JULY 11,1999: Yesterday I happened to come across a thick dusty file on the cover of which was the legend ‘Journalism Course‘. I’d almost forgotten that about the time I was toying with the idea of becoming a lawyer, a doctor and a flower shop girl (The latter on being inspired to the profession by Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady), I sat patiently through a journalism course at Aquinas College under the direction and supervision of that inimitable gentleman, that editor of the highest calibre, that journalist par excellence – the late Reggie Michael.
This was that liminal space after ‘A’ Levels and before university when the average young student had nothing to do but twiddle her thumbs, enroll at the Goethe Institute and learn German, register at the Alliance Française and learn French, try her hand at CIMA or accounting just for kicks, join a newspaper and dabble in that for six months or just while away her time before a mirror…. whatever took her fancy.
I of course couldn’t. My best friend Ina approached me.
“Guess what”, she said. “You will be attending a journalism course with me”.
I looked at her sadly. “Why,” I asked with exaggerated patience, “would we want to do such a thing? We have been told by our parents and society that we want to be doctors.” (The JVP and the political unrest and closure of universities at the time put paid to those aspirations).
“Well, my mother wants me to do the course. Reggie Michael is the lecturer and he is supposed to be very good,” my friend said. And coming from a pioneering media family like she did I didn’t argue.
“Oh alright then”,I said meekly and so it came about.
A little grumpy I was. I really did not want to sit through two hours of blabber about journalism when I was hyped up about cadavers and chloroform. Law was merely a second choice. journalism was never a choice. Perhaps because a strict presbyterian up bringing had taught me that anything that made one happy must be bad. Ironic isn’t it that I went on to study law and practice journalism.
The course turned out to be great as if all things for which you have little expectation of success. R.L.Michael or Reggie had us so motivated we were now obsessed about the news and chasing the story. It helped I suppose that ever and anon Reggie would treat the whole class to ice cream and Chinese(pan)rolls. He would take a personal avuncular interest in the many challenges faced by his young congregation eager to learn at the alter of his experience. Reggie was also blessed with a ready wit and an eloquent style and he spoke the speech ‘trippingly on the tongue. We took no notes but learnt much.
One day I walked in to the class 20 minutes late and tried to slink in at the back, but Reggie’s booming voice thundered from the front, “Young lady, is your name Eve?”
I was visibly shaken. “yes,” I squeaked, biting my lip. Here it comes…I thought closing my eyes. The customary lecture on dedication and tardiness. He brandished two sheets of closely written paper wildly before him. I recognised them at once. It was the latest assignment. A feature news story.
Oh goodness how bad was it. I nodded, my knees wobbled and I closed my eye prepared to reel in a swoon. Being publicly humiliated was not my idea of fun.
“Excellent stuff, very very good,” he said. In fact this was so good I want to appoint you the editor of the magazine – Aqui Journalist, we produce each year as part of the course.” I blinked. For in those two sentences Reggie Michael had restored the confidence of a rather shy young girl.
He was my mentor, taught me to write with confidence. You’ve got to believe in something lest you fall for nothing he would say. “If you have truth on your side never be afraid to write it down,” he said.
As I flicked through lose pages of my bulky file I found a large brown envelope. On the front in his bold familiar scrawl in his customary blue felt pen he had written “To the Damaging Director Aqui Journalist Liabilities (unlimited).”
Reggie was full of fun and wit and though his tongue could get caustic it was never malicious. I needed a letter from him as the course director so I could collect advertisements for the magazine. We wanted to do something special as it was the tenth anniversary of the course. He died in its eleventh year.
Reggie talked about everything in class. The soul of art the spirit of life. “Always act cautiously’ he said. “Remember we are being watched if not from celestial regions then from levels down.”
As I reminisce another leaf peeps out urging me to remember the memories it holds. It is a poem I had written. In those days I indulged in a bit of verse and would assiduously churn out poem after poem about sad and dismal things. THe sad and lonesome always inspired the early poet.
“They clipped my wings when I was ni full flight”, I had written
“In despair I learnt to walk the road of life”
and so it went on a lot of nonsense about life and death and Oh! cruel world…
I remembered going up to him with my poetry and earnestly asking him about punctuation in verse. He skimmed through my poetic efforts flipped the page over silently and started scratching away at the paper in his bold scrawl. Finally he put down his pen and looked up. “Here,” he said handing me the paper. I read what he had written in those few seconds. It went like this.
“Away Away with the funk of punctuation
Which are but chunks of junk
in your rich rumination”
He comtinued. “Sonali, punctuation marks are rarely or never used in modern poetry. Do not soil the silk of your thought with the syntax of commas and full stops. Then it couldn’t be worse….oh sorry….I mean verse,” he had written.
I’ve often read accounts of Reggie Michael as an editor in our local papers. Read eulogies of him and anecdotes by his students who are now doctors, lawyers… and yes even journalists. I’ve read them with great pleasure. I will never forget his hilarious account of the circumstances of the alleged kidnapping of Ralph Bultjens for which he got into an awful soup if I recall – which in the ned cost him his job at the Island newspaper. I cannot forget his column Ravi Reporting which had the country in stitches, but most of all I will never forget the gentleman who for eight months of our young lives taught us how to live in a ‘cruel world’ even if it had ‘clipped our wings when in full flight.”
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