Wednesday, January 8, 2020
Inside stories by the wazee: Mike Parry (Nation 13)
Mike Parry and photographer Azhar Chaudhry
Life in the golden age
BACK in December 1960, when Patrice Lumumba, first prime minister of the Congo was a few weeks away from ending his short life, I was about to begin my long career in journalism. The weekend after finishing my education at the Prince of Wales, now Nairobi School, I was sitting in the proof-reading room of the Daily Nation and beginning an unexpected education in the finer points of bringing out a daily newspaper.
The first edition of the Nation had been printed just a couple of months before when on October 3, 1960 the new newspaper was born. It was to be my learning ground for the next nine years – and it could have been longer but for the paper’s reluctance to be fair to its locally employed staff.
To be honest, journalism was not top of my mind as a profession as 1960 wound down with exams and the prospect of earning a living. My best subject was English and when the Nation put a notice on the school board offering an apprenticeship in newspapers, it seemed worthwhile to marry the two.
My father would have preferred to send me to the UK where I could try for a cadetship on newspapers and be trained in the heart of journalism. I had a good circle of friends in Kenya as well as a steady girl friend and I did not want to be parted from them for a country I had only recently left.
So, from my days of being a carefree schoolboy with more interest in teenage parties than political parties, I was suddenly proof-reading local and world news in the pokey room where Jack Bottell and his team operated – all European readers assisted by African copyholders. No summer holidays for me – just straight into learning about type sizes, galleys, literals and page proofs as Lumumba was put to death by a makeshift firing squad watched on by Moise Tshombe.
All local and overseas copy ended up in that little proof-reading room where, it seemed, everyone smoked. Everyone had a source for cheap NAAFI fags and puffing and proof-reading seemed made for each other. I rarely saw Mona Blakely without a cigarette on her lips and, up the curly stairwell to the newsroom, subs and reporters were just as supportive of the tobacco industry.
An escape was to go and talk and flirt with the incredibly sexy Laila, the lovely Ismaili who was about my age and, like me, had just started on the paper. We were good friends and, if it wasn’t for the social rules of the time, I’d have gladly had her as a girlfriend. Laila was the sweetest person and deserved more out of life than she got in later years.
They were exciting times, not just being part of the infectious business of news gathering but because I was one of an enthusiastic multiracial group all keen on seeing the Daily Nation succeed against the odds and against the East African Standard, which had been going since 1905.
Resources were slim – copy from the established news agencies only ran for a few hours a day at first. The library – a necessary source of background before an interview – had few cuttings. Even seating was limited in the newsroom and finding a typewriter – one that worked smoothly – was almost as difficult as getting the story.
All this was ahead of me because, a year after joining the Nation, I was called up for National service in the Kenya Regiment. I attended an appeals panel with Bob Petty, who had some recruitment title, but our request for a deferment was denied and in January 1962 I found myself in Lanet with 75 other teenagers being inducted into army life by British NCOs.
When I returned in July, the Nation was not quite sure what to do with me. They’d promised some form of training but there was no set structure. African journalists who showed promise were sent overseas. Locals like myself and Cyprian Fernandes were left to our own devices.
I was put out of sight in the telex room, supposedly overseeing the operation and deciding what copy from the agencies was to be sent on to our branches in Kampala and Dar es Salaam. The main operator was Joel, very good on the keyboard even when drunk, which was often. He reluctantly tolerated this young mzungu just as the newspaper tolerated his frequent pub visits – probably because of his seniority in the print union.
The incessant chat-chat of the telexes had its excitement – like during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and, years later, when I watched as an Associated Press story, bearing my by-line, came back over the wires.
It was probably Sports Editor Brian Marsden who gave me an escape from the wire room. He allowed me to write the occasional sports report and, surreptitiously it seemed, I snuck into the newsroom with the help of David Barnett, the Aussie News Editor – later to become Malcolm Fraser’s press secretary – who got me onto the diary.
A word of praise here for Joe Rodrigues, a friend and quiet mentor, who encouraged my efforts while pointing out my mistakes. Joe was a great newspaperman, unfairly overlooked on the Nation because he was not African. He was always fair, well-respected and died far too young. But I was privileged to have worked with him.
Things seemed to happen quickly in 1963. I was covering all sorts of stories but not always with enthusiasm. I hated courts and disliked Parliament. I loved human interest stories especially those involving Kenya’s tourism and wildlife industries.
And being first on the scene did not always guarantee success. Within hours of a reported mutiny and possible coup at Lanet Barracks – where I trained the previous year – photographer Anil Vidyarthi and I were racing to the scene, twice being buzzed by British soldiers who exercised an ambush drill – rifles at the ready - as we passed them on the road.
Our attempts to turn right to Lanet were foiled by a roadblock. This is an ongoing emergency, we were told, before being ordered into Nakuru. Our first report that night was our last. We were barred from leaving Nakuru and even though we broke out on a backroad the next day, it was all too late. The coup attempt was over and the slower media, who left Nairobi long after us, were given an escorted tour of the barracks and beat us with story and pictures. We limped back to Nairobi after them, after being towed for the final section because we had mortally wounded the office car during our off-road antics.
In 1964, turning 21, I met the love of my life and got engaged to Valerie, my wife of 53 years. With their usual bad timing, the Nation then asked me to become the paper’s correspondent in Uganda in place of Rex Brindle. It would mean living in Kampala but with the promise of a flight to Nairobi once a month to see my fiancée!
Val and I decided to chance the separation. It would test our love but also give me a chance to broaden my skills as the Uganda correspondent. The six months I spent in Kampala gave me a freedom away from the daily news list and I developed as a columnist and a film reviewer.
Getting out Uganda was a lot harder. Despite promises that the posting was only for six months, the Nation was not rushing to find a replacement. Eventually, I arranged for my visa to expire and my car vehicle licence to run out and I returned quietly to the Nairobi newsroom the next Monday morning. I was lucky enough to write the front-page lead for six straight days on return – something about a big strike, I think – and deserting my post was never mentioned again.
Like all journalists, I had my share of scoops and misses on the Nation. We can all list pop stars and princes, pioneers and prime ministers that we’ve interviewed along with criminals and comedians. The early hits are in a box of cuttings somewhere. We all wrote thousands of words at what I believe was the most exciting time in newspapers – the days of tight deadlines and hot metal, when stories were balanced and written without a personal slant.
There were no mobile phones to make the job easy. You had to find a phone that worked when sending in urgent copy. Dictating a story from scratch was a skill developed on the job. And proof was always vital.
Such caution seems severe today, but it was the way things were done back then. We did not publish rumours or gossip and even diary pages were guarded when it came to tittle-tattle. No stories about celebrity marriage splits, royal bumps or addictions.
Around 1969, I confronted a bearded Paul McCartney in the crowded Thorn Tree. He denied – three times! - he was a holidaying Beatle. By the time I had rung the office again to ask what had happened to the photographer, McCartney and his mates had disappeared. For days after, both newspapers staked out local hotels (neither admitting why they were doing so) in an effort to nail McCartney. The day before leaving Nairobi, a little girl spotted McCartney at a local swimming pool and asked for his autograph. He obliged. Her father took this “proof” to the Standard which ran the story. The Nation missed out.
It was around this time that I left the Nation. By then, I had a regular column on tourism and wildlife. My stories on poaching were not always well received by members of the ruling elite and others in government which got me worried about our future in Kenya with a young family.
Most European journalists were from the United Kingdom. All were on overseas contracts and every two years enjoyed paid leave out of Kenya. I was among the few with no such safeguards. When I asked for some future protection, for the family to be repatriated in an emergency, it was refused. So, reluctantly, I left to join the Standard.
While I enjoyed overseas leave and entitlements and greater privileges as a columnist, my switch in papers probably coincided with a change in the fortunes of both publications, with the Nation being more widely accepted by its African readers – which was always the goal of the paper’s founders. The Nation’s great coverage of Tom Mboya’s assassination, I suggest, was probably a turning point.
I enjoyed four years on the Standard and not a few scoops – telling the world of plans to turn Ngorongoro over to agriculture and George Adamson’s graphic description of shooting his beloved lion Boy were two memorable yarns – before it was time to leave Kenya for family reasons.
I have worked on half a dozen newspapers in Durban, Perth and Sydney since those heady days in Nairobi but my time on the Nation was possibly the most memorable for the time and the place. I worked with some top people and shared many drinks at the Sans Cheque. I can’t remember all the names of colleagues and I’d insult those left out. I know many have long gone – some far too early – so it is good to be in touch with those still around – like my old mate Skip Fernandes and, of course, my favourite Nation photographer, Azhar Chaudhry.
Azhar got pissed taking photographs at my 21st birthday, took the shots to record our 1966 wedding and, I am happy to say, re-entered our lives ten years ago when we resumed our friendship in Dubai. We go back a long way, to the early days of the Nation when Azhar had two legs to the present time when my old whisky-drinking mate has had more marriages than most people have limbs.
Few journalists of our era are impressed by today’s media. Somehow the 24-hour news cycle, often fed by an unfounded rumour mill lacks the authenticity of our days hunting stories. And social media, with its unsubstantiated anonymous attacks on individuals, is not a freedom to be lauded.
Working on the Nation had its frustrations, but any failures were always forgotten by the elation of nailing a good exclusive splash and knowing that the by-line was well earned in what was the golden age of journalism.
David Barnet, Azhar Chaudry, Mike Parry at work covering the East African Safari, once the highlight of the Nairobi Easter Weekend
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