November 19, 2017

That place ‘over the road’

Frankie Allen stood in the lift, his back to the wall, facing the mock-Tudor bar he had just left.

He had not looked back when he had pressed the button to summon the lift to the first floor of the Elizabeth Hotel in Johannesburg. Perhaps he didn’t want to look back at the colleagues remaining in the bar, carrying on with their drinking and chatting, carrying on with their lives. But in the split second it took for the lift doors to close Frankie Allen turned around and surveyed the scene for the last time – the laughter, the smell of spilt beer and stale cigarette smoke, of perfume, of sweat from what he would never describe as honest toil.

Pressing the button to summon the lift Frankie Allen had turned his back on journalism and the mock-Tudor upstairs bar of the Elizabeth Hotel. The moment was not lost on one of the younger members staff, the deputy news editor of the Star in Johannesburg who still had his career ahead of him.

“Christ, those lift doors are closing on Frankie’s life,” perhaps not realising the wisdom, the irony, the metaphor in those words.

From that day in the early 1970s Don Bentley could not see a lift’s doors closing in front of him without thinking of Frankie Allen. He also thought of a journalist described as Frankie’s partner in crime Barry van Rensburg and all the others who had carried a look of trepidation, of anxiety at leaving the great family of journalism and steeping out into the real world they had viewed from behind their typewriters, and later computer screens, to contemplate the unknown.

In many occupations, retirement is something to be eagerly anticipated, something to be relished and cherished, something to work towards.

The journalism Bentley had known operated in a parallel universe to the real world beyond the newsroom and the joys of that world did not necessarily apply to that trade, where different rules and a different perspective came into play.

Every profession has what sociologists call an “occupational mythology” to sustain it, a mix of workplace conventions, dramas, gossip and socialising. These conventions usually only touch on socialising out of hours, of golf days and office and works outings, but in journalism work and socialising with contacts and colleagues comes as part of the job. The office watering hole is as essential to journalism – particularly newspaper journalism – as the newsroom, a place where introductions to stories are honed and headlines written and re-written.

The coffee machine or tea trolley might suffice as the meeting point in other offices, but journalists gather to talk their business in that universal place “over the road”, because a watering hole is always over the road, but not too far to walk.

Drink fuels the mythology of journalism, in which journalists make their profession glamorous and glorious to themselves and others. In what other occupation can the alcoholic be celebrated and regaled, and divorce be seen as an occupational hazard? Journalists have to be larger than life.

Frankie Allen left the Elizabeth Hotel watering hole, and indeed the Star, for a life of retirement living on a sheep farm as far from the city of gold, Johannesburg, as he could get.

The farm was situated among blue mountains in the semi-desert Karoo in the Eastern Cape and the office gossip posed the question what would Frankie do in such a place, the home of relatives near the historic town of Graaf-Reinet. For a start it was at least 15 kilometres from the nearest pub, in the Dutch pioneer governor’s residence, the Drostdy House, now an upmarket boutique hotel on the town’s dusty main street.

Barry van Rensburg, like the others in the Elizabeth Hotel watching the lift doors close on Frankie’s life, defended his friend and his decision to cut all links with both the Star and Johannesburg. Van Rensburg was picture editor of the newspaper, and Allen the caption writer who sat between Van Rensburg’s desk and that of the chief sub-editor in the newsroom. Van Rensburg and Allen were inseparable, both in the Star building and over the road at the Elizabeth Hotel.

Van Rensburg had a romantic view of Graff-Reient and the area’s Valley of Desolation. In recent years he had taken to swinging a camera again as opposed to directing photographic coverage and choosing pictures and had just returned from holiday to the Eastern Cape where he had photographed the last of the steam trains crossing the Lootsberg Pass, threading through the flat-topped mountains above Graaf-Reinet, before they were phased out in favour of diesel traction.

“Oh the mix. Steam and smoke and the early morning Karoo light, blue cranes flapping by the trackside, a photographer’s dream,” he had announced to those assembled in the bar when he returned.

Frankie was not into photography, someone interjected to point out. He was more at home in a betting shop up on the hill above Johannesburg, in Hillbrow.

Barry van Rensburg didn’t reply, but a few days later he had news for his photographic team, and the rest of the newsroom. He had made a decision to retire after 40 years in journalism, and follow his good friend Frankie out the door.

“I’ve been picture editor for so long I’ve forgotten why I entered this business, to actually take pictures not to bollock or praise other people for theirs. I’m going back to being a photographer, to freelance, and take pictures of what I want to, without pressure to meet a news schedule.”

Van Rensburg had done the sums and realised that he had enough in his pension after a working life-time with the Star to pay his way.

And van Rensburg, one of the most popular people in the office who would hold court in the Elizabeth Hotel for a few hours every evening after work, said he was not leaving town like Frankie, and he would be calling into the Elizabeth Hotel from time to time.

After van Renburg’s lavish send-off in the Star building, he was indeed scarce about town – for about a month. Then he began to be seen more and more frequently in the mock-Tudor bar of the hotel across the road from the Star building.

Sometimes he would be seen with his camera bag, but most often not. Sometimes he accepted assignments from the Star for feature articles and sometimes not.

One of the Star’s sports journalists, who had returned from working in the company’s New York bureau, was looking for a photographer for an important, freelance assignment that might aid his dream of returning to America to work there permanently.

While in New York he had made contact with Sports Illustrated magazine and had agreed to supply some features for them about South African sportsman, as part of a wider campaign to compile a resume to be shown to prospective American employees, Sports Illustrated included. The sports journalist knew the golfer Gary Player personally and had arranged to write a feature about an aspect of his life that was not common knowledge, a passion for raising horse racing on a stud in the Karoo town of Colesberg.

Van Rensburg was to go with the sport writer to take pictures.

The photographer’s drinking had become a source of concern for the patrons of the Elizabeth Hotel for some months after his retirement. Worse, Barry van Rensburg was out of step with the craic in the pub, not working at the Star he had little to contribute in conversation about day to day journalism, and the issues that concerned.

It is a common problem for retirees – in all trades and professions – who meet up with former, working colleagues, trying to maintain contact.

Van rensburg, when asked, couldn’t even tell of his adventures as a freelance photographer, his assignments and travels, simply because he did so little.

The trip to photograph Gary Player promised to be an opening for not just the sports writer but Barry van Rensburg, perhaps proving to his ex-colleagues back at the pub that he still had it. It might even give him a new direction that would keep him out of the watering hole, where most afternoons he was to be found waiting for his former colleagues to cross the road from the em>Star.

Barry van Rensburg and the reporter drove for a day into the hot and hostile world of the Karoo. There was Gary Player to meet them with a cup of tea. The interview commenced and when it came to take pictures the trio encountered a problem. Barry van Rensburg had forgotten to bring any film for his camera.

After about a year in the Karoo, Frankie Allen retuned to Johannesburg, not to visit his former colleagues in the Elizabeth Hotel but to frequent another bar well away from the Johannesburg business district, a bar in the apartment-world of Hillbrow where rents were cheap.

Within 16 months of retirement, Barry van Rensburg was dead aged 59, after being declared an alcoholic.