In memoriam: Patrick Laurence (1937-2011)

Jeremy Gordin on ‘Laurence of Azania': a gentle, precise journalist of complete integrity

Every now and then, during the last three or four years, my mobile phone would ring - usually at a bad moment, such as when I was reverse parking or fighting with my wife - and a voice would say, in rather loud tones and an almost plummy accent: "Jeremy, this is Patrick, do you have a moment?"

And then Patrick Laurence, who died on Thursday as a result of a brain tumour, would check some amazingly unimportant fact with me - such as whether Jacob Zuma had been born on the 10th or the 12th of April. And inevitably, Patrick had it right but just wanted to make certain.

I have chosen my anecdote with care. One of the most remarkable things about Patrick was that he would sooner have cut off his finger than get his facts wrong. It's not something of which you could accuse most younger (and, for that matter, older) journalists these days.

Not only was Patrick scrupulous about facts and clarity; he was also utterly unyielding on the issue of journalists being as unbiased and balanced as possible.

He was so adamant about this that one of my colleagues at Independent newspapers - who had also been an ANC underground activist - said to me once: "Heavens, one of these fine days, Patrick is actually going to have an intro on a story that says, ‘On the one hand, X, but on the other hand, Y'."

My ANC colleague, who had dubbed Patrick "Laurence of Azania," because of his interest in the PAC (as well as the ANC), had a point. Patrick could sometimes be his own worst enemy in terms of putting together a "sexy" story - because would accept only balance, fairness and accuracy.

In fact, you could say of Patrick that he absolutely insisted on facts and balance spoiling a good story. It's also not something of which you could accuse most younger (or, for that matter, older) journalists these days.

And it must have been, I was thinking today, quite difficult for Patrick, quite a discipline, because he was naturally pedagogic. He began his working life not as a journalist but as a teacher at St Stithians College and Jeppe Boys' High. I once met someone, who'd been a pupil of Patrick's at St Stithians. He said Patrick was the strictest of history masters.

Patrick was also one of the strictest PT or sports teachers he'd ever encountered. Those who live in Parkview or hereabouts will remember having seen Patrick out running until a couple of years ago, with his Voortrekker beard fluttering in the wind - someone said he looked like "Father Christmas on the road" - and those who've known him for a couple of decade will know about the dogged passion he brought to running the Comrades marathon year in and year out.

Fewer people, however, might know that in his youth and early adult years Patrick was a Springbok middle-distance runner, a Transvaal cyclist and tennis player - all in all a first-rate athlete.

In the late 1970s, I used to run the Munro Drive hill down to Houghton from Yeoville and back, but always in the early morning. Once I ran that route in the late afternoon and encountered Patrick coming up the hill.

"Why are you running in the early mornings?" he demanded to know. "Don't be a wimp. The time for running is late afternoon when the body's warmed up and you can really get some serious training in." 

I met Patrick about 34 years ago, in 1976 or '77, when I was a cadet journalist on the Rand Daily Mail and he was the newspaper's fire-breathing political correspondent. Besides trying to beat my sidekick Paddi Clay on scoring page one stories, I was also trying to woo a very beautiful journalist named Anne Baron. Unfortunately for me, Patrick and his then partner, Vita Palestrant, were sort of in locis parentis as far as Anne was concerned.

And Patrick, it appeared, did not much care for this particular whippersnapper. We had dinner one night at an Italian restaurant favoured by RDM hacks near the Drill Hall and of course we all drank too much - as we all used to do in those days. And Patrick, who could be pretty fierce when sober, was particularly fierce when not-so-sober.

Ah well, the next time I had dinner with Patrick was some six or seven years later, I had a different partner, he was married to Sandra, his daughter Sarah (now Sarah Magni) had just been born, and his second daughter Emma was still but a gleam in his eye.

Incidentally, Patrick had been pretty busy well before I met him. I found this a little earlier today: dated 14 May, 1973, it reads:

"Patrick Laurence, journalist of the Star, was charged with contravening the Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 by publishing a statement made by Robert Sobukwe, the former president of the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). He received an eighteen-month suspended sentence. He had, as a freelance contributor to the London Sunday paper, The Observer, interviewed the banned and restricted PAC leader. He posted his report surreptitiously to a colleague in The Star's London office, who passed it on to The Observer. The Security police intercepted it, and that provided grounds for the prosecution."

 James Myburgh, Politicsweb editor, has also unearthed a wonderful piece written by Ken Owen in March 1991 when Patrick was again arrested, this time for refusing to reveal a source:

"... Personally I suspect that Laurence's career has suffered - in an age when a gift for deceptive packaging is the most highly valued of all commercial skills - from his excessive insistence on precision, balance and truthfulness. ...He also tends to say what others dare not. ... He has, as I say, too much integrity."

Patrick was also regular writer for the London Observer and the Economist magazine, he was also a long-term contributor to The Irish Times, and he was the Guardian correspondent in the late ‘70s - which made him, as far as I was concerned then, close to a god. He also edited Focus magazine for a period.

Anyway, I went to the United States in the late 1980s, and sometime in the 1990s Patrick went to New Zealand to try out starting a new life. It didn't work out, among other reasons because he was stricken with a terrible eye affliction - and he returned to SA. Hence, when, in about 2004 or so, he began writing a column for The Sunday Independent, where I worked, we met again. By then he was having pretty serious trouble with his eyes and his hearing; I was happy to be his occasional fact checker.

Now that I think about it, Patrick also lent me some Karl Popper books. Another thing then: Patrick also read books, many of them, with great attention. Now, that's not something of which you could accuse most younger (and, for that matter, older) journalists these days.

Anton Harber emailed me yesterday: "Yeah, I heard. Sad moment. Death of a gentle journo." Harber had it right.  

Patrick Laurence 1937 - 2011

Source: The Star

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