Jeremy Gordin: A wordsmith with abundant personality, dry-as-ice sense of humour and a febrile intellect

Tributes pour in for the retired journalist who was murdered in his Parkview home

“So what do u think?” Jeremy Gordin messaged me last Friday night. “Did I capture Bibi and Israel in 1,300 words?”

He was referring to his Politicsweb column, published overnight, which dealt with the current turmoil over democracy in my adopted homeland.

“Yes, you did,” I replied on Saturday morning. “The space allotted to you doesn’t allow for deeper consideration of the complexities. Just as the SA of today barely resembles the SA of the seventies, so Israel is barely the place it was. The plucky David fighting Arab Goliaths is long gone.”

He didn’t reply to my last-ever message to him. By Saturday morning he was in all likelihood already dead, murdered brutally in his Parkview home.

Those last messages were the culmination of a 57-year dialogue between us that began when we met at a Johannesburg social in 1965 and continued virtually daily ever since, despite our spending vast chunks of that time in different countries.

Jeremy seemed to need my endorsement for everything he wrote and I definitely needed his. We were a mutual self-confidence and self-restraint society, protecting each other from our invariable purple patches, flights of fantasy and the thought police we knew were lying in wait.

Whoever has his computer now, has half a book that Jeremy and I were writing together at the time of his death, a couple of columns I had asked him to look at and a voluminous correspondence of both high- and lowbrow odds and ends, thanks to his extraordinary intellect and wicked humour.

My own computer contains several chapters of another novel he was working on, quite a few of his unpublished poems and an erudite exegesis of why, at the age of 53, he embarked on MA studies focusing on, of all people, the medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides. (Spoiler: his Latvian and Lithuanian grandfathers were to blame.)

In a world that seems to have forgotten poetry (except for rap and something called “slam”), has turned pronouns into weapons and is in thrall to cant and conspiracies, Jeremy’s proper syntax, folksy style and common sense views may have seemed a bit anachronistic.

But for those of us who grew up under apartheid in the fifties and the sixties, read books, enjoyed challenging our minds and were leery of ideologies, Jeremy’s writing — his sensibilities — were a tonic and an education. He was, without going overboard, the voice of my generation — certainly one of the very few.

“In my experience, all one needs to write is tobacco, whisky and zitsfleisch,” he wrote to me during the pandemic. “A nagging wife is a bonus but not a precondition.”

The latter was not a reflection on Deborah — “my gorgeous wife,” as he was wont to say — but a reference to Joseph Conrad, whose wife had to lock him in his room to get him to write.

It was the sort of offbeat stuff Jeremy had in his unruly head. He could come up with an erudite quote the way the rest of us come up with overworked expletives and inanities.

Much of what has been written about Jeremy since his death has referred to his mentoring of younger journalists, his rapport with the Zumas and Eugene de Kocks of the world and the seminal roles he played at the Daily Sun, Independent Newspapers and the Wits Justice Project.

I was not in SA during that period of his illustrious career and could only experience it vicariously, through what he wrote and told me.

“For the people on the floor, he was an oasis in a desert,” wrote Vincent Pienaar, a former colleague at the Daily Sun. “He injected passion, urgency, and a desire to be contributors to a great newspaper — emotions we had not felt for a long time.”

It was the same driving, fervid Jeremy I hung out with when we were 14, skipping school to spend our time in Exclusive Books, urgently swapping our early poetry (his was often breathtaking; mine invariably inexecrable) and, a little later, groping our way through early sexual experiences — a preoccupation that we never tired of, though it was all talk and no action in our latter decades.

We spent the seventies together in Jerusalem, ostensibly studying at the Hebrew University but actually majoring in off-campus sex, drugs & rock ’n roll. Neither of us came out of the experience with a BA, but I think we did the counterculture proud.

One anecdote from that period was when Jeremy and a young lady of our mutual acquaintance hitchhiked from Jerusalem to a kibbutz in the north of the country with romantic intent. It was in the waning days of what came to be known as the Yom Kippur War.

Somewhere along the way, Jeremy ditched the young lady in favour of another with, he figured, greater coital potential. She, in turn, ditched him shortly after. Now hitching alone with a bruised ego, he was picked up by an American in a rental car who was doing his own tour of the north.

The American was Leonard Cohen, who had just done a concert for Israeli troops in the Sinai. The two of them spent the day driving around together and getting along famously, though I’m not aware of Cohen having ever written about Jeremy taking him down to a place by the river.

Jeremy, it must be said, had a Lithuanian temper — believing themselves to be the true repository of God’s beneficence, Lithuanian Jews get very angry when confronted by impostors — and various other endearing quirks.

When he and I shared a house in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim quarter with two other guys, we allocated separate spaces in the fridge for each of us. At least once a week, Jeremy would come rampaging through the house, red-faced and demanding to know who had stolen his tomatoes.

I never stole his tomatoes again, though I once stole his girlfriend — with even more ferocious results.

Since Jeremy’s death, I have received emails, messages and phone calls from the West Coast of the US, the East Coast, London, Mexico, Sweden, Jerusalem and, of course, various parts of SA. Jeremy left a deep impression on people, even those who hadn’t seen him in decades.

He had an abundant personality, a dry-as-ice sense of humour and a febrile intellect that engaged people of all types and in many places. Some got pissed off by him — he was prickly and didn’t take prisoners — but no-one ever forgot him.

An unpublished poem by Jeremy from 2020 ends thus:

Don’t worry, old friend, I said; this is the new SA.
If the taxi drivers don’t get them in Bree Street,
The homeboys will, long, long before
they make it to this building.

The poem was dedicated to Peter Wilhelm, a mutual friend from the days all three of us worked on the Financial Mail. As things turned out, Peter died last year after a long illness and it was Jeremy the homeboys got.

I doubt they had any idea at all of the exceptional life they were taking.

(Reprinted from Business Day)