Vision and Realism: a Life in Press Politics
Shirley Dent talks to Barry Duke
Geometric light: solid curves and sudden flourishes. Vision and realism surround Barry Duke amidst the art deco treasures of his Greenwich shop. Vision and realism have other echoes in Barry's life. Vision and realism is the title of Jim Herrick's history of The Freethinker, the journal Barry Duke edits for the National Secular Society. And Barry's experience of working as a court reporter for the Johannesburg Star during the 1960s apartheid regime was of a few visionary newspapers revealing and rebutting the brute realities of South Africa at that time.
"For forty years freedom of speech was virtually non-existent ... the ANC was banned, the communist party was banned and the newspapers, particularly the English speaking newspapers, were being particularly brave and I began to realise how much influence they had and how much they were a source of annoyance to the regime and I thought, yes, I want to be part of this, I want to wind them up as much as I can and still stay out of jail."
Barry managed the first part of this wish very successfully, often relying on blunt faced satire to ridicule the absurdity of a segregated, censored society in the South African version of Time Out Barry's monthly column was based on the Government Gazette banning lists (Black Beauty, the children's book, was at one time banned in South Africa). Lampooning the lists was a tactic that worked. 'The more intense a regime is the less they like to be laughed at if you laugh at them they fall apart'. The effect was that Time Out also managed to make the lists it was eventually banned.
The second part of Barry's wish to stay out of jail began to look increasingly in danger. The gradual build up of events that accumulated in Barry leaving South Africa reveal a deeply paranoid society. It was not Barry's political writings that first got him noticed by the South African police. But something that we take for granted: he wanted to visit some friends. These friends happened to live in Soweto and Barry needed written permission to visit them which was duly granted with a permit allowing Barry to visit between 6am and 6pm.
"I wrote back saying 'This is ridiculous' there is nobody in Soweto between the hours of 6am and 6pm because all the black residents were out working. I wanted a permit that said 6pm until 6am. And then I was brought into a police station and asked what purpose I could possibly have for visiting a black township after dark. I said that my friends were there this was very, very suspicious as a consequence of that I suddenly discovered that my phone was being tapped, I had a policeman outside my front door almost on a 24 hour basis and people around me were suddenly being pulled in by special branch and asked questions."
Events began to escalate. 'A black journalist I worked with was arrested in a park, just outside the Star offices, for being in possession of Communist literature he was reading a book of Chinese poetry and I objected to his arrested. Then I was arrested for obstructing the police in the course of their ...etc. etc..' When Barry had his press pass revoked, he realised that it was not the NUJ, as would be expected, who controlled the issue of the essential passes, but the police. 'I had been covering a trial of ANC members who were up on terrorism charges. I had tried to speak to some of the defendents privately during the course of the trial and I was ordered away at machine gun-point. When I next turned up at the trial I was asked for my press pass by a police man and I gave it to him and he just took it.' The state response was a block of negativity. "You can't have your press pass back which was like saying 'Don't bother to work as a journalist any more because we won't let you cover anything of any importance'".
Barry shrugged this off and set his sights on investigative journalism. But the state had set its sights on Barry and his every move seemed dogged. "So many people around me were being picked off and I felt a banning order was about to be slapped on me if they couldn't prove anything against you in a court of law, the banning order mechanism was used which meant that you were confined to your house and you couldn't meet more than two people at any given time.' Barry's then editor reviewed the situation. "He said 'You seem to have got yourself into such deep water here that you may be best to leave' I said 'fine'". As ex-editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Barry's boss hatched a plot. "He said 'What I am going to do is send you to London and park you in Fleet Street for a year and then transfer you to Sydney where you can take up a post on the Morning Herald.'"
So Barry duly left. But Sydney was not to be: "During the year I was in London, my ex-editor dropped dead of a heart-attack at his desk. He was the only person who knew of our mutual arrangement . At the end of the year I was told to come back to South Africa by the new editor and I said I can't do that because I've burnt my bridges and I am very much afraid I will be arrested the moment I arrive back .... so I washed up in London and I've been here ever since."
Barry continued to write about the apartheid regime, contributing to left-wing journals, including The Freethinker (which also made the banning lists). And South Africa was still being wound up by Barry. "I went to the South African embassy to renew my passport. The clerk came back with my renewal and said 'while we're at it you may as well have these' and he produced a great big folder. I said 'What's that?' and he said 'Oh just some stuff the previous regime were keeping on file about you.'"