Remembering Jeremy Gordin

Erica Emdon on the life of the journalist, father, husband, and white bull terrier lover

With deference to Jeremy (endnotes included)[i]

It’s 1994. I’m up early with a newborn. It is around July. It’s fresh and crisp outdoors, and the world seems bright and hopeful, with the new democratic government installed and Mandela our guardian father, leading the country.

I walk out of my Parkview home, along the pavement, past the church, towards the corner. Coming towards me is a shortish man, dark-haired and bearded, with a stroller similar to mine, and a white dog alongside. The kind I don’t like. White bull terrier.

I haven’t seen this man in years. I’d come across his name a year earlier when a picture of him appeared in the Sunday Times lying naked, Buddha-like[ii], with a Playboy magazine screening the reader from his crown jewels.[iii] Jeremy Gordin! I recognise him. What is he doing in Parkview at this ungodly hour with a baby in tow?

I hadn’t seen him in the flesh since I had a part-time student job at the Financial Mail in 1974. He was an assistant editor by then, I’m sure, and we’d bump into each other on occasion in the SAAN building’s corridors, remembering our earlier times together as teenagers, usually stoned, in the garden of my parent’s house.

Now, in 1994, he is back in South Africa after being away for a while, has a child, a wife and a dog called Billy. He’d walk most days early in the morning, and often we’d do a round or two in the park together with our two democracy babies.

In 2007, when these two children were in their final year of the primary school both attended, Jeremy was invited to give the speech at the end of year prize-giving.

Instead of talking about how wonderful it was for young children to excel, and how marvelous those receiving prizes were, he spoke about his own experience of never having received a prize at school.

He addressed all the children in the room who did not receive prizes that year, and who may never have received prizes or never would. It was not that he was disparaging towards those that had won prizes, but it was more that he had a fierce understanding and empathy for the underdog.

He explained to the children in the room how he survived never being given any award at school and mentioned, just in passing, a little flippantly, that in his 50s, for the first time he’d gathered a couple of small awards. He was not one to boast and had a self-depreciating manner that was sweet and endearing.[iv]

It was in fact in that year, maybe shortly after the King David Primary School prize-giving, that he won the Mondi Shanduka South African Journalist of the Year Award. He had also won Mondi Shanduka awards in 2003 and 2004.

He didn’t mention that he’d won a poetry award in his thirties and a second one in 1992. But the point was made. School prizegiving can suck for some, and do they really have a place in a civilized world, and are they really that important in the bigger picture?

His compassion was apparent in his writing. When he wrote about the two crime incidents, he experienced in November last year he noted that all the “uncooked pasta, marmite, peanut butter and honey, as well as selected items from the fridge, such as a nice juicy (but uncooked) fillet, eggs and milk” were taken.

He added, “Why were these guys stealing mainly food? Because they and theirs are pretty damn hungry – and we know why they are”.

After describing the two break-ins, he added that he probably had to erect an electric fence now, but he is aware that there are “millions more folk who probably can’t even begin to afford an electric fence”.

Perhaps most sadly are the words he adds at the end, presciently[v] :

“Worst of all, though, is that these kinds of situations are the sorts of ones that do push generally decent humans into eventually not giving a damn about the “idea” of taking another’s life over the theft of food or some clothing. And I resent that bitterly”.

I always remember Jeremy’s humour. Like this paragraph in his column entitled “The things that make us happy.” He is writing about coincidences. “You’re looking for certain information, typically in a library, and whoopsidoodle, how’s your poodle, you suddenly find it! It becomes accessible through serendipity, chance or coincidence, rather than through the use of a catalogue search”.

Who uses the word “whoopsidoodle” so easily and gets away with it?

So many other things about Jeremy were things to love. He regularly talked about his children and gorgeous wife in his columns, poking fun of them, but always so endearing.

Like in that same article, “The things that make us happy”, he mentioned that Oslo is one of the happiest cities in the world[vi] and that Jake, his son, the democracy baby mentioned above, lives there.

And he says, “My son Jake, an intelligent, reasonable, pleasant human being (the endnote add that he mostly takes after his gorgeous mother!), would tell you – he tells me, often in overwhelming detail – why Oslo is clearly not one of the happiest places in the world; why Oslo ought in fact to be languishing down at the bottom of the list and South Africa ought not to be.”[vii]

Jeremy was a scholar of classical studies. He knew and referenced in his articles Greek and Roman history, other ancient literature, the words of the ‘great’ classical poets, and of literary and political historians.[viii]

In his recent article on the De Ruyter interview, for example, he quotes words from Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852): “The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living” referring to Alex Mashilo’s attack on De Ruyter.

His piece “King Mob’s return” (subheading: Jeremy Gordin writes on the parallels between the riotous London of 1780 and SA of today) is a typical Jeremy column, wandering in different directions, full of references, lots of humour and quite a journey.

He starts off by drawing on a book his father gave him to read when he was 14, entitled King Mob: the story of Lord George Gordon and the Riots of 1780 by Christopher Hibbert (1958), to explain why he, a Jew, had a very Scottish surname – Gordin.

His father thought that Russian Jews were so impressed by the fact that Gordon while in prison in 1787, converted to very orthodox Judaism, including being circumcised, that they chose to take his name as a surname.[ix]

The same Gordon was associated with certain anti-Catholic riots that took place in 1780, Jeremy continues. He then tells us that Gordon appeared in Charles Dickens’s Barnaby Rudge (1841), a book he says was one of Dickens’s unsuccesses. So that was all an aside, because what Jeremy takes forward in the piece, is a winding narrative about the riots that Gordon seemed to have led, towards a discussion on whether it is possible to compare what happened in those riots in 18th century London to 2023 South Africa.

And along the way he reflects on the fact that in the Hibbert book, people threw human faeces as a form of protest, mentioning the Rhodes must Fall protests, and then in passing he quotes Adam Small.

It doesn’t end there. He tells us about the Papists Act of 1778, aimed at preventing discrimination against Catholics, which was in fact a piece of legislation designed to enable the state to recruit Catholics to fight in the American War of Independence. He then says:

“Let’s stop right there. What government do you know of that passes, or tries to pass, legislation allegedly aimed at sorting out X when in fact it’s aimed at achieving Y? (Readers can answer below in the comments section.)”

And so the article continues in typical Jeremy Gordin style, meandering through a long forgotten historical tale to reflect on something in “Seffrica”: the 2021 “Zuma Riots”. He finally gets to the point in the last two paragraphs by saying that firstly, South Africa is not as “squeaky clean and beneficent a place as some among us (who stand up in parliament) would claim” and: we see how easily and quickly King Mob can rule a city or a country, and that while the Brits lived through it 200 years ago and apparently learnt some lessons, we’re just starting to get acquainted with this scurvy king”.

It's a typical Jeremy story, which in the retelling to you, demonstrates the crazy intellect he had, so witty and clever. Reading his columns always felt a bit like taking a small trip on a roller coaster.

Jeremy I will miss your weekly columns. But more, I will miss that I didn’t have a chance to send you my poems to read, because we’d always agreed you’d be my mentor and tell me how to write a decent poem. But we didn’t get there.

And I’m sad for Deborah, your “gorgeous wife” who featured ever so often in your writing. And your beautiful children Jake and Nina, robbed at such a young age of a marvellous, witty, kind and wonderful man.


[i] Most of Jeremy’s endnotes were peppered with literary and historical references and quotes. I have no way of even beginning to match his intelligence, breadth of knowledge or wisdom. All I can do is say, dear Jeremy, I loved the endnotes, even though I would have preferred footnotes as it was very tiresome to repeatedly scroll down to the end of the article.

[ii] The figure of the reclining Buddha is iconic, appearing in many guise throughout history.

[iii] It is first found in the USA in the 1970s, which not as early as one might imagine. Its definition was recorded in 1970 in the linguistic quarterly magazine American Speech: ‘Crown jewels, male genitals’. The phrase derives from an earlier expression, also American, that is, 'the family jewels', which has just the same meaning. This was put into print in about half a century earlier by H. N. Cary in Sexual Vocabulary, 1920: ‘Family jewels, the penis and testes’.

[iv] Many people might find the description of him as ‘sweet and endearing’ a little inaccurate, since in his work environment he had a slightly different reputation – more like short-tempered, easily angered, grumpy – but always compassionate and kind.

[v] The word ‘prescient” comes from Middle English and was first used in the 14th century, from late Latin praescientia, from Latin praescient -, praesciens, present participle of praescire to know beforehand, from prae- + scire to know beforehand. It is the ability to seemingly able to correctly predict events before they take place.

[vi] He quotes Andrew Donaldson’s article on the World Happiness Report of 2023 which puts Oslo in Norway at the top of the list.

[vii] The same article by Andrew Donaldson mentions that out of 146 countries South Africa is in 101st place.

[viii] He also alludes to artists, see his columns “The Secret Message of the Black Square (Malevich) and makes frequent biblical references, see Three score and ten, and Cyril.

[ix] A second explanation is given in an endnote. Something about Patrick of Auchleuchries (1635-99) a mercenary who became a Russian general who disliked the Russian armed forces!