An insightful and vigorous biography, this account chronicles the life of Australia’s most influential newspaper editor, Graham Perkin, and the history of the newspaper to which he devoted his tremendous talents. A portrait of media power gone too soon, this volume enumerates Perkin’s numerous contributions to society, including his hiring the first journalist from a non English-speaking background, some of the first university graduates, and the first women to produce articles on topics more substantial than knitting and baking. From the Fairfax Media boardroom to the death throes of the Whitlam government, this account paints a vivid picture of Perkin’s remarkable career.
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About the Author
Ben Hills is an award-winning Australian investigative reporter and foreign correspondent with more than 50 years of experience. He has worked as a reporter for the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald and as a producer for the television show 60 Minutes.
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The Golden Age of Graham Perkin
By Ben Hills
Scribe Publications Pty LtdCopyright © 2010 Ben Hills
All rights reserved.
THE BAKER'S BOY FROM BEULAH
It was a rough trip in that feeble old bedford bus for the class of '41. Every weekday morning, it wheezed and rattled down the road from the dusty wheat-belt village of Beulah, carrying its cargo of boisterous boys to the high school in the equally dusty but rather larger town of Warracknabeal. Every afternoon, it brought them home again. Because of the war, no petrol could be spared for such a non-essential task as education, and kerosene was reserved for farm tractors — the bus had been converted to run on gas generated by burning charcoal in a Heath Robinsonian contraption bolted on the back, which left a sooty wake and starved the motor of half its normal power. The 72-kilometre round trip took around two hours, allowing for frequent stops to pick up students from isolated farms.
The tedious journey gave the young Graham Perkin plenty of time to play pranks and horse around; though, according to Ian McIntyre, one of the 40-odd students who shared the bus — and the class-room — with him, the worst they got up to was a spot of cat-calling out of the window. Discipline was strict: teachers, even at primary school, did not hesitate to use the strap in those days, and Perkin's father, Bert, was a disciplinarian who approved of corporal punishment, and probably capital punishment, too. His class-mates, according to the school register, were the children of farmers and labourers, for the most part, but also the sons of the local teacher, the veterinarian, the bank manager, station master, grocer, and motor mechanic. Only those wealthy enough to afford the fees — and there were very few of them scratching a living from the Mallee drylands — would send their children away to board at Ballarat College or one of Melbourne's posh Greater Public Schools. So Warracknabeal High was no elite school; it catered for a cross-section of the community. But among this motley crew of teenagers, there were several things that set Perkin apart.
First, there was his height — as a young man, he shot up like bamboo, finishing at a striking 6 feet 1 inch (185 centimetres) tall. Broad-chested and long-limbed, with a confident stride and a commanding voice, he is the one you would pick for the school captain — though he never was. He is easy to find in any photograph, particularly in the end-of-season football- and cricket-team pictures where the boys are artfully posed in a pyramid according to their height, with Perkin always at the apex, a serious look on his face and his blond hair curled tight as a pot-scourer. Then there was his reading; he was the one with his bag always stuffed with books — novels, poetry, whatever he could lay his hands on — from the Warracknabeal Mechanics' Institute library. And then there were his clothes; he was always, even during the Depression, when other children from the town often went barefoot and had their clothes repaired with patches, dressed to the nines, his shoes shined, his pants pressed and, in later years, a fedora perched Humphrey Bogart–style on his head. Once — school uniforms were not compulsory during the war — he dazzled his friends by turning up for a recorder recital in a vivid, plum-coloured shirt. Perkin insisted it was 'puce,' a fine distinction in itself coming from a teenage country boy. Max Smale, another school-friend, also noticed that there was something special about Perkin: 'Graham was always — superior is not the word — just that little bit different. Those rough nuts [in the football team] would have regarded him as a little bit foppish.'
Gazing out of the bus window across the flat, featureless plains on those interminable trips, Perkin would have seen little colour or movement to catch his eye: fields of sparse wheat furrowed in spring by horse-drawn ploughs; a willy-willy corkscrewing into the sky, carrying off a few more tonnes of precious topsoil to settle on a million mantelpieces from here to the other side of Melbourne; flocks of sheep trying to find shelter from the sizzling sun, their fleeces cappuccino-coloured with the ubiquitous dust; and uncleared patches of hardy banksia, myrtle, and green-grey Mallee scrub.
The native vegetation should have told the pioneers that drought in the Mallee is a cruel fact of life, not an occasional phenomenon. In an average year, Beulah gets just 374 millimetres of rain, less than half of what is regarded as viable for unirrigated cropping in Europe or North America. And there is not even a river from which to irrigate. The creek where Perkin and his mates used to swim in summer, Yarriambiack Creek, is now just a dry gully lined with struggling river-gums. Fat years at the turn of the century, when 125,000 bags of wheat and a wool-clip worth £25,000 were delivered to the rail-head, were few and far between. More often, the farmers were struggling to harvest enough grain for the following year's planting. Awesome dust storms darkened the high sky like a solar eclipse. Rabbits stripped the crops and pastures to the bare earth — not far from Beulah is the last tattered remnant of the 'rabbit proof' fence erected for hundreds of kilometres along the 36th parallel and north towards the Murray River in a futile attempt to keep the pests out of the Wimmera region. And if that were not enough to crush hope in the hearts of these hardy pioneers, periodic plagues of billions of mice formed a living, squeaking tide, inundating the fields and invading every house, shop, shed, and grain silo. This was the cruel landscape that shaped Perkin's youth.
In fact, today you have to wonder why this great sandy slab of western Victoria, an area bigger than Belgium and as marginal as any in the outback, was ever opened up for settlement in the first place — particularly in view of the great conservation battles (in which Perkin would play a leading role) that were later to be fought for the preservation of its fragile ecosystem. When the Perkin family moved here in 1929 it was still raw frontier country. The first squatters had arrived in the 1840s, but it was not until 30 years later, when a man named Edward Lascelles, a Tasmanian- born wool broker later dubbed the Mallee King, took over a sheep station and began lobbying the government for development, that the district was opened up. Over the next decade, a spur line was built off the Melbourne–Adelaide railway, starting at a whistle-stop named Murtoa and finishing 110 kilometres away at ... well, nowhere, really. The line peters out at the place Lascelles put on the map, Hopetoun, which was named after the Victorian governor of the day. That did nothing to harm his cause. The railway commissioners in their wisdom approved the line, apparently figuring that if you build it they will come. And for a while they did. Soldiers returning from World War I were offered a square mile of land (259 hectares) that they had to clear and on which they had to erect a dwelling — they paid £15 for the timber and the tin that arrived on a horse-drawn wagon, along with a contract carpenter to bang it together. Lured by the offer of land, settlers from England and Scotland, and even a few hard-working families from Germany, came to fill up the great emptiness of inland Australia. Few knew much about agriculture, and none knew anything at all about the sort of hard-scrabble farming that was all the Mallee could sustain — after years of hanging on by their fingernails, many went broke and walked away from their properties.
Beulah was proclaimed a town in 1893, and its name reflects the god-fearing nature of its early settlers: strict Scots Presbyterians, English Methodists like the Perkins, and dour Lutherans from Germany. Each had their communion in the fledgling town. They were hard-working, church-going, conservative folk — this part of the world has never returned a Labor MP, state or federal, since federation. The town's biblical name echoes not only the Old Testament streak of the townspeople, but also a gritty defiance of the realities of its remote geography (in those days, it was a day's journey to Melbourne, 382 kilometres away); its thin, starved soil; and its harsh climate, where winter frosts bleach the grass and in summer you could fry bacon rashers on a dust-bin lid in the 46- degree heat. The name is taken from Isaiah 62:4, which the King James Bible renders thus: 'Thou shalt no more be termed forsaken; neither shall thy land any more be termed desolate: but thou shall be called Hephzibah, and thy land Beulah: for the Lord delighteth in thee, and thy land shall be married.'
In its hey-day, if Beulah can he said to have had one, it boasted a department store, Cust and Sons; three or four general stores; two pubs; Gillespie and Co's flour mill; six churches; its own newspaper, the Beulah Star; and, smack in the middle of the main street, a single-fronted shop with 'H.E. PERKIN "BEULAH" BAKERY' painted in fancy lettering on the façade, where the town's baker would pile his fresh-baked loaves in the window, and arrange his sponge cakes, his jam-filled Swiss rolls, and his custard slices on glass shelves. In those days, the township served a population of 500 to 600, plus a hundred or more families living on surrounding farms, who commuted in for their weekly shopping on horse-back and by buggy. As late as the 1920s, a car would still attract a crowd of kids.
Today, the locals get irate when a TV travel show blowing through dismisses Beulah as a dying town, but on the afternoon that I was there the place was indeed empty and abandoned- looking. The place where Graham Perkin spent his childhood reminded me of the ghost-town in the movie Paris, Texas — all it needed was tumbleweed blowing down the street, shutters banging in the wind, and a few plangent chords from Ry Cooder as the soundtrack. The population has halved since Perkin's day, the harsh winds of global trading blowing away the subsidies and tariffs that kept those struggling smallholdings going. The bakery and a row of adjoining shops were long shut and shuttered, one of the pubs had burned down, and four of the churches had closed. The little stone church where the Perkin family worshipped is still standing, but the Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans have had to bury four centuries of doctrinal differences to worship together under the roof of what is now the Uniting Church. The dreams of Edward Lascelles of turning the Mallee into a rich and productive promised land have evaporated: hundreds of small farms have been forced to amalgamate to survive, and huge areas have been declared national parks, saving them from the developers' bulldozers. There are even fears that, as the economy continues to shrivel, the railway, now used mainly to haul the wheat crop to market, may be closed. So how did the Perkins wind up in this unpromising neck of the woods? It is a tall and rather tortuous tale.
In 1972, approaching the height of his power as editor of The Age, Graham Perkin was nominated for the Caledonian Club, a splendid gentlemen's club with premises just off Belgrave Square in London's swanky Belgravia, which offers fine dining, discreet accommodation, and a formidable array of single-malt whiskies to its members. The club's rules state that membership is open to anyone with a Scots-born parent or grandparent, someone who is a land-owner in Scotland, or someone who has been employed there or played a role in public life. The Boy from Beulah did not, by any stretch of the imagination, qualify on any count; but, once he had his mind set on something, such trivial details mattered little. I also suspect that his old friend Billy Mackie Snedden — one- time Liberal Party leader and fellow member of the Melbourne Scots, who used to proudly wear a kilt to their annual Burns Night revelries — egged him on. At a time when more Australians were becoming interested in their family history, and less fearful of discovering some convict blot on the family escutcheon, Perkin eventually came up with this swashbuckling account of his parents' ancestry (Graham was his mother's family):
The Grahams hail from Montross, and we have traced them back to Elizabeth Graham who was a rather immoral lady who bore a clutch of bastard children to our King James. Some of my more strait-laced Presbyterian relations have attempted to forget this stain on the family's honour. Others have attempted with remarkable success to emulate the over-sexed lady. We are a mixed bag indeed. The Perkins descended from the terrible lout Perkin Warbeck. He was no Scot, but he gave the English a great deal of trouble for about five years, so he had what one might call a typical Scot's outlook.
I would hesitate to say that this was nothing but a terrible beat-up of the sort that Perkin would have loudly deplored if it had appeared in a rival newspaper, but this genealogical treasure-map — which would have to date back six centuries, if it exists — is missing from the Perkin files, and nothing appears on the public record or in private collections of papers that I have searched to support these assertions. Graham, it is true, is a common-enough name in Scotland, originating from the Midlothian region around Edinburgh; and James I did have a cousin, Elizabeth Graham, who was married to the treacherous Earl of Atholl who was involved in the king's assassination. However, Burke's authoritative genealogy of dormant and extinct peerages makes no mention of any illegitimate children. As for Perkin Warbeck, a colourful character romanticised in novels and plays, he was a pretender to the British throne, and raised a small army to try to overthrow Henry VII before being captured, clapped in the Tower of London, and dragged through the streets on a hurdle to Tyburn, where he was hanged. It is also true that he was no Scot, though he was married to one — a cousin of James IV. In actual fact, he appears to have been born in Belgium, the son of a French official whose name was de Werbecque. Just how Graham Perkin made the connection to such 'royal' ancestors back over the centuries is a mystery. Perhaps his personality was just too big to accept the fact that his humble origins as the son of the Beulah baker were all there was to it.
And, in fact, there is little to excite those who believe in nature rather than nurture, in the influence of genes over upbringing and environment on life's outcomes, in Graham Perkin's family tree. Perhaps it was the banality of actually being descended from shopkeepers and tradespeople and a man who pickled pork for a living that he could not bear. Thanks to some detailed research by the family, we can trace his father's real ancestors back four generations to one James Perkin, born around 1800, who was a store-keeper in Richmond, England. (See Perkin family genealogy, page 502.) His son Thomas Alfred Perkin, born in 1830, was a carpenter who took the adventurous step of emigrating to Australia, probably enticed by news of the first great gold strikes in Victoria in the 1850s. Thomas's wife, Fanny Taylor, is the one character in the family tree worthy of the Perkin biographical flourish. Born in Sudbury, Suffolk, she came out to Australia as a 14-year-old in 1852 on the good ship Tulloch Castle, whose crew promptly deserted to rush off to the goldfields. She was already 33 years old and had had seven children by two husbands before she married Thomas Perkin and settled down with him at Newham, in the foothills of the Macedon Ranges, north of Melbourne, where he had a meat-preserving business and she bore six more children. The fifth of these, Edwin Witts Perkin (Witts was Fanny Taylor's mother's maiden name), was born in 1878, and it was he, Graham Perkin's grandfather, who began the family tradition of bread-making when he moved to Kyneton, married a local dress-maker, Suzannah Skidmore, and opened a bakery. The following year, 1902, they had the first of what was to be a family of four children, Herbert Edwin Perkin.
Ask those who knew 'Bert' Perkin and you get the same physical description nine times out of ten. 'He was the spitting image of Inspector Crabbe in Pie in the Sky,' says Max Smale, Graham Perkin's friend from Warracknabeal High. For those who have not seen the TV series, Richard Griffiths plays the part of the portly, jovial, bespectacled detective/restaurateur. As he stood outside his shop in his long flour-powdered white apron and white trousers, Bert Perkin looked the part physically. He was a tallish man with a big belly, a loud voice, a head of dark, curly hair, and glasses that grew progressively thicker over the years as his eyesight deteriorated, starting off with round wire frames à la Jean-Paul Sartre and finishing as glass pebbles set in thick, black plastic. The only thing missing was Henry Crabbe's sense of humour — fat he was, but jolly he was not. 'Bert was gruff,' says Dawn McKenzie, who 60 years ago was Dawn Hunt, a tall, strapping hockey blue at Warracknabeal High, and Graham Perkin's first steady girlfriend. Now living in retirement at Camperdown in Victoria's south-west, McKenzie says, 'He wasn't really a very likeable person in lots of ways. He was very bossy — I remember he once rang our home and got my father. "Is Graham there?" he said. My father said, "Yes." "Send him home," said Bert. Just like that. No small talk. "You keep him there," my father said [to him]. He wasn't going to take that from Bert.' Doug McColl, a contemporary of Perkin's and Warracknabeal's historian, adds bluntly, 'Old Bertie was a bit of a blow-bag.'
Excerpted from Breaking News by Ben Hills. Copyright © 2010 Ben Hills. Excerpted by permission of Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Baker's Boy from Beulah,
2 The Paper Time Forgot,
3 Wrestling with a Career,
4 Love in a Cold Climate,
5 Blood on the Bitumen,
6 The New Boys,
7 The Accidental Managing Director,
8 Phillip Adams, Les Tanner, and The Wizard of Id,
9 To Attack the Devil,
10 The Minus Children,
11 Perkin's Other Women,
12 Saying 'No' to Murdoch,
13 Newsday and Other Disasters,
14 Spies and Whispers,
15 The Spencer Street Soviet,
16 The Fairfax Revenge,
17 A Broken Heart,
18 Like Batting with Bradman,