Old nag ain’t what he used to be

Ivan Agnew is retiring as the Times’ sports columnist.

The Times has had the honour of counting journalist and author Ivan Agnew as one of its long-time staff writers and columnists. His incredible memory and brilliant writing will be a remarkable legacy. This is his final column

  • By Ivan Agnew

This old grey nag ain’t what he used to be. Hence I’m consigning myself to pasture but, at nigh on 80, definitely not stud.

If I were to write my own story it would have to be titled The Square Peg since falling into journalism 62 years ago after NZ Railways let me break my 20 quid apprentice carpenter’s bond because I was costing them more in wasted timber.

My Grey River Argus cub reporter’s debut wasn’t too flash either when, covering the Grey County Council, I asked my experienced rival reporter why he wasn’t scribbling down notes as I was.

“Because,” he drawled, “they’re reading out the minutes of the last meeting.”

Later, when the Argus went under I moved to the Greymouth Evening Star where brilliant chief reporter Jack Turner twice won both the national news and features awards for his coverage of the Strongman Mine Disaster and Inangahua earthquake.

A few years later in 1970 when I was working for The Christchurch Star, Jack phoned to tell me: “You can tell your mates in the Big Smoke they can enter the national news and features awards with some hope of winning because I’m only going for the New Zealand Sportswriter of the Year award.”

This time he didn’t win. I did. Which prompted the NZ Herald to offer me a job before taking up a nine-year spell at Sunday News where I also wrote feature supplements.

One was a 12,000-word serialisation which Barry Crump agreed to before I turned up at his Waihi home in 1974, only to be told as I stood outside his back door in the pouring rain that he had changed his mind.

“I’ve been done every which way. What are you going to do differently?” he drawled.

“I don’t know Barry,” I replied. “I’m just here to dissect the crap from the chap.”

“Then you’d better come in,” he said with a grin.

It was the beginning of one of the best weeks of my life and he rated my first book, The Loner,  “the best true New Zealand book I have read. The reality of it shook me – and so did the humour,” he wrote in his review.

A year later I went freelancing and gambled my last dollar on traveling Europe and Britain with athletes John Walker and Rod Dixon.

It was on that trip that I persuaded John to get the organisers of the Gothenburg meeting to change his 1500m race to the mile where he could become an immortal by emulating Roger Bannister’s first sub-4 minute barrier by being the first to break 3min 50sec.

He ran magnificently to clock 3min 49.4sec and break the great Filbert Bayi’s 3min 51sec world record.

“Oh my God!” he exclaimed when I showed him the time with his own stop watch he had lent me.

That race provided the highlight chapter of my second book, Kiwis Can Fly.

Journalism has allowed me to meet many wonderful sportspeople over the years but also characters beyond sport like Crump, Howard Morrison, John Clarke (Fred Dagg), Barry Humphries (Dame Edna Everage) who I have written stories about.

Since then, I have had a couple of long memorable stints at the Howick and Pakuranga Times thanks to the patience of managing director Reay Neben and current editor Nick Krause.

It’s been an enjoyable ride for a West Coast-born bloke who loves Howick and has been happy to be a Howickian since late 1971.

Sadly, my wonderful wife Jill is in the advanced stages of dementia and no longer recognises me or our supportive daughters Leonie and Donna.

When I first spotted Jill on a railcar moving from Christchurch to Greymouth in 1964, I told my brother Leo that I was going to marry her.

“You’re mad,” he exclaimed.

I wasn’t. She was, because three years later she said yes.

I’m not sure what her first impression of me was on that railcar but I got a clue when she offered me peanuts.

When Crumpy first met Jill, she was stunned when he told her she was beautiful.

“I lived with this bastard for a week,” he said indicating me, “and he never mentioned you once. So I thought you must be a dog.”