Old Days, Old Ways: Stories From My Radio Days in the Bush

Old Days, Old Ways: Stories From My Radio Days in the Bush

by Alex Nicol

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Alex Nicol takes us back to the old days in the bush, when booking into a country pub was likely to turn into an adventure, and when radio was the glue that held far flung communities together.Full of colourful characters and making do with what's at hand, these stories are classically Australian. There are the wartime mates who helped each other build farms on their soldier settler blocks, and the 'Adelady' keeping the farm running after her husband died. There is the young woman who ran down water buffalo in the Northern Territory, and Possum, the legendary bush hermit who lived off the land on his own for 60 years, quietly doing jobs for farmers without being asked. There is the neighbour caught 'fishing' in the chookyard with a long line and a small hook baited with bread, and the little girl who swallowed a sapphire she found on the side of the road.With a bush yarn, it's all about the way you tell it. As the voice of rural Australia for over two decades on ABC radio, Alex Nicol can tell a yarn with a punchline that will keep you grinning for the rest of the day.'Alex Nicol's Old Days, Old Ways evokes and celebrates those unmistakeable national qualities that set us apart and that reside in the common man and woman.' - Ian 'Macca' McNamara, Australia All Over

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781760870775
Publisher: Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited
Publication date: 03/04/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Alex Nicol was ABC's first rural radio presenter. He started at the ABC in 1967, and was presenter of the 'All Ways on Sunday' program, and later manager of ABC Orange. He has worked as a jackaroo, as a sheep and wool officer for the NSW Department of Agriculture, as an agriculture college teacher, and on the Australian Wheat Board. Alex is also a playwright, and his plays have been produced in London, New York, Melbourne and Sydney, with credits including an award at the Manchester International Writing Competition, the Wal Cherry Award, and The London International Playwriting Award.

Read an Excerpt



2CR was one of five huge transmitters that the government of the day set up in the 1930s to 'cover Australia'. And they very nearly did.

Corowa in southern New South Wales, Rockhampton on the coast in Queensland, and Crystal Brook in outback South Australia came on stream in 1932. 2CR, with her transmitter at Cumnock, in the centre of New South Wales, followed five years later. Her powerful signal meant that broadcasts from the studio in Orange could be heard as far north as the Queensland border and as far south as Victoria. The old girl had a big family.

I arrived at the station in 1967, a very raw trainee rural reporter. She saw me grow to present a three-and-a-half-hour national program from her transmitter, and eventually to become manager at a time when technology was changing and we were no longer in awe of that big stick out at Cumnock.

There were flowers in the house when we arrived. Irene Hatswell saw to that. Welcome to the family.

Neil Inall would teach me. He sat me in a 'dead studio'. I've never been comfortable with switches and dials, and what was in front of me terrified me. 'Talk to the microphone as a friend,' was his advice. 'You're not talking to people at a meeting; you're having a chat with a mate. And practise, practise, practise.

'Did you wash under your arms in the shower this morning? Of course you did, but you don't remember, do you? No. It's second nature. That's the way handling those switches and dials will become. They mustn't get in the way.'

I disappointed him so many times.

I am on my own controlling the breakfast session for the first time.

Think it through, I tell myself. Listen for the time call from Sydney, fade down the signal from Sydney, fade up our transmitter, open the microphone, make my announcements, close the microphone, fade up the control on the tape recorder that has this morning's interview.

That's not hard. But why isn't the interview going to air? Don't panic. Open the microphone and call the time. Press the start button on the recorder again. Why won't the interview go to air?

Very quietly the studio door opens. Pat Britten crosses noiselessly to the desk. He reaches over, closes the microphone, turns the tape recorder on, gives me an encouraging smile and says, 'Try again.'

It's got to be like washing your armpits.

Neil and I divided the territory. He'd take the stories west of Dubbo, I'd take the eastern half of the region, and we would travel. Oh, how we would travel. There was no such thing as a recorded telephone interview. If you wanted to talk with someone, then you drove and you met them face to face. We were often away from family overnight, over nights.

I was somewhere in the south of our country. They knew that, but where exactly? My mother-in-law had been killed in a car accident, and my wife, Diana, and our three young children were at home alone. Neil was doing the breakfast show and asked our listeners to find me. One of them managed the motel where I was sleeping. 'Please ring the station straight away.'

I'd been with the ABC for perhaps six months, at 2CR for perhaps three months, but when I got back to the studio the manager sat me down. 'You're going to need some time off. Don't worry about that. Take as much as you need.' He opened the safe. 'And you'll need some money.' He handed some over. 'We'll work it out later.'

Welcome to the family.



Each morning when I came into the studio, on my desk would be a neat pile of copy paper. At the top of the first page I would see the typed words: 'This is the news, written by Laurie Mulhall, read by ...' Dear Old M claimed authorship, and you had better do his words justice. The copy was there in plenty of time for me to read it, reread it aloud and get it right.

Laurie Mulhall — Dear Old M — was a masterful journalist with a poetic turn of phrase. On slow news days I would announce to our listeners, 'Following last week's rain, green shoots of new life spike the rich earth of the wheat country of the Central West.' You wouldn't get that in the Tele.

Dear Old M, our journalist in charge, was something of a father figure. He was 'Dear Old' because no matter who he was referring to, they became 'Dear Old'. Hence Neil Inall was 'Dear Old I' and Colin Munroe, who'd done time at the station as a rural reporter, was 'Dear Old Bangers and Mash'.

He'd sit in the newsroom, headphones clamped to his head and, in the early days, a pipe smouldering beside him. He had a marvellous habit of tap, tapping on the space bar of his typewriter as he encouraged the story out of whichever of our far-flung correspondents was on the phone. He didn't take notes; he crafted the story as it was being told to him so that clean copy was the inevitable result.

Mrs Mac was our Trangie correspondent and a story in her own right. The wife of the local doctor — who'd come to town as a locum and, in Saturday Evening Post style, just stayed — she was known by, and knew, everyone for a hundred miles around.

I listened in horrified fascination once as she reported on a gruesome local accident.

'Two boys, Mrs Mac?' asked Dear Old M. Tap, tap, tap.' And they drove under the fence?' he repeated. Tap, tap. 'And the windscreen was down? ... Oh, it was a jeep. There wasn't any windscreen?' Tap. 'Oh, that's good, Mrs Mac ... And it what? Cut one boy's head off? Right off?' Tap, tap, tap. 'Actually decapitated him? Oh, that's good, Mrs Mac, that's good. It was barbed wire? Oh, good, good.'

Getting accurate, sympathetic copy from a conversation like that is a rare skill.

Only a graded journalist was permitted to write the news copy, but 2CR had a big area to cover, and on more than one occasion a major national story meant that it was all hands to the pump.

There'd been a mine disaster at Cobar, and head office rang to suggest that someone should pop out to cover the story. It was a lazy 530 miles there and back; those were the days before they would 'chopper' someone to cover a dog fight. Besides, there were other stories to be covered, so we wouldn't be doing that.

I asked if I could help. M was trying to raise the mine management and told me to get onto our Cobar correspondent, stay on the phone and get anything I could. Our correspondent was, often as not, a local housewife with an interest in seeing that her town got its share of news, and that was the case at Cobar. They certainly weren't going to make a fortune selling news tips to the ABC.

I rang. At the other end the receiver was jerked off its cradle and a voice snarled, 'Who's that?' I introduced myself and was met with: 'You ought to have more sense. Blue Hills is on.' Crash.

I should say that someone was supposed to keep an ear to the daily broadcast of the hugely popular rural drama Blue Hills. Inevitably, someone who'd missed the show would ring after lunch to be brought up to date with the goings on at Tanimbla. Get your perspective right, boy!

When M or his assistant took leave, they'd be replaced by a Sydney-based reporter who, wasn't thrilled at the opportunity to work in the bush. Obviously, they had no personal knowledge of the district, and that could lead to some accidental misreporting. Diplomatic handling was required.

'Sixteen feet of water covered the Bedgerabong Road.' I read. If there was sixteen feet of water over any road on the flat plains of the Central West, it was already too late for Noah to get involved. 'Er, perhaps sixteen inches?' I suggested.

'Feet. Definitely feet.' Was the response.

So I fudged a bit.

Came a day when M was ill and there was no replacement. What was the alternative? No news?

I hesitantly asked if he would trust me to put out a bulletin and got his blessing. I knew he'd be listening from his sickbed and I was proud of my effort.

When he returned, he chided me. 'What happened to the urn story, Nic?'

The CWA branch in one of our tiniest towns had raised the money to buy a new urn, and the fact had been dutifully reported by our correspondent.

'There wasn't room for it, M.'

'What, not four lines?' he insisted.

'Really, M. It's not much of a story,' was my best excuse.

'To you, Nic. Not to them.'



You never forget the first time, especially if it was a disaster. Nineteen sixty-nine was a very good year for red wine, and Australia was in the early stages of its love affair with the grape. It had been a long and difficult courtship.

There had been some early romances. Those German vine dressers came by special invitation of the South Australian government. The boardrooms of England decreed the building of mini chateaus (very mini) in northern Victoria, and Colin Campbell — of Rutherglen fame — told me that time was when the local winemakers would load a keg on the back of a cart and sell their produce by the billy-full to the local goldminers cooking Sunday lunch over their campfires.

Even our boys had done their bit. Don't tell me that 'plonk' isn't the result of some blushing, tongue-tied young Anzac trying to order vin blanc from a comely maid, but the wine had gone sour.

Wine bars were dark, gloomy places frequented by the flotsam of society in search of fourpenny dark, and those English gentlemen grew tired of the robust colonial reds ... calling it 'Emu wine' probably wasn't the smartest marketing strategy. Australian table wine was on the nose; only the strong survived.

Jack Roth was a survivor. The name says it all. Jack's antecedents were those pioneering German winemakers looking for the right side of the hill to plant their vines in Australia, and they chose Mudgee. I jackerooed at Mudgee. I married a Mudgee girl from an old Mudgee family. I knew Jack and Jack knew me. He would be my first interviewee in my new profession of rural journalism.

It seems sacrilegious to say it now, but Jack was surviving by selling his grapes as table grapes. But he had an ace in the hole: he made rummy port. He matured his port in rum barrels. The result was unique. It was famous and it was good. I'd have Jack tell me the secret of rummy port.

This was my first interview and I was very careful. Recorder level was checked and rechecked before I began the interview with 'Mr Roth'. Naturally, we were in the cellars; equally naturally, Mr Roth was at pains to demonstrate his techniques as the interview progressed.

'These were the barrels. They came from America,' said Mr Roth. 'Here, try this.' And he handed me a generous glass of first-year-in-the-barrel wine. 'It was a mistake. I wanted the traditional brandy casks.'

This was great stuff. I checked that the tape was still recording ... Yes, everything looked fine.

Mr Roth and I sat beside one of those barrels and sipped the contents as we chatted.

'It's the time the wine stands in the casks that makes the difference,' I was assured. 'Now, this has been down for a couple of years. Try this.'

We moved to a new cask and took up station there. The sipping and the discussion of techniques grew animated. 'Mr Roth' vanished, his place taken by 'Jack', and the secrets of the winemaker's craft began to flow as freely as the rummy port.

I distinctly remember — at least, I think I do — deciding that I'd better put another tape on the recorder. This stuff was too good to miss.

Jack and I eventually parted the best of friends, with me promising solemnly that I'd call him with the date and time of this magnificent broadcast. He handed me a bottle of the best rummy port —'a gift for Diana'.

The drive from Mudgee to Orange has never been easy, but the return trip on this occasion was particularly difficult.

Recording an interview is one thing; editing it to make a program is a different tipple altogether. I sat down faced with the prospect of turning an hour of interview into a five-minute broadcast.

Only then did I discover that something was amiss.

The longer the interview went, the stranger the voices seemed. By what can only have been some curious fault in the recorder, consonants and vowels collided with each other, making the speech hopelessly blurred.

This was a tragedy! My first interview with the ABC, a groundbreaking exposé of the secrets of rummy port, was ruined because of a technical failure. What was I going to tell 'Mr Roth'?



The autumn was wet, very wet. The country had been worked up, but unless the rain stopped, we weren't going to get the wheat crop sown. You just couldn't get a tractor and machinery onto the ground. That great rain would be wasted.

Never let it be said that farmers are not inventive. The rice crop is flown into waterlogged paddies, so let's fly the wheat crop in.

Hazeltons, flying out of the Cudal airport, had a well-established topdressing and aerial-spraying business; they were also pioneers when it came to aerial firefighting. They were up for the job. Several local farmers had already used them to get the crop in. Hazeltons were now refining the technique, and I wanted to know how it was being done. I was keen to go up with a pilot and experience it firsthand. As always, Hazeltons were cooperative; all I had to do was present myself at Cudal.

Now, I'd experienced flying in light aircraft before, and reckoned I had the technique of recording in that noisy atmosphere down pat. Just turn the microphone input down very low and hold the mic right against your lips. It gives you clear voice against the background of the aircraft noise — perfect. And if I wanted comment from the pilot? Just ask the question, leave a break and put the mic close to his lips. Easy.

When I got to Cudal I was a bit disappointed. I wouldn't be going up with a pilot actually sowing a crop; someone else would take me up to 'observe'. As we taxied for take-off, I noticed a badly dented crop duster minus a wing at the side of the strip.

'Ouch! Who did that?'


'Ah — what happened?'

'Just touched a corner post.'


'No, turning at the end of a run.'

'Oh. You okay?'

'Yeah. You're never in trouble so long as you keep flying.'

Flying the crop in, I was to learn, was done at about the same height as crop spraying. To put it into perspective, the aircraft needed to lift a fraction to go over the fence at the end of a run. I expected that, as 'observers', we'd fly high over the paddock while the bloke below us did the job.

Not a bit of it. My pilot settled in at perhaps 10 feet above the plane sowing the crop and followed him up and down the paddock. All I can really remember is the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach as we lifted, turned and dipped at the end of each run. I did remember to turn the tape recorder on but, strangely, when I got back to the studio there was nothing on it but the sound of the aircraft. I hadn't said a word.

Back home, I laid over the sound of the aircraft a riveting description of how the job was done. Hear that? I was there on the job.



'Have a try at this.'

'This' was a piece of cable with a post office jack at one end and two little bulldog clips at the other, and it was being offered by one of the Postmaster-General's Department technicians who kept an eye on things technical at 2CR. I didn't have the faintest idea what it might do. We were technical virgins inheriting Postmaster-General technology.

Tucked away in the record library at 2CR was a big 78 rpm shellac disc without a label. Curiosity must be satisfied, so I sat it on a turntable and dropped the pick-up arm into place — only to see it immediately rejected. It took a couple more tries before the penny dropped that with this record the pick-up arm started in the centre of the disc and worked towards the outside.

What I had was a recording of an interview between an unnamed reporter and someone from the Department of Agriculture extolling the virtues of superphosphate. It was an early field recording from the times when Aunty ABC would send a recording van out into the bush for just such an interview. It would have been a full day's adventure with what was then cutting-edge technology.

Sitting beside me on the console desk in the studio was a set of chimes. If you're old enough, you just might remember the melodious bong, bong, bong that issued periodically for no apparent reason during ABC broadcasts. The chimes were a signal that a switch between ABC networks was about to take place.

Now, when any ten-year-old can whip out a handheld device to record whatever action takes his fancy and then instantly transmit it to his friends, it all sounds terribly quaint.

Broadcasts from 2CR's Orange studio could be picked up as far away as St George, in Queensland, and down on the Victorian border, but, for all practical purposes, it covered an area perhaps 500 miles east to west, and 300 miles north to south.

If you wanted to cover a story anywhere in that wide sweep of New South Wales, there was only one way: drive to meet the subject, then interview them and drive back. You spent a lot of time on the road. There was no legal technology available for recording a telephone conversation. It was possible to use a nasty suction cap on the back of a receiver device, but the quality was terrible, and anyway it was illegal to record a telephone conversation.


Excerpted from "Old Days, Old Ways"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Alex Nicol.
Excerpted by permission of Allen & Unwin.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Welcome to the Family 1

Dear Old M 4

The First Time 8

Touch and Go 11

Technician Magic 13

Shindy's 16

The Fabulous Four 18

Spud Lumping 22

Who You Know 23

Around the West 25

Burrumbuttock Brekkie 28

Black Beauty 29

Carinda Curry 35

The Grazier's New Wife 38

Dunlop 40

They're Racing 44

A Parting Gift 46

Water War 49

Sleeper Cutters 52

Tiny's Dead! 58

Pooncarie Stopover 61

Driving with Miss Muriel 63

Someone Must Care 65

Troubles at the Chook House 68

All Ways on Sunday 70

Give Me a Head of… 78

Golden Memories 81

The Lights of Cobb & Co. 84

Chinese Gold 87

Harbourmaster 94

Bush Pilots 97

Broken Blade 99

Our Henley 103

Man with Mule 107

Lightning Fast 109

Jimmy Hereen 110

Ted Egan 113

Old Broome 116

Mareeba Rodeo 118

Never Say Never … 121

Something Old, Something New 123

Film Star 125

The Coffin 130

Step Back in Time 132

Cooktown Cemetery 134

Rum Does for Lasseter 135

A Land Fit for Heroes 137

The Gloucester Tree 144

The Brewer's Tale 146

The Hill 149

The Lithgow Flash 155

The Possum 158

The Dedicated Wharfie 162

Two Splendid Fish 163

Gift Collection 166

They're Off! 168

The Rock 169

A Very Old-timer 173

Anakie 175

Breakfast at Alice 181

Camel Cup 184

A Near Thing 190

The Great Australian Funny Bone 191

The Search Goes on … 194

Rusty 198

Military Conflict 200

Old Mick 202

The Auctioneer 205

The Milky Bar Fairy 207

The Right Thing 209

Best on Show 210

The Doc 211

The Dogger 213

A Rush of Blood 216

The Demo Satellite Dish 218

The Ridge 220

Broadcasting on the Move 224

A Punchy Interview 226

Rain and Power 227

The Bluey 232

President Bush 234

On the Outer 238

The Times They Are a-Changin' 240

Let's Drink to the Next Man to Die 244

They're Growing Wheat at Mount Hope 251

Country Football's Gone to Buggery 255

Acknowledgements 259

Photo Credits 261

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