I am blessed with a husband who loves stories. Chris Marais has been listening to them, writing them, recounting them and living them in a long career that has spanned four decades – two in the old South Africa and two in the new.
He worked for and among the greats of journalism, back when no one had any idea that this fascinating epoch would one day be seen as the peak of print media in South Africa.
Remember that feisty Apartheid-fighting newspaper called the Rand Daily Mail? Remember Scope magazine, known fondly as the Boere Playboy? Chris spent years writing for both.
Over years I’ve heard most of the stories of those crazy times and people. Photographer Noel Watson and the Moonshine Trip into SA’s stranger backroads. Les Bush and the Killer Pinks in Hillbrow. Herman Potgieter and the Tiger Moths over Botswana. Greg Marinovich and Sex in the New SA. Lawyers, guns and daisies. The stoned Carlton Hotel bombers. Being tossed around (literally) by AWB heavies.
It wasn’t all newspaper or magazine stuff. At the age of 27, Chris had left the RDM for a year of rambling across America in a battered old panel van with a school buddy, Spike Hansen. Maybe they went to find their cowboy roots or something. They definitely found their drinking hats in New Orleans, and a whole bunch of adventures besides.
So when Chris and I were hitched in 1998, our marriage certificate came with a “season ticket to the Grandstand of Life”, as the veteran hacks used to put it back in the day. We have since wandered the world together in a non-stop series of trips in search of good stories to tell.
For the past 16 years however, there has always been a book on the boil in our house. We began our big travels in Namibia (A Drink of Dry Land, Namibia Space) and went on to spend nearly four months travelling the entire coastline of SA (Shorelines, Coast to Coast).
But it was our growing fascination with, and subsequent move to the Karoo in 2007 that leap-frogged us firmly into the world of Indie publishing (Karoo Space Bookshop). The dry and deep Karoo is a true land of books and storytellers.
Every now and then, though, I would urge Chris to write down the stories of his wild youth. In part, because they gave an insight into that historically interesting era. Periodically he’d indulge me and we even brainstormed a few titles, some more obscure then others. The first one was Infinity Curves, another was more direct: Step Away from the Minibar.
After a while, though, he’d drift away from the idea. An autobiography didn’t sit well with him. Chris didn’t want to be the story.
I wasn’t the only one to encourage him. But the trigger proved to be our neighbour across the road, Alet van den Berg, who said she would dearly love to know more about Chris’s life before he settled down with me.
She must have uttered the right words at the right time. In late 2014 Chris finally sat down and wrote down the stories over a period of several months. In the process, our house was turned upside down to yield fragments of the past, including long-lost clippings from Scope Magazine and ancient photographs of newsrooms in the Seventies and Eighties.
Those wild, hard-drinking journos looked so young! So many are no longer with us. Still, they live and breathe in this book.
The title ended up being quite simple: The Journey Man: A South African Reporter’s Stories.
The first thing Chris will tell you is that this is not an autobiography. It’s not a memoir. Instead, it is a collection of feature stories, the kind of stuff you might have heard recounted in the Fed, the Liz, the Pram Hospital, Vegkop, Mundo Portuguese, the Yard, or any of those mythical Jo’burg journo drinking holes in the good old days.
And just for the record (because people always ask), he was not the guy who put the stars on the nipples. His life was more interesting than that.
The book covers the highly eventful epoch starting in 1976, the year of television test patterns and township violence, and ends in 1994, with the birth of the so-called New South Africa.
Chris wrote about prostitutes, cutthroats, professional stowaways, diamond divers, murderers, addicts, musicians and general hooligans. This book is where you’ll gain an insider’s view of how much was happening in those turbulent times – the townships up in flames, Hillbrow in the good old bad old days, the bike gangs of industrial Jo’burg and the mayhem of Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
Storytellers never escape unscathed from their stories. They all left their mark on him, in one way or another.
Even so, several people (notably my mother) have expressed amazement that he seems so “normal” after such an uproarious life.
One of the most remarkable stories – and one for which he won two major awards – was a series on Wellconal he did for Scope Magazine in the late eighties. Practically every day for six months, he and photographer Les Bush headed out with drug squad police officers Dave van Heerden and Jenny Nel.
They recorded the human devastation wrought because of then-widespread addiction to this morphine-based painkiller, nicknamed Killer Pinks.
For a mad year he became a singer in the famous Silver Creek Mountain Band by night, and Scope’s Johannesburg Bureau Chief by day.
One day I asked him why he had spent so much time travelling through the States when most guys that age were firmly focussed on their careers. And why join a bluegrass band?
“I wanted to expand as a writer. Only real-time experience would give me that. Ronald Reagan’s 1981 America was perfect for me – exotic, with strange people. My year with the Creek put me, finally, on the other side of the microphone and gave me other valuable insights.
“Besides, it was all good fun.”
And, just for that willingness to truly enter into life, I love Chris dearly. It is a life that has made him an interesting man, a good man. He has given me the gift of 26 years of adventures by his side.
The publishing story of The Journey Man is a home-grown family affair. I took the cover shot of Chris walking down a Karoo road with the Camdeboo mountains in the background. Our long-time friend Julia Lloyd, former partner of the late and great photographer Kevin Carter, was the book editor. Another mate from the old newsroom days, Sue Olswang, did the proofreading.
Scope editor Dave Mullany wrote the fiery foreword – and what he says about current day newsrooms will strike a chord with everyone who knows anything about the media today.
One of the most touching moments in the production of The Journey Man was when Chris put out a request to all his old familiars for photographs, especially on-site newsroom images of the various characters in his book. Photographers like Noel Watson, Trevor Samson, Greg Marinovich, Peter Whitfield and David Sandison dug through their archives and helped bring the narrative to life.
My husband dedicated the book to those who shared the open road with him. I’m lucky to count myself among them.