Remembering Peter Wilhelm

Jeremy Gordin writes on the passing of a great journalist and friend

My dear friend Peter Wilhelm – short-story writer, novelist, poet, journalist, satirist, mentor to many, and best man at my wedding – died on Sunday night, 17th October, aged 78 (or maybe 77).

Importantly, at least for readers of this site, Peter was a first-rate political journalist. Besides being an insightful analyst, he was a consummate wordsmith. And, as some readers will remember, he was a wonderfully funny albeit eccentric political satirist, as in his Financial Mail (FM) columns of the 1990s, “The State We’re In”.

As Michael Fridjhon, who knew him from the FM days, wrote to me on Monday: “He was a very smart and thoughtful man – what an intellectual ought to be.”

Peter and I first met in about 1980 when I was 28 and he would have been 37. I’d just moved from being a reporter at the Sunday Express to join the FM’s production department.

Peter was then editor of the FM’s Current Affairs (read: politics) section and of Time Out, the books, movies, etc. section at the “back of the book”. He was married to Cherry Clayton, a poet and English lecturer at RAU, and they had a son, David [i] . They lived in Parktown North [ii] and among my many happy memories is floating drunkenly, as one did, in their swimming pool.

It strikes me today, some 40 years later, how little I knew in the 1980s (and even later) about Peter’s earlier life.  It’s only just now, going through the internet and the biographical notes on his books, that I’ve learnt that Peter was born in Cape Town in 1943, spent his early years on a mission station in what used to be called the Transkei, most of his later life in Johannesburg, trained as a teacher (English and Science), wrote a play, Frame Work, in 1977, and at some stage “drifted” into journalism.

I did know Peter had previously worked on the ill-fated Newscheck magazine, and someone who worked alongside him in those days wrote to me yesterday: “Knew him when he was an unabashed alcoholic living in a dingy room (not apartment) in Braamfontein. Bed, empty bottles, and only books in the room. No furniture. Great writer. Never talked down to me. Always appreciated that ....”

This, then, is as good (or bad) a moment as any to talk about the proverbial elephant in the room – and also to reflect that it’s surprising in a way that Peter lived as long as he did.

As the cliché-writers would have it, though it seems obscene to use clichés in an article about Peter, he battled all his life with the demon alcohol (and doubtless with other kinds of demons too) – though always privately. During the FM days, for example, he was never to be found at the Federal Hotel or the notorious “Pram Shop” [iii], where most of the rest of us were, as John Berryman wrote, “downing a many few”.

For long stretches of our friendship, Peter was on the medication that makes you sick as a dog if you drink alcohol, and one never knew if Peter was so-called “clean and sober” – or not. And though he might have been “unabashed” in his younger days, it was clear later, or so it seemed to me, that his “alcohol abuse” (as it’s now depressingly and inaccurately called) was far from being much fun for him; and, presumably, for those who lived with him.

Which is why it’s so inappropriate to use phrases like “battling with the demon alcohol” – for such battles are, for the battler, surely bitter, seemingly endless, not at all romantic, and intensely lonely. Such victories as he or she chalks up from time to time are surely, to use Leonard Cohen’s words, not “some kind of victory march,” but rather “a cold and broken hallelujah”. As John Donne wrote in his Biathanatos, “Thou knowest this man’s fall, but thou knowest not his wrestling.”

But it wasn’t something Peter wanted to discuss. Nor was it a one-dimensional matter. Bearing in mind that Peter was generally one of the world’s tersest human beings, a favourite memory of mine was an evening at someone’s Yeoville flat – when someone (probably me) remarked that Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song was insufferably long and unforgivably self-indulgent.

Peter thereupon delivered a rivetting 20-minute (and I mean 20 minutes), word-perfect dissertation, summarising, explaining, and extolling the book. Did “the sauce” lubricate the delivery of Peter’s tour de force? It didn’t matter. [iv]

At the FM, Peter was the still centre of a maelstrom. He patiently interrogated and re-worked countless articles brought to him by the Current Affairs staff – never, as best I know, causing offence. Au contraire – ask anyone who ever worked with him.

The most important part of the FM (in my day, anyway) was the cover and the accompanying leader article, as well as the other leaders; these started “the book”. Sometimes they were written by section heads, sometimes by two section heads working together. By the time I’m thinking of, I’d graduated (if that’s the word I want) to being business editor, and Peter and I had to write a leader together.

I don’t recall the topic, but I remember sitting down next to Peter, and he wrote his (political) part of it, which turned out to be most of it, directly onto the Atex screen – straight from his head, word perfect, cogent, informative, underpinned by fact, and without having to look anything up. It was beautifully written too. It would have taken me six hours, and then some. He was a truly remarkable professional and carried in his head a truly remarkable brain.

In 1981, he used a windfall of some kind to publish a slim poetry book, Heresy Poets (“Hearsay Poets”) – half by me, half by Reg Rumney, partner of Peter’s sister Janet. Peter did this because – well, because he liked our poetry. It was my first poetry publication (of more than one or two poems) – and meant more to me than I can begin to say.

I’ve never forgotten the last lines of Peter’s introduction: “And there is, it seems to me, a deliberate avoidance of the bogus and metaphysical. This is the real poetry of one of our neighbourhoods, an ‘operational area’ of the psyche.” I cherished those words in 1981; and I do now.

I left SA in 1988, returned from the US in 1993, and bought a house in Parkview where, as it happened, Peter was living with his second wife, Pat. Oh yes, I also got married, Peter was my best man, and the four of us, Peter, Pat, Deborah, and I spent many happy times in Parkview.

In the late-90s, Peter and Pat moved to Cape Town where, if I have this right, he edited Leadership magazine, continued writing for the FM what were probably among the best movie and book reviews with which local journalism has ever been graced; and also, his well-known wacky columns, “The State We’re In,” which, in a maverick move, ran for a long time at the front of the FM, thanks to Peter Bruce, then the editor.

Peter won the Mofolo-Plomer Prize, the Pringle Prize (for literary reviews), the Sanlam Award for Fiction, and the Science Fiction of SA prize. By my count, he authored 15 books – short stories, poetry, literary criticism, science fiction, a collection of his columns, and a children’s book.

Alas, they are difficult to find these days, and none seems to be available on Amazon, except his last, The Way of the World Works [sic], with illustrations by Anna Liebenberg, self-published on Amazon with the help of our mutual friend, Roy Isacowitz.

In my estimation, a number of Peter’s short stories – those in the collections LM and Other Stories (1975), At the End of a War (1981), and Some Place in Africa (1987) [v] – represent some of the very finest writing to come out of SA in the seventies and eighties.

My favourite remains “Jazz,” a small but giant masterpiece from At the End of a War. “The difference between youth and all that comes afterwards is a simple one, a stage or an event that puts matters into perspective. Real people really die. Real people have real limits. ...Jazz is something I have on my record player.”

Had Peter’s work been published at a later period – when the world’s literary arbiters (almost) stopped looking at local writing through monochromatic spectacles – I believe Peter might have been given some of the acclaim he rightly ought to have enjoyed.

A while ago, I found a poem that I wrote in 2000 for Peter. It’s a bit clumsy; it could certainly have done with a bit of work from Peter. But I’m going to be self-indulgent. Here it is [vi].

The Homeboys: A Small Dream

For Peter Wilhelm

The group of journalists gathered in a half circle

In the newsroom, in the greyish light

Of a cold, overcast afternoon,

                                                suddenly all looked

At you and me, seeming to believe

That in this building only we two codgers

Owned the fingers capable of doing the job.

                                                A good

feeling but an intimation of mortality too.

I wouldn’t have been surprised

To see through the grubby windows those harbingers

Of death, Larkin’s doctor and priest, sprinting

Across Queen Elizabeth bridge in their long coats.

But don’t worry, old friend, I said.

                                                This is the new South Africa.

If the taxi drivers don’t get them in Bree Street,

The homeboys surely will – long, long before

They ever make it to this building.


[i] As best I know, Cherry and David emigrated to Canada in about 1991.

[ii] The house was close to what is today known as the Parktown Quarter and was either demolished (and turned into a scruffy parking area/bus terminus) or is now a dental practice; I’m not certain.

[iii] A Mooi Street shebeen run by “the works guys” at SA Associated Newspapers.

[iv] “Was he [Dylan Thomas] an alcoholic? I have never been quite sure that I understand the meaning of that fashionable word. Dylan himself once defined an alcoholic as ‘a man you don’t like who drinks as much as you do’.” The Life of Dylan Thomas, Constantine Fitzgibbon, JM Dent & Sons, London, 1965.

[v] Some of the stories were re-collected in The Bayonet Field (2000).

[vi] The building referred to is at 171 Main Street, where the FM used to be situated on the 4th floor. “Larkin’s doctor and priest ... in long coats” comes from Philip Larkin’s poem “Days” – Larkin was a favourite of Peter’s.