GREG RAY: Vale Jim Shanks, man of letters  

JIM SHANKSIN the fast and furious internet age, when the instant feedback from some online correspondents can leave the thin-skinned feeling bruised and mauled by sharp barbs or torrents of vitriol, it’s easy to become nostalgic for other times.
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I must be careful about that, since some of my regular sniper-critics have suggested that an interest in the past makes one unfit to comment on the present.

Still, in for a penny, in for a pound, as the common saying used to go in those good old pre-decimal days.

When I heard recently that Jim Shanks had died (at Byron Bay, in April, aged 82) I wondered right away what sort of online commentator he might have been, if he’d been born in the right generation.

And even though I hadn’t seen his once-familiar name in print for years, nobody had to remind me who Jim was.

He was one of the Herald’s most prolific letter-writers, a man whose somewhat right-wing musings filled more column centimetres (or should I say inches?) over the decades than many of the paper’s own journalists.

There was a time when you couldn’t go a week, reading your Herald daily, without encountering Jim’s name beneath one of his firmly expressed opinions.

The way he started on his letter-writing career in 1976 is an interesting story.

He was a self-employed plumber, living and working at Wallsend, when he was allegedly approached by a union representative on a recruiting drive.

Actually, it was his wife, Barbara, who wrote the first letter from which all the others followed.

She bitterly criticised the union for allegedly making threats to force Jim to join. The letter was turned into an article, with Jim declaring that he was in favour of trade unions but vehemently opposed to bullying.

Other people contacted Jim with similar complaints and he became, for a time, a rallying point for those who believed some trade unions had grown too big for their boots.

It didn’t take long for him to branch out into other ideas and soon his regular letters showcased his evolving opinions on a variety of topics including Fabian socialism, nuclear energy, global banking, fluoridation of water and the alleged degeneration of his beloved Catholic Church.

His views attracted numerous opponents – particularly from the left – and stern debates raged across weeks in the letters column.

Jim’s voice, which spoke out chiefly in favour of individual freedom and decried unwarranted intrusions from all directions, faded away as Jim aged, and his daughter, Anne Curtis, told me this week that he had been unable to write at all for a few years before his death a couple of months ago.

Anne told me she was truly surprised when she read her father’s scrapbooks of published letters (not to mention the unpublished manuscript he left behind) and realised the breadth of his interests.

In those pre-internet days people generally thought carefully before they committed themselves to public comment on issues, and criticism of other correspondents tended to be veiled and cautious.

To be fair, many of today’s online correspondents preserve the best of this tradition, steadfastly refusing to be drawn into personal sparring.

I’m not sure how they do it, but some manage to turn the other cheek in the face of snide or even savage ad hominem attacks and keep their online comments on message, measured and calm.

They step around the traps laid by trolls, glide past the ranting packs of sock puppets, bypass the compulsive provocateurs, serenely ignore rambling diatribes and simply make their points, firmly but politely.

Do their points of view change anybody else’s minds, any more than Jim Shanks ever did with his tireless pointed missives?

They obviously must hope so.

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