David Beresford: The man who taught me the alchemy of words

“You have to tell a story,” David Beresford told me as he taught me how to write. “It has to flow, like when you’re talking. One thing must flow into the next. You have to weave a story in writing like you do when you’re talking.”

It was perhaps the luckiest happenstance that this legend of journalism would teach me to write. It was a master class, as he sat with me each week at the Mail & Guardian and worked with me through my stories. It doesn’t happen anymore, that a newspaper will allocate such a senior figure to mentor young journalists, but it was a different world back then. It was like journalism finishing school.

You can read the Guardian’s brilliant obituary of him of his full and remarkable career. Or read his abundance of writing, including his obituary of Nelson Mandela. These are just my thoughts of the man who taught me to write. 

Because there were so many people called David, including me, the EmmAndGee (as everyone called it) adopted the habit of calling everyone by our surnames. There was Beresford, the roving Gandalf-like master, Jammy the filmmaker, Ludman the eccentric proofreader, and me. 

What always struck me about Beresford was his humility. His work in Northern Ireland and the Inkathagate scandal in South Africa made him a globally-recognised legend. He had won innumerable awards, written books, pulled off amazing investigative coups. But most of all, he could write. Everything he published was like a literary gift to his readers. I was in awe of him.

I have been exceedingly lucky to have had great mentors in my career as a journalist. John Brett Cohen inspired me and set me on my way. Kerry Swift was a lecturer at Rhodes University who taught me “never be afraid of white space” and other pragmatic lessons, including telling all of us latter-day hippies “it’s okay to make money”. Irwin Manoim, the shiest man alive, inspired me perhaps the most. I tried to work as hard as him, be worthy of the few rare compliments he gave me. I associated so much with his brand of ironic, dry humour; and how he gave the smartest, funniest talks and presentations. Anton Harber’s bravery but sense of life and fun. Benji Pogrund’s brief patch teaching me more writing skills – ironically married to Cohen’s ex-wife. 

But I am most grateful for this quirk of fate that the great Beresford sat with us young reporters and helped us with our copy. He taught me the remarkable alchemy he brought to writing. He told me those words above after I’d spent the weekend in the far rural backwaters of northern South Africa researching the strange nature of suspicions about witches that plague our country. I’d written what I thought was a good story. Beresford sat with me and turned it into a masterpiece, weaving, as he would teach me week after week, how “the narrative must flow”. He worked his magic. 

It had a profound effect on all of us. The M&G‘s news editor at the time – Peta Thornycroft – would send us youngsters to Beresford, who patiently took us through our own stories as he polished them into diamonds. Sitting in his office off to the side of the newsroom in that open-plan building in Braamfontein, smoking cigarettes with that intensity he had, he’d take us through our copy. Patiently and deliberately he’d explain why he was doing what he was doing, why he was moving this there and putting this underneath. It was always about the flow, he’d repeat. And we all flourished. Tangeni Amupadhi is now the editor of the Namibian. Stuart Hess is a senior sports reporter. 

When he stood in as editor for Anton Harber, and later Phillip Van Niekerk, he used to ask the same, profound question whenever you pitched a story: “what’s your intro?” I used to flounder at first, but learned to martial my thoughts to give him the cogent, concise, coherent answer I knew he was expecting. Unintentionally, or perhaps intentionally, it taught me that most important of things in journalism: knowing where to start with a story; and how to take the reader with you. 

When Beresford gave me a compliment it was amazing. I left the M&G and went to Sapa, at Peta Thornycroft’s suggestion. She’d told me to work with Peter Wellman, then one of the two chief subs, but failed to mention he was her husband. I would only find out later; as I would that Wellman was the first journalist sent to jail by the apartheid regime under Section 205 for refusing to reveal his sources. Wellman taught me to “always read your copy before you file it” – an invaluable lesson in making sure my copy didn’t have mistakes, typos or read poorly. A lesson Barbara Ludman would sear into me when I returned to the M&G.

After about seven months as a junior at Sapa, I found myself covering the Truth Commission. By the end of that year, I was part of the team at the Winnie Mandela hearings where that famous picture was taken of Desmond Tutu lying on a couch in despair. 

By then, it was 1997, there was the first Nokia Communicator, an early precursor to the smartphones of today. Beresford the gadget fiend who used to show Mungo Soggot and me the butterfly keyboard on his laptop, an early IBM ThinkPad where the keyboard folded in and out as you opened the screen. Not only was he a legend, but had cutting-edge tech. He was always inspirational.

At those Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, he’d sit in the halls watching the proceedings with his hawk-like observation and type with two thumbs on that Communicator, rocking gently with his Parkinson’s as he wrote up copy about the day’s proceedings that was some of the best writing in that period about the TRC and the scars those apartheid years left on our country. Most people didn’t know who the grey-haired, dishevelled man was. He really was a Gandalf figure. With two thumbs on a device most people could only use to send SMS, he would produce magic.

One night, when I caught a Winnie Madikizela-Mandela throw-away line – “I don’t give a damn” – about one of the various controversies during those TRC hearings (she sued a UK politician for something or other that night), Beresford muttered to me the next day how “your story ruined my night” because he had to write it up. It was the front page lead on the Guardian that day, a typically brilliant story about that crazy former wife of Madiba and the madness of the Mandela United Football Club which those hearings were investigating. 

Then he added: “Good work”. 

It was always the highest praise if Beresford complimented you on your story. It was better than any awards ceremony. It was praise directly from the master himself.

Years later, when I became a technology journalist, I would try to repay his kindness by showing David all the gadgets I’d get to play with. He’d come to my apartment in Illovo, struggling to walk with his cane down the corridors that seemed cruelly long, but become enlivened whenever I laid out the tech toys. His eyes would light up, he’d fiddle with them, take some home to play with, return just as enthusiastically to play with the next batch. It was one of the best things, I thought at the time, about covering tech – that I can give something back to this remarkable mentor. As much as he liked digital cameras, his shaking meant he could never really use them.

It always struck me that this legend, this icon of journalism, had such an inner child when it came to playing with the hi-tech toys that have come to define our modern world. It was part of his remarkable humanity. 

It was around the time he had his operation in France – using a controversial “brain pacemaker” as he described it to me – to try cure his Parkinson’s. He spoke about it – and wrote about it – with a rare honesty and lack of fear. His articles in The Guardian were unflinchingly honest and beautifully, tenderly insightful into this debilitating disease. At the Truth Commission once, sitting with him at the back of a hall as ghastly stories unfolded, he told me how he had to time taking his medication so that he could do his writing at the right time. It seemed like such cruel fate that a man of such enormous talent and skill should be let down by his own body. But he found this lilting rhythm with his shakes to sway sideways as he typed on that Nokia Communicator. He’d joke about it to me in his self-depreciating way. All the while writing the best stories that day – or any day – about the madness the Truth Commission revealed about those terrible apartheid days.

One of the big stories I worked on as a junior journalist was the anniversary of the Samora Machel plane crash. Long considered an assassination attempt by the sabre-rattling apartheid government of the time, the commission investigating it had found it was pilot error by exhausted, and or drunk, Russian pilots. 

When Peta Thornycroft put me on the story – with the unforgettable line “I want you to find out who killed Samora Machel” – I read through the commission transcripts Beresford had kept in his office. Patiently, he helped me through this wild goose chase I had been sent on. Weeks of investigating the most famous plane crash in Southern Africa, all the conspiracy theories around it, speaking to the reporters in Portugal, Maputo, New York, fishing through all the red herrings and unprovable facts, I finally got an angle: South Africa had stolen documents from the crash site. That was the only thing I could prove. Witnesses had seen police arrive from nearby Komatipoort, gather up briefcases and loose pages strewn across the crash site, and race off, ignoring the wounded. 

There were photographs of then foreign minister Pik Botha standing at a press conference the next day with mud-splattered pages. (My conversations with the crazy playwright Robert Kirby, by then the paper’s columnist, are a story in their own right. He was an aviation expert, who weighed in on this crash and that of the Heildeberg, dismissing all conspiracy theories. He was an avowed critic of the Russian crew who he always blamed for it. “Drunk, like Afrikaans security policemen,” he once ranted at me.)

I officially reported to the news editor, the unpredictable Peta who everyone was justifiably afraid of. But I ran everything through Beresford first, who was his calm, helpful mentoring best.

My phone interview with Pik Botha – who was shit-face drunk at 11am – was a defining moment in my career, as was the story Beresford helped me craft for the M&G that week. (The rest of the allegations, which I simply couldn’t prove or corroborate , I gave to Max du Preez who was running the SABC’s TRC Special Report show; and turned him down when he asked if I wanted to be named as the researcher, perhaps foolishly.)

When the M&G story appeared Pik Botha threatened to sue me. It was a standing joke at the paper that you could only be respected as a journalist if you were called a racist and were sued.

Beresford shuffled passed my desk after Botha’s bluster about suing the paper. “Now you’re arrived,” he said. I felt like I had graduated in some way. 

RIP David Beresford, a truly remarkable man and legendary journalist who taught a young reporter how to write. He taught me to write like this, to write obituaries for my friends, to write from the heart, to write with flow.

His greatness was in his humility as much as it was in his brilliance and genius. He inspired this young reporter – as he did many of us – giving generously of this time and expertise. It was like that old-forgotten concept of an apprenticeship as he taught us with his strange alchemy for turning words into beautiful stories. Like the great magician he was.

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a contributor to Forbes and his TED talk on innovation in Africa has over 1.4-million views. He worked at the Mail & Guardian several times, including being the technology editor thrice and sports editor twice.

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Toby Shapshak
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