It can take an embarrassing stutter and five seconds of frustration to get into the Jolly Roger, one of Johannesburg’s most popular and proudly independent bars. They do not watch the electronic gate at the entrance as vigilantly as they perhaps should, but a push, a small yet violent oath, a short wait and you walk into a place that is a mish-mash mess of memories for journalists.
There are two neon signs in the downstairs bar of the jolly that for some – most, sadly – of my current colleagues will have little significance or memories that will make them sigh and drift back to misspent days. Directly above the bar is the sign for the Moosehead, a now-defunct bar that once languished in the depths of the Rosebank Mall. It was the haunt of sports teams that visited Joburg and, thus, became the place where a group of us would meet when the afternoon was just right for drinking. The All Blacks ate there. So did some of the Springboks. Those were the days when all you had to do to satisfy a rugby player was to put a plate of beef and a Castle in front of them. Things have, naturally, changed. Now they inhale Nando’s when skint or 15 black plates of sushi from the revolving bar, washed down with a still mineral water and, perhaps, a glass of house plonk.
There were many afternoons a few of us would make our way to the Moosehead because the cellphone signal was rubbish and our bosses could not get hold of us. I recall a rugby writer once arriving and getting on such a skinful that he could not write his report from the Cats training he had just attended. We all chipped in, writing it as a team and then filing it by unplugging the Moosehead’s fax line and using our dial-up number.
Just a metre and some change from the Moosehead sign at the Jolly is one for the Elizabeth Hotel, which has the wonderful words “Press Bar” in relief on it. Before I joined The Star in 1995 I had heard all about The Liz. I longed to go to a press bar. I desired, more than anything, to sit in a pub and listen to old journalists talking nonsense and passing on knowledge and wisdom. I forgot that people went to pubs to drink and to get drunk. Jesus, did they get drunk. I never learnt a thing…except to always, always buy my round.
David O’Sullivan, before (and after) he became an award-winning radio broadcaster, worked for Webber Wentzel, The Star’s lawyers. He recalls arriving at The Star’s buildings in Sauer Street to be informed that the news editors – usually my first boss at The Star, Mike Cohen – were across the road in a, er, meeting. The Star’s legal woes were worked out in a dingy bar. Larry Lombaard, one of South Africa’s finest sports writers, told me of a story when he had a two-hour fight with some of the guys who stripped the pages into place. I spoke to few people at the Liz during my visits there. I picked up little wisdom. It was a crappy bar with good prices and a sense of brother- and sisterhood.
The reason the signs are in the Jolly is because Lebrun Rossouw, the owner, refuses to let the memories of them die (a note: Lebrun once jokingly banned me from the Jolly for declaring the Radium Beer Hall the best bar in Joburg). Gary Burns, an American mate of mine, was the fella who drove past the Liz in Sauer Street (next door to the ANC headquarters) and saw it was being knocked down. It was he who called the construction people and rescued the sign. As I type this he is on his way to have a beer with me in the Jolly. We have memories to share.
On facebook, a godforsaken entity I try my best to avoid (I have a passionate and mostly monogamous relationship with Twitter), a thread or page has been started for journalists from the 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond. It has become quite addictive as those who drank, drugged or abstained through those years swop memories and stories. I wish I had more stories to tell, but most of mine will never make the newspaper to protect the not-very-innocent. I could tell you about the writer who once pounded away, writing what he thought was a story, only to be told that his keyboard had been taken away for repairs the night before and he was typing on the desk. I could tell you about a man who once went missing in action and sent a telex to his employers that read (and I may misquote here) “Won money on the July. F*ck you. Take Sapa.”
Memories make us. They are why I go to the Jolly to watch sport. They are why I cover it. They are why I love it.