Kevin Ritchie talks to Darrel Bristow-Bovey as he dives into literary waters with an ironic tip of the hat to swimmer Lewis Pugh.
Just over 10 years ago, there was only one writer in South African journalism: Darrel Bristow-Bovey.
The only nationally syndicated columnist in the country under 35, he was prolific, writing best-selling books and appearing almost simultaneously in competing newspapers, the Cape Times, Business Day, Sunday Independent, and he was good. Supernaturally good.
He won the Mondi awards for excellence in magazine writing so often over six years that judging convener Dennis Beckett asked him to stop entering to give other writers a chance.
In return Beckett made Bristow-Bovey a judge himself.
But, like Icarus, Bristow-Bovey flew too close to the sun. He was caught out by a journalism student interning on the Saturday Star who’d spotted that passages in his best-selling Naked Bachelor had been lifted from a book by US humorist Bill Bryson without proper attribution.
The response was as immediate as it was vicious. His fans – and they were legion – turned on the Saturday Star for having the temerity to point this out, citing in that quintessential South African way there were other far worse things happening across the country deserving of censure.
Bristow-Bovey escaped sanction from his editors, but then he was caught again; this time in his columns.
He fell on his sword and disappeared. Once the country’s highest-paid writer, a notable name on the Joburg social scene, he disappeared, as the row over him raged with increasing bitterness.
This time it was directed at him and fanned by some of the very journalists who had once backed him, but who were now tripping over themselves to get as far from the fallout as possible.
By the end of 2003, columnists were referring to the scandal – which in fairness had just been one part of South African journalism’s annus horribilis, which had included the disgrace of a national newspaper editor and the firing of a magazine editor for plagiarism – as the biggest row to have hit the industry since the maligned Human Rights Commission probe into racism in the media, five years before.
Of Bristow-Bovey there was no sight, at least not in newspapers. He was unemployed for almost a year, writing under a pseudonym where he could. A friend threw him a bone and he was back earning a trade, the only way he knew how, through words, but from the ground up.
If you looked closely over the last 10 years, you might have seen his byline, this time as a rolling credit on TV as part of the creative team behind e.tv’s most successful soapie, Rhythm City.
He’d also started writing again, columns for in-house magazines and a blog, “hiding in plain sight”, as he puts it.
“I didn’t want to write,” he said last week during a promotional tour for his memoir One Midlife Crisis and A Speedo, “but my publishers pushed me. I was scared. I didn’t know if people wanted to hear from me. I didn’t know if I wanted to hear from me.”
Writing a daily drama for e.tv from Cape Town, commuting every week to Joburg for creative meetings, was a totally different experience for him. To start with, it’s teamwork, not individualistic, and accordingly far less exposing than a column.
On May 13 last year, he emerged in The Times, given a break by editor Stephen Haw. There was a collective sigh among those who remembered his disgrace that his decade in coventry appeared to be over, but within weeks he was a regular weekly fixture with his Friday column even more compelling than 10 years before – and he’d written another book.
His columns, though, had changed from a decade before: “I’d thought they were self-exposing, they weren’t, they were self-dramatising. I’m trying to be honest in my writing. I’m less concerned with the effects of being funny and rather being truthful.
“When you’re young, I was 26 when it started, you’re trying to be noticed, you don’t care who you hurt,” Bristow-Bovey wrote.
In his second column for The Times, Bristow-Bovey used the opportunity to pay tribute to veteran South African showbiz writer Barry Ronge on the eve of his retirement and to apologise publicly for gleefully monstering the doyen in his heyday.
“I remember writing ‘black is supposed to be slimming, but with his bright beads and brocade waistcoats, Barry’s gone for the hide in plain sight strategy’. That was the guy that I was, the guy that I didn’t want to be any more.”
His fall from grace, Bristow-Bovey says, was akin to blunt force trauma. “You say to yourself, ‘I’m handling this quite well. I’m not imploding, not drinking too much, not crying, but only later do you realise the full extent of the damage, particularly to your self- confidence.
“With any writer, there’s the little voice of doubt, with me those voices were in overdrive, screeching, ‘The critics were right all along’, but you realise it’s a process you have to go through.
“The voices are like little David Bullard’s (the disgraced former Sunday Times columnist), they don’t mean anything. You can’t take them seriously, but it’s a long process of realising and getting over the shock of not just what’s happened to you, but of the disappointment you have caused others – and yourself.”
Bristow-Bovey had revelled in his new life writing TV scripts. A perennial overachiever he even won three Saftas. He fought the pressure to come back into mainstream newspapers.
“I felt like I had successfully started a new life, I had no desire to be back in the public eye. I even considered writing under a pseudonym and refused to do radio interviews when the column started.
“Even now, I keep expecting a fresh round of unpleasantness.”
His new book, One Midlife Crisis and A Speedo, an ironic tip of the hat to adventure swimmer and environmentalist Lewis Pugh’s 21 Yaks and A Speedo, reflects this newfound maturity, while losing none of the brilliance that pushed him to such dizzy heights all those years ago.
It’s simultaneously sidesplittingly funny and unsparingly honest as Bristow-Bovey navigates the pitfalls of his newfound mortality, heralded by the threshold of middle age. It’s a coming-of-age tale that’s part-memoir, part-travelogue and part-redemption tale.
Beautifully weighted and achingly well written, it’s a compelling read about a man making sense of his life, the tragedies and the triumphs, and finally growing up. It couldn’t have been better timed. Once again Bristow-Bovey has become the writer the rest of us would do anything to become.
* Ritchie is the editor of The Star