My life in newspapers — what a long, strange trip it’s been




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Comment & Analysis

Today, God willing, inshallah and ceteris paribus, I’ll still be celebrating turning 64, an age we all dread because it’s a reminder of everyone’s best least-favourite Beatles song, When I’m 64. John Lennon is said to have griped that he couldn’t understand why someone would write a song like that, though his name appears in the credits with Paul McCartney, who’s the sole culprit. It’s an awful milestone. McCartney apparently made up the tune at age 15 and later added the lyrics to mark his dear dad’s 64th birthday. Lennon by contrast hated his father and went out of his way to humiliate the poor wretch, who could hardly have been blamed for not knowing his son would one day be top of the pops. Of my 64 years, 43 have been spent as a journalist. Long ago, during an eight-month expedition into enemy territory away from newspapers, I successfully proved my inability to do anything else. The thought of one day having nothing to do with a newspaper (and what if I outlive the age of print?) fills me with dread. A journalist might say ink is in my veins, a good line, but they’d be wrong. I can’t trace any reporter genes to distant ancestors, gratefully dead after life-ending careers as blacksmiths or bog-cutters. My phrasing I got from my mother, an Irish nurse with a caustic bent, and my morbid fascination with news and newspapers I got from my father, a returned prisoner-of-war for whom taking the news was a secular sacrament. So too was listening to the news on the wireless, as if new and improved iterations of the Ten Commandments were coming down from the Mount every hour on the hour. We’re talking of a time when radio reports from distant places were a muffled crackle, history in the hiss. The imperious beep sounding another bulletin. Silence! Growing up on “Transvaal Sundays”, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express were the high-point of weekend entertainment, and you’d pore over them as if trying to decipher the Dead Sea Scrolls, such was the fascination with the words and pictures presented. And there was no let-off from print during the week either. I’d have to go to the corner cafe to wait for the late final of The Star, and you wouldn’t dare try to leave with a city late. If you brought home a stop press you might end up in the classifieds. I’ve tried to escape newspapering, so it’s not as if I’m unaware of the pitfalls of being more observer than participant as the years have piled up, now faded and dog-eared in a dank corner. Once, I got on a plane and went to live in Brazil, on a whim, to free myself from newspapering. Or so I thought. It was long ago and I was (marginally) more naive than I am now and it hadn’t occurred to me during my nonexistent planning for this venture that few people in Rio de Janeiro spoke English. In my first week there, I looked up the only Englishlanguage newspaper published in the city, an expat-tailored rag called The Latin America Daily Post, more in the hope of meeting low-paid journalists who could give me the lowdown on living cheaply somewhere, like them. Something like that. I found its offices in a rundown colonial-style building in a decaying inner-city suburb in the shadow of the old Maracana Stadium. After a while a bald Brazilian in a cardigan came to the door to see me. It was the editor of this august organ, whose grand title promised much but whose pages added little even if they did run to 16. He quizzed me for a while on the pavement. Can you sub-edit? he asked. Yes, I replied, which was untrue because I had never tried it before. No sooner had I lied, however, when he asked, Can you start now? And I did, accompanying him up the stairs to an office as gloomy as the old “men’s bar” of the Elizabeth Hotel, to assume instant responsibility for the sports page. So much for escaping newspapers. And in keeping with a rock ’n roll theme, in the inimitable words of the late Jerry Garcia, an expert on these matters, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” At 64 you remember a lot, but it gets harder to locate the memories in the right eras of your life. Epoch jumble. For example, I saw a headline mentioning that Johannesburg’s “weekend mayor” Kenny Kunene was spending his time as mayor “cleaning up the inner city”, which is in a terrible state apparently. Yes, of course, cleaning up the inner city and rescuing the hijacked buildings. News, yes, but we’ve covered this before: in the 1980s, the 1990s, the 2000s, the 2010s, the 2020s ... Good luck with this year’s instalment of a hardy annual, Your Worship, all too briefly in chains. Ibo! Can he succeed where all others have failed?