In memory of cleft sticks and the frustrations of sending a story

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Vintage satire, of course, for satire is by necessity vintage these days.

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The modern version has become all but redundant at a time when an Australian cabinet minister, a former attorney-general, thinks it’s Jim-dandy having his eye-watering personal legal bills paid by a “blind trust” whose workings and donors he professes to know nothing about.

Never have the words “blind” and “trust” been used together for greater effect. Evelyn Waugh would have yelped with pleasure.

But we digress.

Communicating from a distance with a newspaper’s editors, before the internet and smartphones changed everything, was challenging.

Those of us who travelled on assignment to far-flung places were regularly driven to such frustration that some of us were known to cry aloud for a gross of cleft sticks.

Memories came flooding this week when I learnt a National Communications Museum is being built in the old telephone exchange in Burwood Road, Hawthorn.

For more than 60 years, a small band of enthusiasts who have worked for the Postmaster-General’s Department (PMG), Australia Post, Telecom and Telstra have been collecting and preserving communications artefacts: telegraph and telephone equipment, postal bags, uniforms and machinery, cables and equipment, photographs and ephemera dating back to the 1850s.

There is no mention of a collection of cleft sticks, but generations of those needing to communicate in a hurry might weep in remembrance of obsolete technology when the museum opens.

For many of the earlier years of my travelling, the most reliable method of filing a story was by reverse-charge telephone.

Once connected, you dictated your work – written on a typewriter or composed off the top of your head – to one of the newspaper’s copy takers, invariably a gentle lady who called you “dear” and typed at remarkable speed. These patient copy takers, gone now, bless them all, could calm your heart even if you were calling from the dodgiest of conflict zones and couldn’t differentiate between a comma and an apostrophe.

But first you had to be connected.

It was amazing how many foreign phone boxes or hotel room telephones refused to work, assuming you could find one.

In the old Soviet Union, few hotel operators were adept at patching a line to a foreign country, and I once found myself connected to a puzzled voice in Austria.

One of Boot’s hockey sticks would have been handier.

Technology intervened in the 1980s. A photographer and I travelled around Australia in 1988, sending stories every day for months. I typed on a little word processor that had only eight lines of words visible.

Shooting the story to the news desk involved finding a phone – booths sat even in the desert those days – and connecting two rubberised suction caps to the clunky handpiece. A satisfying whooshing sound ensured – the words were converted to electrical sound, and hurtled off to a receiver far away.

Later came slow dial-up modems using telephone lines. When travelling with prime ministers to foreign countries, hotel media rooms crammed with correspondents were a bedlam of alcohol-fuelled cursing or cries of triumph, depending on whether the high whistling chatter of successful connection had been achieved or, more regularly, not.

So unreliable were connections I took to carrying a little typewriter and bribing shopkeepers for the use of a fax machine – remember them? – to transmit stories written in hard copy.

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I once carried an early model of a satellite phone – a heavy suitcase whose removable top became a satellite dish – around very tricky African countries.

Whoever packed it left out data cables and an electrical extension cord. I was forced to scrounge several cords from foreign correspondents and link them up with all manner of mismatched electrical plugs so I could set it up in the open. Lacking a data connection, I dictated, at $US12 a minute, long feature stories about all manner of unpleasantness.

Who could mourn the end of suitcase satellite phones?

Boot’s collapsible canoe, let alone a cleft stick, would have been as convenient.