Speech by Jeremy Gordin at the Memorial to Andrew Walker, Johannesburg Country Club, 29 November 2016
Good afternoon everyone.
I’m afraid I’m going to annoy the presence or spirit of Andrew Walker by having written another long piece, which is going to take more than a few minutes to deliver – but I hope that in this case Andrew and all of you will forgive me. I hope at least that I’ll offer you more content than the ANC’s much-vaunted weekend meeting did.
My name is Jeremy Gordin and I used to be (and sometimes still am) a journalist. More to the point, I was a colleague of Andrew Walker’s, I worked for him when he was deputy editor of the Sunday Independent, and I became his friend, and a friend of Andrew and his partner Joy Immelman together.
About Joy, let me say right away, that she was one of the best things, if not the best thing, that ever happened to Andrew – though she is obviously far from being a thing –
She has been truly remarkable and caring throughout the time that Andrew fought against cancer and against the afflictions that came before the cancer was “found”.
Setting about writing these “notes” (for want of a better word), it occurred to me that many of you here today must be working journalists. And then, thinking about Andrew and journalism, I remembered that I have been fired more times from more newspapers and by more newspaper managements and managers – more times than most of you have changed your socks during the last eight weeks.
(In fact, Andrew and I used to be amused that my [open quotation marks] “career” [close quotation marks] had operated in an inverse manner relative to that of, for example, Peter Sullivan. There were managers and managements at Argus/Independent Newspapers that really wanted to fire Sullivan. But they could just never get it right.... Whereas, in my case, numerous managements and managers at numerous newspaper companies always got it right – sometimes more than once!)
Now, the reason I am sharing my tragic history with you is not only because, as I say, it was one of the many things that Andrew and I used to laugh about – but because I wanted to make the point that I am (what is generally known as) an old hack.
And the point about old hacks is that we have been around the block not just a time or two, but many times. ... We have seen many things, many of which have been horrible (but some of which have not). We have written about many things. We have lived the journalist’s vicarious life to the full, if only because we have been at it for a long time.
But, above all, we are generally not romantics. We are generally not sentimental. We are, as they say, hard-bitten. ...
I don’t want to get too clichéd about this. One of Andrew’s favourite little sayings – inevitably tongue-in-cheek – was: “Avoid clichés like the plague.”
But the proverbial bottom line is that we are supposed to be tough and cynical – and in many ways we probably are.
But here is my real point (“at last, at last!” Andrew would have said):
What I wanted to say here today, what I wanted to say above all, is that, despite being an old hack, I was – and I am – deeply, deeply distressed by the death of Andrew Walker.
Now I am well aware that – if you can measure these things – my distress and sadness might be “minor” compared to that of Andrew’s family and to that of Joy and perhaps to that of some other people.
But when Andrew died last Tuesday night, when Joy told me he had died, there was immediately an enormous absence in my life, a huge hole, a void.
We were not bosom buddies. We didn’t see each other every day or even every week, or anything like that. We both had other things to be getting on with, as they say.
But we were friends and I miss Andrew more than words can say...
Let me at this point tell you another anecdote that was one of the many with which Andrew and I entertained each another.
One of the larger-than-life characters that crossed our paths was the late Deon du Plessis. (He was one of those who wanted to fire Peter Sullivan, but didn’t succeed.) And he was certainly larger than life: he was way over six feet tall and in his heyday must have weighed about 150 kilograms, if not more. Sometime in the late 1990s, in the badlands of Braamfontein, he was stopped at a red light when a couple of fellows smashed the window of his car with spark plugs and grabbed his car phone. (Actually, now that I think about it, they were probably Wits doctoral students...)
Anyway, Deon was big and tough and always had a circle of acolytes around him ... and the next day they all asked him excitedly: “Well, what did you do? What did you do, Deon?”
He peered at them scornfully (in that special way that Deon had) and he replied slowly: “What do you think I did? ... I screamed like a girl ...”
When Andrew died last Tuesday evening, I did not scream like a girl.
But the next day I did weep like a bereft child ... or, actually, a bereft adult ... and I am not at all embarrassed to say so.
One of the things you would have heard Andrew Walker saying to me in the days when I worked for him at the Sunday Independent, was: “Oh, for heaven’s sake, keep it short, Jeremy, keep it short. Cut that by 400 words.”
Well, I can hear Andrew’s voice now – and I am mindful, as I said at the start, that I should not ramble on for too long. But let me say just a few more things.
We had a lot to do with each other when Andrew became deputy editor of the Sunday Independent. I was shunted sideways to something called the Independent News Network, to do the job Andrew had been doing.
And we became good colleagues and friends. Now, obviously we did have some things in common. We were both graduates of Journalism’s University of Hard Knocks. Andrew had had a news editor – I assume at the Bulawayo Chronicle – who would summon a lowly, quivering reporter from the end of a long narrow newsroom to his glass cubicle. Then, with everyone looking on, he would say something like: “Walker, what is this crap you have written?” And then this news editor would tear it up and send Walker (or whomever) to try again.
And I had had an editor on the Financial Mail – Stephen Mulholland – who once threw a chair at me. Luckily for me, it missed. (For the record, by the way, Mulholland’s anger was fully justified: I had messed up a cover story on deadline.)
“Such, such were the joys ...” of our youth as journalists – as George Orwell, quoting William Blake, might have said.
But Andrew and I did come from very different backgrounds, even as journalists. Andrew was a hardscrabble newsman with a sharply focused grasp of hard news – nothing fancy or pretentious. One of Andrew’s favourite sayings was copied from Lord Northcliffe: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.” I, on the other hand, was what the previously-mentioned Deon du Plessis would have called “a fat-bottomed liberal”.
Yet, as I say, we became close colleagues and friends and Andrew taught me a lot. In 2007 or thereabouts I was supposed to be writing a biography of Jacob Zuma. Like all good hacks, I was about two years behind my deadline and the publishing director of Jonathan Ball was getting mighty upset. It was Andrew who helped out; he helped me find as much time off work as possible, so that I could write the damn book, and he also really assisted me in keeping clear of PR gunge, bias, and partisanship.
In fact – and we hacks don’t usually like to use these words because they are “sentimental” – Andrew was very kind to and patient with me.
In short, he was a great newsman and a great friend.
I spoke earlier about Joy. And, as I said (maybe 30 minutes’ ago?), I do believe she was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Andrew, as you will all know, had a wonderful curmudgeonly and dark humour. He was really one of the funniest men around.
But I have to say, if I may, that in the pre-Joy days, Andrew’s expostulations would often come very, very close to what the politically correct would call inappropriate. What can I say? “Humour is what makes somebody somewhere uncomfortable.” And all the rest is ... what? ... bad humour, I guess.
But then along came Joy – and, although one of the most charming things about them together, was the way he would make her laugh – he did, whether he would have admitted it or not, he did clean up his act. And they were wonderful together. And I am so glad – for both of them – that they had these last15 years together.
But, even during his illness, even during his darkest days, Andrew never lost his sense of humour. When I saw Andrew about two weeks ago, when he was still able to talk, he told me about his final visit to an oncology ward at a local hospital.
Andrew told me: “We were all sitting there and some guy walked in and asked” – and here Andrew imitated a rather falsely-jolly tone – “’and how are we all today?’” Andrew said to me: “I just looked at him and said, ‘how do you think we are? Now – fuck off.’”
That was vintage Andrew. And it reminded me of what Ernest Hemingway wrote about the painter Jules Pascin. “”They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.”
Goodbye and go well, Andrew.