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Sally Baxter

Once I was a girl reporter. Now I'm an interested observer covering the past, present and future of journalism and whatever else takes my fancy. All views my own.
Sally Baxter has written 144 posts for Sally Baxter

My Extraordinary Aunt: London and a promise kept


The continuing adventures of my honorary aunt Joan ‘The Bone’ Byrne, my father’s cousin, who left Australia with us in 1967. The plan was to travel across Asia and Europe and on to England but Dad’s ill health forced us to leave the trip and head to Hong Kong, where we stayed put for the next 20 years. Joan kept going. We last caught up with her in Switzerland, weeping by the banks of Lake Geneva for a world still divided after the horrors of World War II.

Joan had travelled across Asia and Europe through India, Hong Kong, Japan, Siberia, Poland, East and West Germany, Switzerland and France savouring all the food, culture, art, language, history and experience she could cram in.

But there were miles to go and promises to keep. Continue reading

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A Movember motion: Get yourselves checked lads


Moustaches are sprouting everywhere and it’s all about Men’s Health. The Movember movement began, as many good ideas do, with a bunch of blokes in a pub back in 2002. Today, it’s a leading fundraiser for research into prostate cancer and other men’s health issues in a growing number of countries.

My father Jack Spackman died in 2005 after a long battle with prostate cancer. Among his papers was a rough draft and some notes for an article he was working on to raise awareness of the importance of getting checked.

I don’t know if he ever finished it but the message is important. So, for the first time in a long time, I’ve taken my editing pen to one of his rough drafts. It’s not a pretty subject. It’s very toilet-based. And we’re going in.   Continue reading

Dodging rats in the dark for photographic magic


The kitchen at our flat in Macdonnell Road in Hong Kong backed on to a dank, rat-infested space, a convenient landing spot for rubbish hurled from the windows above. 

Mr Chan, the building manager, was a regular visitor and would organise workers to come and clean up the waste, set traps and write letters to the residents reminding them to use the bins.

On one of his visits, he called it a courtyard, which made it sound like something you could visit or stroll through, but we only ever called it ‘Out the Back’. I only ever went through it at a run and would have avoided the place altogether except for one very tantalising attraction. That’s where my father Jack Spackman had set up his darkroom. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: Visions of Moscow 1969


The Bolshoi theatre serving whole meals in the foyer at interval… the Arts Theatre, home of Stanislavski, where I saw a play in Russian… the woman sitting next to me trying to translate it for me… the mechanical perfection of the circus… crowds lined up at Lenin’s tomb in Red Square… convoys of tanks moving at midnight to Red Square from different directions, rehearsing for the October revolution celebrations… the greyness and uniformity of the residential  buildings outside the central area… dancing with Georgian dancers in a nightclub after a show… catching up with Australian travellers in kangaroo skin coats and being glad to hear that accent again… the telephone ringing in the hotel bedroom… and nobody there… a reminder that it was probably bugged….

These are my Aunty Joan Byrne’s impressions of Moscow in November 1969 when she arrived after seven days on the Trans-Siberian railway. She’d had plenty of time on the journey to ponder the realities of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

Continue reading

A prior engagement for Hong Kong’s last governor


Hong Kong 1993: Jack Spackman on his return for the 25th anniversary of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. It was a chance to pick up on his old habit of Governor Watching.

When the Royal Navy lowered its flag for the last time on Hong Kong island in 1993, commander-in-chief Governor Chris Patten was elsewhere.

In a carefully calculated political move, he was dining with the men and women of the press, at the Hong Kong Journalists Association’s 25th anniversary ball.

Sitting next to him was my father Jack Spackman, a Governor Watcher since 1967. Continue reading

My Extraordinary Aunt: The Adventure continues…


A couple of years’ back Your Girl Reporter was at a family reunion – we hold them often, but not often enough. We’re a good bunch, by and large, and I missed them growing up. I feel like I am a missing piece of the puzzle, slotting comfortably into place, whenever I attend.

The occasion was my uncle Mick Fogarty’s 80th birthday. Mick is my grandmother’s youngest brother and we gathered to celebrate, on a dry and dusty afternoon, somewhere in New South Wales.

Mick’s daughter Suzanne had done her work well and we were surrounded by displays of pictures, telling the stories of each of the many branches of the Fogarty family tree, of which the Spackmans are but a twig, as any Fogarty will tell you.

I was looking at a picture of my dad and his cousins, sitting around a table made of packing cases in the backyard of their place in Grenfell. I didn’t notice the small, older woman at my shoulder until she spoke. “That was my birthday,” she said. “We had raspberry cordial.” And with that she walked away. “Who was that?” I asked my cousin. “That’s Joan Byrne.”

The last time I had seen my extraordinary aunt was in 1969 at Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal. She sailed for Japan that day in the Russian ship Baikal on the next stage of her long journey to London. Continue reading

Battle for a mixed Grill at the Hongkong Hilton 1973


A postcard from Hong Kong commemorating that time when women were kept on a pedestal and honoured by the gentlemen of The Grill. It was the 70s and the style at the time.

Australian journalist Richard Hughes was a lunchtime fixture at the Hongkong Hilton’s Grill bar right up until his last days in 1985.

In the 1970s it was men only at The Grill for those famously long lunches of the era and that’s the way Hughes liked it.

When a couple of Girl Reporters from the China Mail stormed the barricades, he rang their boss and demanded their sacking. The boss was Norman Barrymaine, another heavyweight in China Watching circles. Continue reading

Dad’s childhood spent clinging to the sheep’s back


My father Jack Spackman grew up in abject poverty, a widow’s son, in the tiny town of Grenfell, way out past the Blue Mountains in rural New South Wales, Australia. He was the second of four boys born to Charles Spackman – known to all as Jim – and Doris Fogarty.

Jim died in 1937, just months after the birth of their youngest son Bob. The eldest, Alf, was four years old. Doris and her sons survived through the kindness of relatives but the extent of the debt was mostly hidden from the family history Jack told, coming up in oblique ways that were never truly explained or understood by your young Girl Reporter.

For example, Jack loathed lamb – couldn’t stomach the smell of it cooking and wouldn’t have it in the house. To this day, it’s a meat I associate with restaurants and other people’s tables, not my own. Continue reading

Absent from duty for the 1997 Hong Kong handover



My father Jack Spackman said, when we arrived in Hong Kong in February 1967, his questions about what would happen in 20 years’ time when Britain’s lease on the New Territories expired were routinely brushed aside.

“With few exceptions, no-one wanted to talk about it,” he said. “Whether it was government officials, business people with Chinese interests, journalists – the common response was that it wasn’t something to worry about.”

Dad said exceptions included David Bonavia, Hong Kong-based stringer for The Times of London, and Dick Hughes, whose 1968 book Borrowed Place Borrowed Time was an early attempt to provide some answers. Continue reading

In to the deep midwinter with a backyard banana or two


Dad always said those freezing Grenfell winters convinced him early on that the best place to live was within sight of a banana tree. So it was pretty special to finally put in two banana plants – they’re not really trees – in sight of the back deck.

After two years as the overwhelmed owner of a traditional Aussie backyard here in Ipswich – west but not too far west of Brisbane in the south east corner of sunny Queensland – the results of my modest plantings to date have boosted the confidence of Your Gardening Girl Reporter and given me ideas…

Continue reading

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