Writing a Ronge

The cartoon by Piet Grobler that ran with Barry’s last column in the Sunday Times.


On Sunday Barry Ronge wrote his final column for the Sunday Times. He’d been writing it for 27 years, the length of a prison sentence or the life span from birth to death of a rock star.

Ordinarily, I don’t write about other columnists – it’s a tatty practice, and usually the flag of someone who has run out of things to say – but Barry deserves a goodbye.

Barry’s columns were woven from two rare and indispensable loves: love of language and of the thing he was writing about. In high school I encountered for the first time in a local paper that voluptuous pleasure in words and their rhythm, not just for their own sake but to convey meaning. His sentences were well-upholstered but not ornate; they used the right words well, in sequences occasionally gymnastic but never contortionist. If they ever showed off, they didn’t do it with exhibitionism but the quiet pride of connoisseurship.

Barry seemed to have read everything and watched everything. He was a velvet cinema curtain onto culture, and he wanted you to come inside. He loved literature and the movies and wanted you to love them too, and in the grinding aesthetic desert of the local media in the late 1980s that was a divan of cushions and a glass of cold sherbet in a shaded Bedouin tent.

My favourite columns were the ones in which he came across an old book on his shelf or even just a swanky word, and talked about them until you were convinced that life would be pale and dry until you knew such things or knew words that well.

One weekend in university I hitchhiked halfway across the country with only a baguette, a salami and a bottle of Oros mixed with strong liquor to see a girl who changed her mind about wanting to see me, and I found myself sitting beside the N2 on Sunday morning, reading a discarded, rain-swollen Sunday Times.

Barry’s column that day was about some faded book of Edwardian etiquette, and it comforted me the way a soldier at the front might be comforted by a handwritten letter from home. Barry was a pool of civilization in a hot age of iron, both because he bore the ornaments of culture and because he embodied civility.

When first I was given a Sunday column I was young and stupid and wanted to be noticed, so I wrote about Barry’s TV show and made jokes about him. Boys who aren’t men always aim at their heroes. People laughed and I felt terribly clever, but I was just a kid on the high board in a public pool, shouting “Look at me!”

I regretted it once I was old enough to know more about words than how to write them, but Barry never mentioned it, and some years later, when I was in trouble of my own, the kind of trouble that had other columnists panting over their keyboards like old men over a Miley Cyrus video, he was the only one who never, even obliquely, wrote a word about it. When I noticed that, I understood some important things I should have understood before.

It says even more that Barry never said anything publicly, because privately he didn’t like me much at all. We met only a few times. Once at a film preview screening I jokingly pretended to take his seat – the front row was always unofficially reserved for him, like a one-man royal family. He didn’t say much when he saw me there, the way the dowager duchess wouldn’t say much if someone slipped a whoopee cushion on her dinner seat in Downton Abbey, but I got the message.

The only time we really had a conversation was when we met one night in a casino and he read my palm. “No,” he said. “I don’t see much of interest there at all.”

It’s a dangerous occupation, having a column. If you have a weak character or you’re not careful you can become confused about what’s important: you forget that it’s what you say that matters – if it matters at all – not the fact that it’s you saying it. Barry always knew that it was worth more to be honest than controversial, and that you don’t need to shout to be interesting. He knew that the compulsion to be noticed just for speaking is the lonely road to the Twitter troll.

Barry wrote for 27 years with grace and dignity and ended with honour, and he taught me things and made me want to learn. For a very long time he sold intelligence and subtlety to an audience who are perhaps suspicious of that product, and he made them enjoy the experience. He was better than many of us deserved. Thank you, Barry.

The Times, 24 February 2014