Mascord, Presnell books a window to colourful sports journalism era

Max Presnell (L) has enjoyed a distinguished career as a racing journalist Vince Caligiuri/Getty Images

Deserve a medal? Probably. For five, six, whatever number of years, I sat next to Steve Mascord in that wacko world, otherwise known as The Sydney Morning Herald's sports department.

Those from the more serious parts of the broadsheet would stay well away, or tread very warily when entering our domain, believing it as dangerous as creeping around a zoo where the cages had been knocked down. Good reason too, as the SMH sports section had an overflow of desperate, delusional and deranged Characters.

Characters had to have a capital C- because those Characters in the SMH's version of Mad Magazine were huge. One of the biggest, most endearing Characters was Steve Mascord, who has now allowed the public to peek into his decidedly different world through his revealing and revelatory book- Touchstones.

The opening line is: "I was conceived in an insane asylum and don't know for sure who my natural father is', is a fair warning that you're about to embark on a unique reading experience.

I was at least prepared. For me, living next door to Mascord was like getting caught up in a never-ending whirlwind. Journalism's version of being trapped on The Rotor- that crazy, disorientating ride at Sydney's Luna Park. He was loud. He was out there. He was completely consumed with the sport he covered. No make that the sport he absolutely adored. The ultimate 24/7 Rugby League anorak.

His cackling laugh would cut right through you, and soon had you laughing out of context. You would get caught up in the most bizarre conversations and debates, including one which lasted for years and one which I still don't quite understand. Something about Vichy France and rugby union tossers killing the game he adores.... ask Mascord, he'll explain it to you. Constant banter. It's no surprise that Russell Crowe based aspects of a dishevelled scribe he played in the movie State of Play on Mascord.

Sometimes you pondered whether Mascord had slept the night under his desk, as there was often a pile of clothes, shoes, Rugby League Week and Big League programs strewn all over the place.

The ultimate journalistic phone jockey, for hours on end, he would ring anyone and everyone in the hope of getting a news snippet no other league writer had. It was sometimes ring first, think later, prompting brief conversations such as: "Mate, I'll ring you back. I'm not sure why I rung ya,' or a loud "Who's this?" to someone whom he had just called, and who was understandably bewildered by the query.

We would constantly sing our version of 'Nowhere Man' with the changed chorus of 'what's doing?' to each other. Why? Absolutely no idea. Yet always what came through was his sheer lust for the 13-man game, which is the underlying theme of Touchstones.

As one would expect from Mascord, Touchstones is a manic read. You feel like a pinball, bouncing in all directions as Mascord goes on tangents as he attempts to fulfil his goal of attending a rugby league match and a music gig- usually heavy metal- every week for 52 weeks.

The trip, which includes discovering his real identity, is often weird, but you regularly stumble over gems, and revelations, including that he is not enamoured with State of Origin footy.

To get an idea of the author's mindset, he explains early on: "I've done so many of these eccentric trips that I've lost count. In 2000, I saw Wales play South Africa in Pretoria in a rugby league international one day and the United States take on England at Walt Disney World in Florida the next, travelling overnight. Two years later, it was Serbia v Italy in Belgrade then straight to the airport and overnight to Cardiff for a match on New Zealand's tour of the UK. I saw KISS at Budokan, Tokyo one night and Skid Row at Manchester Club Academy the next, pretty much travelling door to door. I've tried to figure out why I did these things and the only answer I can come up with is... so I can sit here 15 years later, and tell you I did them."

There are golden anecdotes, including touring with the 1991 Papua New Guinea team to France, and several Kumuls liking the late local shows so much, "they unplugged a television set from their hotel room and attempted to take it back to Rabaul."

Or 'at a meeting with sports-desk staff, a Fairfax Media executive declared that sport served only a perfunctory role in The Sydney Morning Herald. 'I'd be really offended,' said a racing writer, 'if I knew what that meant.'

That racing writer was definitely not Max Presnell, who had far better things to do than listen to some trumped up spiv spouting rubbish about an occupation in which he had thrived in for more than 60 years. Time is tight when you're constantly dealing with a passing parade of 'crook bookies, pimps, pickpockets, dopers, plonkers, lobbers and the downright disreputable' who hover around racetracks. Then there are jockeys, trainers and owners- all of whom are part of Presnell's lush volume: Good Losers Die Broke.

Presnell, long-time racing columnist for the defunct Sydney Sun and now SMH, delights in writing about the needy and greedy of the Australian racing world, and its endless Runyoneque characters (with a lower c). This is not surprising considering Max's upbringing at the Doncaster Hotel, alongside Randwick racecourse. His father, Roy, was the manager for 25 years.

From an early age, Max was encountering in the pub, racing and newspaper game- Rum Roy, Breathless Mahoney, The Fat Man, Pat the Poultry Man, Horrible Jazza, The Sapper, The Beast, Two-bob Tommy, Aitch, Poor Honest Vic, The Angel, Happy Jack, Break-even Bill, Dave the Dasher, Melbourne Mick, Laurie the Lobber, The Lady in Black, Madam X, Dick the Crock, Hard Luck Hal, Ralphie Roughnut, Billy the Mock, Dick the Crock, Lou the Pest, Clarence the Clocker, The Moose and Amarillo Slim... to name just a few.

Classic racing stories abound, including the antics of The Quare Fellow owned by 'turf shaker and mover' Jim Donnellan. Trained by the renowned Tommy Smith, The Quare Fellow 'jumped out of the barrier, somewhat tardy, did a U-turn and returned behind the gates.' "What are you training Tommy, a racehorse or a homing pigeon?" queried Donnellan.

There are memorable newspaper tales of when the tabloids ran Sydney, and the Journalists Cup was a sporting highlight - where The Sun, Daily Mirror, ABC and Daily Telegraph journos would belt, kick and gouge each other out on the rugby league field, especially one infamous occasion in the 1960s when the Telegraph brought in some ring-ins. The Journalists Cup was resurrected in the early 1980s, until the injury toll, broken bones and get squares became too frightening.

At last I discovered the real story to the sudden disappearance of a talented, often inebriated and now deceased sports columnist, whom I knew well. We used to cover the Swans when they first came to Sydney. Hilarity dominated, especially when we ran a sweep in the press box on how many beers he could drink during a Swans game at the SCG. The record stood at 14 schooners. (Three each quarter the Swans were running into the wind, four each quarter when they had it whipping up their backside.) He then caused havoc at the Swans press conference, asking incoherent questions and lecturing any official who came into the room.

In Max's book, he is Hangdog.

Max explained that Hangdog, a hopeless punter, to avoid the debt collectors had joined a 'weird religious society, as a means of escape.' The society assembled in a Sydney compound, surrounded by high walls, and 'credit heavies with tools of trade like iron bars and wire cutters for removing body parts were barred.'

"Later Hangdog fled to Queensland, and married again but the trend continued. That wife left suddenly, taking all the furniture- even the bed.'

Sadly, Society Max doesn't delve into motion picture history in this vibrant tome, because unbeknown to many he is also one of the best judge of movies going around- past and present. Maybe that's volume two.

In the interim, both Touchstones and Good Losers Die Broke come highly recommended as they remind all that intense sporting passions are like no others.