‘The first thing I ever read for pleasure’: My love affair with the Sunday paper

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Happy 70th birthday, Sunny.

I’ve been with you most of the way.

When I was growing up on the farm at Peats Ridge in the 1960s, Dad would pick up The Sun-Herald from the Oak Milk Bar on the way home from Mangrove Mountain Presbyterian Church, and at home my five siblings and I would divvy up the news, sport and social pages. As the youngest I was happily left with the comics. Looking back, those comic strips were the first things I ever read for pleasure, the beginning of a lifetime so engaged.

The Oak Milk Bar at Peats Ridge in 1986. It was a major pit stop on the old highway from Sydney to Newcastle.Credit: Peter Kevin Solness/Fairfax Media

A decade and a bitty later, I had graduated to reading all of the news and sports pages myself and remember devouring a Sun-Herald scoop on Bob Hawke’s move on Bill Hayden as Labor leader, (even as a drover’s dog howled in the distance), and another one on the intricacies of the winged keel at the America’s Cup. Most exciting though, was occasionally appearing in the sports pages myself after being interviewed or reported on by that great rugby writer Jimmy Webster.

A decade on again, by which time I was working for The Sydney Morning Herald, I became friends with The Sun-Herald’s Danny Weidler, already establishing his reputation as the hardest-working and best sports “scooper” of the lot, forever breaking huge stories. I distinctly remember it being whispered to me by a fellow sports journo that Danny would make about 150 calls a week, working his rounds, following his leads, endlessly looking to break the next big yarn. I was first published in The Sun-Herald myself in those early ’90s, filing copy on Wallaby Tests – usually, if you can believe it, after victories (I know, don’t get me started).

But then the real breakthrough.

Not long after the turn of the century, after Herald management absolutely insisted that I engage in one of those “performance review” thingammies, I remember my editor being less than impressed when my opening remark in our one-on-one session was, “I think you are doing an outstanding job. Can I go now?” But the same conversation led to him jotting down what my ambitions at Fairfax then were: to have a column in The Sun-Herald that would be a secular Sunday equivalent of the one I’ve now been doing for the Herald on the Saturday for 30 years, The Fitz Files.

Courtesy of that editor, I received my chance at the mighty Sun-Herald a short time later, and have been doing it ever since.

In its first incarnation, that column was indeed my take on the events of the week in Sydney, mixed with odd bits and pieces that I came across around the highways, byways, back alleys and red carpets of this grand old town.

Early on, I remember getting a phenomenal reaction by getting strong quotes from my friend, Rowena Danziger, the legendary decades-long headmistress of Ascham, after she resigned from her brief second stint following parental agitation.

“I’d been having a wonderful life in retirement, and would rather have set my hair on fire than return,” she said, “but in the end I did so … out of loyalty to the wonderful school that still is Ascham. But it is worth looking at the motives of the people who are driving this carry-on. They’re all people whose intellectual or social pretensions I had to hold in check …”


The item that perhaps drew most attention, however, was my calling on Alan Jones to resign from 2GB after he took aim at Opera House CEO, Louise Herron, following her refusal to allow our masterpiece’s iconic sail to be on sale as a billboard for a horse race.

I wrote to Jones in this space and said it was time for him to stand aside. An apology from Jones to Herron followed shortly after.

Two years ago, however that format of the column changed with my editor insisting that instead of writing about me, my life and what I think about things, I write about other people, their lives, and what they think about things.

I know. Insane, right?

The tone was set with my first interview, with the then-emergency services ninister, David Elliott, in August 2021 – just when COVID-19 in NSW was starting to get out of hand.

Fitz: “Seeing as you’re speaking frankly, with no weasel words, let me ask you to be honest. On a day when we are six weeks into lockdown with nudging 300 new infections, can we agree that NSW is no longer the gold standard, if it ever was?”

Elliott: “No shit, Sherlock. Of course we are not the gold standard. But we can manage our way out of this.”

That dead honest response from Elliott, “No shit, Sherlock,” is what I have strained for ever since, to try to cut through the spin to get to the heart of the matter.

I am coming up for 20 years now with this column in The Sun-Herald. It does not put me remotely in the league of such shining Sun-Herald stars of the past as Peter Robinson and Graham Gambie for longevity, or Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey for impact, with their famous “Salami Sisters” riff. But I’d like to think I am still breaking into my stride.

Columnists have traditionally been a big part of The Sun-Herald newspaper experience and – at least at our best – add to the conversation of Sydneysiders. On the serious issues of the day we have more often than not been on the side of the angels. On the less serious issues, we’ve added to the fun.

Above all we’ve provided news, views, blues, and even the odd j’accuse without fear or favour.

If I do say so myself on this 70th birthday weekend, long may we prosper!

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