the keys to the highway

Pop music followers were treated to hallmark critiques such as that of the only George Maharis album (him of Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip fame), which carried the banner headline ‘MOVE OVER, FRANK SINATRA!’ or ‘HELEN SHAPIRO, SHE HAS THE HIPS AND LIPS OF ELVIS PRESLEY!’ All of these, were written without listening to one note of the recorded music and they either paid tribute to the gullibility of the audience or Mogs’s capacity to fabricate something out of nothing. Being a tremendous bullshit artist came with the territory…”

 

by mike morgan

 

My father spent over half of his working life as a beat journalist in South Africa, post WWII. He never rose above the post of news editor, primarily because he adhered to the unwritten pledge amongst that professional community, namely drink till you pass out at the typewriter, come to, finish the story, have another belt and pass right out all over again. Newspapers with names like The Natal Mercury, The Sunday Tribune, The Durban Daily News, The Johannesburg Sunday Times, The Natal Witness, The Leader, and The Rhodesian Herald all had the privilege of employing my old man. His given name was Merlin, but, to his friends and colleagues, he was known as Mogs.

Mogs’s job was colorful to say the least. He was at different times during that career, a sports writer, the shipping correspondent (not too successful, due to the seasickness thing), the racing editor (horses), the crime reporter, Uncle Bill in the kids’ Sunday comic section, and the record reviewer. He covered public meetings of the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan African Congress (PAC) before both those organizations were banned and outlawed by the government in 1960. He witnessed the forced removal of African residents from the township of Cato Manor in Durban in 1962, relocated to make that area an Indian ghetto, and he reported on and photographed the bloody pogroms and police raids that ensued. He followed the whims of neurotic editors who demanded investigation and subsequent articles about self-imagined, hare-brained notions and conspiracy theories, including the mistaken sighting of a Soviet submarine off the Natal coast that actually turned out to be a gigantic shoal of sardines, another contribution to the Red Threat menace. He shook hands with buzz-cut American astronauts called Bubba, had bar spats with soused, washed-up, touring Hollywood has-beens, and followed goose-stepping bodyguards of visiting South American military dictators with Latin-sounding names like Stroessner, the kind of cross-Atlantic friendly fascism so popular back then.

Witness Mogs’s stint as the music critic. He’d come home every Monday with a new pile of long-playing records to review. This bizarre, growing collection of discs included A Million Dollars Worth of Twang by Duane Eddy, A Scottish Soldier by the kilted Andy Stewart, with the lesser known tune, “Donald, Where’s Yer Trooosers?” Jim Reeves Live from Table Mountain (in Afrikaans), Zambezi by Charles Jacobie, the Crooning Boer Cowboy, Ivor Novello Sings Lost Welsh Coal Slagheap Ballads, Russ Conway, the World’s Greatest Three-Fingered Pianist (an unfortunate boating accident), Around El Mundo with Alvin, Simon & Theodore (the Chipmunks), highlighting the “Japanese Banana” hit, Mitch Miller’s Sing-Along Gang whistling ‘The Bridge Over The River Kwai” theme, and “Beep-Beep, His Horn Went Beep-Beep-Beep” by the Playmates, three fat Italian guys from Brooklyn sitting on a Vespa scooter, to name a few. There was only one slight problem. We didn’t own a record player. Such a minor setback as not having the instrument to actually hear the records didn’t deter Mogs though. Thus, he depended on two factors; firstly, that always reliable, independent source of information, the back-sleeve liner notes, which in those days consisted purely of PR drivel written by music industry bagmen; and secondly, his own imagination. Pop music followers were treated to hallmark critiques such as that of the only George Maharis album (him of Seventy-Seven Sunset Strip fame), which carried the banner headline “MOVE OVER, FRANK SINATRA!” or “HELEN SHAPIRO, SHE HAS THE HIPS AND LIPS OF ELVIS PRESLEY!” All of these,were written without listening to one note of the recorded music and they either paid tribute to the gullibility of the audience or Mogs’s capacity to fabricate something out of nothing. Being a tremendous bullshit artist came with the territory.

Mogs’s world was populated by tough, seedy characters; white guys who would wear the same suit day in and day out, with the frayed shirt collar, the moth-eaten tie, the Racing Times in the back pocket and with names like Chips or Lucky; Indian bartenders called Moosa, Gangh or Chetty, who’d always have the hot tip for the last race at Greyville; and Jackpot Wellington Mhlopi, the African place accumulator king of the gee-gees (the ponies). I once possessed a dog-eared, black and white photograph of Mogs and his cronies holding up the winning ticket of the 1963 Durban July Handicap, a nag by the name of Jamaican Star, outside of the Star Bar on Butterworth Street, around the corner from Curries Fountain, the Indian soccer stadium. “Lion Ale…The Beer Natal Made Famous” is flashing from the neon-illuminated saloon window. A cluster of fedora and turban-covered heads, sporting wolfish grins and expressions ranging from absolute glee to complete, drunken amazement emerge from the grain. A bottle of Gilbeys Gin is doing the rounds. It could’ve been taken in Cairo or Cincinnati, Calcutta or Cardiff, Shanghai or San Francisco. It oozes the universality and style of the low-money punter…won today, gone tomorrow.

It was during Mogs’s shift as the racing correspondent in Durban that an assassination attempt was made on South Africa’s most famous race horse, Sea Cottage. It was 1966, the year that South Africa’s Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, was dispatched to hell by the blade of one Dimitri Tsafendas, whom the state later declared as insane (go figure) and imprisoned in isolation for the rest of his life. Not too many mourned the killing of the racist Verwoerd, but a lone, sniping gunner, hidden in the dunes, shooting Sea Cottage in the hindquarters during his dawn gallop on the beaches of the Blue Lagoon, well that raised the public ire. Mogs, true to his calling, pursued all possible angles…the Greek Mafia, the Portuguese Sindicato, African revolutionaries, former Congolese mercenaries, Charlie Barends’s (South Africa’s most successful jockey) estranged wife, BOSS (the Bureau of State Security), the Commies, Yuri Gagarin, the Great Train Robbers, the Dutch Reformed Church, Josef Tito, the Beatles, even Gamal Abdel-Nasser (the Egyptian Head-of-State), and Zabruder himself were all mentioned as possible co-conspirators in this devilish plot which, to this day, remains unsolved. Sea Cottage did recover and went on to win his fair share of races, despite Mogs’s efforts to place him at the center of the world’s greatest cover-up.

Year later, Mogs confessed to me that the margin for error in his job was wide indeed. Firing was reserved for offences of a political nature (read “Treason”), or for gross incompetence too obvious to go unnoticed. If the perception of trying one’s best was maintained, the axe never came down, although Mogs put that theory to the test. One rainy, winter Durban morning, he was summoned to his boss’s office, an editor of the morning daily with whom he did not see eye to eye, and ordered to investigate a possible fire at the coal refinery down in the boondocks. Mogs did not relish this task. It meant a long, wet walk to the Point and then a ferry journey across the pitching waters of the harbor to the Bluff, where the refinery was located. He came up with a counter plan. He strolled two blocks over to the Marine Hotel on the Victoria Embankment and positioned himself on the second-story verandah bar, gin and water in hand, and Sonny “The Pourer” Bramdoor to shoot the shit with. Above all, he had a clear view of the coal refinery across the bay. From his perch, there was no evidence of a blaze. Two hours and seven belts later, he called into his office and reported that he had arrived on the scene and nothing wrong was afoot. “Something’s going on,” stormed the boss. “My sources tell me that it’s a major disaster.” Mogs, promising to poke around some more, went back to his Porterhouse steak, bottle of red Cape wine and Sonny’s theory about the Double at Scottsville that afternoon. A whiles later, he notified his boss that all was clear and that he was returning. In total, Mogs was absent from the workplace for six hours. During that time, he drank a liter of Gordons Gin, two bottles of Chardonnay and topped it off with a Bailey’s Irish Coffee. He arrived back as the competition, the afternoon daily, was hitting the streets. The headline blared at him. “CATASTROPHIC FIRE ENGULFS COAL REFINERY. ALL IS DESTROYED!” Photographs, depicting miniature firemen shooting useless hoses of water into an enormous wall of flames, engulfed by billowing black smoke, spoke of an accident that only a deaf, dumb and blind person could miss. Miraculously, Mogs slithered out of his predicament. He claimed that there was absolutely no evidence of any fire when he visited the sight, and utilizing the “that’s my story and I’m sticking to it” strategy, his insistence finally prevailed over the boss. The bullshit artist factor was at work again.

For the sake of brevity, I will forego the details of the phony Monarch butterfly invasion, Mogs’s futile attempt at infiltrating the Johannesburg Hell’s Angels astride a 50cc Suzuki moped, the unfortunate reference to the top of Gary Player’s head being as flat as the green at the seventeenth hole, and cut right to the quick. While on the crime beat for The Natal Mercury, Mogs was visited by a fellow who recounted the following: The guy had recently been released from prison and could not hold down a job because of his record. If he did lie about doing time, other ex-cons would blackmail him, threatening to disclose his past to his employers if he did not give them a cut of his wages. Mogs was genuinely moved by this poor chap’s predicament and authored a heart-rendering piece about paying debts to society, and how hard it is to go on the straight and narrow when one has meandered from the program. The ex-con was immediately hired and, as an act of gratitude, pitched back up at the newspaper office with a giant bottle of Tanqueray. Mogs had taken great care not to intrude on the fellow’s past by inquiring as to why he was in the joint in the first place, but this being an occasion of celebration, he posed the question, “Why did you go to gaol?”

“I was happily married and had this regular job. It was nothing to write home about, I worked in the stockroom of a furniture retailer. We didn’t have much money, but we were happy, even though I felt stuck. My wife, being of local stock, refused to work, so I was forced to take whatever odd jobs I could get to make ends meet. One morning, I was waiting for the bus when my old friend Sailor, whom I was in the Air Force with during the war, drove by the bus stop. He was looking for me. ‘Don’t go to work today, Eddie,’ he said. ‘Call in sick. I have something that you might be interested in.’

“It turned out my pal had acquired the master key that opened every post office box in the South African Post Office system. He knew he was onto a good thing, but he needed a partner and a plan. I didn’t need too much convincing. I quit my job, although I didn’t tell my wife. She religiously made my lunch sandwiches every day and walked me to the bus. Two stops down the road, I’d hop off and Sailor would pick me up. We spent weeks plotting at his flat and undertook numerous recce missions to various post office branches. We finally came up with the following scheme: We would open the PO boxes of banks and building societies. We took great care to stay away from embezzling little old ladies’ savings. Instead, we concentrated on payments made by big corporations and banks to other banks. We forged the signature on the check and, armed with the account number, withdrew small amounts off the sum total. Nothing too large, but enough to cause confusion. The cops blamed the post office, the post office blamed the banks and the corporations blamed both. Of course with today’s technology, such an operation would be unthinkable, but in those days it worked. We started off by skimming fifty quid here and there. When it became clear that this was a golden sleigh ride, we raised the ante.

“My wife still believed I was hauling furniture around a warehouse. I began to shower her with gifts and expensive knick-knacks. All of a sudden, we had appliances and a spanking new car. I even bought her a fur coat. I told her that things were going well at the furniture place and I had been promoted. A normal day for Sailor and I would look like this: We’d go the post office, suss out the boxes, visit the bank and withdraw the lolly. By lunch time, we were at the track. We got so bold that often we would stand in different lines at the same bank, making multiple withdrawals while posing as a mix of bank officers or corporate executives. The authorities were completely bamboozled.

“Then we screwed up. Sailor thought the operation needed a third man. We brought in another ex-Air Force buddy, a Benoni cowboy who called himself the Durango Kid. We didn’t know he was on parole. The Durango Kid immediately went to the cops and turned us in for the reward money. My wife couldn’t believe it. She testified at my trial, claiming my loyalty to the furniture company and how she made me ham sandwiches daily for lunch at work. It didn’t work. Sailor and I both got fifteen years in Pretoria Central, also known as Beverly Hills. By the time we had finished with the lawyers and all of that, we were broke.

“Whilst inside, Sailor kept on writing letters to his local Member of Parliament. He never stopped trying. His last diatribe to the Prisons’ Commissioner went something like this: ‘I have much patience and equanimity, but I am rapidly losing both and, quite frankly, rather than finding it more difficult to escape, I am finding it difficult not to!’ Sailor was killed in an abortive prison escape attempt last year, shot in the back as he went over the wall.

“My wife left me. I’ve been out for six months. I don’t regret doing it. At the time, it all seemed worth it. That’s my story.”

Of all the Mogs’s sagas, this one held the most gravitas for me, because it so encapsulated the condition of those who fall between the cracks, those who don’t fit the prescription for success or even normalcy, those who are eventually winners because they’re habitual losers and chancers. In my view, the world is better off with such characters (“Johnsons,” as Jack Black, the notorious turn-of the-century American yegg called them).

Mogs himself might not have been one of the original South African Johnsons, but at least he was a chronicler of the Johnson yarn. Upon his death, my eldest sister was the only immediate member of our family able to visit for his funeral service. She returned with a shoe box full of Mogs memorabilia. I’ll never forget sifting through it, and coming across a yellowed chit from the Globe Bar that was obviously stuck under his windshield wiper a long time ago by another vigilant Johnson. It read “BETTER MOVE YOUR CAR BOSS. COPS ON THE PROWL!” That’s what I miss.

 

Originally published:
Issue Eighteen
March 2002

 


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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