Gill Shadbolt sat at her desk, her Remington pushed to one side. She wore a baggy purple T-shirt, a baggy cardigan and black jeans. She had short, grey hair and big glasses. The edges of the frames were rounded like the corners of two bits of raisin toast. Gill had once been married to the famous New Zealand novelist, Maurice, and she had kept his surname even though they were now divorced.
“What is it?” Gill said. Gill ran the court-reporting module in the diploma of journalism at Wellington Polytechnic. I was one of her students but I had been bunking court and class. My black and yellow booklet, the New Zealand Journalists’ Training Board publication, A Journalist’s Guide To The Law by Professor John Burrows, was unread. I was very behind.
I thought about how to answer Gill’s question.
I had excuses but none of them seemed right. I was phobic about court, a result of a third-form social studies excursion in which our teacher let us sit through part of a rape trial, including the bit where the accused read out his statement. The statement was rather detailed and contained many words and phrases that were unfamiliar to 13-year-old students at an all girls’ Catholic high school in a provincial New Zealand town.
Not only that, but it had been freezing. I had lost my virginity. My best friend’s mum had died and I had tried to go back home for the funeral but it snowed on the Rimutakas and the bus got stuck so I missed the mass and the after-match and then I came back to Wellington and then I went to Scribblers with Jason and Karl and we drank multiple jugs of beer and smoked Camel filters and played whizz-boing-bounce (a drinking game that involved shouted words and hand movements performed at high speed) and then the next day I was too hung-over to go anywhere so I slept in. No court for me!
‘Oh hi Gill,’ I said. ‘Sorry, I haven’t been to the court like I was supposed to but the problem is I don’t know where the court is exactly. Can you tell me?’
Gill stared at me – seemingly frozen – and then she leapt up. ‘Oh for fuck’s sake Rachel,’ she yelled. ‘I’m not telling you where the court is. If you can’t find the fucking court yourself you’ll never be a fucking journalist. Stop wasting my time! Get out!’
It was 1986. I was 18. I left Gill’s office quickly. Once I had shut the door, I began to cry. I kept crying as I walked out of the building and down Wallace Street. I found a payphone and called my mum. ‘I’m going to fail,’ I cried. ‘I’m a failure and my tutor is so horrible.’
I was choking on snot and tears. I had been head girl, basketball captain, a debater. No one had ever spoken to me like that before and it took me days to get over it but I did because I went to court a few times, graduated and got a job.
On my first day at The Southland Times, I had to cover the Queenstown District Court. I still have the clipping in my Jumbo Scrapbook (With Coloured Pages). My report is headlined: ‘Cannabis Plant Just Appeared’. There are 12 sub-heads, including ‘Cannabis Pipe’, ‘Cannabis’, ‘Received Stolen Jacket’, ‘Obscene Language’ and ‘Drink-Drivers’. The lead story explains how a young ‘part-time designer’ continued to water five cannabis plants that had ‘just appeared’ in her pot plants. The woman was fined $200 and ‘His Honour made an order for the destruction of the plants,’ I wrote.
There are pieces about the national women’s bowls titles, a new radio station, a triathlon, a flood. There are many more court reports: ‘Trespass’, ‘Cannabis’, ‘Possession’, ‘False Pretences’, ‘Hit And Run’, ‘Fictitious Instructions’, ‘Magic Mushroom Blitz’ and ‘Mushrooms For Experiments’. The experiments story is about a guy charged with possession of psilocybine, a class A drug. In paragraph three, I note: “When asked what he would use them for, (the accused) said ‘you put 10 or 12 in your mouth, chew them, and they give you a good feeling’.”
I have just finished writing a book on newspapers. I interviewed journos, printers and the men that make paper, presses and ink. Some of these encounters were startlingly aggressive and I would hang up pumped with adrenalin and ready to bite.
After one of these conversations, the memory of Gill Shadbolt popped up. “Oh for fuck’s sake Rachel,” I heard Gill yell. God it gave me a good feeling. The old battleaxe was right. I had been wasting her time.
Gill taught me that if I wanted to be a journalist, I had to toughen up. I’m grateful to her. She prepared me so well. “You’ve got a lovely voice,” a senior reporter said to me in my second week on the job, “but you can stop now. You’re going on and on and no one cares. This is so overwritten. Don’t overwrite!” He was taking my copy over the phone. I had typed up 25 paragraphs on a Land Settlement Board hearing into a battle between a jet boat company and the Department of Lands and Survey. Twelve were published. I chucked the rest of the copy paper away and that was that.
In 2009, I was teaching journalism at La Trobe University. I got students to work in groups of four or five and come up with an idea for a magazine feature. I set a deadline and got them to make a verbal pitch. I decided to mark them on the spot. The second group is woeful. “That was pretty boring,” I said. “Five out of 10. I mean, would any of you want to read a story like that?” They shook their heads.
But afterwards, the students came up to me. “We don’t think you should have said we were boring,” they complained. “You really hurt our feelings.”
Gill Shadbolt, where are you now?