Chapter 12: When Harry met Donnie

Award-winning journalist* Don Gordon-Brown has released another chapter in his soon-never-to-be released book: Arse Over Tit: Or How I didn’t Get to Root Sallyanne Either about his turbulent six years at The Courier-Mail.  Only The Bug readers get the opportunity to discover why this humble scribe didn’t become a major Australian figure in the fourth estate.

WHEN the respected journalist Michael Gordon died suddenly in February 2018, the outpouring of grief from work colleagues, the wider world of journalism and beyond was touching and clearly authentic.

By all accounts, Michael Gordon had been a very decent and kind person admired by people below and above whatever station in life he held.

His father Harry Gordon, on the other hand, was a real cunt.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m sure that Harry Gordon’s contemporaries – if there are any still left with us – would be glowing in their assessment of the man, as a person and as a journalist, both as a writer and editor.

I’m sure when out and about having a jar with his friends and close workmates, Harry Gordon was an absolute dear-heart. Could have been the funniest man in a bar, for all I know. Might have loved cats and dogs and never passed a beggar in the street without offering a fiver.

My problem was that Harry Gordon didn’t like me one little bit. I have always had a basic and understandable rule in life that I’ll like people if they like me. It has only one basic sub-clause: if they don’t like me and I can’t for the life of me see any fair reason for that dislike, then I’ll dislike them back.

Harry Gordon at some stage in my time at The Courier-Mail decided he didn’t like me one bit. I did my usual critical in-depth self analysis, decided his decision not to like me one bit was unfair, even if I can be a bit of a cunt myself time to time, so I decided to not like him one bit in return.

I mean, really, people we’re not breaking new ground in psychology here over such a tit-for-prat response. No-one is going to get a doctorate working out why Harry Gordon and I didn’t get on.

But there were always clues.

Gordon was the third person in the troika that saw my prospects spiral downhill rapidly in my final years at Queensland Newspapers: Gareth Evans as my chief of staff, Kev Kavanagh as my editor, and right at the top of the Queensland Newspapers’ journalistic heap Gordon as editor-in-chief of both The Courier-Mail and the Sunday Mail.

Gordon and I first thumped desks together during the prolonged metropolitan dailies journalists strike in 1979 over the advent of new technology.

We were out on the grass for five weeks around Australia as we fought for a reasonable share of the proceeds and extra workloads and responsibilities that were to come from the introduction of computerised newsgathering and processing.

On several occasions, as junior vice-president, I joined with other Australian Journalists’ Association Queensland branch executive members, senior vice-president Leon Pearce, president Quentin Dempster, and secretary Norm Harriden as we met with Harry and others as we tried to find solutions to the strike.

A bit of table thumping and raised voices was involved. Maybe it’s true that Pearce, Harriden and I played bad cop as Dempster patted down his blond locks, looked presidential and statesmanlike and said meaningful things like “that’s a matter for you”.

I do admit there was one meeting, in Kavanagh’s office when Gordon and others had retired briefly to prepare a statement for us to take back to the membership.

On their return, I made the observation that the statement was poorly worded and one that I personally could not take back to the troops.

Gordon practically had a fit. He spluttered that there was nothing at all wrong with the statement and in hindsight, I wonder if that night I had become the first person ever to criticise his creative flow and legendary writing genius.  Had that been akin to suggesting to a staunch Catholic friend that maybe the Pope wasn’t infallible after all? Is that where it all began between Gordon and me?

Well, that’s just too bad because rightly or wrongly, foolishly or otherwise, as a student leader or a journos’ rep, I had never regarded myself as a lesser person than those I sat down at a table with to find solutions to problems.

We were always equals in my mind. I wonder if the likes of Harry Gordon never grasped that concept?

After we walked out the door, sure: I returned to being a shit B-grade journalist with fuck-all future at the joint and Gordon returned to being a much-lauded figure in the international world of journalism.

Perhaps Gordon had also heard of a little incident on the news subs desk?

Around this time Harry (I’ve  decided to call him that from now on because in some ways and in different circumstances, we could have been friends) was a big wheel in some regular piss-up called the Australia-Japan Foundation.

He had been to one of their get-togethers up in the city on this day and in due course, an article about as thick as the Brisbane white pages at the time had lobbed into the subs’ tray.

On general subs duty, I picked it up and seeing it was around 7pm, I wondered if I’d have time to sub the fucking thing before knock-off time around 11pm. I imagine the usual two broadsheet pages had been allocated for Harry’s brilliant and perceptive view on the meeting and the foundation’s wider work. You can arrange such things when you’re editor-in-chief.

Only as a joke, mind, I subbed the opening few pars, placed the sub’s closing-off gate at the end of those pars, threw on a heading and placed it in the revise tray. Then waited patiently. Some time later, the story came plomping back in front of me with a wry “very funny” from chief sub Doog McCall.

Did Harry hear about that, I wonder?

It was when Harry met Donny sometime later that I finally realised what an important and vital cog I was in the machinery that was Queensland Newspapers up at Bowen Hills.

I was leaving the building late one afternoon for a well-earned beer or six at the Journalists’ Club up at Cintra Road when Harry brought me to a halt on the concourse outside the main doors facing Campbell Street.

I haven’t described Harry yet, have I? Think John Howard only not quite so ugly but about the same height. Simian features? That’s perhaps a bit harsh but in the few seconds of silence as we eyed off each other, Harry was doing a fairly good impression of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.

He was also swaying a bit so maybe he had feasted on some fermented fruits up in the jungle that was the Brisbane CBD. A meeting of the Australia-Japan Foundation perhaps?

Harry didn’t look at all happy so I quickly guessed I had a gorilla in my midst. He came straight to the point.

Harry said he was currently having trouble doing the staff holiday roster and it would be a great help in those endeavours if I were to resign immediately.

Yes, little old me. So vital to the cause that my eyes might have welled up. The thought of Harry, alone up there in mahogany row, a crystal glass and a bottle of an unmarried top-shelf scotch beside him as he crunched the numbers, worked out talent overlaps, should staff with family get preference…etc… well, I still tear up at the memory.

All these things to consider and yet, little old me, by just proving what a company man I really was, could resolve all of Harry’s woes, simply by fucking off.

The poor thing was so ground down by these arduous duties befitting a newspaper company’s editor-in-chief that he didn’t even think that I was required to give three months’ notice anyway.

When I finally did resign some months later knowing I was never, ever, going to go beyond the B-grade I had been stagnating on for years, Harry’s holiday roster woes were clearly behind him.

I had to serve out my time. Hate me they might but there was no way they were going to give me a little moral victory by paying me out to have me gone there and then.

Bearing in mind that the Australian Journalists Association’s Queensland branch had already warned Queensland Newspapers that it was highly illegal to target and harass me as an employee because of my trade union beliefs and activities, Harry on that day was clearly determined to put me and the AJA in our place.

After our  bizarre one-way discussion that day, I walked straight back to my desk and wrote down what had been said. Gordon (I’ve reverted to calling him that for the punchline that’s looming)  informed the AJA that my version of the exchange was more or less accurate but with a “so what?” feel to his terse response.

Gordon’s not-so-subtle “fuck off” that day outside Queensland Newspapers and his subsequent “fuck off” to the union made me rethink my view that the AJA was the most god-damned powerful and most feared organisation ever in the whole history of worker unions.

You’ve got to give my diminutive primate sparring partner marks at least for chutzpah but – and I appreciate it’s not nice to talk ill of the dead – to me Harry Gordon has remained, both in life and death, a real cunt.

* Permanent B-grade for life.