ROMANCE RIVALS by Hugh Lunn

published in The Australian Monday 28 February 2022

As a journalist George Negus could always inveigle his way in for the interview, no matter how famous the person or how difficult the task. George led with his forehead, followed closely by his moustache: and then his booming voice.

On TV he used a microphone like a cricket bat, always holding it way out front above a thrusting leg, like a top-class batsman. No surprise, really, because two years in a row George was in the Queensland schoolboys’ team that won the Australian championship.

I first noticed George’s ability to charm and entice people way back in 1964 when I turned up to take a girl out for a long-arranged date.

I’d been introduced to this kindergarten teacher by my mate, Davis Cup tennis player Kenny Fletcher. This was my first proper date since my red-headed girlfriend rang me up on May 18, 1960 — at eight minutes to three in the afternoon — to say she didn’t want to see me anymore. (Don’t worry, I’m over it.)

Since then, Fletch had been urging me to get a new girlfriend and forget about the redhead, saying: “That was more than three years ago!” and, he’d add: “you’re 23 now Hughie, you’re proving hard to place!”

Fletch knew the kindergarten teacher because her parents played cards every Friday night with his parents, Norm and Ethel.

We were Annerley boys and her family lived in the next suburb, Dutton Park, in a weatherboard home on tall stumps which overlooked the huge cemetery that ran all the way down to the murky banks of the Brisbane River. I took her for a hit of tennis at nearby Fairfield and we seemed to get on well.

So, I asked her out on a date.

When I arrived, ready to go, she invited me in – as girls always did in those days — to meet her mother and father.

To my shock, when I entered the lounge room there was this handsome strongly-built bloke my age with long fair hair rather like mine entertaining her father with stories of cricket derring-do.

His name was George Negus and he greeted me with a robust handshake and a steady gaze deep into the eyes. No one said what he was doing there, but I could guess.

“Oh, that’s just George being George,” she said as we left to go out. “You never know when or where he’s going to pop up.”

I was not reassured, because he was there again entertaining the fascinated parents when I turned up to take her and five others to the 1964 Beatles concert at Brisbane’s Festival Hall.

George was very, very interested to hear I’d got seven free tickets just because I was a journalist. So, I explained that journalists could get in anywhere for free whenever they liked because everyone wanted good publicity. And I related to the four of them how I’d just interviewed the Police Commissioner Frank Bischoff for an article about the growth of night sport in Brisbane.

But I couldn’t understand why Mr. Bischoff kept talking about drive-in theatres instead of lit tennis and netball courts: “Yes, those drive-in movie theatres Hughie, they have sure brought a lot of night sport to Brisbane eh?”

George tried to bring the conversation back to cricket, but I completely gazumped him with my story about having a sit-down lunch with the entire West Indian cricket team at the Bellevue Hotel during the Tied Test in Brisbane. Just them and me!

“I’m going to become a journalist,” George blurted out, as if he’d kept the secret for too long.

I said he was too late: “I’ve been a cadet reporter for four years and I still don’t understand it – and you’re a school teacher with all those holidays. How are you going to become a journalist?

George didn’t hesitate: “I’m going to go to Fleet Street, the home of journalism, and start there.” And he swung towards her mother and father for confirmation.

Well, he’d certainly gazumped my gazump.

But worse was to come.

Another sporting champion, John Newcombe, arrived in town to stay with Kenny Fletcher’s family. Newk was tall, handsome, confident and destined to become a star. (He and Fletch later teamed up to win the Wimbledon Doubles.) And Newk had also asked our girl out.

Fletch nudged me: “You’d better make your move, Hughie, you haven’t even kissed her yet.”

You have to picture the romantic scene for this part:

She and I are sitting at the top of the long, long set of front steps overlooking all the head-stones and dark low bushes of the massive Dutton Park cemetery… and I pose the big question:
“Are you OK?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she sighs. “I just don’t know… there’s just no nice blokes around.”

I’m shocked. Here she is, being courted by me, John Newcombe and George Negus. (And two of those three have since been officially named Australian Male Sex Symbols! I’ll let you guess which two).

The final time we went out I drove her home at midnight.

We were sitting in the car chatting when there was an urgent knock-knock-knock on my window on the cemetery side of the car. Stupidly, I wound the window down and there in my face was a massive unshaven man waving a bottle in his right hand.

“Drive me into town,” he demanded.

I said OK, and told him to go around and get in the other side.

As he went behind the car, I gunned the engine and took off. We didn’t return until the coast was well and truly clear.

The next time I saw her was in London in 1966.

It was on a double date with her and her husband George Negus in my Sunbeam Alpine sports car. Like hundreds of Aussies, George had been unable to get a job on Fleet Street. Teacher’s wages in London at that time were very low and I could see things were not going well for them.

In 1971 — after seven years overseas working for newspapers, magazines and Reuters — I returned home and walked into The Australian’s Bureau in Brisbane asking for a job.

But George had beaten me there.

The Australian’s Bureau Chief told me that George had — after the divorce had gone through — come in asking for a job.

“He had no experience so of course I knocked him back,” said the Bureau Chief. “But George pointed at a chair in the reporters’ room and said ‘who’s sitting there’?”

Nobody.

“Well, I’m going to sit there until you need someone and you can give me whatever it is and I’ll go and do it.”

As luck would have it, there was a large student demonstration that day. George was dispatched to Queensland University and did such a good job that he was invited back the next day to help out again. But it didn’t mean he had a job.

Then he charmed his way into an office and got hold of a government document and broke a good story.

Next thing the police arrived saying that the document was “stolen”.

The Bureau Chief rang the Editor in Sydney and mentioned that George might be arrested.

“Arrested!” said the Editor. “Then get him out of town! Send him down here, we need a reporter like him.”

As George himself told an interviewer on TV many decades later: “I conned my way into journalism.”

The two of us remained friendly rivals for the next 50 years: but George was always one step ahead. I knocked back a job on Four Corners and stuck with newspapers while he went into television on 60 Minutes.

Years later I was on a Meet the Press TV panel with Andrew Peacock as guest. George was following Peacock around for a 60 Minutes special, so he sat in on the Show. Afterwards, I pulled him aside and asked how I went. George thought for a minute, poked his intimidating head towards mine and said loudly: “If I were you, I’d keep my day job.”

After my childhood memoir Over the Top with Jim became the biggest-selling non-fiction book of 1991, I was invited to appear on the same stage as George in Brisbane as a double-act. George was now even more famous because of his clash with Margaret Thatcher, so there was standing room only as he grabbed the microphone before I could reach it.

To my surprise he started by telling the crowd how proud he was of my success and how he had always known I would do well.

A few years later, Penguin invited me to Maroochydore to talk at their annual sales conference. Also speaking that night were George and his second wife, journalist Kirsty Cockburn, who were bringing out a children’s book “Trev the Truck”.

I noted the power of TV as I stood in a dark corner while the hundreds of Penguin People gathered in the light around the magic of George who was going to speak from the large stage, while I was told I would be out on the side verandah – even though it was now raining.

What could I do?

But then, like Herminius in Horatius Defends the Bridge, up spake brave George Negus. Grabbing the only microphone, he said he wouldn’t allow them to relegate his old rival Hughie to the side verandah.

No! We would share the stage, and the glory, together.

Thank you, George, not many people would do that.

Last week [February 2022] George’s family announced he was in a Sydney nursing home with dementia. George, you may have forgotten some things at 79, but we remember you.