There’s a very good letter in today’s Dominion Post complimenting Jane Bowron on her dispatches from the Christchurch quake zone. Peter Wells of Napier (I presume the Peter Wells who is himself a writer) says of Jane’s writing:
"She hits just the right note, with wry observational humour and insight. She doesn’t big-note emotionally but the pain, bewilderment and determination to keep on going are all there. She would have made a first-rate war reporter."
I agree. And I reckon a crucial factor - perhaps the crucial factor - that sets Jane’s pieces apart from most others about the quake and its aftermath is that she had no formal training in journalism. In fact she twice failed to get into journalism school.
She eventually got into journalism via the old reading room at The Dominion – long legendary as a sanctuary for all manner of colourful, Bohemian characters. When the advent of digital technology rendered proofreaders redundant in the late 1980s, Jane was one of those who opted to retrain as a sub-editor (though I suspect the training was pretty rudimentary). It was from there that she drifted into writing, where she has found her true metier.
She was never schooled to write in the orthodox journalistic manner, and I believe that’s the key to her idiosyncratic style. She’s not bound by any rules. She writes with an individualistic eye and an undisciplined spontaneity that would have caused journalism tutors to recoil in horror. But it works.
It’s a common conceit among “proper” journalists that we’re the only ones competent to report tragedies such as Christchurch, but Jane demolishes that myth. As Peter Wells suggests, she would have done a great job at the siege of Madrid or in the London Blitz.
Footnote: Mention of Jane’s futile attempts to get into journalism school reminds me of the time in the early 1980s when I spent several weeks running a feature-writing course at what was then the Wellington Polytechnic journalism school (now part of Massey University). When the course was finished, the full-time journalism tutors eagerly questioned me on which of the 25-odd students I thought stood out. When I told them, their mouths fell open in astonishment. The student who most impressed me was one they’d virtually written off as a no-hoper. His name was Steve Braunias.
I sometimes wonder how many talented people have been lost to journalism since training shifted from the workplace to academic institutions. It doesn't bear thinking about.