Review: Vivien Horler
Vintage Love and Other Essays, by Jolyon Nuttall (Jacana)
I spent my entire career as a journalist working for the old Argus Company, publishers of newspapers including the Cape Argus in Cape Town, The Star in Johannesburg and the Daily News in Durban.
One of the top guys in management, whom I didn’t know but with whose name I was familiar, was Jolyon Nuttall, who started at the Daily News as a reporter and went on to become the manager of the Star and a director of the company.
On newspapers there is a gulf between editorial, the people who produce what you read, and management, the people who control the money. Relations are not always cordial.
Or as Nuttall puts it in one of the essays in this small, delightful and beautifully produced book: “Management was the antithesis of everything Editorial stood for. It was there to curb editorial initiatives, to pay the staff as little as possible, to control – and cut – costs at every turn and place constant impediments in their way. Above all, Management failed to recognise that the very newspaper existed only because of Editorial and the content it produced.”
Nevertheless he made a successful career in management and when he retired he was delighted to be referred to as “an editor’s manager”.
Nuttall says that in early 2016 he spent two months within a bus ride of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he became a regular. He found a section titled “Essays and Non-Fiction Literature”, which had a seat in an alcove where he spent hours, and essentially discovered what was to him a new literary form: the essay.
“It was neither memoir nor autobiography… It tended to focus on specific episodes, specific people, specific periods in which the essayist had been involved. It was time bound. In many of the essays there was a narrative…”
The experience in the Harvard Book Store led directly to this collection of essays, a form which, he says, has brought “astonishing focus” to his writing. There is no sequential connection between the essays other than the fact they are episodes and memories in the life of one man.
His subjects cover the death of his beloved wife Jean after more than 40 years of marriage, the pleasures of grandchildren, the freedom he and his twin brother experienced as young boys growing up in Newcastle in the old Natal, first love, the Alan Paton he knew (Nuttall’s father Neville and Paton were lifelong friends), spending a summer in New York with Drum writer Lewis Nkosi, managing stress (keeping chickens turned out to an inspired solution), trout fishing and newspaper publishing in the 1980s in South Africa.
His career in newspapers took place against a background of what he calls a darkening political landscape. The government of the day hated the press, particularly the “Engelse pers”, and introduced a series of increasingly draconian laws to keep its dirty secrets under wraps.
Nuttall recalls how a team of media lawyers was on hand to guide editorial through what felt like “walking blindfold through a minefield”.
Or as he puts it: “Our instruction to the lawyers in giving us this advice was to allow us to walk as close to the edge of the precipice as possible without falling off.”
It has become fashionable to decry companies like the old Argus company for continuing to operate in a tightening political landscape which demanded certain compromises, but in many cases editors and their journalists – reporters and photographers – functioned in a fraught environment with true courage.
However, as a former president of the Newspaper Press Union, Nuttall was often confronted by the apartheid machine, and he says he has subsequently questioned whether the actions and initiatives they took “in good faith stand up to scrutiny”.
A technique used by the government was to provide NPU members with confidential background briefings in a bid to make clear the challenges the government was facing, putting the more liberal side of the press into a very awkward position.
He writes: “In my mouth the distaste remains… The only ultimate satisfaction to be drawn from the saga was the collapse of the regime while the press survived to tell the story of the birth of a new South Africa.”
Because of my own history with the Argus company I found these reflections particularly interesting, especially when trying to put names to people he has tactfully left nameless (including my father-in-law).
But the collection contains so much more than newspapers. On the whole the essays make for a gentle, charming read and a reminder of a different time.