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Panpa Bulletin : June 2006
24 | PANPA BULLETIN June 2006 MEDIA MATTERS MarK PearSon Mark Pearson looks at whether we have lost the art of great writing. The Sydney Morning Herald celebrated its 175th birthday in April by producing a spe- cial edition of its Good Weekend magazine showcasing some of the newspaper's best writing over that period. Former editor Max Prisk, com- piled the collection which was themed to offer a journalistic -- and sometimes literary -- insight into historical events and national identity. Prisk observed in his foreword one of the important differences between straight news reporting and evocative writing. "A well-gathered news story will always leave you informed, but often hankering for that telling bit of extra detail or some sense of at- mosphere," Prisk wrote. "One of the pleasures of digging back to 1831 ... has been the dis- covery of gems of writing that do just that: give you a taste of history or other people's lives; make you laugh or push you close to tears; leave you feeling that you have shared an experience." Prisk has selected some icons of Australian literature who have crafted their prose to record great historical moments for posterity. Banjo Paterson travelled to South Africa in 1899 to report on the Boer War. He wrote of being left alone with a dying soldier: "It is an unenviable experience. He talks in a feeble voice about his wife -- 'I wouldn't care so much if it wasn't for my wife.' You try to cheer him with well-meant false- hoods, such as saying, 'You'll be all right in no time' -- mere sound and fury signifying nothing." The compilation features CEW Bean's hour-by-hour diary of the evacuation from Gallipoli in December 1915 and Kenneth Slessor's haunting account of the German defeat at El Alamein. "... I drove past this continuous mortuary of burnt metal and bur- ied men. Now in the leaden rain which has come up from the sea, it is beginning to smell sour and acrid." Elizabeth Macquarie penned a poignant reflection on the death of her husband, Governor Lach- lan Macquarie. "I felt as though my soul was ascending with his to heaven," she recalled. "His countenance remained the same as usual, but strongly expressive of exhaustion and resignation." The world's greatest cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman, anointed Bill O'Reilly "the greatest bowler I ever saw" on the occasion of his former team-mate's death in 1992. "His fingers were strong and wiry, and the longer the day the more tireless he seemed," he observed before employing the language of his sport. "His stock delivery was just under medium pace, usually directed towards the middle and leg stumps, and seemed to be partly cut and partly rolled over from the leg side to produce the ball most feared by batsmen: the one which pitches on the leg stump and hits the off bail." Some of the best work is from journalists writing without bylines under the anonymous tag, From a Herald correspondent. Such indi- viduals took pride in their craft in an era before journalists were pa- raded as personalities. Such a special correspondent filed a graphic first-hand account of the bloodbath at Lambing Flat in 1861 where hundreds of white miners turned on the Chinese in an expression of violent racial ha- tred. "One unfortunate Chinese boy went down upon his knees, the tears ran down his cheeks as he lifted his hands and pleaded for mercy; a ruffian, with the blud- geon sufficient to kill a giant, with one blow felled him to the ground." There were sad premo- nitions in this report of the scenes at Cronulla Beach 145 years later. Another special correspondent recorded Ned Kelly's last stand at Glenrowan in 1880, noting the outlaw "had been shot in the left foot, left leg, right hand, left arm, and twice in the region of the groin, but no bullet had penetrat- ed his armour." The collection also showcases great feature writers turning their skills to portraits of significant and interesting Australians. There is Craig McGregor's 1963 introduction of "a stringy youth with hair bleached white from the sun and blue calluses on his knees and ankles from long hours of paddling", the future world surf- ing champion Midget Farrelly. And Marion Macdonald pro- filed the 1981 grand final call by the tautologous football com- mentator Rex Mossop, including the classic line "Yes, well, rugby league's a game only one side can win." Where is the great writing in newspapers today? There is much interpretation and analysis and, despite the changing role of newspapers, a great deal of straight inverted pyr- amid news reportage. ButI fear we do not offer enough encouragement to the young men and women with a literary flair. Surely this is an important point of difference newspapers can still boast when television, radio and the Internet have stolen our im- mediacy and much of our news- breaking potential. We still teach our students how to get the news point and the five Ws and the H into their intros and how their stories should be writ- ten to be cut from the bottom. Many stories still have to be written that way because, par- ticularly in the regional media, newspapers are still the first and only source of community news. But I challenge you to open the first newspaper you can lay your hands upon and find a story you might call a good read -- a piece where the language works some magic to bring an event or is- sue to life for the reader - a story which demonstrates to the read- er that the writer and the editor really care about their craft. As editors you might ask staff which stories from today's newspaper will qualify for our collection of great writing in 175 years' time? The power of the pen Author and poet Henry Lawson’s pen. fairfaxphotos