Back to the future

When I joined The Weekly Mail in 1989, first as compiler of the entertainment listings, then arts writer/sub-editor and books editor, there was a revolution going on. Not just the political one, but a cultural revolution — a strong local flavour in South African music, for one thing, and a vibrant underground musical culture that seemed to be offering a revolution we could dance to.

For me, that spirit was summed up by my friend James Phillips. It was his alter-ego, Bernoldus Niemand, leader of the rock band The Cherry-Faced Lurchers, who sparked the ‘alternative Afrikaner” movement.

The Lurchers’ songs portrayed South African life (whether a café proprietor or the State of Emergency) in a South African accent. This in a time when the mainstream bands such as Petit Cheval were pretentious clones of British New Romanticism, silly hairstyles and all. Meanwhile, pubs resounded to the efforts of denim-clad bands churning out bad covers of age-old American rock songs.

That was our watchword: no cover versions. It was time to be ourselves, to make and participate in our own culture. (Phillips was the first person I ever heard insist that he was a ‘white African”.) The Weekly Mail, perhaps only semi-consciously at first, fought towards a position where arts coverage paid as much attention to local (and ‘low”) culture as the high Euro-arts of the ballet and the opera.

The view of cultural reporting and critique that developed was one in which publicity material could not be tarted up into a ‘story”; as in political reportage, a critical viewpoint was necessary. We were prepared to say when cultural products were bad. We still do. The softer feel-good approach was not for us. Culture is about the soul of a nation and/or an individual — or it should be. And thus it merits serious (though entertaining) consideration.

Barbara Ludman, Charlotte Bauer, Don Mattera and Raeford Daniel were the arts editors of what you might call the first phase, one in which poetry, of all things, was capable of being a topic of heated debate. In our pages, battles were fought about form and content, about ‘standards”, and whether culture could be a weapon of the people.

We carried Albie Sachs’s famous plea that the cultural workers of the revolution-in-progress lighten up and stop mistaking slogans for art; we carried the endless arguments for and against. We battled it out with the Cultural Desk, whose job it was to enforce the cultural boycott, when Abdullah Ibrahim wanted to return from exile for the first time.

The occasion was The Weekly Mail Film Festival, dedicated to showing movies otherwise unseen on our screens, one of which Ibrahim had scored. He wasn’t interested in asking the desk for permission to come home. The film festival also pushed the boundaries of censorship, sparking demonstrations from reborn Christians when we showed The Last Temptation of Christ. That showed we were doing something right. The Weekly Mail Book Week did similar work; it hosted Mongane Wally Serote on the very night he returned from exile.

Books coverage was always important. The first editors of the Mail, Anton Harber and Irwin Manom, were unequivocal in their feeling that books were an essential part of a paper that fed the intellect as well as a hunger for outlawed news — and the urge to go out and have fun. And even if they hadn’t felt that, Ludman would have carried the day. Her view on books coverage was simple: ‘It’s classy.” And, however cheaply and quickly we put the paper together, we would be classy.

We ran a regular Review of Books, modelled in part on the famous supplement to The New York Times. It dealt prominently with South African literature at a time when most publishers felt it was a slightly embarrassing loss-maker and few local papers gave it more attention than a miserly Book of the Week (or Month) slot, if that.

At first, our book supplements were sponsored by Exclusive Books; that was before the mall-based chain decided to divert its marketing budget solely into wheezes such as the Fanatics loyalty programme. Nowadays, we have a flourishing local publishing industry — it is becoming what, in the 1980s and early 1990s, we had always hoped and propagandised for. Ironically, the book supplement now exists only as a biannual.

Still, even as the Review of Books got too costly, the arts pages of the paper expanded. I became arts editor, then Sophie Perryer took over when I took a break, and then Charl Blignaut arrived. By 1996, there was a strong feeling that the arts pages were such a central and popular part of the paper that it was time they got more space — and some additional glamour. Philip van Niekerk, the new editor of what was now the Mail & Guardian, Blignaut and I designed a new arts section — Friday. It would be a pull-out, a separate section in all its glory, and it would continue the good work of helping make and critique local culture, while keeping an eye on the international scene, copy provided by The Guardian in London.

And with money provided by them too. We were able to run a pull-out Friday, with, in a spirit of sheer lavish-ness, a full-page picture on the front, as well as four pages of TV listings, a two- or three-page entertainment guide and page-long features, besides two full books pages.

When M&G Media was taken over by Trevor Ncube, we had to sober up. We no longer had a sugar daddy, in the form of The Guardian, bailing us out of debt every year. We had to become a commercial prospect and it seems that the arts and books don’t easily get the kind of advertising support other areas do.

I had taken over again as arts editor in 1997. A year or so later, I handed over to Alex Dodd who, in turn, passed the baton to Matthew Krouse. He is still in the job. I still edit the books pages, though, and now act as chief movie critic too.

Nowadays, the cultural terrain has shifted. The automatically sniffy attitude towards South African culture has gone — and we helped kill it. Now even the Sunday Times has real books pages and gives literary prizes.

The M&G can no longer afford to behave like a glorified NGO with lots of donor funding. Today Friday faces an even greater challenge than proving South African culture is worth taking seriously: we have to make money. We hope that soon we will be able to rebuild Friday and recapture some of the glory of those days when, as Bob Dylan put it, ‘there was music in the cafés at night, and revolution in the air”.

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week. Read more from Shaun de Waal

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