Famous for his Jaundiced Eye newspaper column, William Saunderson-Meyer is revered and reviled for the withering gaze he turns on South African politics. But how does Jaundiced Eye see himself? ‘Opinionated, boisterous, and frightens little children.’
Original publication: Tiscali World Online, 2001.
WORLD ONLINE: You're widely known to newspaper readers for your weekly ‘Jaundiced Eye’ column, a take on current affairs which varies in tone from jaded stoicism to, in its mellower moments, amused irony at the futility of it all. But I have to ask if you have any lesser-known claims to fame amongst your friends, family and foes. Are you, for instance, a keen fly-fisherman, an avid strangler of puppies, or a man earning a fortune in a secret career as a motivational speaker? Tell all.
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: I disavow the puppy strangling and fly-fishing. My sister, who was until recently a GP before moving into academic medicine, confessed one day that she would have preferred to have been a vet but couldn't bear dealing with animals in pain, so she decided rather to treat humans. For one of the few times in our bickering lives I had some empathy with her view.
Oddly enough, though, I do a fair amount of public speaking which can vaguely be classified as motivational, dealing with how South Africans view themselves (and masochistically beat on themselves), but I have never got round to charging big fees. Which might explain both why I am in demand and why I should go and sit myself down and listen to a motivational speaker.
My real claim to fame is that I am, to the best of my knowledge, the country's – nay, possibly the world's – greatest (only) collector of used wine bottle corks. It is a long story, but it has to do with one of those late night dazzling drunken expositions of the imminent international shortage of cork (a scarce natural resource), the increasing ubiquity of plastic replacement stoppers, and concluded with the boast that I alone would manipulate the world cork futures market with my hoard-to-be, becoming a cork millionaire en passant.
So I am not your average wine bum. I drink with a goal and have gathered around me a fine group of friends who although they remain unconvinced of the financial theory, are only too glad to imbibe in order to gather corks for me. The only problem while waiting for the world cork shortage to strikes, is what to do with thousands of corks in the meantime. There are only so many that one can dangle from the brim of one's Aussie bush hat.
WORLD ONLINE: I must confess that I know very little about you apart from the fact that you're a newspaper columnist. I have learned, however, that in addition to having had an illustrious career in journalism, you also run a media and management consultancy. So, please tell me: Who is William Saunderson-Meyer, and what all does this chap get up to?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: Well, ever since my Dad frightened the hell out of me with stories of the Great Depression, I have kept eggs in various baskets. Aside from the media and management consultancy, I write the weekly syndicated ‘Jaundiced Eye’ column, as well as other bits and pieces. I run a small electronic news service called E-Briefs, which delivers tailored news packages from around the world to clients. And [at the time of writing] I am in Canada for the third exhibition of African sculpture that I have curated, which is an aesthetically satisfying interest for someone who would never have the guts to actually create a piece of art himself.
It is probable that I have some kind of an attention disorder, but I enjoy the variety of a number of professional interests. I have never thrived in the corporate environment, so have had to find avenues for self-employment.
WORLD ONLINE: Let's hear a little bit about your background. If there are atrocious secrets in your past, or awe-inspiring success stories, now is as good a time as any to come clean.
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: Born in Zambia, grew up there, Australia and all over South Africa. Went to 12 schools in seven years – English-language, Afrikaans-language, dual medium, boarding, day, single-sex, co-educational – because my father worked on power stations and, as well as being regularly transferred, he always had a curiosity about far-away places.
It was an upbringing that taught me to stand up for myself and left me with a low regard for conventional wisdom. It also meant I was a little precocious, and I am vaguely proud of the fact that I had my first encounter with the Security Police in Standard 5. Since the Nationalists apparently were in typically racist-blinkered fashion expecting the revolution to come from treacherous elements within the white primary school community, it sort of explains why events like the Soweto uprisings took them by surprise.
After school I refused to complete my military service in the commandos. Fortunately it was before the issue of conscription became a rallying point of principle for both sides, so I escaped with a suspended prison sentence instead of having to be a martyr in Detention Barracks.
It took me years to break into journalism (I had no links to the Old Tie brigade that seemed to run what was the Argus Company in those days), but eventually I wriggled my way onto the Rand Daily Mail. At 28 I became assistant editor of the Sunday Tribune under one of the great South African newspaper editors, Ian Wyllie, a tough but unassuming man who has been a lifelong inspiration to me.
Seven or eight years later I was burned out and disillusioned with the low regard that the company had for journalism, as opposed to selling advertising. I resigned in a huff and was fortunate enough to get a yearlong fellowship to Oxford, after which I stayed to do an MSc in management.
I don't transplant well, so in spite of a well-paid job on the Financial Times was always lobbying to come back. My wife, Karen MacGregor, is also a journalist and was doing very well on Fleet Street, but eventually after five years of nagging we returned in 1993 to our home in Durban.
For a time I worked at the University of Natal as their director of public affairs, but after a motor accident in 1996, in which our one daughter died and in which I was terribly injured, I decided to jack in the corporate world for once and all. It was the right decision, but I am a real worrier about whether the next Great Depression might not again be just around the corner, hence the array of activities to keep body and soul together.
WORLD ONLINE: During a trawl on the internet, I discovered that you were a Fellow in Journalism at Oxford University. Given these impeccable credentials, how would you rate the quality of South African journalism in general? ‘Top marks’? ‘Room for improvement’? ‘Student needs to be shot’? Are there any pet gripes you'd like to mention in this regard, worrying tendencies you've noticed, and the like?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: It is variable in quality. The newspaper groups consistently underestimate the intelligence of their readers and give them pap instead of sustenance, hence the falling circulation. That said, it would be unfair to lump them all together. The Mail Guardian is a feisty reminder that press freedom is a never-ending battle, and the Financial Mail and Business Day are both very good.
The most worrying aspect for me is the docile behaviour of some journos who place political loyalties above their duty to their readers. Some are real wusses and go through astonishing intellectual contortions to justify their lack of moral courage.
And, God, am I sick of the epithet 'racist'. If I did not fortuitously find myself out of the country during the UN Racism Conference in Durban, I think I would have had to seek refuge in a cave. It has become the one-word rebuttal of any criticism, as well as an instant exculpation of personal responsibility for the society that we have and are creating in South Africa.
WORLD ONLINE: In your view, what are the personal qualities that journalism requires of its practitioners?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: Bloody-mindedness and an instinctual dislike of cosy in-groups.
WORLD ONLINE: The ‘Jaundiced Eye’ column has been around for quite a while, and I recall that a collection of these pieces has been published in book form. Sorry if this sounds like an Eng Lit 101 exam question, but what would you say have been the recurring themes and preoccupations in this body of writing? An enduring disgust at the excesses, locally and abroad, of political correctness seems to me a key (and hilarious) motif in your writing, for example.
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: Yeah, I hate political correctness. South Africa, as if to make up for the crassness of the past, is a very PC society, but it really is only skin-deep, so to speak. I am always intrigued when travelling to see how robust we are in terms of our discourse, compared to the Europeans and North Americans. They have completely internalised a PC mode for public engagement, but deep inside remain racist, arrogant bastards, convinced of their superiority over the worlds that they once colonised.
I guess my mission as a columnist has always been to tell it how I see it and I have been fortunate indeed to have generally had editors who have been willing to ride out the subsequent storms. For me it has all been therapeutic: I have a low toleration threshold for bullshit and a quick temper, so it has been great to be able to get it off my chest and be paid for it. It's saved me a fortune in therapy.
WORLD ONLINE: What has been the public's reaction to the column, and what attitude have you adopted as a ‘coping strategy’? More generally, what have you found to be the perils and pleasures of putting it out on the proverbial block week after week? Have you been mobbed by bloodthirsty crowds while on the way to the Laundromat? Have women – or men, for that matter – rushed to tear off your clothes in adulation?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: The column is consistently one of the highest-read features in each of the papers that it appears in, which is a clear indication that although I might piss people off, they accept that I am an disinterested observer, in that I am not flogging an ideological line. Also, I make a point of never just taking a contrary view for the sake of it, so there is an intellectual integrity (I know that sounds pompous!) that runs through the writing and makes it easier to defend at parties when I come under fire.
Nevertheless, there are people who dislike me intensely, although they are intellectual types who snipe from the shrubbery and would fortunately be hard put upon to take a poke at one's nose.
As for adulation, my Mum thinks the column is a jolly good read and that it should be a compulsory feature in all newspapers. No one has yet pawed at my clothing, but if there is any nubile female out there in whose bosom my writing arouses strong passions, I would love to hear from her.
WORLD ONLINE: What aspects of South African national life (a.) trouble you the most, (b.) cheer you up the most, and (c.) give you the loudest laugh? (I'm assuming that a, b, and c refer in your mind to different categories of experience.)
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: That's a tough one.
(a.) The inferiority complex that South Africans have that causes us to envy the countries of the developed world, instead of getting on with our own African lives.
(b.) That we are still a frontier society and – in spite of the downside of crime and chaos – it gives us a lot of space in which to grow. Hell, for one we don't have to sort our garbage into eight immutable categories, as they have to do in Switzerland. Also, South Africans are as individuals the friendliest, kindest people one could hope to meet.
(c.) The weird contradictions in our society between first and third worlds throw up incongruities every day. And I did roar with laughter when the Strydom Monument in Pretoria collapsed on what used to be Republic Day, especially since I had once as a young hothead struck at its monolithic architecture and ideology by pouring red dye into its fountain system.
WORLD ONLINE: Who have been the role models, thinkers, mentors and so on who've been most influential in your career? In the same vein, who are your favourite authors – and, indeed – journalists?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: I hero-worshipped Winston Churchill and Biggles when I was a kid. Authors: Paul Theroux for his versatility, and a whole array of thriller-writers, whose works I consume compulsively. Journalists: It makes me uncomfortable to single out practising journos, although there are many whose work I respect, but I as a child I enjoyed Sunday Times columnist Molly Reinhard and Joel Mervis's Passing Show, while I still enjoy the eccentric brilliance of Ken Owen.
WORLD ONLINE: What kind of guy is William Saunderson-Meyer like to be around – a stern workhorse or all laughs and party tricks ... what?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: Opinionated, loud, boisterous, and frightens little children. Essentially, however, all bark and little bite, though I am working on it.
WORLD ONLINE: A final question: What lies in your future – any projects you'd care to divulge, or new books one can expect ...?
SAUNDERSON-MEYER: Yesterday I read a grief psychologist's quip that we are all in the checkout lane, we just don't know how long the queue is. My only project is to learn to exploit the wait for every ounce of enjoyment.
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