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Dave Cannan's desk is, as the journalist flies, about a dozen paces from a double-door that separates the public from the editorial floor of the Otago Daily Times, certainly close enough to allow the veteran newshound a vantage point from which to see and hear the various types who arrive at the reception area. Often, these visitors make their way to the third floor specifically to see Cannan who, for the past six and a-half years, has penned a five-days-a-week column, ''The Wash''. Some come to chat, others to convince him of the merits of an angle; complaints, too, make for an occasional conversation.
''The Wash'' wound up on Friday last week. In a strange twist of timing, it also marked the 65th birthday of Cannan, who is putting behind him a career in journalism that has spanned almost five decades - specifically, since January 20, 1970, when a 17-year-old Mosgiel youth started as a cadet reporter at the Otago Daily Times. Back then, New Zealand had yet to hear of Harvey and Jeannette Crewe (killed six months later at Pukekawa, Waikato). The same year, John Rowles sold a million copies of his single Cheryl Moana Marie, and Hogsnort Rupert claimed a Loxene Golden Disc Award for Pretty Girl.
These cultural echoes are not relayed to Cannan, who has expressed a concern any overview not read like an obituary (he is, after all, planning to retire, not expire). In light of this request, any joining of the dots of life and career has been kept to a minimum. Better to think of the following, then, as the words of one outgoing rambler to another*.
THE ACCIDENTAL JOURNALIST ...
Cannan has a confession: he didn't really apply himself at school. In fact, he left The Taieri High School a couple of weeks before the end of his sixth form to work with his dad in a shearing gang, where he enjoyed being a roustabout and wool-presser, among other things. He also liked earning a bit of money, yet, watching his father ''sweat it out every day'', he thought shearing was not the life for him.
''I recall being at Glendhu Bay in the Christmas holidays of 1969-1970 and mum said to me, `what are you doing about a job?'. I shrugged my shoulders and said I was happy doing what I was doing. She put me on the railways bus and I headed back to Mosgiel.
''Mum's advice was to get a trade. I'd thought about becoming a vet, but found school a bit of a trial. To be honest, I was a bit lazy. I was much happier playing sport and music, although I did enjoy English and history. I liked words.''
Cannan can trace that back to when he was about 10 or 11 and living at Tarras. A family friend lent him Hemingway's The Old Man and The Sea. Bang. Lightbulb moment.
''I remember being transfixed by that. I had no idea such things existed in the world. The language that he used, the word pictures he painted . . .''
Anyway, after being sent home from Wanaka by mum, I saw an ad in the ODT for an apprentice photo-lithographer. I got an interview - which was in the old ODT building at Queen's Gardens - and basically got offered the job. But I mentioned I was interested in a job as a reporter and was taken up to the editorial department to see [then chief of staff] Clarke Isaacs.
''(In those days - and until the early 1990s - the ODT took on youngsters as cadet journalists; they started on the bottom rung of the ladder, typically learning their craft from a variety of industry veterans.)
''It was pretty rough and tumble and not particularly politically correct, you might say. But you got to learn from people like Clarke and from senior reporters.
''Once I got the job I had to get my head around what reporters actually do. As a cadet you'd get some menial tasks - the fruit and vegetable column, the fire calls, the shipping news - but they were a good way to learn the basics of the craft, from ringing people up to checking your facts and figures.
''You'd get assigned smaller stories and you'd get an idea what it's all about.''
THE RADAR PINGS . . .
Cannan used to catch a bus each day from his Mosgiel home to work in central Dunedin. The route took him through Caversham. One morning, while cruising along South Rd, he spied a quagmire across the road from what is now Carisbrook School. Curiosity aroused, he got off the bus the next day and had a closer look.
''It was pretty awful. There were dead animals in it . . . so I went back to work and told Clarke, who pricked up his ears. Given my lack of experience, he gave the job to a senior reporter, Bruce Ainsley, but had the good grace to assign me to follow and help Bruce.''
There were some photos taken of me holding up dead animals from the pond but it was decided they were too bad to use. Anyway, the story ran in the paper and the council was quite apologetic. I got to write the follow-up stories and I learned a lesson in the power of the press.
''I never asked Clarke, but I suspect that might have confirmed I, at least, had some form of radar.''
UNHOPPLED . . .
Cannan later moved on to the ODT's illustrations desk, a job that involved writing captions, developing images, filing photos and zinc plates. As well as working with the celebrated photographer Tom Lloyd, the job also involved drinking a fair amount of gin.
''I also learnt how to operate the photo-wire machine. I think I was on the night a photo came in from South Africa of Colin Meads with his broken arm,'' Cannan recalls of the All Blacks' bruising win over East Transvaal in 1970.
''Jack Morris, the ODT's famous racing editor and a real character, then asked me if I'd be interested in covering the races with him. My dad was a keen racing man and had trained a galloper when I was kid.
''I went along with Jack and something clicked. I liked the sounds, the smells, the feel of it all, the drama of the racing and the stories all these people would tell.''
Cannan was then asked to be a racing sub-editor as well as report on various race meetings, a role which, given it saw him rubbing shoulders with journalists from other cities, helped shape a new chapter in his career.
''I got married in 1973 and remember Christine and I were in Christchurch, in a punt on the Avon, when the racing editor of the Christchurch Star, Warwick Spicer, was walking along the bank. We had a catch-up and he offered me job as a full-time racing reporter.''
Thus began a 17-plus year stint at the Christchurch Star as a trotting editor, senior reporter and sports editor.Cannan covered several Interdominion Trotting Championships; wrote a book on famous New Zealand trotters, Unhoppled Heroes, in 1982; was editor of several DB Trotting Annuals in the 1980s; and, having won seven national journalism awards for trotting between 1979 and 1988, was elected to the New Zealand Trotting Hall of Fame in 2006.''I felt at home covering the trots,'' he says, matter-of-factly.
''In many ways, these were the golden days of newspaper journalism in that we had lots of people specialising in things. The Star had five people covering racing and trotting ... well, that wouldn't happen nowadays.''
Down the track (no pun intended), in the late 1980s, it dawned on Cannan that a highly specialised position within a shrinking industry mightn't provide the most stable future. He turned his hand to general news reporting, for a time covering the Christchurch Star's police beat before eventually taking over as sports editor, a highlight of which was covering the Commonwealth Games in Auckland in 1990.
A STAR IMPLODES . . .
Cannan was also father of the Christchurch chapel of the journalists' union and thus at the coal face at an acrimonious time as the Star was restructured in the late 1980s (it folded as a daily in 1991).
''There were lots of redundancies and good people being lost to the industry. The bosses would give the union a list of people they wanted gone and we'd try to organise swaps with those who were more willing to leave.
''It was very emotional. I think it got the better of me. I'm the sort of guy who wears my heart on my sleeve. They made sports reporter Wayne Honeybone redundant knowing he had cancer. Here was this young guy with a family ... I was beside myself with rage.
''I was rung up by National Radio late at night and said a few things I probably shouldn't have,'' Cannan reflects, adding he was allowed to work out the rest of that week before he, too, was gone by November, 1990.
''I'd ended up putting myself forward to be made redundant because it was having a huge effect on me, but - more importantly - a huge effect on my wife and kids.
''I'd worn myself out and was disillusioned with what had happened. We'd lived in Christchurch for 17 years; the rest of my family lived there. But, suddenly, I didn't have a job and we had a young family ...''
He helped out on a friend's sheep station in Mid-Canterbury; returned to Christchurch where he freelanced for a while; and one day, on a holiday with wife Christine and their three girls, the family stopped at Geraldine. They ended up buying a lifestyle block there, albeit conditional on Cannan getting a job, which he did, as a general reporter at the Timaru Herald.
''We had this good life: a young family, this wonderful family home and a property with a few sheep and other animals.
''I was given a pretty wide brief by the Timaru Herald and was able to indulge my love of writing again. I had a column called 'Cannan's People', which involved me talking to people I'd meet through my rounds. I was a jack of all trades and I liked that variety.
''But, if I'm being honest, I wasn't dedicated enough to the Timaru job. It was a means to an end. I wanted to enjoy my lifestyle more, which probably wasn't fair to the Herald.''
A SWING BACK SOUTH ...
A phone call ''out of the blue'' from the ODT prompted a return to Dunedin in 1995. It was a decision both easy and hard.
''The older girls were getting to university age so we needed to look at the bigger picture. Christine is from Southland but we met in Dunedin. We both liked Dunedin. She'd worked here in the Social Welfare department.''
It took 18 months to sell that slice of paradise in Geraldine, so Cannan commuted back and forth, back and forth, before buying the Dunedin house he and Christine still call home.
''When I came back to the ODT, they gave me the health round. I didn't know anything about health and was a bit lost for a while, but it was a matter of knuckling down and learning about the issues.
''It was an exhausting, emotional round. You are dealing with people's lives. It's not often good news in health; you're often writing about people missing out on funding, the injustices of it all. I dealt with a lot of very brave people who would entrust their stories to you.
''For my own sanity, I needed to do other forms of writing, so I started getting into colour stories again: there was the time I got stuck in the Dunedin Hospital lift with Prime Minister Jim Bolger, so I turned that into a light-hearted piece. The Middlemarch Surf Lifesaving Club was another memorable one. ''
ANOTHER LEARNING CURVE ...
Appointed chief reporter in 1999, Cannan looks back with some pride on his tenure of what is, typically, one of the most challenging positions in daily journalism.
''I'd been deputy for a while, so had a taste of it, but, when I think about it now, I had no managerial training. In journalism, if you are any good, you just get pushed up the ladder.
''I was chief reporter for nine and a-half years. It's an emotional, passionate job. You live and breathe it. And sometimes, perhaps, I rode rough-shod over someone's feelings.
''I probably upset a lot of people because I did it my way. I tried to lead by example and got it wrong a few times. I made mistakes and annoyed a few people. Looking back, I was probably in too much of a hurry to get things done.
''But the buck ultimately stops with you. You have to believe in yourself. If you don't, you're buggered. There was a lot of pressure to that, a lot of long hours.''
He is also proud of helping bring the ODT's various regional staff (in Balclutha, Alexandra, Oamaru, Wanaka, Queenstown and elsewhere) under one news umbrella.
''I felt those regional areas needed to be treated as part or our team here, so that those stories weren't just stuck on our regions pages but could possibly be on the front page of the Otago Daily Times. It is, after all, not the Dunedin Daily Times.''
INTO THE WASH ...
After a couple of years as regional editor, Cannan was offered an executive position as day editor, a role that involved editing letters to the editor, writing and organising obituaries, as well as penning the ODT's longstanding ''Prester John'' column, which had been turned into a weekly piece.
Enter ''The Wash'', on April 4, 2011, which ushered in six and a-half years of a column featuring no shortage of reader involvement.''I'd written columns for the ODT before,'' Cannan reflects.
''I did `Rites of Passage' turnabout weekly with Richard Boock, the `Detours' music column in the features pages ... but a daily column is a whole different beast.
''There is enormous pressure in having to produce something every day. And it's about credibility. If you're writing rubbish no-one's going to read it. And it had to reflect what was going on in the community.
''I've been lucky enough to have tremendous support for 'The Wash'. There have been trivial elements, too, but it has always been about the readers.
''It might be a peculiarity of Dunedin and/or Otago. As far as I know, I don't think there is another daily column like it. Given the success of 'Prester John' over the years, perhaps our readers were used to having that sort of avenue.''I think a column such as `The Wash' is a bit of a lesson to newspapers full-stop. You ignore your readers and their thoughts at your own peril.''
THE GREAT ESCAPES ...
The breadth of topics covered by Cannan in ''The Wash'' should come as no surprise to those who have chatted to him over the years about his many and varied interests.
His mum and dad were both gardeners and he inherited that gene. A member of the Otago Rose Society, the flowers of love are a particular passion and, come certain times of the year, a freshly-cut bloom can be found on Cannan's desk.
A keen sportsman, Cannan acknowledges his competitive ambitions often outweigh his technical ability, be it in table tennis, which he dabbled with at high school before returning to the sport in recent years, or on the golf course, where he has often experienced the ruination of a nice walk.
''I'm very hard on myself ... I think I have high expectations of myself ... and I'm my worse critic. I'm not very good at keeping that to myself and am a bit volatile, so I've had to apologise a bit.
''I don't know where I get that from. I've always been like that. Perhaps it's a sense of insecurity.
''I'm very aware of my working-class roots. And proud too. My mum and dad were working-class people who worked bloody hard. They did the best for their kids - I'm the oldest of four.
''I think that competitive urge to do better, or be better, probably comes from that.''
TO THE FUTURE ...
Clearly, such pastimes have offered avenues of respite from the various pressure-cooker environments into which Cannan has dived over the years. So, too, has music and all its meditative overtones.
''There's no question about that,'' he nods.
''I found I needed an escape from that immersive approach I took to my career.''
''I've got a couple of guitars but I'm going to buy myself a new one and see how I go. I've always admired people who make good music and have been lucky enough to meet a few of them over the years.
''I've always been interested in music. And I have no particular talent; I must emphasise that. But I've been able to hold my own around a campfire with a guitar, singing a few songs. I've also been learning the mandolin lately.''
Cannan says he has no set plans as to how he will manage his time. As readers of ''The Wash'' will know, he's been seeking advice on retirement strategies, the dos and don't, so to speak.
He will, however, attempt to go ''cold-turkey'' on journalism and writing in general; if for no other reason than it's time to devote more time to his wife, his three grown daughters and his grandchildren.
''One thing I've found about journalism is that it can be a very selfish profession,'' he admits.
''Well, certainly the way I've approached it has been selfish.
''I often put my job well ahead of my family. And I'm not very proud of that. But I did and I can't change that.
''But I'd be very surprised if I don't turn back to writing again ... maybe a book. Then there's travel, more time at the crib at Tarras ...
''I'm a bit of a believer in fate, what will be will be. I'm excited about that, not knowing what the future holds.''
At this, the conversation seems to have run its natural course. Cannan takes a lengthy pause. It's his first in quite a while. He might, or might not, get used to that.
Footnote: This was feature writer Shane Gilchrist's final assignment for the Otago Daily Times. Having accepted a job elsewhere in Dunedin, he describes the experience of one departing journalist writing about another as a rather ''meta'' process.
OVER THE YEARS
Born: Cromwell, October 6, 1952
Educated: Northeast Valley Primary (1957-59), Tarras Primary (1960-64), Taieri High School (1965-1969).
• 1970-73: Otago Daily Times, cadet reporter (started January 20), illustrations desk person, racing subeditor and reporter.
• 1973-1990: Christchurch Star (trotting editor, senior reporter, Sports editor).
• Covered Auckland Commonwealth Games, 1990.
• Covered Interdominion Trotting Championships, Brisbane 1977, Christchurch 1979, Sydney 1980, Auckland 1983, Adelaide 1984, Melbourne 1985, Christchurch 1987 and Sydney 1988.
• 1991-1995: Timaru Herald (senior reporter).
• 1995-2017: Otago Daily Times (senior reporter/health round, deputy chief reporter.)
• Chief reporter 1999-2008
• Regional editor 2008-2010
• Day editor April 2010-October 2017 (letters to editor, obituaries, ''Prester John'' column, ''The Wash'' column)
• ''Rites of Passage'' co-columnist, with Richard Boock, June 1997 to August 1998.
• ''Detours'' music columnist, 2001-2003
• ''Prester John'' columnist, 2005-2015
• ''The Wash'' columnist 2011 (April 4)-2017 (Oct 6)
• Golf writer/columnist, NZ Opens at The Hills/Millbrook, Arrowtown: 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015 (with Hayden Meikle).
• Married to Christine, February, 1973 in Dunedin; three daughters, Amy, Alice and Emily.