The death of Observer (Donald Macdonald)
MR. DONALD MACDONALD - DEATH AT BLACK ROCK - NATURE LOVER AND JOURNALIST
Fifty Years on "The Argus."
It is with the deepest regret that we announce the death of Mr. Donald Macdonald which occurred yesterday at his home, The Huts, Karrakatta street, Black Rock in his 76th year. Mr. Macdonald was probably the most widely known journalist in Australia.
He was associated with "The Argus" and "The Australasian" for half a century. Although he had been confined to his bed for several years, he continued to write almost to the day of his death. Last Saturday an article from his pen upon the early days of the cattle industry appeared in "The Argus," and tomorrow will be published the last of Mr. Macdonald's "Nature Notes" - a column which, with "Notes for Boys," made thousands of friends for him all over Australia.
To the last he retained that grace and charm of style in his writings which revealed, as clearly as talking with him did, his rare personal qualities. His closer friends alone appreciated fully the courage with which he bore his infirmities in the closing years of his life. His friendship with birds was one of the consolations of his youth and middle life.
Outside the door of his room and in sight of his bed, was a birdbath. Often he heard the first bird which came each morning with the dawn, and these visitors, of which he wrote so affectionately, were his company throughout the day. He kept in touch with affairs in the world outside through his wireless and through the visits of friends, and during the last few days he had listened with deep interest to the account of the cricket match with the Englishmen.
A third interest which claimed much of his attention was his enormous correspondence. His articles on nature and his "Notes, for Boys" brought him letters from all parts of Australia, and this large correspondence was undiminished even in his last few days, for letters came to him about his most recent notes and about his last article in "The Argus."
At Mr. Macdonald's own wish the funeral today will be private, and there will be no flowers. His body will be cremated. He is survived by a daughter, Mrs. Elaine Whittle. Mr. Macdonald, who came of sturdy Scottish-Canadian stock (his grandfather arrived here in the forties), was born at Fitzroy in 1857, and his boyhood was spent in Keilor.
Here he acquired a taste for nature study and love of sport. The care-free life of a country boy was just to his liking. As he often remarked in later years, he roamed the hills and plains, indulging his love of birds, animals, and trees and wildflowers, the while playing with the other boys and older fellows at cricket and football, in both of which games he was very proficient.
As he grew older his thoughts turned to means of earning a livelihood and for a time he was a teacher. The limitations of this vocation were irksome to a man of his temperament, and as he was beginning to find his feet as a writer on the subjects most dear to his heart, and most responsive to his inclinations, he ventured into journalism, very diffident, but impelled to answer the call.
He found opportunity first on the "Corowa Free Press," under the late Mr. J. C. Leslie, who was a leading newspaper pro-prietor in Riverina, and under whom another distinguished writer, Davison Symmons, one of the founders of "The Passing Show"' column, served his apprenticeship to the craft. Mr. Macdonald did all the work of a country reporter on the "Press" and laid deeper the foundations of success in a wider sphere.
While still a young man - in October, 1881 - he accepted an engagement on the staff of "The Argus." At the outset there was no better indication than had been given by scores of aspirants that he possessed talents and power of expression to mark him for advancement, but he was not long in this office before he proved himself to be a man of remarkably original style.
His first opportunity came when the intercolonial cricket match between Victoria and New South Wales was played in December. He reported the game in a way that was quite new, and certainly very engaging. Up to that time it had been the custom to give a sort of progressive record of the play, setting out the coming in and the going out of the batsmen, the runs they made, the changes of bowlers, and so on.
This, as Mr. Macdonald showed, was a lifeless way of doing things. He broke new ground, and gave a clear idea of how the match was played without tiresome details. He brought the game vividly before the reader with bold strokes and clever running comment always impartially and with never a dull line. It is not too much to say that he revolutionised cricket writing, for since he began no one has followed the old style.
During nearly the whole of his career on "The Argus" with occasional intervals, he reported every important match played in Melbourne, and most of the Test matches in other States, and his pen-name "Observer," stood for authority in the game throughout Australia. In recent years, however, his health had not permitted him to continue this work.
In football reporting he was not less successful, and it was not until he found that exposure on the wind and rain swept grounds in winter injured his health that he ceased to write upon this pastime.
No one however, would venture to speak of him only in his connection with sport. That was only one side of Mr. Macdonald - one of many sides. His nature lore was remarkable. It made him what he was, a lovable and attractive companion, whether in daily intercourse with his friends, or among the readers to whom he was personally unknown, but to whom he was as one to be cherished.
His work in this congenial excursion began in "The Australasian" many years ago, when he contributed sketches of country life and nature reflections in easy unstudied, formless reverie. He revealed himself as a man devoted to the open life, and with a gift of imaginative prose, tinged with pleasing humour, who must write just as he listed. These essays were carried on from time to time both in "The Australasian" and "The Argus," and they led to the establishment of the column "Nature Notes and Queries" published each Friday.
The idea arose in this way: Mr. Macdonald had written an article. "Where the Pelican Builds its Nest," which evoked so much interest that he was "bombarded" with letters on the subject. He dealt with these in a subsequent article. Then more letters came, and again more. It appeared that there was a wide field of interest in this and kindred subjects which had not been suspected, or, as any rate, discerned, and it was decided to open a weekly column dealing with it.
The success was remarkable. Mr. Macdonald's share of letters received through the post almost exceeded that of a Prime Minister. As close students of the column know the subjects had the widest range. The information given showed Mr. Macdonald's qualities; whenever he could reply "off his own bat" he did so; when he could not he was not ashamed to plead ignorance.
Another notable result was the gathering together not formally, but through the medium of the column, of a number of ardent nature lovers whose names became known through frequent repetition - men who were experts in one or other of the subjects generally discussed. Mr. Macdonald was extremely proud of his voluntary colleagues.
Eventually the scope of the "Nature Notes" column became so great that Mr. Macdonald decided to divide it, and so he began the series of "Notes for Boys," which have been just as successful as the earlier notes. An endearing aspect of his character is revealed in his announcement in "The Argus" of February 23, 1909, that he intended to begin a new column for boys.
"The new column," he said "will shape itself in time and become just what the inclinations of boys and my experience make it. There will be no reference to school work, excepting where it relates to nature study. It will deal, for the present at any rate, with the life of the open air and its charms, with a boy's life, and chiefly his recreations ... It's a fine thing to be a boy but as you can't always be a boy it's a fine thing to try to keep the spirit and heart of a boy for as long as you can. If you do that you never really grow old. I want to keep young also, if I can; to be always a boy - with boys."
The War Correspondent
Mr. Macdonald took a deep interest in defence measures and activities, both on land and sea, and for many years he reported the Easter encampments and manœuvres When he began Victoria had a miserably inadequate volunteer force. The officers and men, few though they were, lacked nothing in enthusiasm, but they were a futile body all the same. Mr. Macdonald had a good deal to do with the reforms subsequently made when the militia system was introduced and the forces were put on a more satisfactory basis, thus preparing the way for our effective participation in the South African war and the Great War.
When it appeared that war with the Boers was inevitable, and before there was any suggestion to send contingents from Australia, the proprietors of "The Argus" sent Mr. Macdonald to South Africa. He was the first war correspondent to leave, and while he was on the sea hostilities began. As soon as he landed he hurried to the front, and he was present with the British forces at the battle of Elands Laagte. With them he retired into Ladysmith, and he remained there during the whole of the historic siege.
It was a tremendous disappointment to him. He did not know when, if ever, he would get out of the beleaguered town, but his main thought was to "do his job." He wrote regularly and posted regularly, but the Boer ring round the town was proof against penetration even by a war correspondent's despatches. Then came a time when, like nearly all the others Mr. Macdonald was "knocked over" by dysentery. He suffered severely. His life hung in the balance for some time, but he recovered, though but slightly, in time to see the relief troops come in.
He returned to Melbourne grievously stricken in health, and the steamer which brought him home brought also his belated letters. These were published from time to time and they showed that his powers of vivid writing suffered not at all in comparison with the work of the best of the war correspondents in that war or preceding wars. Subsequently they were published in book form under the title, "How We Kept the Flag Flying," and they had a wide sale.
Mr Macdonald, as soon as he was well enough, was given a hearty reception by a large gathering of citizens at the Masonic Hall, at which Sir William Zeal presided. He then gave a lecture in the Town Hall, which attracted a very large audience, and the success of this venture led to his seeking leave of absence from the staff in order that he might go on an extended lecturing tour through Australia, New Zealand, and Great Britain. He was absent for about a year. On his return he resumed his position in the office, and carried on the activities, which were greatly extended, with which he had been previously identified.
Every quality possessed by Donald Macdonald had its roots deep in simplicity and sincerity. From these arose that capacity to grasp all that was true in men and in books, and from them came that insight which saw delight in Nature and revealed it in an easy and vivid literary style. Therein, too, lay the weight of his judgment, his value as a friend, his charm as a companion, and the salt of his humour.
Mr. Macdonald read many books, but his style was his own: he saw much, but he saw everything with his own eyes; he heard a great deal, but all that he heard, like all that he read and saw, came to the crucible of his mind as raw material for his own product. Those same characteristics, after the work of his world had brought him along many paths and into many interests, led him back at the end of each day to the abiding place of his spirit, a plot in which flowers grew and a kitchen garden flourished.
Of his charm as a writer, his versatility, and his success little need be said when so much is known. Much was known, too, of the man by those who read what he had written but who had not seen him. No one who, knowing his name well and admiring his work met him for the first time was surprised by anything he found in him. His work, his method of expression were so much a part of the man that he was a real stranger to few in his own country.
There was no company in which his presence was not an acquisition. Many men of the pen find the pen the only medium of expression. He was not so limited. He talked as he wrote, without affection and without effort, drawing his picture with deft and certain touch. Humour at appropriate times glinted in what he wrote, but it flashed frequently in what he said. From his accustomed seat in the press box at the M.C.C. he wrote a great deal about cricket for a wider public, and he said many things of cricket and other subjects remembered by those associated with him.
Thousands of people met Mr. Macdonald during the 40 years in which he visited various parts of the State. He entertained many people with stories and reminiscences. There was none who met him who did not wish to meet him again or who failed to carry away the impression of a large-hearted man incapable of an unworthy thought or deed.
Though an ardent lover of Nature, he was no recluse. He made friends in all walks of life and of various ages. There will be sorrow that he is no more and he will be remembered in years to come because he has planted his memory in the minds and in the hearts of young people. With them he has travelled long and far, over hills and down gullies, through forest, and along streams and with them he has talked week by week of the scenes and the life of quiet places. Many a boy and girl who first saw their own country through the eyes of Donald Macdonald have learned to know it and to love it through their own.
Tribute by Cricketer
"It was with deep regret that I heard of the death of Mr. Macdonald," said Mr. Hugh Trumble, a former Test cricketer, and now secretary of the Melbourne Cricket Club. "All the cricketers in my day had the greatest esteem for him as a man and a sportsman. During my early career in the cricket world he was one of the leading writers on the game. All knew the ability of 'Observer' as a descriptive writer, and his personality and charming manner were such as to make him loved by those with whom he came in contact."
Mr. P.F. Warner's Regret
Keen regret at Mr. Macdonald's death was expressed yesterday by Mr. P.F. Warner, joint manager of the English cricket team. Mr. Warner, whose friendship with Mr. Macdonald extended over many years, paid a warm tribute to Mr. Macdonald's knowledge of cricket and his appreciation of the fine traditions of the game.
"Mr. Macdonald wrote upon cricket as few others have done," said Mr. Warner. "His description and comments were always delightful, and I understand that on a diversity of other subjects, he wrote equally intimately and pleasantly. His death grieves me very much and it will be a great loss to all who knew him."
Comrades at Ladysmith
On behalf of the South African Soldiers' Association of Victoria, the secretary (Mr. T. E. Stapleton) sent the following message: - "The few comrades of this association who helped to keep the flag flying with Mr. Macdonald express their deep sorrow at his death, and extend their sympathy to his family."
Many of Donald Macdonald's football articles have been reproduced by australianfootball.com. Click here for the full list.
Title: MR. DONALD MACDONALD - DEATH AT BLACK ROCK - NATURE LOVER AND JOURNALIST
Publisher: Argus (Melbourne, Vic. : 1848 - 1957)
Date: Thursday 24 November 1932, page 6