For several decades through the 1960s to 1980s Des Colquhoun was synonymous with newspaper journalism in South Australia.
As a feature writer, then editor in chief and finally as a daily front page columnist for the Adelaide Advertiser, Colquhoun was for a time one of the best known people in his home state.
His love of the long lunch which extended well past dinner time and more than occasionally into the next day made him a larger than life figure, a sought after raconteur and – in the words of another journalist Craig McGregor – one of the Australia’s most gregarious men.
Journalists and celebrities visiting Adelaide would invariably be ensnared in socialising with Colquhoun, whose energy for celebration became legendary and even recognised by the former Queen Mother, for whom he performed public relations duties on secondment in the 1960s.
Colquhoun was actually born as Desmond Gillan Fox, taking the family name of his mother as his second name and that of his father, Bob Fox, but family disruption through the 1930s and 1940s saw him emerge with the surname of Colquhoun.
After Des was born in 1931 his father was often away seeking work during the Depression, and his parents’ marriage then broke down and he was sent to live with his aunt “Mabs’ who had married well known Adelaide lawyer Colin Colquhoun.
Bob Fox was also captured by the Japanese at the Fall of Singapore and spent most of World War 11 as a prisoner of war, only returning to Australia in late 1946 as one of the last POWs to be repatriated.
Sent to Adelaide private schools Pulteney Grammar (where he briefly held a state high jumping record) and then to Prince Alfred College, he carried the hyphenated name Fox-Colquhoun before eventually, prior to his marriage in 1953, finally becoming Desmond Fox Colquhoun.
The family story was that his father in law, a well to do General Practitioner from Adelaide’s eastern suburbs, was happy for his daughter to marry a Colquhoun, but not a Fox, although this may be the stuff of family lore.
From school, Colquhoun moved into journalism at the Adelaide Advertiser in 1947, and this is where he met one of his lifelong friends, fellow copy boy Don Riddell.
After completing their journalistic cadetships in the early 1950s, Riddell and Colquhoun embarked on their own version of the Grand Tour to the Europe and the UK, where they hoped to work as journalists.
When this was stymied by the closed shop policies of the National Union of Journalists in the UK, the two became itinerant farm workers, trundling around the UK between jobs on a tandem bicycle and often sleeping rough in buildings still bombed out from the war.
Prior to his departure Colquhoun had met Maureen Enid Glastonbury (or “Meg” as everyone called her) at a friend’s party in Adelaide and the two had fallen in love and were engaged to be married.
Their engagement survived Colquhoun’s European adventure and they were married on his return in 1953, beginning a famous union which continued until their deaths, six months apart, in 2005.
At the Advertiser, Colquhoun did well. He was posted to Melbourne as the paper’s Victorian correspondent, and then to London in 1962 as group representative for the former Herald and Weekly Times group, of which the Advertiser was a member.
With them in England were their two children Meredith (born 1959) and Lachlan (1962), both of whom were adopted.
In London, Colquhoun covered some of the big stories of the 1960s: the Profumo Affair, Churchill’s death in 1965, Britain’s entry into the Common Market and also Beatlemania, where he interviewed the Fab Four on the set of a Hard Day’s night. He covered events in Europe and claims to have had the end of his cigarette shot off by a sniper during the civil war in Cyprus in 1967.
In between there was a trip to North Africa, where he wrote an article for the Australasian Post on the city of Tobruk, where his father had fought during WW2, and – according to legend – drove a bus across the desert when the driver became ill. The story goes he was rewarded by bread rolls containing sheep’s eyes, a local delicacy.
Colquhoun’s propensity for carousing continued in London, where it is claimed he became drinking mates with actors Peter O’Toole and Oliver Reed.
The story goes that they regularly met in a pub after Colquhoun finished work in the Herald offices in the Strand and the actors came off stage after appearing in productions on the West End.
On more than one occasion, according to family lore, Colquhoun arrived home in the morning with O’Toole for a home cooked breakfast, prepared by the long suffering Meg. She mustn’t have minded too much, because whenever she saw O’Toole at the cinema or on television she would always say that he would be welcome “to put his shoes under my bed anytime.”
The family moved from London to New York and spent around 18 months in the US, arrived back in Australia in late 1966 after driving from east to west coast in a red Rambler sedan, which could not be sold and was given away to an unsuspecting and random teenager at the airport.
Back in Australia, Colquhoun’s career progressed at the Advertiser and he was made editor in 1969, a rarity at that time for an editor of a major newspaper to be under 40.
He did take some time out on secondment to work as press attache to the British Royal family on their visits to Australia in the 1960s, although he always maintained to his family that he believed in an Australian Republic.
Under his stewardship the Advertiser sloughed off some its conservative shackles as an establishment paper of record and became more small “l” liberal and socially progressive in outlook, helped by the work of other journalists such as Don Riddell, Shirley Stott Despoja and John Scales.
It was a time of white polo necked skivvies and safari suits and Colquhoun was at the forefront. He had a wide circle of friends and contacts in Adelaide on all sides of politics, and became involved in journalism nationally through his chairmanship of news service AAP.
His executive career, however, came to a halt through health issues in 1980 after a major heart attack which required heart bypass surgery.
Although athletic in his youth (there was another family story that he kicked six goals in the rain to win a football grandfinal for Maylands Methodist in the 1950s), he was an enthusiastic smoker and drinker, and survived largely on vegemite sandwiches and minestrone soup. A mash up of tomatoes on toast, known as “train smash” was also popular.
After his convalescence Colquhoun returned to the Advertiser and his satirical front page column was hugely popular in the 1980s. After retirement, Colquhoun then wrote his column weekly for the suburban Messenger Press newspapers for many years, and fronted the “SA Great” campaign promoting his home state.
Although increasingly frail and unwell, he continued to entertain family and his legions of friends with his wit and charm until passing away in June 2005.
He is survived by his daughter Merey, son Lachlan and grandchildren Jack and Queenie.