Kirby, ‘father of English satire’, dies in Cape Town

Long-time Mail & Guardian columnist Robert Kirby died in Cape Town on Friday night following a long illness. He had been admitted to the city’s Tygerberg Hospital four months ago for a heart operation and died in the hospital’s intensive-care unit.

A significant satirist especially in the 1970s, Kirby also worked as a broadcaster, television columnist, playwright and novelist.

Born in Durban on April 26 1936, Kirby was educated there and in Kimberley. He was employed at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) in Johannesburg, and in London as an announcer for the BBC.

He became famous in South Africa for his sharp wit and fearless satire, often aimed at the government of the day, the SABC, politicians and other media figures — especially in his weekly column in the M&G called Loose Cannon.”You can’t have humour without offending somebody. Every joke offends somebody down the line. Humour that didn’t plunge the knife into somebody’s ribs would be terribly pale, vapid, weak,” Kirby once said.

M&G editor Ferial Haffajee said Kirby’s voice would be missed.

”He was a wonderful satirist, a pure professional, and a master of his craft. He was irascible, often funny, opinionated but also difficult and occasionally argumentative,” said Haffajee.

In the 1970s, Kirby ”was as well-known then as Pieter-Dirk Uys is now known for a similar brand of humour”, said Matthew Krouse, arts editor of the M&G, at the weekend.

”He was outspoken to the degree that he was reviled by some and adored by many, particularly liberal-minded whites who saw the lighter side of apartheid,” Krouse said. ”He got up the noses of many people in the entertainment industry and continued to do so right until the end.”

Kirby was also a renowned playwright whose work has been staged in some of South Africa’s foremost theatres. In apartheid-era South Africa, his satirical revenues were closely monitored by the censors. He once famously received a letter from the chief censor listing words to be omitted from one of his revues. Kirby retaliated by filing criminal charges against the censor for mailing obscene material.

Among his stage plays, It’s a Boy! holds the record as the country’s longest-running comedy, and he was named the South African playwright of the year for Panics, his last play and a stab at academia. Panics premiered in 1991 at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, starring Graham Hopkins and Sello Maake ka Ncube.

His 1992 book The Secret Letters of Jan van Riebeeck comprised more satire in the form of a series of imaginary letters written in the 1650s by Van Riebeeck, the first colonist of the Cape.

In 2002, he published his novel Songs of the Cockroach, a political post-apartheid satire, and he ran the website Cockroach.co.za, which he described as ”somewhere for the expression of abrasive and fearless satire, something which the South African media, for all the obvious reasons, cannot carry”.

”Most especially the site will be a frontal and continual assault on today’s most lethal form of censorship, political correctness,” he wrote on the site.

Having distinguished himself as one of the sharpest observers and critics of television in the country, Kirby wrote television columns for the M&G (in the mid- to late 1990s) and for the Star. His satirical columns also appeared in the Sunday Times and Financial Mail, and he edited Not the Mail & Guardian, a parody newspaper in the style of the Onion that twice appeared with the first January edition of the M&G.

Apart from his literary interests, Kirby was a fly-fishing enthusiast who authored an acclaimed history of the sport in the 1980s. He also held a commercial pilot’s licence and wrote specialist essays on aviation, especially analysing major air accidents. He accumulated many hours of voluntary flying for the Red Cross Air Mercy Service.

He was twice awarded the English Academy of Southern Africa’s Thomas Pringle Award for journalism, in 1996 and 2002, for his reviews and for an educational article respectively.

Fearless

Kirby’s wife for 27 years, Dulcie, said he would be remembered as someone who made a significant contribution to the country. ”He was the father of English satire from the 1960s until his death.”

”All his life he fought against injustice, in whichever way it came … [and he] deeply, deeply loved his country,” she said.

She said Kirby was not someone who believed in self promotion. ”He said his writing had to speak for itself.”

She said although he was a satirist, her husband’s writings always had a serious message.

”He was fearless,” Kirby recalled. ”He feared no one and nothing and that was reflected in his writings. His death will leave a hole in the country.”

”He was my mentor, my friend, my lover, my husband; it’s like a part of me has died. His life was a gift to me … I couldn’t have asked for a greater love and a better marriage”.

Kirby said there would not be a funeral or memorial service.

”Robert always said he made enough of a public spectacle in his life, he didn’t want to do it in death.”

Kirby will be cremated and his ashes will be scattered around places of personal importance to him and his wife.

He is survived by three children and seven grandchildren from a previous marriage.

  • Read Robert Kirby’s last columns for the M&G
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