kagablog

October 15, 2009

sean o’ toole on three classic south african magazines

Filed under: sean o'toole — ABRAXAS @ 7:32 pm

It is said that behind every successful publication stands a unique, strong-willed individual, someone whose distinctive personality helps to define it. Sean O’Toole investigates whether this is true of Scope, Loslyf and FHM.

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Sometime in the mid-1980s. The men’s toilet (‘Whites only’) in a small engineering works on the bad side of Pretoria, out west – near the cement factory and the sewerage farm. Stacked on the musty windowsill above the cistern, a stack of magazines; their pages stiff from the sun. Only two to choose from: Scope and Car.

Where the latter reads like a heart surgeon’s manual, neat graphs and test results undressing the new Golf Gti Mk1 and Ford XR3, the former, well, it is something else. It is a magazine. Aside from the women in swimsuits, and this is a big aside, because that is where you invariably start and end, but aside from these women, all of them blessed with a fleshy plenitude and hard to pronounce names (like Siobhan), there are stories to read, pictures to look at, worlds to inhabit.

Stories about punk rockers in Durban, some of them with agitprop anti-apartheid ideals, others just dronklappe – perfect material for a standard nine prepared English speech. More conventionally, and besides the run of the mill travel stories and journalistic features, the magazine also includes record reviews. Reviews of vinyl long-players, the more outré stuff (The Birthday Party’s Mutiny EP and Diamanda Galas’ Litanies of Satan) diligently clipped out, each read and re-read, the act of reading a conscious substitute for never being able to hear or own the music. It is Pretoria, after all.

Strange, without even needing to Google their names, I can still recall most of Scope’s album reviewers: Richard Haslop, Martin Hendy, Jay Savage and Ian Kerkhof. Two of these writers are now dead. Hendy died in the 1980s, Kerkhof in 1999. Not that Kerkhof is really dead; he died symbolically, shedding the husk of his old self to become Aryan Kaganof.

You might know him as the author, most recently, of the book JJ Uselessly. It is his third novel, the first to be picked up by a mainstream publisher. The importance of Scope, and the discrete community of individuals that this Durban-based publication was home to, should not be overlooked. ‘My friend Martin Hendy was a passionate music lover,’ explains Kaganof on his blog (www.kagablog.com). ‘I met him at the Durban Chess Club in 1980. We became firm friends. Martin introduced me to so much great music I can’t even begin to enumerate how important he was for my development.’

The odd thing about magazine cultures, though, is how ephemeral and fleeting they are. In 1983, Kerkhof left South Africa to pursue filmmaking, his friend Hendy committing suicide a few years later; Haslop now writes a music column for Business Day; and Scope, well it got tossed into the proverbial dustbin of history as South Africa started the task of rewriting itself.

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2005
A corner café on Pretoria’s Mitchell Street, not far from Iscor’s billowing smokestacks and the two concrete cooling towers nearby. While waiting for a toasted Dagwood, a quick detour to the magazine rack. Sure, Car and Scope are still up there, but by now the latter feels dated and ill defined, too gentrified to really titillate – a bit like Gentlemen’s Quarterly before it re-branded itself as an acronym.

As it is, there are choices now. Aside from For Women, which is, quite literally, for women, there is Loslyf, which is targeted at people who want the words surrounding the guava to be tough like biltong. And then, of course, there is Hustler, first of the big franchise titles to colonise the post-colony. Never mind what they say about our independence and all, way back in the infancy of our democracy Hustler was South Africa’s biggest selling magazine, shifting roughly 200 000 copies a month.

It was an unlikely success story for a publishing house that started out in the early 1980s producing sewing, cooking and music magazines. Founded by Joe Theron, his JT Publishing also unleashed the idiosyncratically local Loslyf, a magazine bearing the dubious honour of being the country’s first Afrikaans porn mag. The first edition caused something of a fuss, what with the kalgaat photos of a naked meisie standing in front of the Voortrekker Monument, the spare text explaining that she was descendent of Great Trek leader, Andries Hendrik Potgieter.

notion4In her recent book History After Apartheid (2004), the historian Annie Coombes remarks that years of state censorship and the emergence of an Afrikaner lower-middle-class constituency provided the necessary context for this bit of tomfoolery. Add to which the opprobrium of a gang of middle-class Afrikaner dissenters and intellectuals who provided the bulk of the editorial staff, notably Ryk Hattingh.

Before he became editor of Loslyf, Hattingh was a sub-editor on the Vrye Weekblad, a left-leaning newspaper founded by Max du Preez. In many ways the intellectual precursor to the hugely popular Bitterkomix duo of Conrad Botes and Anton Kannemeyer, whom he later also collaborated with, Hattingh’s anti-establishment views were sharpened by a well-honed literary sensibility.

His 1988 play, Sing Jy Van Bomme, won him numerous awards, and as publisher of Hond, an Afrikaans language literary imprint, he released material by writer Koos Prinsloo, amongst others. The marriage of dissident literary thought with magazine publishing, which Hattingh briefly championed at Loslyf, is certainly nothing new.

Hugh Hefner did it at Playboy, this before he became a parody of the very idea of a playboy. Then there is Daniel Defoe. In 1703, the author of Gulliver’s Travels and Robinson Crusoe started The Review, the world’s first English magazine. A committed political pamphleteer, Defoe was even briefly imprisoned for his negative views on the Church of England. His magazine, which ran without interruption until 1713, established the template by which many magazines are still defined, namely the magazine as compendium of comment, criticism and opinion, the magazine as vehicle for influencing public taste. If Defoe made it okay for literary men to job in the land of pulp, Hattingh’s decision to follow in this mould certainly represented nothing new in South Africa.

Mike Nicol, a Cape Town-based novelist and crime writer, worked for Leadership during the 1980s, commissioning writers such as Zakes Mda. Recognising the peculiar role that magazines have played in this country’s creative writing, Nicol also wrote A Good-Looking Corpse (1991), a non-fiction account of the black writers, amongst them Can Themba, who came up through the ranks of the magazine Drum. Even David Goldblatt, who earlier this year was awarded the prestigious Hasselblad Award for Photography, cut his teeth in magazines.

From April 1964 until February 1965, he worked for South African Tatler, described as a society magazine for South Africa’s anglophile elite – think Style magazine. Goldblatt functioned as both a journalist and photographer, publishing his own feature articles, taking photographs, and even doing a series of fashion shoots. Nowadays, aside from writing books, Nicol teaches creative writing at UCT, and Goldblatt is internationally famous and exhibiting apace; neither works in magazines. As for Hattingh, who once said, ‘all writing is rewriting,’ he opted to bugger off to New Zealand, where he now reportedly owns a shoe shop.

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2006
Exclusive Books. Located on the posh side of Pretoria, now Tshwane, the Menlyn Park branch of this upscale bookstore is tucked away in a large mall that can’t make up its mind whether it’s an ocean liner or an architectural wonder.

Unlike the windowsill in that factory toilet all those years ago, or the single magazine rack in that greasy corner café, there are magazines aplenty in this bookstore. Hundreds. Amongst the upstart local titles: Blink (or more correctly, BL!NK), a magazine pitched at ‘the quintessential suave Mzansi male’.

According to its founding editor, Simphiwe Mpye, Blink rejects the word buppie – ‘primarily because it implies that that person is a black clone of something created in a white world’. Looking over to that white world, which in print still vastly outnumbers the black world, it is hard not to miss Men’s Health, GQ or FHM. It is possible to collectively summarise all three in a nutshell: imported ideas slickly repackaged with a bit of local content. So much for the trailblazing efforts of Scope and Loslyf.

Ah well, globalisation won. When I interviewed him early last year, FHM’s editor-in-chief, Brendan Cooper, didn’t much like me calling his magazine Hustler-lite. ‘FHM is an up-market, premium men’s lifestyle magazine and is the market leader in this category by some distance,’ he stated. Formerly the editor of SL, Cooper has handed over the practicalities of editing FHM to Hagen Engler, a self-described ‘grease monkey in the workshop of verbal wizardry’.

Like Kaganof and Hattingh, Engler is an interesting proposition. Possibly less literary than the other two, in the posh sense of the word at least, he has nonetheless managed to garner an impressive cult following with his stoner fiction. Formerly from Port Elizabeth, Johannesburg-based Engler, a journalism graduate of Rhodes University, started out writing on a PE newspaper.

He is still widely remembered for his 1998 snapshot of the euphoric excesses of early post-apartheid South Africa, published under the title, ‘Ten Reasons Cape Town Can Fuck Off’. Amongst those reasons: ‘Everyone’s off their tits from drugs. It’s common knowledge that the only people in Cape Town who aren’t alcoholics, smackies, E-freaks, charlie-junkies, goofballs, acid-heads or nexus-fiends are Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Tunisian high commissioner.’

The goofiness of his fiction and commitment to a vernacular expression might not appeal to everyone, certainly not the establishment, but when has establishment buy-in ever been the sole criteria by which to judge a work of fiction. This in part explains Engler’s notion on ‘punk publishing,’ itself just a synonym for ‘doing it yourself’. In an interview with Michelle McGrane, English Poetry Editor of the South African literary website, Litnet, Engler elaborates: ‘In the punk publishing way, you write the book, edit it yourself, typeset it, print it, distribute it, plan a media strategy and sell it.’ Of course, the applause that accompanies DIY publishing is rarely deafening.

Which, ironically, accounts for why Engler is at FHM. Asked if he was not concerned that people might misread him as a writer while being a part of FHM, Engler responded: ‘I don’t mind. If people care enough to actually hold any opinion about me, then I’m thrilled.’ No doubt Kaganof and Hattingh would agree.

_Sean O’Toole is a Johannesburg-based writer and editor. He has never written for Scope, Loslyf or FHM

this article first published by enjin.co.za

3 Responses to “sean o’ toole on three classic south african magazines”

  1. Derek Davey Says:

    Great article. Where/what is the equivalent of Scope today?

  2. spookasem boerkowski Says:

    Getaway

  3. Collin Reveles Says:

    A big thank you for your blog. Keep writing.