Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 22, 2022

Cannon Fire, by Michael Cannon

Although we’ve got a 1966 first edition of Michael Cannon’s first book The Land Boomers (inherited from The Spouse’s grandfather), I did not connect the book on our history shelves with the author of Cannon Fire, a life in print until I reached page 183 of this absorbing memoir.  I went on to realise that Cannon, with more than 30 books to his credit, was also the founding editor of the Historical Records of Victoria series which I remember from my long-abandoned flirtation with the family history of The Offspring.  Cannon’s really was a ‘life in print’.

I was slow on the uptake because the first part of the book is about his golden childhood in the Victorian country town of Cobden, his less happy years at Geelong Grammar, and then his career in newspapers and magazines.  It really was a different world back then.

Cannon, (1929-2022) had what we call today a ‘free-range childhood’, and his nostalgia for unsupervised mischief makes fascinating reading.  He was no angel, and he went on to be ‘difficult’ at boarding school, earning him violent episodes of the corporal punishment which was so often the fate of students who didn’t conform.  I don’t suppose any of the teachers who beat him would still be alive to read this memoir, but I hope some of them felt ashamed in the sixties when his publishing career brought him to their attention.

Today, with the Australian media landscape so compromised by billionaire moguls like Murdoch, it is salutary to read that it’s not really so long ago that there were countless independent newspapers and magazines, local, state and national and that the most courageous of them published material that others wanted to suppress.  Some of these publications were started with minimal capital and printing works cobbled together from miscellaneous sources, and they were peopled by a mix of amateurs and professionals willing to work long and erratic hours without security of contracts or profit. Cannon did not do a cadetship in journalism: he learned on the job in newsrooms.  He was a voracious reader with a passion for writing and while he learned the tricks of the printing trade in his father’s printing works, he was mainly self-educated in an era when that was still possible.  He had employment some of the time, but he sometimes fell out with management, and sometimes the publication went bust.  He was also a freelancer, selling an article here and there, and sometimes running his own publications, most of which did not last for one reason or another.  He did not stick at anything for long, but he was a man of enormous initiative, and clearly, though he calls himself ‘over-ambitious’, he loved the challenge of bringing news stories to his readers.

The memoir is a roll call of famous newspapermen from my younger days including two from when journalistic independence seemed to matter: Graeme Perkin (1966-1975) and Creighton Burns (1981-1989) who would be turning in their graves if they could see what The Age has become under ownership by Nine Entertainment. But it was not The Age which broke the 1969 story of the bastardisation of national servicemen; or of corrupt police extorting bribes from pro-abortion crusader Dr Bertram Wainer or of the My Lai massacre — it was Melbourne’s first Sunday newspaper, the Sunday Observer under Cannon’s editorship.

The Sunday Observer’s finest moment occurred on 14 December 1969,  when we published Ron Haeberle’s incredible colour photographs of the massacre of the entire population—men, women and children—of My Lai village in Vietnam.  In the United States, Life magazine was not ashamed to publish the visual evidence of what some American troops were doing in Vietnam, but no Australian newspaper would touch it: local editors were too squeamish and cowardly.  In our office, John Crew’s finest moments were spent buying the transparencies from Life and then arguing for hours with Customs officials who wanted to ban them on the grounds of extreme horror.  John’s threats of High Court action won the day. (p.198)

The Sunday Observer did not last long, but Cannon began to turn his hand to the satisfying work of using the resources of the State Library and the Public Records Office to produce facsimile editions of early journals and edited compilations of records of historical interest.  Cannon was not a professional historian but he was a not only a capable researcher, he also had an eye for the boom in Australiana, resulting in a long list of books that he authored or edited—which because of the parlous state of preservation of many of these materials, are a fine legacy in themselves.

Cannon did not live to see his memoir in print, but I have no doubt that it has made his children and grandchildren proud to see it.

Author: Michael Cannon
Title: Cannon Fire, a life in print
Publisher: Miegunyah Press (an imprint of Melbourne University Press), 2022
ISBN: 9780522878721, pbk., 247 pages including the index
Review copy courtesy of Melbourne University Press


Responses

  1. I was offered this and was so tempted but I just have to clear some decks. He was born the same year as my mum!

    Anyhow, it sounds like the interesting read I thought it would be, but perhaps even more so for Melbournians.

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    • Apart from anything else, it’s a lovely insight into the childhood of your parents generation.

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  2. I’m not sure I’m against corporal punishment of the school variety. Certainly I would still regard getting the strap as a lesser punishment than being sent away to boarding school.

    I read everything and anything at the end of the 60s, but my preferred Sunday newspaper was the various iterations of Nation Review.

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    • I suspect that if you were to read Cannon’s description of it, you might change your opinion about corporal punishment.

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  3. Oh, for the days when journalism was noble. Sigh.

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  4. […] Fuente del artículo […]

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  5. […] Cannon Fire | Michael Cannon (memoir reviewed by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]

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  6. […] Cannon Fire: A Life in Print | Michael Cannon (memoir reviewd by Lisa @ANZ LitLovers) […]

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