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Western Walkabout: 20-25 Years

...I had done very well indeed a ten pound Pom who blew in off the Pioneer bus...

Richard Harris, continuing his brisk, entertaining autobiography, tells how he left his native England to eventually become a daily newspaper journalist in Sydney, Australia.

After a brief spell in Harrogate working as a reporter with the joint staff of the Harrogate Herald and Harrogate Advertiser, I returned to Thirsk as district editor of the Thirsk, Bedale and Northallerton Times.

I lived at home with my parents and younger brother John, and paid my mother three pounds a week board. That was a lot of money for me, out of a weekly pay of five pounds, rising to six pounds ten shillings when I turned 21.

With the completion of my cadetship, national service loomed, so I made a pre-emptive strike. In the past I had suffered from recurrent attacks of giant oedema an inexplicable swelling around the eyes and throat which mystified everybody. I recovered quickly after an injection of adrenalin.

It seems to me in retrospect it was a food sensitivity. I wrote to the National Service Board and told them because of this inexplicable malady, I did not believe I would be suitable as a candidate for the Armed Forces. They wrote back and asked me for a medical certificate.

When I visited to the doctor to ask for the certificate, he refused. Im not asking you to say Im sick, or that Im not suitable for National Service, I said.

The doctor nodded his agreement. He clearly thought I was suitable for it.

All Im asking from you is a note to confirm that you have treated me for episodes of recurrent giant oedema.

Reluctantly, because it was the truth, he scrawled out a note to certify that he had treated me the previous year for an attack of oedema.

I sent his note in to the board and they replied that because of my medical condition, I would not be called up for national service.

This was a momentous piece of advice. It meant I could get on with my life.

I applied for a job with The Northern Echo at Darlington and was appointed as a reporter on the joint staff of The Northern Echo and its sister evening newspaper, the Northern Despatch, on a salary of eight pounds nine shillings a week the union rate to the last halfpenny.

So, at 21, I left home to work in Darlington, and boarded with two old ladies, Mrs Watson and her widowed sister May, in Coniscliffe Road.

The boarding house was full of other young journalists from The Echo. We worked a split shift, 9 am to 1 pm for the Northern Despatch, then back to work at 6 pm to 11pm for The Echo.

Wed have tea in the staff cafeteria usually a fried egg, with chips and peas. My stomach was always grumbling in Darlington, with Mrs Watsons terrible food or the greasy horror meals in the cafeteria. Mrs Watson used to serve us kipper and chips on Monday nights. No fresh bread was served until the old stuff was finished, even though it might have bits of mould in it.

I decided Id be much better off in a flat, so obtained a place in a nicer area which I shared with another journalist, Peter Swaddle. We shared the rent of three pounds a week, and did our own cooking and cleaning.

Darlington was a cold place, with a sooty fall out from the petro-chemical industries in Tees-side. I decided I did not want to spend the rest of my life there. With a friend, Eric Silver, a Jewish journalist, who had followed me to The Echo from Harrogate, I went to visit the Dorman and Long works in Middlesbrough. This huge engineering firm operated with ancient equipment stamped Krupp.

When I asked why Krupp, the manager said they had bought the gear from Krupp when Krupp modernised before the war.

Which war? The 1914-18 war. Every 303 rifle bullet fired by the British at the Germans in the 1939-45 war was made with second hand antiquated German equipment at Dorman and Long.

It was clear to me that the North-East was a depressed area, with little going for it except the old fashioned industries of coal mining and ship building.

In those days, the Australian Government used to advertise throughout Britain seeking people with qualifications to emigrate to Australia under an assisted passage scheme. The migrant had to find ten pounds towards the fare, and the Australian Government would fund the rest. I borrowed ten pounds from Swaddle and applied, and was accepted after a medical examination and an explanation about my exemption from national service. During the medical, I was pronounced fit but needing dental treatment. This resulted in all my back teeth being removed and me fitted with a partial palate. I was then ready for Australia and sailed from Tilbury docks in London on the ss Orion with a Brisbane journalist called Jack Stanaway, who was returning home after a working holiday in England, including a period as a sub editor on the Northern Despatch.

It took about six weeks to sail to Australia, calling at Gibraltar, Naples, Port Narvarino (Greece), Suez, Aden, Colombo, Fremantle, and Adelaide, with disembarkation in Melbourne in early March 1960. What a fantastic trip that was. I left England with about three weeks holiday pay from the North of England newspaper company, and no job to go to, just a few contacts from Jack Stanaway and World Press News. I landed with about four pounds remaining. A job was needed, urgently.

In Melbourne, none of the major newspapers had anything going, so I went to see the owner of the weekly newspaper at Benalla, the Ensign, which was run by Jack and May OShea. The trip was organised by the Commonwealth Employment Bureau, who gave me the return train ticket.

I got the job and started the following Monday, writing general news and sport. I had a go at playing Australian Rules football, training with a team called Goorambat, and wrote a tribute to their coach, Merv, which was appreciated by the players.

Initially, I lived at a Greek boarding house, Austral House, but later found private board which was much nicer.

For the Easter break I went to Sydney on the Pioneer bus, booked in at the YMCA, then called at various newspapers to see what I could get. There was nobody around at the Sydney Morning Herald, so I went to Castlereagh Street to see the Daily Telegraph.

The editor in chief, Mr David MacNicoll, saw me immediately. After a brief discussion in which I told him my background and what I could do, he said they were really short of capable reporters, and when could I start. He offered me 28 pounds ten shillings a week a C grade.

I said Id have to go back to Benella to resign, giving a fortnights notice, and Id be back in three weeks.

The OSheas didnt want me to go but I was off.

The Telegraph news desk was busy. The top reporters were all engaged on a kidnapping story. A little boy, Graham Thorne, had been kidnapped and was held to ransom after his father had been named the winner of the Opera House lottery.

As a result, I got the opportunity to handle some big stories which otherwise would not have come my way. My ability to write shorthand, and having my own personal portable typewriter made things a lot easier because the Telegraph had only one office typewriter in the reporters room and it was always in use by one of the seniors.

I met a woman writer called Alex Garner, who later became my wife and the mother of my son, Leon. I also served a session in Canberra reporting Federal Parliament for the Telegraph. I had done very well indeed a ten pound Pom who blew in off the Pioneer bus.


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