A story of journalism, once! Number 49 in a series of short stories by Don Knowler on his journalistic life and observations told through imaginary newspaper The Chronicle. He explores not only journalism but what Knowler terms the sacred covenant hacks have with their readers to put truth above all else, even if it means leaving the comfort of the bar to do so … His musings appear regularly grouped under the Category Don Knowler
Sarah Barrell looked out of place in the war zone that was Rhodesia. The tall and willowy American, lanky and blonde, carried a sophisticated air. She would have been more at home on the catwalk than tramping through the thornveld in khaki with notebook and camera in hand.
Sarah Webb Barrell stood out from the other foreign correspondents and photographers covering the bush war, partly because she didn’t associate with them at their watering holes like the Quill Club in the Rhodesian capital, Salisbury.
Barrell didn’t hunt with the pack. She went her own way, and preferred the company of Rhodesian soldiers and farmers to that of the press corps.
This aloofness, this show of individualism put her at odds with many of the correspondents, particularly the hard-bitten types from Fleet Street, and the “vultures’‘, as she termed them, would eventually turn against her.
Don Bentley heard less-than-flattering stories about Sarah Barrell before he met her. Bentley arrived in Salisbury one hot afternoon at the end of a two-day drive from Johannesburg, to receive a briefing on the workings of the office he was about to inherit. The young British reporter in love with Africa had been appointed bureau chief of the Johannesburg Star in Salisbury, the start of a two-year assignment at the height of the Rhodesian war.
Bentley would see out the death of white-ruled Rhodesia, and the death of Sarah Barrell.
Bentley was shocked on that first day in Rhodesia to be told that one of the press corps number, Barrell, was a former high-class prostitute who now got her kicks from hanging out with soldiers, particularly the officer class. In a bar overlooking Salisbury’s Cecil Square, the outgoing bureau chief making way for Bentley had told him all about Sarah her. It was information Bentley didn’t particularly want to hear. He was more concerned with discovering the difficulties he might encounter covering the bush war. But Bentley’s predecessor, an Afrikaner returning to head office in Johannesburg, seemed obsessed with Sarah Barrell, as did the Fleet Street journalists with whom the South African drank each afternoon in the bars of Salisbury. The Fleet Street journalists were a powerful bunch within the press corps; the Rhodesian bush war receiving powerful play in the London papers, where the British public wanted to read about their colonial kin fighting the black tide that was sweeping through Africa following the break-up of the British empire.
In the popular British press, the Rhodesian war became a battleground of cliches. White farmers with their backs to the wall flying the flag of civilisation in Africa. Into the battlefield of cliche stepped Sarah Barrell and her reputation, at least among those who did not know her, was sullied forever. With the adage, “Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story’‘, the Rhodesia press corps turned on one of their own.
Barrell lent herself to cliche. There was something alluring about a stunning blonde in the African bush, who had a soldier as a lover _ a war hero at that. The story that had done the rounds of the press club since Barrell’s arrival two years’ previously told of a former model and high-class prostitute in New York falling in love with a photographer, following him to Vietnam and picking up a camera herself, seduced by war and the men who fought it.
Before her arrival in Rhodesia, Barrell was no stranger to counter-insurgency war zones and rumour had it that in Vietnam she stole a march on press corps rivals by securing flights on helicopters using means denied her male colleagues. It was also suggested she was the basis of spy writier John Le Carre’s creation Lizzie Worthington in his novel set in south-east Asia, The Honourable Schoolboy.
Bentley took it all with a pinch of salt. He had other things to worry about in Rhodesia - the challenge of a new job, a difficult assignment, an adventure – ahead of listening to tittle-tattle about members of the press corps.
Then Bentley met Sarah Barrell, while on assignment in a remote village that had been the subject of a guerrilla attack. Bentley recognised her immediately. She was indeed beautiful, blonde and willowy. And friendly. She approached him, noting that he was a new face in town.
``Hi, I’m Sarah,’’ she said with a West Virginian drawl and held out her hand to shake his. It was soft and delicate, but the handshake still firm, confident. It was the grip of one of the countless Rhodesian army officers Bentley had been introduced to, and tobacco farmers and ranchers in the frontline of the war.
Bentley could not remember what they had discussed that first day. Probably events unfolding down south in South Africa, in the townships of Soweto and Alexandra where Bentley had covered the student uprising of 1976.
Bentley had never known a high-class prostitute, just a few low-class ones after too much ale in the bars of Johannesburg and he didn’t quite know what to look for, what might set a high-class prostitute apart from other women. Sarah certainly didn’t look the part.
Bentley and Sarah Barrell became friends and would often meet up on assignments, or travel together. He preferred her to the other Americans working in Rhodesia. They tended not to work for the popular press, as with most of the British correspondents, but represented ultra-serious newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times. The American correspondents took their work seriously, too seriously for Bentley, and seemed to forget that journalism was also about fun. Sarah Barrell was determined to have fun aplently.
Some of the other correspondents would take Bentley aside and ask what he was doing with her, was he having sex with her, or did she give a good blow job, as the man from London’s Observer put it. He better watch out for her soldier boyfriend.
It was well known that Barrell’s lover was Major Andre Dennison, officer commanding A Company of the 2nd Battalion of the Rhodesia African Rifles. Bentley had met him one night, when Barrell and Dennison were together and she had called Bentley over to chat.
The affair with Dennison cemented the popular view that Barrell targeted military men, was an army groupie. Following the end of the Vietnam war there had been a drift of American troops to Rhodesia to sign up for combat there. They were not viewed as mercenaries as such - hired guns, Dogs of War - but merely professional soldiers signing up with the army of an established government to fight what, in American terms, was a communist insurgency. They attracted a following of Rhodesian woman, often to the resentment of home-grown troops.
The route to Rhodesia followed by Vietnam veterans had been the same one travelled by Barrell’s lover, but from Britain. Dennison was a much-decorated British military officer, a paratrooper and member of the British Special Air Services who in the 1950s and 1960s had fought in mini-wars that embraced Suez, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.
Sarah drove a natty red Alfa-Romeo sports car and would take this on country assignments, with Bentley in the passenger seat. Barrell had forgone the rule that journalists should not be armed and carried a .38 Special revolver Dennison had given her for protection. She was not alone among journalists in Rhodesia in this respect, because civilians, be they foreign journalists or not, were often considered a target.
Bentley, uncomfortable about carrying a gun, had at first eschewed the Israeli Uzi machine-pistol in the office gun cabinet and had settled for a pump-action sawn-off shotgun. He hoped and prayed he would never have to use it.
In more dangerous parts of the country, Bentley would carry the shotgun on his lap, its barrell hanging out the open window of Barrell’s sports car. Bentley had not only learned to swing a shotgun during his days as a journalist in Africa. He had also learned to use a camera, but found this got in the way of reporting. Sarah Barrell had no such worries. The camera was her focus and her pictures were perfect. Bentley might not have an eye for taking a photograph but he could appreciate Barrell’s, and he began to look for them in foreign publications arriving in Rhodesia, often brought in by visiting foreign correspondents.
Many of the visiting journalists were looked on with suspicion by the Rhodesian public, who demanded the same partisan coverage for their war that they received in the local press. Sarah Barrell, however, won the respect of the people she photographed, mixing sympathy with objectivity in her dealings with her subjects, particularly those civilians at the “sharp end’’ of the war, the farmers.
So often, the foreign correspondents would arrive on military-arranged forays into the bush, “facility trips’‘, to take stock pictures of farmer’s wives, and kids, with guns and then leave. Barrell on the other hand spent nights on farms. Bentley remembered her telling him how she had timed a trip to an outlying settlement a little late and had arrived just as darkness was falling. The landlady of the local hotel, the building hidden behind a barbed wire fence, was amazed to find a woman, travelling alone, shouting out from behind the already locked gates to see if the establishment had a room for the night.
Bentley had a photograph from this trip of an elderly woman holding a landmine she had dug up from her farm drive. The woman had a faint, defiant smile but the circular land mine, with an inner ring where the fuse was inserted, corresponded with the contours of her face, circles of strain in the grain of her skin around the eyes and mouth.
The last trip Bentley took with Sarah Barrell was a journey in Barrell’s Alfa-Romeo to the shores of Lake Kariba to the west, from where they hitched a lift on a police launch plying the waters of the giant dam on the Zambezi. The launch, festooned with machine-guns, took them to a safari lodge where tourists still went to watch elephants and lions. It was haven from guerrillas and war and made a good human interest story.
Andre Dennison had been off fighting guerrillas in a far-flung corner of Rhodesia and Barrell was keen to catch up with him again when Bentley and she returned to Salisbury. But there was bad news, tragic news for Sarah. Dennison had been killed in a firefight with guerrillas near the ancient Zimbabwe Ruins site in the east of the country. As the days went by, and details of the encounter became known, it was learned that Dennison had not been killed by guerrillas but had died in friendly fire. The Zimbabwe Ruins Hotel had come under attack and patrons inside, including Dennison, had gone out in search of the raiders. Coming round the side of the hotel, in the dark, he had been shot by a policeman mistaking him for a guerrilla.
Barrell was distraught. For once even the vultures felt sorry for her, offered sympathy because most had known Dennison, a familiar figure when he was on leave in the capital. He was popular and no one had wanted to wish such a thing on him, or Barrell.
After the Dennison’s death, Barrell visited the Quill Club. She wanted to talk about Dennison, and recall Dennison stories with the journalists who had known him. She and Bentley sat in a corner as she recounted visits she had made to the war zone to meet up with her lover.
Dennison was a legend and a group of journalists gathered around to exchange anecdotes about him. One concerned a serious injury in 1978 when he was hit by guerrilla fire. During his air evacuation, soldier colleagues had smuggled a bottle of whisky aboard the Dakota aircraft taking him to hospital in Salisbury. Another bottle had been smuggled into the hospital itself and the contents of this Dennison had hidden in the receptacle supplied to take a urine sample. When a nurse came to collect the urine bottle unexpectedly, Dennison took a swig of its contents. The nurse nearly fainted.
Barrell was prone to mood wings after Dennison’s death, and one night she seemed more down than usual. She had not been out with her camera for days, had passed up a facility trip with the military. She wanted to go home and Bentley said he would take her to her apartment.
``You gotta get over it, Sarah,’’ said Bentley as they reached the apartment complex in Mazoe Street. It was where Barrell had nursed the wounded Dennison back to health a year previously after he left hospital.
``Accidents happen in war.’‘
Barrell stopped abruptly.
``Who says it was an accident? I don’t know if that is right. He was killed in action.’‘
``It didn’t look that way,’’ said Bentley.
``No, there’s new evidence. They’re looking at it. He died under enemy fire.’‘
Bentley stayed silent. He wished he had not mentioned the subject and just taken Barrell home. He tried to wish her a good night, but she had already closed the door.
As Bentley was heading to the Windsor Hotel next day for lunch, the correspondent from the Observer came running up to him.
``You’ll never believe it, Sarah Barrell has just been found dead. She killed herself in her apartment.’’ The Oberver man said Barrell’s maid had found her, a bullet hole in her head, the .38 revolver Denison had given her by her side.
The story was too good for the Fleet Street journalists to miss. And Fleet Street was full of it next morning.
Bentley didn’t file a word for his newspaper. He received a call-back asking if he could match the London reports with one of his own - about the American groupie, the former whore who became a war photographer, the blonde who belonged on the catwalk, dead with her brains blown out by her own hand with the revolver her soldier lover had given her. At the age of 33.