Heaven forbid ... but, "hello? is that a mirror I see before me?" There was a certain antipodean gravitational pull. For all the excitement of being in London, there was some relief in retreating to the familiar when outside of one's comfort zone.
Does this bunch of Durban reprobates, drawn from all over the world, and seated in a London boozer in 1975, tell us anything?. More on this picture in Act 2.
To test any theory, a token effort at due diligence has proven to be expedient. Even if only to avoid the embarrassment of a legitimate challenge to one's veracity, whether the transgression was deliberate or otherwise.
"Never let the facts get in the way of a good story," is a refrain often attributed to writers in the media.
I would submit this is only acceptable if it is a bloody good story and written in such a way as to combine enjoyment for the reader with a smidgeon of telltale tongue-in-cheek. The latter a sort of caveat emptor.
I learned both lessons the hard way. In a very early attempt at blogging, a mundane assertion was pounced upon by two of my oldest and dearest friends. If you wish to enjoy a little schadenfreude at my humiliation, you can find it in the link above. A little chastened, I resolved to follow the advice frequently delivered by my parents and teachers during my first two decades on this planet: "Try a little harder." I hadn't realised that the research involved in "trying a little harder" was not only pleasurable in its own right but also led to a mine of additional material. This, in turn, brought a renewed raison d'être.
I was delighted to reconnect with Lester Venter recently and receive this endorsement: "It may be a cliche, and it may even be a bit sad, but we have reached the age when tripping down the avenue of memories is a good idea."
Thus, not all Wenwe activities conform to previously narrowly-defined criteria. They can be split roughly into three categories:
An interpretation, therefore, of the title to this episode of Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes (FP&UTN) might be "yes we were" and "yes we are".
Yes we were Wenwes in 1975?
The secondees who arrived in overlapping rotation for one or three-year stints in the Argus bureau in Fleet Street were outsiders in an office of permanent denizens. So they formed their own social group, generally bidding farewell to a departing Fleet-Street-hardened-hack and welcoming that person's successor. This is not to say the denizens were unkind to the transient journos, just that they had established roots in London and had their own routines and lives to lead.
Ray Whitaker welcomed me into this unfamiliar environment and he and his wife, Jacqui helped Carmela and me to acclimatise.
If you ignore the phone "booth", the Argus office at 85 Fleet Street could almost have been Dickensian. I'm not sure if Bill, on the left, had any South African background but Dirk de Villiers, on the right, certainly did. He was also a published author. They were both permanent staff of the London Bureau.
I hope that Ray and I helped to soften Lester's landing. He was the next to join for a 12-month stint and came with a complete family, Susi, Cornelia and Christoph. This meant they couldn't shoehorn themselves into a studio flat as Carmela and I had done and opted for a dez rez trailer park with Thames frontage near Staines. This meant that the Venters could entertain us royally for braais in the shadow of Windsor Castle.
Pictures above of some of us at the Venters for a braai.
The first picture is of Raymond and Jacqui with Brenda Kirwin. Brenda and Bob (our pictures editor in the light tan parka) seemed to like us and had us around to their house, where they had a souvenir from Africa in their lavatory: a order declaring him persona non grata in Zambia - It read: "Notice to Prohibit Immigrant to Leave Zambia" and was framed by a lav seat. I do believe that, at this particular gathering, one of us (perhaps only I could've been that crass) had brought a Watneys Party 7 5-litre beer can. These were widely known to be impossible to open gracefully. At some stage, after much manhandling, I think Lester produced a hammer and a screwdriver. We had a magnificent fountain, redolent of a Roman candle at a different kind of braai, traditionally held on the 5th of November. You will note that discretion was the better part of valour for Raymond, his beverage being supped delicately from a smaller can.
This gathering was also a tale of two Brendas with Mrs Lynsky in photo two, in which Rory is eating so delicately I at first thought he was texting on his phone, but, no, we didn't have such devices in 1975. Our hosts, Lester and Suzie, appear to be conferring on the excellent chops, which, judging by the one in Bob's hand, were rendered perfectly on the braai. Bob and Lester demonstrate that Poms can eat like Saffas and Saffas can adopt Pom refinement.
The picture below has Suzie and Cornelia looking doubtful while Carmela appears to be wielding a paddle for the camera while clad in Raymond's jacket.
The more substantial launch in the background will almost certainly have a Hooray Henry at the helm. He will be wearing a Commodore's cap above a cravat and navy blazer and be holding a pink gin and tonic between his left thumb and forefinger. The launch's name will be something like Sylvia, Clementine or Mirabelle. and, having passed from Starboard to Port, will inevitably return from Port to Starboard within 15 minutes. A process that will be repeated maybe 10 times over the afternoon. Remember, this pic was taken in 1975 and boats a fraction of that size were some of the little ships that crossed the Channel to Dunquerque only three-and-a-half decades previously.
This used to piss Lester off greatly. In 1975 a boat with upper and lower windscreens was made for greater things than poncing a mile or so up and down the Thames every Sunday, flaunting the owner's wealth.
"WTF is it called Cynthia," Lester would fume. "If it were mine, I'd just paint £50,000 on the side and be done with it."
And so forth ...
At some point that Spring/Summer, the Whitakers and Harrisons took in the Rocky Horror Show in Chelsea. I seem to recall that Jacqui had procured the tickets because she'd heard that it would not be long before the original cast would be disbanded and carted off to make the Rocky Horror Picture Show. By 1975 the live show had moved from its original 60-seat venue in an upstairs room of the Royal Court to further down Kings Road to the 500-seat Kings Road Theatre.
This meant that the production team had been able to build a stage extension along the central aisle. Certainly for Carmela and me it was the first time we'd experienced anything resembling theatre in the round. We were dead impressed.
Jacqui's coolth was on a steep ascent.
We had to access our seats in the dark from the side aisles, directed by ushers in vampire garb with dim torches spookily highlighting their faces before motioning to the requisite seats.
Soon after we were seated, a shriek cried out from close quarters. Swivelling instantly to the source of the sound we spotted that an usher had pounced on Jacqui and she was quite distressed about the unexpectedness of it all. The ushers had been running along the backs of seats and picking people at random and Jacqui was one of the first.
I hope, dear Jacqui, your enjoyment of our night out was soon restored when the lights were turned up (a bit) so that Tim Curry could mince down the stage extension in ripped fishnet tights. It was an excellent production, to be followed shortly by The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which achieved a certain fame for being most popular in South Africa. Forbidden fruits sailing close to the wind perhaps? In fact, too close, it seems, as it was banned not long after its release there.
Make your own minds up as to whether we were Wenwes in 1975. Look for further examples of the SA journos herd gatherings after the interval.
Yes we are still Wenwes?
And now back to item 3 on the Wenwe list: i.e. weren't we intrepid back in the "good ol' days"?
Our days at work in Fleet Street started out in the Reuters building (first below), which faced the iconic Art Deco Express building (second below) across this fabled road in the international newspaper industry. The heart of it, one could say. Shoe Lane is just to the left of the Express providing a convenient cut-through to Holborn.
We like to remember how it was when real journos wrestled with complicated sets of copy paper and carbon, three paragraphs at a time, before shouting "Copy", leading to a lot of scurrying about between reporter and sub-editor. And then, duly assembled and corrected, on to compositors and typesetters, who turned the stories into molten lead and drove around in Triumph Stags .
Today's journos would probably not believe the lengths we reporters had to go to deliver our stories. A small team covered most of the Northern Hemisphere that was complicated by having to get text and pics from London to South Africa and into the hands of the compositors.
I started to try to describe the daily routine at 85 Fleet Street in an earlier episode but a few recent conversations with Rory Lynsky encouraged me to add a little meat to the bones. I'll get to these a little later but, first, to recap.
Most of our work was in no way glamorous. Probably about 95% involved plagiarism of some sort. The Argus Group, at the time South Africa's biggest news empire, had a tiered portfolio of agreements  with UK national newspapers, wire services and a network of "stringers" covering mostly Europe (including further flung parts of the UK). Our job was to absorb as much as we could from the Fleet Street newspapers and monitor the wire services for anything that might be of interest to our South African readership.
Actually, a lot of the time was even more mundane: we were glorified copy typists, putting on a headset and taking down European football results from said stringers. The only skill required was in the spelling of the names of the teams on the continent. I shall take Borussia Mönchengladbach with me to my grave.
Only if the interest required a particularly South Africa slant, we might occasionally be sent to report on a real story. I'll follow up with a few of these in Act 2 but I'd like to conclude Act 1 with an interview with the scribe I'd known the longest, the esteemed Rory Lynsky, now resident in NSW, Australia.
So without further ado, a view from Rory ...
Mark: We were chatting about the denizens of the Argus bureau. You may have seen more of them, having been there for 4 years to my one? I don’t think Alex Noble ever spoke to me F2F. You could sort of see him through the frosted glass and, as you say, if you were vigilant, when he snuck out for lunch ...
Rory: Yey oh yey. Mr Noble “Managing Editor “. In the first three years in London he spoke to me once. For the rest all we saw of him was when he went out for lunch. What work he did in his carpeted office remains a mystery! When he finally donned his bowler hat and took off for Chestnut Cottage ( I kid you not) and was replaced by Cliff Scott ... Sunday Trib editor, it was all change. It was at the height of the Rhoodie affair and he put a bomb under the newsroom, including Eldrid Retief and Dirk de Villiers, which was not a bad thing.
Mark: Eldrid and Dirk were OK, which is why we remember them. Also Bob Kirwin. Please remind me when you first arrived in 1975.
Rory: April 75. The denizens of 85 Fleet St were a nice bunch. Although I felt some of the permanent people were too comfortable in their 8 to 5 roles and used the 12 month secondees as night shift fodder.
Mark: Very true although the early morning shift was a source of interesting experiences ... 
Rory: You’ve got me going now. Soon after being installed in Lambs Apartments in Egerton Gardens we met up on the 29th April for Brenda’s 24th birthday at the Hour Glass pub around the corner. Several ex-Daily News folk squeezed into the narrowest end - Chris Harding, Wayne Brown, the Harrisons, Liz Butcher, Phil and there may have been more? After Lambs luxury we couch surfed with friends in Putney until we secured a long term lease on our flat in Ham at the end of June. In between I was sent off to Lausanne to cover the IOC meeting which was set on expelling Rhodesia from the Olympic movement. This dragged on and Brenda trained it to Switzerland to meet me, her first time on the continent
Then it was a month of night duty.
Mark: Your sofa surfing with friends in Putney? I remember that Carmela and I visited you and Brenda while you were staying with the Bucknalls in their terrace house in Hotham Rd. We were mightily impressed by their hospitality and that they were in the process of pasting Mary Quant granny print wallpaper on the walls and ceilings ... they must’ve been at the sharp end of the gentrification of that part of London, south of the river!
Rory: They had just moved in and were doing a major renovation. Stripped the walls, lots of coats of paint. Brenda Bucknall was from Cape Town and we were in a group travelling around Europe in 68. Big sports family, her brother is Alan Lamb the England cricketer and Tony played Rugby Union (RU) for England and was captain at one stage.
Mark: I think Graham Boynton still sees Alan Lamb as does Greg Sherwood, a master of wine in London, formerly of Pretoria.
Returning to Fleet Street, there were some interesting characters in the office that you seem to remember better than I do?
Rory: I’ve been roaminating on that photo you sent me of a mystery man in the London Office.
On my first day in the office I was shepherded to an empty desk between [Jock] Havers and [Justin] Dowling. After the usual polite introductions I noticed they both looked pretty down in the mouth and it emerged I was occupying the desk of a colleague who had recently shuffled off his mortal coil. So when I went to open a desk drawer to put away my meagre possessions they asked me not to as their friend's personal stuff was still occupying the drawers - and so it remained for a month until they got around to doing it. Their colleague's raincoat was hanging on a stand near the newspaper files and it was still hanging there 4 years later.
Mark: You mentioned some others?
Rory: Here are two for starters in no particular order and not Argus staff.
I always wondered how Robin Short managed to do night shift indefinitely. He came across as somewhat reserved but once I got to know him over time found him a very warm and principled person. Perhaps night duty, where lots of the slog work was done, was an effective way of staying clear of office politics? Come summer the Shorts would invite all the secondees and families to a braai at their home backing onto the canal at Weybridge. Did you ever go?
Mark: I did. Also to the Venters'. And to the Kirwans'. See pics above.
Rory: Talking of parties, JJ Cornish and his lovely wife Elaine always held a Very Boozy May Day party at their home in St John’s Wood. Remember JJ’s bow tie?
Mark: I remember a party. And also the bow tie. I have vague recollections of "Flaming A's" in the pub opposite: entering at one end of and exiting at the the other. Least said about that, the better (apart from the fact that the newspaper HAD to be The Times). Do you remember luring JJ, a vegetarian, to a pub in the Smithfield area, inhabited by butchers with bloody cleavers?
More about both lovely Cornishes in later episodes. Anyone else that springs to mind?
Rory: You’ll remember Malcolm Lawson, very jovial fellow with a gammy leg? I can’t recall what he did in administration. I got on well with him and he kindly invited us to go off and spend a few days at his cottage on the Isle of Wight. Said cottage was near Gatcombe in the centre of the island. It was on a farm road and sat on a handkerchief sized plot of land in the middle of fields. Malcolm was a bit of a dark horse as it transpired he had come across this derelict cottage and had squatted in it until he was able to “own” it. Possession is 9/10 of the law!
Readers can decide whether we remain Wenwes to this day, albeit cut from a more wizened cloth, after reading Act 2, coming up in approximately a week.
Coming up: Act 2 - After the Interval. More snippets from Wenwedom. Lil the trolley lady and the bomb scare. Hitching rides in a Cortina bakkie. A European Grand Tour with the Venters.
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