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Byron Shire
August 5, 2021

The ghost in the archives #1

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In which a former Echo drudge plunges into the crypt in search of patterns, particularly a pattern for some nice gloves.

Michael McDonald

1991 was 30 years ago! And what a long, strange trip it’s been.

None of the small team of Echo drudges back then would have expected the paper to last so long and in fact be the last of the old paper newspapers left standing on the north coast.

My association with The Echo began in its first year in 1986. I was the Tasmanian correspondent, filing whimsical stories of farm life, dubious doggerel and philosophical ramblings of an equally dubious nature, along with a cartoon series called ‘Swami Cootamundra says’, a single panel repeated each time with different tag lines purporting to be esoteric wisdom; some of which enraged readers.

Swami Cootamundra. Cartoon Michael McDonald.

By 1991 I was in Mullumbimby, reporting directly for the paper. This involved everything from taking photos at CWA cake stalls to writing bits for the back page.

The Echo had its world headquarters across the way from where it is now. Jeff ‘Shutterbug’ Dawson had an old-fashioned darkroom at the back. The then Echo stray, a scruffy black cat called Murdoch, was so impressed he pissed in it.

Murdoch was also impressed with the traditionally small editorial cupboard. He shat on the telephone book stored under the desk. I was the muggins who reached down to pick it up without looking.

Murdoch was also associated with my first sighting of former long-term councillor Ross Tucker. He came in to the office to place a classified ad, I think. Once a military man, he jokingly asked if Murdoch had permission to leave the perimeter, as the cat waited to be let out.

More importantly, it was about this time that co-founder and production manager David Lovejoy joined together two Apple IIes with a bit of cable – and voila! A network!

The founding editor of The Byron Shire Echo, Nicholas Shand, whose family still holds a ownership share in the newspaper.

It was also about this time that founding editor Nicholas Shand invited me to my first Byron Shire Council meeting, all unknowing that I would spend some 18 years or so reporting on shenanigans in the House Of Pain. It was at Brunswick Heads, part of a moveable feast of meetings doing the rounds of the Shire.

(There were still people to the west and north of Byron Bay with a bitter taste in their mouths from the unwanted amalgamation of the Municipality of Mullumbimby with the Byron upstarts in October 1980. In later years there was a threat that Ocean Shores might secede to the Tweed; not everyone objected to the notion. Interestingly the first ‘president’ of Byron in 1908 was William Baker, whose cousin Alfred scored a goal against Scotland in 1870.)

During the meeting Nicholas rose to his feet to apologise to the councillors for a comment made about them in the letters pages. ‘Scum’ was the term, I think. The apology was accepted. Abuse was so much more sedate in those days, but things that sneak under an editor’s radar still keep them awake at night.

Dr Ian Kingston was the new Shire president. He was initially better known as a popular local sawbones and a singer in the a-cappella group Allegro Gone Troppo. A couple of years earlier the group sang in a play I wrote in conjunction with the Non-Specific Players. The Alien Tapes involved a group of interstellar ecologists arriving to save Earth from ourselves and eventually achieving their goal by placing a crystal atop a jukebox in the Popular Cafe, then the haunt of the ‘new settlers’.

Where were we? Ah yes, 1991… An Echo drudge has kindly sent me photos of pages from 1991 to help jog what we laughingly call my memory. (No, I’m not like former Byron mayor/Greens MP Jan Barham; I don’t keep filing cabinets full of everything).

I intend to look at this 30-year-old year by jumping about in time, somewhat in the manner of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, though without the caustic wit and the firebombing of Dresden, one of the USA’s earlier contributions to world peace.

Does history repeat itself? Or does it just rhyme, as former FBI director James Comey said recently? These days it probably raps, or plays out in death metal, given the nature of global warming, but The Echo pages show that the same issues pop up over and over again, often with the same non-solutions. Byron Bay bypass, anyone? Thirty years ago in 1991 is a good place to start looking at it…

1991 was also a state election year. Unlike the multitude of hopeful punters in later years, there were only four candidates, and the Greens were yet to become a political force in Byron Shire. The candidates included sitting MP Don Page, whose family flourished in NSW and federal politics since his grandad Sir Earle Page was PM for 19 days in 1939, and led the then Country Party for 18 years.

The other hopefuls were the Labor Party’s Maureen Lane, the Democrats’ Andrew Mignot and that perennial gadfly – Fast Buck$. The Buck$ter eschewed the first candidates meeting and issued a broadside instead: ‘Voters should ignore appeals to party loyalty and instead examine candidates for their record of commitment.

Christ Buck$ blesses Council as he joins the flock briefly in 1999. Photo Jeff ‘Shepherd’ Dawson

‘I think I can say, without fear of contradiction, that for the past seven-and-a-half years I have, without pay, worked my butt off for integrity and commonsense in the political system, taking on considerable personal risks and costs in the process. No-one has succeeded in silencing or intimidating me.’

The same remains true 30 years later, even after an expensive defamation lawsuit successfully brought against Buck$ and The Echo by Ross Tucker.

And despite what some people think of as favouritism on The Echo’s part, over those 30 years Buck$ has paid for his many ads in old-fashioned cash, enabling the staff to indulge in ‘the finest wines available to humanity’, to quote Withnail and I.

Michael McDonald gets back to his roots with good friend Nina Bishop and happily takes the reins from A Small Wooden Tray Called Albert. Photo Tree Faerie.

♦ Michael McDonald was The Echo editor from 1995 to 2010, and also served as journalist, radio commentator, advertising copywriter, cartoonist, layout artist (of his own pages) and general factotum. He now lives in southeast Victoria, where humidity has yet to be invented.

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  1. As we sip up at the fountain of wisdom on the trip-ups on the way it has been a strange trip from the Echo of 30 years ago from 1991 to The Echo of today.
    So give me a pen and let me have my say. The paper has not lasted to the high quality it was back in my day.


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