By BRUCE DENNILL
Barry Ronge was recently recognised for his work as a writer, critic, columnist and commentator at the Sunday Times Literary Awards. He was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award further honoured by the renaming of the Sunday Times Fiction Prize, now the Barry Ronge Fiction Prize (to go with the Alan Paton Prize for non-fiction).
This was a welcome development, given that newsrooms are brutal places to be at the moment and that, as a journalist coming to the end of his career, Barry’s last year or two have been blighted by some, politely put, less than respectful behaviour in terms of the way he’s been phased out of various positions.
Important awards aside, though, what has always impressed me most about Barry is something less traditional: his abiding passion for subjects (film, theatre, literature, language) deemed frivolous by those who have not – and will not – ever had a fraction of the influence Barry has wielded.
That’s another aspect of the man worth noting. “Wielded” is almost too aggressive a word for Barry, a gentle man whose shyness – he has often referred to himself as “The Grinch” when repeatedly but politely turning down informal social invites – has always been an odd counterpoint to his work in front of television cameras, behind radio studio microphones or standing on a platform as host or MC at a film or book event. He’s not a diffident writer – that would preclude several decades’ worth of putting together a column as popular as Spit & Polish – and when he speaks off the record, he is often given to pleasingly fruity discourse about the way bad direction of a promising script has ruined an actor’s chance of being successful in a role or, more baldly, what a towering toss the bloke three seats along from him in the cinema was, prodding his bloody cellphone and rustling his frigging popcorn during a screening.
That side of Barry has generally been reserved for friends, though. He’s always been a scrupulous manager of his career, keeping an eye on the sustainability of his output and the role his public image played in that. When – as there have been over the years – there were rumblings about this or that editor (he’s outlasted most of them) or violent office politics at the Sunday Times, for instance, he’d calmly point out that there were seasons for that sort of thing in every organisation and that the Sunday Times remained the biggest platform for a journalist in South Africa, so sticking it out was worth it.
This sort of sensible approach would sometimes frustrate those of us who were privy to his rare but rewarding rants – beautifully rude outpourings I’d still like to provide a platform for one day (Barry, I you’re reading, start working on a pseudonym) – but only the most short-sighted of his colleagues could miss the fact that the same reliability and steadiness were the main reason for the breadth of Barry’s influence. He’s the only candidate for the Roger Ebert role in South African cinema, and while he may have had to hold his tongue occasionally to get to that position, that’s a pretty low-key compromise relative to the back-stabbing that goes on elsewhere.
Barry’s anecdotes – never trotted out as a means of bragging; they’d simply come up as part of a casual chat now and then – included the sort of thing that would sit and ferment in his younger colleagues’ minds, giving them something to aim for. A favourite of mine was his memory of meeting Julia Roberts in a London hotel room (for an interview about Pretty Woman, I think) and having her greet him with a smile and the words: “Mr Ronge? I guess your dad was Mr Right then, huh?” It’s the sort of thing that fitted with Barry’s personality best – a top-notch reference/name-drop, but classy; not bowing to more mainstream mores when it comes to celebrity and stardom.
Retiring to a little coastal village near Cape Town feels about right for Barry, though his removal as a focal point for popular SA culture will likely sting for a while. Barry has always – another facet those he has mentored should have prioritised – been available for and friendly (or at least civil) towards those who identify his with something they want right now, usually an off-the-cuff film review (because why buy the paper to read his opinion when you can just harass the man in Woolworths?). But away from the buzz of Johannesburg, he’ll simply bump into fewer people, and if he wants to lower that number even further, he and his partner Albertus Lightstrider have two enormous Borzoi hounds that they can set on you if you interrupt a quiet beach walk or a quiet meditation on a life well lived.
I met Barry in 1998 when I arrived for my first screening as a “professional” (in that I was getting paid for it) film critic, and he immediately introduced me to the most important parts of the procedure – getting a sandwich and something to drink – and generally behaved in exactly the opposite way to what might reasonably have been expected of him as a big name in an industry I was just starting out in.
As I developed my own voice, he encouraged me to share it by making space for me as an occasional contributor or panellist on his various TV shows (film content) and as a seat-of-the-pants expert (ish) talking about music on his radio show on 702.
Barry, you’ve provided a career model every arts journalist in South Africa should study. Most of us simply don’t have the discipline, let alone the talent, to replicate what you’ve done, but that shouldn’t stop us trying, even if the media landscape is as unpredictable as Oliver Stone’s directorial output. You have been valued and will not be forgotten.