Zwar was the former editor and publisher of Cairns community newspaper Focus News, from 1971 to 1989. He lived in Leo McKern's historic Stratford home for 23 years, which he describes in his biography.
UK Journalist of the Year, Phillip Knightley, described Desmond’s career as a tradition of brash boys from the Australian bush making good in cosmopolitan Fleet Street. "Zwar was there when British journalism was at its best, and from stories about the Queen to film stars, politicians and scandals he confirmed the Fleet Street view that there was no one better able to dig out the real story than an Aussie.
Grab a cuppa, as we present chapter 15 in this delightful biography
We Find Our Paradise
Just when the wheel of fortune seems stuck in a rut, it often grinds into action and smoothes out the pathway. It happened when we made a seemingly mad decision to live in Cairns, a place I’d previously never heard of.The London Sunday Times Travel Editor had phoned me in Sydney to say she wished to include Australia in a coming travel section and had heard I was back there. She commissioned me to write an in-depth travel piece on Far North Queensland to give English readers a glimpse of its exotic tropical isolation; also what sort of house ‘could one buy?’ And what would it cost? Could ‘one’ buy a decent bottle of wine? And what were the restaurants like? If readers wanted to go out and actually live there, what was the standard of education they should expect for their children?
It was then 1971, and our son, Adam was on the way; already dubbed ‘the little walnut’.
Much of what I had gathered about Cairns before Delphine and I flew in, was that Leo McKern, the veteran Australian actor who was to find fame as Rumpole of the Bailey, now lived there. He’d settled at Stratford, 8kms from downtown Cairns, after making the movie Ryan’s Daughter.
Because it seemed to be an odd move for a famous star, Leo had been interviewed and written about in all the papers. ‘Why on earth …’
However, my brief from the Sunday Times, a paper much more staid than it is now, was certainly not to write about personalities. When a local real estate agent suggested he might introduce me to Leo I politely told him not to bother.
We had been in Cairns for a week fact-gathering. An enthusiastic real estate agent, Monty Montefiore, was our guide and he gave us his full time, relying on the long-shot that if English would-be migrants read the article they’d get in touch with him. (I didn’t say so at the time, but I felt it was a long-shot indeed.)
It was our last day, and Monty picked us up at the motel and drove us up a steep goat-track to the summit of a Stratford hill. “It’s got a spectacular view,” he assured us on the bumpy way up. We got out of the car and gazed down across shimmering cane-fields, over the wide Barron River, and further out — the sparkling ocean.
I turned to Monty. “I’ll buy it! Where’s the house?” At that moment a burly, unmistakeable figure emerged from behind a hedge of allamanda. Leo McKern greeted Monty and said he had just come back from the pub where he’d been chatting with the local cane-cutters. He waved away my embarrassment that I wasn’t there to interview him. “Come in and have a drink,” he said, in his Old Bailey purr.
Leo’s breeze-brick and weatherboard house was perched on two-thirds of an acre. There was a pool, surrounded by lush tropical creepers and hedges. “Well,” said Leo, sipping his wine, “what d’you think of Cairns?”
“We love it,” Delphine said. “One day we might even come and live here.”
“Well, why not buy my house? It’s for sale. We’ve been here 18 months and we’re leaving.”
“Thanks, Leo,” I said. “But we’re nowhere near making that sort of decision. We will be staying in Sydney for a while.” He poured us another drink. “I’m advertising the house nationally in 10 days’ time. If you change your mind, let me know.”
Suddenly the light-hearted discussion had become serious. Delphine and I had certainly fallen in love with Cairns and Leo’s price of $32,000 for house, land, cane furniture and television set—he and his family wanted to leave it all behind—was absolutely reasonable.
We flew out next day, after going back in the morning to have a sober look. I had placed a $100 option to buy No.44 Dalziel Street, Stratford. If we decided against it (and that seemed likely) I would lose my $100. If we decided to buy, it would come off the price. Leo and I shook hands. The house was 34 years old. It had a study downstairs which would be ideal for me. And the view from what had already become Delphine’s kitchen was breathtaking. But to decide so suddenly? It was ridiculous. And yet ... was it?
We sat up most of the night in our rented Sydney apartment and talked it over. ‘Walnut’, Delphine’s little embryo, was developing. Could she have him (he was always thought of as a boy) in Cairns? Next morning I sent Leo a telegram: “Exercising option.”
A week later we had vacated our flat, packed, and headed our 1971 Toyota Crown north. What had we done?
Leo met us in a floppy, wide-brimmed hat. He showed us the fruit trees, explained the tropical plants in the garden and how to clean the pool. “You’ll like the people around here. They take the time to be nice,” he growled.
The Cairns we immediately got to love was a paint-peeling old frontier town, with houses built on high stilts. Weatherboard and concrete-brick dwellings peeped from behind a confusion of bright-yellow allamanda; red and white frangipani and berserk bougainvillea. The sea sparkled, prawns were $3 a kilo and Morton Bay Bugs were being tossed back into the water as trash, because nobody thought they were worth eating.
In our first steamy Wet season we had 18 inches of rain in the space of 24 hours, the deluge clattering down on our iron roof like a train roaring through the London Underground. We hid in the bathroom through two cyclones, (said to be the safest part of the house because of its plumbing) watching helplessly out the window as huge old trees around the garden snapped in two. And the locals were indeed kind; they did give us the ‘time’. Anybody arriving from further south than Innisfail, 80 kms down the road, was carefully given hours of the Far North Queensland ‘Treatment’; a tried and true practice of judging newcomers by the simple expedient of forcing them to talk while the locals listened.
On our visit for the Sunday Times, we’d stayed at an elegant old beachside motel, and I noticed when we arrived at the restaurant, that there was only one other diner. As we finished our delicious crab, I said to the waiter that should the diner a few tables away, wish to join us for a drink later, he would be most welcome; we wanted to get to know the locals. It was agreed and the local, a developer, came and sat down with Delphine and I for a port.
He shook hands and then he said — nothing.
Embarrassed by the dead silence, I chatted trying to be friendly, in the end running out of things to say. The man later became nationally notorious for his controversial land speculation and I was informed by Monty that I was being given ‘The Treatment’. “Let ‘em talk and see what they’re made of ...” This was the generous ‘time’ Leo was talking about.
When we settled in, it happened a lot. A Melbourne friend involved in the booming real estate industry had also endured it, but at the same time, he defended it. “These people,” he said, “needed all their ingenuity to get where they have so far from anywhere. Cairns has a hard core of about 20 businessmen. They are some of the hardest, shrewdest characters you could ever meet. Isolation has made them that way. They leave so-called street-smart southern businessmen for dead. The Treatment, as you call it, lets them assess all the intruders.”
In vogue at the time, was also the sport of ‘shooting through’. Delphine and I had taken over a free weekly newspaper which we had bought after a dinner meeting with its tired owners. The paper’s only income was from advertising, so early in our takeover we welcomed a newly-arrived Danish delicatessen who came in and took out expensive whole-page ads; every week. When his account was six weeks overdue I went to see him. “Oh, he’s shot through,” said his landlord, matter-of-factly. “Took a car he was trying out as a demonstrator as well. All the shop equipment was leased; the AGC financiers are still looking for him.”
Annoyed, I went to the police station, then an ancient timber edifice on the sea-front. A detective sitting at an upright typewriter from which a mouse surprisingly emerged chuckled; not at the jumping mouse but at my predicament. It was a recognised FNQ custom, shooting through; much-admired, unless you were on the receiving end.
“There’s this girl,” said the helpful copper who wore wrap-around shades and yellow slacks, “who does the whole Coast every year and pays cash for everything when she arrives in town; dresses, grog, food. Then she does the rounds one day and says she’s left her purse at home and would a cheque be all right? By now they all see her as a good customer and say of course it’s alright. The cheques are met; and everything’s great. Then one day she does the lot with her cheque-book—a restaurant, exclusive boutique, airline, delicatessen, jeweller—and disappears. Which one of them is going to spend the legal fees and air fares to bring her back?”
Cairns was still very much off the beaten track. There were no traffic lights, but there were parking meters, more often than not twisted in half by the impact of dust-covered 4WDs driven into town for the day by cattlemen and their wives to do the shopping. When lights were finally installed without warning there were bewildered drivers sitting in wrecks wondering what had happened. The town had one decent restaurant, a decade before its time; it was air-conditioned and had a fountain that trickled into a bed of flowers, picked every day from our garden by its two confirmed bachelor proprietors. It was called George’s Bistro and it had style. It was regularly used by the town Madam to entertain her girls for lunch after a big night at the Bunda Street brothel, and as the fashionably-dressed wives of doctors, real estate agents, cane farmers and bank managers filed in to take their places by the window, the Madam would comment in a stage whisper “If my girls dressed like that they’d be damned hard up getting a fuck.”
Even in the tropics, so far from ‘civilisation’, we drank surprisingly well. Every week I would choose the best French reds or finest Australian whites from the Burns Philp warehouse where the cellarman had an amazingly generous yardstick for the sale of wine. “White $1.50, red $1.75.” The bliss came to an end when Head Office ordered a stock-take and the obliging fellow was replaced.
Our weekly newspaper wasn’t an easy way to make money; the town businessmen tended to use it not only as an advertising medium, but as an overdraft. I took one belligerent smartie to court for a long overdue bill of $2.30 and won. It cost him $200 for his lawyer. It cost me $1.50 for a Warrant of Execution and a beer for the bailiff who told me how to do it.
When we purchased Focus News, its ‘office’ was the rear of a station-wagon where an IBM typewriter was stored. It used a printer, G K Bolton Pty Ltd., of McLeod Street, the only (and this is important) offset printer between Cairns and Mount Isa, where Sir Asher Joel had this new-fangled equipment.
I went to see ‘GK’ (as he was called), squatting on a rickety wooden chair in his small front office, a chair that seemed to have been made for a doll’s house. I looked across at this large Englishman who had a frown that seemed to indicate the printing world was on its knees; Cairns was about to ‘go under’, and the Bolton empire headed for oblivion.
I later discovered that this was precisely the effect GK wanted. Had he sat behind a large executive desk, such a display of affluence might well have encouraged would-be clients to query some of his heady printing prices. But as Bob looked poor and worried, the client, on the other hand, was led to believe the price he offered was so low that GK and Mrs. Bolton, (always working twice as hard in the print-shop as anyone else,) might have been out on the streets next day, begging.
We came to an agreement to print my paper: cash in advance of delivery every Tuesday evening before the milk vendors came round to collect it and put it on doorsteps with the milk bottles. Bob had been ‘bitten’ by potential newspaper tycoons before. He said he would charge me $30 a page to print the paper, and his face showed such abject misery when he quoted, I almost thought I should offer him more.
GK, my new printer, had been a scrap dealer, had once owned his own airline, was a brilliant photographer and no mean drag at sketching. He also loved music and was said to own two organs, one he had purchased and the other accepted from someone who failed to live up to his financial commitments.
Bob had an office controller, switchboard operator and general help called Flo. When chaos reigned, as so often it did in a shop that was printing a newspaper, books, brochures, wedding invitations and tracts, the calm voice of Flo was a joy to hear. Except when she was on the phone saying, ‘Mr. Bolton would like to speak to you.’ Then the heart sank. Either a page of my newspaper was late getting to him, or my ideas for a headline would not fit. Or the price was going up.
The price went up with charming regularity most Christmas Eves. Bob would proffer his hand to me, wish me a Happy Christmas and then look soulfully over his spectacle-frames and say, ‘I’m afraid I have to raise your prices.”
My mind would rush to Asher Joel in Mount Isa, the nearest offset printer, 1200 kms away, and the complexity of getting pages of typesetting on to aircraft and the huge cost of flying the finished product back to Cairns.
And I would shrug and give in. Bob would then smile benignly. It went on for years, each of us protesting greater poverty than the other, until there came a parting of the ways. A new offset printer was discovered 90 kms away, and I delightedly bade Bob goodbye.
It was a Christmas Eve and I invited him to our office for a drink. His cash-cow would no longer be there to be milked. He took the news rather bitterly. I told him how much I admired his technical genius and his enterprise, and I even had a grudging admiration for his shrewdness. But the party was over.
By now Cairns was being ‘discovered’ and there was talk of a new airport and, don’t laugh, jumbo jets -scheduled to land there. (“Pull the other one, mate.”) Christopher Skase arrived in town in June 1983, and took me for coffee at the ritzy new Pacific International to ask if I would write a note to a television tribunal to say that he was a fit and proper person to own and operate a Townsville television station. I’d met him once at dinner in Melbourne when his talkative wife, Pixie, tried to sell me two $35 Italian leather handbags for Delphine. I turned down the bags but thought Christopher seemed OK and wrote the letter.
The following year we got our international airport and Cairns was ‘on the map’. Travel writers came and explored our notorious Barbary Coast pubs, sitting goggle-eyed as young ladies in the bars offered: “Two bucks and I’ll give yuz a flash”, to retreat blushingly to interview the cantankerous old author, Xavier Herbert who was always annoyed to have to leave his ancient Hermes to talk to fools and turn off the noise-machine he used to drown out passing traffic.
They’d make the mistake of going on safari with the wily Percy Trezise, bushman, aviator, painter and world-renowned for his discovery of ancient Aboriginal art. Sucking hard on his cigarette-holder, Percy would tramp at such a furious pace, that broken men, nursing blistered feet and aching chests, would return weeping to the Pacific. That, too, had its problems. Mine Host was the rather unpredictable Paul Kamsler who owned the hotel. When I booked a serious American publisher of the Mormon persuasion into the Pacific, Paul, ever the joker, greeted us by asking if this was the gentleman I’d arranged the marijuana for? It sent the American pale-faced and jet-lagged to his room, wondering about the peculiarity of Australian humour and whether I was the sort of author he should have aboard.
That was Cairns. You learned to love it the way it was or pack your bags. We stayed on for 23 years until it started to be a poor-man’s Surfers Paradise. We should have heeded the warning when we saw our first hippies, lolling in the winter sunshine on the Post Office steps beside the notice that said: “No loitering on the steps.”
People got busted for smoking marijuana, and indeed it was the incidence of the drug in schools that had reluctantly persuaded Leo and Jane McKern to depart after 18 idyllic months. The Drug Squad had to resort to planting undercover police in Year 12 classes posing as fresh-faced ‘students’ (complaining to the Superintendent that it took them as long to do their homework as to write their reports). Satellite detection of marijuana arrived to save them and crops worth as much as $9m. at street prices were uncovered amongst the cane.
Delphine and I and new baby Adam, had a lifestyle that was as close to paradise anybody could find. I had seen Hawaii and Tahiti, but this was headier than both.
It is 5.30 am and the kookaburra adopted by the McKerns (or the other way about) has flown in for his breakfast and his loud chatter echoes around the slumbering hills that surround us. We put his special steak on a board and sleepily take it out to him by the pool. Up in the branches of the umbrella-tree he cocks a beady eye at the meat and then soars down to the board. His wife or daughter stays on the bough waiting; on cue, he takes the last piece of steak, flies up to her and pokes it into her beak. It is by now 5.45 am and apart from Kookie and the busy chatter of birds, including the Trumpet Bird, Urgent Ernie—who has a call like a frantic fire-alarm and Tuneless, a whistler so out of tune it makes you cringe—everything else remains fast asleep.
We sit by the pool and sip orange juice, looking down on a sweeping palette of dark and light-green cane fields, a silver river and the blue sea. I am reminded of the opening scenes from the movie South Pacific.
For breakfast this morning we have the choice of fresh mangoes that have plopped down from a tree groaning with their weight; our own bananas hanging in a hand within reach of the kitchen, and fat, succulent papaws perfumed with the hint of frangipani which Delphine places at the ends of each slice.
Delphine pads about the house, tropical flowers in her light auburn hair, grappling with the problem of storing suits I have brought from London and which I will never use in Cairns. They must be packed in plastic covers, warn our friends, or they’ll go green with mould in the Wet Season. The choice of dress each day is between the red swim shorts, the blue ones or the floral. We dress for dinner. I put on a shirt. Last night we were invited to a barbecue which was North Queensland Formal; thongs instead of bare feet.
Out on the lawn, fat, brown toads squat in a circle like a group of farmers discussing prices. When they dived into our pool to cool off I fished them out with the pool’s leaf basket, but not any more. A veteran of Cairns-living advised me to hang a ladder of plastic roof gutter-protector into the pool so they could have their swim and climb out.
Cairns’ first Madam would be dismayed today by the competition from ‘escort’ services. Her brothel has long-since gone. Old lady Cairns is no longer tatty and paint-peeled. She’s walking 14 hotel stories tall, with (as I write) a struggling casino and a string of broken developers licking their wounds. Companies, resorts and shops for a while faced receivership, and old-timers wondered what happened to the laid-back years.
With fast food outlets and garish signs in Japanese, she’s not the lady I fell in love with. She’s now street-smart. They don’t even bother to give the newcomers The Treatment.
"This is a funny, engrossing memoir of a golden age. It is a riveting memoir and a fascinating tale, encapsulating the heart and soul of journalism in a thoroughly entertaining way. I am in awe of his writing talent. It reminded me of George Johnston’s `My Brother Jack’ a generation on.” - Professor Mark Pearson, Head of Journalism at Bond University
“He has worked for the Melbourne Herald, the London Daily Mail and has written two books on the post-war Nazis, including one on Hess himself, The Loneliest Man in the World eventually published in 12 languages.“ Zwar has also written the definitive book on Rupert Murdoch’s father, Sir Keith. He is not a man to be dismissed.” - The Australian newspaper.
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