Two weeks ago, the writer Sam de Brito died suddenly at 46 and he left behind a family, a community and obituaries of a word count to rival his own life’s work. Two weeks ago, it seemed improper and pointless to write an account of a man to whom tributes were flowing. Today, though, it seems worthwhile to add some thoughts about this difficult, reasonably significant bastard. His memorial is done and those who loved him have begun the difficult work of naturalising their grief and so it doesn’t seem wrong, and, in fact, feels slightly right to offer memory from another standpoint.
I’ll tell you why it feels right in a moment.
First, I need to recount the peculiar way I happened to know Sam, and thereby begin to tolerate his project as an annoying, shit-stirring writer. We were by no means close and I had about as much time for his blokey, beachside heroics as he did for my world of wretched shade. He was pure Bondi who lived hard in the sun and spent big. I am a thrifty suburbanite who looks to the Melbourne sky only to see if her cabbages need water. Sam was flash and friendly whereas I am slow and cold. But, we were connected by circumstance and so began to speak every few weeks by phone.
Sam first contacted me because he felt, he said, that we were allies. I told him we were certainly not allies and that he had, in my view, written certain columns just a Kid Rock song away from full-blown Men’s Rights Activism. He said that he knew that I wouldn’t approve of his thinking to which, I think, I replied, “What you do is not ‘thinking’, mate. It’s a low kneejerk kick to a make-believe feminist monster”, but he persisted in talking to me and my big monstrous mouth for two reasons.
The first belongs to this decade. We were writers, he said, who attracted a volume and an intensity of critique quite inconsistent with our profiles. And it was true that we were both modestly known but quite widely reviled, so talking with him privately about strategies to manage outsize hate in the internet age seemed harmless. On the topic of how to overlook death threats and offended liberal feminists, I agreed to talk just once.
The second reason, which kept us talking longer, belongs to 1972.
On Tuesday, February 22 of that year, when Sam and I were yet to learn the alphabet we would later abuse, the journalist Gus de Brito published a profile on a young Black Power activist in Sydney’s Daily Mirror. Its subject Gary Foley, now a quietly celebrated professor, was a 21-year-old force of history when he met and befriended Sam’s dad.
Gus de Brito, according to his son, came to be known as a good, jobbing journalist following his immigration to Australia. As a cadet in mid-century South Africa, however, de Brito the elder developed a very active interest in his nation’s anti-Apartheid movement. Now, if you are either young or forgetful, you might think of the African National Congress, in whose military wing Gus de Brito embedded himself, as a nonviolent band of brothers preaching peace. They weren’t. They were, as history demanded, armed communists who sought nothing less than revolution.
You can believe Oprah Winfrey and all the oblivious eulogies of Mandela if you wish. This posthumous sanitisation doesn’t alter the fact that the ANC seized power through the threat of its very real force and with no help from the awareness ribbons and only a little from the sanctions of the west. Mandela was listed as a terrorist by the US right up until his 90th birthday and despite occasional anti-Apartheid presentations by our government throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, the ANC wasn’t exactly high on our Preferred Dance Partner list until it became South Africa’s ruling party in 1994. All of which is to say, the necessary end of Apartheid was not choreographed to the international rhythms of Kumbaya and that the older de Brito must have had some outsize balls to write sympathetically as a white South African journalist about the ANC. He risked pissing all sides off.
Writing sympathetically about Gary Foley for an Australian Murdoch tabloid in 1972 would have carried with it a similar, if mildly less lethal, threat. You don’t write, then or now, about Black Power in the press and expect to please anyone. The de Brito piece, says Foley in the 2014 book he edited The Aboriginal Tent Embassy, provoked his “instant notoriety” and greater surveillance and harassment by ASIO and police. But, journalist and subject remained on friendly terms.
A while back, Sam posted a particularly good Father’s Day piece about his dad whose anti-Apartheid investigations only became known to him following Gus’ death in 1999. “My dad would drive into the mountains to interview the ANC guerrillas and take them over borders in the boot of his car,” he wrote. “After a while, the cops smelled it on him. They grabbed him and took him into one of their basements for a couple of days and he quickly realised how fragile his place was in the world.”
Sam had mentioned his father’s early career at the end of our first conversation, I think, as a way to let me know that he didn’t take his own “fragility” too seriously. He said something about how nasty Facebook comments were perhaps not quite so bad as interrogation by South Africa’s counter-insurgency taskforce. I laughed and agreed that neither of us were true dissidents, just midlife grouches. Speaking of true dissidents, Sam said, you recently interviewed a guy that my father spoke with 40 years ago. And, he told me about the Gary Foley piece.
Foley, who has endured 40 years of clumsy misinterpretation by press of his thought, now rarely concedes to speak with journalists. Frankly, I only secured the interview for Time Out by misrepresenting myself a bit; I may have told him that I was writing on inner Melbourne’s least pretentious coffee shops. Whatever the case, Dr Foley did not loathe the published piece to the degree that he would refuse to take my phone-calls, and so, I continued to call him in the diminishing hope he would one day agree to another, much longer interview. Foley is, as Sam said, a truly dissident thinker and it continues to shit me that he will not yet permit me to write about his dissident thought at length.
Still, I keep trying, and sometimes Foley picks up the phone. When I called him a few years ago and mentioned the older and younger de Britos, he told me he thought of them warmly. He said that Gus had substance as a journalist and that he intended to visit Sam in Bondi and tell him as much as he knew about his dad, a journalist of substance and an unlikely Black Power ally.
When Foley learned of Sam’s death two weeks ago, he wrote with regret about this missed appointment. Regret he needn’t have felt, because Foley had exactly the impact on Sam, I believe, that his father would have preferred. Which is to say, Sam read Gary’s works and understood them and sometimes advanced a complex, dissident view of the type his father had first explored more than half a century ago.
Sam had begun to understand that things in the world were awfully complex.
Often, in attempting to evoke this complexity, Sam found himself between a rock and a very stupid place. I told him this very openly and upbraided him, particularly for his posts on feminism, many of which I considered to be hostile and undercooked. But, once in a while, Sam, who was brave enough to subject himself to my screeching and wise enough to consider Foley’s thinking, produced some excellent friction.
I believe Sam was becoming as fearless as his father.
He had a long way to go and certainly, his passage was slowed by the sweetest kind of obstacle. Parenting, as many have said, was his most critical gig. That guy loved his kid so much that I was often moved to tell him to shut up about her. “Not all women are charmed by tales of children,” I told him. “You can talk to me about the Varoufakis lecture I sent you, or you can fuck right off with your finger-painting stories”.
When Sam died, I wrote to a colleague who knew and liked him very well. I told her I was sorry and recounted some of these stories about our conversations and asked her to pass on to his family my regret not only for their loss but for Sam’s. He was an irritating bastard, I told her, but he was also one bound within the next decade to write his way into a hard and splendid place. I knew that he was working up to something. I knew that he was thinking beyond popular thought. I knew that he was trying to be brave. No one calls me, I told her, for an hour of satisfying agreement.
My colleague told me to write these things down. She said, I know you have little patience for children, Helen, but you know that his young daughter will one day need to learn about her father’s growing courage. Open a document, she said, and name it “Dear Anoushka”.
I am not as pleasant as my colleague, so I am yet to follow her advice and fill the file with the things I think this adult of the future should know. But, I am not so thick that I refuse to read the very plain narratives life occasionally offers. I will, eventually, finish it.
Decades ago, Gus de Brito and Gary Foley met and produced a shock great enough to disturb me, Sam and, much more significantly, the intellectual life of a nation and an ongoing Black Power movement. These actually brave men made a meaningful fuss which retains its power to disturb even the midlife mind. To ignore their difficult thinking is to accept an unacceptable present. To fail to tell Sam’s daughter of her father’s need to interrogate his own thinking would be my unacceptable future.
I can’t tell her, yet. So I’m telling you instead.