The high school boy loved writing and was vaguely interested in journalism, so that’s what he put on the form when the careers guidance counsellor asked him about work experience.
It was a big surprise the following week when she told him he’d be working with a famous political journalist in the parliamentary press gallery.
This was in the days when the federal politicians met in the old white parliament, before they retreated to their bunker inside the hill, so that was where the boy pedalled his bike one spring morning, trying not to get too sweaty.
The security guard at the front door gave him the once-over, let him keep his pencil case and handed him a temporary press badge. The boy wandered through the strange old building looking for the press gallery, which turned out to be in an upstairs corner. Then he knocked on what he thought was the right door, which was slightly ajar.
The door swung open to reveal a desk containing lots of papers and an old typewriter. Beside the desk was a bearded, rumpled man who looked like the old koala from The Magic Pudding. He was snoring. This was the famous journalist.
The work experience boy accidentally bumped the door, which knocked over a wine bottle. The journalist opened his eyes and sat up like a shot. ‘What time is it?’
‘Um, 9.30,’ said the boy.
‘Where’s the bloody phone?’
That question was answered when it started ringing under some papers. The journalist dived on it and then proceeded to give ten minutes of witty, erudite political comment to a radio audience in Adelaide with barely a pause for breath.
The boy looked on, impressed.
When the live cross was over, the journalist lay down and fell asleep again. Not sure if he was supposed to sit in the famous journalist’s chair, the boy decided to wait outside.
Half an hour later, the man woke up again. His head appeared in the doorway. ‘First rule of journalism,’ he admonished the boy. ‘Never be late.’
After they’d made their introductions and the boy had been given a corner of the desk to use, the journalist retired to the Members’ Bar for a lengthy lunch appointment. Minors were not permitted.
Instead, he gave the boy his first assignment, covering a military announcement on the lawns outside.
After going back through security, the work experience boy found his way down the famous steps as three menacing-looking Black Hawk helicopters circled to land.
The massive rotors of the choppers battered the nearby rose gardens as the big machines descended. Across the grass, the people at the Aboriginal Tent Embassy cursed as their tents blew away and corrugated iron flew into the air.
Then the politicians arrived with their minders to address the media. The Prime Minister’s silver hair looked like a hat. It remained entirely unperturbed by the rotors as he smiled, his orange TV makeup already applied. The Defence Minister, too big for his suit, was happier than a kid with a new train set as he pointed at the choppers, the taxpayer’s latest purchase, then jammed his head in a borrowed flight helmet for the cameras.
The boy frantically scribbled notes about what was said, wishing he knew shorthand, then lost the lot in the direction of the lake when the helicopters took off again and blew his notepad to pieces.
He was on his way back through the building to explain this to his temporary boss when he met an even more famous journalist moving at speed in the other direction, down a narrow corridor.
It was too late to retreat, so he pressed into a nook at the side which seemed to have been built for that purpose. The big man steamed past like a rhinoceros.
When he got back to the office, there was the sound of furious typing. It was almost Question Time.
‘You’re going to need a jacket or they won’t let you in,’ the famous journalist said, as he hit full stop on a thousand words for a Sydney newspaper.
‘Wear this.’ He shoved a hideous purple jacket at the work experience boy.
It was four sizes too big.
‘What are you going to wear?’
‘I always wear this,’ said the famous journalist.
He took down an ancient, disreputable-looking brown jacket from behind the door. It was holey, and looked like he’d stolen it from a homeless person. ‘Can’t be too respectful, can we?’
The stern security guy guarding the press gallery looked at their jackets in disgust, but had to let them in.
The journalist winked at the boy as they took their seats.
From the gallery high up above, the old men in suits looked very small and insignificant. Their standard of debate was pathetic. It was worse than a primary school playground, all name calling and nonsense.
The work experience boy was appalled. ‘Is it always like this?’ he whispered.
‘Pretty much,’ said the journalist. ‘Sometimes it’s worse. Churchill said it best. Democracy’s the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’
The boy didn’t look convinced.
‘Drinking helps, I find,’ said the famous journalist. ‘I’ll try to sneak you into the bar later.’
After a week of this, the boy was having trouble riding his bike home in a straight line.
The careers guidance counsellor at school asked him how it had gone.
‘It was great,’ he said.
The woman smiled. ‘Would you like to work in the press gallery when you leave school?’
‘I think I might try something else,’ said the boy.