand-drew). Some weeks I felt like the late Joan Rivers, who once said of her forward diary (featuring a paucity of bookings) that the white was so dazzling she had to wear sunglasses.

So, consequently, some editions featured some pretty slim news stories. Under the headline 'Mrs Morrison Has A Trip', we published: 'Margaret Morrison made a visit by plane from Sydney, where she is a school teacher, to attend the races and lots of parties. This was a lovely and unexpected surprise for her family.' (Kathy from up the road filed this one).

At one stage I got entrepreneurial and walked up to the petrol station on Malvern Road and asked if they would like to take out an ad. Happily, they said yes. They gave me the copy, which I hand-wrote onto the stencil sheet, appearing as a display ad on the bottom of page one. They gave me $10. It was the only money I made from my little venture.

The production and delivery of Our World was very simple. Having 'Roneo-ed' off the copies at school, I would walk down Haverbrack Avenue on the way home and deliver it into the letterboxes.

One of the houses which I included in our circulation numbers (thirty-two households officially, but I estimated readership at significantly more) was former prime minister Sir Robert Menzies, who lived up the road at Number Two. As kids, we were constantly being asked to provide directions to his house. We used to call it 'Havealook Avenue', as did Sir Robert, as I later found out.

Often Sir Bob would stroll past our house and, as a five-year-old, I’d stand at the front gate and say hi. He’d grunt a hello back. We would also say hi to his long-time driver, Peter, who would sit in his boss' Rolls Royce, or polish it. Peter seemed like a pleasant gentleman.

Haverbrack Avenue was smack in the centre of the blue-chip electorate of Higgins, the safe seat for generations of Liberals, including Peter Costello and now former Costello adviser (and current Assistant Treasurer), Kelly O’Dwyer. It was Liberal heartland. The street - with its judges, advertising pioneers (the Clemengers) and old-school families - could not have been more middle-class and, therefore, pro-Menzies.

My newspaper was a broad church and I was happy to publish viewpoints of any colour.  At one point I hit up Dad for a comment piece. Dad - it must be said the crustiest of crusty Conservatives - scored exactly one by-line in the paper - a not-so-subtle piece of editorialising in favour of a return to Liberal rule from the clutches of charismatic Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

In 1974, under the headline 'The Election', Dad wrote: 'With such an elder statesman as Sir Robert Menzies living in Haverbrack Avenue, it is an incentive for us all to think about politics, with a federal election due next week. The policies of Sir Robert have proven to be sound. Should they be materially changed?'

Actually they weren’t the policies of Sir Robert at all, because he’d retired from politics in 1966. But were they his policies? It was an interesting question. Was Sir Bob still wielding political power from our leafy street? Was he an early version of 'the faceless men'?

I was intrigued when one day my mum mentioned she’d seen various politicians visiting Sir Bob, including future party leaders Andrew Peacock and Malcolm Fraser. The visits seemed natural - the new generation visiting the old - but I chose to put a spin on it, suggesting they might have been visiting the political giant who couldn’t let go, and that he was still pulling the strings of the party he founded. The papers were referring to Menzies as 'the leader of the Opposition'.

I wrote the story about the visits. 

The local paper, The Southern Cross, saw the piece and did a story on this precocious kid with the big story. 

Then the huge circulation, The Sun News Pictorial, followed up with a picture story on me (with a photo of me holding up a newspaper as if selling it). Kate Baillieu of the ABC’s current affairs program, This Day Tonight, saw it and rang to see whether she could come over and do a story for the program. Kate filmed a piece which included vision of me perched on my fence, peering through binoculars, ostensibly keeping watch on my illustrious neighbor and his political doings.

The piece went to air, introduced by the urbane Bill Peach. It had me scribbling notes into a notebook, then walking purposefully down my driveway to write it up. It had me looking very sleuth-like, even hiding behind a pole in the street, with 'political thriller'-type music behind the images. It was all a bit of fun, I thought.

Until the next day. Sir Bob didn’t think it was fun at all. He saw the piece and was furious. He rang the ABC and demanded - and received - an apology. The apology went to air the following evening. My parents didn’t permit me to watch it because, I believe, they thought it might freak out an impressionable kid.

I don’t blame Sir Bob, actually. 

All I had to do was knock on his door to check a few facts. Even if he gave me the shrug, at least I should have tried. When I became a professional journalist five years later, that was drummed into me from day one. It was an excellent lesson, and a bruising one. Being a newly-minted teenager is tough enough without the founder of the Liberal Party and icon of conservative politics getting mad and even.

The incident caused quite a stir. 

The street was abuzz. There was even an anonymous parody of my newspaper circulated (good on ‘em for the effort, but a very lame product, I thought). Now they took to their typewriters - where were these so-called writers when I needed copy?

Menzies mentions the incident in his daughter Heather Henderson's 2011 collection of letters from her father. 'Last week the ABC decided to run a story of a twelve-year-old boy in Haverbrack Avenue, led on by [reporter] Kate Baillieu, purporting to be his observations of people who visited our home during the weeks before the [1974] election', Menzies wrote. 'The boy's father came and gave your mother an apology of sorts, but the fault was with the ABC, since they were quite happy to take the lad's story without checking with any of the people he mentioned. 

But what can you expect of the ABC?'

I think it was believed the experience would scar me. Actually, it didn’t. It taught me that if you’re going to play in the big sandpit, you better be ready to cop some sand in the face if you’re wrong.

I retired the newspaper because it took too much of my time. Forty years later, I have a few copies of Our World kicking around. I wish I had more, but effective curating was never my strong point. But a curious event took place as I was writing this piece. An email with the header 'Something you might like' popped up on my laptop. It was from the boy who lived over the road - and who I described as one of our 'sub-editors'. He had scanned three copies of Our World, editions about which I have no memory, and very kindly sent them over.

It reminded me of the old days when we would have a 'news conference' while bouncing on a trampoline, or doing bombs into his pool, or kicking the footy. If only news conferences today were that good. 

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