The end of fun: David Lovejoy concludes the story of the The Echo’s early years

Nicholas at Durrumbul Hall getting ready to snap the local area from the sky. Photo Jeff Dawson.

Thirty-one years have passed since Nicholas Shand dreamed up this newspaper and gathered a band of fellow dreamers to help him make it real.

In those 31 years The Echo has grown, like a magic beanstalk, far taller than we ever imagined, and it is now a feature of Shire life.

This is the final chapter in our series on the history of our beloved rainbow rag written by the newspaper’s longest-serving drudge, David Lovejoy, wraps up this week.

Nicholas singing with Anudhi Wentworth at The 4th Echo Awards celebrating 10 years.

While the drama of general manager Max Eastcott’s departure was playing out, The Echo passed its tenth birthday, and we marked the jubilee with a fourth awards night.

This was the most ambitious yet, and we shifted the venue from Mullumbimby to the cavernous Byron Bay Epicentre, once the site of the town’s meatworks. It was a formal dinner, with awards, entertainment and dancing and we wisely delegated the organisation to Howard Wilkinson, then manager of Santos Healthfoods and a leading light in the drama group the Non-Specific Players.

Our glittering event coincided with the by-election to replace Michael Molloy, the councillor whom Eastcott had bullied into resigning. There was no doubt another progressive would take his seat; the only question was whether it would be Fast Buck$, Tom Wilson or Lisa Christoffersen. Howard and his crew had arranged live links to the tally room and a series of filmed ‘vox pop’ satires to run throughout the evening. In the end the voters sensibly chose Christoffersen.

There were awards and comedy sketches. Nicholas and I performed a two-hander written by Michael McDonald in which, confined in some future retirement home, we reminisced about the glory days of The Echo.

One award went to the recently retired councillor Anudhi Wentworth, who took over the stage to give an impromptu cabaret ­performance.

That was memorable, but unforgettable was Nicholas’s welcome to everybody at the start of proceedings. Resplendent in a baggy checked dinner jacket and green bowtie, he simply walked through the hall, table by table, greeting almost everyone by name. Then he stood on the stage and asked any of the three hundred or so guests to stand up if they had ever worked for The Echo in any capacity. As most of the audience sheepishly rose to their feet, there was a collective gasp of amazement, followed by thunderous ­applause.

Last lunch

A few months later the Echo crew, friends and relatives spend the long sunny afternoon of Sunday, October 27, 1996, at Steve Snow’s Fins Restaurant on the banks of the Brunswick River. The occasion for the lunch (not that one is needed where Nicholas was concerned) was the visit from Sydney of Sebastian, Nicky and Jane’s elder son.

When at dusk the last bottle has been drained and Steve is nervously wondering how he will get the restaurant in shape for his dinner customers, Nicholas courteously bids farewell to each of his guests individually – almost, as some of them remark later, as if he knows he will not see them again.

Late in the evening, only a few hundred metres from his home in Coopers Lane, Nicholas dies in a car accident. The terrible news spreads swiftly and by the morning most of his friends and colleagues are desolate.

But that morning is a press day and we still have to put out a newspaper. In tears and shock we do the best we can. The scarcely credible news on the front page is bordered in black and inside, as if equally emotionally affected, the printer has assembled the pages in the wrong order.

Final farewell

The funeral was held the following Friday. More than a thousand mourners collected at Durrumbul Hall in Coopers Lane as Nicholas lay in state, covered with flowers, in an open coffin which had been built by his friend.

Everyone came from the communes in the hills, but also businesspeople from around the Shire, politicians, ordinary Echo readers who felt a personal connection to Nicholas through his writing, and even old enemies from Council.

Speeches were made by relatives, by mayor Ian Kingston, by Anudhi Wentworth and myself, and then the crowd followed the coffin, borne by relays of pallbearers, along Coopers Lane, past the fatal bend, and halfway up a hill overlooking the Shand home.

There a grave had been prepared (with permission from Council) and there Nicholas was laid to rest with a final, moving speech from Sebastian.

The curious thing about the whole ceremony was that although most people wept at one juncture or another, the overriding feeling was not so much loss but appreciation of the abundant life Nicholas had lived. It was like experiencing one of his exuberant hugs. As one woman wrote in a letter to the newspaper, ‘The funeral was one of the best days of my life. Nicholas brought love, warmth and all of our people together. It was like doing a hundred workshops and all being beneficial to the soul, mind and spirit. We thank you, dear Nicholas.’

Challenge of the future

And here the most vivid period in the history of The Echo ends. The paper has continued to chronicle and comment on Byron Shire’s diverse, passionate and creative community. It has continued to support broadly Green, socially progressive principles, but not necessarily the Green or Labor parties. It has also, through its extended correspondence section, remained the simplest and most effective way for people to talk publicly with each other about the Byron Shire, its direction, its problems and its triumphs.

For a few years after the passing of Nicholas Shand The Echo benefited from the advice of former Sydney Morning Herald editor and Crikey owner, Eric Beecher, and his business partner, the late Diana Gribble, co-founder of the publishing company, McPhee Gribble. Their input, during the period they held shares in The Echo, enabled us to tighten up the finances, conduct ourselves more professionally and punch way above our weight in the local newspaper stakes.

During this period the Tweed Echo was started, our second attempt to expand beyond the frontiers of the Byron Shire. Alas, the new paper’s birth coincided with the great financial crisis of 2008. Potential advertisers were broke and after a couple of years it had to close, leaving the people of the Tweed Shire to the mercies of the shonky developers and their enabling politicians, types who seem to infest all beautiful environments.

However, we did find the key to expansion in 2011 when we launched Echonetdaily. The paper had always had a website – since 1996 in fact – but the success of Adelaide’s InDaily, and Crikey itself, encouraged us to create an original site dedicated to the news, entertainment and lifestyle of the northern rivers region. While it has undergone some changes, Echonetdaily has remained one of the prime sources of information for readers and viewers in our area. And the changes will continue as we prepare a major redesign for later in the year.

Change is the constant of all histories. Some changes may be vast and irresistible, but others are subject to our choices, to what we consider important. It is within our collective will to ensure that the landscape of Byron Shire remains healthy and harmonious.

Nicholas used to give the example of England’s Cotswald villages; we can, like the Cotswalds, reject the influx of carpetbaggers seeking to make money out of inappropriate development. It requires from all of us time and effort, unity and constant vigilance, and a committed newspaper like The Echo that has remained in the forefront of the struggle since 1986.

More Echo history articles

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