Graeme Johnstone address at Peter Isaacson memorial


This is the text of an address that journalist and author Graeme Johnstone delivered at a service celebrating the life of publisher and war hero Peter Isaacson at Temple Beth Israel on May 3.

Johnstone worked for Peter Isaacson Publications during the 1970s in a variety of roles in the business and community press divisions, including being Editor of the flagship ‘Southern Cross’ suburban paper. He later joined The Sun/Herald Sun, where he wrote its daily column ‘A Place In The Sun’ for many years.

Reflection begins:

Good afternoon everyone, let me take you into the world of Peter Isaacson Publications, Porter Street, Prahran, not only a house of beautiful alliteration but buzzing with energy, enthusiasm and endeavour.

Journalists, sales, admin, accounts, subscriptions, circulation, printing, they are all beavering away and the boss is striding through, keeping everyone on their toes with his regulation query in his booming voice, ‘How’s sales?’

How well the rest of your day is going to pan out is going to hinge very much on your answer to that question …

Gwyn Hillard is keeping things flowing, as she has done since she joined PI as his first employee in 1947.

So, too, is Alf Mullis, who joined next as the printer’s apprentice, and is now overseeing the compositors churning out pages and the web offset press thundering away.

Meanwhile, over at the ‘Southern Cross’, the gracious, elegant Pam Marks is co-ordinating her ground-breaking social group ‘Cross Mates’ while Brian Zouch, he of the snappy suits and the red carnation, beautifully balances his roles of Editor of the paper and Mayor of St Kilda.

In the business press division, PI has brought in a group of young journalists and graduates to stretch it further into travel, fashion, accommodation, communications and the brave new world of computers. This is a challenging industry where the boss of the Australian branch of a giant US computer firm once famously said, ‘Australia provides us with one per cent of our global turnover, and ninety-nine per cent of our problems!

And working at Porter Street is a master class of learning on the job. One minute I am writing thirty-two pages for a paper called ‘Metal & Engineering’ - and I know bugger all about metal, and even less about the engineering thereof.

And after I’ve done that, I have to get onto ‘Aviation News’ - understandably PI’s personal favourite - and I’ve never been in a light plane in my life!

No pressure.

Amidst all this hectic action, if you have a moment to look up from your desk, here is Joan Viner ushering in today’s guest for lunch. Why, it’s John Gorton, the former Prime Minister. That’s the calibre of people who used to drop by.

But surely the toughest task for the day is for the poor person from Accounts who has to run the expense receipts past PI’s eagle eye. ‘My God,’ he booms, ‘who’s been to Moorabbin and back and is claiming two dollars eighty?’

This sort of response prompted journalist Michael Vanderkelen and I to start doing a party piece, an off-the-cuff sketch linking the two worlds. On the one hand, the war hero of the skies flying his bomber, and the other, the tough-minded publisher in his corner office, dubbed the Flight Deck.

It would start out something like this.

‘Q for Queenie, Q for Queenie, this is Bomber Command, do you read me?’

‘Loud and clear, Bomber Command.’

‘Could you advise your location, please?’

‘Just taking the nose over the Dutch coast now.’

‘And your situation?’

‘Couldn’t be better. Sales are up, subscriptions are booming, and expenses are down …’

One evening we were doing this and PI walked into the room!

Well, we thought, ‘That’s it for our careers.’

But he listened a bit more and then turned to the person next to him and said, ‘I didn’t know I was so bloody funny!’

So how did this amazing scenario all come about? It’s because our charismatic leader has the vision to spot an opportunity, the experience to get it off the ground, and the determination to make it work.

And he is that rarest of species - with the formidable combination of the business brain to run a paper, and the journalist’s soul to know what should be in it.

After all, his own writing is elegant, literate, opinionated. Whether it’s a local issue, an international flare-up, or the plight of the socially struggling, in ‘South of the Yarra’, he looks at the subject from all angles and comes up with a thoughtful conclusion, often a proposal that might turn things around.

They are more than columns, rather they are carefully crafted essays that are universally appreciated and very often quoted.

Then … one day … a horrible message is passed around the building in hushed tones. PI has had a heart attack. This sends shock waves through Porter Street with everyone thinking, ‘Now what happens?’ He seemed indestructible and, as someone points out, he’s barely into his fifties.

On hearing that, we start to do our calculations and it dawns on us, that means he was only twenty-one, twenty-two, when he was leading those men on those raids across Germany.

We’ve never thought about that before – probably too absorbed with our own genius - and it makes us think, ‘I don’t think I’d have the wherewithal to do that, at that age.’

Ultimately his health returns, albeit on ‘a bloody awful diet’ and we move on, the businesses expanding and expanding, the building getting renovated again and again, until finally we are bursting at the seams and have to knock down the wall and take over next door.

Eventually, too, many of us start moving on to other spheres - with his blessing - and soon realize that our time at Porter Street has certainly not been wasted.

Wherever we go, it is acknowledged that we have been taught by the master, that our skills have been honed in the hottest of cauldrons, that we know the game.

Importantly, the link with those days is never really severed, with PI keeping an eye on how things are going and instigating a chat every now and then. Only ten days before he passed, we sat in the sun together and talked about publishing and how things had panned out. His recall of events was outstanding.

So for this day, I was casting around for a word to encapsulate all this, when I heard a podcast of Tony being interviewed on Sydney radio about his father’s famous sortie under the Harbour Bridge.

The interviewer said that PI had built up Australia’s largest independent publishing house, and Tony replied that that was true, but that it was still essentially a family business.

And there it was. The key word. Family. Of all the entities, institutions and organisations in this world, it is the family that has the best values – love, loyalty, security, discipline, endeavour. When we speak of family values, we speak of the best.

So, here today, on behalf of the Peter Isaacson Publications family - all the journalists, photographers, sales execs, printers, compositors, accountants, book-keepers, mechanics, cleaners, managers, administrators, clerks - everybody whoever worked there, I say to PI - and I am sure wherever you are, sales have improved remarkably since you got there - I offer you our love, our admiration, and above all our thanks for taking us on of such a great journey.

Thank you.

- Graeme Johnstone.

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