Whip it good: The adventures of Banjo Paterson, cadet journalist

Photo above: A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and other members of the Sydney Hunt Club after a day’s sport at Rouse Hill, July 18, 1895. Paterson (sixth from the right in the back row) followed the hounds on a horse named, appropriately enough, Gossip.
Photographer unknown. From the Rouse Hill House and Farm Collection, Sydney Living Museums.

And now for your regularly scheduled flight of whimsy from Charles Purcell: A day torn from the diary of a misunderstood bushman and poet as he navigates the newsroom in 2017.

9am: Arrive at the newspaper. Disturbed that someone has parked their horse in my space.

9.30am: The accounting department queries the number of horse-drawn Cobb & Co carriage vouchers I’ve used. Apparently carriage voucher fraud is rife in journalism.

9.45am: Would I like to do a first-person story about a “nude bicycle ride on George Street in protest against the Iraq War”? No.

10am: Sub-editor asks if I’ve ever thought about changing my name to Patterson. “You know, to spare future generations from spelling it wrong.” I take my horsewhip to him.

10.30am: Feel scandalised by the number of bare female ankles on display. I do my best to avert my eyes.

11am: Another editor wants me to rewrite The Man From Snowy River to The Man From Potts Point to help with real-estate advertising. Again, I employ my horsewhip for the second time that morning.

11.15am: Head of the website wants to change my copy to “there was movement at the station, for the word had passed around, that the colt from old Regret had got away … and you won’t BELIEVE what happened next”. More “hits” and “clicks” that way, apparently. Once again the horsewhip comes out.

11.30am: Am enraged to see my story about a rough diamond drover living in the bush has been changed to “a banker from Kirribilli looking for an investment property in the city”.

I point out that, in fact, wealthy landowners are the villains of my poems, but the editor scoffs.

“Not in this red-hot real estate market they aren’t, mate. We need all the AB readers we can get.”

Apparently shearers and drovers can’t afford properties in the city and don’t read the paper anyway.

In fact, I am told, these rough diamonds no longer represent the quintessential heart of Australia. I am asked to picture the “quintessential Australian” as an aspirational tradesman who votes conservative and has at least one investment property.

I suspect it will be difficult to write quality poetry about such a person.

11.45am: Readjust my hat. Am alarmed that so many of my male colleagues are hatless. Surely a sign of moral degeneracy?

Noon: Am I interested in writing a yarn entitled “Whatever happened to the Hare Krishnas?”
The answer is most emphatically no.

12.15pm: Editorial meeting. What, am I asked, are my recommendations for the new transport plan for Parramatta Road? More horse lanes, I respond, to unexpected laughter.

12.30pm: Lunch is served. My sandwich is served on what appears to be a roof tile. Am reliably informed that this is acceptable – nay, even encouraged – down Sydney way.

City folk.

12.45pm: HR phones to say that “horsewhipping is forbidden in the office”. Truly, we live in an officious, rule-heavy, interfering state governed by overzealous, matronly-like figures. (I wonder if there is some shorter, catchier way of saying that?)

1pm: Editor wants me to broadcast my latest story over “social media”. I tell him I have no idea what social media is. I fail to understand his subsequent explanation.

1.15pm-2pm: Have a crack at this social media palaver. Stand on a hilltop painstakingly transmitting my harrowing accounts of the Boer War using semaphore flags. My arms are exhausted after trying to transmit thousands of words via this flag-based method.

3.15pm: Secretary tells me the switchboards are lighting up. “At least one person saw your semaphore,” she says.

3.20pm: Enjoy a refreshing pinch of snuff.

3.30pm: No, I am not interesting in reviewing a band called “The Coldplay” or whatever barbershop quartet is currently in vogue on the gramophone charts.

3.45pm: Case study message received on the electronic mail system: “Ever been held for ransom by Filipino insurgents? Eaten a guinea pig in South America? Paid $20 for an ice-cream in Rome? The travel editor is on the hunt for disaster stories that aren’t too grotesque to print for Saturday’s cover story, entitled ‘Terror Australis’. Anonymity guaranteed.”

4pm: Sub-editor asks if he can change the words of Waltzing Matilda to “once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong … and you wouldn’t BELIEVE what happened next”.

I deliver the sort of right cross worthy of an outback bare-knuckle boxer.

4.30pm: Reach for my pipe, only for a boon companion to point to the “no smoking” sign. Next I will be forbidden to drink gin at work. Once again I am reminded that we truly live in an officious, interfering state governed by overzealous female domestics (note to self: find shorter way of saying that).

4.45pm: As an expert on the bush, would I be interested in contributing to a weekend supplement entitled “regional Australia real estate liftout: why it’s never been a better time to buy”?

I shake my head so hard my hat is in danger of being dislodged.

4.50pm: Down a schooner of brown ale in one go, to the cheers of the newsdesk.

5pm: Someone tells me that vaudeville is dead. Dead! I have endured too many outrages this day. I retire to the local pub to play two-up and share stories of the bush until the publican throws me out.

Charles Purcell is a former writer and sub-editor at the Sydney Morning Herald. He is the author of The Spartan, available on Amazon (Pan Macmillan, $5.99).