When Derek Wilson was made, they threw away the mould
EVEN a moderately truthful account of the life and work of veteran Cape Argus arts editor Derek Wilson – who died this week – ought to come, if not with a health warning, certainly an age restriction.
He was memorably impenitent, but there was always a risk of misperceiving his truer character; his incorrigibility was not mean-spirited, but lovable; he was zestful and impish, not depraved.
A minute into interviewing him on his retirement a decade ago, my eye was arrested by a postcard stuck on the wall beside his desk.
Wilson flung his head back with a delighted blast of laughter. “I must take after my father!” he spluttered, thoroughly pleased at his ruddy lineage, though regretting he’d never got to share this particular sacrilege with his navy officer dad while he was still alive.
The postcard was, at first glance, deceivingly benign, given the unmistakably luminous outline of Christ, replete with lambent halo, and the legend “Jesus loves you”.
But it was the small print along the bottom that was hysterically unhinging.
“Everyone else,” it read, “thinks you’re a c***.”
There were no taboos in the Tonight office.
Not in Derek’s corner, anyway, where a notice board packed with ticklish perversities was dominated by the bald, if heartfelt, appeal of the bumper sticker: “God Protect Me From Your Followers.”
The thing is, not unlike the Jesus postcard, a first-glance impression of Derek Wilson was deceiving, too.
Doubtless, only a very brief first- glance impression was available to the platoons of hapless Sallys and Samanthas deployed by public relations consultancies to endear Wilson into diarising the next “must-go” glamour event and who, one imagined, came away spiritually wounded for their trouble.
He didn’t suffer fools, never mind gladly.
But it was, by Derek’s standards, the somewhat quieter cartoon on his notice board – of a subversive employee summoned to his boss’s office for a dose, presumably, of corporate correction – that best expressed the essential sincerity of Wilson’s trusting his colleagues enough to be just exactly who he was.
The man in that cartoon stands before the manager’s desk wearing an expression of sublime indifference and, around his neck, what surely counts as a loud tie, the two words printed on it, in capitals, beginning at the top with F and ending six letters later near his navel with U.
“The word in the office,” his superior is saying with valiant formality, “is that you have an attitude problem.”
Puh-leeze, I imagined Wilson retorting.
He had absolutely no difficulty expressing himself just exactly as he deemed the circumstances to warrant – and they seldom, if ever, warranted circumspection or anything like effacing timidity.
No one else I knew could say kak with the same withering conviction.
“Derek Wilson” was code for “unexpurgated”. He came in one version only, and it was the Full Monty. He subscribed to the John Cleese school of setting the moral ambit: nothing was sacred.
Yet the man who died this week was an immensely thoughtful and compassionate human being, a writer of great wit and insight, a selfmade journalist of wide experience, a fiercely discerning critic unmoved by fad or f avour, and a much-loved and Derek rewarding colleague.
The journalist in him had a long gestation. The earliest record, courtesy of the Grey Junior School magazine of 1952, shows a reportorial Wilson of Standard 1b at his crispest:
“One day I went to the zoo. I saw an elephant, a hippo, a lion, a tiger, a wolf, a fox, a wildcat, and many more animals. Then we went to a shop. We had tea and scones. We went home by car.”
It came as something of a surprise to hear that, in early adulthood in the 1960s, he had started out selling ads for the Argus.
This lasted just a year, though even a year seemed a long time for a man so irrepressibly disdainful of the manufactured charm of the selling game.
And, for that matter, for those not familiar with his earlier journalistic incarnation, no less unexpected in the light of his acclaim as a veteran critic and arts writer was his years of foot-soldier reporting covering the courts, municipal affairs, the provincial council and general news – not just in Cape Town at both the Argus and the Cape Times, but in Kimberley, where he spent a year at the Diamond Fields Advertiser, and Port Elizabeth on the Evening Post.
He did, in fact, begin writing film reviews under his much-admired mentor Owen Williams in the late 1960s, while, by day, he was meeting the demands of the daily news diary.
It was in the late 1970s – having returned to the Argus in 1975, as municipal reporter – that the paper decided to launch an arts supplement. Wilson recalled that, when he was approached to join Tonight, his reaction was ironic: “I felt terribly offended that I was being asked to do something so trivial.”
In not so many years, his was the commanding presence at Tonight, an arts publication that, under his leadership, became the must-read of Cape Town’s cultural scene.
Tonight’s reputation was in, no small measure, Derek’s.
He brought to the job workhorse habits, an un-ostentatious political conscience, a reputation as a stickler for clear expressive prose, and unforgiving acerbity in the face of pretension (and piety).
Readers – though never the zealots among them – relished the result.
These qualities were as fresh, and refreshing, in 2007 at his retirement. In a Making a Scene column of that time, discussing British journalist Beverley Nichols’ labelling the Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba a “goddess”, Wilson wondered how valid such effusive titling could be in the mortal world.
What about others? “La Callas perhaps?… But why stop at Callas? What about socially inappropriate contemporaries such as Madonna, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and a whole range of other women in the performing arts who are likely to be more aptly described as unmannerly, outré, gauche, vulgar or simply slatternly.
“But goddesses? You’ve got to be kidding… You might as well include Robbie Williams or Elton John (another who, like our own Steve Hofmeyr, tends to forget it was the media who first put him where he is).”
It was almost disappointing that Wilson revealed that he’d never kept a single cutting of his life’s work, having been lastingly impressed by the remark of a colleague back in his PE days that “there’s nothing more forgettable than newspapers”.
It was ironic, coming from one of the craft’s most memorable practitioners.