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
He was described as a kindly and good humoured man who delighted in company but Don Bentley had seen a wicked side to the great foreign correspondent, Chris Munnion.
Don Bentley was thinking of Munnion, and talking of him, in the Chronicle’s newsroom.
Bentley had just learned of his death.
Bentley mourned Munnion with a sense of loss that only journalists, and possibly soldiers and others who live with danger, know.
The foreign correspondent covering wars gets used to death, is cynical about it, can laugh it off in the same way he or she washes off its stench from their clothes after an assignment, but in their quieter moments, away from the newsroom or what used to be the telex or cable office, it creeps up on them and they still feel the pain.
Bentley felt that way this night in the Chronicle newsroom, sitting quietly at his keyboard and shrugging off invitations to the office pub.
Bentley had learned of Chris Munnion’s death from the obituary page of Britain’s Daily Telegraph, a newspaper Munnion had served as Africa correspondent for 23 years.
Bentley knew Munnion well from his days in Africa. They met in Johannesburg and met up again in the former Rhodesia and it was in the Rhodesian capital Salisbury that the playful Munnion had sprung a ruse on Bentley the size of Africa itself.
Bentley and another foreign correspondent, John Edlin, had been bitching about the wine sold in Rhodesia, produced in a country not suited to viticulture as a way to beat international sanctions.
Covering a bush war, and accepting the depravations that went with it, were one thing, but to go without a good red was too much to bear for Edlin and Bentley, especially as there was plenty of it just over the border in South Africa.
Even the Rhodesians didn’t like their wine, but in the name of self-sacrifice were encouraged to buy and drink it, to lie back and think of England, and the damage the English were doing to Rhodesians’ political aspirations, to white rule.
Bentley and Edlin, on assignment to the Victoria Falls settlement, had discovered that the embattled Rhodesians there were mixing the local red with soda water, then adding fruit to produce a Rhodesian sangria. To Bentley and Edlin’s surprise the mixture was eminently drinkable, palatable to the discerning journalists’ palate, and they had decided to introduce it to the journalists’ watering hole, the Quill Club, when back in Salisbury.
To the amusement, and curiosity of the other journalists, Bentley and Edlin came one night armed with a giant, handled jug and bag full of fresh fruit bought that day from a local market.
The African barman, an affable gentleman nicknamed “the bishop” because of his resemblance to a black political leader, Bishop Abel Muzorewa, was handed the jug and fruit and given instructions on how to mix the drink.
All night long, taking giant gulps of their new-found drink, Edlin and Bentley extolled the virtues of sangria, announcing ever more loudly that the Spanish certainly knew a thing or two about alcoholic beverages, to say nothing of the Rhodesians living at the Victoria Falls.
It proved a night to remember. Sometimes the Quill Club could be flat, predictable and mundane with the foreign “hacks”, as they described themselves, locked in conversation about the Rhodesian bush war, and the difficulties of reporting on it to the exclusion of all else. Bentley and Edlin, however, had discovered Spain and, at the bar and drinking sangria, were seeing themselves as heroic figures in the Ernest Hemingway mould, covering if not the Spanish civil war but one in a far-flung corner of Africa.
Munnion had so often held court in the Quill Club, with stories of the Congo, Biafra, Idi Amin in Uganda, and “Emperor Bokassa” in the Central African Republic, but this evening he was happy to give the floor to the ebullient Edlin and Bentley.
Like Munnion, Edlin - a New Zealander who worked for the Associated Press news agency - had spent most of his adult life covering Africa’s wars. And like Munnion, he was a kind and personable reporter who could balance stories of the horrors of war with the foibles of the people covering African conflicts for the world’s press. But this evening Edlin’s asides and jokes brought more laughter than usual and even the jokes of the young Bentley, always feeling a little overawed by the other, more seasoned foreign correspondents, got a laugh. The assembled company, who had assembled around Bentley and Edlin in ever great number, even laughed at Bentley’s Tommy Cooper impersonations.
It seemed that nothing Bentley could say was ignored, resulting in peels of laughter. Edlin loved it, too.
More sangria was ordered, jugs and jugs of it, as the laughter spilled and flooded across the floor. It seemed more and more foreign correspondents, alerted by their colleagues, were arriving to watch the spectacle and Edlin and Bentley realised they had hit on something with their Salisbury Sangria, although no one else appeared to be drinking it.
At midnight, the fruit gone, and the crowd breaking up, Bentley and Edlin made their way out of the Quill Club and down the stairs of the hotel in which it was housed. Bentley’s legs buckled beneath him at the final step of the flight of stairs leading to the hotel foyer and he fell flat on his face. Edlin laughed uproariously and made his way out to the street, tripping himself and clutching at the brass handrail at the hotel’s entrance.
Bentley realised Edlin was making for his car. He was going to drive home and even in his lost state Bentley realised this held dangers. He tried to catch up with Edlin but this legs would not obey the command to move. It was too late. Edlin had driven away, swerving and weaving along Rhodes Avenue into the African night.
Bentley sat in the canteen of the Rhodesian Herald on Rhodes Square, a building in which his newspaper rented an office. His head pounded and thumped. It roared like the Victoria Falls in summer, in full gushing flood. Bentley had never experienced a hangover like it. He had already determined to go home and go to bed.
His hand shook, spilling the black coffee from the cup into its saucer. Bentley sat there in silence, trying to steady his hand. He did not notice one of the Herald’s reporters enter the canteen and sit at his table. Finally, he looked up to see a young woman, slightly out of focus, but with a sympathetic smile on her face.
“Christ,” said Bentley after a while, whispering the words so they would not reverberate around his head. “Christ, what a night that was. I can only remember bits of it. But Edlin got home okay. His wife’s phoned to say his car is all smashed up, though. It’s had its hubcaps ripped off in a collision with the round-about up the street from their home. He’s telling her he was attacked by terrorists!”
“I’m not surprised you’re in a bad way,” said the reporter. “You should have seen yourselves.”
“Were you there?” asked Bentley, trying to remember those present.
“Yeah, and I’m not surprised you’ve got a hangover. Chris Munnion persuaded the Bishop to pour a half bottle of brandy into each jug of your sangria. I’m amazed you didn’t notice.”
Picture of South African mercenary Nick du Toit: From A Chris Munnion report in the UK Telegraph: HERE