Final 'flashpoint': Celebrating 'trusted' Christchurch sportswriter' John Brooks

John Brooks, former Press sports editor, with film star Audrey Hepburn at a charity function in Christchurch in 1992.
Diane Brooks

John Brooks, former Press sports editor, with film star Audrey Hepburn at a charity function in Christchurch in 1992.

Celebrated sportswriter  John Brooks was a born storyteller who entertained readers of the The Press for close to 40 years with his erudite, incisive and amusing prose.

Brooks, who died in Christchurch this month, aged 82, would rank among the most stylish writers in the newspaper's history.

Held in high regard by colleagues, competitors and sportspeople, Brooks won the New Zealand Sports Journalist of the Year award in 1983.

John Brooks was a gifted writer and a natural raconteur.
Dean Kozanic

John Brooks was a gifted writer and a natural raconteur.

J K Brooks and longtime Press sports editor R T  (Dick) Brittenden formed a highly literate sports writing duo who drew readers, otherwise agnostic about sport, to the back pages.

Bob Schumacher, who worked alongside Brooks in the sports department for decades, came from a family which subscribed to an afternoon daily but he spent some of his slender university allowance on "buying The Press just to read Brooksy and Dick".

John Kennedy Brooks was born in Christchurch on March 21 1934. His father was a court registrar and the family moved frequently to postings in Queenstown, Napier, Palmerston North and Hokitika where John attended Westland District High School and made many lifelong friends.

When his father was transferred to Invercargill, Brooks elected to remain in Hokitika to complete his schooling.

An influential history teacher who doubled as the school rugby coach steered Brooks towards a newspaper career.

"He told John he had a distinctive writing style and that he should go into journalism," Brooks' wife Diane said.

While he never lost his love for the West Coast, Brooks rejoined his family in Invercargill after leaving school.

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He began a 45-year newspaper career in 1953 after securing a position as a cadet journalist at the Southland Times, covering general news, shipping movements and court.

Brooks later transferred to the sports department and served in Southland until 1960 when he accepted a job at The Press as Brittenden's deputy sports editor.

The pair soon developed into one of the most successful double acts in New Zealand sports journalism, rivalling their Auckland equivalents T P (Terry) McLean and D J (Don) Cameron at the New Zealand Herald.

Brittenden was one of the world's foremost cricket writers and also covered golf, wrote a humour column and sent up professional wrestling.

Brooks, an enthusiastic rugby union player at school, naturally gravitated to the rugby union beat and also had the tennis and swimming rounds.

His authoritative reports made readers feel a part of the action in the era before regular live television coverage of sporting events.

Like Brittenden, he had a deft writing touch, peppering his pieces with humour - sometimes at his own expense, or gently ribbing sports folk he genuinely admired, such as Canterbury and All Blacks loose forward Alex (Grizz) Wyllie.

Take the time Brooks was in Wales, covering the 1972-73 All Blacks' northern hemisphere tour on secondment to the New Zealand Press Association.. The All Blacks were quartered in Newport, but Brooks' hotel bedroom was poorly lit and had no table for typing. 

"I discovered a powerful lamp in the boys' room, and by placing my typewriter on the lowered toilet seat, and perching on a small chair, I was able to start belting out the good word," Brooks wrote on his retirement in 1998.

"Then a shadow fell over the typewriter, and I looked up to see that rare Wyllie grin. 'Well, Brooks,' said Grizz, 'at last you've found surroundings to fit what you write'."

Brooks was one of New Zealand's leading rugby reporters through to the 1980s, once writing he had "covered rugby in such contrasting surroundings as the swish Parc des Princes press room in Paris and the back of a truck in Cass Square, Hokitika".

He formed a strong friendship with McLean, his Auckland rival and travelling companion on All Blacks tours overseas.

In many ways, the pair were the sports writing's Odd Couple -  McLean was punctual to the point of arriving at test venues hours before kickoff while the more laid back Brooks was often taking his seat seconds before, or even after, the referee's first whistle blast.

McLean wrote in a Brooks tribute in 1998 that "he second half was going well before the announcer ceased to recite: 'When Mr John Brooks, of the Christchurch Press arrives, would he kindly report to the secretary's office'" at Wanganui's Spriggens Park on the 1971 British and Irish Lions tour.

"Brooks's account in The Press was accurate and, as always, knowledgeable. How had he done it? By chopper or periscope?"

McLean was known for bashing out his muscular prose in breakneck fashion, while Brooks preferred to take time crafting his account.

The Auckland scribe once claimed his friend was known as "Jesus Christ Brooks" to a generation of British telegraph transmitters.

"Brooks's routine was unvarying," McLean wrote. "Topcoat off, folded neatly over the back of his chair, scarf off, likewise. Cigarettes and matches, or lighter, from his jacket on to the table. Jacket off. Lid of typewriter lifted. Fag lit. Fingers on keys, ruminating.

"At last . . . a blow struck. After 45, maybe 60 minutes - who cares, it's all ancient history - I would emerge from a small enclosed room in the van. Brooks just might have finished his first page. It was then (according to the staff of the van) that McLean would start shouting: 'Step on it Brooks. Step on it. Jesus Christ, we haven't got all night to sit around here'."

Brooks, however, valued one of McLean's more helpful writing tips. "I can recall being in a proper panic after our media bus was caught in a traffic jam on the way back from an All Black game in Neath. T P insisted that I join him in the hotel's lounge bar for a couple of brandies, but I tersely questioned his sanity, because we were perilously close to deadline.

"It was then, that he gave me some valuable advice. 'If you go to your typewriter now, Brooks,', he said, 'you will either write compete nonsense or your mind will freeze, and you will write nothing.'  Two brandies later, my fingers were flying."

Brooks was once tickled by a comment from a noted English athletics writer in the press centre at the 1974 Commonwealth Games. The scribe looked up from his typewriter with a pained expression when Brooks asked him a question and said: "Not now, old boy, I'm approaching flashpoint".

Brooks unashamedly borrowed the phrase for the rest of his writing life.

Covering the Commonwealth Games was among his career highlights and he often recalled how he had saved Press colleague Kevin Tutty's life at the QE II Stadium swimming pool when Christchurch's Jaynie Parkhouse won a gold medal. "I grabbed his belt when he was on the point of falling out of the lofty press box, yelling ... 'go Jaynie, go'."

Brooks found his overseas All Blacks tours physically and mentally demanding, particularly 1972-73 when All Blacks prop Keith Murdoch was sent home for a fracas in a Cardiff hotel.

But the true francophile loved touring France and was not at all dispirited when his return flight was delayed by an airline strike in 1977. He rang Brittenden "to inform him of my plight, and received a response similar to Humphrey Boart's classic line in Casablanca: "Of all the claret joints in the world, you have to get stranded in Paris."

Red wine and classic movies were among Brooks' more abiding interests.

Brooks accepted an invite from former South African rugby supremo Danie Craven to tour South Africa in 1983 to report on rugby progress in the republic despite the international sports sanctions. Wife Diane said The Press did not approve of the trip and banned Brooks, who had to take annual leave to attend, from writing about it in his own paper.

One of his final rugby writing acts was to dub the All Blacks' early 1980s front row of skipper Andy Dalton and props John Ashworth and Gary Knight "The Geriatrics".The barb stuck, to Dalton's chagrin, but later became the title of their joint autobiography.

Brooks retreated from the rugby beat when became The Press sports editor on Brittenden's retirement in 1984, serving for more than a decade.

On returning to his first love - writing - he specialised in anecdote-laden columns and carefully crafted features.

While he generally wrote with a light touch, Brooks was not afraid to put the boot in where warranted - lambasting the New Zealand Rugby Union for its decision to award Zinzan Brooke its player of the year award at a time he had failed to front to answer a disciplinary charge. He also questioned the wisdom of civic authorities spending millions on new stadia in Christchurch when QE II Stadium lay dormant and neglected.

Brooks wrote a successful "Where Are They Now" series, interviewing sports stars of yesteryear. "His piece on Dick Motz helped the former test cricket fast bowler get a job at a time when he was down on his luck," Diane Brooks recalled. 

Near the end of his career, Brooks forged a rapport with The Press' Australian editor Bruce Baskett, who appointed the veteran scribe to a specialist writing team.

Brooks flourished outside the sports writing straitjacket, turning out highly readable general profiles and travel pieces, including a gem on his home away from home, Hokitika.

But he found the next editorial regime less to his liking and retired, a year early, in 1998.

His departure was mourned by colleagues who revered his writing ability and general bonhomie. "He was a gifted writer and a top bloke" Schumacher said.

Brooks, who had four sons, found much happiness for the last 30 years of his life with second wife Diane.

He enjoyed travelling with Diane as she toured New Zealand in her education sector job. 

A keen, if not altogether skilled, golfer, Brooks retained his great love of rugby and old movies.

The natural racounter was often invited to address rugby club gatherings, Rotary meetings and secondary school leavers' ceremonies to regale them with tales of the sporting past.

Sadly, he never produced the book others urged him to write, telling Diane he would have been "done for libel".

For the last six years, Brooks battled Alzheimer's Disease, and died in Christchurch on February 4.

Ex-All Blacks Alex Wyllie and Tane Norton joined Diane and Brooks' three surviving sons Mark, Scott and Justin, former colleagues and friends at a celebration of bon vivant Brooks' life.

Norton, a former All Blacks captain, told the gathering that Brooks had always been a reporter who could be trusted to never betray a confidence.

John Kennedy Brooks, born Christchurch March 21, 1934, died Christchurch February 4, 2017. Pre-deceased by son Dean. Survived by wife Diane, and sons Mark, Scott and Justin.

 - Stuff

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