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Endless Lunch With Our Men in Africa

We’re talking about writing, old style journalism. I’m sitting with three veterans of African journalism; two ex newspaper editors and one foreign correspondent. One of the editors is my father, Rex Gibson.

Right now it doesn’t matter what their names are, what matters more is that their brand of journalism is little more than a wistful memory for those of us who followed after.

They are tirelessly exploring another unofficial investigation of an old, very gruesome murder. The new facts come to light cannot be divulged on these humble pages but the FBI, the CIA and the notorious South African security organization BOSS were mentioned.

You get the sense that these men have never stopped, that their curiosity and nose for ‘what really happened’ refuses to lie down and take a much earned breather.

They were a close knit, pen toting band of fearless print warriors in those days, talented people from everywhere landing in darkest Africa to cover the juiciest stories, always exciting, often dangerous, facing impossible odds and deadlines to get critical information out to the rest of the world.

I sit back in my chair and give the local white in my deep glass a casual swirl watching the way the light refracts, thinking back on the good ol’ days when truth was still a prize people were prepared to pay for.

We’re at the Art Café on the main street of a tiny little town called Stanford nestled in the Cape Overberg mountains a couple of scenic hours from Cape Town.

We’ve done a quick recce, driving up and down the short, narrow, dust covered streets looking at the beautiful Cape Dutch houses, many of them lovingly restored, much as they were over a hundred years ago. Harvey Tyson used to be the editor of South Africa’s biggest daily newspaper but now, in the back seat, he’s the self appointed tour guide, sitting forward like a kid, pointing wildly: “Go here. Go here”.

We have the windows down so we can crane our necks and catch glimpses of quiet open doorways and warm, golden, wide-plank flooring, the curve of bentwood antique chairs at casual angles on deep stone porches. There’s even a grassy village square where a dark haired girl in jodhpurs tussles with a spirited horse as passersby stop to watch. If you look above the few rows of low, single storied white washed houses you see the looming shadow of the blue-purple Kleinrivier Mountains, as still as the square and the surrounding streets.

A stone church, hundreds of years old, stands sentry on a street corner off the square, watching as the years slide by in a slumber and the people come and they go.

A year ago this peaceful little mountain village was rudely awoken by the crack of gunshots. The low slung Stanford Inn is open for business again but the proprietor is not there. Two gun-slinging robbers took his money and his life and disappeared with them into the night.

People still leave their doors open, unusual in South Africa, even before the murder. They still prop themselves up against the wooden door frames and survey the still air and the very occasional passers by.

For a town this small there are a healthy number of eating places, signs that the murder created only a momentary pause in Stanford’s transformation from it’s sleeping self into a modest little center for artists of all kinds.

This is probably why the fabled Peter Younghusband, gravitated here some years back. The place has a simple, fresh, undiscovered charm. One day it may be just another self-consciously cool destination but for now it has its understated history set in this quietly magnificent landscape. Part of its attraction is the fact that it’s still a little rough around the edges.

So is Our Man In Africa. When I notice Harvey call him over from his position leaning against the dark wood counter talking quietly with the local owners of the place, I’m embarrassed the way I always am when people make overtures I wouldn’t dare to make myself. Maybe he doesn’t want to join us. I mean we’re alright, from my perspective, but he looks cooler, a lovingly crafted caricature of the type literally honed, grooved and tousled by decades spent gathering scoops over drinks at hundreds, maybe thousands, of different watering holes across the continent.

But on the second beckoning he lumbers over, settles his large frame in a chair he pulls up from the empty table behind us.

A deep glass of robust South African Cabernet for him too, we indicate to the English lass who has also found her way to this unassuming hamlet and is waiting on our gathering of increasingly exuberant ex-journalists reliving old times.

Now its officially entertainment. I can’t sit back further, but if I could I would. I’m taking notes, literally. These men have lived. They have done things I lack the imagination to dream. I remember, as a child, never wanting to go to bed when they visited, these foreign correspondents. They had opinions on everything, even the few things they knew nothing about, and they’d throw their considerable intellectual weight behind them and more than a couple of glasses of red wine. They’d tell stories, conjure them before your eyes. They were true stories, tales that had you riveted.

The thing is nothing has changed. Decades have passed it is true. They are no longer working for newspapers but their memories transcend time. All of them in their late seventies, early eighties, all still writing, still birthing books.

Now I see more clearly then ever before that they will never get old, they’ll die long before that. Life is irresistible to them, they are still cynically prostrate at it’s feet, still arguing about every aspect of it, still lighting up with the sheer adventure, still drinking a river.

This is what I want to be when, and if, I grow up.


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