When Derek Wil­son was made, they threw away the mould

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - MICHAEL MOR­RIS

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.


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