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Byron Shire
September 25, 2021

The ghost in the archives #2

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In which a former Echo drudge dives into the crypt and comes up covered in dusty memories.

Michael McDonald

1991 – 30 years ago! In the last episode of the archives, I left people with the cliffhanger of the state election results. Apart from a few newcomers to the Shire, most people would know that Don Page won, again.

Page held the seat of Ballina from 1988 to 2015, when he decided to retire. By then things were pretty toxic for Don behind the scenes in the National Party, but I’ll leave him to dredge up the infamy in his memoirs.

Perhaps Don missed his true calling. After all, he played rugby union for NSW in the under-23s. He could have gone on to endorse sports products and Lynx deodorant, but the family pressure to continue the political dynasty must have been huge. Given Don’s skill at sidestepping issues I bet he played winger or outside-centre.

(What is it with young men and the overpowering stench of Lynx? They could just rub gum leaves on their armpits and smell like trees instead.)

While the election was going on there was a poignant juxtaposition of photos on facing pages of The Echo. To the right, a rep from the District 66 Masonic Association handed over a cheque to the Brunswick Byron Health Service CEO to go towards the new birthing unit at the Mullumbimby hospital. On the opposing page, Don Page, Ian Kingston and other dignitaries posed in front of a sign at Ewingsdale indicating the proposed site of the new Byron Bay hospital.

The Echo, 15 May, 1991.

Why poignant? Because the birthing unit disappeared from town with the abandonment of the Mullum hospital (not without a fight) when the Byron hospital became the hospital for the whole Shire. One suspects that was the health department’s cunning plan all along.

Midwives, mums and dads and progeny gathered at the Mullum unit in 2016 to mark its history and say goodbye.

Midwives, among the new settlers in the 1960s and 1970s, were seen as a new and suspect invention for the state health services, even though it was they who delivered children before (male) doctors appropriated the role. One male doctor who highlighted the benefits of home births was Mullum’s David Miller. He published a book on the subject, Birth At Home, in 1990, and learned a lot, I think, from the local midwives.

(Sidenote: Cheque handover photos were a staple subject of local newspapers, improved only when The Echo photographers started to rebel against the tradition. In particular the BIG cheque, about the size of a kitchen table, was greatly abhorred and The Echo refused to take shots of them at one stage.)

One of the new faces at The Echo in the nineties was journalist Richard Conrad. He moved down from Brisbane where he had also been a DJ and demonstrated his radio prowess on Bay FM in an Echo-sponsored program.

Following his stint at The Echo Richard found work at the Northern Star and ditched his cool grunge look by having his hair cut, much to the mirth of others. He later became an editor with a Melbourne paper.

Go Geckos!

During his time at The Echo Richard had a column called, appropriately enough, ‘The Gecko’, which looked at environmental issues. In 1991 the north coast logging issue was a hot topic – as it is today – and ‘The Gecko’ drew the ire of G J Watts, the regional planning forester for the Forestry Commission of NSW.

In a break from the usual bland, cautious comments of bureaucrats, Watts claimed ‘The Gecko’ column was becoming ‘a platform for blatantly misleading and biased propaganda for extremists of the conservation movement.’ (You know, those folks who prefer trees vertical and harbouring koalas rather than as plywood framing for Japanese concrete projects.)

The Geckos also became the name of The Echo cricket team. Photo March 2, 1997 Jeff ‘howszat’ Dawson

In turn, Watts’ letter received a blast from Andrew Steed of the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA). I can find no mention of Watts’ career path after the forestry commission, now known as a corporation, but the government logging body is still as unpopular as a fart in a bath (the sound Laurence Olivier ascribed to fellow actor Edward Woodward’s name.)

Richard was also fond of repeating a story in which, buoyed by some substance or another, he floated down the river at Brunswick Heads towards the welcoming waves of the ocean, singing to his comrades on the riverbank the immortal words of a Doors song: ‘This is the end/ Beautiful friend/ This is the end/ My only friend, the end …’

As many of you would know, substances (many of them called ‘edibles’ these days, I believe) were part of The Echo’s production schedule, the chief substance being alcohol, a lodestone at first, and then a tragic millstone five years forward from 1991.

One of the early lurks (er, I mean promotional activities) perpetrated by The Echo was a wine-tasting evening that took place above what is now Mullum Mac and which later became a restaurant. Local pubs and clubs and bottle shops provided the wines, and local caterers and restaurants the food.

Nicholas Shand, founding editor.

A good time was had by all. Especially by the tasters – Nicholas Shand, David Lovejoy, Jeff Dawson and me. We had none of that genteel spitting of a mouthful into a bucket. Goodness me, what a waste!

We were amused to find that, at the end of the evening, the only thing stolen was a bottle of Ben Ean Moselle that had been left in the fridge. After all, it hardly qualified as a robust drink, despite its success in the 1970s.

Those down on their luck in these difficult times should note that free wine and nibbles are usually available at art gallery openings. If you happen to look a little unkempt you’ll fit right in with the artists.

♦ Michael McDonald was The Echo’s editor for 15 years. He spends his time watching magpies trying to cram themselves into a small birdbath.

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