From England to WA… prize-winning journalist who met the famous and infamous

Cyril Ayris

THE phone call in the middle of the night was a signal for Perth journalist Cyril Ayris (pictured above) that another big crime story was breaking.

Adrenaline racing, he charged off to police headquarters to obtain a briefing on the event as it unfolded. For 25 years Ayris was chief crime reporter on The West Australian, a role he loved.

The former Englishman covered the big events while developing a rapport with the police, fire brigade, St John Ambulance and hospital casualty departments.

It was not always exciting but Ayris revelled in the role of temporary police roundsman, a position still not confirmed when he finally stepped down to become a feature writer.

Ayris established a prize-winning reputation as a painstaking, hard-working journalist who guarded his sources and covered any story, big or small with the same meticulous detail.

In his book, Chameleon, reporter at large, Ayris tells his life story with typical good humour; a boy growing up in England and his trek across the world with his family to settle in Australia.

Times were tough post war in England and the grim winter of 1947 made the Ayris family decide to emigrate to Tasmania.

Before that, Ayris as a small boy attended Caistor Grammar School in Lincolnshire where he endured tough conditions.

Food was scarce after the war and pupils were fed boiled cabbage and liver; butter and sugar rations were issued once a week.

“We called at Fremantle on a day of century heat and walked through Perth’s Kings Park, hot, red, and exhausted ” he recalls.

The family was heading for Hobart but never forgot Perth.

“Perhaps that was the problem, I will never know. The fact is that Mum and Dad were not happy in Hobart and, in the next eight years, we travelled to South Africa, back to England (where I completed my schooling at Caistor) and Singapore. We became rolling stones, unsettled, seemingly in search of an El Dorado.”

At 18 Ayris and his family were back in Hobart and Ayris had a dream of becoming a jackeroo on a property near Launceston but when things turned pear-shaped he headed for Perth to see if it was suitable for the family.

He took up a job at a Perth jewellers and caused a fire after trying to mend a cigarette lighter.

He thought his time was up, but instead the shop turned him to ear piercing.

“I soon discovered that shooting holes in earlobes was one thing but getting them even was something else entirely.”

Meanwhile Ayris contacted his family and recommended they head west.

“The ladies of Perth, who were considering having their ears pierced, were spared my ministrations when, in August 1954, I was called up for national service.”

After army service, Ayris decided to apply for a job as a clerk at Perth’s only morning newspaper, The West Australian.

“I had no desire to be a clerk, but the advertisement promised the successful applicant many career paths.”

Ayris was enthralled when he heard the story of The West’s exclusive coverage of the British plan to test an atomic bomb on the Monte Bello Islands and peeked into the newsroom “where reporters and sub-editors were engaged in activity so different to mine it was hard to believe we were working for the same company. There was a feeling of urgency; a constant clatter of portable typewriters; cigarette smoke; piles and piles of newspapers and magazines and copy paper; telephones ringing… I was mesmerised. If only I could be part of it!”

After study, Ayris became a cadet reporter: bottom of the food chain.

After a few days he checked the duty book and discovered to his great joy, Mr Ayris written alongside weather.

The great journey had begun.

He was transferred to the company’s rural magazine, the Countryman and broke the story of the discovery of Augusta’s Jewel Cave.

He married Glen Angus, had two sons and settled in City Beach.

He was transferred to the Fremantle office to help newspaper shipping reporter Don Scott until he was appointed temporary police roundsman competing against legendary Daily News police roundsman Jack Coulter.

“I soon became hooked on the adrenaline rush of covering the police round. We never knew what we would be doing next, where we would be sent or how long we would be away.

“When news broke in 1979 that the US space station Skylab was expected to come crashing back to earth, chief-of-staff Leo Johnston wandered over to my desk and said, ‘You’re on standby tonight, it might come down in WA.’ We both laughed.

“He rang my home at 3am the next day. ‘Skylab’s come down somewhere near Balladonia! We’ve got a plane waiting for you at Jandakot.”

Ayris took a ride from Pearce RAAF airbase in a Mirage jet fighter after a hearty breakfast with the inevitable results.

He covered the tragic story of missing jackaroos James Annetts and Simon Amos in the Great Sandy Desert after the intervention of Aboriginal tracker Kevin Cameron.

In May 1981 he was assigned with photographer Kevin Davidson to travel the Indian Ocean rim, picking up stories along the way and transmitting them back to Perth.

He tackled the Kokoda Track in 1986 and covered the manhunt for Kimberley killer Josef Schwab.

Always on the lookout for a good story, Ayris took on a gun run from Tasmania with interesting results and tackled an ill-fated climb up the Nullarbor cliffs.

In 1988 he took on a new role as a feature writer, and an equally interesting journey began, taking him throughout WA and much of the world for four years, with more space to develop a story.

He travelled from Perth to Alice Springs in a London cab and tackled the story of three young Australians doing it tough in an Indonesian jail.

He went to Libya at the behest of then WA Water Resources Minister Ernie Bridge to take a first-hand look at what the country did with its water supply.

In Sarawak he went searching for a lost tribe and he won the Lovekin Prize for his coverage of beached whales at Augusta.

Ayris retired in 1993 but there were more stories to tell.

He leased a small office in West Perth and from there he produced books on O’Connor, Fremantle prison, Gallipoli and many others.

In 24 years, he has written 21 books.

As for his parents, they finally settled in New Zealand and both have now passed away. Brother Roy married a New Zealand girl.

Chameleon, Reporter at large by Cyril Ayris ($30) is available from the author, contact 9245 3563.