A tribute to James McCullough

A tribute to James McCullough

This piece by Paul Syvret originally appeared in the Courier-Mail

“Where,” James McCullough tweeted a few months ago, “can I create havoc today?”

It was the morning after the day before — a large part of which had been consumed by the Business Chicks lunch at the Hilton Hotel Ballroom. About 600 women were in attendance. And James.

For those who follow @CityBeat_CM it unfolded something like this:

“Give away high heel support insert not much use. Calming nerves with glass of Brancott Estate.”

“Complimentary new cocktail a bonus. These women know how to network.”

“Another cocktail. Discussion lively about composition of women on boards.”

“[Mark] Bouris takes stage. More of these blasted cocktails. Not polite to refuse. Cameras flashing.”

“Got another bestie — waitress Leanne at Hilton. She keeps bringing these seductive cocktails #businesschicks”

“Have politely told Leanne to go away. Can’t consume more cocktails. Bouris talking about late Kerry Packer.”

‘’Bouris still speaking. Leanne not talking to me…’’

He made it back to the office in one piece and, true to form, probably filed about 2000 words of copy before calling it quits for the day.

James was a bloke who could turn even a rubber chicken corporate shindig into something that both informed and entertained.

He was, in so many senses, almost ubiquitous — not only around Brisbane’s (and before that Sydney’s) business communities, but also in the lives of those he touched. James became part of your fabric; so much so that in the early days of our relationship my wife dubbed him “the Missus’’ because I allegedly spent more time aiding and abetting his adventures than I did with her.

This was exacerbated by the fact that on telling James that Anne and I were getting married and had booked a honeymoon in Vanuatu, his response was “Whacko! Laura and I will be in Port Vila that same week. Where are you staying?” – news that was greeted with slightly less than overwhelming enthusiasm by both our respective partners.

The anecdotes about James — even those fit for publication — would fill this newspaper twice over.

James McCullough

We could talk about the morning super model Megan Gale was in The Courier-Mail office to host an online chat and James decided he better make it a priority of the day to introduce himself to what he thought was the paper’s new intern.

One of his catchcries, come about noon, was “I’m just popping out for a 20 minute curry’’, an undertaking that could somehow end up consuming as much time as a flight to Cairns.

Almost every business person, politician — hell, half of Brisbane — would have a story about James, or lunch or dinner with James. From memory, on a couple of disastrous occasions one morphed into the next and on that note I must apologise on both our behalf to former Treasurer Joan Sheldon for the flying trestle table incident at your office Christmas party many years ago. The less said about that night the better.

There will be plenty of time for stories when we finally farewell him in a few days time.

James was no shallow bon vivant though.

While he certainly appreciated the finer things in life, possibly his most precious worldly possessions were five dog-eared contact books held (barely) together with layers of sticky tape which could put him in touch with almost anyone, anywhere, and at any time.

When a newsmaker was proving elusive or recalcitrant, all too often the immediate response in the office was “put James on the case’’.

As an often acerbic business columnist he managed to achieve, day after day, year after year, that delicate balance of both fear and favour — the latter being essential in maintaining one of the best networks in the country and the former an ability to dig out dirty linen from the deepest of closets, making City Beat such essential reading.

On more than one occasion over the years I’ve picked up the phone to have a rather apprehensive target of James’ pen on the phone asking “Maaate … I’ve got that bloody McCullough trying to contact me; what does he want?’’ To which the answer always was: “My advice would be to return his call, and whatever you do, do not try to bullshit him.’’

As a mutual friend asked on learning of his passing this week: “Does James have a Doomsday file? You know, one of those ‘on the event of my death’ triggers that will see all the stuff he could not quite get into print — or held back from publishing — over the years?’’

“A few people around town who would be just shitting themselves if he did.’’

That they would, but there is no Doomsday file; sadly just a mountainous drift of old newspapers, files, spirax pads, business biographies and assorted rubble where our mate used to sit.

James was a newsman of the old school, a journo’s journo who believed in shoe leather (and probably the largest taxi docket bill at News Queensland) and chewing the fat face to face. Or to use his words: “You don’t learn anything new sitting at your damn desk all day,’’ and “A day out of the office is a good day.’’

At drinks after work in Sydney years ago James would cadge a 20 cent piece so he could disappear to the nearest pay phone and file a particularly juicy snippet he’d just picked up. More recently I can picture him in numerous taxis, mobile phone crooked between shoulder and ear, scrabbling around with one hand for a cab fare while frantically scrawling his own unique brand of shorthand into a notebook with the other.

His humour and boundless enthusiasm for life, even when the chips were down, was a rare and deep well.

So too was his generosity of spirit, accompanied by a self-deprecating Irish wit, and a good dose of the blarney to boot. Sitting watching the rain howl outside a rented house in Byron Bay playing “junk bond Monopoly’’ (James was a believer in a bit of leverage in life), or just loafing on a back deck bitching about the state of the universe, journalism and editors in general, James’s company was always precious.

James was there for you; perhaps not always the most demonstrative, but he was there. After a marriage bust up, without thinking his immediate response was: “The spare key is hidden in X. You can sleep in our bed until we’re back from the coast and then have the spare room. Beer’s in the downstairs fridge.’’

Everyone is unique, but the James McCullough mould was a one-off, and I feel privileged to have shared so much time with him over so many years. I miss you mate.

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