Thursday 28 December 2017

An unplanned and relaxed writing life

Some writers plan their lives; some don’t. I’m one of those folk who have planned almost nothing about their lives. I can’t make up my mind whether this is from laziness or a lack of commitment or a deep-seated fear of failing to achieve a lifetime of targets. It’s probably chiefly the last of these three, if I’m honest.
      I have known ambitious people who have led miserable lives never achieving things that they regard as their due. Not me. I can’t be bothered. But having stated that, it is a serious mistake for a writer not to make the best of the opportunities that come their way.

      Although I have always loved writing, it was never my expectation that I would become someone who earned a living from it. As a teenager in the small Australian town of Charlton, Victoria, I worked after school for the local jeweller and watchmaker and it had been agreed that when I had completed my schooling I would begin a formal apprenticeship as a watch repairer.
      But it wasn’t to be. My father, who owned a small printing business and edited the local weekly newspaper, the Charlton Tribune, had other ideas. Unbeknown to me, he was losing a struggle against cancer and he needed me to help out in the business. So began an apprenticeship as a printer, learning skills that have proved useful to this very day.
      After my father’s death, my mother took over the business, and as she was not a journalist, I found myself with the opportunity to contribute a growing of articles to the newspaper, affectionately referred to as “the local rag”. A few years later my mother remarried and sold the business, and I moved on to broadcasting journalism with 3BO Bendigo and 3AW Melbourne, then moved to London and the BBC World Service.
      None of this had been planned. It just sort of happened. But I am hugely grateful for the skills I acquired along my haphazard route -- particularly in radio and television news which taught me there can be no such thing as writer’s block in that medium. The quickest way to be fired in broadcasting is to tell an editor “I can’t think what to write”.
      After I retired from the BBC, I did the usual lecturing and consulting stuff, but still without any plan to write books. Instead, when I stumbled across a scandal in my own family, I thought of it more as a film than a book. It was a chance suggestion by my wife that prompted me to match the screenplay, God's Triangle, with a book. Then a discussion with a journalist mate led to another screenplay and another book – this time about the moral challenges facing foreign correspondents and title The Mortal Maze. I've now written a novel version of the first book: Florrie - A Life Unexpected.
      I have a few other possible books that I might produce, if I don’t get too distracted by writing for blogs and contributing too many postings on Facebook and Twitter, but if they don’t happen, too bad.
      If this all seems a bit flip, it isn’t intended to be. My message is that if you want to plan your life and career, go ahead. But don’t get upset if it doesn’t quite work out the way you hope. Instead, I suggest you let life roll on while grasping those opportunities that do come your way and make the very best of them.
      That’s my plan for a happy, disappointment-free writing life.

First published as a guest posting on the Alliance of Independent Authors Blog

Sunday 17 December 2017

Talking to Bangladeshi Television

A very enjoyable chat the other night on Bengladesh television network NTV Europe with Talking Point anchor Syed Neaz Ahmad. Also enjoyable to meet network Chief Executive Officer Subrina Hossain and her very friendly team.

Neaz and I spent time discussing my book God's Triangle, which recounts the sad and true story of Australian Baptist missionary, Florence M. "Florrie" Cox, who was stationed in Calcutta, Mymensingh and Faridpur during the First World War.

We also chatted about my thriller The Mortal Maze, a morality story about a BBC correspondent in the Middle East and trapped into becoming a spy. Neaz was keen to know how my time with the BBC had shaped this story. The answer is "a great deal".

Another subject was my progression into print then broadcast journalism as a youth in my home country, Australia, before spending 27 years with BBC World Service radio and television in London.

For anyone interesting in the Talking Point discussion, click here: Part One  Part Two 
Part Three 

Read about Ian Richardson's visit to Bangladesh to research God's Triangle. Click here: Bangladesh Diary

Sunday 19 November 2017

Dangerous Australia

Someone - I don't know who - came up with this amusing Aussie road sign. It is meant as a joke, but there is a significant element of truth in it. When my siblings and I grew up in the bush in south-eastern Australia, we learned very soon to be wary of snakes, particularly in the warmer weather. It was also in the age of outside "dunnies" (Australian term for lavatory/toilet/loo) and we knew to always check under the dunny seat to make sure there were no poisonous red backed spiders lurking there.

Later, when I moved to Melbourne, light aircraft sponsored by local radio stations kept a watch on hot days for sharks swimming close to the many local beaches, but at least Melbourne wasn't one of those parts of Australia populated by crocodiles happy to have a human snack.

This sign prompts me to link to my earlier posting about whether the land of my birth is relatively free of crime and other social problems. The answer in a word is "no". Read on to discover the proof of my claim: Godzone & crime

Friday 8 September 2017

Where is my missing portrait by John Bratby? (updated)

When I was a news editor with BBC External Services (later renamed BBC World Service), any mail for "Ian Richardson" would sensibly come to me, as there was no-one else by that name on the corporation staff. This mail would sometimes include fan letters for my actor namesake, who made a name for himself in TV drama, not least in the television adaptation of  John Le Carre's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, then later in the hugely successful TV series House of Cards. I passed on the fan mail to the other Ian Richardson, and over the years we exchanged a number of chatty letters. 

Late in 1982 I opened an envelope to find a letter from Royal Academy painter John Bratby, known as the innovator of "kitchen sink realism". It was an invitation to pose for an exhibition to be called The Individual in the Growing Egalitarian Society. I learned that the exhibition would include new portraits of the Queen Mother, Paul McCartney, Sir Alec Guinness, Sir Michael, Roald Dahl  and many other other prominent folk.

Clearly, the invitation was not intended for me, so I wrote back to John, saying how flattered I was, but the invitation was obviously for the actor and had been forwarded to him. This amused John and he thought it would be fun to paint both Ian Richardsons, so in March 1983 my wife and I went to his house in Hastings where I sat for several hours as he did the large portrait using a palette knife and oils.

Throughout the sitting, John and I chatted about all manner of things, mostly related to the role of the individual in society. His wife, Patti, brought me several coffees in an outsized cup and saucer -- plus a frequent supply of bacon sandwiches. She would take these opportunities to study the progress of the portrait, then would return a few minutes later to hand John her comments scribbled on a scrap of paper. Here are John, Patti and me posing with the end result:

A frequent comment from friends and family was that the portrait represented how I would look in my seventies. Well, as I am now galloping into my eighties, it is not for me to judge the accuracy of those comments. Here's a recent photograph to help you decide:

As John and I parted at the end of the portrait session, he gave me a signed copy of his book Breakdown. It was intended for his psychiatrist and already had a hand-written dedication to him in the fly-leaf, but John simply added my name and the date and handed it to me.

 I don't know how many copies of this book were sold, but I can't imagine the deeply depressing cover would prompt many to rush it to the bookshop tills:

My actor namesake initially agreed to be painted by John, but later changed his mind. He died of a heart attack in February 2007. As far as I know, my portrait never appeared among nearly 300 Bratby works on display at the exhibition at the National Theatre in London.

John offered to sell the portrait to me for £300, but I was so financially stretched at the time that I couldn't afford it. Later, after John had died and I was financially better off, I contacted Patti Bratby to ask if the portrait was still available, but she couldn't find it anyone among his collection.

A fine art dealer with access to the Bratby archives has since tried, but failed, to establish what happened to my portrait, although he found a note saying that I liked it but was not, at that time, able to afford it.

Some portraits were over-painted, but there was no mention of mine being among them. The problem is that Bratby was a very prolific artist, and there are many hundreds of his paintings held by various galleries and individuals. So, is it still out there somewhere? Or did John decide to paint someone else over my portrait and not note this in his files?

I hope to find the answer one day. If you think you can  help, please get in touch.

Since my initial posting on this topic, I have been directed to a website that mentions an unpublished Bratby archive, held by a rare book dealer. It includes a note from Patti Bratby that "the wrong Ian Richardson" turned up, but she and John decided "not to let on". Not so. John and Patti were in no doubt that Ian Richardson (the BBC journalist) had been invited to their Hastings studio. Further, I had helped them get in touch with Ian Richardson (the actor).

Here's a photocopy of John's original letter to the actor but received by me at the BBC. As the quality is poor, the body of the letter has been re-typed:

Here's a copy of my reply:

John Bratby promptly replied, asking me to phone him:

I phoned John as requested, and as a result of this conversation and further exchanges of letters, a date was set for March 7 the next year for me to turn up in Hastings to have my portrait added to his collection. Before agreeing to this date, John wanted my thoughts on individualism, and this is a copy of the letter I sent him:

With the aid of the Internet I have been able to scroll through many of the hundreds of portraits done by John, and the inescapable conclusion is that I must have been just about the least famous person he painted.

Finally, although John and I had amiable and interesting written and spoken exchanges, he was not merely controversial but intensely disliked by a number of his associates.  Here's just one indicator, an article from the Royal Academy magazine in 2009:

And finally there is a more recent and very unflattering Daily Mail here: article

Monday 7 August 2017

Working for the wonderful wireless (now better known as "the radio")

My brother, Jeffrey, contacted me from Australia the other day to report that he had been browsing through the books in a charity shop in the city of Geelong when he came across 3AW is Melbourne - 75 Years of Radio, a weighty tome published in 2007.


3AW was my employer for five years in the mid-1960s when I worked in its Macquarie Network newsroom in Melbourne as a writer and reporter and, sometimes, an overnight (very bad) newsreader. As my brother flicked through the book, he found that I had made a contribution to the chapter on the radio station's news department. The book is long out of print and no longer available -- except, perhaps, in a few charity or second hand shops -- but I tracked down my own copy and scanned the relevant pages.

Journalists and radio buffs may find it interesting to read of a time when Australian commercial radio took news seriously, both as a generator of audiences and as a public service. When I was at 3AW, we had a newsroom staff of around 20 journalists, including a political reporter, Frank O'Brien, based in the state parliament building, and a police reporter, Mal Cochrane, stationed in the scruffy press room at police headquarters in Russell Street.  Frank had a Saturday job, calling the horse races for ABC radio, and politicians who liked to bet on the gee gees would often seek his inside information about likely winners. Mal was what was then called a "leg man". Put another way, he would gather all the necessary information, then phone it in to a desk writer to turn into a story. In addition to Frank and Mal, there would be at least one or two general reporters darting about in their radio cars from one news event to another.

We also had radios tuned to the police and fire services, so we were always immediately aware of serious crimes and disasters. We all had to know the code numbers used by the police. I still remember after all this time that a "12 and 16" was a road accident requiring an ambulance. A "35" was a stabbing and a "69" was not code for a sex act but for a murder.

Sometimes we would beat the police to the scene. Our monitoring equipment, both in the newsroom and in the radio cars, was officially illegal, but the police and fire services knew we had it and the police would sometimes make informal press announcements over their networks. Sometimes they would reveal that they were having difficulty getting to the scene and would ask us not to approach it until their patrol cars arrived.

It was incredibly draining, competitive work, but it could also be very exciting. Under editor Corbett Shaw, who died last year, I learned a great deal about what makes writing for the ear so different from writing for the eye. Another skill I acquired was that there was no such thing as  "writer's block" when churning out bulletins in a ferocious cut throat environment where every second counted. Thinking time at 3AW was a very rare commodity.

Corbett was a tough, chain-smoking boss. I was recruited from Radio 3BO, Bendigo, where I had a most enjoyable two years under editor David Horsfall. I found 3AW an entirely more rugged world, but I greatly admired Corbett's supreme skills as a radio news editor.

Corbett willingly promoted those who "delivered the goods" for him, but it was not unknown for him to hire someone on a Monday and fire them by Friday. On one Saturday, when he discovered that his journalists had taken an extended lunch break at a nearby pub, he drove into the newsroom from his home in an outer suburb of Melbourne, fired everyone -- I think there were about five journalists on duty that day -- and took over the shift himself.

In my time with 3AW, it was usual for female journalists -- both in print and broadcasting -- to be assigned only "soft" stories, usually about women's issues. Although just a few women journalists were employed in the newsroom at AW in my time, Corbett was always prepared to give them what might be called "proper stories" to do.

If Corbett had a sense of humour, I don't recall that he ever brought it to work with him. I doubt that anyone would have contemplated an over-familiar shortening of his name to "Corb" or "Corby". When I finally fell out with him in 1968 and resigned over issues too complicated to recount here, I told him I was going to seek experience abroad. He wished me the best, but his parting words were that while I was a competent journalist, I wasn't good enough to make it in international broadcasting. I confess to gaining a petty delight in informing him six months later that I had been offered a job in London with  BBC World Service News -- the start of a career that lasted almost 30 years with that fine organisation.

Most of the daytime and evening bulletins at 3AW were read by professional broadcasters, rather than the newsroom journalists. The majority were hugely skilled, having to read most stories on sight, due to the bulletins often being delivered to the studio just seconds before transmission. But not all were brilliant. One, a former famous radio actor, had to be sent on his way because he couldn't stop himself from announcing "Here are the headlights" instead of "the headlines".

3AW's news output -- particularly the half-hour breakfast, lunch and early evening bulletins -- was greatly respected and a "must listen" by the great and the good of Melbourne. Certainly these bulletins were superior to the rather tired and unimaginative ones then put out by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. But that didn't stop some mischievous stunts, most of which on reflection were rather infantile.

One such stunt, pulled a couple of times in my memory, was to give a newsreader a story announcing his own death. As our style was to put proper nouns in full caps to give the newsreaders a chance to scan ahead for tricky names, none of them failed to spot the fake story in time to skip it. 

Then there was the time when a bulletin had to be read from the mobile studio parked in the courtyard. As the bulletin progressed, a colleague turned the fire hose on the studio, causing it to rock furiously and noisily. Incredibly, the bulletin was completed without the newsreader exploding in rage or collapsing in laughter, but the listeners must have wondered about the background noise. 

On another occasion, a former colleague threw fistfuls of wheat into a studio during a live sports broadcast, then followed it with a startled and noisy rooster. The presenter tried to kick the rooster away with his foot but that just caused it to make even louder squawking noises. Eventually, the presenter began laughing uncontrollably, generating complaints from the stations that were receiving the sports information on relay. Despite the complaints, the prankster was allowed to keep his job.

There was another stunt that began well enough but turned out to be not so amusing. The station management thought it would be a great idea to have the alternating overnight female presenters do a joint show for New Year's Eve. It proved to be a very bad idea. The women arrived for duty having partaken of alcohol and were in high spirits. While a friend of mine was reading the bulletin, the women did the can-can across the studio, eventually causing him to laugh just as he was reading a story about a fatal road accident. The family of the dead person complained but somehow the matter was hushed up and the two women survived to do further separate and much more sober shifts.

Then there was the occasional embarrassing clanger, the worst being when a music program was interrupted by a news flash announcing the unexpected death of a famous Australian woman. I can't now remember who the woman was, but the flash was immediately followed by the tune that had already been cued on the turntable by the DJ, unaware of what was to be revealed in the news flash. That tune was The Old Grey Mare Ain't What She Used To Be.

Nowadays, 3AW's newsroom -- along with most others in Australian commercial radio -- are sad shadows of what they used to be. Radio newsrooms have been reduced to one or two journalists being on duty at any given time, rarely able to venture out to do any on-the-spot reporting. Some radio stations do no local reporting at all.

A friend gave me one example of what happened when his city was hit by a devastating storm a few years back. It was at the weekend and the local station was closed and relaying network programs from elsewhere in Australia. These programs could not be broken into without the manager's approval, but he was away somewhere out of contact. The result was that the station failed to broadcast any advice about the storm. Despite this being in serious breach of the requirement that the station act as an information service during a civil emergency, I understand no disciplinary action was taken by the broadcasting authorities.

That grump aside, it you fancy learning more about the Good Old Days of Australian commercial radio,
click here. You will also find other items, some quite amusing, in my 3AW archive. A Walkley magazine obituary written by Corbett Shaw's son, Roderick, is here.

Finally, a little plug for my books: The true and tragic story of a Baptist missionary scandal and cover-up,
God's Triangle, and a thriller set in a BBC bureau in the Middle East, The Mortal Maze.

Saturday 5 August 2017

Thank you, Blonde Lawyer

As any author will tell you, writing a book is a long and often-tedious task. Then there's the problem if getting it published and circulating it in the great wide world in competition with hundreds of thousands of other books. Therefore, I am pathetically grateful whenever I get a four or five star reviews.  Here's one from someone who appears to write from the heart:

Thank you, Blonde Lawyer, whoever you are, wherever you are, for this Amazon review of my true story of scandal and cover-up called God's Triangle

And here is one of the other very nice reviews:

And now if you want to read some of the other God's Triangle reviews and comments, go here

Saturday 24 June 2017

Saudi Arabia's hostility to Al Jazeera

The demand by the Saudi Arabians that Al Jazeera be closed is deeply ironical  as they were unwittingly responsible for its original very successful launch.

I was managing editor of the original BBC Arabic TV channel in the mid 1990s. The Saudis objected so strongly to our output that they shut us down by taking us off the satellite that they owned. At around the same time, Qatar was trying to get Al Jazeera off the ground, but with little success. This was chiefly because they could not get the right sort of staff, but with the sudden closure of the BBC channel, they had the pick of more than 150 talented BBC-trained Arab presenters, writers, producers and technicians. So, in November 1996, the channel went on the air, staffed chiefly by ex-BBC people who had taken with them the corporation's ethos of balance, fairness and honesty. In addition, Al Jazeera was able to buy at bargain-basement rates all the documentaries and features that the BBC had not had a chance to broadcast.

I have no doubt that if the Saudis had not crushed the BBC channel (not restored by the corporation until 2008), Al Jazeera would have struggled to become the political and social force that it so quickly did.

More on this by going to my website archive. You will find the articles HERE.

Tuesday 6 June 2017

For those who care about how and what they write...

Have you made a flagrant error, in confusing your alternative choices? The legendary Fleet Street newspaper editor Harold Evans has this glossary to solve your language dilemmas. Well worth reading here.

And you might find my own list of misused and unnecessary words instructive. The link is here

Friday 14 April 2017

God's Triangle update: how a lost grave was found.

Soon after I started researching my book God's Triangle some years ago, I began the hunt to find the grave of my great aunt, Florence Martha "Florrie" Cox, the central character in this true story.

It was easy to establish that she was buried, along with her parents, Arthur and Elizabeth Cox, in the Boroondara (Kew) General Cemetery, one of the oldest cemeteries in Melbourne, Australia. The cemetery was able to provide me with the grave number and the fact that it was in the small Primitive Methodist Section, but I soon learned that it bore no memorial headstone or any other form of identification.

During visits to my homeland, Australia, over the years I made a number of unsuccessful searches of the cemetery for the grave. Then I struck it lucky: I discovered the wonderful people in Friends of Boroondara Cemetery. They got digging (so to speak) in the files and found the grave some distance away from where I have been vainly looking for so long.

I am now delighted to report that Florrie Cox's grave no longer lies unidentified and untended. Last month, there was an informal plaque-laying ceremony, attended by the Friends president Pauline Turville and secretary Elaine Race, my cousin Alan Cox and wife Elizabeth, my cousin John Mole, and myself and wife Rosemary. As you will see from the photograph, Pauline and Elaine had kindly tidied the grave in advance of our little ceremony. 

It is no wonder that I couldn't find the grave. The photograph above shows how it was squeezed between two rows of graves in what I suspect was originally intended to be a footpath. I have not been able to establish why the grave was left unsealed and unmarked. After all, when Florrie died in 1950 and was the last person to be added to the grave, three of her siblings were still alive and should have been able to arrange for it to be sealed with a memorial added. The fact that it wasn't is a mystery and will probably remain so.

Next step is to establish the cost of permanently sealing the grave. I hope this work can be carried out before too long. Meantime, CLICK HERE to read a very nice article (with a stop press) from the latest edition of the Friends of Boroondara Cemetery newsletter.

Sunday 5 February 2017

"Fantastic cracking spy thriller"

The words of Australian Broadcasting Corporation producer and book reviewer Rob Minshull when talking to Mornings anchor Steve Austin on ABC Radio Brisbane: Listen here

Amazon has paperback and Kindle copies of  The Mortal Maze:

The paperback is also available in Australia through Booktopia

Saturday 28 January 2017

Two wars: one religious, one military. Which was the most important?

     While sorting out my files today I came across this item discovered when I was researching my non-fiction book God's Triangle. It's a letter written by an Australian Baptist missionary, Miss Edith King, to the missionary magazine Our Indian Field. It recounts what she saw and thought when her steamer was returning her to India, and came across a huge convoy taking Australian Imperial Force volunteers to the Middle East in the early stage of The Great War, later to become known as World War 1. 
    The letter, although passionately patriotic, also displays a fascinating ambivalence towards the relative merits of defeating the Germans and their Turkish allies and converting India to Christianity. Read on...

     On board the SS Osterley five of us [missionaries] were literally on our way to the front to fight for our King [our Lord] and for the extension of His kingdom. On board the forty odd vessels we passed just after leaving Fremantle, were the thousands and thousands of Australia’s young men, on their way to fight for King and country.
      It was just about evening time when we reached these troopships. What a sight they were -- travelling almost in even lines one behind the other, we counted 41 in view at once -- there were others, too, for we could see the smoke. At the four points were the warships on guard. We saw the [cruiser] HMAS Sydney very distinctly; if we could see her now she would have even more cheers than we gave her that day.
      How we cheered -- as we passed six ships one after the other; we were so close that we could see and hear the soldiers distinctly. We cheered, sang the National Anthem, “Rule Britannia,” etc., as we passed each ship, and they responded right royally. The bands played, the soldiers cheered, and waved their towels and coats, etc., and joined us in singing, “God save the King.” It was a sight we shall never forget. Many of our fellow passengers had Union Jacks, and every handkerchief was in evidence, so we did our best to give our soldiers an enthusiastic reception.
     We were travelling much faster than they, so before morning had left them far behind. Among the vessels we passed very close to were the Ophir, the Omrah, Star of Victoria, Beltana, containing WA. troops, and two others whose names I do not remember.
 One of our passengers saw her son standing on a tin waving his coat; they recognised each other at once and great was the excitement. On the way to the front  -- strong, brave, light hearted men, some of our best, prepared to give their all even to life itself, for their country.

     Twenty thousand volunteers, to fight for the honor of their King and country on their way to the front. Four thousand to fight for Christ and India’s emancipation. For this in round numbers is the total of missionaries in India.
     Is this our best response? Is this all we can spare? Where are the volunteers for India? Great the need for our soldiers to proceed to the front, but greater, infinitely greater, the need for more men to proceed to the mission field.
     Great the honor to fight for King George, but greater, infinitely greater, the honor of fighting for Christ in India. On their way to the front -- God grant that speedily many more of our best young people may hear the call of our King, so that the four may be multiplied into many on their way to the front, to win victory for Christ and His Gospel.
The story of God's Triangle